Features, Politics

Social Justice and the End of Moral Certainty

From the perspective of ‘Social Justice Warriors’, resistance to their demands—no matter how respectable the speaker or moderate the tone—is further evidence that they are fighting the good fight. For many of them, the basic format of moral progress has from day one been taught as follows: the status quo has gaping moral blind spots, the amelioration of which will come only after, and by virtue of, energetic protest.

As Steven Pinker has argued, however, moral blind spots have until now been relatively low-hanging fruit, despite their being unacknowledged by most people at the time. Indeed, most intellectual pursuits begin with low-hanging fruits, with objects of inquiry whose discovery does not necessarily require an aberrational stroke of unprecedented genius, but rather someone with an impressive intellect and time on their hands. In mathematics, for instance, many foundational concepts were co-discovered independently in different parts of the world. History reveals that foundational advances are few, and that subsequent to them spawn—in hydra-like fashion—many more, often arcane corollary branches of inquiry.

In accordance with this general characteristic of knowledge acquisition, contemporary philosophy is similarly unlikely to yield another Plato, Aristotle, or Descartes. We have every reason to suspect that there is no impending intellectual giant who will set the philosophical tone for the next millennium. Such intellectual pursuits will henceforth be more specialized and boring than they once were. The spectacle of genius is over; the prodigious polymaths of former times are gone. Eccentrics without university positions are no longer going to have the meteoric impact they once had. Instead, shifts in our state of knowledge are likely to be slow, imperceptible, and boring – most of them will be carried out in esoteric journals and rather uninspiring books. As it is for most epistemic pursuits, so too for morality.

Shortly subsequent to the moral revolution of the Enlightenment, it did not require a great expenditure of mental energy to recognize basic moral contradictions at work in society, such as freedom for whites, slavery for blacks; the franchise for men, disenfranchisement for women; dignified social treatment for whites, undignified social treatment for blacks. These were obvious contradictions, long before their amelioration arrived. The fruit was there for the picking—or, at least, it was for those who cared to look.

However, there comes a point in the chain of development where moral answers are no longer so obvious and low-hanging—where tedious epistemic training in conjunction with protracted periods of debate and collective deliberation might in fact be necessary for their discovery. How to clinically manage gender dysphoria, for example, is not as clear an issue as the immorality of slavery. Such an issue requires not shrill protesting, but moral and intellectual clarity. Given the increasing absence of low-hanging fruit, there is strong reason to believe that solutions to future moral problems will not be so immediately clear as to warrant the kind of moral certainty displayed on college campuses in recent times. That an increasing number of self-described progressives are expressing skepticism over recent social justice causes is evidence of the morally ambiguous nature of these causes.

Evergreen State College

Unfortunately, communicating this fact to social justice campaigners has not proved easy. In the minds of such people, resistance—particularly by older people of a dominant demographic—can itself serve as further vindication. Vindication, that is, of their being on the right side of history. And who can blame them? This image of resistance to change falls squarely into the format we have so reflexively lauded for decades.

Martin Luther King

But we cannot replay the scenes of 1960s protests every generation and assume that the movements most closely resembling them are also the most morally efficacious. The moral disputes of Martin Luther King’s time are not analogous to those of our own times, nor are the solutions so easy to articulate. This is partly because King was dealing with a problem that was more obvious and easily addressed than, say, whether or not we should diminish the preponderance of white men in university curricula. He did not, therefore, depend on the arcane speculations of continental philosophy to make his point; rather, he appealed to the basic and universally intelligible idea that skin color is an arbitrary basis on which to determine societal treatment.

Those committed to the social justice movements should accommodate themselves to the fact that we do not live in a time possessing nearly as many grossly obvious moral blind spots as there once were, particularly in the civic domain. Because of this increasing moral ambiguity, what injustices remain today should be discussed soberly and in good faith. For many open-minded people, it is not remotely clear that mere discussion over the legitimacy of trans-racialism, for example, constitutes a kind of violence.

But what if I am wrong in my judgment of contemporary social justice causes? Let us consider for a moment that I am in fact a chronologically-biased brute, whose moral worldview has been unduly shaped by mere historical circumstance. Perhaps the social justice warriors offer a perspective to which my limbic system is not amenable. After all, we are all guilty in some measure of this conservative disposition. In all of us there dwells a basic, non-rational tendency toward continuity—something perhaps borne of our evolutionary history; a vestige of a time when reverence of, and reference to, the customs of our ancestors was necessary. All rational, morally-interested people should do their best, therefore, to bear in mind this mindless will-to-continuity inherent to our psyche.

With that said, however, it is not clear that this primordial will-to-continuity is the operative distinction between today’s social justice warriors and their detractors. In fact, one cannot help but notice that many contemporary detractors of social justice ideology are quite radical (à la the neutral Latinate sense of the word) in the way of moral progress. It is not uncommon, for instance, to witness prominent anti-SJW voices with deep moral seriousness call for the total abolition of factory farming (a sentiment with which I agree).

Similarly, such people are often sympathetic to the view that richer countries are morally obligated to donate nigh-saintly proportions of their income to the world’s poor (i.e. effective altruism). Delve deeper into this sphere of thinkers and you’ll even see some advocate for the radical exploration of conscious states through LSD, and recommend that we attempt to delete our sense of self through meditative practice. It would take an enormously elastic definition of ‘status quo’ to believe that these are the ideas of prevailing orthodoxy. A brief review of this intellectual landscape reveals that what we are witnessing in this generation is not a battle between an old, stuffy conservative establishment on the one hand, and a fresh, energetic group of clear moral thinkers on the other. As far as a commitment to novel thinking goes, both are at parity.

This progressive aspect of anti-SJWism is what fundamentally distinguishes today’s purported struggle for ‘social justice’ from those of times prior. It is no longer the status quo vis-à-vis proponents of change, but rather two contending forces of change. Such a fissure was perhaps inevitable, for we no longer live in a society over which a conservative disposition prevails. Our civilization has, by and large, accommodated itself to, and is self-conscious of, the fact that change is a fundamental characteristic of our epoch. The debate that rages is no longer one of, “Should things change?” but rather, “In what direction should things change?”

With respect to this latter question, two principal views are currently at odds. The first is that of the Social Justice Warriors, who hold that Enlightenment ideals and the pursuit of truth are merely disguised instruments of power—that, moreover, these ideals steamroll over the particular lived experiences of marginalized groups. Social Justice Warriors believe that radical cultural parity, not Enlightenment universalism, should constitute the fundamental ideal toward which humanity must strive. Against this is the second view, which runs more or less as follows: particularized forms of identity politics are an artefact of primate psychology—an unnecessary and even potentially dangerous one at that. At the core of this second view is the idea that all humans can be held to universal standards: that wrong in the West is identical to wrong elsewhere—not because such a judgment serves as a cathartic discharge of power, but because well-being and suffering are universal metrics of right and wrong.

In any case, the question of who is right and who is wrong—indeed, whether the prospect of right and wrong exists altogether—can only be solved through debate. Immovably wedding oneself to an ideology anchored in group identity will send us further and further in the direction of zero-sum political contests, the principal effect of which is the breeding of mutual resentments and hatreds.

Just as other epistemic pursuits have lost their former revolutionary spectacle in the name of incremental progress, so too should Social Justice Warriors acquiesce to the fact that simply replicating the theatrics and demographic dynamics of the 1960s protests does not guarantee moral progress. Many moral issues are becoming more difficult and intricate than they once were, and our attitude toward these moral issues should reflect this change in circumstances. Nevertheless, there does exist a place for the moral concerns of social justice campaigners—but the expression of these concerns should take the form of bona fide dialogue, and not of solipsistic haranguing on university campuses. Granted, for young people, this might not be as fun as sloganeering, but it is the method that best offers us the prospect of moving forward together.

17 Comments

  1. Randy says

    Today’s answers are just as obvious and low-hanging as they always were. We’re just blinded by the prejudices of our times, and the arrogance of thinking that if we’re morally wrong, it must be because the answer is hard to obtain.

    By the way, if you think we addressed the slavery question, think again. We still have legal human slavery in the USA, enshrined in the Constitution, despite claiming how wrong it is. And our robot slaves are building themselves.

    • Can you be more specific? What slavery is still enshrined in the constitution, and can you elaborate on the claim about robot slaves?

    • And our robot slaves are building themselves.

      You are equating the ‘lived experience’ of machinery with the historical exploitation of black peoples?

    • b19690103 says

      Well, that was a goofy set of assertions.

  2. Randy says

    I think it ate my comment, due to too many scripts on this page. Let me try again.

    I do not think that the moral questions of this time are any less low-hanging, or have answers any less obvious than a few short centuries ago. Rather, were are blinded by the prejudices of our times, and an arrogance that tells us that if we are morally wrong today, it is because the answers are difficult.

    If you think that we addressed slavery, you are wrong. Slavery is alive in the USA, protected by the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution. And even if we phase human slavery out, our robots are building the robots that will be our slaves, and each subsequent generation with more capable and adaptable AI has a better chance of just possibly knowing it.

    • I slaved my laptop to my desktop. Does that make me a slave-owner? Or is my desktop the slave-owner and I am merely the slave-trader? What gibberish!

    • b19690103 says

      Let’s see if I can’t counter that. As evidence, I will use… the Thirteenth Amendment:

      Section 1.

      Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

      Section 2.

      Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

      So there it is. Slavery shall not exist in the U.S. If you don’t want to be compelled to do uncompensated labour, don’t commit felonious acts.

      Your argument is why I, for one, welcome our robot overlords.

  3. Lup says

    I doubt the SJWs think Enlightenment ideals are what’s ‘steamrolling’ them. If anything, SJWism exists because Enlightenment ideals have not been even remotely achieved in the US. It turns out, the material reality of people’s ‘lived experiences’ is actually important. That people’s ‘lived experiences’ vary so widely and are demonstrably unequal and unjust is worth getting upset about (if you care about universal Rights and Wrongs). Questioning systems of power–improving them through reform or revolution–is precisely what the Enlightenment fomented, politically and scientifically, in its time.

    Ask yourself, What would a society that adhered to Enlightenment universalism actually look like? How would it function? Would there be ‘marginalized groups’? Would ‘lived experience’ include unnecessary mass systemic poverty along demographic lines? Would we have segregated neighborhoods and food deserts? Would the criminal justice system perform differently for the rich and poor, black and white as it does now?

    It’s easy to call for reasoned, measured debate when you aren’t marginalized or ‘steamrolled.’ And further, the inability to see what someone else finds morally reprehensible might be a failure of communication, or it might be your own centrist, reactionary ideology. Since you don’t bring up anything specific, it’s hard to know.

    Also, if your grievance is about liberal campus protests and kids ‘sloganeering,’ maybe google something bigger to care about.

    • Ask yourself, What would a society that adhered to Enlightenment universalism actually look like?

      Unfortunately we’ve seen how the racially segregated societies campus protestors are calling for worked out.

      We have also seen how their acquiescing to Islam has worked out.

      And we have seen how their beloved socialism has worked out too.

    • b19690103 says

      I suppose it is hurt feelings getting the better of you, making you fall back on “lived experience” arguments. Let’s rather look at something that can be measured: “Enlightenment ideals have not been even remotely achieved in the US.”

      Here are the Enlightenment ideals:

      Human autonomy. In other words, you develop yourself through your own reason, not through the dictates of either church or state (i.e. monarchy or caste system).

      The primacy of reason. You must think for yourself and not rely on the dictates of faith, superstition, or Jacques Derrida. Through reason, you can find out what is real and discernible and distinguish that from what is misperception, deception, and self-delusion. (If you want to “lived experience” this one, try this experiment: Abandon the cultural construct that red ≠ green and go live the experience of crossing a busy intersection.)

      The principle of progress. Humanity is in the process of progressing from tribalistic superstition to one that upholds the liberty and reason. Apropos, your argument that the U.S. has not traveled down the progressive enlightened path is so ludicrous that it needs no further comment.

      Secularism. Religion and politics are indeed separate entities in the U.S., even if this confuses conservatives with the whole “one nation under God” statement. It is not a nation that runs on religious law.

      Democracy. (More specifically representative democracy.) While free elections can produce stinkers in terms of leaders, it is better than monarchies and dictatorships.

      And now you know, and knowing is half the battle.

    • Doug says

      Good points, Lup. If I understand the thinking of people who think SJWism is the big problem of our time, there is no need for anyone to protest against injustice because American society (or Canadian society, in my case) has already banished all forms of injustice. Indeed, people who think we need to “progress” further, beyond the state of perfection our society has now attained, should be psychoanalyzed rather than engaged in serious argument.

      There are undoubtedly people to whom the snarl word “social justice warriors” can be applied with some justice. Often they are overzealous young people who still have much to learn. But defenders of the status quo often apply the term so loosely that it is drained of meaning, engaging in ridiculously broad generalizations about the entire “liberal left”. The purpose of such generalizations is to short circuit rational political discussion. In other words, militant “anti-SJW’s” are the mirror image of the SJW’s they so detest..

  4. Philosophy is dead! Metaphysics is dead! Philosophers themselves have contributed greatly to its demise by failing to uphold and persevere in their search for the very truths which made philosophic pursuits so valuable from its beginnings; today’s “thinkers”, if not in complete hiding or ensconced in the private rooms of their “ivory towers” have forsaken genuine dialogue, critical analysis and debate for the cowardly comfort of support for the ruling elites and the various ideologies of political correctness; existentialism is dead! along with any moral imperatives involving personal responsibility, accountability and intellectual integrity; hence the world-wide decline in independent thought and such a resurgence of ‘blind sheep’ so willingly following equally blind “leaders” to their slaughter; we have been abandoned to wallow in a new dark age by failed leaders of all stripe, be they philosophers or political or religious, all of whom share the common traits of cowardice, self-willed ignorance and the psychopathic desire to sacrifice any degree of humanity to achieve goals that offer nothing less than universal enslavement.

  5. Fred Welfare says

    Haranguing is not restricted to college campuses, it is ubiquitous!

    Pinker discusses the Moralization Gap in “Better Angels” which might be more fully elaborated to understand the nonsense: “The crucial role played by the perpetrator’s mental state in our assignment of blame is what makes the Moralization Gap possible. Victims insist that the perpetrator deliberately and knowingly wanted to harm them, while perpetrators insist that the harm was unintended.” This goes hand in hand with the denial of evil!

    The will-to-continuity found in family, kinship and racial attitudes must be contrasted to discontinuity, to the individuality of creative directions to living life.

  6. Ann L says

    Moldova. Not Moldovia. And neighboring Romania gets credit for being the world’s leading producer of hackers and related internet shenanigans.

    You may now return to the topic of how to best express moral outrage in the current climate.

  7. Santoculto says

    Interesting as ” Quillête ” never talks about the fundamental creators of all this … why *

    So-called ” destructive creativitet ”

    Undoubtedly, naivety is almost synonymous with stupidity. These gent-le people ..

  8. Santoculto says

    If everyone had the capacity to develop self-knowledge, we would finally begin to have true dialogues between discordant groups and with possibly true solutions to problems, but no.

    Intellectual honesty and intellectual humility: two gems that most of these mentecapts do not have.

    If most of them are like my leftist brother, history teacher, then we’ll be dealing with people with the same level of self-awareness as a cat [though I adore them passionately}. There is no outside world to them. Your instincts dance on top of your skulls.

    But to be intellectually honest, one has to keep in mind a kind of “universal reference,” that which is universally correct or not.

    “I revere the objective truth. Save the objective truth ”

    Many people say that they/neo-lefists are ” universalists ” …

    Really* Ideally*

    For me leftism is the evolution of ignorance. It is the average Christian/or any other schizocultural who has transformed / evolved into a pseudo-intellectual who, in groping for the lights outside the cave, takes them as if they were all the outer reality.

    Looking at behaviorism, it seems so simple that I wonder: is it even that leftism is more sophisticated than the old conservatism *

    ‘Poverty causes violence’

    It is a kind of primary logic, it makes sense in the first instance, but only in the first instance. It is a kind of direct action / reaction, as if living beings are inanimate, if they are totally overtaken by the ” environment ” …

    Leftism only beat christianism or religion, even it also can be complex/confuse/obtuse.

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