It was recently argued to me that the existence of morals in policymaking, referred to as a “moral-based system,” and that because “we” cannot ever agree on anything, is why Congress is so ineffective when concerned with adequately responding to the will of the electorate. This thesis is not only patently false when you consider just how effective some of the most identifiably inhumane policies to date (The Iraq War, the occupation of the Middle East, NAFTA, the War on Drugs, Jim Crow Laws, etc.) were products of ideological consensus across party lines, but also it scapegoats blame to a non-existent boogyman. Personally, I believe we live under deeply immoral circumstances in the U.S., whereby the catchall “system” (capitalism) is working as intended for the well-connected and powerful (something traceable), which is the crux of the argument.
This impulse of blaming the existence of morality (i.e., something that is no more separated from the human experience anymore than hunger or fright) all together is just that–an impulse readily adoptable if a large part of your political identity is to appear impartial. This doesn’t require anyone unaffected by racial and otherwise systemic injustice to actually do the arduous work that abolition and grassroots political organizing takes, but it does mean that you could interpret struggle and discrimination as merely something that is fruitless to participate in, because you have nothing to lose from the empire as it stands. The thrust of the argument, while objectionable, is entirely unfalsifiable. It would be like claiming that until we no longer live in a jean shorts-based system we cannot achieve utopia, no matter what your “utopia” means to you. There’s no way to disprove it as a viable philosophy to improve material conditions.
You cannot separate morality from the human consciousness, nor supress it when making decisions that impact hundreds millions of people. It is what makes us human. It would be like asking you ignore your thirst while wondering through a hot desert. What is different between the U.S. and other capitalist nations that have not only leaders with their own moral compas but also measurably better outcomes that in the U.S.? Well one thing is democratic participation. The overarching dilemma of an ill-equipped Congress making decisions (that ostensibly represent the will of the public) does not exist in a vacuum. Policymakers are not unburdened from having to reconcile with any existing problems that are not already ripe for political contest (otherwise why offer it as a solutions in the first place?), that’s how laws are made.
The animating rationale of blaming morality itself exists to both ascribe to hyper-illogical emotion-havers the characteristic of care and empathy, and then to categorically label caring and empathetic policies as objectionable simply because it is cognizable that someone else out there in the universe would not accept them or simply view care and empathy as something else (like people against abortion rights for reasons related to the interpretations within their religion). But words matter, and the point of using language is to communicate meaning. Just because kids who shoot up synagogues and movie theaters believe it is their duty does not mean that protecting the public from gun violence is per se wrong just because your moral compass is telling you that it is wrong for innocent people to get gunned down in their place of worship.
We are not broadly discounting the needs of one religion or preferring one over the other–although that does happen– but rather the fringe, anti-human-rights propositions within narrow factions. To reject all progressive or egalitarian policy on the basis of the fact that there exists disagreement, and that this is somehow due to the existence of morality itself, would be like saying the reason we should not end homelessness or protect reproductive health rights is simply because someone (or a group of people) out there may view having a home or protecting bodily autonomy right as something offensive to their own moral ethic. But this is not how we as a society make decisions, and often the drivers of the anti-abortion movement are those who have never been in that position themselves.
I say: Who cares? Again, to subscribe to this belief would be to think that there are no real issues in question that a morally just policy is ill suited to address. People–as part of a community and society–will vote for policies and political candidates they feel will best represent their interest, and the one with the most votes is supposed to win out. That is how representative democracy works. It is uncessary to create a phantom menace as a way to equalize the reasons that people are struggling–homelessness, systemic racism, voting disenfranchisement—to the remedy, which is effectively ending those things. It is not hard to identify problems that cause people harm and call them out for what they are. It is not as though the majority of people want *more* corruption politics or *more* of [bad shit].
Even where we can’t all agree, it doesn’t mean that racism or racist policies, for example, are objectionable simply because a small minority of those in society want them to continue. Why stop from doing anything to alleviate harm just to spare the feelings of those people? We simply must be honest with ourselves, to come down from the stratosphere and blame the dipshits in charge not because morals exist, but because they stand to benefit from identifiably harmful policies and laws.
Bad outcomes would happen even in situations ostensibly devoid of any moral considerations. Take for example the ostensibly hyper-logical, purely mathematical reasoning giving oxygen to the timeless wisdom of microeconomic theory, a complex amalgam of ideas and models about trade-offs that have dominated policymaking since their invention. What is often not known to those who try to make sense of applying these highly technical mathematical models, is that they were literally always designed to communicate, through the language of purely mathematical-economic modeling, ways to ignore the needs of most people.
The motivating logic for the last 50+ years has always been to elevate the story of “picking yourself up by your bootstraps,” so the old adage goes, and that “a rising tide lifts all boats” (which means that if GDP grows then everyone will experience all of the spoils of capitalism evenly). These have turned out to be entirely untrue, producing unfavorable and objectionable outcomes through the work and the name of sound, strictly rational economics. Over time, these ideas have crumbled under competent scrutiny and common sense. Today, more people are realizing that you cannot be lifted by a rising tide if you do not have a boat, and that you cannot pick yourself up by your bootstraps if you do not own boots. If you squint a little more, what you’ll notice is that it has been those who have been in proximity to power, with nothing to gain from egalitarian policy nor harmed from inequality, that have always decided the terms of this debate, thus the conditions afflicting the public’s wellbeing.
That is an extreme position, more so than the sin of appearing like you believe in anything just to “not be impartial” as if nothing could be worse. There is no coherent logic behind the support for this argument, either. To believe that “other people are going to take advantage when they come in to power” proves nothing and says nothing about its relationship to the fact that we can’t achieve a more fair society.
It’s an argument that avoids placing blame on leaders who abuse power and subvert the will of the public–where widely agreed on policies like a $15 minimum wage, a four-day work week, universal childcare, voting rights, reproductive rights, and universal healthcare all enjoy great support–simply because of the vague notion that people with different and evolving moral principles exist, and therefore no one can really have authority over laws motivated by justice vs. those motivated by doing harm, because there is no 100% universally agreed definition.
This is a project that, with or without intent, serves to render any real policy with an aim to improving material conditions toothless, and fails to recognize that most parts of life are like this–wherever exists constantly evolving definitions concerning complex topics. Not everything can be narrowly defined and packaged in a neat box, nor will every circumstance satisfy those who purport to be in the “middle.” To them, the “far left” is equivalent to those on the “far right” who believe Black people should not have the right to vote simply because they occupy respective spots on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Despite this, somehow whole professions, ideologies, and conversations continue to evolve and grow as society does. Take for instance in law, where there are new interpretations of statutes and definitions of many things often, yet it just so happens that the most egregious of them, often created from cloth in the service of impartiality, almost always create massively harmful outcomes (literally any five to four decision in the Roberts Era of the Supreme Court).
The problem the anti-morality-in-policy stance faces is the question of: “How do we know, or whose to say, there are bad outcomes if there is no universally agreed perspective of ‘bad’?” Well, why not take cues from those disparately harmed by bad housing policies or systemic racism? Surely with with all the progress humanity has made to end these ills, it would be impossible to say that morality itself is the problem simply because there have always existed those who do not welcome this change. But how else would we have gotten to this point if not motivated by evolving societal ethics? Had we not at one time denied women and people of color the right to vote and then passed laws permitting this, which were reflections of an evolving ethos?
To be sure, there existed people who would have argued at the time that women should be denied this unalienable right to boldily autonomy or that people should not be allowed to participate in elections, but that did not prevent the law from changing to recognize these rights, which partially reflected progressive shifts in national consciousness concerning who deserves to participate in democracy and who deserves rights to make decisions for their own bodies. These are rights for which there exists a majority consensus. It seldom matters whether or not racist or religious extremists disagree, because these unalienable rights acknowledge more that just a narrow definition of what few might define as “bad” or “good.”
To place the entirety of the blame on morals for inspiring positive change would be the equivalent of stating, for example, that in the absence of seatbelt laws, that because people have different moral positions on the public health benefit of seat belts, allowing (avoidable) deaths caused by vehicle collisions to continue is simply the best way to organize society. According to this argument, to invite any morals that relegate this arrangement as bad, to do anything at all to prevent death and suffering, would be too extreme a position, since it would violate impartiality–a space in which no moral ethic is said to guide decision-making.
This would also be like saying that because the Wall Street bankers who caused the financial crisis believed that there was nothing wrong about triggering a global economic collapse and the horrible consequences that followed, they were operating in bounds simply because they believed it was acceptable conduct. To belabor this point, If you needed one more example, it would be like saying it truly is okay to permit the spread of COVID misinformation simply because the people taking horse de-wormer believe it to cure coronavirus, and who is to say what’s really bad. Queue the public health researchers, doctors, and all the medical evidence we have to to support that this is not good. You do not need to infringe on one’s bodily autonomy, but the spread of this misinformation does not actually do anything to eradicate the virus nor does it protect the public. It is okay to care about living in a healthy society.
In America, we live underneath the thumb of a deeply individualistic system where one does not have to search too far to find cruel injustice daily and in myriad ways. With COVID-19 pandemic exposing deep cracks in our social safety nets that were really always there, and a big “fuck you” from the gerontocracy that have total control over the levers of power, neoliberalism’s most obvious success is in its mission to render representative governance useless–even though there are a wide range of policy responses at the ready to alleviate suffering and create robust, widely shared prosperity. Something you would have a hard time describing as objectionable ends. The fact that oppressive legal and economic arrangements are permitted to continue is an instance of not only a reprehensible moral ethic animating them, but also a product of political and economic interests working in the background to naturalize this arrangement. Something you would have a hard time convincing someone as a favorable situation if they were not wealthy or within proximity to status or power. At either end of the political spectrum there exists those who understand that there are real, existing injustices imposed on people each day, and on the other are those who believe that white people are true victims of state-sanctioned racism. It is okay if we decide as a society that the latter is undesirable and repulsive. There will always be a relatively small group who disagree, but this is not a reason to not be in favor of outcomes that will materially help people.
Reasonable people can both understand the differences between tyranny and that alleviating bad shit like racism or gerrymandering is a categorically different kind of goal. What the “anti-moral-based system” argument boils down to is nothing more than just understand a difference in opinion. But this posture falters as a reasonable guide to policymaking. Preferring XBOX to Playstation is a difference in opinion. Believing that harmful voting restrictions are necessary to keep in place solely on the basis of race, and then choosing to not alleviate identifiable misery just to not offend those who who are evil enough to favor voting restrictions is not an excuse to not care about those whose voices are actively shut out of a democratic process solely because there exist people who wish to maintain this misery. It is not like we have no reliable measurements of the outcomes of our current socioeconomic and political systems.
There is bad shit that exists, regardless of those who do not want to concede that they are bad. There exists measurable, identifiable bad shit that exists that is different in kind and in intensity from other relatively bad shit. If you think Jews are “bad” because you believe anti-Semitic conspiracies enough and you’re just evil enough to commit an act of terror by shooting up a synagogue, well that is a measurably different kind of “bad” than someone thinking we should have universal healthcare, and the existence alone of these two beliefs are not why we cannot achieve progress, it is because those with the keys to the city benefit from no change in the status-quo and the maintenance of regressive institutions.
By not passing laws or polices that would alleviate or prevent suffering simply because of some unfalsifiable boogyman–some fake obstacle created from whole cloth that go so far as to wholly avoid dealing with tangible, identifiable wrongdoing–is itself an outrageous proposition. The acknowledgement that, yes, some people have a different idea of what’s good or bad, is hardly the problem nor is it the end of the conversation.
Doing away with morality, which is again not humanly possible nor is it helpful by any measure, It is not only a poorly constructed non-solution to real, tangible, and identifiable issues that measurably impact one group of people more than another, but it is also conflated with unreal, perceived harms–like concerns of neo-Nazis and their racist fear of what will come if America, for instance, becomes more diverse and fair. The problem is not the disagreement. There is a difference between good and bad things and the fact alone that “not everyone” agrees is the same as describing an outcome as a “”non-zero chance,” it offers almost no insight and has no philosophical power to indict real issues. That is why it is a pseudo-intellectual proposition—it feels like thinking when it isn’t and ignores the broad range of evidence offered by political scientists, historians, sociologists, and public health experts.
While I can concede that different moral compasses exist between people who hold power within the spectrum of political ideologies, the entire function of a representative democracy is that so the will of the people can signal to their representatives (the people with POWER to make decisions) what they (i.e., we as a collective society) what they want, and it is not up for anyone but the voice of the public to decide. I would argue that the existence of a strong moral ethic is okay and preferable to ones that would and do cause measurable damage.
Although many religious extremists may very well derive their moral compass from their holy text which tells them, for example, that life begins at conception and therefore abortion to them is objectionable, and though many neo-Nazis derive their moral compass from perceived oppression and replacement of white people in America, we do not reject advocating for racial justice simply on the fact that we “can’t agree so therefore who’s to say what is necessary.”
On a very human level, how else would you be able to recognize that universal healthcare is a public good and necessary to improve material conditions for millions of people struggling within a highly predatory for-profit healthcare system if not for the acknowledgement that this arrangement is harmful? How would we ever had voting rights passed or abolished slavery had humanity not at some point decided that these institutions were objectionable? To claim that different moral ethics, with no agreed upon definition of good and bad–and to therefore make policy in light of this fact–are just as bad as existing predatory systems plays right into the hands of those who stand to benefit from the status quo politics because we are too scared of appealing partial and recognizing true suffering to the point where we prevent any necessary action.
It is a self-imposed obstacle that since someone else is going to disagree on some issue, it would be impossible to do what most consider morally just. That would be wholly in service to a view that would not come close to being deemed constitutional or in many cases even legal. In an effort to seem fair to everyone no matter there position on the political spectrum (Nazis or anyone ostensibly against egalitarian policies or laws that would do away with injustice) for the sake of appearing impartial is itself an ideological position which, I’m sure someone out in the world would disagree with, and one based in ones own relative views of morality itself. Even while trying to avoid the influence of morality in decision-making we fall right back into it. This, of course, is not to say that this is a problem for its own sake. It is to mention that morality is a part of us as humans, and it is okay to prefer one conception of justice and equality over a different, identifiably prejudice conception of some moral ethic that is rooted in hate and violence.
But you as one individual does not get to make policy over the other simply out of having a better or more coherent argument. Lawmakers do, and their job is to respond to the voters. In the instances that they do not, it is not because nobody can decide what’s right and what’s wrong. It is because they have identified interests that are out of step will the voice of the public, and have made a conscious decision to enrich themselves over effectively governing. If definitions are your thing, politics is quite literally a power imbalance, which is the operative force. A good moral ethic to disrupt gross power imbalances is necessary and should be embraced to achieve a just and fair society.