Any form of coercive morality is inherently self-contradictory. Nothing can be worthy of praise or blame that is not a voluntarily chosen act (or omission) by a free moral agent in circumstances in which she could reasonably be expected to have chosen differently.
One of Critical Race Theory’s canonical scriptures, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, tells us that all white people have unconscious bias. Author Robin DiAngelo’s message is that white people are racist and that it’s not their fault. Once diagnosed with this heritable disease, it would be ludicrous for white people not to accept the cure. This they can do only by acknowledging their condition through expressions of guilt and resolving to agree wholeheartedly with the ideological doctrines of Critical Race Theory.
In the real world, this plays out in myriad ways: in corporate diversity training (DiAngelo’s previous occupation) and the decolonising of educational curricula, the media and culture. Local District Diversity Councils have sprung up overnight to address “microaggressions, acts of racism or hate speech.” While acts of racism are serious and can be empirically measured, the conflation with microaggressions and hate speech is dubious at best and misleading at worst. Here’s an extract from one Diversity Council’s “Cultural Competence Action Plan” for Southlake, Texas. It was presented to the local schoolboard for adoption in August 2020: “NOTE: Microaggressions are defined as everyday verbal or nonverbal, snubs or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized or underrepresented group membership.”
Social justice theory raises many questions, including the following.
Why should someone have an obligation to actively work to root out homophobia in her town, or misogyny, racism, poverty, pollution, political corruption, unemployment, child abuse, drug abuse or any other social ill? If we all have an obligation to work towards ending any or all of the social ills that exist in any given time or place, we will have precious little time to do anything else. We will be expected to create a utopia and any shortcoming in achieving that perfect ideal will be a crime.
Are all of us guilty until proven innocent for everything we don’t do, as opposed to being innocent until proven guilty of actual harms we do cause? If so, we can only earn back our innocence by selling ourselves into permanent servitude to a utopian ideology in which we ceaselessly strive to make the world perfect. We will need to constantly seek to expose all the myriad forms of dislove that might arise in any human interaction and set about converting everyone to enthusiastic love of all that is good, according to the infallible definition of goodness decreed by an omniscient subset of perfect human beings. Social justice activists seem to be engaged in something along these lines.
Imagine a society in which we were all compelled to be charitable by a dictator. We could probably eradicate poverty forever. Yet we would help the poor not from a selfless impulse to support those in need but from a selfish impulse to prevent ourselves from being punished by the morality police. We’ve seen what this looks like in practice. The Soviet experiments of the last century give ample proof of how this kind of community spirit works. Visit Saudi Arabia today and you won’t find religious diversity or dissent. Everyone lives in harmony. But its citizens (especially the women) know only too well the price paid to achieve this unanimity. This kind of good society starts from pessimism about human nature and ends in totalitarian control over it, thus bringing into actual existence myriad human evils that had formerly only existed theoretically, while at the same time using these abstractions to legitimate one evil after another in the real world.
Managed morality is little more than slavish obedience, motivated by fear and self-preservation, not virtue. In its dependency on a vast bureaucracy of public surveillance, monitoring and intimidation (if not downright violence or excommunication), identity politics is more like a theocracy or a Maoist cultural revolution than a genuine improvement in social justice.
Liberalism works better. It brings about gradual social changes that are deeper and more stable, because they involve genuine conviction and transformation of the individual’s character, not just changes to his or her outward behaviour or socially mediated rhetoric. Under liberalism, individuals are persuaded by appeals to reason, not coerced by instincts like fear.
Liberals are optimistic, yet realistic, about human nature. They believe in the plasticity of human nature—that it is neither inherently good nor evil—and the power of education both to advance individual learning and to reform social ills. It is no mystery why identity politics has made the university its primary domain. Liberal educators believe that, given sufficient information, humans can figure things out for themselves and come to reasonable conclusions. They believe that a full, varied and broad education gives students the tools to make their own good, though not perfect, decisions. Good decisions tend to weigh the total situation and take others into account. To address the claims of Critical Race Theory, we need education, and this is why liberals welcome discussion and debate and encourage the expression of multiple viewpoints, including those they don’t like. But, as Alka Sehgal Cuthbert has noted in Letters on Liberty,
Today’s anti-racists don’t intend to meet and talk with people of different skin colours. Neither are we supposed to read widely, think deeply or write our thoughts freely in a way that is true to ourselves. No, the new meaning of “educate yourself” means to read uncritically a small number of books that share the same message. And if you haven’t read those books, you must say you have and say you love them, or be condemned as ignorant.
Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of the best-selling Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, pre-emptively dismisses all white commentary on her theses as a power play. This means that we can only evaluate white peoples’ arguments by the skin colour of the person making the argument, not on the basis of the individual’s reasoning. This short-circuits any basis for communication between people of different skin colours. It encloses students in separate ghettos and tribes, which is antithetical to what education is all about.
Part of education is the transmission of empathy. Many teachers, myself included, believe that the best education involves not simply practical wisdom (phronesis) but also education in ethics (arete). At the same time, we believe that there is a difference between education and indoctrination. As Sehgal Cuthbert has argued, “it is true that a white person cannot experience life as a black person experiences it, but this is true of any individual. If we go along with the CRT claim that all language is a tool of oppression, as Eddo-Lodge and others claim it is, white people can contribute nothing but their atonement. This is what ‘educate yourself’ ultimately means.”
Good education lays the groundwork for laissez-faire virtue, and creates the best conditions for it to thrive. It is not utopian, but it works better in the long run and creates more lasting positive social changes that are self-sustaining (and do not require authoritarian management). This is because virtues that are brought about through education, persuasion and free choice are more durable and deep-rooted than those that are compelled by forces outside of the individual, who is made to follow a set of fallible rules reluctantly or out of fear. Where vice is impossible, genuine virtue is as well.
Soviet dissident Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian 1924 novel We was written in response to the increasing censorship the author—a committed Marxist—saw around him. His novel was smuggled back into the USSR in the twenties, where it was blacklisted by the authorities. Zamyatin envisions a poet of the future, “R-13,” who has become so enamoured of “One State” and its authoritarian micromanagement of every aspect of human life that he has turned his pen to the embellishment of verdicts against dissidents and paeans to “ancient” religious cultures in which humans conspired with God to eradicate freedom. Looking back at the Book of Genesis, R-13 explains: “Those two in paradise, they were offered a choice: happiness without freedom, or freedom without happiness, nothing else. Those idiots chose freedom. And then what? Then for centuries they were homesick for the chains. That’s why the world was so miserable, see?”
Imagine if doctors were expected to spend every waking hour ensuring that we have all taken our vitamins, checking our fridges for vegetable content and smacking pints of lager and cigarettes out of our hands. This would be to expect doctors to do things that are better left to the individual. It would be to assume that doctors have a duty to make us healthy rather than to cure our ills. We would exert an unreasonable claim over their liberty that would obligate doctors to obsess on our well-being rather than to deal with our empirically detectable health complaints. On the other hand, we expect doctors not to do certain things and would regard them as incompetent, even abusive, if they did them. If your doctor prescribed you addictive recreational drugs to make you feel better rather than to cure a genuine medical condition, or if she wildly misdiagnosed your condition, or mined your body for organs without your consent, it would cause harm in a context in which your doctor has a sworn an oath to avoid it. Doctors can reasonably be expected not to harm their patients, but is it reasonable to expect them to cause good health in all of us? If so, there would be no point in doctors advising us to reduce our sugar consumption or take more exercise—they could micromanage that for us. In a dystopian future, one could imagine a scenario in which, if a citizen didn’t take an ideal number of steps per day, as registered by his Fitbit, he could be fined or denied a doctor’s care. But it is not the doctor’s job to make us healthy, it is ours. It is our sovereign right to choose how far we want to pursue this end and it is our responsibility to reap the consequences. We all pay into the public or private health pot, and we should all be permitted to draw from it.
Twentieth-century philosopher Hannah Arendt smoked a ghastly number of cigarettes each day, while devoting her time and energy to philosophical teaching, writing and thinking. She was a towering intellectual who left many gifts to her students as well as to posterity. Perhaps she could not have done so had she instead obsessed on her health. Her full attention was on her work, and this meant neglecting her health and perhaps even using smoking as a crutch to help her focus.
None of us can do everything that is good all of the time. We make choices and we prioritise our values. Every choice involves negation (I want this, not that.) Choices necessarily involve gain and loss, and consequences, some of which cannot be predicted in advance. To remove them would be to eliminate our political liberty, and with it our human flourishing. Genuine human goodness is only possible when it is not managed by a paternalistic bureaucracy with a view to fulfilling utterly fallible notions of perfection. Human life cannot be risk free. It cannot be perfect, but it can be good.