It has often been remarked that progressivist moral outrage tends to be highly selective, in that things that can be blamed on Western actions typically attract far more outrage than those which are done by non (and particularly anti-) Westerners. A common defence, when challenged, is that “the West should worry about its own sins first”.
The problems with such a defence are:
(1) The notion of pragmatic moral outrage is a nonsense. One can be pragmatic about where one puts one’s efforts, but selective moral outrage is, at best, hypocritical and, at worse, a cover for something else.
(2) It continually defines “the West” as “the big problem” or as “the source” of problems. Western civilisation and societies are the most successful societies in human history on the basis of a wide range of indicators. If one defines virtue against success, one is going to end up promoting a lot of failure: which is precisely what progressivists have so often done (with indigenous policy being a prime example).
(3) It grades victims on the basis of something other than the hurt or injustice done to them. This is not only likely to be monstrously belittling to them and their suffering, it also represents a fundamental attack on the very notion of moral judgement and common humanity.
(4) It typically involves a very unfortunate taxonomy of human agency, where Western agency “counts” so much more than non-Western agency. A particularly fine example is shown by this piece whereby Western (specifically Danish) cartoonists are held responsible for the violence of murderous fanatics (via). But a lot of Western progressivist commentary on the jihadis effectively turns them into moral children, not really responsible for their actions. (Unlike, of course, Israelis, conservative Americans, etc.)
(5) It encourages a mindset where non-Westerners can refuse to take responsibility, thereby encouraging the continuation of failure: a point made well here.
The real reasons for such selectivity are status claims and defending congenial framings. A moral framework that judged matters purely on the basis of harm done and opportunities denied is not likely to support the notion that the moral heights are possessed by taking an oppositional attitude to Western society. On the contrary, the likely inference is that the situation of The Rest would be much better if it was much more like how things are in The West. (Note, ‘more like’ does not imply ‘the same as’: it is silly to imply the West represents moral perfection.) Just as does noting that the groups and regimes the US ends up fighting are, almost always, morally much worse than the US (which, again, leaves lots of scope for argument about the means and ends of US policy).
Selective moral outrage is not justified by the “Western sins first” defence. Yes, the West should strive to have morally justifiable policies, but the fundamental principle is our common humanity, not which moral outrages we find more congenial to find outrageous for other reasons.
ADDENDA This post has been amended to add point (5).
From Today's Los Angeles Times - To the editor: The Times has every right to relentlessly hammer [sic] the president on its editorial pages, but doesn’t it owe him the truth when it comes ...
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