Moral sentimentalism
September 3, 2013 4:33 AM   Subscribe

"Moral sentimentalism is one of the principal ways in which our bourgeois society checks impulses towards radical change." From Jacobin, on the detrimental social consequences of the belief that morality is entirely about personal choice and responsibility.
posted by Pyrogenesis (52 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
 
A good example of this would be the way in which unemployment is discussed. In a time of crisis like say, right about now, if there are 5 million job seekers but only 1 million jobs, it is always possible for any one job seeker to find a job if they're flexible enough; it's never possible for all of them to do so. Discussing the failures of the four millions left without jobs in terms of personal responsibility and analysing why they didn't get a job (not educated enough, too educated, not willing to move, wanted too much money etc) avoids any discussion of the systemic failure of the job market.

People who profit from having a large class of unemployed (the reserve army of labour as somebody once called it) available, therefore will emphasis personal responsibility. In the UK this has influenced the ways in which unemployment is treated as a social problem, as the emphasis is now all on getting people off benefits and their personal responsibility in achieving this, rather than addressing the problems head on.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:43 AM on September 3, 2013 [79 favorites]


Thank you, MartinWisse, for writing 2 paragraphs on this topic which are straightforward and to the point. I had to skip down to the last few paragraphs of the article to get a handle on just what this moral sentimentalism is all about. I wish writers with a point to make would make the point, just as I wish Thomas Wolfe had stopped after coming up with the great title, "You Can't Go Home Again". What more is there to say? But he said it.
posted by Hobgoblin at 5:09 AM on September 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, the article seemed to be written with the assumption that people would read the entire thing. I actually thought that was kind of nice, but to each their own.

Here's a shot at a quickie summary:

Sometimes a moral problem demands a political or an economic solution — that is, sometimes the solution is systemic change, not just "good individual choices" or "personal responsibility." So for instance, if bankers are routinely and systematically defrauding the public, the answer isn't "teach bankers to be nicer" but "reform banking law." If the government is making drone strikes against civilians, the answer isn't "elect presidents with strong personal ethics who won't abuse that power too much," it's "end the drone program." Austerity looks good on a personal level, because it promotes virtues like thrift and self-reliance; but surely it's more important that it's a catastrophe on a political and economic level, because it leads to widespread poverty and suffering.

Right now, people are obsessed with individual personal morality — "good individual choices" and "personal responsibility" and so on. That obsession is a problem, because it distracts us from the sort of large-scale systemic change that will actually help.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 5:28 AM on September 3, 2013 [35 favorites]


This is not an unreasonably verbose article. It has something of a rhetorical "hook" -- Randy Cohen and "The Ethicist" -- and is, you know, an essay, not the opening sentence of a paper's abstract, but it's a pretty bizarre candidate for accusations of unreasonable verbosity, and this comment is basically indistinguishable from "TL;DR" (with the meaning of "D" ambiguous but irrelevant).

It's actually simply a fairly well-written article making a point and elaborating on that point. Why the name-dropping-to-establish-literacy-bona-fides threadshit, Hobgoblin?
posted by kengraham at 5:31 AM on September 3, 2013 [11 favorites]


Now there are two. There are two ______., you beat me to it, and did so in a much more productive way!
posted by kengraham at 5:33 AM on September 3, 2013


The essay was okay by the end, and the ultimate points are fine, but the Cohen/Klosterman material was dire. Somebody needs an editor, or a new editor.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:37 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


The essay was okay by the end, and the ultimate points are fine, but the Cohen/Klosterman material was dire. Somebody needs an editor, or a new editor.

An editor would be a bit much. Clearly what is needed is more virtuous, more responsible writers.
posted by The Potate at 5:48 AM on September 3, 2013 [50 favorites]


Yeah, clearly David V. Johnson should look deep within his heart and work out why he didn't write a more concise, easily digestible article. Clearly his stylistic and editorial failings negate any substantive points he might have made in an ideal world. So let's just pass over those points in discreet silence. What a pity he lacks the stylistic virtue necessary to couch his arguments in a "good and appropriate" fashion.
posted by Sonny Jim at 5:51 AM on September 3, 2013 [17 favorites]


I see this in environmental issues, where the emphasis is usually on individuals' choices to install energy saving lightbulbs and make toy cars out of old tissue paper rolls, and not about the radical structural and economic changes that would be necessary to actually pull us out of our downward spiral.
posted by signal at 6:00 AM on September 3, 2013 [9 favorites]


After all the comments, I was expecting a train wreck of an article. I found it to be rather well done, though.


Morals are imperative, but nothing (good or bad) gets done without political will.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:01 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think it's really important to recognize that this article was written by a liberal, for liberals - it talks about how this behavior might be antithetical to liberals. Which perhaps, I suppose, could have been identified by the use of the word "bourgeois", but I thought I'd give it a chance anyway.
posted by corb at 6:08 AM on September 3, 2013


I apologize for the unintentional de-rail with my early critical comment. I am very interested in discussions of ethics and morality in our current society and do appreciate Mr. Johnson's take on the matter. Maybe I am dense. It did, after all, take me about a month to figure out Medicare, but when I did, it all seemed so easily understood that I wondered if maybe I just didn't want to understand. Maybe that's my problem here. Please continue to discuss the subject and leave me alone with my crabbiness and liberal morality.
posted by Hobgoblin at 6:19 AM on September 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


To be honest, corb, that's an idiosyncratic definition of "liberal", even taking into account the deplorable American habit of using it as a synonym for left of centre politicians. Rather, this is an essay grounded in socialist and marxist orientated theory.

Liberal this isn't.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:20 AM on September 3, 2013 [24 favorites]


Well, bourgeois is a political term.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:21 AM on September 3, 2013


An interesting response from the same publication.
posted by The Potate at 6:22 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not a moral one.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:22 AM on September 3, 2013


I see this in environmental issues, where the emphasis is usually on individuals' choices to install energy saving lightbulbs and make toy cars out of old tissue paper rolls, and not about the radical structural and economic changes that would be necessary to actually pull us out of our downward spiral.

Doubly so, since, as far as environmentalism goes, morality has pretty much been defined by consumer choices -- "buy the green option" is lauded, but "you could probably buy nothing" is not even part of the discourse. Environmental change, almost by definition cannot be a matter of personal ethics; it requires collective action.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:24 AM on September 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


morality has pretty much been defined by consumer choices

Worse, just having a green choice of washing powder available justifies all the other, non-green options, as "environment friendly" becomes just another variable to balance your purchases on.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:28 AM on September 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


This is a very interesting article, that goes well with the article further down the page called "Steal this Article".

Although addressed to "liberals", I think it does a very good job of talking about something that has always troubled me about conservative philosophy: its unwillingness to fix the problem, not the blame. A conservative could do worse than reflect on whether or not he is really being moral, or just morally sentimental, and if there might be structural reasons for the bad things in his life, not just "a few bad apples". Any time you find yourself saying "it would all be fine if people would just behave themselves" (e.g. libertarianism) you know your moral system is a bit shonky.

Put another way, "moral sentimentalism" seems to me to be the liberal version of hiding in a conservative media bubble. It's basically a retreat from fixing things. Rather than solve problems, you filter your world down to things that tell you what you want to hear. In the case of the conservative, it's a sort of "moral sentimentalism plus" that gives a specific list of enemies and scandals. In the case of liberals, its a more individually defined comfort zone that lets you feel like the big problems are on a small manageable scale and that your individual choice actually matters - just as if you were shopping for goods in an idealised market.

A few other observations:

Prince Charles recently published a book on what he thinks is responsible. In Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World, a work he describes as “a call to revolution,” he claims the problem is simply one of perception: we don’t see ourselves as integrated with nature the way that the ancient Greeks and other cultures have. Ultimately, what this means is that we don’t need political change; we need moral change. If only everyone could read Plato and Aristotle in the original Greek, then we’d surely treat the Earth as proper stewards instead of exploiters.

This is perhaps a little unfair: I think for many people, attempting to produce a cultural or moral change seems like the only sort of change possible. It's a gesture of quiet despair, as much as priviliged obliviousness - the prince is just as limited by the seeming impossibility of genuinely revolutionary change as the pauper.

"Liberals" maybe need to get a bit better at keeping their spirits up and enjoying the process of making society better.

this cure has been one ice-cream sundae after another. It can’t be that easy, can it? The puritan in me says that there has to be some pain. - Michael Kinsley.

I find this extract quoted in the article to be genuinely disturbing. It seems somehow diseased and corrupt. I think the reason why, is because this is a kind of self-harm that the author seems fanatically, evangelically keen to impose on others. Something about that elides the distinction between self and other in a very creepy way.

In any case, your right to swing your fist stops where my face begins; and your right to indulge your masochistic fantasies ends where everyone else's life begins. As long as it doesn't hurt anyone else, it's okay - but the problem with austerity is that it does hurt others. Lots of them.
posted by lucien_reeve at 6:32 AM on September 3, 2013 [13 favorites]


To be honest, corb, that's an idiosyncratic definition of "liberal", even taking into account the deplorable American habit of using it as a synonym for left of centre politicians. Rather, this is an essay grounded in socialist and marxist orientated theory.

Well, yeah, but since my kind are known for seeing socialists around every corner, I figured I'd use the terms the author self-identified by. I think you're certainly right, though.
posted by corb at 6:34 AM on September 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


One important aspect of the idea of personal responsibility as morality and how it is used by government and business, is that personal responsibility is for thee, but not me. As the author notes, not only has there been little to no systemic response to the continuing economic crisis and the banker crimes that caused it, but few of the people who were responsible for the crisis have been taken to account for it.

On the other hand, most of the victims of the crisis have had to pay for it and continue to pay for it. Don't think just because the bankers as a class screwed you over, that it relieved you of your responsibility of paying back all your mortgage and other debts or that you're due any compensation, no matter how hideous the mistakes they made.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:38 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


MartinWisse: Worse, just having a green choice of washing powder available justifies all the other, non-green options, as "environment friendly" becomes just another variable to balance your purchases on.
Exactly. Once morality becomes a matter of consumer choice, acting immorally becomes normalized, as that, too, is just a matter of personal agency. And the customer is always right, right?

Moral or "green" consumerism becomes like the salad option at McDonald's. I mean, you could buy it, right? Who's to say that you won't next time? And that makes buying a Big Mac supersized combo this time perfectly OK.

But of course the salad option isn't there to be eaten at all: it's there to excuse and normalize the consumption of burgers and fries on the premises. After all, maybe other people (or your future hypothetical self) will do your moral consumerism for you with their transactions and make the "green choice."
posted by Sonny Jim at 6:43 AM on September 3, 2013 [15 favorites]


If there’s an example in U.S. history of a mass political movement that did not depend on moral outrage at perceived injustice or wrongdoing, I’d like to know what it is.

I agree with the author that true morality has been subjugated, and that the left must retake the high ground, with our emphasis on fixing the problems within the system. Too often, as in the many examples the author provides, the official response to scandal has just been saying tsk tsk, they weren't being moral enough, they should go back to Sunday school.

A promising example of how change is happening is North Carolina's Moral Mondays. Those crooks down in Raleigh have gone so far that the people have risen up in outrage. I have high hopes that this could refocus attention on the real results of their transparently corrupt policies.
posted by bitslayer at 6:47 AM on September 3, 2013


the use of the word "bourgeois"

Does anyone on the Left even use this word anymore? Or "class"? Liberals abandoned these words in the 1970s as they abandoned the proletariat in favor of civil rights, diversity, sexual identity, abortion right, etc. which could well be lumped into this writer's view of "sentimental morality."

"My personal choices are none of your business" doesn't really fit into any concept of "collectivism".
posted by three blind mice at 6:48 AM on September 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I find this extract quoted in the article to be genuinely disturbing. It seems somehow diseased and corrupt. I think the reason why, is because this is a kind of self-harm that the author seems fanatically, evangelically keen to impose on others.

Because it solidifies the author's personal position in life and, and assuming he has at one point or another benefited from multiple ice cream sundaes, relieves him of any pesky "there but for the grace of God goes I" guilt that he might otherwise be racked with.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:29 AM on September 3, 2013


It’s never about failing institutions, political economies, or social conditions. No, it’s about individuals making bad choices and about the public tolerating (read: tacitly consenting) such behavior.

My Polisci 101 prof quoted (what at the time) was a contemporary Spiro Agnew address decrying the actions of a small group of rabble-rousing young people to illustrate this particular difference between the left and right. The right saw existing institutions as being misdirected by a small group of usurpers, but could be redirected, from within, by good people. (Augustine?) The left on the other hand, considered them hopelessly corrupt and wanted to burn 'em - burn em to the ground, baby.

I'm pleased to see the debate somewhat framed in these terms again.
posted by klarck at 8:01 AM on September 3, 2013


The Jamie Oliver thread today seems like an example of this, unless I've missed the point completely in my interpreting of it.
posted by greenish at 8:17 AM on September 3, 2013


Moral Sentimentalism is about the best we can hope for. Given that we're not willing to even lift a finger to save people being slaughtered, to think we'll at any point indulge in sacrifice to commit collective action in the service of some left-wing fantasy is ridiculous.

The truth is that people don't care enough about other people to take any sort of inconvenient action- show me how I can make a profit off it then maybe we'll talk.
posted by happyroach at 8:27 AM on September 3, 2013


I don't think this article uses the word "sentimentalism" quite right. I agree with its main thrust that governing forces frequently default to moralizing as a cure for perceived flaws (or, rather, fundamental and critical failures) in our current socio-economic system, but what makes the moralizing of "The Ethicist," for example, sentimental?

In fact, sentimentalism has historically been considered a "feminine" genre, largely doing the heavy ideological lifting for the conventional conservative belief that women are more moral than men, more emotional, more suited for domestic life, etc. This has earned a lot of justified criticism that dates back centuries. This criticism has the additional effect of denigrating sources of (mostly) female pleasure (since women readers make up the bulk of its audience) and setting the sentimental sphere (bad) up against the male, rational political sphere (good).

What some recent critics, notable Lauren Berlant, have argued, is that this separation and ethical distinction is not only counter-productive, it's entirely misplaced. What we can also see in sentimentalism besides these tired old clichés of What Women Want, is a fantasy for the Good Life that is separate from where we usually see the possibility for change, but where we are always rebuffed: the public sphere.

What sentimentalism offers us, Berlant argues, is a genuinely different idea of how life could be otherwise, separate from the structures that confine us. The trick is somehow accessing that potentiality without carrying with us the moralizing the OP justly warns us against.
posted by Catchfire at 8:45 AM on September 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Maybe I haven't consumed enough caffeine yet today, but did I miss the part where he explains how morality is totally different from ethics and how the one is typically religious while the other is typically more empirical? I get it that either way we should be applying them practically to our systems as opposed to exclusively using them to feel good about ourselves, which I agree with, it just rubs me the wrong way when the two are conflated.
posted by Mooseli at 8:52 AM on September 3, 2013


When the rich declare bankruptcy or default on loans, its a business decision.

When the poor default on their mortgage, its a moral failing.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:54 AM on September 3, 2013 [13 favorites]


I miss the part where he explains how morality is totally different from ethics

Can you please explain the difference? As far as I can see, they are synonyms, but with elements of wildly differing personal interpretations confusing the issue.
posted by thelonius at 9:30 AM on September 3, 2013


For those on the Left who see morality as mere class ideology, there’s not much more to say beyond revealing moral discourse for the sham that it is.

If he could only bring himself around to this very conclusion rather than brushing it off, he might be able to see where the real debate could begin.

Accountability doesn't have to be about morality in a society ruled by law, where there is transparency and oversight. Those who believe that this is a way forward have to begin to frame the debate better.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:34 AM on September 3, 2013


The truth is that people don't care enough about other people to take any sort of inconvenient action- show me how I can make a profit off it then maybe we'll talk.

Over the course of my life, I've seen lots of people doing inconvenient things to help others (in some cases, to their own eventual ruin), so maybe you just need to hang out with a better class of people?
posted by saulgoodman at 9:49 AM on September 3, 2013


> I see this in environmental issues, where the emphasis is usually on individuals' choices to install energy saving lightbulbs and make toy cars out of old tissue paper rolls, and not about the radical structural and economic changes that would be necessary to actually pull us out of our downward spiral.

True; I always try to give the benefit of the doubt to such suggestions though, since they typically seem to come from — similar to lucien's comments regarding HRH Chuck's book — a place of great despair and frustration, combined with a dash of the politician's syllogism.

If you are tasked — whether externally, e.g. a government agency, or internally, e.g. someone who is personally driven for their own ends — to work towards some cause, and there appears no way of actually effecting significant structural change, then eventually you find yourself prosthelytizing the benefits of efficient lightbulbs and phosphate-free laundry detergent. Is it going to do very much in the final analysis? Probably not. But it's something, and if something must be done, then it's easy to decide that you must do it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:52 AM on September 3, 2013


On the other issues: I thought his whole point was about a kind of moral sentimentalism that looks at questions of morality as being purely questions about agency and personal responsibility, as opposed to broader moral visions that don't try to simplify all moral problems down to the level of individual responsibility. Or as the FPP puts it pretty plainly, the subject is "on the detrimental social consequences of the belief that morality is entirely about personal choice and responsibility."

It's not so much that moralizing in the abstract is the problem (you can't do a whole lot of talking about social justice without moralizing in some way) as it is that sentimentalism for simpler, more naive conceptions of morality that focus too much on personal responsibility as the basis for making ethical judgments.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:57 AM on September 3, 2013


hrrm. let's append "...is the problem" to the last sentence of that last comment in the interest of making sense.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:06 AM on September 3, 2013


I don't think this article uses the word "sentimentalism" quite right.

Because you're losing the word "moral" in from of "sentimentalism;" there's a reference to Adam Smith's other major book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and the way that "sentimentalism" was politically active in the works of, say, Charles Dickens.

We no longer call this "sentimentalism" because critics have drafted the word to mean other things; think instead of "moral sense theory." Classical liberalism almost always employs some version of moral sentimentalism.
posted by kewb at 10:39 AM on September 3, 2013


Actually, this article's argument is pretty incoherent. The argument that reducing political problems to problems of individual ethical choices deflects our attention from larger-scale political solutions (which many people are advancing here) is a perfectly sound one, but the author keeps losing sight of it. The distinction the author struggles--and fails--to make is that between pernicious "moral sentamentalism" and righteous moral indignation--the kind of moral indignation that the author clearly wants to enlist as a spur to political reform. So it's fine for the author to appeal to the reader's ready desire to shout "BOOO" at Kinsley and Yglesias (ironically, in the latter case, for a classic example of the failure of "benevolence" or "compassion" that would lie at the heart of a portrait of the villain in a C18th work of "sensibility")--he wants us to respond to this as a moral problem--but it's somehow wrong for Prince Charles to see our collective failure to respond to global warming as an ethical failing. But this gets horribly murky. Surely Prince Charles isn't saying "everything would be great if only we all felt that global warming was ethically wrong--our feelings would be sufficient." He is saying "if we felt this as an ethical wrong we would, in turn, do something about it politically." And this is no different, in the end, from what the author wants us to do. He wants us to be outraged about the factory fire in Bangladesh as an ethical outrage, and to draw on that moral response to motivate a political solution.
posted by yoink at 11:21 AM on September 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


Yeah, I guess every radical notices at some point that individualism is a pretty big stumbling block to collective action, but that doesn't mean that there is a way fully around individualism. Understanding that politics has consequences is a major first step, but past that, even if you're coordinating some kind of collective action, you're still talking about arranging largely self-interested individuals.
posted by leopard at 12:19 PM on September 3, 2013


The truth is that people don't care enough about other people to take any sort of inconvenient action- show me how I can make a profit off it then maybe we'll talk.

I suspect, happyroach, that here you are basically doing the very thing the paper is targeted against: taking a pattern of behavior that probably has a structural origin (people are callous), and recasting it as a moral failure (because they only think of profit). Most all close-knit societies are supportive of one another, and not caring about others is probably a consequence of a combination of collective anonymity, individualism, perhaps even the American "self-made man" ideology, and stuff like that (this is all tentative of course). So it is systemic, and not down to personal motivations such as greed. But then you precisely proceed to explain this through selfishness, a moral failure, with the apparent message that if only people didn't think of profit they would then care about others. This way of seeing things is precisely the problem the author identifies. (Or perhaps I'm just overinterpreting your short remark, always a threat and possibility.)
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:25 PM on September 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


did I miss the part where he explains how morality is totally different from ethics and how the one is typically religious while the other is typically more empirical?

Not a distinction I've really seen made in any credible context. As your random philosopher of ethics would probably quickly say, the difference between 'ethics' and 'morality' is that one word is derived from Greek and the other from Latin.

Or more seriously, the most common distinction is that morality refers to patterns of belief and behavior and ethics to the study of those beliefs.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:34 PM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think that distinction really holds up, though, due to the prevalence of the phrase "mpral philosophy".

I think this is fascinating. People often feel the need to cover all their bases - read AskMe - "Is there any moral or ethical problem with this situation?" - as if it were a possible answer to say, well, there is an ethical problem, but no moral problem.

To me, the only way that really makes sense is in the context of something like a code of professional ethics, which someone may be bound by, and which may prohibit things that are otherwise morally unproblematic.
posted by thelonius at 1:07 PM on September 3, 2013


To me, the only way that really makes sense is in the context of something like a code of professional ethics, which someone may be bound by, and which may prohibit things that are otherwise morally unproblematic.

You mean ethos? :) Good ole greeks...
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:20 PM on September 3, 2013


Yeah, this insistence on a distinction between morality and ethics, per Mooseli's comment, is perhaps a shibboleth of a certain social identity, one that's anxious about avoiding religious associations, but isn't familiar enough with moral philosophy to know that "morality is religious and ethics is secular" is badly mistaken.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:23 PM on September 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


A lot of people seem to define the word "morals" as the equation of existing social norms as if they were ethics, rather than defining "morals" as a set of ethical norms, that is, norms of conduct or expectation arising from a concept of ethics. (And in fairness, when groups declare some activity "immoral," they often really mean that it violates social norms rather than that they have examined it and concluded that it is unethical.)

I'd argue that the difference between "moral sentimentalism" and the author's arguments is that moral sentimentalism treats ethical and political action as beginning and ending at the level of individual preference, while radical ethics and politics can begin by engaging people who define themselves as individuals, but understands that changes of scale are also qualitative changes.

A collective ethics or a radical politics might start by convincing people as if they were the atomized or sentimental individuals they believe themselves to be, but in practice the ethics and political subjectivity involved prove quite different.
posted by kewb at 2:23 PM on September 3, 2013


Sorry to contribute to the derail, but the difference between ethics and morals is realy interesting to me, since the terms are not used interchangably by individual theorists (usually) but in application are nearly interchangeable in the discipline. This conversation is fun for me because I have this conversation every 3 or so months with my Intro to Ethics students (it's not an Intro to Morals class, after all!)

It seems that you can have good morals based on bad ethics (a "good christian" at the time of the Crusades made the right contextual decisions when committing genocide, but maybe not based on the best reasoning), and you can form an ethical theory that doesn't require that you have morals at all (such as egotistical hedonism). A "moral person" applies their ethical framework in such a way as to be consistent as well as personally involved, an "ethical person" is one who evaluates the framework of their decision making process as well as the immediate effect/action--however, these definitions are based mostly on my tendencies toward Kant, to be honest, and probably overprioritize the objective theories.

Perhaps, in general parlance, morals are descriptive and ethics are normative/proscriptive? It does seem as if that's the closest thing to an answer, though the SEP apparently disagrees subtly with me.

Sentimentalism specifically seems more tied to morals in general since it requires an emotional relationship with one's decision making rather than a "cool" rationalist perspective on what, theoretically, would be best to do. Morals are the last step, the action, which is probably why Kant (among others) thought the laydeez could certainly be moral beings, but would fail utterly at ethics--the thinky, analytic bit rather than the synthetic happenin' bit.
posted by zinful at 4:54 PM on September 3, 2013


Kant (among others) thought the laydeez could certainly be moral beings, but would fail utterly at ethics

Kant doesn't make this a distinction between "morality" and "ethics," though--you're the one bringing that distinction to him. He does say that women are incapable of acting from principles, but for him the essence of "die Moral" is its strictly rational nature. In fact, if you look at translations of Kant "sitten," "Ethik" and "Moral" and their various related forms get translated pretty interchangeably as "morals" and "ethics" depending on the whims of the translator.

This is just one of those cases where we have two words for pretty much the same thing so we go hunting for a distinction to hang on them; none of them really hold up to any close scrutiny.
posted by yoink at 5:19 PM on September 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


> The right saw existing institutions as being misdirected by a small group of usurpers, but could be redirected, from within, by
> good people. (Augustine?) The left on the other hand, considered them hopelessly corrupt and wanted to burn 'em - burn em to the
> ground, baby.
>
> I'm pleased to see the debate somewhat framed in these terms again.

Any chance of the debate having a different outcome this time? (Just to recap for latecomers, the institutions were not redirected from within and also were not burned down.)
posted by jfuller at 5:31 PM on September 3, 2013


Did it strike anyone else that the piece's fixation on "The Ethicist," even for the purpose of using it as a framing device, teetered dangerously close to the very "fetishizing minutiae" that the piece was critiquing?

I mostly liked it, though.
posted by naoko at 5:32 PM on September 3, 2013


I don't remember if this paraphrase was from a professor or from a reading:

To spend too much time trying to find an artificial distinction between morality and ethics is to miss the point of two very important fields.
posted by The Potate at 5:34 PM on September 3, 2013


I'm sorry about the derail. This has been something I want to talk about, and it seems too chatty for Ask. Since there seems to be no canonical distinction, but many people draw one, I've been wondering where and how and why they draw it. You all have some great ideas about that.
posted by thelonius at 7:50 PM on September 3, 2013


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