Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Moral Fool by Hans-Georg Moeller

Most situations in everyday life – having breakfast, driving to work, doing our jobs, watching TV- do not confront us with moral dilemmas. Most of the time we neither think nor speak in ethical terms at all, and even when we do , we are often not entirely sure what exactly is, and what is not, ethical. Within the family circle, for instance, ethics are usually of secondary importance to love. We may condemn what our spouses, our children or or parents do but since we love them, this condemnation or disapproval does not normally result in a moral judgment; we do not think of them as evil. In fact when love distinctions are replaced by ethical distinctions then the emotional harmony within a family is in danger, as well represented in John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden.

Another example of this hypothesis is traffic law the main function of which is not to sanction and get rid of evildoers but to provide a smooth playing field in a highly complex society. Parking tickets and other minor offenses are generally laughed about. Speeding regulations are often arbitrary and contingent and violated with impunity a certain times by just about everyone who drives a car. Drunk drivers who end up injuring or killing others are morally condemned though if they just end up killing themselves this tends to be regarded more as a tragic mistake than an indication of a bad moral character.

Sports is another activity which is not primarily of an ethical nature. If the ethical doctrine of fairness as devised by the moral philosopher John Rawls were applied to basketball, for instance, then the height of the basket would be determined by the average height of the players engaged in each game. Professional wrestling, a parody of sport, illustrates the point. Unlike in real sports competition, there are no explicit rules in place, the result is fixed; and the safety of the combatants is made a mockery of- and there is more often than not a moral storyline of narrative attached to the show. Professional wrestling is a comedy that demonstrates what would happen to sport if it were a moral activity.

The author suggests that , for an empirical point of view, in everyday life and even in most of our important decisions, ethics or morals do not provide useful guide. It is doubtful, for example, that becoming righteously angry with an obnoxious colleague, boss or family member is more beneficial than avoiding a moral a mindset altogether . Actually, when moral discourse prevails, disaster often appears. The demand for “moral smartness” ( as in the “smart diplomacy” advocated by the present U.S. Administration, or the debate over immigration) is a symptom of social crisis and a society verging on hopeless disorder and accumulating misery.

In identifying himself as a moral fool, the author is not advocating immorality or moral relativism. Nor does he claim to have achieved perfect amorality. In so far as moral mindsets go, however, the extreme form of labeling people good or bad, judgments which concern the person as a whole, are not helpful in the promotion of social harmony and happiness.

On the whole the book is not an academic treatise but he does quote Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan in support of his proposition: that such categories as fairness and justice are “ever used with relation to the person that useth them; one calleth wisdom, what another calleth fear; and one cruelty what another justice. . . . and therefore such names can never be true grounds of any ratiocination.”.

Hobbes' thinking can be viewed as relativistic and, at any rate, most philosophers don't like to use him because, in a modern context, his writings seem to support the central authority of the State however arbitrary its rule. But the author is simply trying to point out that trying to come to common agreement on moral matters is among the most difficult, trying, unsuccessful and unsatisfying of all human endeavors. This is probably the reason so many people find it necessary to rely on Divine Authority ( as they might interpret various passages in Holy [unassailable] Scripture). As far as secular ethics go the author completely demolishes Immanuel Kant's notion ( “Critique of Practical Reason”) that there are “a priori” moral principles- of epistomological or biological origin - that are universally valid , however much such an idea has become the foundation for arguments in favor of Just and Unjust wars.

The author's discussion of the theory of Just War is brilliant. The ascriptions “innocent” and “guilty are largely unwarranted and, in the end, most of the arguments in this theory boil down to an arbitrary division of the world into those who deserve to live and those who deserve to die. To summarize as briefly as possible, the author admires the position of the ancient Chinese Daoists who “did not care much for the moral smartness of war but were primarily interested in avoiding and preventing war which they regarded as a form of natural disaster like earthquakes, hailstorms and hurricanes. Like other natural facts, they did not regard war as good ( Hitler thought they were essential to the preservation of civilization) or bad ( as a religious passivist might) though they accepted that sometimes it is unavoidable. When war did occur their idea was to remain on the defensive, let the enemy wear himself down and to limit the expense and damage as much as possible.

In reality the theory of Just and Unjust Wars is nothing more than a weapon a war itself, and no better at controlling its wanton destruction or 'collateral damage' than modern, hyped up 'smart bombs' which simply multiply the occasion for the use of bombs anyway. In consideration of war it is always better to think outside the moral mindset, in terms of love ( e.g. do you want your sons and daughters slaughtered in this fashion?) and legal terms (e.g. should hypothetical 'risk factors' prompt preemptive actions that violate the standards or spirit of national or international law?).

In regards to war, as in so many other matters, the Media bears primary responsibility for maintaining moral discourse, as opposed to discourses predicated upon love and the law. . The media is, however, is highly carnivalistic in its character- inconsistent and highly ambiguous. It is often hard to take the 'moral outrages' in the media absolutely seriously because they presented with a sort of joy and ironic ethical detachment.

Everyone with an interest in such matters should read Chapter Twelve- “Ethics and the Mass Media” in this book. In recognition of the limitations of this blog and my own obvious incapacity I can't do much better than to quote the last paragraph directly, understanding how inadequately this captures the complete flavor of the author's narrative.

“ I do not want to be misunderstood here. I am not suggesting that the mass media democratize ethics or that they lead to some sort of ethical progress. The morality of the mass media is a virtual morality; it does not correlate with the moral convictions of individual people; it does not give people a voice. It is rather an effect of a peculiar form of communication of a specific social system, namely the mass media. While the mass media proliferate morality on a global scale, they also subvert it. The mass media have no moral convictions; they are naturally amoral and intertwined in the endless, meaningless and aimless spiral of superficial and contradictory moral communication [ which usually exist in the realm of fantasy as far as solving the problems of society go]. In this sense, the mass media function in a highly paradoxical and ambiguous way. While they flood society daily with moral discourse on a massive scale, they also constantly undermine the credibility of this very discourse. They maintain, spread, and accelerate moral communication but carnivalize and desubstantiate it at the same time. The mass media are, indeed, ethically rather foolish.”


  1. It is no easy being a moral fool, as the author relates:

    One of the feelings I find most uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that I lose sleep, is what I call righteous anger. If I have suffered from what I see as a grave injustice that remains unpunished I find it hard to regain my equilibrium. It is not only that I have suffered an injustice, but more importantly that this injustice has not been recognized as such – I have been treated meanly and it has gone publicaly unnoticed. Perhaps I was, for the moment, unable to find the right reply to an insult, or maybe I was right when others thought me wrong. Such situations can cause great emotional suffering and generate this righteous anger.

    The plots of innumerable novels, movies, and plays revolve around similar conflicts. Typically, the catharsis is reached only at the very end as the moral balance is reconstituted when the evil receive their punishment and the good, against all odds, finally prevail. Righteous anger subsides only when the moral crisis is solved.

  2. In real life, however, I have noticed that the moral crisis often remains unresolved. I may have an unbelievably hypocritical colleague at work who, on a daily basis, violates most of the rules of decency but always gets away with it. I may have a greedy family member who treats her closest relatives shamefully but there is nothing that can be done legally about this. I may know a person who is selfish and has no shame, but has a splendid career and gets richer each year. When I think about these people I find it hard to repress my anger and not to yearn for retribution and justice. But such yearnings are seldom fulfilled.

    Anger and morality can be very closely connected. It is easy to be angry with someone we conceive as evil. Unfortunately, though, this emotion typically harms those who feel it much more than those about whom it is felt.

  3. It seems that there are only two ways to dispel righteous anger. Either the evil person is finally brought to justice or one ceases to conceive of the evildoer in moral terms. Either revenge is meted out or one manages to simply forget about the perceived wrong. The problem with the first solution is that it is more likely, and easier to find, in fiction than in reality. The problem with the second is that it is very hard to forget what is felt so strongly. These two ways can be labeled the moral and the amoral solutions to – or, perhaps better, dissolution of -anger.

    I think the indifferent and amoral mind sees more clearly than the emotionally and morally afflicted one. It is hard to avoid righteous anger but amorality- withdrawing yourself from ethical discourse- seems much easier to realize than the Christian model of universal and unconditional love.. Generally speaking, it is less demanding, more consistent with empirical reality, and thus, I believe, more conducive to mental and social health.

  4. “God save us always,” I said, “ from the innocent and the good.”

    Graham Green, “The Quiet American”

    I think Hans-Georg Moeller was born an American, raised in Germany and is now a senior lecturer in the Philosophy Department at Cork University, Ireland. He reads Chinese and writes on Daoism and certain non-transcendental Zen Buddhist sects. For an academic philosopher he has a very unique style, possibly from a lifetime of trying to engage students personally on the subject of his interests.

    Columbia University Press, N.Y., 2009

  5. "When men wish to harm one another, would that they might also leave their very life in the wound, and balance at one and the same time another's loss with their own misfortune. They would not be so shameless to do harm, if they realized they were pouring out wrath at the expense of their own life." - John Calvin