The Fallacies of Moralism
and Moral Aestheticism

(after Friedrich Schiller, Leonard Nelson, Camille Paglia, & Robert Hughes)

The Fallacy of Moralism

To imagine that the gratifying of any sense, or the indulging of any delicacy in meat, drink, or apparel, is of itself a vice can never enter into a head that is not disordered by the frenzies of enthusiasm.... These indulgences are only vices when they are pursued at the expense of some virtue, as liberality or charity; in like manner as they are follies when for them a man ruins his fortune and reduces himself to want and beggary. Where they entrench upon no virtue but leave ample subject whence to provide for friends, family, and every proper object of generosity or compassion, they are entirely innocent.

David Hume, "Of Refinement in the Arts," Essays on Economics
[University of Wisconsin Press, 1970, quoted by Virginia Postrel, The Substance of Style, How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, HarperCollins, 2003, p.171]


Living a good life means realizing those excellences in our lives as best we can. Put another way, we are under a moral obligation [!] to do our best to realize the best that human beings can be. To neglect that obligation is to waste our lives.

Charles Murray, The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead, Dos and Don'ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life [Crown Business, 2014, p.105], noteworthy as Aristotelian moralism.


At one time, capitalism appeared horrifying because it produced misery; later, it turned out to be horrifying because it produces such abundance that it kills culture.

Neo-Marxists deplore what is called 'consumerism,' or the 'consumerist society.' In our civilization there are indeed many alarming and deplorable phenomena associated with the growth of consumption. The point is, however, that what we know as the alternative to this civilization is incomparably worse.

Leszek Koakowski (1927-2009), "What is Left of Socialism?" Is God Happy? Selected Essays [Basic Books, 2013, p.66-67]


Sugar is poison.

Mika Brzezinski, "Morning Joe," MSNBC, 12 Mar 2013

The fallacy of moralism (adj. "moralistic") results from the generalization of moral imperatives and obligations into all of ethics. Leonard Nelson defines moralism in this way:

I call 'moralism' a system of normative moral principles sufficient for the positive regulation of life. In other words, moralism excludes the possibility of morally indifferent actions. According to it, every action must be characterized as either fulfillment or violation of duty. [System of Ethics, Yale University Press, 1956, p. 89.]

Note well: Moralism is not the same thing as morality; it is a fallacy, one of having "too much" morality. The word "moralism" therefore should not be used without the consciousness that it is a mistake. There will be various forms of moralism discussed below, and all of them are fallacies. Also note: a "moralist" is merely someone with a moral theory, not necessarily a moralistic one; nevertheless, the subtlety of distinguishing morality from ideal ethics means that serious moralists tend to moralism in general, e.g. Confucius, Kant, Utilitarianism, G.E. Moore, religious commandments, etc. Moralism is the denial that there are other categories of value besides morality -- in other words, the denial of the polynomic theory of value.

MORALISM: THE GOOD=MORALITY
ETHICS=MORALITY[Aesthetics, the beautiful and the ugly] The truly beautiful is what is morally good.
MORALITY[Ideal or Euergetic Ethics] The good is what is morally good.
Morality, right and wrong: The only real form of value, all other forms of value are derivative and subordinate.
Imperatives -- commands

Graphic Version of Table.

In the fallacy of moralism, the paradigm of obligation and duty comes to dominate ethics. All ethical goods are morally absolutized. Non-moral goods and aesthetic goods are completely devalued because they are apart from what is morally right. The aesthetic dignity of individuals -- the variety of their personal character, preferences, and self-fulfillment -- is lost; and all ethical or aesthetic rules are transformed by the moralistic advocate into moral obligations rigorously imposed on everyone and everything. Moralistic theories can be deontological or teleological; but any teleological theory with real moral obligation (i.e. that is not morally aesthetic) will be moralistic, since an obligation to realize non-moral ends intrinsically moralizes ideal ethics. Nevertheless deontological theories are more typical of moralism, since they can simply ignore consequences as irrelevant and locate all of ethics in moral principles.

The differentiation of ethics into morality and ideal, or euergetic, ethics goes back to the great German poet, playwright, and scholar Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805), the immortal author of the Ode to Joy, the poem that Ludwig van Beethoven included in the fourth movement of his Ninth Symphony. Leonard Nelson's account of Schiller's modification of Kantian ethics also includes an important discussion of moralism:

It is usually said that Schiller's contribution to ethics was to mitigate the rigorism of Kant. The precise contrary is the truth. One way to summarize Schiller's contribution to the development of ethics would be to say that he was the first to free moral rigorism from that association with moralism which had previously been the rule in ethics -- thereby making it possible, as it had not really been before, to establish the validity of moral rigorism in its true significance.

...[Rigorism's] real meaning is that the moral law is strictly valid, without any exceptions....

Moral rigorism is, howevever, quite difference from the moralism of Kantian ethics, i.e. its peculiarity of admitting no other principle of evaluation, for judging an action, than the law of morality. Only by eliminating this moralism could moral rigorism acquire its full purity and strength, which it did not achive even in Kant's own work. As long as it was confused with moralism it was bound to seem harsh and one-sided, appearing to imply the exclusion from ethics of any aesethetic ideal of life. [Leonard Nelson, Progress and Regress in Philosophy (originally Fortschritte und Rückschritte der Philosophie) Vol. II, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1971, p. 34]

Moralism tends to abolish the aesthetic paradigm (the mode of value outside of ethics) outright through anaesthesia [adj. "anaesthetic"], the denial of beauty and aesthetic value (not, in this case, the loss of consciousness due to drugs), and anhedonia [adj. "anhedonic"], the inability to experience pleasure or the moral condemnation of pleasure.

I had heard the term "anaesthetic" earlier, but in this instance I take it directly from Robert Hughes (1938-2012), the Australian art critic and historian. In the Culture of Complaint (Oxford University Press, 1993), Hughes says:

...the abiding traits of American victim art are posturing and ineptitude. In the performances of Karen Finley and Holly Hughes you get the extreme of what can go wrong with art-as-politics -- the belief that mere expressiveness is enough; that I become an artist by showing you my warm guts and defying you to reject them. You don't like my guts? You and Jesse Helms, fella.

The claims of this stuff are infantile. I have demands, I have needs. Why have you not gratified them? The "you" allows no differentiation, and the self-righteousness of the "I" is deeply anaesthetic [sic]. One would be glad of some sign of awareness of the nuance that distinguishes art from slogans. [p. 186-187]

As it happens, the term actually goes back to Aristotle, who says:

Men erring on the side of deficiency as regards pleasures (hêdonás), and taking less than a proper amount of enjoyment (khaírontes, "enjoying") in them, scarcely occur; such insensibility (anaisthêsía) is not human (anthrôpiké) [Nicomachean Ethics, Book III, xi, 7, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard U. Press, 1926-1982, pp.180-183].

Here "anaesthesia" is closer in meaning to modern "anesthesia" and in this usage to "anhedonia," as below. Since "aesthetic" now tends to refer to art and beauty, the sense now (as in Hughes) is for "anaesthesia" to be an insensibility to art and beauty. Aristotle, viewing such a thing as inhuman and rare, evidently did not anticipate the ideologies and religious and political systems that would be actively hostile to personal pleasures and enjoyments. The religious phenomenon is Mediaeval, the political, Modern.

Anhedonia was the original title of Woody Allen's 1977 Oscar Winning movie Annie Hall. By the end of the movie Diane Keaton accuses Allen of not being able to enjoy life enough, and he answers that he can't as long as someone, somewhere is suffering.

Anhedonia sounds like the famous definition of Puritanism by H.L. Mencken:  "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy" [A Book of Burlesques, 1916]. Both anaesthesia and anhedonia, which collectively we might just call "Puritanism," occur because beauty and pleasure are polynomicly independent of moral evaluation: beauty and pleasure may then be seen as intrinsically immoral forms of evaluation and therefore, for a moralistic system, merely moral evils, not independent forms of evaluation. Since beauty or pleasure occur independently of moral worth, they can be seen in the first place as undeserved, since they are not distributed as appropriate moral rewards, and in the second place as oppressive, since they misdirect us from the "true," i.e. the moral, evaluation and so burden us with adverse judgments and concerns, for ourselves and others (e.g. that we or you are ugly), that morally we shouldn't have to deal with. To say that beauty might be both undeserved and oppressive (i.e. both good and bad, a reward and a punishment) seems self-contradictory, but it is not an uncommon form of judgment.

Oscar Wilde condemns this, in his own way, by saying, "Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault" [The Picture of Dorian Gray, Preface]. Anhedonia implies the severity and humorlessness typical of moralism even in the ordinary use of the word "moralistic." The denial of anaesthesia is aestheticism proper (as opposed to moral aestheticism, described below):  that aesthetic value, the evaluation of the beautiful and the ugly, is independent of moral, religious, or political evaluation.

Camille Paglia gives us, in passing, a definition of aestheticism:

It [the novel Mademoiselle de Maupin, by Théophile Gautier] incorporates letters, narrative, dramatic dialogue, even an essay -- the infamous preface, first manifesto of aestheticism. Gautier attacks bourgeois values and asserts art has neither social utility nor moral content. Beauty alone is art's mission. [Sexual Personae, p. 409]

Oscar Wilde, in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray again, says, "They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty"; and he gives us the most succinct characterization of aestheticism: "All art is quite useless."

Immanuel Kant, with a moralistic system of ethics, discounts the value of aesthetics into a mere "harmony of the faculties." As is actually rather common in philosophy, Kant's treatment of aesthetics looks like an afterthought, relegated to the Critique of Judgment [1790, 1793], the Third Critique in Kant's philosophical system -- although even this is greater dignity for the subject than we usually get [note]. Kant's views may be the most strikingly contrasted with those of Arthur Schopenhauer -- a philosopher who not only gave aesthetics an essential place in his system, in Book Three of The World as Will and Representation -- before the treatment of morality and religion in Book Four -- but attributed to aesthetic value a reality and a central position in human life that is almost unique in the history of philosophy. Indeed, this would really only be trumped by Nietzsche, who may be said to have retained Schopenhauer as a starting point, while dropping all the moral and religious considerations of Book Four.

A striking case concerns music, which the moralist often has found disturbing. Even Plato, whose theory involves a strong aesthetic realism (derived from his own theory of the Forms but also from the Pythagorean influence in his thought) and who appreciated the power of music, feared that power and wished to contain it within the strongest moral and political controls. With Kant, however, we get the sense that he is led to trivialize music, not just because of his lack of aesthetic realism, but also because he didn't quite understand its power and was not in fact personally moved by it. Schopenhauer, more like what we might expect from a German philosopher of his era, saw music not only as the ultimate form of art but as an expression of realities to which mere concepts are inadequate.

Kant says:

If, on the other hand, we estimate the worth of the beautiful arts [den Wert der schönen Künste] by the culture they supply to the mind and take as a standard the expansion of the faculties which must concur in the judgment for cognition, music will have the lowest place [den untersten Platz] among them (as it has perhaps the highest among those arts which are valued for their pleasantness [Annehmlichkeit]), because it merely plays [spielt] with sensation. The formative arts [bildenden Künste, i.e. "plastic" arts] are far before it in this point of view, for in putting the imagination in a free play, which is also accordant with the understanding, they at the same time carry on a serious business [Geschäft]... These two species of art take quite different courses; the first [i.e. music] proceeds from sensations to indeterminate ideas [Ideen], the second from determinate ideas to sensations. The latter produce permanent, and former only transitory impressions. The imagination can recall the one and entertain itself pleasantly therewith; but the other [i.e. music] either vanish entirely, or, if they are recalled involuntarily by the imagination, they are rather wearisome [lästig] than pleasant [angenehm]. [Critique of Judgment, translated by J.H. Bernard, Hafner Publishing Co., 1968, p.174, boldface added]

One wonders to what kind of music Kant has been listening if its recollection is "wearisome" rather than pleasant. But even at its best, Kant appears to take music as no more than "pleasant," with its origin, as in all art, trivialized as a matter of "play." While his point may be well taken that a "play" of the imagination in some sense is required for art, we lose the important distinction between truly playful art and music and the forms of each that become serious. While Kant allows that the plastic (and presumably some performing) arts can rise to a "serious business," he explicitly disallows this to music -- which leaves me to play with a scene in my imagination of someone like Beethoven giving Kant a lesson in the seriousness of music -- the Fifth Symphony is about as playful as a thunderstorm. Kant had died [1804] before the first performance of the Third Symphony [1805]. Yet in Kant's own day, one did not need Beethoven to derive similarly "permanent impressions" from Bach, Hayden, or Mozart -- whose 40th Symphony equals Beethoven in majesty. In general, Kant's sense of music seems consistent with the light, playful, pastel Rococo aesthetic of his time, with the Baroque weight and seriousness of Bach forgotten. Kant's attitude may be contrasted with the judgment of Kenneth Clark, that "From Bach to Mozart, music expressed the deepest thoughts and feelings of the time, just as painting had done in the early 16th century." But Kant did not think music expressed any thoughts, and he seems immune to any deep feelings from it.

Kant has missed something there -- at the very least the dimension of the sublime in music, even though the young Kant himself wrote a book about the beautiful and the sublime -- and we know why. Kant sees the aesthetic, and particularly music, as superficial, and all his descriptions reinforce this. Only concepts, which can reach to serious, i.e. moral, concerns, carry us to any higher reality, to anything germane to the ultimate nature of things or of meaning. We have nothing like the beauty of Plato's Forms here, of which any earthly beauty reminds us. In fact, music for Kant falls into a group of obviously trivial pursuits -- the "play of fortune" [Glücksspiel], i.e. gambling, the "play of tone" [Tonspiel], i.e. music, and the "play of thought" [Gedankenspiel], i.e. wit and jokes [ibid., p.176]. This gives us a possible context for Kant's own imaginative vision:  gamblers joking and jesting, with some kind of baudy music or song in the background -- something similar to the drunken and disorderly "Midnight Modern Conversation" by Hogarth, below. But it is worse than that. Kant expresses an annoyance with music and then gives us his own example:

Besides, there attaches to music a certain want of urbanity from the fact that, chiefly from the character of its instruments, it extends its influence further than is desired (in the neighborhood), and so as it were obtrudes itself and does violence to the freedom of others who are not of the musical company. The arts which appeal to the eyes do not do this, for we need only turn our eyes away if we wish to avoid being impressed. [ibid., p.174]

What on earth is Kant talking about? Was he troubled by boom boxes on the subway or neighbors with their stereos on high? But these things didn't exist in his day; and any complaint about music as a performing art in general might as well apply to the stage, which certainly obtrudes itself on its neighborhood as much as any musical performance -- or is as similarly inoffensive from an indoor venue in an otherwise noisy commercial or entertainment district. This sounds like Kant's irritation at something in his own neighborhood, which turns out to be the case, as we learn from a footnote to this very passage:

Those who recommend the singing of spiritual songs at family prayers do not consider that they inflict a great hardship upon the public by such noisy (and therefore in general pharisaical [pharisäische]) devotions, for they force the neighbors either to sing with them or to abandon their meditations. [ibid., note, pp. 174-175, boldface added]

Thus we discover that Kant was annoyed, not by drunken gamblers, but by hymns, whose character is faulted, not merely for disturbing Kant's "meditations" [Gedankengeschäft], but for the moral fault of being "pharisaical," i.e. the doing of Pharisees whose valorization of the empty forms of ritual was condemned by Jesus. But it is an extraordinary reflection to regard singing as equivalent to an empty ritual. For me, it is hard to listen to the arrangement by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) of Luther's hymn, Erhalt’ uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort, "Save us, Lord, by your Word," without thinking of the most sublime moments in Beethoven. One wonders what bothered Kant more, the actual level of sound (in the days before electronic amplification, let alone reproduction) or the character of what he was hearing. In fact, it looks like it was not so much "family" [häuslich] observances that particularly bothered Kant but the services held for the prisoners at the jail next to which he lived, and about which he complained to the burgomaster [cf. ibid. editor's note, p.175]. Well, we might regard him as lucky if natural voice hymns were all that troubled him in the neighborhood of the jail.

This reveals a number of peculiar things about Kant. The triviality of music is not just of a piece with the "play" of gamblers and jokers but of the quite serious practice of religion, where song in the Protestant North of Europe had replaced the plastic arts that were thoroughly destroyed by Lutherans and Calvinists -- evidence of whose iconoclasm still disfigures old German churches. Does this mean that Kant would look more favorably upon the art of a Catholic church? Something tells me probably not. Music in Kant's estimation is not merely trivial, but its character in a religious context is positively offensive and improper -- in which he was not alone in a Calvinist tradition. To a kind of sour anaesthesia about music (without the intense religious consciousness even of Calvinism), we therefore must add to Kant's faults an idiosyncratic version of the sort of religious anhedonia that I will examine further below. In any case, Kant's example is entirely irrelevant. The disturbance of the neighborhood by music, sports, domestic disputes, barking dogs, car alarms, home remodeling, or the indoor pistol practice of Sherlock Holmes has nothing to do with the independent value of these activities; and Kant's irritation with his neighbors (or with popular religion) has improperly obtruded into the philosophical analysis of aesthetic value. The lack of "urbanity" is not in the music; it is in the neighbors -- if not in Kant himself.

Turning from Kant to Schopenhauer, we find a very different wind blowing. Where Kant believes that our relationship to ultimate meaning and value among things-in-themselves is mediated by the concepts of the Moral Law, Schopenhauer believes that the thing-in-itself is the Will, which is a blind force and drive, in a virtually Darwinian sense, for existence and survival. As Schopenhauer says in his discussion of music, "The (Platonic) Ideas are the adequate objectification of the will" [The World as Will and Representation, Volume I, §52, E.F.J. Payne translation, Dover Publications, 1966, p.257]. In other words, Schopenahuer thinks that the "Ideas" [Ideen] represent the Will as the kinds of objects found in the phenomenal world. While Kant's notion of "Ideas" is that they are the concepts that arise from our attempts to conceive of transcendent objects (e.g. God, freedom, & immortality), Schopenhauer's "Ideas" are more intuitive and concrete, like (as he says) Plato's, and in their generality they embody aesthetic value. Schopenhauer's aesthetic realism is thus found in his own theory of these "Ideas."

Discussing the notion of Leibniz that music is a kind of unconscious mathematics, Schopenhauer says,

But if it were nothing more, the satisfaction afforded by it would inevitably be similar to that which we feel when a sum in arithmetic comes out right, and could not be that profound pleasure with which we see the deepest recesses of our nature find expression. Therefore, from our standpoint, where the aesthetic effect is the thing we have in mind, we must attribute to music a far more serious and profound significance that refers to the innermost being of the world and of our own self. [ibid., p.256, boldface added]

How different is the impression we get in comparison to Kant. Nothing trivial, pleasant, superficial, or playful about this. Schopenhauer has been hearing a very different kind of music from Kant, a sublime music, as though he has detected Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in the distance, while Kant is quarreling with neighbors whose children are playing a record of "It's a Small World After All" over and over again. To Schopenhauer, music has the highest, not the lowest, place in comparison to the other arts:

Hence all of them [i.e. the other arts] objectify the will only indirectly, in other words, by means of the Ideas. ...music, since it passes over the Ideas, is also quite independent of the phenomenal world, positively ignores it, and, to a certain extent, could still exist even if there were no world at all, which cannot be said of the other arts. Thus music is as immediate an objectification and copy of the whole will as the world itself is, indeed as the Ideas are... Therefore music is by no means like the other arts, namely a copy of the Ideas, but a copy of the will itself, the objectivity of which are the Ideas. [ibid., p.257, boldface added]

Music as sound does not need space (although stereo is nice), and as a phenomenon of time exists in a kind of abstract space, like Leibniz's mathematics, apart from the space of the world. Yet it is also concrete, is not a matter of concepts, and expresses something much more:  "Hence it has always been said that music is the language of feeling and of passion, just as words are the language of reason" [p.259, boldface added]. To the question that he quotes from Aristotle, "How is it that rhythms and melodies, although only sound, resemble states of the soul?" [p.260], Schopenhauer answers that music directly expresses the essential being of all that we are. "The composer reveals the innermost nature of the world, and expresses the profoundest wisdom in a language that his reasoning faculty does not understand" [p.260].

Therefore music does not express this or that particular and definite pleasure, this or that affliction, pain, sorrow, horror, gaiety, meriment, or peace of mind, but joy, pain, sorrow, horror, gaiety, merriment, peace of mind themselves, to a certain extent in the abstract, their essential nature, without any accessories... [p.261]

Here we see something apparent to Schopenhauer to which Kant seems postively blind (or deaf), that music covers the entire spectrum of emotion. The good composer can take any human experience and write music to accompany it:

This close relation that music has to the true nature of all things can also explain the fact that, when music suitable to any scene, action, event, or environment is played, it seems to disclose to us its most secret meaning, and appears to be the most accurate and distinct commentary on it. [p.262]

One thing Schopenhauer has in mind is the use of music in opera; but today, of course, one of the most expressive uses of music is in film, providing one of the most haunting and memorable features of the best of movies. Indeed, this throws into perspective the nature of much of avant-garde modern music, whose atonal and dissonant nature is of a piece with the abandonment of beauty in the modern plastic arts. What would a composer use such music for in a movie? Ah, I know:  insanity. Discordant and dissociated music goes with the discordant and dissociated mind -- or with the Nihilism of trendy "Theory." Schopenhauer was lucky not to live to hear Stockhausen.

The metaphysics of music Schopenhauer sums up in a version of scholastic formulae, "the concepts are the universalia post rem, but music gives the universalia ante rem, and reality the universalia in re" [p.263, boldface added]. Thus, we get the concepts of universals by reflecting on the things of experience, while reality is the embodiment of those universals. But music, giving us the Will itself, is ontologically prior to phenomenal reality.

Schopenhauer's aesthetic realism thus leads to just about the strongest valorization of art and music in the history of philosophy, while in Kant, as we might expect from his moralism, we get forms of anaesthesia and anhedonia that range from the trivialization of music and annoyance at hearing it to moral condemnation of the "pharisaical" hymns. Yet even Kant is a positive aesthete compared to the attitudes that I will examine next.

Anaesthesia and anhedonia most easily occur in systems of religious or political moralism, where all valuation and obligation are bent towards religious or political ends, no independent forms of evaluation can be allowed, and any purposes apart from the religiously or politically worthy are frivolous, reprehensible, or evil. While religious moralism is familiar from much of history, and political moralism since at least the French Revolution, the 20th century provided terrifying examples of both.

A good example of anhedonic religious moralism can be found with the Ayatollâh Khomeini of Irân. Khomeini never smiled in public, and he was finally asked about this by a reporter. His answer was, "Islâm is serious all the time." Khomeini actually wrote:

Allah did not create man so that he could have fun. The aim of creation was for mankind to be put to the test through hardship and prayer. An Islamic regime must be serious in every field. There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious. [quoted in Amir Taheri, The Spirit of Allah: Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution, Adler & Adler, 1986, p.259]

Khomeini also said, "Music is treason to our nation and to our youth." This is all much like stories about the religious police in Saudi Arabia, who have been known to knock on doors and warn people if they could be heard laughing from the street. Such laughing in the home, evidently, betrayed insufficient seriousness. A similar story has come from Irân again:  The World Press Review reported, in July 1999, that the magazine Adineh was banned in Irân because it had printed a story by a woman about being admonished by the "state morality police" because she was laughing while eating with her family in a restaurant. The story was entitled, "Is Joy Lost in Our City? Is Laughing a Sin?" The answer, evidently, was "Yes! And a Crime!" However, although fundamentalism is today very influential in Islâm, it would be a mistake to take these attitudes, in such extreme forms, to be necessary or universal in the religion. Any reading of The Thousand and One Nights, which contains very ancient stories but was definitively compiled in Egypt shortly after 1400, would disabuse anyone that anhedonia has always reigned in Islâm. The Thousand and One Nights is very serious about its Islâm, with discussions of Islâmic Law and stories about the Holy War against the Romans, but this doesn't stop a great deal of drinking, sexual irregularities, and the admiration of female, and male, beauty. This range of attitudes, of course, is familiar from most religions. India, where some temples, Hindu and Jain, are decorated with pornographic sculptures, and where Classical painting and sculpture always showed bare breasted women, and more (usually looking like they've had breast implant surgery, as at right or in the popup image -- see more discussion of Indian dress elsewhere), nevertheless until recently didn't even allow male and female stars to kiss in the movies. The very words "Puritan" and "Calvinist" bespeak episodes of the public enforcement of asceticism in the history of Christianity -- where many Christians still shun alcohol, despite the statement of Jesus, "This is my blood" (Matthew 26:28), in referring to his glass of wine. Many Protestants, who pride themselves on the textual foundations of their faith and practice, substitute grape juice to commemorate the Eucharist -- and argue, incredibly, that Jesus was drinking grape juice, despite the use of the Greek word for "wine" and the absence of a grape juice industry in the ancient world (before the introduction of Pasteurization and refrigeration).

Although religious moralism has now revived as a geopolitical threat, political moralism was more widespread and more destructive in the 20th century. Although common in totalitarian regimes, from Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia to Communist China and Cuba, the most horrifying and monstrous example comes from Cambodia, where the Communist Khmer Rouge murdered perhaps a third of the population of the entire country, more than two million people. Not just beauty and pleasure, but even ordinary human sentiment and affection were prohibited and punished as "counter-revolutionary" activity. The following passage from R.J. Rummel's Death by Government [Transaction Publishers, 1994, pp.186-187] tells the terrible tale:

Of course, love between people could not be allowed -- it interfered with work. Not only was sex between the unmarried absolutely forbidden, but in some places boys and girls were threatened with execution for as little as holding hands.

Normal family life, including love and sorrow, was impossible in some villages. Children were taken away from their parents to live and work in labor brigades. If they died of fatigue or disease, which many did, their parents would eventually be informed. At this point what emotion the parents showed could mean life or death. If they wept or displayed extreme unhapppiness, this showed bourgeois sentimentality. After all, their children had sacrificed themselves for the revolution and the parents should be proud, not unhappy. Similarly, a wife expressing grief over an executed husband -- an enemy of the revolution -- was explicitly criticizing the Khmer Rouge. This unforgivable act of sentimentality and individuality could mean death.

The tale of Bunheang Ung vividly illustrates the danger of normal feelings. In December 1977 his work group was sent to work in Phum Maesar Phrachan hamlet. Coindidentally, his aunt of which he was very fond, lived there and he had not seen her for some time.

When he met her suddenly one day he impulsively took her hand. "I forgot, you see," Bun later explained. "I missed her, and I was pleased to see her." Immediately a Khmer Rouge cadre shouted at him. Bun dropped his aunt's hand and jumped away, but the crime had been committed. A meeting of Bun's [work] group was immediately called to deal with this serious breach of the rules. Bun was several [sic] criticized for his failure to develop a revolutionary morality. His action proved that he had failed to change his mode of thinking and failed to renounce the corrupt morality of the old regime. It was a most serious charge. Bun apologized. His group leader advised him to change his ways, or he would be punished most severely. Bun had no need to ask what that punishment would be....

Even calling one's wife by some term of endearment was forbidden. Haing Ngor had been overheard doing this by spies who also reported that he had eaten food he picked rather than bringing it in for communal eating. Interrogated about these sins, he was told, "The chhlop [spies] say that you call your wife 'sweet.' We have no 'sweethearts' here. That is forbidden." He then was taken to a prison where he was severally [sic] tortured, had a finger cut off and an ankle sliced with a hatchet. He barely survived.

Although the brutality and evil of these events almost defies belief (and were not believed by many, until the Vietnamese exposed them for their own purposes), they differ only in degree, not in kind or in principle, from the regime established by Lenin and Stalin in Russia. The word for such politics -- Terror -- is borrowed from similar policies during the French Revolution, when Robespierre forthrightly asserted that the Terror was the direct manifestation of Virtue:  "Terror is naught but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue."

An example of similar principles invading a liberal society, and of a clash between political moralism and aestheticism, is the continuing debate in feminism over its longstanding tendency to reject any personal or traditional cultural emphasis on female beauty, regarding it as a devaluation, belittlement, or "objectification" of women, or at least as a distraction from worthy purposes. The opposite sides of the debate have been argued in The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolff, who saw the celebration of beauty as part of a misogynistic conspiracy and a recent anti-feminist political backlash (though she now may have changed her mind somewhat about this in a later book, Fire with Fire), and Camille Paglia [as in Sexual Personae, above], who defends politically free art, aestheticism, fashion, advertising, pornography, and so, in effect, the polynomic independence of beauty and pleasure.

Even more disturbing than feminist anaesthesia is the now established principle in "sexual harassment" law that sexual images and innuendo in the workplace, even in one case a man merely keeping a picture of his wife, wearing a bathing suit, on his desk, constitute a "hostile environment" to female workers. Sexual images may be unwelcome or disturbing to some, or at least distracting, like Goya's Naked Maja in a classroom, to which some feminist professor objected; but this is a matter of aesthetic and personal preference, like the Disneyland policy against beards (which, come to think of it, sounds like a hostile environment for males), not hostility. The very idea that sex means "hostility" to women is a level of anhedonia that, not surprisingly, comes from the extremist fringe of feminism, people like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, for whom ordinary heterosexual sex is not just oppressive, but already rape. That such views end up being accepted as the Law of the Land, without a general hue and cry, and without recognition that MacKinnon and Dworkin were emotionally disturbed persons, is testimony to some deep confusions in public debate and political values [note]. It is the workplace of tortured sexlessness and unnatural inhibitions that displays evidence of hostility -- hostility to life itself.

There was a remarkable volte-face by many feminists in much of this rhetoric, and even in previously stated and existing legal principles, once President Bill Clinton was credibly accused, not just of sexual harassment by Paula Jones, but even of forcible sexual contact and rape by others. It cannot be expected, however, that this is any more than a politically expedient and hypocritical exception to previous theory. None of the Clinton apologists have suggested reforming any of the applicable laws or principles.

While it is the tendency of Wolff and others to present emphasis on beauty as a recent and Western phenomenon -- as part, indeed, of the conservative blacklash of the 80's (although this is rather strange considering the alliance of anti-porn feminists with anti-porn conservatives) -- this does not explain historical and cross-cultural cases like the name of the famous ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, which means "The Beautiful One Has Come," or a traditional Hawaiian girl's name like "Haunani," which means "Very Beautiful," or the Chinese character that writes the character for "woman" twice to mean "handsome" or "pretty." A striking example of contasting the beauty of women with the martial vocation of men may be found in the great Indian epic, the Mahâbhârata. Here the princess Draupadî, for whom the hero Arjuna will compete in the "bridegroom choice," and her brother Dhr.s.t.adyumna, both of whom were miraculously born from an altar fire, are described:

The spirited maiden with eyes like lotus petals and a flawless body, lovely and delicate, is the daughter of the great-spirited Yajñasena Drupada, and she was born from the middle of the altar. She is the sister of the mighty and majestic Dhr.s.t.adyumna, the foeman of Dron.a, who was born, wearing armor, sword, bow, and arrows, from the blazing fire and is resplendent like the fire. His sister Draupadî of the flawless limbs and slender waist, whose blue lotus fragrance wafts as far as a league, Yajñasena's daughter, is holding her bridegroom choice.

The Mahâbhârata, Vol. I, The Book of the Beginning, University of Chicago Press, 1973, p. 347; photo is of supermodel Yasmeen Ghauri, who is a half Pakistani and half German Canadian. Click photo for 107K file.

To anaesthetic, moralistic feminism, this passage is a classic example of sexism: what is remarkable about Draupadî is her physical perfection and even fragrance, while her brother is "resplendent" in association with his unusually substantial, and military, birthday suit. On the other hand, classical Greek sculpture, presumably at the source of Western civilization, focused almost entirely on the beauty of the nude male; and it is arguable that later female nudes were inspired by Egyptian or other Middle Eastern sources. The Thousand and One Nights is notable for the equal emphasis it puts on both male and female beauty. There are stories where the Jinn discover the most beautiful youth and the most beautiful maiden and put them together. Thus, female beauty is hardly something exclusively recent or Western. Instead, in the Western tradition, the kind of erotic, indeed pornographic, depiction of male nudes, which can be found on Greek plates and jars, has recently been revived in a vast output of gay pornography, even while many feminists have been arguing that all pornography (which they seem to assume only depicts women, or gay men conforming to misogynistic stereotypes) should be considered a "civil rights" offense against women.

At the same time, some of the most striking recent "pin-up" artwork of female nudes has been done by women, like Olivia de Berardinis (e.g. Let them Eat Cheesecake, the Art of Olivia, Ozone Productions, 1993). As models, Olivia has often used women like Pamela Anderson and Julie Strain, who are hardly feminist role models (Anderson even used the surname "Lee" when she was married to her sometimes abusive husband), but who do, undoubtedly, look good.

In an artistic or professional context, it is ironically noteworthy now that many of those who are the most concerned with female beauty, in the fashion industry, and the vast majority of those concerned with male beauty, in whatever context, are usually expected to be homosexual men (as Whoopi Goldberg, dressed in white-face as Queen Elizabeth I, joked at the 1999 Academy Awards, "I think we've all had our hair done enough times to know that you cannot rush a Queen"). At the same time, radical lesbians, and moralistic feminists who hardly seem distinguishable from them, often seem to be some of the most militantly anaesthetic and anhedonic people in the civilization -- as Joan Rivers says, "Lesbians don't fucking laugh" ["Joan Rivers: Don't Start With Me," stage show & Showtime, 2012]. There has been a reaction to that even in the lesbian community, where we now have the phenomenon of "lipstick lesbians," who indulge in all the traditional paraphernalia of feminine beauty -- and a pair of such women can make a decent living now simply selling videos of their own lovemaking to male fans [a formula that even works at the level of non-pornographic light comedy -- see Kissing Jessica Stein].

The distaste for this, and for flamboyant drag queens like RuPaul, of the anaesthetic feminists and lesbians, however, must pale beside the discomfort they must feel with some kinds of gay art:  The only place in recent culture where misogyny is generally beyond feminist criticism is in art with a gay male theme. A striking example of this was the celebrated 1992 movie The Crying Game, where the only likable female character turns out to be male. The real women in the movie were faithless, treacherous, or positively murderous and evil. Ordinarily, this would have raised howls of protest, even demonstrations and boycotts, but reviewers and critics hardly seemed to notice that aspect of the film. Because of its gay theme, it was above reproach, whatever else it may have been saying or doing. There is also the curious case of late artist Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photos of homoerotic bondage, sado-masochism, humiliation, and even blood-letting are counterexamples to the feminist thesis that these expressions of male sexuality, when involving women, are simply motivated by misogyny. Real misogyny is thus overlooked, while evidence that male sexuality is not, in general, misogynistic also escapes notice. The political alliance between feminism and gay "rights" (which is all about ending property rights and voluntary association), it seems, trumps feminist doctrine about art, patriarchy, and even misogyny but also shuts down the evaluation of anything else that gay sexuality might reveal.

Heels are popular with women because they do much more than add inches. Model Veronica Webb put it bluntly:  wearing heels is "like putting your ass on a pedestal." Balancing precariously on the balls of their feet, wearing heels forces women to throw back their shoulders and arch their backs, making their breasts look bigger, their stomachs flatter, and their buttocks more rounded and thrust out. And this is just an aside from what they do to the shape of the leg, which appears more toned, elongated, and recalling the shape of a leg tensed by arousal. [Nancy Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest, The Science of Beauty, Doubleday, 1999, p.195]

According to Harper's Index, the average increase in the protrusion of a woman's buttocks when she wears high heels is 25 percent. [Linda O'Keeffe, Shoes, A Celebration of Pumps, Sandals, Slippers & More, Workman Publishing, New York, 1996, p. 127.]

Not just feminism, but much broader principles of political correctness now have strong influence on law and education. The Language Police, How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, by Diane Ravitch [Alfred A. Knopf, 2003], details the effects of politicized standards in education, particularly the language that can be used, the issues that can be addressed, and the truths that must be distorted in order to avoid political offense. Among many marvelous examples, there is a passage that specifically addresses the political anaesthesia to be found in literature anthologies:

Censorship distorts the literature cirriculum, substituting political judgments for aesthetic ones. Because of the bias and social content guidelines, editors of literature anthologies must pay more attention to having the correct count of gender groups and ethnic groups among their characters, authors, and illustrations than they do the literary quality of the selections. State education officials carefully scrutinize the former and ignore the latter. Once literary quality no longer counts, almost anything can be included in literature anthologies, such as television scripts, student essays, advertisements, and other ephemera, while indisputably major authors share equal billing with authors whose work will never be known outside the textbook industry. Quietly but inevitably, what we once considered our literary heritage disappears from the schools. [p.160]

The tendency of political moralism is to political orthodoxy, in whose terms aesthetic value is secondary to irrelevant -- or even improper. As Ravitch notes, this produces works that are not only aesthetically bad, but simply boring. Students not only find the material stupifying, but the sharper ones are usually aware of its tendentiousness and dishonesty. After winning the Cold War, the United States now manages to reproduce, perhaps not accidentally, the Soviet vision of education as political indoctrination.

Even though many years have passed, anaesthetic moralism in feminism is alive and well. In 2011 we have The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law, by Deborah L. Rhode [Oxford University Press]. Rhode is actually a law professor at Stanford and believes that "lookism," discriminating on the basis of appearance, should be a civil rights offense. The Economist says about her book:

Ms. Rhode clearly struggles to see why any woman would willingly embrace fashion (particuarly high heels). She is outraged that virtually all females consider their looks as key to their self-image. She cites a survey in which over half of young women said they would prefer to be hit by a truck than be fat. Her indignation is mostly moral. Billions of dollars are now spent on cosmetic surgery -- up to 90% of it by women -- at a time when almost a fifth of Americans lack basic health care [?]. The more women focus on improving their looks, Ms Rhode argues, the less they think about others. [August 27th-September 2nd, 2011, p.72]

In other words, Deborah Rhode knows better where the money people earn should be spent. Probably it should be taken away from them, in order to finance socialized medicine. Clearly, Rhode's intense, self-righteous moral indignation is that these women are not sufficiently self-denying, don't properly devote their efforts to the welfare of others, and, of course, are victimized by their own false consciousness, which creates "social" injustice both for themselves and for others. Rhode is said to believe that the "Beauty Bias" actually "restricts self-expression," which of course is not going to mean aesthetic self-expression -- that is in itself unworthy. This is where a little bit of Nietzsche (we don't want more than that) would go a long way. Nietzsche's remark about Christian anaesthesia is far more appropriate here:  "I had always sensed strongly the furious, vindictive hatred of life implicit in that system of ideas and values; and sensed, too, that in order to be consistent with its premises a system of this sort was forced to abominate art" [The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, 1872, Golffing translation, Anchor edition, 1956, p.10]. Rhode abominates the art of female beauty.

More distrubing than Rhode's moralistic philosophy is the fact that she is teaching on a prestigious law faculty, inculcating a new generation of activist lawyers with a totalitarian political agenda. This problem has recently been examined in Schools for Misrule: Legal Academia and an Overlawyered America, by Walter Olson [Encounter Books, 2011]. Despite the subtitle, the alarming issue in Olson's book is not just "overlawyering," which is probably something of which people are generally aware, but the agenda of the aging Sixties Radicals who have worked their way into these institutions -- an agenda that is anti-American, anti-Capitalist, anti-individual rights, and otherwise simply engages in propaganda for unlimited government, the abolition of privacy and free speech (where these conflict with leftist social engineering), and the centralization of all political power, i.e. the program, sometimes openly expressed, but usually hidden from public view (with the cooperation of the "mainsteam" media), of the modern Democratic Party. Americans began to get a taste of the full meaning of this with 111th Congress (2009-2011) and the Obama Administration. The November 2010 election showed the reaction of most of the country, if not in places like New York or California, although it was mainly issues of debt and spending that turned out the vote. Just as dramatic is the way people vote with their money. Fashion and beauty are in no danger, except from sour and intolerant moralists like Deborah Rhode. Yet I bet that she votes for the same politicians favored by the people who will not be inviting her to Fashion Week in New York.

Varieties of Moralism

The Morality of Laughter, by F.H. Buckley, University of Michigan Press, 2003

Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1862-1863, Édouard Manet

The Erotic as an Aesthetic Category

Logical Relationships of Moralism and Moral Aestheticism

Pages on Feminist Issues
Feminism Against the Theory of "Sexist Language" Defense of Christina Hoff Sommers published in The Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 66:7
Abortion Gender Stereotypes and Sexual Archetypes Pornography Women in the
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The War Against Boys, How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men, by Christina Hoff Sommers, Simon & Schuster, 2000

Ethics

Value Theory

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The Fallacy of Moralism, Note 1

The furor over Karen Finley is now drifting into ancient history, and many readers may not recognize her name. Finley will live in infamy among Conservatives for using her grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, back in the '80's, to do a performance art piece:  She appeared on stage in the nude, smeared chocolate syrup on her body, and invited audience members to lick it off. The quite reasonable objection, of course, was why taxpayer money should be spent on something like this, which many people would consider offensive or obscene. Finley's own purpose in the piece was muddied when she later appeared in the July 1999 issue of Playboy magazine. The original act seemed to be a standard angry feminist parody or send up of the "objectification" of the female body or, as the Playboy article itself said, "a symbol of degradation." However, appearing in the nude in Playboy magazine, especially with Bill Maher personally licking the chocolate off her himself, would hardly be interpretated by the standard angry feminist as sending the "right message"; and Finley compounds the problem by appearing, not just in her trademark chocolate, but without it also, in some standard Playboy nude poses. She doesn't look particularly angry or feminist and indeed is a very good looking woman -- wholesome and enjoyable -- little inferior to any Playmate. This was a curious development in the history of political performance art.

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The Fallacy of Moralism, Note 2

The Critique of Judgment is an essential part of Kant's system in so far as it is supposed to supply a bridge and a synthesis between the First Critique, the Critique of Pure Reason, and the Second Critique, the Critique of Practial Reason. This sort of thing in Kant is the origin of the practice in Hegel and other Idealists of the "dialectical" progression from thesis, to antithesis, to synthesis. What Kant ends up with, however, is not much of a bridge. Since the transcendent is closed to theoretical reason but practical reason gives us a clue about transcendent realities (i.e. God, freedom, and immortality), we might expect a theory of aesthetic value to give us something a little more concrete to flesh out the clues, especially when part of Kant's aesthetics is the "teleological judgment," which even from Kant's ethics (the "Kingdom of Ends") we expect to have some kind of transcendent resonance or application. Kant's aesthetics, however, is subjectivist. This is particularly odd when Kant's most effective formulation of the Moral Law involves the dignity of a person (to be treated as an end also and never as a means only), which is not obviously derivable from the rational universality (of the first formulation) of the Moral Law (that Kant's system requires), while it does look more like an aesthetic good-in-itself. Indeed, Kant seemed to be moving in this direction in his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764), which I have discussed under Psychological Types. The formalism of the Critique of Practical Reason is really a reductionistic abstraction that is inconsistent with his better instincts, and pursuing the instincts of the Observations would have made for better aesthetics also.

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The Fallacy of Moralism, Note 3


Haing Ngor (1940-1996) was a Cambodian physician who experienced some of the worst of the Cambodian Terror, fled Cambodia in 1979, wrote books about his experience, and then won an Oscar for best supporting actor for the 1984 movie The Killing Fields. Sadly, on February 25, 1996, Ngor was murdered by Asian gang members while leaving the carport of his Los Angeles apartment. The killing appears to have been part of a robbery, but rumor attributed it to a hit by Communist sympathizers. It is hard to believe that there would be Communist sympathizers operating in such an expatriot community, but it is obvious at American university campuses that a generation that never knew what Communism was really like back home can easily supply recruits for campus radicals from the Left.

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The Fallacy of Moralism, Note 4


MacKinnon's presence in the media seemed to suddenly disappear a few years ago, and it is only now I realize that it may have been because of her support of the Paula Jones lawsuit. MacKinnon said, "When Paul Jones sued Bill Clinton, male dominance quaked." This would not have endeared her to other feminists who, after a slight hesitation, voided (temporarily) all their long stated principles in order to protect a political ally. Indeed, at the time, I did not even hear of MacKinnon's opinion. Also, while orthodox feminists had no particular love for pornography, the open alliance of MacKinnon and Dworkin with religious conservatives (the detested "Religious Right") on the issue made many, at the least, uncomfortable. Dworkin herself gained more attention from her premature death (aged 58) in 2005 than either of them had garnered in a while.

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The Fallacy of Moral Aestheticism

The fallacy of moral aestheticism (adj. "aesthetic" or "aesthetistic") results from the generalization of ideal ethics into all of ethics. The paradigm of aesthetic judgment dominates ethics. Truth = Beauty. All ethical goods and imperatives are relativized into aesthetic preferences, with an emphasis on human "creativity" instead of on a concern for what is right -- e.g. Richard Rorty:  see Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, where Rorty argues that it is more morally responsible to make up one's own morality than to worry about whether what one does is objectively right or wrong. Moral preferences cannot be "imposed" on others, and so the force of moral obligation is lost. A deontological ethical theory becomes impossible where there can be no ethical principles with any force. Only consequences count, and none of them absolutely.

MORAL AESTHEICISM: THE GOOD=ART
ETHICS=ARTAesthetics, the beautiful and the ugly: theory of art & beauty, the value of all things, the worth of nature, the relation of value and being, things good-in-themselves.
MORALITY=ART[Ideal or Euergetic Ethics, the good and the bad] creativity in human life, happiness, fulfillment, self-realization and individuation, ideals created and chosen by individuals or cultures.
[Morality, right and wrong] moral goodness created and courageously chosen by individuals, according to their personal ideals; no one should be limited by moral standards "imposed" by others -- that is the "bad faith" of not being true to one's self.
Optatives -- wishes

Graphic Version of Table.

Although Camille Paglia defends aestheticism, she does not defend moral aestheticism and is aware of the difference. In aestheticism proper art is merely independent of morality. In moral aestheticism it replaces morality. It is true, however, that, just as moral rigorism tends to moralism, aestheticism tends to moral aestheticism. Thus, Paglia says:

Mademoiselle de Maupin demonstrates how the aesthete's infatuation with the visible is at the expense of the invisible or ethical. The aesthete is an immoralist....He [D'Albert, a character in the novel] says, "It is a real torture to me to see ugly things or ugly persons."....Here are the origins of Wilde's aesthetic, with its arrogant exclusiveness. The old or ugly are valueless to the poet of the visible world. D'Albert makes the high Greek claim, "What is physically beautiful is good, all that is ugly is evil." The Apollonian is always cruel. Only Dionysius gives empathy. Aestheticism invests in art objects the affect withdrawn from persons [Ibid. p. 410.]

Paglia's frequent moral judgments in Sexual Personae can be confusing unless it is kept in mind that morality and aestheticism do not exclude one other -- only morality and moral aestheticism do that. In practice, morality or its discourse may be rejected by moral aestheticism to different degrees. For that, see:

Varieties of Moral Aestheticism

Aestheticism and Moral Aestheticism in Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music

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Value Theory

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Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2012 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

The Fallacy of Moralistic Relativism

The form of moralistic relativism would be evident in an assertion like this:  "Because all values are relative, you have no right to impose your value judgments on others; but if you are not a progressive in politics, you are a fascist and so cannot be allowed to express your vicious and hateful opinions in public discourse." These attitudes are rarely stated in such stark juxtaposition; but finding them actually held by the same persons, and voiced in separate contexts, is not difficult.

Enklinobarangus ()

At some point in the 1980s, not being "judgmental" became the highest form of virtue -- although the left is plenty judgmental about things they don't like, such as white males, smokers, Christianity, Wal-Mart, Fox News, talk radio and NASCAR.

Liberals are so determined not to stigmatize anybody that their solution is always to make all of society suffer instead...

Ann Coulter, "Mental health laws are trouble for Democrats," December 18, 2013

It is not unusual to find theories, and people, insensibly shifting back and forth between moralism and moral aestheticism. Since there actually are separate domains of value, it is difficult to deal with life from absolutely consistent moralistic or morally aesthetic viewpoints. Today this is most conspicuous in doctrines, which are often political ideologies, that present themselves in relativistic and morally aesthetic ways (i.e. "multiculturalism," with all its talk about "diversity," which may be based on ideas of cultural relativism, etc.), but then begin to dictate extremely moralistic, dogmatic, and even totalitarian political principles for behavior (the "political correctness" that follows from politicized "multiculturalism"). The heteronomous relativism of recently popular historicism easily leads to this. It is the fundamental paradox of trying to use the descriptive principles of relativism as absolute moral injunctions.

This phenomenon is noted, though not in the same terms, by Paul Hollander in The Survival of the Adversary Culture:

Paul Craig Roberts characterizes the resulting attitudes [of Western and American intellectuals] as a "fusion of moral scepticism with the demand for moral perfection..." He also points out that the high, moralistic demands on the part of intellectuals are almost invariably directed at their own society, rarely at those opposed to it.... In other words, the intellectuals discussed alternate between moral absolutism and moral relativism. [The Survival of the Adversary Culture, Transaction Publishers, 1991, p. 156]

It is even simpler than this. Moral aestheticism, relativism, and scepticism are used to defend what is favored by a political writer. The argument is then that whatever is favored is allowed because nothing can be morally disallowed. On the other hand, moralism, absolutism, and dogmatism are used to attack what is not favored by a political writer. This is done less often by way of argument that by deploying a battery of emotionally charged epithets -- racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc. -- whose status as moral evils is regarded as self-evident and whose application to specific cases is regarded as appropriate and decisive if it is merely conceivable and considered useful in a favored cause.

The irony and irrationality of these contradictory strategies is further explored by Hollander:

Another way to highlight these contrasts is to note that American intellectuals, even the most severe social critics among them, harbor high expectations about their society, and it is the frustration of these expectations which often turns into bitterness and rejection. I had argued elsewhere, that the broad historical background against which such expectations are played out is that of secularization. As Roberts put it "...the secularization of Christian moral fervor...produced demands for the moral perfection of society..."

In the final analysis alienation is, among other things a response to the frustration created by the lack of meaning in modern society. It has been pointed out often enough that politics takes on religious overtones when religion proper withers, at any rate among intellectuals. Along these lines Doris Lessing observed:

There are certain types of people who are political out of a kind of religious reason...I think it's fairly common among socialists: They are in fact God-seekers, looking for the kingdom of God on earth...trying to abolish the present in favor of some better future -- always taking it for granted that there is a better future. If you don't believe in heaven you believe in socialism.

There is a close and obvious connection between the embrace of Marxist socialism and the social critical impulse. Marxism is a philosophy of intense moral indignation -- a worldview that helps to organize and systematize moral passion and which provides a seemingly scientific foundation for protesting social injustice. Marxism performs additional religious functions by pointing towards a better future which will arrive as a combined result of both the inexorable forces of history and the freely chosen effort of individuals who achieved the proper understanding of social forces. Leszek Kolakowski concluded his monumental study of Marxism as follows:

The influence Marxism has achieved, far from being the result or proof of its scientific character, is almost entirely due to its prophetic, fantastic and irrational elements...Almost all the prophecies of Marx and his followers have already proved to be false, but this does not disturb the spiritual certainty of the faithful...for it is a certainty not based on any empirical premises or supposed 'historical laws', but simply on the psychological need for certainty. In this sense Marxism performs the function of religion....
[Ibid., p. 157-8]

The combination of moralism and moral aestheticism thus results from a secular rejection of traditional religion and its morality (the morally aesthetic aspect) together with an unconscious and unreflective revival and adaptation of the religious impulse, in its most dogmatic and irrational forms (the moralistic aspect), to political purposes. The result is an oxymoronic "secular religion" which duplicates and magnifies all the evils identified in secular critiques of religion itself. The Spanish Inquisition, usually regarded as the most monstrous example ever of religious fanaticism and tyranny, thus pales besides the tortures, brain washing, purges, murders, slave labor, concentration camps, massacres, and genocides perpetrated by Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Ho, Pol Pot, and all the other secularized and politicized Saints and Saviors of the Twentieth Century. Their own ambitions to perfect human nature and alter history justified to them the use of means that even the Inquisition, certain of the imperfections of Fallen human nature, never would have considered. The irony of Marxism being a "philosophy of intense moral indignation" is that Marx himself didn't believe it was about morality at all: The unconscious moralism is concealed behind the pseudo-scientific obscurantism of "dialectical" reasoning. A fierce, murderous moralism than cannot even call itself morality is both symbol and substance of the combination of moralism and moral aestheticism.

A good recent example of selective moral indignation, and of a double standard in which the United States is damned for lack of moral perfection while others are excused when not even aspiring to it, is the issue of slavery. These days, the names of George Washington and other Founding Fathers are being taken off of schools just because they were slave owners. In the way American history is now taught, the United States is viewed as eternally guilty, stained, false, and hypocritical for having ever allowed slavery in the first place. Britain is often similarly condemned for having participated in the Atlantic slave trade, which of course brought slaves to North America, the Caribbean, and much of South America also. The weight of guilt and obligation on the United States is so heavy that there is now a movement for the government to pay reparations to the descendants of slaves, in compensation for the lost value of their labor during the centuries of slavery. In some quarters, like many University campuses, the case for reparations is taken as so self-evident that opposing arguments are dismissed and even suppressed as blatant racism.

What is curious about these arguments is the implication that the United States is somehow uniquely responsible and blameworthy when it comes to slavery, as though slavery was invented here or uniquely practiced here, or that nothing was ever done about it. Instead, slavery has been a universal human practice, what in Roman law was called the ius gentium, the "law of nations" [note]. The African slave trade existed in the first place because, (1) slavery existed -- and still exists -- in Africa, and (2) a slave trade had existed for centuries across the Sahara Desert to North Africa and the Middle East -- begun no later than by the Ancient Egyptians, and carried out in great volume in the Middle Ages by the Arabs. An Arab slave trade still exists, especially in well documented examples in the Sudan, where non-Moslem blacks in the rebellious (now independent) south of the country are seized and sold as slaves in the Arab north. Yet in all of this, there are no demands for reparations from Africans, where tribal organizations still exist that sold slaves to Europeans in the days of the Atlantic trade, or from Arabs, who still tolerate the surviving modern continuation of the practice. Indeed, the enslavement of black people in the Sudan is almost never protested, or even noticed, by black "leaders" in the United States -- it is really a cause célèbre only among Christians, since many of the enslaved Sudanese are Christians.

Even the notion that the United States is more culpable because Americans should have known better, or done something about it, is hollow. The ideals of the American Revolution, which is dismissed as hypocrisy because of the continuation of slavery, immediately had an effect in the swift abolition of slavery in seven out of the original thirteen Colonies. The Constitution anticipated the abolition of the slave trade as early as 1808, which is when it was done, in conjunction with Britain. The British subsequently employed the Royal Navy to suppress all of the slave trade, over the protests of the Africans who were selling the slaves and the Arabs who continued to trade in them. Britain abolished slavery in all its possessions in 1833 -- slavery had already been abolished in Britain itself by way of case law, i.e. legal judgments that innocent persons could not be held in bondage in Great Britain. In the United States, the most honest description of the slavery controversy in subsequent years would be "constant uproar." This only got worse, until the Southern States seceded in 1861 rather than have even a compromising Abolitionist President. A great Civil War, in which 600,000 Americans died (by comparision, only about 400,000 slaves had ever been imported into the country -- as opposed to 2,000,000 into Brazil), enabled Lincoln to finally abolish slavery.

Why all this would bring the United States, or Britain, in for special condemnation or culpability over slavery is completely incomprehensible, and perverse. If slavery is wrong, with the 20/20 hindsight of the morally self-congratulatory, then the nations that abolished it, and suppressed it even in other countries, should get the credit for these deeds -- not a relentness excoriation and damnation for ever having had anything to do with it. And the double standard involved is palpable. While many Americans of African descent now see Islâm as friendlier to them than Christianity, or America, they don't seem to notice that slavery was always perfectly acceptable under Islâmic Law [note]. Indeed, one of the points of harshest condemnation of American slavery is the way that many slave owners raped women slaves and fathered unacknowledged children on them. Considerable efforts have been made to hang this charge on Thomas Jefferson. Yet, under Islâmic Law, slave owners have conjugal rights with female slaves.
Be it known to you, that the Traffic in Slaves is a matter on which all Sects and Nations have agreed from the time of the sons of Adam, on whom be the Peace of God, up to this day -- and we are not aware of its being prohibited by the Laws of any Sect, and no one need ask this question [i.e. whether the trade in slaves be lawful], the same being manifest to both high and low and requires no more demonstration than the light of day.

'Abd ar-Rah.mân ibn Hishâm, Sultân of Morocco (1822-1859), to British Vice Consul Henry John Murray, 1842

By the same token, among the greatest horror stories of the era of slavery was the castration of black men who were suspecting of raping, or even looking wrong, at white women. Nevertheless, it was the frequent practice of Arab slavers to castrate slaves, black and white, producing the eunuchs valued for various purposes in the Islâmic world, including roles as custodians for the sacred sites in Mecca and Medina (cf. Race and Slavery in the Middle East, an Historical Enquiry, Bernard Lewis, Oxford University Press, 1990, & Eunuchs and Sacred Boundaries in Islamic Society, Shaun Marmon, Oxford University Press, 1995). What's more, while white eunuchs might only have had their testicles removed, black eunuchs might have their penises amputated as well -- as noted more than once in The One Thousand and One Nights, a eunuch with a penis could still have sex with his female wards in the harem. Castration was controversial in Islâm, and Muslims were supposed to be prohibited from practicing it (Egyptian Christians, the Copts, were often employed for the African trade), but this did not prevent reliance on it, whether the surgery was done by Muslims or not.

The perversity and hypocrisy of the double standard over slavery is blatant. George Washington is condemned for having owned slaves, despite freeing them in his will, but the Prophet Muh.ammad is revered, even though he owned slaves also. Britain, which ended the slave trade, is damned for ever having been in it, while the modern Sudan, ruled by Moslem dictators, is given a pass and escapes controversy (except among Christians) for the rape and enslavement of blacks going on at the present moment.

The only way this double standard makes any sense is as an example of moralistic relativism. The United States is held to a moral standard so rigorous (and moralistic) that it is blamed for practices that existed prior to its inception and condemned for not having instantly abolished the institution, despite the novelty of the very idea that slavery was wrong, and the dispute of the point in theory and practice by slave owners who had centuries of practice and legal, religious, and philosophical arguments on their side. At the same time, the continued existence and morally unproblematic nature of slavery in the places of its origin is completely overlooked and dismissed -- for which the only theoretical grounds would be cultural relativism (or a moral aestheticism in which varieties of cultural practices aesthetically overrule mere moral objections). Much as Thomas Sowell has said, this incoherence is found in people who don't understand the virtues and advantages of their own land, but idealize some foreign hell hole as Utopia. They are willing to excuse crimes of the present elsewhere just to feed their own sense of indignation and wrong at something which historically is admirable and exemplary. But such is the vicious perversity of the modern Left.

It has previously been noted as a characteristic of judicial moralism that ordinary moral wrongs can become demoralized in relation to "correct" political or religious beliefs. This move is easily conformable to a relativistic moralism, where mere personal crimes can be excused in various ways, but political crimes are inexcusable. Thus, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed that political prisoners under the Tsars had privileges -- they were not ordinary criminals. But under the Communists, the situation was reversed, and ordinary criminals were given privileges over the politicals. They were not, after all, heretics.

A nice example of political orthodoxy overwhelming simple moral considerations, and common sense, is from Life at the Bottom, The Worldview That Makes the Underclass by Theodore Dalrymple [Ivan R. Dee Publisher, Chicago, 2001]. Dalrymple, a British psychiatrist, was interviewing a 17-year-old woman admitted to his hospital for alcohol poisoning. She nearly drank herself to death after her boyfriend had been sent to prison.

My patient was intelligent but badly educated, as only products of the British educational system can be after eleven years of compulsory school attendance. She thought the Second World War took place in the 1970s and could give me not a single correct historical date.

I asked her whether she thought a young and violent burglar would have proved much of a companion. She admitted that he wouldn't, but said that he was the type she liked; besides which -- in slight contradiction -- all boys were the same.

I warned her as graphically as I could that she was already well down the slippery slope leading to poverty and misery -- that, as I knew from the experience of untold patients, she would soon have a succession of possessive, exploitative, and violent boyfriends unless she changed her life. I told her that in the past few days I had seen two women patients who had had their heads rammed down the lavatory, one who had had her head smashed through a window and her throat cut on the shards of glass, one who had had her arm, jaw, and skull broken, and one who had been suspended by her ankles from a tenth-floor window to the tune of, "Die, you bitch!"

"I can look after myself," said my seventeen-year-old.

"But men are stronger than women," I said. "When it comes to violence, they are at an advantage."

"That's a sexist thing to say," she replied.

A girl who had absorbed nothing at school had nevertheless absorbed the shibboleths of political correctness in general and of feminism in particular.

"But it's a plain, straightforward, and inescapable fact," I said.

"It's sexist," she reiterated firmly.

And so our young girl, who must think that World War II and Disco occurred in the same era, would rather be killed by a violent boyfriend than believe that men are stronger than women. This must be a mortifying result even for feminists, who certainly have their moralistic political orthodoxies, but for whom violence against women is itself one of the supreme political crimes. Dr. Dalrymple observes that mere violence, against women or otherwise, tends to be excused among his underclass patients, by themselves and by the intelligentsia, both on the principle of "who are we to judge?" and on the reasoning that lower class crime is the result of social injustice, in which the true criminals are corporations, capitalists, financiers, etc. This is an extreme demoralization of all ordinary moral judgment, against which the lone moral certainty is something like, "It's sexist" -- a slogan that trumps the politically incorrect assertion of a factual and prudential truth about the respective physical strengths of the sexes. The foolish invocation of a political certainty in the face of indubitable moral and prudential truths is the perfect stuff of moralistic relativism.

Moralistic relativism can even be used by feminists to excuse the horrific treatment of women in many Islamic countries (e.g. genital mutilation, beatings, murders), while applying their standard condemnations to the West. Thus Jamie Glazov notes:

The double standard in the Left's cultural relativism is transparent, since such relativism always dissipates when it come time to scrutinize Western society. When the issue is enforced veiling and "honor" killings, for example, leftist feminists maintain that no one can say what is right and wrong. But if the issue is how women's bodies are "objectified" in Western advertising, cultural relativism immediately goes out the window. Such advertising is depicted as an immoral, loathsome emblem of the capitalist, patriarchal, heterosexist, homophobic power structure's attempt to marginalize women to spheres of powerlessness. [United in Hate, The Left's Romance With Tyranny and Terror, WND Books, 2009, p.206]

The complaint about advertising derives from the anaesthetic political moralism of much of feminism, which is actually a point of agreement with radical Islam, which is also fiercely anaesthetic and anhedonic. Glazov observes elsewhere in his book that Leftist politics in general is hostile to pleasure, art, and beauty (too individiualistic and apolitical) -- just like radical Islam again. These commonalities apparently override the problem that radical Islam is profoundly reactionary, Mediaevalist, and totalitarian. Few feminists would enjoy a burqa, but they might actually approve of the way the Tâlibân would pull out the fingernails of women they found who were wearing fingernail polish. We know, after all, how oppressive fingernail polish is; and women would only wear it when they are suffering from "false consciousness" (internalizing the values of the Patriarchy) and are willing to cooperate in their own oppression. It's better if we don't let them do that.

Both of the great totalitarian tyrannies of the 20th century can be analyzed as forms of moralistic relativism. Both Communism and Naziism (which shook off any of the consevative restraints in Italian or Spanish Fascism) explicitly rejected any traditional moral limitations on the behavior of the State. Violence and murder to any extent were seen as justified. For Communism, traditional moral scruples were relics of "bourgeois sentimentality." Naziism would agree with that but also could explicitly invoke Nietzsche's "beyond good and evil" transvaluation of Judeo-Christian moral values. This made the relativism explicit, with Marxist historicism serving for Communism, and Nietzschean nihilism serving for Naziism. The moralism, on the other hand, was an intense political moralism, in which all personal actions are expected to serve the national political purpose. The purpose of life is not private pleasure, private achievement, or private profit, but serving the ends of the Party. Those rejecting these ends are enemies deserving of death, whether they be the race enemies of Naziism, or the class enemies of Communism. This mixture doesn't quite work for the recent phenomenon of Islâmic Fascism, however strongly influnced by both Naziism and Communism, since there is no hint of the relativistic side there.

In their moral relativism, Naziism and Communism both tried to rely on the presumed authority of science. Marxism called itself "scientific socialism." Usually, people like to think that Naziism was a system of crude prejudices unrelated to science. However, the idea of "science" in Marxism was not based on any identifible method in science itself, but on the pseudo-scientific speculative fantasies of Hegelian dialectics. Nazi racism, on the other hand, was explicitly based on the contemporary general understanding of Darwinian evolution by natural selection -- survival of the fittest. Far beyond Naziism, this was to be associated with the movement of eugenics, selective breeding of the "best," and various manifestations of racial hostility. A dirty secret of "progressive" politics was its early racism. Labor leader Samuel Gompers and communist author Jack London both fully supported legislation keeping Chinese immigrants and workers out of the United States. An early slogan of the Communist Party in South Africa was "White workers of the world unite!" The essentials of Hitler's racism, indeed, can actually be found in Marx and Engels. The latter wrote:

The universal war which [is coming] will crush the Slav alliance and will wipe out completely those obstinate peoples so that their very names will be forgotten.... [It] will wipe out not only reactionary classes and dynasties but it will also destroy these utterly reactionary races...and that will be a real step forward. [from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung]

Marx also spoke in terms of eliminating "reactionary races" like "Croats, Pandurs, Czechs and similar scum." Toss this together with Marx's anti-Semitism -- "We discern in Judaism...a universal antisocial element of the present time" -- and Hitler's crude prejudices have bona fide Marxist roots. We also see the combination of racism and anti-Semitism in comments Marx made in a letter to Engels, dated 30 July 1862, about the German social democrat and labor organizer, Ferdinand Lassalle, a Jew:

It is now perfectly clear to me that, as the shape of his head and the growth of his hair indicates, he is descended from the Negroes who joined in Moses' flight from Egypt (unless his mother or grandmother on the father's side was crossed with a nigger). This union of Jew and German on a Negro base was bound to produce an extraordinary hybrid.

A "hybrid" that Marx otherwise characterized as the "Jewish Nigger" or "a greasy Jew disguised under brillantine and cheap jewels." Marxists, of course, rarely quote passages like this. Anyone using the "N" word today would immediately be marked as of nearly sub-human moral status. Marx's kind of racism, however, he shared with people like Nietzsche (in whom it is also rarely noted by the bien pensants) and many other heroic figures of the left. Margaret Sanger, now a saint of feminism for advocacy of birth control, nevertheless advocated birth control as part of a program of eugenics! The "unfit" should be encouraged (or forced) not to reproduce. It was the Nazi use of these ideas that helped to discredit them.

Meanwhile, Communists lost interest cultivating the prejudices of Western industrial workers and turned to Third World movements of "national liberation," involving all the pre-industrial peasants who had hitherto been ignored by Marxism but who had been drawn into Marxist theory by Lenin's theory of imperialism and Mao's practical appeal to peasant support. The "scientific" nature of any of these was just a way, of course, to mask the application of unlimited and ruthless political Terror.

Logical Relationships of Moralism and Moral Aestheticism

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Moralistic Relativism, Note 1


One purpose of slavery in the Ancient World was to discharge debts. There used to be no such thing as bankruptcy -- or even debtors' prison (which is the intermediate institution). Someone overwhelmed by debt would sell themselves into slavery. In less severe circumstances, people might only have to sell their children -- East (i.e. China) and West, the supply of prostitutes was usually made up by girls sold into it by their parents. The existence of this is indirectly shown in the Bible, where Leviticus 19:29 says, "Do not profane your daughter by making her a harlot, lest the land fall into harlotry and the land become full of wickedness."

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Moralistic Relativism, Note 2

One of the strongest arguments of the Abolitionists was that it was religiously unlawful for Christians to hold other Christians as slaves. This goes back to Leviticus 25:39-43:

"And if your brother beomes poor beside you, and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave; he shall be with you as a hired servant and as a soujourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee; then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own family, and return to the possessions of his fathers. For they are my servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves."

This applies to all Christians on the principle that all Christians are Israel under the New Covenant, to whom the Laws of Israel apply.

The slave owners, of course, could always argue that not all the Laws of Israel are observed by Christians (e.g. circumcision), and the passage following the one above (Leviticus 25:44) justified their taking slaves in the first place:

"As for our male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you."

The argument was only settled, of course, by force, as the Union Army arrived to "bring the jubilee" -- as many Union war songs, such as Marching Through Georgia, put it.

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