Higher Education

why we can't make moral judgments

Cortland has a Faculty Development Committee that sponsors meetings called Teaching and Learning Cirlces. My friend and colleague, David Franke, organizes some of them. Though I value the efforts he makes, I have recently been reminded why I object to such institutions. They remind me of centers for “excellence” in teaching and learning. Like Bill Readings, I am troubled by the notion of excellence as an academic currency. Here though, my objection is to a particular upcoming event.

I received an e-mail yesterday, along with the rest of the faculty, inviting me to join in a book discussion through the Teaching and Learning Circle. The book is Why can’t we make moral judgements? by Mary Midgley. The book, quite unknowingly, evokes Antoin Artaud’s “To be done with the judgment of god,” at least for me. Not to go into too much depth, but Midgley’s book is essentially philosophy-lite and an argument for the necessity of a moral code as the foundation for social judgment.

It is a curious book to read at this historical juncture, since it is clearly “moral judgment” that has us invading Iraq, denying gays the right to marriage, and threatening to criminalize abortion–to say nothing of the morality of the Patriot Act. Everyone seems to agree that Bush was re-elected because of his “moral values.”

But let me attempt to answer, briefly, Midgley’s eponymous question. One answer is to say that of course we can make moral judgments. Indeed people make them all the time. We have a cultural discourse of morality, and people use it. Midley’s text, however, makes a bogeyman out of postmodernism’s Nietzschean critique of morality and employs the common complaints made about contemporary theory: it is absurd; it is simply a matter of fashion and not serious; it is intellectual elitism, etc. Like so many before her, she simply fails to understand contemporary philosophy. That’s understandable; this stuff is difficult.

A second answer is as much Marxist as it is Nietzschean. Essentially it is to say that we cannot make moral judgments because morality is overdetermined by ideology. That is to say that moral judgments are always already ideological. As Midgley herself discusses, the purpose of a moral code is to maintain social order. And yet by definition, the purpose of morality is to determine good/evil, right/wrong. This would necessarily assume that the maintenence of social order was a universal good. It’s really not a good understanding of morality anyway, as people obviously make moral arguments that overturn the social order, as in the emancipation movement. However, it does make sense to say that moral arguments and judgments are ideological, that they are based upon class interests, historico-material conditions, and one’s notion of one’s identity in relation to society.

In that regard, one can “make” a moral judgment and discuss morality, but to do so is intellectually obfuscating as it occludes the ideological-material processes through which moral values are produced and reified.

A third answer is more psychoanalytic. It would suggest that when we say we are making a moral judgment, we are in fact narrating/explaining, after the fact, a decision that is produced by a different set of processes. Looking at it from this perspective, we might suggest that we make decisions based upon unconscious desires and processes. We may justify them morally afterward, or even in the process of making them, but the codes themselves do not enter into the process of decision-making. We may choose not to act criminally because we are afraid of social judgment, but that is not a choice made for moral reasons. We may curtail our behavior because we fear divine justice, but that also is not a moral choice.

Finally, we can combine two and three by seeing that our unconscious is managed ideologically. This is the insight we gain from contemporary philosophy that Midgley and others like her are light years from understanding. What we can see here is that morality is a cybernetic mircopolitical mechanism for controlling subjective production. It is not mind control, but is rather like a black hole, a singularity, drawing subjectivity and consciousness toward it.

It is not that humans do not make decisions based upon abstract values articulate in symbolic terms. This is a part of communal interaction if not integral to human behavior itself. The point is that the discourse of morality is outmoded and insufficient for understanding this process. We have developed a more thorough understanding of these processes. What is materially dangerous about this is that the discourse of morality has become (if it has not always been) an ideological tool for silencing dissent and dismissing any question of social critique: any question about the legitimacy of invading Iraq is dismissed because we have a moral duty to freedom.

This is why deconstruction remains useful. It allows us to see that the problem of immoral behavior serves to occlude the aporia that the boundary between good and evil is blurry, that the two become indistinguishable within language. The fact that we are able to distinguish, to judge, good and evil reflects the ideological-material power of institutions to manage subjectivity.

What really frustrates me about all this is that this book, and a discussion about it, is presented as “intellectual” discourse on my campus. This book is so simple-minded, I wouldn’t even use it as a course text, let alone present it as a foundation for a conversation among faculty. If my students can read Nietzsche and Barthes as we’re doing this semester, then surely my colleagues can…right?

After all, if they want to complain about “postmodernism” then let’s read Derrida and have a discussion about their concerns.

One reply on “why we can't make moral judgments”

I ran across your site surfing morality blogs.
Aren’t you sick of not knowing what morality is?
Certainly sounds like it! I have a pretty good
modern explanation of it at my morality blog.
Google ezsgblog+com/kxar Even got a Nietzsche
quote in it.


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