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Moralism wins, morality loses. Moralism as a vice in the public debate

27 January 2020

Federico Zuolo





Back in the 20th century, it was not uncommon to hear a leftist accusing a conservative of being “moralist”. Indeed, conservatives were attacked for their pruderies, bigotry and unjustified moralist worries about sexual liberation, drugs, female role, and so on; while a common tenet of the Marxist culture was that ideals were to be advanced not in terms of moral values, but rather to the extent that they were coherent with historical progress and the interests of the working class. In sum, the charge of moralism and a worry on the excess and misuse of morality was a prerogative of the leftist criticisms of the conservative culture. Nowadays the situation is – as it were – topsy-turvy.

Although this situation pervades the American debate about Trump and Trumpism, its origin perhaps dates back to Berlusconi’s era and in particular his government in early 2000s. In that period Italian leftist opposition drew on moral (and moralistic) arguments to accuse Berlusconi not only of public vices (corruption, conflict of interest, use of public goods for personal purposes, and so on) but also of being prone to other personal vices. His “elegant dinners” – as he self-indulgently dubbed these parties involving many young women and very few powerful men – inflamed the leftist public opinion not only for their clear political vices but also for their blatant display of private vices. Ironically, some cheeky commentators defended Berlusconi from these attacks by retorting the old argument and replying that the leftist opposition was swamped in moralistic attitudes that unduly limited the personal freedom of Mr. Berlusconi (and of real Italians!). Explaining why and how progressive opposition came to rely on these arguments, instead of using other more political ones, would require a long discourse. Nowadays, many Italian conservatives charge leftist with the accuse of being buonisti (literally do-gooders). By this they entail that leftist are phoney do-gooders, namely people who preach universal values – in particular in favour of migrants – but are not willing to bear the costs of these values (in particular of migration). This charge is not only about the vice of hypocrisy but also about the supposed excess of moral demands, in particular in favour of migrants. It is a charge of moralism. Hence, leftist now are seen as moralists (besides being hypocrite) and conservatives herald the battle for more freedom against the strictures of morality (in its moralistic fashion).

Whatever the winner in this political and verbal controversy is, we should ask why moralism has such a bad press irrespective of whether it is an accuse coming from the right or from the left. In sum, why is moralism a public vice that all parties shun? Isn’t moralism a form of moral concern, which everybody should welcome insofar as it is a moral concern? What’s wrong with moralism that makes all those being accused of if so unwilling to accept this label?

Our answer is pretty straightforward: the problem with moralism is precisely that it is a vice. To be more specific, we take it that moralism is the vice of exceeding the boundaries of morality, i.e., an attitude in which morality exceeds its prerogatives in some way concerning the assessment of actions. This may mean that one, when judging another’s deeds, requires too much of them, as if they were supposed to go well beyond the call of duty, even to their own damage; or, that one requires from another to stick inflexibly to a moral principle no matter what other considerations may be at stake, both coming from specific facts which call for an adjustment of the principle to the situation, and from non-moral requirement posed, for instance, by manners, personal values or taste, which may at times provide more relevant reasons. Finally, think of the attitude which is likely to be the most commonly associated with moralism, i.e., that of expressing a judgment without being entitled to do so. We might call this the “who are you to judge” kind of moralism.

In other words, moralism is a multifaceted vice, which can be expressed by a number of vicious attitudes. Being a moralist, that is, can take alternatively the form of being overdemanding, rigid, absolutist, or arrogant, in the literal sense of arrogating the capacity to pass judgment on others.

It can be helpful, however, not to mistake moralism for other cognate concepts which – despite resembling it – are in fact different violations of a proper use of morality.  A hypocrite, for instance, may lack self-assessment and display misplaced self-indulgence without necessarily being moralist towards others. Paternalism, in turn, insofar as it implies interfering with someone else’s moral conduct in light of a supposed authority, may be at times justified by a legitimate authority someone has, say, over their own minor children. Puritanism, which may be mistaken for overdemandigness, need not necessarily lead to being judgmental (and thus moralistic) towards others, but it can simply imply sticking to an extremely demanding moral code. Even the moral grandstanding of public figures – who aim to convince others that they are morally respectable, out of vanity or interest – can at most correlate with moralism, but it neither implies nor is implicated by it. Although all of these attitudes involve misuses or abuses of morality, failing to notice the difference between them and moralism may jeopardize one’s chances to spot genuine moralism when it is at play, and thus to counter moralistic attacks with the right weapons.

That morality is limited and has boundaries does not entail a depreciation of its value and authority. On the contrary, it is when legitimacy is assigned to trespassing the boundaries of morality, therefore allowing morality to be confused or conflated with moralism, that the binding force and authoritativeness of morality gradually fades.


Picture: Finger Mobile 7 by J. E. Theriot from Flickr CC BY 2.0