With the continuing rise of woke progressivism, Western culture and civilisation are regressing to an earlier age. The celebration of amorality and barbarism signals the imminent loss of the moral community. That much is now clear. In the UK, for example, the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in London is soon to display a statue of a black Baptist preacher who went from being a pacifist with anti-colonialist views to a brutally-violent rebel against the British in Nyasaland (since renamed Malawi) in 1915.1
John Chilembwe’s grip on sanity might have collapsed under the burden of suffering and oppression, and we can all sympathise with this. But he then incited a violent armed uprising against the British which involved the beheading of a white man, an act all the more barbarous for being carried out in front of the man’s wife and children. The severed head was then displayed on a spike beside Chilembwe’s pulpit as he incited further atrocities against whites in general. This is part of the legend of John Chilembwe, and many who today celebrate his achievements are happy to believe the more grisly aspects of it.2
To elevate Chilembwe to the status of a hero, as someone of integrity, and someone to emulate, is also to celebrate the conduct of a man who advocated racist violence. This is not the conduct of a man of good moral character, and the fact that the woke progressive Left is fine with this is an indication of how corrupted is their grip on some very fundamental values and concepts underpinning the functioning of any viable moral community. Because as soon as the idea takes hold that fundamental moral values can be abandoned as inconvenient to a political agenda, the descent into amorality and barbarism begins. And that is where the woke progressive Left now is.
The Left’s Descent into Amorality and Barbarism
With the emergence of permissive liberalism in the West during the 1960s – much encouraged by the Left – immoral and then amoral conduct became more and more socially acceptable. The abandonment of moral norms in favour of more licentious behaviour is a consequence of widespread public acceptance of the degeneration of society into amorality. This could not happen without the failure of influence of the idea of a moral community of like-minded people, people who see it as their role to perpetuate standards of good conduct that are in danger of being undermined or abandoned altogether. But now, fifty years after the Swinging Sixties, we can see where this has all led. The sexual revolution contributed to the weakening of family ties, as the norm of the extended family gave way to the nuclear family, which then gave way to the single-parent family.3
And now we have the transgender movement seeking to remove from parents any right to object to their child’s manipulation by political activists advocating irreversible life-changing interventions in the name of transgender ‘rights’, promoted and carried out by physicians and counsellors whose role as therapists is deliberately put to serving political ends.4 These activists have abrogated their professional obligation to do no harm, and their ethics have been distorted and eroded such that they now accommodate the doing of irreversible harm to vulnerable children, even against the objections of the parent(s). This is a new form of amorality and barbarism, and it betrays how corrupted the public discourse on moral probity has become.
At root this all comes down to an issue of fundamental moral values, principles, conscience, and character. These are not words you hear or read much in the mainstream media these days, at least not in any meaningful sense. The same applies in education, and in public life. The rhetoric is still occasionally used, but often it rings hollow, lacking meaningful content if the words are used carelessly, as if everyone should know what they mean and so further discussion is unnecessary.
And we are all the worse off for this. Because these attributes are what makes a good person, a person whose conduct reveals what is inside them and what makes them a net contributor to the moral good of their community. And even those only aspiring to have these attributes will motivate an ongoing conversation about what constitutes the morally good or bad, the right and the wrong.
The Importance of the Moral Conversation
This kind of conversation is necessary for the making of a good person. Good people don’t happen by accident. They develop in response to their own inner moral struggles and those of others. It’s an accomplishment that is primarily moral, without which we risk becoming morally lazy. The ultimate debasement of immorality is a culture of amorality which reduces the individual to a set of instinctual drives finding expression as needs and desires. Such degraded individuals seek satisfaction only in their own fulfilment, treating others as objects, as nothing more than digestive tracts with interesting accessories.
And yet many of us yearn to be something more, not just in our own estimation, but by validation based on a universal judgment which transcends ordinary human evaluations, a source of goodness which owes nothing to humanity. You may call this God, or choose some other moral source, but there is about this an inescapable element of veneration at the fount of goodness. Nonetheless, this is an idea – and a value – which can serve to unite people of diverse philosophical outlooks to strive for the good of all. The idea that there is a universal moral value of goodness underpins every moral community in the common quest to foster the good within us and find non-destructive ways of correcting the bad.
And yet we in the West now live in circumstances where people get applauded simply for being ‘politically correct’ about things that are significant only because they are so wrong. Such as male exhibitionists exposing their private parts to young girls and being allowed to get away with it solely because the men in question claim to ‘identify’ as women.
Advocating for fashionable ideals doesn’t make for a good person, nor being subject to emotions (as ‘feelings’) that are exploitable for political ends; nor does spouting the ‘politically-correct’ rhetoric, still less virtue-signalling as if one’s life depended on it. These are like the froth on a cappuccino: good while it lasts, and then it’s on to the next quick fix, another superficial feel-good moment. Because even if the feeling is intense it is also shallow and transient. It’s a distraction from what really matters.
What really matters is what has always mattered: trying to be a good person, even if one succeeds only partially and fails frequently (as most of us do). And the struggle to be good is itself an expression that we are aware that we could – and should – do more than we are doing right now; that there is always more work to be done to become a good person. Good people aren’t born that way, nor do they suddenly become good in response to external forces. Good people become good as a result of their own effort of will and the support gained from living in a moral community. Both factors are necessary: an effort of will, and the presence of like-minded individuals also seeking the same outcome. We support one another in our struggle against our moral inadequacies, seeking inspiration from sources of moral truth and guidance from those who are further along their own journey.
Moral communities cannot survive without good people, and good people are an intrinsic and necessary part of any moral community. Fundamental to this is our ability not only to make the distinction between what is morally good and bad, right and wrong, but also that we should not ignore our failures, still less be rewarded for them. If there are men who really ‘identify’ as (or with) women, shouldn’t such men be protecting women (and young girls) from predatory men? And if they don’t offer such protection there is a moral incoherence here, and it betrays the perverted intentions of those involved.
These days it’s officially ‘transphobic’ to condemn such conduct. And the woke progressives are fine with all this. We all know by now we’re not supposed to hurt the feelings of those who (claim to) believe they’re hosting the wrong genitalia. These days the rights of women and young girls run a poor second to the feelings of men pretending to be women. The hurt feelings of a legally-privileged group (men ‘identifying’ as women) now take precedence over the protection of women and young girls. This kind of inversion of values seems to be happening almost everywhere one cares to look these days.
Moral relativism undermines commitment to fundamental values
To know something is morally wrong is to value what is right, but that evaluation must be universally applicable for it to have any moral force, as Immanuel Kant correctly observed. Kant’s Categorical Imperative imposes a criterion of universality which must be met for any moral value, principle, or rule to be valid.7
Basically, so far as Kant was concerned, any moral stipulation we cite must be subsumed under a universal rule, otherwise it is not a moral statement at all, but an opinion with no moral standing. This is but one of many formulations of Kant’s Categorical Imperative, but in my view this is the logical starting-point of any discussion of morality. Because without accepting the necessity of adopting universally-valid rules of conduct, derived from a conception of there being universal values, any discussion about morality lapses into differences of opinion, paving the way for moral relativism.
Kant seems to have anticipated the descent into moral relativism which is now almost a defining feature of the woke progressive Left. His writings on ethics were intended to serve as a repudiation of the atheism promoted by many influential intellectuals involved in the Enlightenment.
Central to his concerns was that conduct should be deemed moral based only on the moral characteristics of the act itself. This stipulation includes considering the motives for carrying out the act. Central to this is the exercise of personal will which brings about the act itself. Excluded from consideration is the identity of the person. Thus it should not matter who carries out the act: the moral status of the act is determined only by the morally-relevant characteristics of the act. To judge the moral status of an act by who does it – rather than the moral characteristics of the act itself – is to lapse into moral relativism. This is what Kant is telling us, it seems to me. And this is precisely why fundamental moral concepts such as values, principles, conscience, and character are so important, in the functioning and survival of a moral community.
It is our understanding and application of such concepts, along with the incorporation of the associated attributes into our thinking and conduct, that is necessary if we are to guard against moral incoherence. I understand Kant’s underlying message to be that lapsing into moral incoherence is a prerequisite to adopting the outlook of moral relativism, in which anything (however cruel and barbaric) can be made to seem morally acceptable on the basis that at least one person claims it to be their moral right (either as an individual or member of a group or culture) to act in this way. Kant’s Categorical Imperative rules out this argument for moral relativism by making the value of the individual human life the starting point of moral evaluations, as a moral end in itself rather than a means to an end. Unless we adopt this stance, we cannot count ourselves as moral beings. Our best protection against the perversions of moral relativism is to recognize the universal value of human life.
To value human life as both the foundational and ultimate moral value is a prerequisite of any moral community, because without it all other moral values become arbitrary. Murder is deemed wrong in all civilized, settled, societies. To value and protect human life establishes a principle of good conduct that all people of good will subscribe to. But not valuing human life doesn’t make murder any less wrong, except from that person’s point of view. And they don’t really believe that in any case, because they wouldn’t agree that their own murder would be ‘right’ unless mentally disturbed.
To be able to make such distinctions results in the development of conscience – another unfashionable notion these days – whereby the troublesome effects of knowing you have done wrong can motivate the taking of steps to make amends, and/or by eschewing such conduct in future. Conscience matters, because without it we’d be reduced to instinctual creatures pursuing our own narrow interests at the expense of others. To have a conscience and act on it is arguably one of the most important motivators to develop moral character: the attribute of being committed to living by freely-chosen values and principles, whilst allowing others to do the same, because we recognize the universal value of each human life.
The idea that there are certain universal moral values underpins the claim that there exists an unalienable right of each and every person to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – the idea adopted by Thomas Jefferson when framing the Declaration of Independence of the United States. Jefferson’s words of 1776 antedated Kant’s Categorical Imperative (published in 1779) and were probably inspired by a phrase in John Locke’s essay Concerning Human Understanding of 1690, who in turn was influenced by Aristotle and Epicurus.9
The moral stance of all three writers is that each of us has the right to be treated with consideration and respect, as a moral end in itself, rather than as pawns in the political machinations of others.
Jefferson’s phrasing is but one expression of a fundamental moral truth that increasingly came to dominate Western culture and civilisation, spreading its influence throughout the free world. And now this fundamental moral truth is being challenged by political interests which care nothing for the individual and seek to suborn the idea of a moral community to the collectivist ideology of identity politics, with Leftist Twitter mobs seeking to cancel anyone who stands up for fundamental moral values and truths that are universal and timeless.
If we in the West allow the decay of our moral culture to continue, fundamental moral concepts of values, principles, conscience and character, will become reduced to empty political rhetoric, and/or meaningless abstractions used by self-deceiving intellectuals pretending that their utterances have some moral force.
And if or when that process of decay is complete, we will no longer be able to tell the difference between a good person and a bad one, moral communities will fail, and the West will be lost.
Paul Sturdee is a retired teacher of philosophy who leads a contemplative life.