Bloodless Moralism: Helen Rittelmeyer argues that in our public culture the moral has devolved to the empirical.

Author:Rittelmeyer, Helen
Position:Essay
 
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Dame Rebecca West had a theory that the history of civilization since Christ could be divided into three panels like a triptych. In the first panel, stretching roughly from the Crucifixion to the Middle Ages, the language of theology so dominated learned debate that all complaints were expressed in religious terms, even when the problem at issue was economic or political. The poor and discontented "cried out to society that its structure was wrong ... and said that they did this because they had had a peculiar revelation concerning the Trinity. The hungry disguised themselves as heretics." After a few brief centuries of clarity, mankind proceeded to the third panel, in which the opposite problem prevails: "Those suffering from religious distress reverse the process, and complain of it in economic terms. Those who desire salvation pretend that they are seeking a plan to feed the hungry."

West, writing in 1949, was thinking primarily of communism. From the Stalinists recently ascendant in her beloved Balkans to Fabian grandees Sidney and Beatrice Webb in England, from whose dinner parties she had lately been banned for being too argumentative, the socialists of her day were united in their endorsement of the Marxist axiom that all human behavior can be traced back to material motivations. The purpose of this logical razor was to discredit their opponents by attributing all bourgeois beliefs to class interest, with religion and morality reduced to power plays designed to keep the proletariat in subjection.

West was clever enough to realize that vulgar Marxism was just as likely to be directed inward. A socialist, especially a Western European one, was often someone who had perceived within himself certain longings that an earlier age would have properly identified as moral or religious, but whose intellectual equipment could only process these longings as commitment to social justice. An entire generation had developed a warped idea of what moral seriousness sounds like, and they ended up pledging their souls to economics as a result.

The moral vocabulary that now prevails in the United States is less Marxist but no less vulgar, for it is just as adamant that all moral claims be translated into material terms. The only difference is that material self-interest is now permitted to coexist with material altruism. Bad behavior can be condemned only if it is shown to correlate with some quantifiable negative outcome like a greater likelihood of receiving a free or reduced-price lunch among grade-schoolers, a higher incidence of antidepressant use among adults, or a measurable decline in the national GDP. Moral questions are treated as if they were, at the end of the day, merely empirical. We are hesitant, almost to the point of paralysis, about making moral claims on moral grounds.

This error is not the same thing as scientism, that ripe intellectual leftover of the Progressive Era. In fact, it is almost the reverse. Scientism was an error of extravagant overconfidence, an optimistic faith that experimentation could lead us to grand truths formerly unknown. Nowadays, we suffer more from timidity than arrogance. Rather than expecting science to solve all our hitherto insolubles, we lean on science when making even the most modest claims. The arrogance has not entirely abated--especially not among economists--but still: It is one kind of madness to expect science to put a permanent end to war abroad and inequality at home, as the Progressives did, and another kind of madness to hope that science will someday find evidence suggesting that adultery is in fact wrong or drug addiction in fact undesirable.

In its 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court ruled that criminals who commit their offenses before turning eighteen are protected from execution by the Eighth Amendment. It is possible that the court erred in its treatment of precedent and legislative prerogative, but certainly it erred in relying as heavily as it did on studies by developmental psychologists showing, for example, that "adolescents are overrepresented statistically in virtually every category of reckless behavior," as if such findings could settle the moral meaning of cruelty. The Roper majority did not explicitly refer to any neuroscientific studies, though several amici did. This omission was rectified in the subsequent juvenile-offender case Miller v. Alabama (2012), in which Justice Elena Kagan, distressingly confident that scientific and social-scientific conclusions are reliable and impartial and mean just what they appear to mean to the average layman, cited an amicus brief that states: "It is increasingly clear that adolescent brains are not yet fully mature in regions and systems related to higher-order executive function such as impulse control, planning ahead, and risk avoidance."

The Roper and Miller majorities obviously meant to convey the message, "Executing juvenile offenders, or sentencing them to life without parole, is wrong. We abhor the idea. It revolts us. We would as soon bring back drawing and quartering as affirm this practice in twenty-first-century America." In a decision hinging on the definition of cruelty, such ethical resolve is entirely appropriate. Yet when taking this moral stand, the justices felt it necessary to reach for evidence, and when reaching for evidence, they looked to behavioral science and neurology.

Perhaps judges are just overscrupulous by nature, or by training, and should be allowed to err on the side of evidential punctilio. If that's the case, then surely politicians should tend in the opposite direction. Making grand moral pronouncements based on no more than anecdotal evidence was once every politician's bread and butter. It is much less so now. In reviewing the two parties' platforms...

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