Thursday, December 10, 2009

Is Morality Good?

ReligionDispatches interviews Hans-George Moeller about his new book, Moral Fool: A Case for Amorality. Here's an excerpt:

The book is very much focused on moral pathologies in North America. I think that moral pathologies in other regions (Germany, China, for instance) show quite different symptoms. Maybe one time there will be a catalogue of the various forms of moral pathologies in different places and at different times.

North American moral pathologies are related to what may be called the “narrative” of American identity and clearly stem, historically speaking, from the fusion of fundamentalist Protestantism and 18th-century Enlightenment political liberalism. Fundamentalist Protestant morality endorses, for instance, strict individual responsibility for one’s sins (and, vice versa, credit for one’s achievements in the world), total commitment to the Christian God and the community united in His name (the family, and, by extension, the nation), and an ascetic lifestyle.

Enlightenment liberalism highlights similar values in a secularized form: individual “pursuit of happiness,” a commitment to “public life,” and the virtues of the commoner (rather than elitist or aristocratic man). It is not difficult to see how such a catalogue of moral ideals can lead to a celebration of vengeance, jingoism, and Puritan ethical prescriptions. In The Moral Fool, I have tried to describe how such moral pathologies have been influencing, for instance, American legal practice (death penalty), protest movements (Abolition, anti-gay sentiments), war rhetorics (just war philosophy), and the mass media (Hollywood movies).

In Europe, moral pathology is closely tied to 20th-century European liberal-progressive Protestantism. In Germany, for example, moral pathologies derive mostly from the traumatic experiences in connection with the Nazi regime. In Germany, a discourse of collective guilt (self-)ascription has produced some sort of moral overcompensation manifesting itself in the form of paradoxical moral arrogance. Germany now conceives of itself as the repentant sinner who, by fully acknowledging his crimes, has become the ethical champion of the world.

To a certain extent, George W. Bush and Sarah Palin represent North American moral pathology, and the Nobel Peace Prize award for Barack Obama expresses European sentiments of moral superiority. This Nobel Prize was supposed to say something like: Now that you have repented the Bush administration’s sins, Europeans welcome you back to the commonwealth of the ethically pure nations.



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