Category: Violence

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.

Change, Violence, and Innocence

Two passages from two different novels by Salman Rushdie.

The first from Quichotte:

“After you were badly beaten, the essential part of you that made you a human being could come loose from the world, as if the self were a small boat and the rope mooring it to the dock slid off its cleats so that the dinghy drifted out helplessly into the middle of the pond; or as if a large vessel, a merchant ship, perhaps, began in the grip of a powerful current to drag its anchor and ran the risk of colliding with other ships or disastrously running aground.  He now understood that this loosening was perhaps not only physical but also ethical, that when violence was done to a person, then violence entered the range of what the person—previously peacable and law-abiding—afterwards included in the spectrum of what was possible.  It became an option” (339).

The psychology of violence, how it can be committed and why so many turn to it, has been a puzzle I have returned to again and again over the past forty years, without ever getting anything close to a solution that satisfied me.  That violence is contagious seems indisputable; that people become inured to violence is demonstrated by the behavior of soldiers in wartime; that much violence stems from an enraged self-righteousness also seems true.  But what has eluded me is how one commits the act itself—the plunging of the knife into another’s body, the pulling of the trigger of the gun whose barrel sits in one’s own mouth.  That seems non-human, which is perhaps why violence is often outsourced as bestial but also divine (Charles Taylor’s “numinous violence.”)  I don’t say Rushdie’s thought here is the answer, but it seems very shrewd to me, focusing in on the dehumanization that underlies the ability to act violently, while also highlighting the ways in which violence is done by those to whom violence has been done.  A curse handed down in various ways through time.

The second from Golden House:

“When I looked at the world beyond myself I saw my own moral weakness reflected in it. My parents had grown up in a fantasyland, the last generation in full employment, the last age of sex without fear, the last moment of politics without religion, but somehow their years in the fairy tale had grounded them, strengthened them, given them the conviction that by their own direct action they could change and improve the world, and allowed them to eat the apple of Eden, which gave them the knowledge of good and evil, without falling under the spell of the spiraling Jungle Book Kaa-eyes of the fatal trust-in-me Snake.  Whereas horror was spreading everywhere at high speed and we closed our eyes or appeased it” (188).

I always want to resist narratives of lost innocence—or of ancestors whose strength and virtues we cannot hope to reproduce. Lost innocence is in many ways the favorite American narrative, and it will play us as false as narratives about a lost greatness.  Yet Rushdie’s list of what we have lost resonates with me.  I graduated from college in 1974, into the gas crisis recession that started the ball rolling away from full employment and endless, inescapable precarity.  I turned 30 in 1983, just as AIDS appeared over the horizon and put an end to the promiscuity of the 1970s, my 20s.  And the emergence of the religious right in the Reagan triumphs of the 1980s was a shock to those of us who had assumed we lived in the secular world of the modern.  In short, the three things Rushdie lists were actual and momentous changes, registered (at least by me) in the moment.  The kind of thing that history throws at you—and you discover you are powerless to thwart. 

To discover one’s powerlessness is to lose a kind of innocent optimism, a faith that things can be made better.  But let’s not get carried away in either direction.  Life in 1955 America was terrible for blacks and gays, as J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy reigned.  That things in 2022 are better for blacks and gays is the result of hard, persistent political work.  We are never fully powerless, even if we are also never in the clear.  The forces of reaction are never annihilated.  The gains made yesterday can always be lost tomorrow.  The struggle is never decided once and for all in either direction.  2022 is better for gays and blacks than 1955, but in various ways worse than 2012.  

And it didn’t take the 1980s to teach us lessons in powerlessness.  The US waged a pointless and cruel war in Vietnam that millions of protesters were powerless to stop.  Nothing seemed capable of knocking the military-industrial complex off its keel, and the logic of doubling down on bad decisions, of not losing face, led the government to lie, spy on domestic dissenters, and pile violence upon violence.  History’s imperviousness to efforts to divert its floods coming at us from upriver is always ready to humble naïve political projects and hopes.

Still, it is important to note changes.  It is not just the same old same old.  Plus ça change and all that shrugging of the shoulders cynicism never has an accurate grasp of facts on the ground.  The terms of the struggle shift.  To take just one example: capitalism today is not the same as capitalism in 1955 or even 1990.  It is organized very differently, while the alignment of forces for and against various of its manifestations has also shifted dramatically.  Similarly, the obstacles blacks face in America today are very different from those they faced in 1955, and somewhat different from those faced in 1990.

So I think Rushdie does name three crucial things that did change in my lifetime, as someone who was just a bit too young to really live through the 60s (I was a freshman in high school in 1967), and for whom the 1970s and early 1980s were the truly formative years, the time of my coming into my own, picking my head up and actually getting a view of how this world I was entering was configured.  The loss of economic security was evident immediately in the way I and my classmates navigated the years after college.  No security assumed; it was going to be dog eat dog.  And the glee with which Reagan and his ilk embraced that inhuman and dehumanizing competition was appalling.  Especially when that cruelty was wrapped in the pieties of a Christianity that saw the sufferings of the poor as their just desert.

I was mostly a bystander to the promiscuity—both hetero- and homo- –of the 70s.  But a bystander in fairly close proximity to both of those worlds.  Some of its was tawdry, some of it exploitative (the abuse of unequal hierarchical relationships was rampant).  But there was also a joyousness that has been lost.  Not having sex always be a serious business has things to recommend it.  All the studies indicate that young people today (caught in the evermore insecure world of precarity) are having much less sex than my generation did at their age.  And I really can’t see that as a good thing.  Sex under the right conditions is one of the great goods of life.  It is a mark of our human perversity that we can also manage to turn it to evil so often and (apparently) so effortlessly.

When Rushdie’s narrator contemplates his parents’ faith that humans are moral and by striving can make a better world, he ends up demurring:

“And they were wrong.  The human race was savage, not moral.  I had lived in an enchanted garden but the savagery, the meaninglessness, the fury had come in over the walls and killed what I loved most” (152).

This is Rushdie’s valediction to a certain form of hopeful liberalism, a form he thinks was only made possible by the Trentes Glorieuses, those thirty halcyon years (ignoring Vietnam, Korea, and the violences of decolonization) in the West following the second World War. I, of course, still want to hold on to that hopeful liberalism, to its vision of a social democracy that does its utmost to deliver to all a life now reserved to the privileged.

Rushdie’s narrator’s viewpoint is echoed in one of the book’s epigraphs, which itself echoes the currently fashionable academic preoccupation with ways of living in the ruins.  The passage is taken from D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover: “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.  The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up little habitats, to have new little hopes.  It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road to the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles.  We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”

Giving in to a notion of a necessarily ruined world, about which we can do nothing except try to carve out a “little habitat,” a way to keep on keeping on, seems defeatist to me.  But forging such a separate peace is also deeply alluring since the general madness and cruelty are so relentless and so resistant to alteration.


“I want In the Wake to declare that we are Black people in the wake with no state or nation to protect us, with no citizenship bound to be respected, and to position us in the modalities of Black life lived in, as, under, despite Black death: to think, to be, and to act from there.  It is my particular hope that the praxis of the wake and wake work, the theory and performance of the wake and wake work, as modes of attending to Black life and Black suffering, are imagined and performed here with enough specificity to attend to the direness of the multiple and overlapping presents that we face” (Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being [Duke University Press, 2016], 22). 

A hope that reads likes hopelessness at the outset of a book that is best described as a dirge, a lamentation that bears witness to Black suffering and death without imagining or believing that suffering or death will come to an end. 

“The modalities of Black life lived” that Sharpe’s book presents are very circumscribed.  She offers no exemplars of resistance or defiance, no models of collective organizing. This lack is only supplemented by a vague call for mutual aid.  She speaks persistently in the first person plural, of a “we” who are called to “distinguish” practices of “care from state-imposed regimes of surveillance.  How can we think (and rethink and rethink) care laterally, in the register of the intramural, in a different relation than that of the violence of the state?  In what ways do we remember the dead, those lost in the Middle Passage, those who arrived reluctantly and those still arriving” (20).  Those practices of lateral care remain non-specific (except for the braiding of a young girl’s hair, as seen in a photograph [120]), while the book compulsively repeats the trauma of black suffering and death.

This is not a critique.  It is my attempt to come to terms with a discourse shaped by hopelessness.  The need to repeat again and again the facts of black suffering is rooted in the general oblivion of, the persistent will to deny, that suffering.  What does it mean—and how does one live—in a society that is more committed to your death than to your flourishing?  If the political institutions of that society are your enemy, where do you turn, what do you do?  Are there sources of power, of effective action, available to you outside the “normal” channels and able to carve out at least a minimal shelter in this storm?

I think of Ellison’s “invisible man,” trying to disappear, to escape the state and society’s gaze, as the only possible way to live (quite literally, to live—bare life, but still alive).  Being a fugitive, perpetually, because in the eyes of the law you are always suspect.  For Sharpe, this means that the fugitive slave law still governs the shape of Black lives.

Presumably, under these conditions, the only slight ray of hope would rest in a solidarity, in a “we,” forged by being oppressed together.  But that solidarity has proved hard to achieve.  In many works written by blacks, the strength of the black family is examined and celebrated.  But black community beyond the family is hard to achieve and sustain.  Despair and its concomitant violence on one hand; the temptations of accommodation, respectability, and uplift on the other.  And it’s very hard to create and sustain a social movement (political unity) that can persist in the face of continued frustration, of rare victories poised against daily defeats. 

The hard facts are eloquent enough.  The high rate of incarceration, the grim reality that blacks as a group have made no economic progress relative to whites since 1960, the resegregation of the nation’s schools, police harassment and brutality, gentrification, the environmental degradation of the places where blacks live.  The list goes on and on, its own dirge of hopelessness.

The dilemma (at least as I experience it): there could be few things worse than helicoptering in with facile suggestions about how these continued (and continual) outrages could be ameliorated, if not consigned to the trash bin of history.  Yet everything in my pragmatist temperament rebels against declaring a situation so intractable that all remedial action is pointless from the get go.  Yet, yet: it is surely true that nothing is more soul-destroying than futile action.  How long can one keep doing things that have no positive outcome, that demonstrably do nothing to change the prevailing, deplorable, conditions one is trying to work against?  Isn’t banging one’s head against a wall a terrible way to spend a life?  Are there alternatives to working at a change that will never come? Is there an “elsewhere” to escape to–and can you bring your family and friends with you, or is it every man for himself, an individualized escape from the general woe?

Sharpe’s solution of telling, over and over again, the tale of woes is not appealing to me.  I don’t see what to do with it, how to “go on” from where her book deposits me.  But I must respect that “weeping by the rivers of Babylon” may be the only option in some situations.  Situations where there is no way to “go on,” no way forward–and where devising one’s own personal escape is too shameful to accept. That I cannot quite wrap my head around that kind of situation speaks eloquently to my own subject position, what Bernard Williams would call “moral luck,” and what today’s jargon labels as “privilege.”  William James wrote about “a certain blindness” in human beings, about our inability to empathize past a certain point, to understand another’s despair (in this instance) if one’s own life has not been dominated by unjustly inflicted suffering and death.

I have come more and more to think that being able to “affirm” life (the core reference here is to Nietzsche) is a touchstone for thinking about human insanity.  A fundamental rage against the very terms of existence seems to underlie the violence we humans inflict on one another and on the world we inhabit.  The dirge, the wake, is the flip side of that inflicted violence, its accompaniment.  A perpetual sadness.  We, meaning humans, should be better than this; we can and do imagine being better, but somehow fail to bring those images to fruition.  And then, outrageously, we all too often fail to acknowledge that failure, insisting on our righteousness and on the justice (they got what they deserved) of others’ sufferings. 

J. Daniel Elam has written an eloquent book about alternative strategies developed by those who face a power that they see no way to dislodge.  I am going to turn to a discussion of Elam’s book in my next post.  The book:  World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth: Anticolonial Aesthetics, Postcolonial Politics (Fordham University Press, 2021).