Friday, August 28, 2009

Moral universalism versus moral instrumentalism

One of the enduring divisions in the Western left has been between “anti-fascism” (that opposition to fascism is such an imperative any useful allies should be sought) and “anti-imperialism” (the central moral problem is the wrongness of the capitalist West).

The Euston Manifesto is a recent manifestation of the anti-fascism-is-trumps outlook. [So is Richard Just's recent essay in The New Republic (via Norm): he characterises the position as human rights being trumps, which is a more general label, though possibly somewhat American in terminology.] This outlook is one of moral universalism (i.e. a common set of moral principles for everyone) and having no truck with movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas nor regimes such as Saddam Hussein’s or the Assad's. [A nice statement of anti-imperialism not being enough is here. Clive James propounds a firm moral universalism and criticises the reticence of Western feminists and intellectuals over (dis)honourcide and non-Western repression of women here. In support of moral universalism, there is evidence that children engage in common moral reasoning across cultures.]

Marxist philosophers Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s book Empire is something of a flagship for the anti-imperialist tendency. One adherent of revolutionary socialism puts the matter very clearly:
To put the matter as starkly as possible: from the standpoint of Marxism and international socialism an illiterate, conservative, superstitious Muslim Palestinian peasant who supports Hamas is more progressive than an educated liberal atheist Israeli who supports Zionism (even critically).
As clear an example of “anti-imperialism” trumping “anti-fascism” as one could hope for.

Such a view also abandons any sense of moral universalism: the criteria of opposition to Western capitalism trumps all else. A form of what we can reasonably call moral instrumentalism: having some goal determining moral judgement.

This sort of view is often criticised as moral relativism, but that is not very accurate. So-called “moral relativists” typically conjoin moral absolutism about the evils of Western racism, sexism, global warming etc with moral relativism about other matters. What such folk are typically displaying is moral instrumentalism: the overriding goal in such cases usually being to establish their own membership of the moral elite. A form of moral instrumentalism entirely compatible with judging things according to the goal of the revolutionary transformation of society, for what are those who work for such glorious transformation other than a moral elite?

Buddhism and Christianity—both religions of moral order (i.e. their injunctions do not purport to be laws, however much they may hold that their moral perspectives should animate the content and implementation of laws)—are typically morally universalist religions. An example of this is Pope Paul III’s 1537 bull Sublimus Dei which held of the inhabitants of the Americas that:
… the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.
A moral perspective that leads quite naturally to such statements as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Conversely, Islam, a religion of social order (i.e. it does purport to provide binding laws) is typically a religion of moral instrumentalism: the goal of universal submission to Allah as sovereign legislator of the universe is paramount. This leads to a very different perspective on what may be done to non-believers in the furtherance of this goal and to have a moral and legal order which rates people according to how much they adhere to this goal. [It also means that apostasy is a form of treason, hence its traditional penalty being death.] This moral instrumentalism also leads critics of Islam to make much of the doctrine of taqiyya or deception.

Bertrand Russell noted the similarity between Islam and Bolshevism:
Bolshevism combines the characteristics of the French Revolution with those of the rise of Islam....Marx has taught that Communism is fatally predestined to come about; this produces a state of mind not unlike that of the early successors of Mahommet....Among religions, Bolshevism is to be reckoned with Mohammedanism rather than with Christianity and Buddhism. Christianity and Buddhism are primarily personal religions, with mystical doctrines and a love of contemplation. Mohammedanism and Bolshevism are practical, social, unspiritual, concerned to win the empire of this world".
Not only do they share having a universal goal, but they are also morally instrumentalist: making moral judgments about actions, institutions and people according to how much they adhere to their universal goal.
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Judaism, as a religion of community order (having religious laws which bind the community of believers but do not have any authority over non-believers: Ismaili Islam has a similar perspective) is legalistic but is not morally instrumentalist. Indeed, the Noahide laws provide a form of moral universalism.

Edmund Standing has a post on the group blog Butterflies and Wheels on the far-left campaign to silence critics of Islam. Standing is referring to the phenomena whereby criticism of Islam is taken to be criticism of Muslims so analogous to (or a form of) racism: hence the term Islamophobia. An ostentatious moral concern displayed by people who would never worry about criticism of Christianity being criticism of Christians nor either being any form of racism. [A nice tongue-in-cheek check-list for "Islamophobia"].

The “Islamophobia” nonsense seems to be just a fairly grotesque form of ideological hypocrisy, but makes more sense if one examines the underlying worldview. Particularly if we see it as a manifestation of moral instrumentalism.

Standing is examining patterns among adherents of various forms of Marxism, so starts his analysis there:
Marxism is, at heart, to use the 'buzz words', a 'totalising narrative'. It is essentially based around a deterministic view of history which has much in common with conspiracy theory and theology. The Marxist historical vision incorporates disparate historical events into one unified narrative through the notion of class struggle. Where the religious see the 'plan' and guiding hand of God as the underlying reality that ultimately 'makes sense of' history, the Marxist sees the ongoing phenomenon of 'class conflict' as being the glue that binds historical events and social changes into an intelligible, explainable whole. As with all totalising narratives, the Marxist vision is at heart a simplistic and often black and white system of thought that can be used to 'explain' any social phenomena as having relevance to the Marxist understanding of history and politics.
While there are followers of Marx whose world-view is rather more sophisticated than that, Standing is describing a strong tendency within Marxism—particularly Leninism and its derivatives.

This outlook means that:
An immediate problem with Marx's analysis of religion is that it greatly oversimplifies the phenomenon of religious belief. In this view, religion is not an end in itself but must always be seen as a 'cover' for something else, something politically intelligible. Marxist materialism overcomes religion, then, not through criticising religious texts and doctrines but by looking beyond them to what is perceived to be their underlying 'cause': political and economic oppression.
Just as the more obsessive monotheist believers might see the hand of Satan everywhere, such ardent Marxists are always looking for the “underlying” class reality. Needless to say, this is a massively impoverished (indeed delusional) way of looking at the world. In either case, however, the seekers always seem to find what they look for.

Of course, we can all engage in dubious framings:
Many Marxists see the resurgence of political Islam not as part of a rising tide of irrationalism but rather as an essentially political and rational response to the supposedly oppressive and intrinsically 'racist' and 'imperialist' nature of Western liberal democracy.
The resurgence of political Islam can reasonably be seen as something other than part of a “rising tide of irrationalism”. But Standing’s point about the falsity in obsessively seeing the West as having such great causal potency that it trumps everything else is a sound one.

Seeing religion as a mere epiphenomenon on deeper class issues has natural consequences:
It is rare to see the Marxist writers who currently engage in a McCarthyite denunciation of critics of Islam and Islamist organisations actively engage with the religion of Islam itself. This is unsurprising, as their concern is not defending Islam but rather (supposedly) defending 'Muslims' (often seen as a monolithic block), who are seen to be the latest victims of the Western bourgeois Capitalist conspiracy. In the strange worldview of these Marxist campaigners against 'Islamophobia', almost any criticism of Islam, Islamist politics, or Muslim organisations is seen to be little more than a thinly veiled form of 'racism'. The fact that these writers apparently cannot distinguish between legitimate criticism of a religious belief system and its texts and outright expressions of racial hatred says a lot about the simplistic nature of their worldview and their underlying anti-intellectualism. There is something sinister and totalitarian about the far-left's campaign against critics of Islam. It is a dishonest campaign that seeks to silence dissent and critical thinking that does not conform to the 'party line' through demonisation and name calling.
This stream of thought then feeds into wider hypocrisies. Notably the “rednecks have no speech rights” attempts to legislate against “hate speech”—laws that are offensive both on freedom of speech grounds and in the patent hypocrisy of their implementation. In practice, it is clear that the guardians of such matters only care about some types of “hate speech”—those instances offensive to progressivist opinion.

Attempts to use the cry of “racism!” against dissent has lots of problems:
False accusations of racism can have very serious repercussions, and falsely equating criticism of religion with racism is not only slanderous towards anti-racist critics of Islam and Islamism but also risks trivialising the very real phenomenon of genuine racial prejudice and hatred.
But what is really going on is trying to shore up various worldviews and de-legitimise dissent there from. Widening the definition of ‘racist’ narrows the range of acceptable discussion.

In this case, the object is to keep the focus on Western sins (real, exaggerated and alleged) rather than dealing with things in their own terms. The perspective that was maintained by all those who followed Stalin’s lead from August 24 1939 to 22 June 1941. Of course, that did not work out so well for Stalin, who found the Nazis were a much more serious military threat than the Western allies: just as jihadis can recruit far more easily from a much greater population base than Western revolutionary socialists. Including people with sufficient commitment to kill and die. Islamic radicalism clearly has greater appeal within Europe as an “ideology of contestation” and has supplanted radical secularism in its activist appeal within Muslim communities in Europe and elsewhere.

If the attempt to police public discourse is rational enough in an instrumental sense, the underlying world view is less so:
Far-left politics are not based on a realistic and rational assessment of the world. As I have argued previously, 'revolutionary' leftists are 'dreamers of the day': fantasists whose worldview is grounded in a conspiratorial and deterministic framework; black and white thinkers whose rigid idealism mirrors religious faith. Once this is understood, the current 'left-wing' campaign of demonising liberal, rationalist critics of Islam and Islamist politics is placed in its proper context. When liberal humanists and progressives find themselves routinely denounced for supposedly holding 'Islamophobic' (and by inference, 'racist') views, it is clear that the self-appointed witch finders throwing around such accusations have an underlying agenda – a political delusion based on faith in the existence an imagined 'racist imperialist' conspiracy and a conviction that they are a morally pure elite who will one day lead ' an aroused people' to revolutionary glory.
Yes, there is the animating sense of moral identity: that is very important to understand what is going on. But, as with religion, one has to understand that there are other hopes and fears involved. One of the notable features of our time is not merely the far-left effectively making common cause with jihadists (particularly Hamas and Hezbollah), it is people moving from Marxism to Islamism (including the full jihadi package). For Marxism and Islamism have a similar underlying appeal. What Francois Furet called the revolutionary illusion:
Modern society … is characterised by a lack of politics in relation to the private, individual existence. It is blind to the idea of the common good, since the members of society, consumed with relativism, have their own individual ideas of the common good and modern society can conceive of it only in terms of a taste for well-being, which divides its members rather than unifying them and thus destroys the community supposedly constructed in its name. The revolutionary idea is the impossible attempt to circumvent that calamity.
So is the Islamist idea.

Revolutionary Marxism and Islamism (including the jihadis) not only have common enemies, at the deepest level they have common ambitions and a common judgment that their end-goal is so worthy that it trumps all other considerations. They share a universalist ambition of achieving profound social harmony with moral instrumentalism and a sense of identity of being an elite validated by that. No wonder Islamism has been recruiting from former Marxists and no wonder so many Marxists (and similar) find even jihadis preferable to their mutual enemies. Deep calls to deep, as my old teacher David Stove would say.

Moral universalists of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but the chains of failing to understand what is going on.

ADDENDA This post has been updated, additions in [square brackets].

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