Friday, May 2, 2008

Totalitarian Morals

"It is not the fundamental duty of the state to make us good. It is the fundamental task of each person to make himself good. Hobbes also suggests that moral philosophers ought to realise that 'virtues' are 'good' because they are 'the means of peaceable, sociable and comfortable living'. (Leviathan, Part I, ch. 15.) It is, one might say, the duty of the state to make 'decent arrangements'. Politics concerns large crude decisions affecting large numbers of heterogeneous people. Politics is about other people with individual interests. Think how crude and clumsy all government is and has to be. Of course in modern democracies the liberal (political) individual and the moral individual constantly overlap, as when we argue about pornography, pacificism, abortion, medicine and hundreds of topics which are in the newspapers every day. The discussion and clarification of such topics are often proper tasks of the democratic liberal state, in the context of decisions about what is and what is not 'the state's business' or 'the government's duty'. We recognise and attach importance to sometimes unclear distinctions between public political standards and private personal morals, between sin and crime, between the claims of happiness and goodness, and equality and freedom. ... Modern states, if they are rich enough, may tend toward becoming 'nannies' to their citizens, and we argue about how far this tendency should go. The Welfare State is a good thing, but can it go too far? When does a nanny become a tyrant? ... The right to be free is not internally connected with the right to be happy. ...

"Citizens of liberal democratic states can argue about whether to be more free and less comfortable or more happy and less rich or more equal and less free and so on and so on, and a great many different kinds of considerations bear on these arguments which are made possible by a certain fundamental refusal of system. It is characteristic of totalitarian states to refuse access to such choices and to prohibit such discussion, intimating to the citizenry that (for instance) the system which makes them orderly is also making them happy and good. A denial of human variety and the rights which the fact of variety carries ... lies behind totalitarian reasoning.... The manifest lies involved in the imposition of such a view can produce cynicism and despair, or else simply perpetuate some demoralising simplicity or lack of education in the society. When I was in China I asked a question about 'homosexuality', a word with which our otherwise excellent interpreter was unfamiliar. When I explained its meaning in other terms, I was told that there was no such thing in China. So if homosexuals do not exist they clearly cannot have rights. ... Orwell's book 1984 exhibits such impoverishment as deliberately fostered by cynical rulers. ... In any state there are always plenty of motives for destructive activity, but concept-starvation makes it easier for a few leaders to turn their citizens into a centrally directed herd. ...

"A good (decent) state, full of active citizens with a vast variety of views and interests, must preserve a central arena of discussion and reflection wherein differences and individuality are taken for granted. (For instance, religious differences.) Here there are no authoritarian final arbiters, certainly not God, Reason or History. Here general good will, consent, maintains a kind of justice which is 'intuitively' understood. That this is, in western democracies, something 'obvious' is important too. It is also fragile."

--Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...