Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Rhetoric and Morality

If you watch much US politics, although some similar elements can be found here in Australia, you’ll notice that the major political players arn’t really talking to each other anymore. Though socratic dialogue on the great issues of the day has never really occurred (or been needed) within modern western democracies, the extent of the gap between the meaning and intent of the language used by the competing groups is stark. There are many reasons for this gap, but perhaps the most critical of them comes down to the issue of morality. Or rather where you seek to measure morality, and the implications that flow on from that. Those in power tend to take morality as a result of outcomes. Those in opposition tend to take morality as a question of intention. The difference between these two is often at the heart of the controversies of modern society, though as shall be noted later, the groups are increasingly hardening around particular takes, the Religious Right around Intention, the Liberal Left around Outcome.

During the time of John Howard or Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Left wing critics of both governments used to point to the cuts in welfare spending, tightening of requirements, stronger support for private services (like health and education) and harsher penalties for those who are seen to be breaking the rules, from ordinary criminals to ‘queue jumping’ refugees. In each of these cases, the government could usually turn around and argue that whilst this looked harsh, that harshness was both needed (like a disciplined parent) and more importantly in the moral stakes, that the outcome of these policies was improved social conditions. Less people dependent on welfare, more money available for social spending, or parents choosing educations in line with their own personal beliefs, and a stronger sense of personal responsibility within the community. Howard and Thatcher both saw themselves as highly moral individuals, but it was demonstrated by their outcomes, not their intentions. Their critics however would rage most strongly at the announcement of individual policies that seemed to offer a harsh intention, within the sometimes counter-intuitive logic of economic liberalism that a lack of control of the market affords greater support for the needy and the wayward. While there are numerous cases of the market and indeed these individual policies causing great immoral harm, their critics were eventually silenced by the clear and successful outcomes. Neither is well liked, but their moral victory rests in the adoption of similar policies by almost all of the mainstream Center-Left (The GFC has given some of the last holdouts a hope of resistance, but its a fleeting one)

Today a similar pattern is evident in the US (and increasingly in Australia) as the Right wing critics attack the government more and more for what they perceive as wrongful intentions, rather than any great concern with outcomes. So Obama’s healthcare policy is dismissed out of hand because it represents a move to big government or away from individual choice, (as was his stimulus package). Torture is seen as perfectly acceptable, because the intention is to protect the homeland, the way this protection occurs of almost no interest. When Obama removes missile defence policies, closes Guantanamo or seeks to negotiate with Iran over Nuclear weapons, the potential outcomes are not a part of the debate, rather they are seen as simply pointers for the troubling moral intentions which are applied to his character. Though 100% of those against him would also be against him where he a white democrat named Bob Jones, or Joe Charles, the difference of his skin colour and background make it easier to apply such devious intentions to his moral character.

Likewise, this view of morality as a question of intention over outcome reflects significantly on the movement that takes on this view. Articulated principles become the guiding lights to the faithful. Not only is it far easier to communicate via principles than complex circumstantial outcomes, intentions as a moral basis allows for greater enforceability as tests can be applied almost any time, to any communication past or present to check for consistency. Morality at this point becomes a question solely of identity. Sarah Palin’s many outright lies have absolutely no impact on the high moral status awarded to her by the Religious Right. She could have an affair and see no damage, but should she endorse anything Obama does, the glass would shatter and she would be seen as immoral and unacceptable. As such you see a far greater willingness to exclude those who come anywhere near agreeing with the chosen enemy, for such an act, even if utterly consistent with one of the principles desired, is taken to be an acceptance of a wayway intention. So while Noel Pearson was of the left and believed in the same social justice ideals as the left, he was instantly discredited for working with Howard (Likewise Frank Brennan for his helping Brian Harradine on Wik). In the US any conservative who gives even mild support for Obama’s healthcare (which will reduce overall costs, and increase the healthcare for all, regardless of income) is ostracized and discredited. If Obama has bad intentions, the thinking goes, only someone with similarly bad intentions could justify supporting anything they do (or at least has lapsed on this cause).

This is a common pattern, Oppositions center around intentions, Governments around outcomes. However, I think we are seeing an increasing hardening of current patterns. That is a big call given Obama has only been in power 8 months, but this is a 30 year change. I had deliberately excluded Ronald Reagan from my first set of examples, because he was a for runner to the Intention driven politics you see in the US. Big government was the enemy, but even as supply side tax cuts sent the budget into deficit, his intentions were seen as still being more moral than his opponents. On the left, the grudging acceptance of capitalism ‘because it works’ has been occurring almost since the early 1940’s when communism lost its sheen, but especially over the last 20 years, as massive economic liberalisation and privatisation has not resulted in a Randian struggle for survival, but increased prosperity, increased support for the disadvantaged, and a more free and tolerant society. The outcomes have forced their change, many may not like capitalism, but there are few arguments from intention (the contest of the market place) replaced mainly by ones of outcome (how to get the poor and disadvantaged the same opportunities the rich are afforded). There is also the increasing social liberalism of those who champion economic liberalism (such as in Libertarians), which is dividing the Religious Right from the vast mainstream of Western Political thought.

In a world where the political divide is seen as a moral one. And a moral divide based not on issues but on how and where you draw your morality, actual civic communication becomes increasingly difficult. One of the primary tasks of all leaders is to communicate how the elites are dealing with the problems faced, and why this is the right course of action for the times. When John Howard was talking economics he was excellent at this type of explanation, and many a left-winger (myself included) would admit to the guilty secret of being swayed by his explanations on economic issues. But when it came to cultural or social issues, he was hopeless, retreating to boilerplate lines about the guiding principles, whilst effectively ignoring them in policy. Obama is much better at this, for he seems to have a clearer vision of the future country he seeks, but he also faces an opposition significantly less inclined to listen than even Howard faced during the Wik or Tampa controversys.

So next time you encounter someone you just can’t reason with politically, or a figure who confuses you in how they could possibly advocate such an immoral position, ask yourself from where they may be seeking to draw their morality. And when communicating with others seek to offer as an explanation the origins of your own morality as an important point of common ground. You probably wont even agree, but recognizing each other as equally worthy moral beings, just utilizing different calculus’s is a vital first step to true public dialog and political engagement.