The Politics of Moral Language
In a recent interview in The Nation, Tony Judt complains that the political Left has become estranged from moral language. Judt thinks this is disastrous because it means the Left has no ethical vocabulary to frame its policies, and it enables the Right to smugly assume that its always on the correct side of moral issues.
While I think Judt might overstate his argument (the Left does have a moral language, it’s just couched in secular terms and based around values of social equality and personal autonomy), he’s correct to observe that many leftists and liberals do seem embarrassed by using ethical, and especially, religious language. There are several reasons this might be the case. No doubt it’s partly due to the fact that the religious right, in recent decades, has given religion itself a bad name among many progressives. This has sometimes lead to a wholesale rejection of religion among Liberals and Leftists, which is unfortunate due to the long history dissenting religious traditions have played in advancing social justice.
Second, various philosophical critiques of universalism have made appeals to morality slightly suspect among left-of-center intellectuals. From these perspectives, appeals to moral language often serve as masks for domination and the suppression of difference (for a classic debate along these lines, see here).
Finally, during the same period, many Democrats have made economic growth the cornerstone of their governing philosophy. In this version of liberalism, expanding the economy and increasing consumer spending are viewed as government’s primary functions. The moral language of social justice, which politicians fear has connotations of economic redistribution to “unworthy” people of color, has no place in this politics. In addition, not only have many Democrats abandoned the language of social justice (and let conservatives get away with claiming the mantle of the party of “values voters”), but they have also adopted free market policies often indistinguishable from their Republican counterparts.
My own view is that Judt’s calls for a socially engaged liberalism based around a vision of collective responsibility, one which moves beyond some of the old Cold War binaries of individualism versus collectivism, would make a lot of sense. I hope that his new work helps makes this dialogue possible.