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MICHAEL OAKESHOTT, WENDY BROWN, AND THE PARADOXES OF ANTI-MORALISM

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MICHAEL OAKESHOTT, WENDY BROWN, AND THE PARADOXES OF ANTI-MORALISM
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   John Christian LaursenMichael Oakeshott, Wendy Brown, and the paradoxes 67  ÁGORA  (2013), Vol. 32, nº 2: 67-80    ÁGORA — Papeles de Filosofía —   (2013), 32/2: 67-80 ISSN 0211-6642 Recibido: 11/10/2012. Aceptado: 22/11/2012. MICHAEL OAKESHOTT, WENDY BROWN, AND THE PARADOXES OF ANTI-MORALISM  John Christian Laursen University of California, Riverside john.laursen@ucr.edu Resumen El filósofo británico Michael Oakeshott es muy conocido por su crítica del idealismo moral racionalista. El ha sido acusado en ocasiones de conservadurismo porque alguno de los moralismos racionales que critica son socialistas o izquierdistas. Sin embargo, la pensadora Wendy Brown que se autodefine como progresista también critica el moralismo en la política a veces con las mismas razones. Interlocutores recientes en debates sobre moralismo racionalista han intentado aconsejar cómo evitar el moralismo racionalista, pero es uno de los vicios que uno identifica en otros, mucho antes que en uno mismo. Volver a alguno de los aspectos de la filosofía de Oakeshott nos ayuda a aclarar los problemas y proporcionar algunas orientaciones para proseguir el debate. Palabras clave : Oakeshott, moralismo racionalista, idealismo moralizante, ideales morales, filosofía moral, racionalismo. Abstract British philosopher Michael Oakeshott is well-known for a critique of rationalistic moral idealism. He has sometimes been charged with conservatism, since some of the moralisms he criticizes are leftist or socialist. Yet self-described progressive thinker Wendy Brown also criticizes moralism in politics, on some of the same grounds. Contributors to recent debates about moralism have attempted to give advice on how to avoid it, but it is one of those vices one is much more likely to see in others than identify in oneself. A return to some aspects of Oakeshott’s philosophy helps clear up what the problems are and provide some advice to the ongoing debate. Keywords : Oakeshott, moralism, moralistic, moral ideals, moral philosophy, rationalism.   John Christian LaursenMichael Oakeshott, Wendy Brown, and the paradoxes 68  ÁGORA  (2013), Vol. 32, nº 2: 67-80 In one of his essays, Michael Oakeshott makes some remarkable claims. In “The Tower of Babel” (1948) he writes that “every moral ideal is potentially an obsession; the pursuit of moral ideals is an idolatry…”. 1  “Too often the excessive pursuit of one ideal leads to the exclusion of others, perhaps all others; in our eagerness to realize justice we come to forget charity, and a passion for righteousness has made many a man hard and merciless” (476). “In short, this is a form of the moral life which is dangerous in an individual and disastrous in a society” (476). By way of conclusion, we may quote: “The Pursuit of moral ideals has proved itself (as might be expected) an untrustworthy form of morality…” (486). I say that these claims are remarkable because most people genuinely want to be moral, I think, in whatever way they define morality. So what could be so wrong with having moral ideals and pursuing them? I want to explore two answers here. One is to explore some recent anti-moralist writers and see how far their suggestions get us. The other is to go into Oakeshott’s essay and some of his other work a bit more deeply, in order to flesh out what he is trying to say. My suggestion will be that a reading of Oakeshott might have helped the more recent anti-moralists with their problematic. It might help all of us adapt to modern life. Let me start with the point that “moralistic”, “moralizing”, and “moralism” belong to the small class of words that bring a negative connotation, by adding “-istic”, “-izing”, or “-ism”, to something that otherwise usually has a positive connotation. To be “scientific” is usually considered a good thing, but “scientism” and to be “scientistic” are not. “Legal” is good, but usually “legalism” joins “legalistic” as bad. “Sex” is good, but “sexism” and “sexist” are bad. In the right context “sermons” are good, but “sermonizing” is always bad. 2  Similarly, no one says that there is anything wrong with moral behavior; it is moralistic behavior and moralizing that is wrong. But most of the time we have to rely on that “we-know-it-when-we-see-it” feeling to identify it, and do not have widely articulated standards for distinguishing morality from moralism. So we will see if our study of recent anti-moralism and of Oakeshott can help us understand this vocabulary and what it is trying to do. 1  Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays  (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991), 476 [hereafter cited in the text in parentheses]. 2  But “artistic” is good; “artsy” is the bad one in this area. “Artism” is not used, to the best of my knowledge.   John Christian LaursenMichael Oakeshott, Wendy Brown, and the paradoxes 69  ÁGORA  (2013), Vol. 32, nº 2: 67-80 1. Contemporary anti-moralism It is a remarkable phenomenon that much of contemporary anti-moralism sounds very much like Oakeshott, but does not refer to his writings. One can speculate that one of the causes of this phenomenon is that many of the authors in the contemporary theoretical debate are self-described as coming from the “left”, and Oakeshott is often described as representing something called “conservatism”. An example is Wendy Brown, who worries about moralism in politics replacing political action. There is a “contemporary tendency to personify oppression in the figure of individuals”, she writes, and “theoretical as well as political impotence and rage… is often expressed as a reproachful political moralism”. 3  One problem with this is that “one finds moralizers standing against much but for very little” (28). Her judgment is that moralism “marks both analytical impotence and political aimlessness” (29).Moralism, in Brown’s analysis, generally turns against politics tout    court  . It is the moralistic side of revolutionary movements from liberalism and Maoism to multiculturalism that turn those movements into “brittle, defensive, and finally conservative institutions” (31). The reluctance to challenge the “seamy underside of righteousness or goodness in politics” of those movements allows them to go bad (30). Critical thought is suppressed in the name of moralistic ideals. Among other things, she regrets the tendency to personalize evil, rather than to find it in structures of power and culture. Moralism is also tacitly anti-democratic: it does not want to argue but to end conversation (37-8). It begins to look like a siege mentality, lamenting and blaming rather than identifying contingencies that could be changed (39). It is anti-intellectual because it does not want to know what can be said against it (41). Much of this analysis could be mistaken as coming straight from the pages of Oakeshott. Several of the authors in two collections of essays titled The Politics of Moralizing and What’s Wrong with Moralism?  provide useful analyses of the elements of moralism. 4  The introduction to the first of these volumes defines moralism as “a style of speaking, writing, and thinking that is too confident about its judgements and thus too punitive in its orientation to 3  Wendy Brown, Politics Out of History  (Princeton University Press, 2001), 21 [hereafter cited in the text in parentheses]. 4  Jane Bennett and Michael J. Shapiro, eds., The Politics of Moralizing   (New York: Routledge, 2002); C. A. J. Coady, ed., What’s Wrong with Moralism?  (Malden: Blackwell, 2006); first published as a special issue of the  Journal of Applied Philosophy , 22, 2, 2006.     John Christian LaursenMichael Oakeshott, Wendy Brown, and the paradoxes 70  ÁGORA  (2013), Vol. 32, nº 2: 67-80 others” (4), and the preface to the second defines it most generally as “the vice of overdoing morality” (1). These are useful definitions, but leave wide open the question of how to tell when you are overdoing it. Presumably, if you are the one who is doing it, you do not think you are overdoing it.In her contribution to The Politics of Moralizing  , Jane Bennett explores her own negative reaction to Jedediah Purdy’s moralizing book, For Common Things . 5  To her credit, she recognizes that her reaction to Purdy’s book as moralizing almost inevitably involves her in moralizing (11ff). She identifies three characteristics of moralizing: “self-certainty”, a quest for purity, and punitiveness (12-15). She also develops a catalogue of anti-moralizing disciplines that we can use to curb our own moralism without abandoning morality altogether. “Seasoning one’s claims with self-irony and modesty, cultivating a tolerance for moral ambiguity, periodically practicing normative reticence, building up a resistance to the pleasure of purity, minding your own business, doing what you can to forget to wreak vengeance, defending negative freedom…, and playing around are the best you can do [to resist your own moralism]. But that’s quite a lot” (22). Our question is, is it a lot? It does sound like both common sense politeness and the kind of philosophical grooming that Michel Foucault recommended in his later writings. But can these techniques really be expected to work when one thinks another person is wrong about something? Again, the point is that one may not be able to see one’s own flaws.In his contribution to What’s Wrong with Moralism? , Robert Fullinwider discusses Charles Dickens’s character Seth Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit   as the epitome of moralism. Fullinwider also provides a catalog of synonyms, words with family resemblances, and related concepts: moralists are “swollen up with self-importance”, “pompous”, “busybodies and meddlers”, and “sanctimonious, holier-than-thou prigs”. 6  Of course, we can always charge anyone who criticizes us with these sins, so we are still left with the question, how can we decide when our critics really deserve these epithets? Moralists are “judgmental”, uncharitable in those judgments, and probably on “shaky epistemic grounds” (9-10). But of course almost everyone makes judgments all the time, so how do we decide who is making unwarranted judgments? Is it actually possible to suppress all or most of our judgments, and really be non-judgmental? 5  Jane Bennett, “The Moraline Drift” in Bennett and Shapiro, eds., The Politics of Moralizing  , 11-26. 6  Robert Fullinwider, “On Moralism”, in Coady, ed., What’s Wrong with Moralism? , 6 [hereafter cited in the text in parentheses].     John Christian LaursenMichael Oakeshott, Wendy Brown, and the paradoxes 71  ÁGORA  (2013), Vol. 32, nº 2: 67-80 Fullinwider supplies some helpful perspectives when he observes that one of the criteria which we might use to evaluate judgments is “standing”, that is, the position of the judging observer in analogy to legal standing. We can ask if someone is entitled to judge because they do not indeed display the same fault that they claim to find in others (12-13). Society has also delegated the authority to make some judgments, such as legal judgments, to people who have the education and position to judge, such as judges. But that does not help us too much with moral issues, which often go far beyond what the law and such training can identify. Fullinwider does not want us to back up into relativism, where no one is entitled to judge anyone about anything (14). So how can a class of moral judgments that do not fall into moralism be saved? Fullinwider concludes with the interesting suggestion that we need a morality of moral judgments; that is, we must use our moral sense and moral judgment to judge whether or not moral judgments are justified in particular cases (17). This may well be the case, but it seems that we will still have the question, only now at a meta-ethical level: how will we know our moral judgments about moralism are not moralistic? Julia Driver defines moralism “as the illicit introduction of moral considerations”. 7  (It would seem that “introduction” may include the sense of “intensification” where moral considerations have been properly introduced but are overstressed.) She sees three problems with it. The first one is that it is excessively demanding, either “by holding the supererogatory to be obligatory” (37), or “by insisting on strict adherence to absolute moral rules”, leaving no room for nuance (38). The second one is that it is almost always about manipulating or pressuring others: we do not call someone who holds only him- or herself to high standards a moralizer. It is a kind of conversion-seeking, or missionizing, or sermonizing (38). And a third problem is the “taking of non-moral factors to be moral ones” (38). An example here might be to punish someone for being late when it was no fault of their own. One of the dangers of overweighting a given moral factor, according to Driver, is that it will almost inevitably drive out other moral factors that should be taken into consideration (42). “Perfectionism” about one thing leads to neglect of others (39ff.). Justice can bury forgiveness or generosity. These remarks sound like they could have come right out of Oakeshott. Of course, underweighting a moral factor can be a vice, too. So moralizing about one factor can lead to amoralism about another (43). 7  Julia Driver, “Moralism”, in Coady, ed., What’s Wrong with Moralism? , 37 [hereafter cited in the text in parentheses].  
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