Thoughts on Morality, Politics and History

by Mark English

Past and present

If we ignore the past, not only do we forego the opportunity to understand our own social and cultural situation in more than a superficial way, but we disrespect ourselves. We are to future observers what past generations are to us, and, if we have no interest in the lives or achievements of our forebears, we are implicitly condoning a similarly dismissive attitude to our lives and achievements on the part of future generations.

Linguists analyse language both in terms of its structure and in terms of its history. Not only language but any cultural element needs to be seen in this double perspective if it is to be properly understood; that is, not just as it is at any given point in time, but also in terms of how it developed.

But increasingly, both in general and educational contexts (each reflecting the other and creating a  negative feedback loop), the historical dimension is being neglected or replaced by crude historical myths and fictions. For most people today, the past is a great unknown expanse like the distant oceans on old maps, a blank canvas on which political actors are free to paint whatever they see fit. Inevitably the historical record is distorted beyond recognition as ideologues flesh out their chosen political myths with suitably aligned heroes and moral monsters. 

Morality and Politics

Political differences are generally based on moral priorities being ranked differently. Moreover, issues which are high on a particular group’s or party’s agenda are issues upon which divergent opinions are not allowed: the party line must be adhered to on pain of excommunication.

Such attitudes are profoundly illiberal. They characterized Christian and Jewish and Muslim orthodoxies in the past and (in varying degrees) still do. Such attitudes have long been adopted also by the extreme Left, which has operated for more than a century now as a kind of secular religion or set of competing sects. Extreme right-wing nationalist movements like fascism operated in a similar way.

The fact that individual moral intuitions and priorities differ is acknowledged (how could it not be?) but in polarized political contexts, these intuitions tend to be seen as indicators of the moral and political status of the individuals in question. They are also seen, by extension, as markers of group membership. This is essentially a religious attitude. “He that is not with me,” says Matthew’s Jesus, “is against me.” Or, pluralizing to make it more relevant to politics: those who are not with us are against us. This attitude often goes slightly further and does away with even arm’s-length tolerance of alternative views. In such cases, those who are not against those who are not with us are against us.

It’s no great surprise that moral realism is currently flourishing in humanist and academic contexts today, with many self-described atheists (especially those with strong political commitments) coming to believe in an objective “moral law” or set of rights that just happens to correspond to (and thus, validate), the moral imperatives central to their own favored political ideology.

The Anti-Metaphysical Stance

My default position on matters metaphysical is strongly “anti” in the sense that given my assumptions about the natural world, I do not see either traditional metaphysics or theology as viable academic subjects. That a similarly robust anti-metaphysical stance has been promoted by many significant thinkers whose starting point was very different from my own (e.g. Christian fideists, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty) serves only to strengthen my convictions on the matter.

There are, I accept, questions of a metaphysical kind that can be asked and meaningfully discussed. But, in terms of scholarship and academic research, such discussion is only likely to be fruitful to the extent that it is informed by the sciences (broadly interpreted to include mathematics and historical disciplines).

Take the topic of time, for example. There seems little point in writing about it as metaphysically-oriented philosophers have done in the past, attempting to explicate its deep nature in an a priori fashion. Depending on the aspects of time in which you are interested, you obviously need to draw on various sciences or other disciplines (e.g. physics, psychology, linguistics, literature).

Epistemological questions, likewise, need (as I see it) to be seen in the context of particular research programs.

Liberalism versus Dogmatism

Morality, which used to be seen in metaphysical terms, is a practical business, not a theoretical one. You can theorize about it, of course, just as you can theorize about other aspects of human value systems and human behavior. Such theorizing is useful to the extent that it provides a descriptive account of these matters and a framework for discussion of normative questions. A large degree of agreement can be expected on the descriptive front. On the normative side, there is some scope for convergence and agreement but on personal priorities and many controversial questions definitive answers are just not possible.

The view I am putting stands opposed to sophisticated (e.g. Kantian) as well as less sophisticated forms of moral realism (such as those that underlie certain religious and secular orthodoxies). Mainstream Christian churches and Jewish communities have over the centuries come to accept the kind of tolerance for differing opinions and perspectives that has traditionally characterized the European liberal tradition. But the mainstream churches are in decline as, on the one hand, fundamentalist religious groups seem to thrive and, on the other, politics becomes more polarized and extreme.

All in all, the tradition of European liberalism seems to have played itself out. It worked (to the extent that it did) only because a unique set of social and cultural conditions in European and other Western countries allowed it to work.

These conditions no longer prevail. They included a sense of continuity with the past, an enlightened and science-friendly perspective, relatively homogeneous regional and national cultures, and an organic and historically significant network of interrelated communities and practices transcending regional and national boundaries.

Typically, today’s communities and networks lack the deep historical dimension which only cultural continuity provides. As such, they are free-floating and fragile and extremely vulnerable to demagoguery and dogmatism.

22 Comments »

  1. Hi Mark,

    To clarify, when you say you have an anti metaphysical stance, does that mean you don’t think Naturalist, Materialist or Physicalist metaphysics are viable either?

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  2. “To clarify, when you say you have an anti metaphysical stance, does that mean you don’t think Naturalist, Materialist or Physicalist metaphysics are viable either?”

    I am talking about the rejection of *traditional* metaphysics.

    Do I think we could have a worthwhile discussion on naturalism or physicalism or Cartesian dualism? Of course. But, as I said, in academic and research contexts, such discussion is only likely to be fruitful to the extent that it is informed by other disciplines.

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  3. Hi Mark,
    1. “There are, I accept, questions of a metaphysical kind that can be asked and meaningfully discussed. But, in terms of scholarship and academic research, such discussion is only likely to be fruitful to the extent that it is informed by the sciences (broadly interpreted to include mathematics and historical disciplines).

    2. “Typically, today’s communities and networks lack the deep historical dimension which only cultural continuity provides. As such, they are free-floating and fragile and extremely vulnerable to demagoguery and dogmatism

    These two statements seem, to me, to define your intellectual stance and they are a recurrent thread in your essays. I agree with your second statement about the value of the historical/cultural dimension and the value of context. Though I think you can do more to address the question of why this dimension is being deprecated in modern society. That is, I think, the truly interesting question.

    As you would expect from me, I profoundly disagree with your first statement, which borders on an endorsement of scientism.

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  4. Hi Mark,
    The fact that individual moral intuitions and priorities differ is acknowledged (how could it not be?) but in polarized political contexts, these intuitions tend to be seen as indicators of the moral and political status of the individuals in question. They are also seen, by extension, as markers of group membership. This is essentially a religious attitude.

    Here, of course, we see the third strand in your thought, your visceral reaction to religion. Your reaction is so strong that you have wrongly characterised group membership/activity as being, in some respects, religious in nature or expression. Given my well known predilections 🙂 I will first give this my attention.

    The most basic, defining thing about our species is specialisation. I make the spear shaft, you make the spear head and someone else makes the twine that binds them together. That is a crude expression of the truly extraordinary degree of specialisation that makes today’s advanced society possible. We simply can’t function without this deep, intricate specialisation.

    But this specialisation is only made possible by trust. Consequently we have developed specialised behaviour to detect trustworthiness, display trustworthiness and punish lack of trustworthiness. This is the basis of our ethical systems and can be seen in its purest form as virtue ethics.

    Now here’s the thing. The great benefits of specialisation draw us into cooperative groups that possess a natural affinity. We cannot have cooperative specialisation without forming groups. And we form groups with those we trust the most, those like us, for the simple reason that we are best able to read their trustworthiness, i.e. detect their practice of the virtues. And vice versa, which makes it mutually reinforcing.

    You will notice, that unusually for me 🙂 I have said nothing, until now, about religion. That is because I don’t believe religion has anything to do with this basic mechanism of specialisation and group formation. That is a great disappointment for anyone who likes to blame the ills of society on religion. Religion is instead an expression of a strong and basic need for transcendence. Humankind, being what it is, has put this need for transcendence to other uses, some good and sometimes bad. The human animal is a flawed being that rends to corrupt everything it touches. I cannot think of a single institution of any kind that this flawed being has not soiled in some way. We have put every other institution to bad uses so inevitably we have done the same thing with religion. That is just our nature.

    I hope you will understand why I cannot agree with your statement “They are also seen, by extension, as markers of group membership. This is essentially a religious attitude“. It has nothing to do with religion.

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  5. I am not quite ready to give up on liberalism quite yet.

    Sure, America is a bit of a mess now. They went and elected a right wing demagogue who will likely have appointed up to four Supreme Court justices before he leaves office and he likes to appoint them young and fiercely partisan so the country will be Trump flavoured for decades to come.

    Sure many countries are lurching to the right, even typically liberal ones.

    Sure there are entrenched dictators holding immense power in the world.

    Now, let me see, where was I going with this?

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  6. Hi Robin,
    I am not quite ready to give up on liberalism quite yet.

    the patient is in intensive care 🙂

    Now, let me see, where was I going with this?

    to the right?

    More seriously though. It is a sign of a healthy democracy where it is poised on the fulcrum between liberalism and conservatism. This results in a society that regularly swings between liberal and conservative points of view. It ensures a form of governance that takes due cognisance of both liberal and conservative points of view. This is as it should be, unless you are a rabid, foaming at the mouth liberal who fanatically believes in the one true way. Life defies such simple and extreme categorisation.

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  7. Hi labnut

    the patient is in intensive care 🙂

    Well yes. Liberalism is self-destructing and conservatism has morphed into identity politics on steroids, so we are in danger of losing both traditions.

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  8. labnut

    The religious dimension of culture played a more fundamental and general group-forming and group-maintaining role than specialization. (Durkheim’s ideas are in the back of my mind.)

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  9. Mark,
    If I understand your thoughtfully written article correctly, I don’t think you’re talking about a ‘liberal’ political position, as opposed to a ‘conservative’ political position, but rather the very idea of a “liberal state,” which developed in the 19th century, and indeed became a kind of hope and objective to work towards. Such a state entailed, at the least, the following:
    1. A healthy bourgeoisie developing a relatively capitalist economy;
    2. Some form of electoral process for resolving differences between political and economic factions;
    3. A relatively free press allowing public discussion and debate concerning differences needing political resolution;
    4. The establishment of laws by which such resolutions were observed by both the populace and the politicians of various factions;
    4. The development of agencies providing enforcement of the laws, and carrying out any necessary services the laws require;
    5. Relative independence from political interference or domination by any one religion or church.

    I use qualifiers like “relatively” and “some form,” because the Liberal State was never a monolithic ideal to be repeated by formula nation by nation (indeed, when this was occasionally attempted, like in some former colonies, the state failed). Rather it worked best when developing organically through dialogue, practical politics, and compromise. Sometimes even this didn’t work. But by and large, the Liberal State produced wealth and social stability without oppression.

    If you are saying that the idea of the Liberal State has run its course – that conditions have arisen that the idea cannot properly accommodate, and that its historical reliance on “a sense of continuity with the past, an enlightened and science-friendly perspective, relatively homogeneous regional and national cultures, and an organic and historically significant network of interrelated communities and practices transcending regional and national boundaries,” conditions no longer applicable in many areas of the world, leave it without resources necessary to respond to the conditions confronting us now and continuing forward – I fear very much that you’re probably right. Yet, like Robin Herbert, I’m not willing to give up on it yet. The alternatives are far worse.

    In the 1920s, many intellectuals throughout the West thought the problems of the Liberal State were such that people of good conscience would have to choose between Lenin or Mussolini as leading them toward a brighter future. By the 1930s, the choice was between Stalin or Hitler. Such alternatives led to disaster, not only on a mass populace scale, but also for many individuals who, when they were of good conscience, had to suffer not only the pain of disillusionment, but the worried sense of guilt for possibly contributing to the horrors of WWII.

    I sometimes have said that I suspect the People’s Republic of China may well prove the blueprint for future political and social organization, given the problems Liberal States are experiencing, and especially because of our ever growing population. But this not my hope, but my fear. My heroes include Melville and Whitman, James and Dewey, Lincoln and both Roosevelts. These were not thinkers to surrender in the face of seeming catastrophe.

    I admit I have been depressed of late – profoundly – by political events both home and abroad. But although I remain open to the possibility of a better political organization than that enjoyed for the past 200 years, I am not willing to bury the Liberal State just yet.

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  10. Mark,
    The religious dimension of culture played a more fundamental and general group-forming and group-maintaining role than specialization

    That is an assertion without any motivation. My claims were accompanied by a clear motivation and you have not replied to this.

    In any case group formation is far more likely to be guided by clear and present needs on the ground for the striving towards survival and prospering. Religion increased trust, contributed towards cohesion and became the group’s repository of moral values. Thus it was valuable for group formation was was not the primary impetus.

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  11. The last sentence should have read
    ‘Thus it was valuable for improving group cohesion but was not the primary impetus for group formation’.

    I am still rubbing the sleep out of my eyes 🙂

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  12. Very interesting post. Agree strongly with its last three paragraphs. Though I see it with more optimism.

    Nietzsche says somewhere we have a hard time acknowledging greatness and violence are inseparable, that the most noble thoughts and actions are also soaked in blood and on – a typical Nietzchean insight – the willful submission of others. Great things are those which we can see how much blood was spilled to create it, and we still are in awe of it.

    This is true of the emergence of writing, architecture, math, art, religion, philosophy, morality. The pyramids are breath taking even though we know how they were built. Same is true for liberal democracy. Yes, it came up when society was more culturally homogeneous, had respect for ideas, had deeper ties to past. All wonderful things. But these features themselves were possible because of structures of oppression. The cultural homogeneity didn’t happen magically, but was a very cultivated and curated thing, the way Brahmins in India maintained purity.

    Another Nietzschean insight: the greatness of a thing is measured in its capacity for overcoming itself. By its ability to exert violence on itself to grow and to then hold itself in awe through that struggle. This is what is happening with democracy.

    Liberal democracy grew from a cultivated homogeneity. But then liberal democracy was itself the engine of change which pushed against that homogeneity. The concept of liberal democracy (of “equal, free citizens”) has itself been eroding the social context of liberal democracy as it was socially 200 years ago. Question is whether that means it will end altogether (so that the concept and the social context of its origin are inseparable), or if the concept survives into, and becomes stronger in, the new social context? I think the latter.

    In this sense the far right is more insightful than the far left. The far right sees the engine of social change has been liberal democracy; since they don’t want change, they move towards authoritarianism, which is instrumentally rational. The far left is throwing away liberal democracy in the name of change and equality, which is instrumentally irrational.

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  13. Western nations are probably more culturally homogeneous than they ever were. I grew up in Glasgow, a city riven by deep sectarian divides, class divides,, a place where gays were shunned and races didn’t mix. Women were expected to stay at home and look after men.

    The National Anthem of the United Kingdom actually has a verse about waging war on the Scots, not exactly a confident statement of unity.

    These were not new or unique to the ’60s but were an artifact of the long past.

    When we came to Australia I found that the indigenous people were nowhere to be seen in the city, migrants of Greek and Italian origin were shunned and were commonly the subject of racial invective. It was changing in the ’70s but slowly.

    When we came to Australia the remnants of the White Australia Policy were still in place.

    Today we are not a completely united people, but in Glasgow the sectarian divide is becoming less and less important. In Australia the races more on an equal footing, gays are more or less an accepted part of society.

    Homogeneous in that different races, people of different sexualities, men and women work more as part of a single society rather than a set of competing subcultures.

    It doesn’t work perfectly but better a glitchy genuine unity than the illusory unity of the past.

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    • Agree about the direction of things. Though I think you and Mark are using “homogeneous” in different ways. What you mean is people being able to live next to each other without putting one another down, and having a shared identity which enables that. In liberal democracies that shared identity is “citizen” (in a broad sense to include green holders, etc.). But I think Mark is using the word in a cultural sense, of sharing deep seated narratives, habits, affordances of where we came from and where we are going, of nuances of language, food, etc.

      I take Mark’s point to be, and I agree with this, is that citizen homogeneity, or even the homogeneity of consumers, is not enough for flourishing together. A cultural homogeneity of a kind is needed as well. Not the far left’s kind of affirming such cultural sameness from above, but a more organic, bottom up form of which is able to integrate people of difference cultural backgrounds.

      I would say spirituality broadly understood (meaning the kind compatible with atheism) plays a big role here. For example, the early Church was precisely such a space of cultural inclusion which included in an interesting alchemy habits and traditions of Jews, Romans and Greeks, and even Egyptians and others. The illusory unity of the past misses this dimension of our traditions, be it Christian, Hindu or atheist.

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  14. When those who identify as conservatives talk of continuity with the past, they seem to mean a continuity with a heroic myth about the past, where the bad stuff never happened, or was a minor exception to the otherwise unblemished nobility of the society.

    We have Christians who want to have continuity with a past where science began at Philoponus and atheists who want continuity with a past where science began at Galileo and both want to assert a mythical narrative that supports this.

    The history I had in school had Captain Cook discovering Australia and the British settlers benevolently improving the lot of the indigenous people who were a rag tag group of hunter gatherers with no sense of belonging to a country.

    In America we can see that Columbus used to be celebrated as the man who insisted that the Earth was a sphere against the common perception that it was flat.

    We now know all of these things are wrong, so what kind of continuity did we have with a past that didn’t happen?

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  15. Maybe 15 years ago there was a common perception that the medieval world, in general, believed that the world was flat. There was a skeptics site called ‘Shadow on the Moon’, based on a fake quotation attributed to Vasco de Gama about how the Church insists that the world is flat but he believes a shadow on the Moon more than the Church. Rather ironic that.

    I would even get history professors who insisted that I was an idiot arguing about things I knew nothing about when I said that every educated person in the medieval world knew that the Earth was a sphere and probably most uneducated people did too.

    These days more people seem to realise that this is wrong, but even in the last year Neil deGrasse Tyson insisted, even after several people corrected him, that the medieval world believed the Earth was flat.

    For a long time I was a lone voice in doubting the myth that Galileo showed that Aristotle was wrong about falling objects. There did not appear to be any support for this idea in the primary documents and quite a lot of support for the idea that Aristotle was referring explicitly to objects falling through a medium.

    It was nice to see that Carlo Rovelli, at least, is now saying what I have been saying on this subject.

    Both these things have been part of our modern narrative, people bring them up all the time. I see both these stories in modern science textbooks in their introduction to the scientific method. Again, ironic.

    So when we talk about continuity with the past, are we talking about continuity with what actually happened, or with a sort of self-affirming mythos?

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  16. The whole idea of Platonic Love seems to be quite a pernicious result of maintaining a mythical history. The idea that Plato sublimated his sexual passions and redirected that energy into the guidance of the young is still believed in some places and formed part of the basis of a major argument by one prominent philosopher as recently as 1997.

    There does not appear to be any physiological or psychological support for the idea that you can ‘redirect’ sexual ‘energy’ and much harm has arisen from the idea that you can.

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  17. labnut

    “… group formation is far more likely to be guided by clear and present needs on the ground for the striving towards survival and prospering. Religion increased trust, contributed towards cohesion and became the group’s repository of moral values… Thus it was valuable for improving group cohesion but was not the primary impetus for group formation.”

    I don’t know that we need to resolve this question here. But I did not mean to imply (as a couple of my statements may seem to do) that religion provided the primary impetus for group formation. After all, other social animals form groups without the benefit of religion.

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  18. ej

    Thanks. You are generally right about my use of the term ‘liberalism’, but I was also thinking of Hayek’s notion of spontaneous order (which means that a government need not be authoritarian or too interventionist). My point is that many forms of spontaneous social order only occur when certain conditions are met (cultural prerequisites). But you understand this…

    “If you are saying that the idea of the Liberal State has run its course – that conditions have arisen that the idea cannot properly accommodate … I fear very much that you’re probably right. Yet, like Robin Herbert, I’m not willing to give up on it yet…”

    I didn’t think you would be!

    We’ll see about China (which is certainly facing challenges). If they prevail, their system may eventually incorporate some liberal ideas, who knows?

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  19. Bharath

    Thank you.

    “Nietzsche says somewhere we have a hard time acknowledging greatness and violence are inseparable, that the most noble thoughts and actions are also soaked in blood and on – a typical Nietzchean insight – the willful submission of others. Great things are those which we can see how much blood was spilled to create it, and we still are in awe of it… This is true of the emergence of writing, architecture, math, art, religion, philosophy, morality. The pyramids are breath taking even though we know how they were built.”

    I remember reading up on the origins of Vedantic philosophy. “Where did this wisdom come from?” I wondered. But you would know its origins better than me…

    “Same is true for liberal democracy. Yes, it came up when society was more culturally homogeneous, had respect for ideas, had deeper ties to past. All wonderful things. But these features themselves were possible because of structures of oppression. The cultural homogeneity didn’t happen magically, but was a very cultivated and curated thing, the way Brahmins in India maintained purity.”

    This is plausible.

    “Another Nietzschean insight: the greatness of a thing is measured in its capacity for overcoming itself. By its ability to exert violence on itself to grow and to then hold itself in awe through that struggle. This is what is happening with democracy.”

    This sounds a bit Hegelian!

    “Liberal democracy grew from a cultivated homogeneity. But then liberal democracy was itself the engine of change which pushed against that homogeneity. The concept of liberal democracy (of “equal, free citizens”) has itself been eroding the social context of liberal democracy as it was socially 200 years ago.”

    Yes, I can accept this.

    “Question is whether that means it will end altogether (so that the concept and the social context of its origin are inseparable), or if the concept survives into, and becomes stronger in, the new social context? I think the latter.”

    You say yourself that your view is more optimistic than mine. But even I expect that what has perennial value in our system will survive or be reinvented.

    “In this sense the far right is more insightful than the far left. The far right sees the engine of social change has been liberal democracy; since they don’t want change, they move towards authoritarianism, which is instrumentally rational. The far left is throwing away liberal democracy in the name of change and equality, which is instrumentally irrational.”

    Your analysis seems sound to me.

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  20. Robin

    “… We now know all of these things are wrong, so what kind of continuity did we have with a past that didn’t happen?”

    My idea of continuity with the past is based on practices and values more than history books. Language is important here. And *literacy* in one’s own and other languages gives one direct access to voices from the past.

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  21. Mark

    I am only pointing out that the “crude historical myths and fictions” are nothing new, in fact they are characteristic of how the human race always seems to have regarded the past.

    But I also wonder how much continuity there has ever been. If we pick a time, say the nineteenth century, early to mid, our forebears were busy remaking the world, forming unions to counteract the power of the new capitalist elite.

    The next generation were building a new cultural language in the context of the relative prosperity of the time, while the next generation were devastated and radicalised by two world wars and became intent in crashing through class barriers.

    It is hard to see that continuity with the past was important for these generations. Going further back to the 18th century where our forebears were, maybe, servants, artisans or farm workers, we don’t know how much they even knew or cared about their own forebears.

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