Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic is discussing the legacy of Christopher Hitchens and the reactions to his death by various commentators, including discussion of whether “not speaking ill of the dead” should apply to public figures. I was struck by this quote of a quote:
As Cook put it: “it must not be forgotten in mourning him that he got the single most consequential decision in his life horrifically, petulantly wrong”
Is this someone being rather hard on Hitchen’s strident atheism, which went to extremes such as loudly mocking Mother Teresa and her work in the most excessive and vulgar terms? Is some health nut going after his heavy smoking and binge drinking? Is some woman upset by the way his literary bad boy persona spilled over into his relationships? No, the topic is Hitchen’s opinion on the Iraq War:
indeed: “People make mistakes. What’s horrible about Hitchens’ ardor for the invasion of Iraq is that he clung to it long after it became clear that a grotesque error had been made…”
I could see someone arguing that the Iraq War was the “single most consequential decision” in President Bush’s life, or Dick Cheney’s life, or even that of some major military figure. But Hitchen’s was a literary and opinion journalist. That his thoughts on the Iraq War could somehow end up being the most “consequential” in his life suggests a view in which simply having a political opinion on some issue of the day is more important in one’s life than anything one actually does.
This seems like an increasingly common way of thinking. As people decide that they are “basically good people” and banish morality from the bedroom, the living room, and the board room, they come to see morality as being the alignment with larger groups on the big issues of the day. Only the scrupulous worry about the morality of the mundane. Instead, morality is determined by how one addresses the big capitalized phrases of the moment: the War on Terror, Poverty, Inequality, Gay Rights, the Environment, etc.
This, it seems to me, couldn’t be more backwards. Sure, what one thinks on various matters of the day is indicative of one’s moral and personal choices, but the most consequential decisions of our lives are those we make about how we treat those around us on a day in and day out basis — and whether we accept as the ruler and guide of those decisions our Maker.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post on how we sometimes impute excessive virtue to ourselves for being on the right side of historical conflicts, though a sort of proxy morality. I’d like to follow-up on the theme with the other area in which I think we often fall into a mentality of proxy morality: issue advocacy and solidarity with oppressed groups.
Let me start by trying to lay out a little bit more clearly what I think proxy morality is and why I think it is a danger to us. Proxy morality consists of drawing a strong sense of virtue or righteousness from identification with some cause or group. It is, I think, a dangerous tendency because it allows us to indulge in a great deal of pride and righteousness, while at the same time running of the risk of both excusing ourselves from taking any direct moral action in regards to the issues which we congratulate ourselves on due to proxy morality. Continue reading
Generally speaking, I think we would say that moral behavior consists of choosing to do right in one’s actions. However, there are a number of instances in which we tend to think of ourselves as behaving virtuously despite not having actually undertaken any action. These are means by which we tell ourselves that we have demonstrated we are “good people” without the burden of actually doing good things.
There are several different ways we do this which I’d like to address under the description of “proxy morality”, by which I mean instances in which someone assigns virtue to himself through no more action than identifying himself with some good which is performed by someone else. The first of these, one which I think people of all ideological persuasions fall into at times, is that of taking sides in history.
It is by now an old saw that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and I think there is a good deal of truth in this. Further, it can be of some moral benefit for us to look to history for people and actions to admire. The moment in which we find ourselves suddenly faced with some difficult moral decision is typically not the moment at which are most un-biased or deliberative, and so having clear examples to follow, if they are well chosen, can be a significant benefit.