Morality—and the State

In The View from Nowhere (Oxford University Press, 1986), Thomas Nagel writes: “moral requirements have their source in the claims of other persons” (197) and that “the basic moral insight is that objectively no one matters more than anyone else, and that this acknowledgment should be of fundamental importance to each of us” (205).

This seems to me both pretty accurate—and utterly wrong—about what morality is and what it does.  Morality, I want to say, is a two-edged sword.  And that makes it very hard to decide whether, in the final analysis, morality is a good thing or a bad one.  Does it do more harm than good in the world?  I don’t think that is an easy question to answer.

Why?  Because morality attempts to order the relationships among people—and between people and other inhabitants of the globe. What is the right way to interact with others?  What attention, consideration, and resources do I owe to others—and they owe to me?  What actions and attitudes do I find admirable, even worthy of imitation as well as esteem?  What actions and attitudes, all things considered, make things go better in this sublunary world—reduce suffering, promote happiness and flourishing?  It is unthinkable that humans would not ponder such questions—and attempt to provide answers.  Nagel seems to think that if we ponder these questions—taking into consideration the claims of others and our own claims on others—that we will, in Kant-like fashion, reach a radical version of egalitarianism.  No human matters any more than any other.  I cannot make an exception of myself (or of my family, or of my compatriots); I am to be treated the same as everyone else.  What I feel due to myself is due to them.

Now Nagel does take seriously Bernard Williams’ objection that Kantian universalism asks something that is not only impossible to achieve, but in actual practice would be fairly objectionable, perhaps even monstrous.  Any morality that asks us to treat our mother or our spouse exactly as we would treat everyone else in the world flies in the face of human psychology—and of human flourishing (since rich particularized relationships with a small set of others are essential to flourishing).  Nagel’s response is that the “gap” between universalist (“objective” in his terms) morality and personal partiality cannot be closed.  It is a tension we must needs live with—and negotiate on a case by case basis.

My concern is rather different.  I do think a moral politics looks something like Nagel says it does.  “An important task of politics,” he writes, “is to arrange the world so everyone can live a good life, without doing wrong, injuring others, benefiting unfairly from their misfortunes, and so forth. . . [The best would be a world in which] “the great bulk of impersonal claims were met by institutions that left individuals . . . free to devote considerable attention and energy to their own lives and to values that could not be impersonally acknowledged” (206-207).  In other words, a social democracy that served the resource needs of all while regulating against exploitation and other forms of special privileges as the public business of politics, while leaving individuals both free and resource-enabled to pursue their individualized, private visions of the good life.  Again: a vision premised on the notion that all are equally entitled to the means for flourishing, and that many different versions of how to flourish are to be tolerated.

The problem is that there is a very different view of what morality entails.  This other morality is more prescriptive (more restrictive) in its vision of the ways one might choose to flourish—and still be found morally acceptable.  Even more crucially, this second “other” morality is not based on a vision of the equality of all.  Just the opposite.  This morality divides between the worthy and the reprobate—and feels fully justified (in fact finds the grounds for that justification in morality itself) to deny to some what is granted to others.  Sinners are not entitled to anything; they deserve nothing, except to be punished.  Far from being an equalizer, morality is deployed to be a great divider.  It gives us the means to identify those who are not equal, who are not worthy of consideration and respect and a sufficient share of the world’s goods.

In other words, it seems like the height of wishful thinking for Nagel to say that the (objective, impersonal”) view of morality leads to the conclusion that all are equal.  It is pretty implausible, it seems to me, that even 25% of humanity holds to that conclusion as a moral demand upon themselves—and, as Williams points out, even that 25% makes exceptions to equal treatment all the time.  More obvious is that the vast majority of humans distinguish between worthy and less worthy people—and use morality to both make that distinction and to justify treating the unworthy in various differential ways, ranging from indifference to and lack of sympathy with their troubles to active deprivation and punishment as what they deserve.

This divisive use of morality—accompanied as it often is with a distasteful, sanctimonious self-righteousness—is more than enough to give morality a bad name.  Many have argued that morality is the source of more harm to humans than any absence of morality.  In morality’s name, we meet out punishment, deprivation, contempt, and hate-filled condemnations. 

So what’s the answer?  Does morality do any good at all—or should we dispense with it altogether? (Note here that I have loaded the question to the liberal, social democrat side.  The practitioner of divisive morality would say it does good; it is fit and proper that we identify sinners and deal with them as they deserve.  After all, isn’t justice getting what you deserve, not this namby-pandy liberal idea that everyone is deserving just by the fact of showing up?) In any case, I can only say that the Kantian, equality affirming morality has done good in the world; there has been progress toward increasing equality inspired by that viewpoint.  But there is no denying that divisive morality has justified great cruelty and massive exclusions.  So we can’t say morality is to be endorsed tout court.  It is an ambiguous—and very dangerous—tool that can be used in contradictory ways. 

Would we be better off without morality at all, without these attempts to delineate worthy ways of living and of arranging our social relations?  I am not prepared to go that far, but I do think we should be wary of any self-congratulation about our tendency to partake of such attempts to use morality to advance the egalitarian thesis.  Those attempts (as Nietzsche among others alerts us) might very well be more despicable than otherwise.

Reflecting on these matters led me to realize that much the same can be said about the State.  Let me explain.  Despite the resistance to this idea in certain leftist circles, I think there is little doubt that States work against pan-violence.  The historical record of pre-state societies is one unbroken litany of violence.  Hobbes was mostly right: the war of all against all (or, at least, of tribe/clan against neighboring tribe/clan) was endemic.  Men strove to grab what other men possessed.  (That all this is a pathology of masculinity seems indubitable.) Plunder and rapine were hardly abhorred; they were the source of honor even in Homeric epics that could also register their horror and insist that an unattainable peace would be preferable.

What some deny is that states bring this omnipresence of violence to an end.  “War is the health of the state,” Randolph Bourne proclaimed.  And that statement is hardly nonsense.  We can say of the Western states formed in the period from 1500 to 1900 that they 1) exported violence/war to the regions that became their “empires”; 2) that they exerted violence (in the form of various types of punishment) on their own domestic populations of criminals, religious and political dissidents, and those deemed mentally or morally deficient; and 3) that they fought one another with astonishing regularity.  Periods of peace and security for people trying to live out a normal life-span untainted by violence against them were short and uncertain. 

Furthermore, and this is usually the clincher in such arguments, is that (starting with the Napoleonic wars at the very least, but likely true of the earlier religious wars) the organizational powers of centralized states meant that violence was carried out at a scale impossible for the clashes between clans/tribes characteristic of pre-Columbian America, pre-monarchy in Scotland, or in various locales of the Middle East before the rise of the Ottoman Empire (to take just a few examples).

The State, in other words, is also double-faced: it suppresses one kind of anarchic and ever-present violence, the outright kleptocracy of pre-state conditions.  But in its gathering the means of violence to itself (partly as a way to cow other actors into non-violence) it periodically (and with depressing regularity) deploys that violence with results (in terms of deaths, suffering, and destruction) that dwarfs pre-state violence.  So the state, like morality, seems both a pathway to peace and forms of society that allow for peaceful co-existence—and the source of the most horrific violence.

Can you get one without the other?  The anarchist dreams that getting rid of the state will eliminate violence altogether as we live in ways that realize our mutual dependence on one another.  The Kantian dreams of a perpetual peace if only we can have one super state (thus eliminating in one fell stroke wars of one state against another and the violence of pre-state societies).  Like morality, the state delivers something that is good (control over omnipresent violence) and something terrible: the infliction of violence on vast numbers.

And there is more than just an analogy between that state and morality on the level of their doubleness.  There is also a clear connection in that both work to designate those who are legitimate targets of differential treatment—reaching all the way to killing them.  The reprobate for morality are the non-citizens for the state (even as the state will also treat citizens deemed reprobate differentially). 

I sometimes think it all comes down to punishment.  Both morality and the state identify those who should be punished.  These people deserve punishment, are worthy of being punished.  When it comes to the state, the justification is even more arbitrary than it is for morality.  The non-citizen can be legitimately deprived of various things simply on the basis of bad luck.  The non-citizen was born elsewhere, so has no claim to the state’s protection or its largesse. 

There are multiple ways to configure the assertion that some human being is not entitled to what I have.  Morality and that state (through the law and through the category of citizenship) enact that sorting function all the time.  It is to a certain extent their raison d’etre.  That an alternative morality aims to establish the equal entitlement of all, just as an alternative politics looks to use state power to distribute to all the resources needed to flourish, stands as one justification for holding on to morality and the state as necessary contributors to what this alternative vision wants to accomplish. But it’s such a steep climb because morality and the state are tainted with the ways in which they actively thwart what the social democratic, Kantian vision aims for.

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