Moralism and Morality

It is the beginning of a new semester here in collegeland and I am really excited to start sharing with all you lovely readers the things I’m thinking about as I read and discuss and learn and all those delightful things we do in academia.

My first post in this vein is about ethics and politics. One of my classes is a class called Ethics and it’s within the religion department (why I am a religion major is a subject for another day). At the moment we are looking at things like ethical dilemmas (which is a very specific term in this context meaning a situation in which no matter what you do you are doing something morally wrong) which particularly is bringing us into the political realm. The last book we read focused on political realism. For those who don’t know (yeah, we have a lot of technical definitions. Stupid seminar classes), political realism is the belief that morality has no place in politics (especially international politics) and that instead we should operate based strictly upon reality, what is feasible and national interest.

As an atheist I often run into a great deal of anger towards those who try to legislate morality (read: the conservative, religious right). But when you phrase this anger as a very strong political realism, it sounds heartless and inhuman. We should simply ignore all morals in politics? What kind of selfish bastards are we? So how do we still act with morality, with a sense of justice, equality and responsibility towards our fellow human beings without allowing for the sort of rampant moral legislation that we see in anti-abortion or anti-gay marriage legislation? Is it simply conceited for any of us to believe that we should bring our own ethical and moral code into politics with us?

As I’ve been reading Messy Morality by C.A.J. Coady I’ve been finding some really important insights that are necessary to think about in today’s political climate (if you’re reading in the U.S. that is…I really can’t speak for political climates elsewhere). Coady makes an extremely important distinction between moralizing and morality. Moralizing tends to be more fanatical: it’s the focus on an ideal or moral to the exclusion of prudence, context or other factors that play a role in any decision. Morality on the other hand is simply bringing our values and our ideals to play in a decision while still working within the bounds of prudence. Prudence is in fact a moral virtue and is naturally part of morality.

As Coady suggests, it does seem important to retain some sort of morality in our politics, and in fact it’s nearly impossible not to bring some kind of moral judgments with you (e.g. that national self interest is a worthy goal to pursue). So how do we know when we’re taking our morality too far or when we should push our goals and ideals in a political context? How do we know when it’s prudent to aim towards our ideals and how do we know when we should rightfully get angry at someone else trying to legislate their morality? Coady does not give hard and fast rules, but I think there are guides we can extrapolate and ones which are important. They also give us a rational reason why the conservative aim to ban abortion is not the same as the liberal aim to help the poor. The first reason that I feel the conservatives in this country have gone too far falls under Coady’s heading “moralizing of unbalanced focus”. Essentially what this means is taking one moral or ideal and deciding that it’s applicable to absolutely every aspect of life and more important than any other moral. This tends to show up in conservative logic in the form of sexuality. One vivid example is the ridiculous outcry that any sort of sexual indiscretion creates from the right (Clinton, Anthony Weiner). While I am probably biased, I do not see many liberals doing this same thing. Generally we have a different value for different problems and we try to match the value to the context.

A second problem with conservative moralizing is the “moralism of imposition”. This is essentially the inappropriate legislating of morals, be it inappropriate because it’s simply against human dignity or because it is not prudent and will create an even bigger outcry than working in smaller ways. I feel that this is the biggest problem with the American Republican party today. In particular, gay marriage and the question of birth control exemplify this to me. The Republican attitude towards these very personal choices betrays an intolerance, a disrespect for other people’s free choices, a self-importance and high moral certainty and a disregard for the fact that these actions may in fact harm their overall goals.

There are many more things to say on this subject, I feel that liberals are not as guilty of these faults as conservatives are (particularly the religious). That is not to say that liberals are perfect. Some liberals compromise too far so that they fail to bring their morality into the political sphere at all and simply cave for the sake of stability and good will. I also will admit here and now that this is a simplification of the issue, but I feel that these concepts as a way of viewing the problems in our political system today are important.


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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at

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