Friday, December 18, 2009

Four Wrong Turns: Four Moral theories and Four Visions of "the Bad Life"

A moral theory tries to tell us what is valuable in life and how we should treat one another. Each moral theory is a project for articulating "the good life," whatever that may be. But the flip side of positive instruction is a negative warning. Each moral theory also threatens a wrong turn - a vision of the bad life - the hell on earth that we could create through either embracing the wrong moral theory or failing to embrace a moral theory all together.

For the first three "hells," I'm not going to re-invent the wheel. If the reader evaluates me on originiality they might judge this post a failure. But I hope to provide a keenly observed, accesible and easily understood articulation of the moral projects of smarter men than myself.

#4, my Facebook dystopia, is more my own invention.




Liberalism is centered around the idea that we can draw a line between our public and private lives. In our private lives we can be religous, irrational, passionate. Behind the walls of our home we can experiment with sexuality and religous devotion in any way we seek.

However, once we step into the public realm, the courthouse and the schoolyard and the town hall meeting, we are expected to check our private baggage at the door. If we are to make an argument in the public sphere, we have to house it in a vocabulary that is public, that other people can accept without having to accept our private religous or moral doctrines.

Because rationality and reason are the only public currency, religon would start to erode over time as citizens began to, inevitably, take their public lessons home with them. As John Tomasi argues, the demand that we use reason would lead us to pull up our moral anchors one by one, until we were completely unanchored. Soon we would find ourselves floating aimlessly in the moral ocean, blown whatever direction by whichever wind carried the day.

This is the sense in which I am conservative and not liberal. The same sense in which friendship is conservative. Where modern liberalism asks us to divorce ourselves from our particularisms, friendship asks us to embrace the familiar shores we've come to love. Rather to stick with the imperfect friends we have than pull up our anchors and sail off into the unknown in search of better ones.

Rationality. Reason. They can only take us so far. Political liberalism purports to be an agnostic, neutral grid that can manage the diversity of a society with different moral views (atheist, Islamic, Christian, ecologist, etc)... But at what point does that neutral grid become its own moral theory. Will the agnostic neutral grid eventually turn all our private moral convictions into mere hobbies?

When the demands of the public sphere bleed over into our private lives, our lives become empty, uncomfortable, petty, calculating, and unheroic.

Richard Breiner compares this vision of the bad life to a room without furniture. He offers this image to illustrate:

DYSTOPIAS #2 and #3


You own yourself. This fundamental argument is at the center of libertarian thought. You have a right to be treated as an end in and of yourself. It is wrong for society to treat you merely as the means to some other end.

To bring an illustration to this point about deserving to be treated like an end and not a means to someone else's end, imagine you are on a lifeboat with ten other people. It would certainly be noble of you to offer your body to the other 9 as food. But could the other 9 justifiably take your body as food by force. Could they kill you and eat you and argue that it was in the name of the greater good?

A liberterian argues that this is an apt metaphor for being taxed under the table to pay for the social welfare of others.

Let's say that the government decides it can take 25% of your earning at the end of the year. We are used to this idea.

But what if you decided to work 25% less every year, could the government coerce you into working more? Is there any moral difference between the government taking 25% of the profits of your labor and the governement forcing you to labor for an extra X number of hours??? What is slavery other than being forced to work for nothing? For those hours for which the wages went to the governement, were you not working for nothing? To be sure you are not a total slave, but are you a partial slave?

In this vision of the bad life, the government either forces you to work, or steals the fruits of your labor from you. There is no hope of working hard and getting ahead. You do not own yourself. The government owns you. And the government will gladly cut you up into little pieces and distribute you to the masses if that will make the public happier as a whole.

As Grover Nordquist said, "I don't want to get rid of government, I just want to starve it down to the size where I can drown it in the bathtub if need be." The liberterians fear a nanny state. The nanny state would decide what was best for you and if you disagree, you get spanked.


What do we get when we abandon social welfare as the end of government? Would a world without taxes be anymore satisfying?

A world where income inequality was enormous and insurmountable. There would be no equality of opportunity. The luck of the draw you experienced at birth would govern your entire life.... The state that is weak enough to be drowned in the bathtub would also be too weak to keep citizens from cheating and harming one another. In cases of racism and prejudice, the state's "hands off" attitude would doom those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to staying on the bottom forever.

Without a robust and effective government, there is not meaningful social mobility. Without meaningful social mobility, there is not hope.

It would be terrible to live in a world where the governement was so weak it could not provide the basic institutions that give every citizen a glimmer of hope in reaching their potential. Liberterians claim they want to give people the ability to improve their condition through work, but in a pure liberterian future, many children would be doomed from birth to a life of poverty and squalor.

The flip side of the libertarians vision of hell is the fact that their utopia might itself be rather hellish. Imagine the anarchy of a purely capitalist state. The police would only protect the interests of the wealthy. There would be an apartheid society based on inherited wealth, with ostentatious displays of wealth and wretched examples of miserable poverty.

Morally, a libertarian utopia would have citizens not connected to each other with the moral ligaments of a dedication to the common good.

This "bad life" is a lawless, anarchic wild west. We live without hope for the future unless we were born with wealth and natural talent. We live in fear of our neighbors unless we are wealthy enough or strong enough.

Where the liberterians fear the nanny state, critics fear the nightwatchman state. This state is too weak to help us overcome the collective action problems which we cannot solve for ourselves. All the public goods we enjoy, roads, streetlights, highways, public schools, police, firefighting, have been privatized.

There is no spirit of the common good to animate our policy deliberations.

We have gained a bankrupt freedom. Not the freedom for every citizen to actualize their potential, but the freedom for the rich to be as selfish as possible.



Is Facebook making ours a morally bankrupt generation? Are people more concerned with crafting their online personas than they are with actual actions and communication? Are we all retreating into ourselves, barricading ourselves up in fortresses of virtual identity.

Facebook and its clones inspire a moral landscape based on surfaces. Each person is nothing but a list of aquaintances and preferences, a collection of images. The very concept of friendship loses all meaning as it is institutionalized into nothing more than an arbirtary line of code linking two virtual profiles.

Facebook is merely the medium for this dystopia, which is a larger confluence of modern evils. Privacy becomes an artifact of a bygone era, as strangers are given access to our most intimate thoughts and experiences.

To illustrate this, I must quote Tyler Cowen's review of the film CLOVERFIELD: "The characters are supposed to be vacuous and annoying... the opening scene is supposed to be obnoxious and superficial. The heroism is supposed to be thin... Most of all this is a movie about how the young'uns have no tools for moral discourse and that all they can do is utter banalities and take endless pictures of each other and record their lives for no apparent purpose."

Is Facebook really optional anymore? Can we avoid the dominance of Facebook anymore than we can avoid Universitites and Corporations?

Is the world of social-networking taking a heavy toll on us? Does it make our identities shallower? Does it rob us of the moral vocabulary to talk to each other about matters of substance?

The medium is the message. The message is the medium. When I first started Facebook it was a channel for my group of friends to post pictures of us fucked up on drugs and having meaningless sex with one another. Facebook not only exhibits but encourages this tendency towards fleeting, intoxicated closeness. Why build sustainable friendships and memorable experiences if we don't need to. Who needs memories when someone will post pictures?

Do grade school kids have facebook now? I'm sure Middle Schoolers do... What does it tell children about who they are as people? Random collections of images and adjectives and codes: erasable and revisable. A Facebook future is not so much immoral as it is ammoral.

I fear for the republic.


  1. Mr. Black: Sharp, thoughtful, entertaining. Not sure that Facebook (et al) is as much to blame as you say, but it is a symptom and indeed a contributor to the effects you articulate well.

  2. Indeed, thank youn. My point is that Facebook, in the egalitarian spirit of modernity, brings form to the emerging equality between people, whereas true friendship is based on a radical particularity.