Friday, 21 June 2013

What can consenting adults get up to?

I have little interest in reading Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limit of Markets, principally because I read Deirdre McCloskey's review and also because of this cringe-worthy luvvie-liberal-love-in story. But his arguments are interesting data points in the sociology of morals, as he is using right-wing arguments to make a left-wing point.

The sorts of moral arguments apparently used by Sandel include ones based on considerations of corruption and so, by implication, sanctity. When Sandel suggests that we are disgusted when professional ethics are corrupted by the sheer maximization of profits, for example, or when parenting is corrupted by paid trafficking in children, he is not necessarily saying that anyone gets hurt as a result, just that these things are wrong in themselves, that they defile something intrinsically worthy or sacred.

As Jonathan Haidt convincingly shows in The Righteous Mind, these sorts of arguments are much more congenial to those on the political right. Those on the left are ready to 'see through' such arguments or view them as excuses for oppression: talking about the sanctity of the family can be a smokescreen for the oppression of women, for example, or talking about the importance of patriotism can be an attempt to justify wrongful invasions of foreign countries.

Now let's change the subject slightly. If you were to hear that a group of adults likes to gather to do things that are regarded by large parts of the population as obscene, but are entirely consensual in nature, happen in private (behind closed doors, not screened on TV or the internet), do not involve children or animals, and result in no injuries or addictions that make demands on the the public health system, then:

(a) if you are a typical left-liberal (as described by Haidt), you will probably think that the activity should be legal, no ifs or buts; while

(b) if you are a typical conservative (as described by Haidt), you will hesitate to come to the same conclusion.

However, if you were then to hear that the private, obscene but consensual activity in question is not (as I have tried to imply) some obscure sexual practice but instead the payment of very large bonuses to bankers, I suspect that left-wing people's intuitions reverse themselves. (Right-wing people probably remain hesitant to condemn - many "small-c conservatives" are no lovers of big bonuses.)

There of course are lots of arguments to be made about how to compare very large banker bonuses with obscure sexual practices. (Consider these ones: which practice would you be more likely to boast about being involved in to your parents, spouse, children or respected friends? (Bear in mind that you don't boast about doing something morally repugnant to those people.) When you leave the room having committed the act in question, which will have made you more inclined to give money to charity or a deserving relative, support a struggling entrepreneur (or at least a pub), commission a work of art, or just spread a little goodwill by taking your family on a nice holiday? Which one can be taxed?) But my point is a sociological one, not a moral one. Both Sandel-following left-liberals and traditional conservatives can agree that money is capable of corrupting valuable social institutions. So there is scope for both sides to agree that some things are sacred - or rather that some things are sacred when the alternative is using money to value them.

Haidt describes two world-views, the left-liberal and the conservative, that find it hard to agree on anything in the political arena. My modest suggestion is that they can agree that the love of money is the root of, if not all evil, at least some of it. That's not great news for capitalism - but that's another story.

No comments:

Post a Comment