Are you a good person? If you think you are, how do you know? What evidence would you cite to support that claim? Why would that prove that you are good?
Your answers to these questions will reflect your cultural origins. If you live in the west, you will probably base your responses on principles derived from Christianity, unless you are part of the small group of people who have actively sought out an alternative basis for their morality. In other parts of the world, Islam or Buddhism will form the underpinnings of your ethical thought. Wherever you live, however, your upbringing will have exposed you to a system for judging your actions, whether by an explicit list of rules such as the Ten Commandments, or by a more general exhortation, such as seek to maximise general utility. Such a system will also allow you to form an image of yourself as a moral actor: to think that you are a good person.
Despite their profusion, the ethical systems mankind has developed share certain common features. Recent research has shown that they all relate to core moral values identified by researchers (five in Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory; seven in Oliver Scott Curry’s model of morality as cooperation). These do not seem to be the product of any particular cultural context, but hardwired into humanity—perhaps as a product of our evolutionary heritage. They all assume that one becomes a good person through what one does, not what one is. While existing is obviously necessary to virtue, it is not sufficient. Mankind has not generally been seen as inherently good. Indeed, in Christianity, we are all explicitly marked by original sin. Being good is not the base case.
Furthermore, being good is not easy. The verse “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” implies that a virtuous life is not necessarily a comfortable one. Our natural instincts do not always align with the demands of morality and resisting those instincts is a challenge. “Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power,” as Lao Tzu puts it.
In many systems, it is not even clear that one can become good, or—at least—not perfectly so. The Stoics, followers of “a system superior to anything to be found in Plato or Aristotle,” according to Bertrand Russell, described the figure of the sage, the person who had achieved virtue. They were, however, uncertain as to whether such an individual had ever existed (though Socrates was a possible candidate). If such a person had existed, he was as rare as the Ethiopian phoenix and could be expected only once every five hundred years or so.
One may not even be able to know for sure whether one is good. Notions of a posthumous judgement have been popular since at least Ancient Egypt, when the god Anubis would weigh the deceased’s heart against the feather of Maat to determine if she could enter heaven. In Buddhism, karma, the running total of one’s good and bad deeds, decides how one will be reincarnated, until enlightenment has been reached. One can obviously not tell what one’s next incarnation will be while living in the current one.
From time to time, societies have chosen to change their moral operating system. As Tom Holland points out in Dominion, our current assumptions are radically different from those of the Romans—a change that he ascribes to the influence of Christianity. The shift was a fraught one, marked by violence and iconoclasm. Similar behaviour was seen in Northern Europe during the Reformation, as any visit to a sufficiently old church will show, and in France under the revolutionaries’ failed attempt to institute the worship of Reason.
Given the recent outbreak of a wave of iconoclasm in much of the west, many have drawn parallels with these previous outbreaks, asking whether we are going through another period of moral revolution, similar to that experienced by our ancestors.
That such an event might be occurring seems reasonable when we consider the decline in Christian belief in the west. As we become more secular, it is less obvious why we should follow the rules of any particular religion. If, as Nietzsche suggested, God is dead and we have murdered him, it is not clear why we should do as he says.
However, as religion has been replaced by science as our dominant way of understanding the world, our moral principles have altered strikingly little. There has been some growth in interest in other spiritual traditions, and academia has recently seen a renewed focus on virtue ethics, but for the most part, society still operates according to moral principles that would be familiar to people living in 1800.
What is noticeable about the current spasm of iconoclasm is how inchoate the ideology driving it is. It goes by various names—political correctness, intersectionality and Social Justice—(I will generally use intersectionality in what follows). It has no set writings. While calls to educate yourself are often accompanied by a reading list, there is no definitive text, which reflects the fact that there is, as yet, no definitive definition of what this philosophy is. There has not been a woke Council of Nicaea. There are no churches from which one can hear the gospel preached.
Intersectionality holds that society is comprised of individuals who hold positions of privilege or oppression due to characteristics such as race, sex and sexual orientation. This arrangement is unjust and needs to be changed to allow those who currently experience disadvantage to flourish.
While Christianity and its peers make claims about the world, intersectionality makes claims about society. It does not tell us what the world is—leaving that to science—merely how it works and how it should work. These assertions are rooted in an analysis of the culture in which it was born and therefore will not necessarily hold true of other societies. It is not clear how universalizable intersectionality is—its concern with white privilege, for example, will not be germane to a society with few white people. This may explain why it has gained most traction in the west, particularly in the Anglosphere.
Just as intersectionality outsources its account of the world, so the new ideology has remarkably little to say about areas traditionally considered to be the proper study of morality. There is, for example, no woke position on murder, no intersectional view of marital fidelity. To the extent that these issues arise, their treatment is indistinguishable from the existing moral approach. Intersectionality has nothing to say about relationships between individuals within the same group, only about those between individuals in different groups. It does not tell me, a straight, white male, how I should treat other straight white males. In this way, intersectionality is less a new ethical approach, and more an expansion pack for secular morality. It takes existing principles and seeks to narrowly apply them to a specific range of problems.
That intersectionality depends on its predecessor for many of its assumptions can be seen in the phrase black lives matter. While this may seem obvious to us, it would have been far from obvious to a pre-Christian Roman for the simple reason that very few lives mattered in that period. The only people entitled to the full measure of ethical concern were free adult males. It was those, individual and partially alterable, characteristics that were the determinant of worth—not immutable membership in any particular group. The expansion of the circle of moral concern to encompass the whole of humanity is, in the west, a legacy of Christianity.
As for the practice of intersectionality, the lack of any accepted body of doctrine results in a fluidity which is lacking in other moral systems. Because there is no source text, there is nothing we can consult for a definitive account of how to behave. There is no intersectional equivalent of the Bible or Koran, where the rules are laid out. We must, instead, consider the behaviour of those who follow the ideology to extract an idea of the behaviours deemed to be desirable.
While recent images of young men who have painted rope wounds onto themselves in solidarity with black lives matter might present an extreme picture, reminiscent of mediaeval flagellants, they should not necessarily be taken as representative of the movement as a whole. Just as not all Catholics are members of Opus Dei, successful ideologies offer a range of options for practice, catering to the more and less devout. If we wish to discover how a moral system is generally followed, the extremes can only tell us so much.
As followed by mainstream practitioners, the new ideology seems to consist mainly of public pronouncements and activism. If one has a sufficient public profile, one might release a video expressing solidarity with an oppressed group. If one does not, there are plenty of hashtags to be shared and sentiments to be expressed on Facebook. One might take a knee or sign a petition demanding either the removal of a piece of public art, the renaming of a building or the payment of reparations to a minority group for the historic suffering of their ancestors. These actions seem sufficient to generate a sense of moral self-worth.
It is striking how few demands the new ideology makes on its adherents. Earlier systems often impose a burden of charity, suggesting that their followers give away a certain portion of their income. Others have made pilgrimage a requirement. Intersectionality makes none of these demands. Expressing the appropriate sentiments, supporting the approved causes, perhaps participating in certain rituals—such as taking the knee and maybe confessing one’s privilege as a white person (if one is such)—are all that seem to be required. There is no financial cost to the individual in intersectionality as commonly practised. One can feel good by tweeting about historical slavery on smartphone whose battery contains Cadmium mined by some of the world’s forty million current slaves, but it is not required either that one sacrifice one’s technology in solidarity with them, or seek to change their status, as previous generations of Christians did. Ironically, given the Marxist background of many of its adherents, intersectionality is that most capitalist of phenomena: a low cost provider of moral self-worth.
Even its most seemingly novel aspect demands less of those who follow it than might at first appear. The notion of white privilege, the idea that white people, by the mere fact of their racial origins, are morally compromised seems like a retrograde step after the advances of most forms of Christianity. Whereas, in Christianity, all are equal before God, in the new formulation, some are less equal than others. Parallels have been drawn with the Calvinist idea of predestination, wherein some people are destined to be saved and the rest to be damned. However, a comparison of the two reveals that intersectionality imposes a much lower cost on its adherents than its forerunner. Under Calvinism, if you are not one of the elect, those predestined to be saved, you will suffer eternal damnation. There is no way of avoiding this. Under intersectionality, however, this is not an option. There is no god, so there is no heaven or hell. One can confess one’s privilege, and work as an ally of those in other groups, and no more is demanded. One may never be truly good, but by following the rituals of the creed, one can be better than those who do not. Even those who are irredeemably sinful can taste the sweetness of moral self-satisfaction.
The low burden imposed on adherents explains a couple of the features of intersectionality’s meteoric rise. The lack of a detailed and complex set of rules means that it requires little in the way of instruction of its converts. While universities, particularly humanities departments, are often accused of acting as madrassas for intersectional instruction, the core doctrines are easy to master, which explains its spread beyond those who have recently been students. Furthermore, by imposing no real cost on the individual, the ease of conversion rises. A choice between expressing the appropriate sentiments or being ostracised is far easier than a choice between, say, expressing the appropriate sentiments and giving away all your money or being ostracised. While some sects have historically been able to make such demands and still attract adherents, they have generally been small and short-lived.
The low cost of adoption, allied to the possibility of either being good or at least knowing that one has made moral progress may serve to explain part of the viciousness that marks the way intersectionality treats those who fail to follow its dictates. An ideology that imposes a heavy burden on its adherents needs to accept that not everybody will be able to bear that. There will be both people who actively reject it, and people who are unable to follow it. If, however, one’s ideology demands little beyond acknowledging one’s privilege and displaying conformity with its dictates, there are few who cannot do this. Those who are not willing to do the little necessary to become good, must not want to be good. There can be no other reason. They must, therefore, be driven out of the community. The little that intersectionality demands predisposes it to a Manichaean view of humanity.
Intersectionality is a very public morality. For an individual to be good, she must display the correct attitudes, and openly ally herself with the appropriate causes. The measure of one’s success lies in the judgement of one’s peers. One may feel that one is good, but if others in society disagree, then one is not. Under Metropolitan Police guidance for example, a hate crime is one that is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated by hostility. There is no question as to the legitimacy or correctness of that perception. Its mere existence is enough.
We have traditionally in the west drawn a distinction between shame and guilt, between feeling bad because of others’ views of one’s actions and because of one’s own and it is possible to feel the former but not the latter if one thinks that others are wrong. It is not clear that this is tenable under intersectionality. If one accepts that the ultimate arbiter of the rightness of one’s actions is the view of others, who are, by definition, correct, then one cannot legitimately disagree with them. One has outsourced one’s moral judgement to the crowd, making the distinction between shame and guilt obsolete.
However, this only applies to the specific type of harms with which intersectionality concerns itself. Intersectionality relies on existing secular morality for all other areas of ethical concern and has not repudiated its assumptions. We do not generally rely solely on a victim’s beliefs when we make moral judgements. We consider whether any harm actually occurred, what the intentions were behind the act and whether it might have been the product of ignorance. We do not decide that someone has acted badly merely on another’s say-so. One spouse may, for example, accuse the other of infidelity in a divorce case, but the court does not accept this without proof, and we do not expect the accused party to consider herself an adulterer just because her spouse thinks she is.
To deal with this inconsistency, intersectionality needs to provide an account of why some sorts of offences should be treated differently from others. Why should the victim’s perceptions be definitive in some areas, but not others? How can one decide for oneself how moral a person one is in certain parts of one’s life, but not in others? Pleading lived experience, as many do, is inadequate, as this is not generally held to trump empirical reality.
If considering intersectionality as a moral system helps explain its development, can it help us predict its future? Is it a successor ideology? It certainly seems to have captured much of academia and the media and its more fanatical followers are behaving in ways reminiscent of earlier moral revolutionaries. Its ease of adoption makes it curiously well suited to spread, but so far, it has only done so widely in the west: particularly in that part that adopted Protestantism at the Reformation. Its attractions have yet to appeal to many from other cultural backgrounds, such as Islam. This reflects the fact that, by basing itself on an account of society, rather than a more general story about the world, its attraction is limited in cultures that do not share the features and assumptions it considers salient.
Even if we confine ourselves to the Anglosphere, and treat it as an evolution of Christianity, filtered through secular humanism, there is room for scepticism. Because it bases its moral claims on an analysis of current society, those who do not share its underlying assumptions feel no compulsion to follow its moral dictates. If, for example, a consideration of death rates of poor whites in America or educational attainment by the same group in the UK led one to contest the notion of white privilege, it is not obvious that one would feel it necessary to act according to intersectional ethics.
It is often remarked that morality underdetermines politics, that is, that a range of political positions are compatible with any specific moral theory. Here in the UK, the Church of England has traditionally been described as the Tory Party at prayers while the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marxism. Christianity is big enough to encompass opposing political positions. It is not clear that the same can be said of intersectionality.
Of the five moral foundations in Haidt’s formulation, intersectionality only really speaks to two: care/harm and fairness. Its focus on the former is perhaps its defining feature, as its adherents devote ever more effort to rooting out ever more recondite examples of harm being suffered by victims whether they know it or not. However, it has little to say about loyalty, respect or sanctity: the remaining three Foundations. Indeed, loyalty to those in a privileged position is actively discouraged.
If we agree with Haidt’s theory, this will cause problems for intersectionality. His thesis that differences between left and right can be explained by different responses to moral values suggests that those of a right wing or libertarian bent (who pay attention to all five foundations in addition to a sixth—freedom—in the case of the latter) will find little in it to satisfy them. By failing to account for the moral considerations that they view as important, it limits its potential pool of adherents. Having spread through the more liberal sectors of society, it may well have gone as far as it can without adapting to cater for a wider range of moral intuitions. There may not be enough people left predisposed to accept its claims to allow the growth it has shown to date to continue.
Perhaps, therefore, a better analogy than the triumph of Christianity or the Reformation is the French Revolution, and its worship of Reason. It excited urban intellectuals and seemed to herald a new age but fizzled out as it could not speak to the totality of human experience. Perhaps, intersectionality too heralds not so much a new dawn as a false start.
Image by Morning Brew