Ph.D. Octopus

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Moral Language, History, and Solidarity

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By Wiz

I was going post a comment to Nemo’s post about Tony Judt and the need for a language of morality in left politics, but I realized I had a lot to say, and so its worth writing a whole post. I think as historians we have some special insight into this issue, which should push us to articulate ideas about moral language rooted in solidarity, not abstract notions of right.

On one hand it’s hard, as a historian, not to be skeptical of universalistic claims of morality and ethics which Judt’s argument seems premised on. If there is one enduring lesson of history it is the degree to which values and belief systems which seem so natural to historical actors are in fact embedded within social, ideological, and political forces—in a word, history—that individuals are unaware of. This is what makes us, as intellectual historians, different, from say, philosophers; we study the deep historical roots of ideas and thought. If ethical judgments are also embedded within these historical forces, and I see no reason why they aren’t, then shouldn’t we be reluctant to base our politics on them?

Let me give an example. Lyman Beecher was this fellow, and he is known for, among other things, co-founding the American Temperance Society, as well as the Society for the Suppression of Vice. It doesn’t take a genius to see how his crusades against alcohol were situated within the demands of the emerging marketplace. As Paul Johnson, among others, has pointed out, the type of evangelical moralism that Beecher promulgated in the 1820s was appealing to the emerging middle class which saw alcohol as inefficient and a detriment to the type of self-discipline the market required. It’s not that Beecher didn’t believe sincerely that he was doing right—he did—but his moral judgment was the product of the particular historical place he inhabited. I think a lot of us are rightfully worried that using a stark language of morality will get us in similar trouble.

On the other hand, though, I absolutely agree with Nemo and Tony Judt about the need for a robust ethical vision in left-wing politics. As commentators to Nemo’s post pointed out,  Judt is hardly the only voice out there making this argument. From Matthew Yglasias, in an insider Washingtonian sense, to Terry Eagleton in an Lacanian/Marxist/Aristolean sense, to Jim Wallis, in a Protestant social gospel sense, a number of prominent voices have been calling on the left to return to a language rooted strongly in a moral perspective. Until we articulate clearly that things like war, torture, racism, sexism, economic inequality, etc… are morally wrong—not just inefficient, or unwise, or against our preferences—but morally wrong, even evil, we strip ourselves of our greatest rhetorical tool. Moreover, we fail in our single most important duty as intellectuals: to call things by their right name. Racism and torture, for example, are evil, and to call them anything else is to misrepresent them.

As Nemo points out, one recurring fear is that a normative language of universalism will be used to conceal hierarchies or exclude marginalized voices. This argument is particularly common among gender theorists, like Judith Butler, who are well aware of the ways that ideas about, for instance, the uplift of women have been used as justification for imperialism, or to construct women who wear burkas as passive victims who need charity and compassion.

This is not a critique to take lightly but I find it ultimately unconvincing. First of all, to the degree that people have misused universal claims, all this proves is the need for vigilance and humility to insure we don’t fall into that same trap. Most ideas, like tools, can be used for good or ill, but we don’t give up on them just because some people have used them poorly. As historians we’re well aware of the messy nature of ideological discourse, how so often seemingly emancipatory rhetoric also contains, encoded within it, new hierarchies. But that doesn’t mean we give up on emancipation. As Zizek loves to say: “Try again, fail again, fail better.”

More importantly though, the very critiques of universalism made by people like Foucault and Butler contain within them the implicit acceptance of other universal ethical values: values like autonomy, equality, and dignity. I just finished Charles Taylor’s epic Sources of the Self, and this is one of his main themes: the inability for people to operate, or even understand the world around them, without resort to a language of value and morality. What seems so strange, then, about the modern left (especially the academic left) is to see thinkers clearly articulating a righteous sense of the injustice of capitalism, racism, sexism, and imperialism, and then also passionately disavow any claim to a normative ethical stand. The obvious question is: why, then, do they oppose capitalism, racism, sexism, and imperialism? As a wise man once sang, “ if you swear that there’s no truth and who cares, why do you say it like you’re right?”

Finally, I’ve written before that I think one of the main problems with liberalism is its lack of a backbone, its inability –because of its own elevation of proceduralism, tolerance, and indifference to any claims of the Good — to motivate people to engage in the political struggles necessary to realize its own utopian ideals. As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote of liberalism: “ it lacks the spirit of enthusiasm, not to say, fanaticism, which is so necessary to move the world out of its beaten tracks.” Thus you see over and over again in American history, liberalism relying on non-liberal movements or worldviews to actually spearhead the fight for liberal values. Thus you have the Communist Party, avowedly non-liberals, acting heroically on Civil Rights (as liberal a value as you can get) when liberals were too scared to do so themselves.

In other words, it may be true that history proves that moral claims are always the products of their society, and never transcendent truths, but it also proves that there is a clear pragmatic value in using ethical language for the purpose of political struggle. French Revolutionaries, abolitionists, striking workers, soldiers defending the Spanish Republic, etc… didn’t go around arguing that their position was simply their preference, or their contingent moral position, but rather were inspired by a fiery sense of their own righteousness. It’s unlikely they could have sustained the type of sacrifice necessary without that vision.

So I’m left with a quandary. I believe ethical values to be human creations, inevitably embedded within historical forces. I don’t think I could really be a historian if I believed otherwise. But I also believe we need a language of ethical value for our current political struggles. What I see as probably philosophically troublesome, I also see as necessary to the creation of a good society. The question, then, is how to frame an ethical language so that we don’t end up like Lyman Beecher, unwitting apologists for forces beyond our control, and yet also remain effective political activists.

I doubt I can offer anything other than my own personal solution to this problem. But for me, I’ve found the language of solidarity to be the key to these issues. The idea of solidarity combines the descriptive with the normative; it simultaneously reminds us that it is in my interest, and is morally right, to ensure that others achieve justice. It avoids the worst of the problems with universalistic argument, because it starts from the premise that you side with actually existing political struggles, and not try to force people into the type of justice you’d prefer. Rather than worry about whether, say, Muslim women support or dislike burkas, you say “we will stand with whatever political struggle they throw up.” It is a language fundamentally at odds with our individualistic consumer culture. It discourages parochialism, by constantly asking people to expand the group they feel they belong to. My understanding of Richard Rorty is that he advocated something similar (if assuredly better thought out) in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.

Moreover, solidarity is about supporting and feeling part of the political struggles of others, so it challenges those aspects of the left which have degenerated into spectatorism. Again Rorty: “Insofar as a Left becomes spectatorial and retrospective, it ceases to be a Left.” It is only in a struggle that the Left becomes meaningful.

Chris Hayes once wrote a beautiful essay on solidarity. Crucially, he distinguished between mundane and sublime solidarity, maintaining of the latter:

Sublime solidarity…embodies a powerful moral aspiration to realize the fundamental fellowship of humankind. The human subject imbued with full solidarity would treat each person the same way she would treat the interests of her closest kin. My father, a community organizer and one-time Jesuit seminarian, explains why solidarity is his favorite word by sketching a continuum that ranges from pearl-clutching pity through sympathy and empathy to arrive finally at solidarity, wherein you are propelled to do something for your fellow human beings, to act as if their interests were your own. It is this solidarity Jane Addams described as “not philanthropy nor benevolence, but a thing fuller and wider than either of these,” and what Gandhi referred to when he spoke of the “essential unity of all people.”

Someone like Lyman Beecher was not practicing solidarity, he did not go into immigrant communities, or the emerging working class, and ask to assist their struggles, but rather assumed he knew what was in their best interest. He sincerely believed temperance was the solution, honestly thought he was acting morally, but was not listening to the people he was trying to help, not joining their fight.

I guess the point is, if the Left is going to reclaim a moral language, and I hope they do, they have to do it in terms that start from a position of humble trust and solidarity with oppressed people, and not from abstract ideas of ethics that they try to impose on them.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

May 19, 2010 at 15:02

4 Responses

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  1. Wiz,

    I certainly agree with the concluding paragraph. With that in mind, and with all due respect to Professor Judt, I have to believe that any attempt or call to reconstruct a moral language for “the left” (which left?) – if such a thing is indeed desireable or necessary – is undermined by such actions on the part of its issuer as, say, acting as the mouthpiece for a unionbusting employer harassing, intimidating, and blacklisting striking employees. I admire some of Judt’s stands on Palestine and I’m sure his work demands all the accolades it’s been accorded, but the stand he took against contingent and vulnerable scholars fighting for a more democratic and just university strike me as alien to any social-democratic project worth supporting and any left moralism — if they don;t expose the bankruptcy of both concepts altogether.

    For reference:



    May 19, 2010 at 15:24

  2. I haven’t read Rorty (I know I should) but I certainly like David Hollinger’s ideas on solidarity in terms of ethnic communities, or “communities of descent,” as he calls them in “Postethnic America.” It’s all about voluntary association.

    To that end, I’m not sure I entirely understand your example pertaining to Muslim women, where we (non-Muslims, presumably) say we will “stand with whatever political cause they throw up.” I think we can stand with Muslim women in their fight against poverty, or imperialism, or whatever, but shouldn’t we also stand with those Muslim women who resist the burqa. The point is that try as we might, we can’t stand with everyone.


    May 19, 2010 at 16:38

  3. ALL political positions need to incorporate into their ideology this robust language of morality. And indeed, the left as we know it today in this and other western countries lacks enthusiasm AND robust moral language AND courage AND excitement… and genuine leftist positions.


    May 19, 2010 at 19:46

  4. The Catholic neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain, who helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, offered something called “Integral Humanism” that incorporated terms like “dignity of the human person” (that JPII utilized effectively) and “democratic culture” (links to my own work, not far from solidarity–again a link to JPII). As a historian, I have found this language useful in dealing with historical (and present-day) moral problems from a center-left political perspective (my own). – TL

    Tim Lacy

    May 20, 2010 at 10:31

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