Morality is Not Necessarily Good

Ten Questions for Hans-Georg Moeller on The Moral Fool: A Case for Amorality
(Columbia University Press, 2009)

What inspired you to write The Moral Fool? What sparked your interest?

The book was written as result of a certain personal uneasiness about the increasing prevalence of moral communication in contemporary society. I found that not only the obvious moral hypocrisy often contained in public statements by, for instance, politicians, preachers, or academics, bothered me, but more generally, the undeserved prestige of ethical language. It seems to me that ethical communication has almost reached a pathological level in our society, bringing about, in Hegel’s words, a certain “frenzy of self-conceit.”

The book is aimed at making such pathologies visible—for instance in the mass media, in politics, in warfare, and in legal procedures, but also on a personal level, when people are urged to practice and experience a “morality of anger.”

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Morality (moral communication and moral thought) is not in itself “good.” And: Dare to take ethics not so seriously.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

The book is very much focused on moral pathologies in North America. I think that moral pathologies in other regions (Germany, China, for instance) show quite different symptoms. Maybe one time there will be a catalogue of the various forms of moral pathologies in different places and at different times.

North American moral pathologies are related to what may be called the “narrative” of American identity and clearly stem, historically speaking, from the fusion of fundamentalist Protestantism and 18th-century Enlightenment political liberalism. Fundamentalist Protestant morality endorses, for instance, strict individual responsibility for one’s sins (and, vice versa, credit for one’s achievements in the world), total commitment to the Christian God and the community united in His name (the family, and, by extension, the nation), and an ascetic lifestyle.

Enlightenment liberalism highlights similar values in a secularized form: individual “pursuit of happiness,” a commitment to “public life,” and the virtues of the commoner (rather than elitist or aristocratic man). It is not difficult to see how such a catalogue of moral ideals can lead to a celebration of vengeance, jingoism, and Puritan ethical prescriptions. In The Moral Fool, I have tried to describe how such moral pathologies have been influencing, for instance, American legal practice (death penalty), protest movements (Abolition, anti-gay sentiments), war rhetorics (just war philosophy), and the mass media (Hollywood movies).

In Europe, moral pathology is closely tied to 20th-century European liberal-progressive Protestantism. In Germany, for example, moral pathologies derive mostly from the traumatic experiences in connection with the Nazi regime. In Germany, a discourse of collective guilt (self-)ascription has produced some sort of moral overcompensation manifesting itself in the form of paradoxical moral arrogance. Germany now conceives of itself as the repentant sinner who, by fully acknowledging his crimes, has become the ethical champion of the world.

To a certain extent, George W. Bush and Sarah Palin represent North American moral pathology, and the Nobel Peace Prize award for Barack Obama expresses European sentiments of moral superiority. This Nobel Prize was supposed to say something like: Now that you have repented the Bush administration’s sins, Europeans welcome you back to the commonwealth of the ethically pure nations.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

That to say that morality is not necessarily good is itself a moral statement. People who say this demonstrate that they are incapable to use the terms good/bad in a non-moral sense. I think we use these terms non-morally most of the time—perhaps with the exception of moral philosophers and religious fanatics.

In my view, the worst effect of the growing prestige of moral and ethical language is probably the nearly insurmountable obstacles that this language erects with respect to attempts to come to a more realistic or adequate understanding of contemporary society and its problems. Once moral language is introduced into, for instance, political or academic communication (the recent discourse on climate change is a good example) other dimensions of communication are pushed into the background.

With respect to climate change, for instance, there is a remarkable discrepancy between the intensity of ascribing moral blame and the depth of understanding climate science. Don’t get me wrong: I am NOT denying climate change—if so, I’d open myself up to moral blame—I am just saying that only very few people who feel capable of making moral statements about it will be able to make sense of a scientific article on climate research in an academic journal. I think that this can probably not be overcome by raising public knowledge (sciences, for instance, have become so complex that it is simply impossible for the “public sphere” to discuss an issue such as climate change in a scientifically accurate way).

The remedy I suggest is: “ironization” of moral language and moral communication. In the end, a book such as The Moral Fool intends to ironically deconstruct rigid moral language as it has been created, for instance, by mainstream Western moral philosophy. I think similar deconstructions can be performed in the mass media (late night Shows might help) or perhaps even at the fringes of politics (through ironic speech or ads, etc.).

On a very general level, I’d say that Eastern philosophies can demonstrate the contingency of certain foundational notions of Western thought that hardly go questioned. I have tried to challenge the widespread “prejudice” about the goodness of morality with the help of Daoism. Other possible challenges could tackle the value of “truth” (as opposed to “efficacy”) or the one-sided focus on “life” as the antagonistic alternative to the non-living (as manifested in various “Wars on Death” or often uncompromising “Pro-Life” attitudes in contemporary society).

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

Yes, passengers on long-haul flights. I hoped the book would be readable in one stretch for anybody when they have nothing better to do.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

All of the above.

What alternative title would you give the book?

I quite like the title. Along with the design, it’s probably the best thing about the book.

How do you feel about the cover?

Oops, I just answered this, I guess.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

Any book that sold a million copies.

What’s your next book?

I want to write a sequel to The Moral Fool, this time about the pathology of the semantics of “democracy.” The tentative title is: The Voting Fool.

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