Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A.C. Grayling on Moralising

I have mentioned the English essayist, ethicist, and philosopher A. C. Grayling in previous posts. I have read a couple of his books which are, for the most part, a compilation of articles printed in The Guardian.

The first entry in Grayling's Meditations for the Humanists: Ethics for a Secular Age focuses on moralising.
It may be somewhat tiresome, but I will simply quote some of it here, as he states his case much better than I.

"A moraliser is a person who seeks to impose upon others his view of how they should live and behave. Everyone is entitled to a view about what counts as acceptable behaviour, and everyone is entitled to put it forward as eloquently and forcefully as he can. But moralisers go much further. They want others to conform to their views, and they seek to bring this about by coercion - employing means which range from social disapproval to legal control, this latter often being their preferred option. In forcing others to comply with their preferences they show at least several of the following: insensitivity, intolerance, unkindness, lack of imagination, failure of sympathy, absence of understanding, ignorance of alternative interests and needs in human experience, and arrogance in believing that theirs is the only acceptable way. They defend their actions by saying that they are trying to defend others from harm, thereby claiming not only a monopoly on moral judgment, but the right to decide on others' behalf what is good for them.

When moralisers attack liberal legislation on homosexuality, abortion, prostitution, censorship, blasphemy, bastardy, and other like matters, it is their way of manifesting hostility to lifestyles they personally dislike, and of trying to impose instead their own choices, usually in the form of a traditionalist fantasy of "family morality. . .

When the body politic is not immune {to moralisers} they are a menace, causing. . . downright misery to the people whose ways of life differ from their own. . .

Every age thinks it is in crisis. Things have got worse, people say, clucking their tongues; crime is up, the quality of life down, the world in a mess. People of religious bent are inclined to think that their personal epoch is so bad that it probably marks the end of the world. . .

Such sentiments are misleading because they premise a belief that somewhere or sometime the world had something which has since been lost - a cosy, chintzy, afternoon-teatime era when there was neither danger without nor unease within."

In other words: "The good old days."

It also should be noted that such moralising in American society comes out of the puritan ethic enforced by early settlers who supposedly left europe to escape religious persecution. Some historians have concluded that these people were forced to vacate their respective homelands owing to their own intolerance and persecution of others. Also, I reiterate the great H.L. Menken definition of puritanism as a fear that someone else might be having a good time. It seems that there is always someone out there who makes your behavior their business.



jazzycat said...

I hope I am not becoming a pest. This is certainly a good post and makes a good point. However, these attributes

(insensitivity, intolerance, unkindness, lack of imagination, failure of sympathy, absence of understanding, ignorance of alternative interests and needs in human experience, and arrogance in believing that theirs is the only acceptable way.)

also apply to the radical left as invited conservative speakers are on the receiving in of all these things at colleges and elsewhere. Attempts are routinely made to shout down the Sec. of Defense, Sec. of State, etc. Eggs, pies, and such are thrown at people who want to express a non PC opinion. What do you think the PC movement has been about except to stifle non PC debate and thinking.

You make a valid point, but the threat to freedom of expression is just as great from the radical left as it is from the 'moralists.'


Terry S said...


No, you are not a pest. The main reason I make these posts is to engage in discussion. We've done pretty well so far.

I am not an apologist for the radical left. Back in the late 60s and into the 70s I was, I suppose, a hippy of sorts. However, I did not align myself with the likes of the SDS and other oranizations or individuals who promoted or committed acts of violence against people or property. I don't condone it today, from any source. I am not on board with PITA or Greenpeace or other such groups.

However, the incidents you mention are more in the realm of rudeness. Left wing politicians have also been verbally accosted and booed off the dais over the years just as conservatives have been. It just goes with the territory.

The thrust of the Grayling essay and that of my own concerns lay with efforts to legislate morality. To control personal behavior via the legal system. Obviously, such controls are necessary to protect the rights and property of the citizenry. But enacting laws pertaining to what we do in the privacy of our homes, or to whom we can commit to in relationships, etc. are, in my opinion, and as I have stated before, not, or should not be the job of government.

It strikes me as odd how conservatives voice alarm at the perception that liberals are so deeply entrenched in enlarging government, while at the same time seeking more and more intrusive legislation regarding the most personal aspects of our lives, and in the process eroding away almost every trace of privacy we have left to us.

"Keep out of my business and my pocketbook, but, yeah, it's all right to snoop around in my bedroom and peek into my drawers."

That, it seems to me, is a contradiction.

On another note. I experienced my first MRI the other day. For my knee. I now know what hell could be like. I really didn't know just how clostrophobic I am until I slid into that monstrous tomblike machine. Between the sense of suffocation and the maddening sounds during the 40 minutes or so I spent inside that insidious monolith, I really thought I might go bleeding bonkers. I wanted nothing more than to scramble out of that thing and run outside. I am supposed to have another MRI on my shoulder in August, but, you know what? My shoulder is feeling MUCH better now. I don't think a scan will be necessary, thank you very much.

Hey, I turned 60 years old (or young, depending on how one wants to look at it) today.Whoop te do!


jazzycat said...

yea that clostrophobia must be tough. Hope your knee is well.

How can I debate you if you don't defend the left wing kooks. Ha! Don't expect me to defend the right wing kooks either.... The real ones not those as defined by Ted Kennedy.


Terry S said...


But, do you consider all of the people and organizations I mentioned in the original post as right wing kooks?

As to the liberal christian sites you noted, I copied this from the Sojourner site:

"Our mission is to articulate the biblical call to social justice, inspiring hope and building a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world."

Admittedly, I did not delve deeply into their offerings, but the above doesn't seem too nefarious. What I did see were articles about fighting world poverty - even one dedicated to bringing liberal and conservative christians together to work together against poverty.

The "Christian Alliance" is more openly political and while still claiming to be christian appears to be diametrically opposed to right wing conservatism.

Of course, from my perspective, that's a good thing. I'd say it's good that you have some serious opposition among fellow christians.

You can't have "Yin"without "Yang."


jazzycat said...

I absolutely do not consider these organizations right wing kooks. I was referring to those that are kooks. I would consider the KKK and survivalists as right wing kooks and the Green party activitists, PETA, etc. as left wing kooks.

About Sojourners…. There is nothing wrong with mercy ministry and efforts to fight poverty and aid people.

Conservative churches such as mine participate in those things as well. The difference is in our focus. Conservative churches focus on the spiritual and concern for souls whereas the liberal churches are focused on the temporal and physical well being of people. Conservative Christianity believe that Jesus came to save sinful mankind by providing an atonement on the cross of Calvary, whereas liberal churches believe Jesus was simply a great moral teacher and many discount atonement for sin as myth.

I am mainly talking about theology when I use the conservative/liberal labels, but there is a carryover into political thinking as well. Many if not most liberal professing Christians are for abortion, homosexual marriage, etc. and vote democratic. Most if not all conservative Christians are conservative politically as well.

Look at that Sojourner mission statement closely and you see they want to transform the church and articulate social justice. There is no mention of saving souls through the message of grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

They are liberal activists pure and simple. Look more into what changes they want to bring about for social justice and you will see the same policy ideas that you see on secular liberal activists sites.


Terry S said...


The thought occurs to me that you must fill the belly before you can fill the heart and mind.

From my perspective, the mission and goals of left wing christians are much more in alignment with my own - except for the god part.

No doubt they qualify as liberal activist organizations. In supporting homosexuals, abortion rights, etc. they are supporting the rights of people to live their lives as they choose. Conservative efforts to ban gay marriage, ban abortion rights, etc. are meant to restrict people's right to live as they choose. You automatically assume the superiority of your life choices and believe you've the right to legislate them onto everyone.

As I see it, that is not in keeping with either the letter or the spirit of a true democracy.


jazzycat said...

You said......
"In supporting homosexuals, abortion rights, etc. they are supporting the rights of people to live their lives as they choose."

Government restricts rights in many ways and I am sure you support many of them. So the debate is not always about individual rights, but is sometimes about the good of society.

Would you endorse pologamy as people's right to choose. How about drug usage. How about no speed limits on highways. There are even laws making people wear seat belts for their own good. Do we really need an FDA. Do you favor zoning laws. Surely you wouldn't object to a bar going in next door if that allowed people to exercise their freedom.

I know I am being absurd but the point is that this 'freedom' argument is seriously flawed. Many rights such as vouchers and the right to choose a school are denied by liberals. Liberal dogma denies many rights that conservatives are for.

BTW their is an injured party in an abortion.... the unborn child is killed.


Menopausal Agnostic said...

"Every age thinks it is in crisis. Things have got worse, people say, clucking their tongues; crime is up, the quality of life down, the world in a mess. People of religious bent are inclined to think that their personal epoch is so bad that it probably marks the end of the world. . .

Such sentiments are misleading because they premise a belief that somewhere or sometime the world had something which has since been lost - a cosy, chintzy, afternoon-teatime era when there was neither danger without nor unease within."

So true about every age thinking they are in a crisis.

Terry S said...


Again, you are making an assumption that laws restricting same sex marriages, abortion, etc. are inherently GOOD for society.

I won't attempt to debate these issues individually in any depth here, but it is not clear to me that they are bad for society.

In a better world, abortion would, perhaps, not be an issue. I doubt that anyone who professes to be pro-choice thinks that abortions are great. But the right to make such a choice should lay with the individual, not the state. The church offers NO help in this matter as it also forbids contraception with its only recommendation being abstinance.

I personally have no particular objection to polygamy per se. I can't imagine how it can work, but, apparently, some people are successful.

Most of the other issues that you use as examples of government intervention into our personal lives are issues that, if not controlled in some manner, can. and often do, have consequences beyond the individual - although I am not a particular proponent of anti-drug laws, at least as they are designed and enforced today. The so called "war on drugs" has been and continues to be an enormously costly, and ineffectual effort which has done far more damage than good.

Obviously, establishing speed limits on our roadways, and other such regulatory issues in transportation, the work place, etc. are necessary to protect not only the individual, but society at large. Allowing a driver to barrel down a residential street at 90mph would create an obvious danger to everyone in the vicinity.
Having a gay married couple in the same neighborhood would have little, if any, adverse effect on the community that I can imagine.

The seat belt (and by extension motorcycle helmet) laws may not be as clear cut an issue, except that the extensive injuries one may well receive if not wearing proper safety restraints or head protection puts an added burden on our medical system. Most people wouldn't consider riding a roller coaster without some kind of restraint, but think nothing of driving or riding in a car on the open road with no such protection.
Perhaps, in this instance, instead of seat belt or helmet laws, insurance companies should just make it a policy not to pay for anyone injured in an accident who was not wearing them.

There are those who believe that the FDA is over-zealous, but again, it is clear that society would be in extreme danger if there were no rules or oversite regarding the approval, distribution and sale of legal drugs. We would be back to the era of the snake oil salesmen.

Zoning? Well, zoning laws do, on the whole protect the interests of a community. There are obvious mis-uses of zoning as well.

Most of the examples you pointed to do not have overriding moral questions surrounding them.

School vouchers? We have them here in Indianapolis. There are a # of private and parochial schools which are able to take advantage of them. However, it creates an even heavier burden on the public school system. It's clear that a number of fundamentalists would prefer to completely do away with public education. The voucher system is one big step in that direction.

As it happens, we sent both of our kids to a catholic high school. We chose to do so, not for religious purposes, but because it offered the best opportunity for our kids to get, overall, a better education than would have been available in any of the are public schools. We paid as much as $4000 a year for them to attend. Now it is well over $7000 for 1 child each year. Vouchers (which were not available then) would have helped our pocketbooks.

But, sending them to a catholic school was our choice. We certainly could have sent them to a public school.

And then, there's stem cell research. Ah, but don't get me started.


jazzycat said...

I will say that although I disagree with your views, they are certainly seasoned with pragmatism and not off the charts left-wing. You affirm that the good of society sometimes must trump other reasons for certain policies. I agree. You come at it from a secular point of view and I come from a Christian point of view. BOTH points of view have agendas that are sometimes offensive to the other.

If I could brag on us a bit, I would say that we both would probably be courageous enough to oppose extremes on our respective sides.


Terry S said...


I have been accused of taking moderation to excess.

All too often radicalism has tunnel vision, or it is so focussed on one issue, that it fails to account for the rest of the world.

It is far too easy to demonize the enemy. You believe in something with your whole heart. I think you're wrong, but I admire you and others who are passionate about life and ideas regardless of which side of the fence one might be.

I don't believe that either of us are radicals. Being involved with and passionate about something does not necessarily mean one is radicalized. Those who live on the fringe, as it were, operate so far from the center of life that they understand little.

I don't want to get bogged down in metaphor, but it serves as a means to illustrate a point.

Although I'm sure my ego is wrapped up in this blog, I created it as a means to explore issues and share thoughts and ideas. We have done that, amicably, for the most part. As I have said, I don't imagine that either of us will manage to change the other, but, at the least, we have communicated well, and we have had to consider each other's position in relationship to our own. Occasionally, we find common ground. It's a good thing.


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