This is my second draft of this post, and that’s not how I normally operate. I normally write one draft with very few revisions (or even spell checking ― you may have noticed). Initially, I wrote a point by point rebuttal to Caroline Smith’s The House Progressives Built. But, in writing that, I noticed there was an opportunity to be less snide and more productive in what I write. And so, I have taken that opportunity. So, thank you, Caroline, for your post. It shows that even when you’re entirely wrong you can still be useful.
Caroline’s post bemoans a backsliding in American morality: that American morality has become about permitting people to consent to each other and to not allowing antiquated traditionalist values to be thrust on people even in their private and consenting moments, but she also thinks that’s a bad thing; apparently, killing children is completely permissible ― but as she nestles that claim in between an allusion to being a bit kinky and reference to property damage, I don’t think she believes what she writes; and clumsy attempt at claiming cancel culture is a thing ― and one assumes she doesn’t think the Right ever take part in it.
Her traditional family values position and contempt for “progressives” wouldn’t be out of place in the 1960s, which somewhat belies her suggestions this is a new threat to American values. Whenever someone talks about the deterioration of morality I am reminded of Socrates’ little outburst about children in his day, which wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day blog post: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households”. These gripes are not new and are not indicative of some attack on a long established norm. They are the routine disagreements between the young and the old; the progressives and the traditionalists; the conservatives and the liberals.
But, in her culture war fodder (which is what this is) she makes claims about progressive morality that are worth unpicking. She can’t tell the difference between a progressive and a secularist (or one is dogwhistle code for the other). There are progressives in religions and there are conservatives among the secular, and so she’s just wrong here. But, let’s try to look past it and move on.
Her basic point is the comparison of religious morality, which she thinks is firmly grounded and good with an objective and a transcendent standard, against “progressive” morality, which she assumes lacks all of these and that’s bad. So, I want to take a moment to talk about some of the ways we try to discover the objective standard that underpins secular morality, and how it does transcend the whims of human fancy.
The Moral Landscape, which is a type of utilitarianism, but more complex than its normal conception, in that it considers a person’s motives and therefore makes assessments of future threat of harm as well just measuring harm already done, is one such model. It states that morality is that which reduces suffering and maximises flourishing.
Another way we try to talk about this is the contractarian under a veil of ignorance model of morality. It appeals to an emergent and hypothetical contract for how to behave in society. It imagines perfectly rational beings negotiating their way through these rules having no idea who they will be when they return from this project and back into society. We don’t know what that contract looks like, because we are not perfectly rational (which Caroline helpfully demonstrated for us) and we don’t take proper notice of what it is like to be other people in society. The best we can do is try to discover this contract through discussion and communication.
This contractarian (there are other models of contractarian morality; ignore them for now) model makes it imperative that movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too are listened to. We can’t attempt the project of contractarianism without our best possible understanding of what it is like to be other people in society. So, we have to know what it is like to be a minority or female or working class or subjugated. The current political class will never flatten the class hierarchies of the UK because they know who they are in society and the system benefits them, but if the rules were written by someone who didn’t know their role, they’d flatten the system and diffuse the power. And, the political class is largely white and male (and, where it isn’t, it still benefits hugely from the class system in most cases). Systems like this, and their blindness to the diversity of identity and experience under their remit, matter.
Both of these models are objective: you either actually do increase flourishing or you do not; you either are getting closer to a rule the Contractarians would write, or you are not. We won’t know for sure, but that’s how knowledge works and doesn’t actually stop the end goal being objective. All the changes we make need to be open to scrutiny and discussion, that’s how the progress is made. But, I think both allude to a slightly different discussion and balancing act: liberty.
See, Caroline assumes the liberty to curtail other people’s private and consenting behaviour. Her liberty is important to her. The people whose liberty she tramples on might find they want to curtail her freedoms in response; their liberties were important to them. We can either have a system like this, where one person can expend energy prohibiting other people’s liberties on an argument of “ewwww gross!” and those people can respond by prohibiting that person’s liberty on an argument of “how dare you!? It doesn’t affect you” and all that energy is wasted in standing still ― or breaking out into war. Instead, though, we can have a discussion about how to balance and maximise liberties.
In its simplest form, if you think buggery is wrong you can simply not partake but still leave other consenting adults to partake. No, this isn’t the same as ‘I think murder is wrong, are you saying I should let others commit murder?’ because consent is an important element of the interaction. The idea of balancing liberty continues on the systemic level: a wealthy and powerful parent has the liberty to send their children to the most influential schools and introduce them to powerful people and thus basically plant their children in positions of power. But, that liberty essentially saturates the positions of power and keeps out others who weren’t born into such positions; that is a liberty that is curtailed.
And so, there is another discussion about liberty that works on both the individual and societal level, that is an important facet of a progressive morality (and politics).
These are complex and slightly unsatisfying, as they rely on conversation and openness and don’t afford us certainty. But, they appeal to values like liberty, a hypothetical rational contract, or wellbeing, and so do have transcendent properties and objective elements.
But, why would we embrace complex and difficult systems like this? What is so deficient about Caroline’s model? I mean, she claims her “My standard of right and wrong is firmly grounded in the unchanging character of God and in what he has decreed”, and that sounds pretty sufficient to me. Well, the problems are legion. In fact, it’s difficult to think of a better example for the metaphor “built her foundations in the sand” ― or maybe we need to go further; these are foundations fixed in the clouds.
For this to even start to work, we’d need to establish the existence of a God, identify a way of knowing Its character and ― if we assume Caroline is appealing to the Bible ― try to understand how an unchanging character can command the destruction and annihilation of neighbouring civilisations (save for the virgins girls, who you may keep for yourself) (Numbers 31:18) and that you should love your neighbour as yourself (Mark 12:31). We also need to establish why this is the character to put our moral foundations in, and not Satan. After all, the hubris and arrogance of Satan is the defining reason for his fall, and here is Caroline arrogantly claiming the authority to prohibit people from consentual sex.
There’s another hint of a serious flaw in her moral reasoning in the quote “So why should I […] submit to the Left’s moral declarations and demands?” Caroline seems to think morality is about submission, and given her Christian basis for this argument, I can sort of see why she thinks that. But, morality is not about submission. It’s about strength of character: calling out deficiencies, restarting the conversation when it stalls, having the courage to admit what you don’t know and the fortitude to stand up for people being excluded from the conversation. It is not about surrendering to the decrees of a tyrant, but honestly engaging in a conversation.