Re: [xmca] Perceptions, Moral Judgements and Dialectics

From: Kellogg (
Date: Fri Dec 08 2006 - 20:47:34 PST

Dear Andy:

Well, there were a lot of things wrong with the last stuff I wrote. The bit at the beginning on "technical means" is obscure and stylistically ugly. And of course there was the usual atrocious grammar mistake ("my moral decisions are far more subjection to reason") at the end.

Also, I should have made it clear that when I say that I don't think questions of identity and "the good life" are logically prior to social questions I really mean developmentally prior and not in some absolute sense superior. Instead, I muddied the waters by saying that "even if" I granted that questions of identity were in some sense more profound (I don't really understand what this means) I would not give them logical priority, which sort of looks like I am giving away importance with one hand and taking it back with the other.

I should have said that just as with the interiorization of word meaning, "who am I" and "what is the good life" are products, not developmental processes. The same thing is probably true of the development of an ethical system from a political one.

Furthermore, I now think that political violence is a bad example to use to illustrate the way in which my political decisions developmentally lag behind my ethical ones. The reason I (today) think it is a bad example is precisely because violence is endemic in human history (as in animal evolution), and in our own time it is simply an expression of the inability of the human animal to rationally command his own social development.

That a Vygotskyan system of morality would appear to predict ethical development in the social sphere preceding and forming ethical development in the personal sphere is simply a reflection of his belief that he was living in an epoch where humans would indeed be able to resolve social and political conflicts in a rational (and nonviolent) manner. Once again, he was overoptimistic, but not necessarily wrong.

Let me offer a better example of this over-optimism, an example that has the advantage of being clearly linked to the idea that moral concepts are mediated through verbal artworks. I find that in my personal morality, the concept of "evil" is almost completely useless. It has a quaint fairy tale ring to it, and it never offers any empathy or insight into what motivates the people around me (students who complain about their grades, colleagues who design qualifying exams around theoretically unmotivated ideas of proficiency, etc). Even in the works of Dostoevsky, I find that the concept of "evil", although it persists for religious reasons, is entirely stripped of its fairy tale kernel; Raskolnikov's murder is not an "evil" one in the usual sense of the word, and it is absurd to summarize The Brothers Karamazov as a struggle between good and evil.

Yet in politics I find no such difficulty. I conclude that the war of criminal aggression against the Iraqi people was an act of almost pure evil, and in fact I'm rather hard put to explain it any other way. Whatever else we can say about the accounts offered by those who deceived and manipulated the American people in order to launch the war, they are hardly novelistic or even very literary; indeed the fairy tale concept of "evil" seems to loom rather large, both in the production of and in the consumption of the myths surrounding the war. The true motives of the war are probably even less susceptible to a novelistic treatment than the mythical accounts of its genesis. "Crime and Punishment" or "War and Peace" are possible novels, but "How We Won the 2002 Congressional Elections and Lost in 2004" or "No-bid Contracts and the World's Second Largest Oil Reserves" are bathetic; they would not even rate as supermarket novel titles.

In fact the narrative of war only "worked" for the American people when it was part of a rather crass and racially inspired revenge fantasy; the chief problem of the war's architects is that this particular narrative is no longer credible with the audience; it has turned out rather bloodier than a satisfying revenge fantasy, and it is rather more like a Jacobean Revenge Tragedy than the American attention span can stand.

Just as we move the result of an action to the beginning of the action when we achieve self-regulation, it is normal, when we speak, to move the reaction of the audience to the front of our articulation. This foreknowledge of the audience reaction pre-empts certain narratives and inspires others. This is why we can easily detect the rejection of the revenge fantasy in the fact that Bush no longer directly invokes 9-11. It is precisely this that lends Bush's intonation its irritating petulance and its annoying shrillness. It is this which explains the whiny insistence with which he pronounces the three word slogans that his handlers come up with (exeunt "stay the course", enter "the way forward") and the number of times he has to shoot his tongue out to lick his lips when he delivers a speech. It is exactly the kind of speaking mannerism I would associate with banal evil.

So I think that while the concept of "evil" reflects a fairly low level of moral development, more or less completely devoid of empathy and useless for understanding what motivates the actions of others in personal life, it is still a serviceable concept in understanding the motivations and actions of the American ruling class. This suggests to me that politics lies at a rather lower level of development than ethics, more or less beyond the reach of mediation through verbal art. The ruling class is simply, banally, bathetically evil, or as near to evil as makes no difference. I admit, this is hardly a Dostoevskyan view.

In closing, I want to take issue with something you said two postings ago. You argued that Greens have an advantage over Reds in that they have realized that it is essential to involve people personally; it is not enough to change the government, we also have to change the way we sort egg shells from cucumber peelings. Here in Korea, where the entire economy was designed around the concept of selling so many cars that people would have nowhere to drive them, the elementary school textbooks (especially the moral education ones) more or less revolve around the idea that the environment is a personal responsibility. The message from the older generation is clear: it is all YOUR fault.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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