The first time I came face to face with the new woke morality was in the principal’s office of my son’s school. My then 14-year-old had been suspended for three weeks for taking a selfie in which another kid pointed a disabled airsoft gun that shoots plastic pellets at my son’s head and sharing it, without comment, with 13 friends on Snapchat. The principal stated that my son’s photo had caused harm to other students, some of whom have anxiety. That my son’s intent was manifestly not to threaten anyone did not matter, the principal assured me.
In their book the Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff explain, “Some activists say that bigotry is only about impact, as they define impact. Intent is not even necessary. If a member of an identity group feels offended or oppressed by the action of another person, then … that other person is guilty of an act of bigotry.”
The harm-based moral framework has deep roots in the consequentialist school of philosophy, though it has never been a dominant influence in the west. The foundation of western moral discourse and legal systems is deontology, which emphasizes duties and rights. Deontology derives morality from basic propositions, such as do as you would be done by. Being moral means following these rules. Consequentialism, by contrast, holds that we should judge behavior based on its anticipated benefit or harm. The morality of an act depends on the consequences of that act.
Our current moral and legal framework is a hybrid of deontological and consequentialist morality. Take the example of three different people who each, separately, unprovoked, punch another person in a bar. One of them hurts his victim, two kill their victims. All three have committed a crime, but the punishment is far more severe for the two perpetrators who killed their victims. If we were using a strictly deontological framework, the crime would not depend on the harm it caused. In our system, harm matters. But so does intent. The person who intentionally killed his victim with a deadly blow will get a far more severe punishment than the person who certainly meant to hurt his victim, but did not mean him to fall over and hit his head so hard that he died of the injury.
A harm-free framework would mean that we would treat someone who killed another person while texting and driving as leniently as we would treat someone who was texting and driving without causing harm, since the intent (the deontological essence) is the same in both cases: neither intended to kill anyone.
An intent-free framework would mean that we would treat the person who accidentally runs over someone the same way as we would someone who intentionally runs over and murders someone. The harm is the same in both cases: both caused their victims’ deaths.
Would anyone want to live in either moral universe?
Today’s harm-based morality deviates from the traditional consequentialist approach in one critical respect: only one kind of harm counts—that inflicted by members of a dominant group on members of an oppressed group.
The proponents of harm based morality view any perceived harm to an oppressed group as prima facie evidence of moral wrongdoing. They presume the guilt of the powerful. They believe that racism and oppression are deeply embedded in society and can be completely invisible to those who benefit—even inadvertently—from the system. In that worldview, our current moral system based on intent trivializes the much more pervasive moral blight of white, cis-male domination and distracts us from the much more pernicious reality of oppression. Intent-based morality assumes that everyone is equally responsible for their actions; woke consequentialism assumes that some people are privileged by the system and have agency and some people aren’t and don’t.
Indeed, proponents of harm-based morality want to establish that oppression and racism are not matters of intent. Citing intent is a form of privilege that supports the oppressive system. For traditional liberals, to judge whether someone is racist requires an analysis of intent. Did the person mean to hurt anyone by her words or actions or did she simply accidentally offend the sensibilities of a member of a protected class?
That distinction is meaningless in the woke worldview. Harm-based morality says that you can harm someone even if you didn’t intend to, even if you are simply providing an accurate analysis of a situation. Under such a conception, telling the truth can be a cancellable moral offense, as when the woke masses try to sideline a social scientist for doing social science that does not produce favored outcomes. As Matthew Yglesias has explained, “It’s a damaging trend in the media in particular because it is an industry that’s about ideas, and if you treat disagreement as a source of harm or personal safety, then it’s very challenging to do good work.” Disagreement causes harm. Cancel culture relies wholly on harm-based moral judgments, as when, for example, David Shor, a data analyst, was fired for sharing a study on the political efficacy of non-violent protest. Shor supposedly caused harm by hinting that violent protest could hurt the cause of racial justice and, by extension, people of color.
Although harm-based morality proponents claim to center the victim, they are, in fact, highly preoccupied with the perpetrator. They want to make an example of the powerful in the service of social change, as we saw when journalist Jeffrey Toobin was fired for masturbating during a work Zoom call, when he did not know that his camera was on. The woke saw Toobin’s act as both harmful and emblematic of systemic misogyny. E. J. Dickson commented,
in a workplace culture where white men are inculcated with the belief that the office is their playground, where their ascensions are taken for granted as their female and BIPOC counterparts scramble for crumbs beneath their feet and there is no shortage of justifications for bad male behavior, it is not all that surprising that Toobin would be led to believe it was OK to rub one out during a work meeting.
For Dickson, the fact that Toobin is a member of the victimizer class who dominate and sexually harass women was all the evidence she needed to indict him. Her moral assessment was based on two assumptions: first, that his female colleagues, who are part of a victim class, were harmed (whether or not they actually felt harmed) and second, that the perpetrator was a member of the victimizer class. This is a moral system predicated on presumptive guilt.
The true test of a moral system is whether it creates a more compassionate, principled society. Let’s imagine for a minute that woke consequentialism becomes the dominant legal and social paradigm. We would develop a set of laws that empowered certain people to determine who can and can’t be a victim. Those in charge would make such determinations based on predetermined categories of who has power and agency and who does not. They would allow the powerless to claim harm without evidence. Emotional hurt would be treated as harm. The authorities would believe victims and distrust perpetrators. They wouldn’t hold the powerless responsible for their actions. They would police speech and intellectual discourse because ideas can do damage. In short, they would create an oppressive dystopia.
The fact this form of harm-based morality clearly cannot be scaled into a workable legal system may be part of the point. Much of critical theory, the ideological foundation of harm-based morality, seems to be an exercise in nihilism, aimed more at sowing confusion and tearing down what we have than with the practicalities of building replacements. It renders discourse meaningless but offers no realistic alternative social framework.
Soft proponents of harm-based morality, like my son’s former school principal, apply the framework in their own social contexts. The hardcore critical theorists want to overhaul the entire legal system of the west.
And the woke consequentialists can do plenty of damage even if they stop short of abolishing western legal systems. It’s bad enough when the proponents of harm-based morality seek to get well-meaning people fired, impede liberal discourse or suspend eighth grade boys for bogus reasons—but they also seek to replace an imperfect moral sensibility with something far worse.
Our current legal system requires proof of guilt for a defined crime. The “feelings” approach merely requires a claim of harm and it need not make sense or be known in advance. The lack of requirement for proof ignores the fact that some people are crazy, paranoid, hyper-sensitive, or liars. Thus when the prof in Cali used a chinese word that is a placeholder word like “um” that sounded like (sort of) the N-word, he got in big trouble. That is crazy-town stuff. It gives activists carte blanche to shut down anything they don’t like by just saying they feel unsafe or harmed. If someone says something idiotic you cannot disagree without hearing that you have erased their identity and denied their lived experience. The grooming scandal in the UK went on for years because the perps were paki. No one could talk about it. Underage girls were raped.
Your article describes what my husband and I have been talking about as a redefinition of racism, so thank you for giving us words to explain our personal observations.
I don’t think using Jeffrey Toobin as an example of this phenomenon/philosophy is accurate. Certainly the argument was made that he committed sexual harassment against his coworkers, even if that was not his intent, but sexual activities are never acceptable in the workplace. He would still be fired if he had been masterbating in his work office and his boss heard him through the door. Perhaps an example of this ideology in action would be if he was changing his pants and “did not know” the camera was on and was fired. (Not knowing in quotes because I think JToobin has paraphilia that is getting worse)
Excellent piece. Insightful.
“The fact this form of harm-based morality clearly cannot be scaled into a workable legal system may be part of the point. Much of critical theory, the ideological foundation of harm-based morality, seems to be an exercise in nihilism…”
It’s truly depressing that this is the *optimistic* take. The other — less optimistic reading — is that the lack of scalability means we are forced produce a top-down approach to morality, where a few decide for the whole of society what is right and just. A top-down command economy wasn’t a workable system when it was tried with communism. I can’t imagine the sort of dislocations and abuses of power that would be produced by a top-down “command morality.”
I suspect that another catalyst for the harm-based theory is the eagerness to sneak hate speech codes and the like around the first amendment. I believe SCOTUS has held that the first amendment broadly protects speech, but one of the exceptions is credible threats that put particular people at risk of bodily harm. If your goal is to criminalize dissent (which seems only a slight exaggeration of the woke agenda), the first thing you have to do is prove “harm.” When hate speech codes first emerged, I imagine that many opponents claimed that they violated the first amendment, and the rebuttal would require equating hate speech with bodily harm. One can see how the tentacles would spread out from there.