Thursday, March 26, 2009

Moral divergence

What does it mean to be a good person? Lawrence Auster argues that conservatives recognise a good higher than man and can therefore treat this good as real and worthy even if men can't always live up to its standards.

Liberals see nothing higher than man and so, if individuals or a society claim to hold to a moral good but don't live up to it, assume that the traditional good itself is fake - that it is a lie to be discarded.

For liberals being a good person doesn't mean striving to live up to traditional moral standards but affirming a belief in diversity, tolerance, equality and so on. You become good through what you affirm.

This can make you morally smug for two reasons. First, you become good through affirming the right beliefs, and this is much more perfectible than attempting to meet moral standards in your behaviour. Second, the good is not something higher than you that you are striving toward; instead, it's something identical with your own self.

I've taken the trouble to condense Lawrence Auster's already concise argument, because it relates so well to a story recently in the news in Australia. Marcus Einfeld, a former Federal Court judge, has been jailed for two years for making false statements. It turns out that he has a history of petty deceit.

Journalist Andrew Bolt has written an article pointing out how morally smug Marcus Einfeld was as a liberal torchbearer and how he seems to refuse to recognise his own moral shortcomings:

Marcus Einfeld, the lying judge and human rights blowhard, is the perfect symbol of our time.

... Einfeld ... has for so long been a worshipped member of our new, secular priesthood ...

Some who have known him long say he is as he always seemed to me from afar - as sanctimonious as he is arrogant ...

... Yet his manifest private failings were thought so irrelevant by our culture makers that Einfeld was made not just a judge but the first head of the HRC and an official National Living Treasure. The media loved him.

Why? Because he was a great exemplar of the new morality - in which you are judged not by your own sins, but by how savagely you damn those of others.

So you show your goodness by going to a free concert to "raise awareness" of some cause that you angrily demand the go'mint fix while you just dance.

Or you tell honest lies as a journalist in a cause as "good" as global warming or the "stolen generations".

Or you are hailed as "selfless" for being a professional moralist as well-paid as was Einfeld, fighting as HRC boss for human rights at a salary now pegged at $260,000 a year.

It's what you say, not what you do. And in Einfeld's case, this perjurer, liar, and serial husband showed his goodness by denouncing Australians again and again in the modish way - as racists, xenophobes and heartless.

A sample of just one of his many, many denunciatory sermons: "Too many of us appear now to be so transfixed by fear and prejudice, often politically motivated and too easily spread by a very superficial media ..."

... And this allows him to be the most moral of modern men - a perfectly honest liar.


  1. Here's an interesting blurb on hypocrisy I read once, it's from Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age (never read it, it's sci-fi).

    “Mr. Hackworth,” Finkle-McGraw said after the pleasantries had petered out, speaking in a new tone of voice, a the-meeting-will- come-to-order sort of voice, “please favour me with your opinion of hypocrisy."

    “Excuse me. Hypocrisy, Your Grace?”

    “Yes. You know.”

    “It’s a vice, I suppose.”

    “A little one or a big one? Think carefully-much hinges upon the answer.”

    “I suppose that depends upon the particular circumstances.”

    “That will never fail to be a safe answer, Mr. Hackworth,” the Equity Lord said reproachfully. Major Napier laughed, somewhat artificially, not knowing what to make of this line of inquiry.

    “Recent events in my life have renewed my appreciation for the virtues of doing things safely,” Hackworth said. Both of the others chuckled knowingly.

    “You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of
    vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticise others-after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?”

    Finkle-McGraw paused, knowing that he had the full attention of his audience, and began to withdraw a calabash pipe and various related supplies and implements from his pockets. As he continued, he charged the calabash with a blend of leather-brown tobacco so redolent that it made Hackworth’s mouth water. He was tempted to spoon some of it into his mouth.

    “Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour-you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth
    was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.

    “You wouldn’t believe the things they said about the original Victorians. Calling someone a Victorian in those days was almost like calling them a fascist or a Nazi.”

    Both Hackworth and Major Napier were dumbfounded. “Your Grace!” Napier exdaimed. “I was naturally aware that their moral stance was radically different from ours- but I am astonished to be informed that they actually condemned the first Victorians.”

    “Of course they did,” Finkle-McGraw said.

    “Because the first Victorians were hypocrites,” Hackworth said, getting it.

    Finkle-McGraw beamed upon Hackworth like a master upon his favored pupil. “As you can see, Major Napier, my estimate of Mr. Hackworth’s mental acuity was not ill-founded.”

    “While I would never have supposed otherwise, Your Grace,” Major Napier said, “it is nonetheless gratifying to have seen a demonstration.” Napier raised his glass in Hackworth’s direction.

    “Because they were hypocrites,” Finkle-McGraw said, after igniting his calabash and shooting a few tremendous fountains of smoke into the air, “the Victorians were despised in the late twentieth century. Many of the persons who held such opinions were, of course, guilty of the most nefandous conduct themselves, and yet saw no paradox in holding such views because they were not hypocrites themselves-they took no moral stances and lived by none.”

    “So they were morally superior to the Victorians-” Major Napier said,
    still a bit snowed under.

    “-even though-in fact, because-they had no morals at all.” There was a moment of silent, bewildered head-shaking around the copper table.

    “We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,” Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception-he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”

    “That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code,” Major Napier said, working it through, “does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.”

    “Of course not,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It’s perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved-the missteps we make along the way-are
    what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal , struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.” All three men were quiet for a few moments, chewing mouthfuls of beer or smoke, pondering the matter.

    “I cannot help but infer,” Hackworth finally said, “that the present lesson in comparative ethics-which I thought was nicely articulated and for which I am grateful-must be thought to pertain, in some way, to my

  2. Jaz,

    Interesting blurb; Neal Stephenson's seems to be inspired by C.S. Lewis writings, seeing that Clive lived many years before Neal. The blurbs dialog closely resembles that of, The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce.

    Great post Mr. Richardson, I enjoy reading your opinions, it seems like we are on the same wave length.

  3. Interesting theory, but I really don't see how hypocrisy from the failure to recognise "transcendent values." It just seems like there's a step missing in the argument, a sizeable leap in logic.

    Alternatively, here's what Nietzche says about such people: "The first Christian--and, I fear, also the last Christian, whom I shall perhaps live to see--is a rebel in his lowest instincts against everything privileged--he always struggles for 'equal rights [...] Moral: every word in the mouth of the 'first Christian is a lie, every act he performs an instinctive falsehood--all his values, all his aims are harmful, but whomever he hates, whatever he hates, has value. [...] The Christian, the priestly Christian especially, is precisely a criterion of values' [The Antichrist, p.174, Hollingdale trans.].

    I believe Auster's theory can actually be turned against him to show his kinship with those whom he criticises. After all, he too would like to claim a cheap moral superiority over others solely on the basis that they disagree with him over what is presumably a question of fact, i.e., the existence (or not) of "transcendent values." Auster accuses others of what are really thought-crimes or heresies according to his creed: things like Darwinism, religious scepticism and "anti-semitism."

    I would say that Nietzche's characterisation of such thinking stands unsurpassed and unrefuted: Auster's is a slave morality and in this not fundamentally different to the liberal one he attacks. What both have in common is the intrinsic vengefulness and dishonesty of moral aggression.

  4. Sorry: I should have written "follows" after "hypocrisy" in the first sentence.

  5. Jal N.-- How do you distinguish between "the intrinsic vengefulness and dishonesty of moral aggression" and a morality that incorporates and justifies a moral defense?

    Am I to infer that you believe moral relativism is the only sensible path? You strongly reject two very different views yet offer up nothing in their place.

    People universally struggle in the moral arena and seem to recognize something beyond the secular, which is wholly insufficient. There is something constant and demonstrable that humans aspire to in ethics and morals, whether codified or not. At any given time each of us is moving toward or away from a central Truth that transcends individual psychological capacity. Of course this "system" depends very much on constant complex human interactions. It could be described as fragile.

  6. Jal Nicholl writes:

    "Interesting theory, but I really don't see how hypocrisy [follows] from the failure to recognise 'transcendent values.' It just seems like there's a step missing in the argument, a sizeable leap in logic."

    Jal Nicholl has reversed what I said. I said that people who believe in transcendent values will inevitable be, or at least be seen as, hypocrites, while liberals who deny transcendent values avoid the charge of being hypocrites, because by denying transcendent values, they avoid the gap between what one aspires to be and what one is. .

    As for Mr. Nicholl's statement that "[Auster] too would like to claim a cheap moral superiority over others solely on the basis that they disagree with him," I don't know about claiming a cheap moral superiority, but, in this case, on the basis of Mr. Nicholl's moronic statements about me, I will claim a cheap intellectual superiority—over Mr. Nicholl.

  7. What an unpleasant man this Auster must be! And where is his Christian forbearance? It must be a transcendent value indeed, to have so little immanent force in such a God-fearing personality as Auster's!

    I am amused, however, that what is evidently this leader of the traditionalist momement's first encounter with Nietzche's ideas should have occurred through my agency and on the comments page of a third person's blog. Better late than never, I suppose--though I doubt very much whether this defender of Western civilisation will now spare the time to familiarise himself with some of the key works of our philosophical tradition.

    Mr. Auster's claim to intellectual superiority is as cheap as his moralising. As far as I'm concerned, he's welcome to both.

  8. Auster says

    "...because by denying transcendent values, they avoid the gap between what one aspires to be and what one is..."

    A brilliant notation, but not enough to distract Nicholl from manning the ego defenses. Talk about a gap.

  9. What a laugh. In response to my brief, impersonal essay on the difference between traditional and liberal morality, Jal Nicholl comes along and says that I claim a cheap moral superiority over others solely on the basis that they disagree with me, and then he complains that I'm unpleasant!

  10. I also should note that Jal Nicholl gave away where he's coming from in his initial comment about me, when he put anti-Semitism in scare quotes:

    "Auster accuses others of what are really thought-crimes or heresies according to his creed: things like Darwinism, religious scepticism and 'anti-semitism.'"

    Nicholl thus fails to follow his teacher, Nietzsche. Nietzsche did not put anti-Semitism in scare quotes. He treated it as real, and expressed upmost disdain for it. A person who denies the reality of anti-Semitism, as Nicholl does, is either an anti-Semite, or an apologist for anti-Semites.