Intellectual entrepreneurs determined to unsettle society’s moral fixities may choose one of two basic strategies. They can either show that condemnations of “evil” are misguided, self-serving or merely antiquated, or that what is perceived as “good” isn’t really good after all. The former strategy is both more popular and liable to generate roaring public debate. The latter strategy, which I call the deconstruction of decency, is more rare and less often scrutinized. But sustained effort to expose the supposed moral downside of behavior most people see as decent or even righteous may be just as important in the end.
This is so despite the fact that efforts both to flip evil into good and to deconstruct good into evil are nearly always sourced in the ethereal realms of academe, a domain with little purchase in the lives of ordinary people, especially in an informal, egalitarian culture like that of the United States. It is easy for most Americans to dismiss what “eggheads” and unintelligible intellectuals swimming in jargon-laden abstractions have to say. But ideas, especially bad ones, do matter. As Charles Hill noted in the September/October issue of The American Interest:
Almost every act regarded in the mid-20th century as a vice was, by the opening of the 21st century, considered a virtue. As gambling, obscenity, pornography, drugs, divorce, homosexuality, abortion and sneering disaffection became The New Virtue, government at all levels began to move in on the action, starting with casinos and currently involving, in several states and the District of Columbia, an officially approved and bureaucratically managed narcotics trade.
Hill’s list corresponds to the consequences of rendering what used to be considered wrong, unseemly or evil into what is now broadly considered virtuous. But what of the other strategy, the deconstruction of decency? The first objective of any effort to deconstruct decency is to create a penumbra of normative uncertainty around otherwise commendable acts. Stylized narratives in which such acts are linked to ill defined but ominous consequences seem to work best. A few examples clarify the genre.
Who can fault a monogamous heterosexual couple trying to parent their kids the best they can? According to Michael Warner, in his 1999 book The Trouble with Normal, such efforts lend legitimacy to a particular “dominant culture and family environment” and therefore “should be held accountable for creating inequalities of access and recognition.” Warner, by the way, is the Seymour H. Knox Professor of English Literature and American Studies at Yale University. How about volunteers who sustain an effort to deliver food and clothes to those in need in an urban ghetto? According to Robert D. Lupton, a University of Georgia Ph.D. in psychology, the consequence of doing such things is catastrophic, because “giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy them.” So goes the argument in Lupton’s 2011 book Toxic Charity.
How would a philanthropic foundation distributing scholarship checks to underprivileged students reshape the social landscape? Neil Levy, Deputy Director for Research at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics at the University of Melbourne, tells us in a 2002 essay entitled “Against Philanthropy, Individual and Corporate”, that it will only exacerbate our social problems because “having donated funds delivered by volunteers might only serve to deepen the humiliation” of the destitute. Therefore, he reasons, “the more philanthropy there is, the less the poor will be able to have their needs met reliably.”
In the aftermath of the visit of American doctors as pro bono healers of sick Ethiopians, what would the world look like? Insofar as this ostensibly noble behavior will create “the appearance of giving back”, it will disguise “the fact that it is already based in taking away” and hence will stabilize “the very system that results in poverty, disease and environmental destruction.” So opine Patricia Mooney Nickel, an assistant professor of government and international affairs at VPI, and Angela M. Eikenberry, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
In all these examples, and hundreds more that could be brought from the rarified air of assorted ivory towers, conduct that seems easy to assess from a moral standpoint is re-described as perplexingly complicated and ultimately nefarious. In the process, the deconstructionists of decency assume the role of sophisticated analysts of complexity. They become sages benignly drawing attention to the fact that conventional ways of being “good” reveal nothing so much as humankind’s rather pathetic propensity to believe simple but erroneous truths. As self-ascribed gifted experts who grasp how things actually are, they nevertheless insist on advocating equal but opposite simplicities of their own. Super-pundit Slavoj Žižek’s opinions exemplify this propensity toward to provocatively straightforward causal claims and parsimonious analytical contentions.
Žižek, a self-identified Leninist, teaches philosophy and social criticism at the University of Ljubjana in Slovenia. He asks why we lack viable strategies to cope with formidable “crises” such as poverty, ethnic and sectarian violence and preventable epidemics. His answer: Because the efforts to alleviate these crises focus on mere “secondary malfunctions of the global system” while all ills plaguing the world can be traced back to “the catastrophic social consequences of the unbridled market economy.” Why is the demonstrable need for radical breakthroughs not acknowledged, and why are positive changes in the developing world still incremental and easily reversible? Because the West prevents “us” from pinpointing the real causes of suffering: “developed countries” still avoid “the key issue: their complicity and responsibility for the miserable situation of the Third World.” According to Žižek, millions of human beings lead such woeful lives because the untrained eye cannot detect the “objective structural violence inherent in the social conditions of global capitalism.”
Žižek exemplifies the decency deconstructionist genre through his premise that for every complex, multi-causal and protracted question there is an obvious answer, but such answers can be fully grasped only if standard notions of moral and civic virtue are jettisoned and all action is plotted in accord with some all-encompassing theoretical framework. It’s particularly important to grasp that the radical re-examination of conventional wisdom about how to help those in need is a precondition for resolving ongoing “crises”—which, of course, have been with humankind for millennia and so stretch the definition of a crisis rather thin. If we miss it we miss the nature of the genre itself.
The deconstructionists of decency are certainly not the first to point out that behavior routinely singled out for fulsome praise might be attended by moral and causal ambiguities. You don’t have to be a communist or an academic to know that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. One has to be almost childlike to think that the world is shaped in accordance with human purposefulness and intentionality such that beneficent deeds can never aggravate instead of alleviate human suffering. The deconstructionists of decency certainly draw upon age-old themes of moral realism, epistemological skepticism and existentialist malaise; this is what makes some of their arguments seem superficially plausible. But these together do not constitute their essential argument. No, the truth is that deep down the deconstructionists of decency are optimists who believe in progress. They are determined to take up arms against the storm-tossed sea of human troubles and, by opposing them, end them.
One of the peculiarities of the deconstruction of decency genre, therefore, is that while it builds upon the proposition that the world can be transformed into a better place, it denies the utility and necessity of the meliorist’s patience in favor of “big bang”, revolutionary versions of overwhelming goodness. Otherwise their critique of humanitarian impulses and charitable acts might sound alarmingly nihilistic; it must accompanied by the reassuring juxtaposition of a wretched present next to a vastly superior future.
The powerful messages that this juxtaposition conveys are easy to distill out of the extant literature. Certainly, after a period of struggle societies can be cured of, as Warner puts it, ill-conceived allegiance to “the dominant culture and family environment” and eventually realize that debates “about policy and morality should take as their point of departure the perspective of those at the bottom of the scale of respectability: queers, sluts, prostitutes, trannies, club crawlers, and other lowlifes.”
Surely, as we strive to eliminate all forms of discrimination, we can create, writes Lupton, “a checklist of criteria [we] can use to determine which actions we should undertake when we want to help others.” Undoubtedly, Nickel and Eikenberry assure us, social landscapes may be sculpted in strict accordance with moral principles embedded in the kind of “transformative philanthropy” that will enhance our “ability to convey meaning” and generate “an opportunity to reauthor the social world.” And of course, as Žižek tells us, a world is possible where global injustice is replaced by institutions and modes of interrelatedness grounded in a proper understanding of the unity of all peoples—a world in which “progressive struggles” have been won by revolutionary masses.
The secular saints who peddle the deconstruction of decency are enlivened not just by the destructive fury of denunciation, but also by the moral steadfastness of the visionary who can see the path to sweeping improvements. In other words, the deconstruction of decency is not something that doubt-stricken princes trapped in rotten, unreformable kingdoms are prone to do—it is practiced rather by mostly affluent purveyors of radical hope.
An equally important characteristic of the decency deconstruction genre is that it is imbued with the ambition of possessing authoritative analytical knowledge. In a way, this is refreshingly anti-postmodernist at least in the sense that it asserts the possibility of foundational truth that is accessible to human effort. It is possible, they insist, to arrive at a comprehensive understanding of the overarching structures and large-scale dynamics that constitute the modern world—it’s possible because they have already achieved that basic understanding. This makes it hard to be humble, of course, or to take an even passingly scientific attitude toward the problem set. But those who are certain that we should care more about “queers, sluts, prostitutes, trannies, club crawlers, and other lowlifes” than about the welfare of the vast majority of normal people; who are sure that it’s a simple matter to create checklists of foolproof charity methods; and who have no doubt that we can “reauthor” the world through radical philanthropy are not particularly prone to humility.
But humility is certainly in order, for once one has traversed enough stratospheric abstractions anchored in knowledge and truth, one notices something rather embarrassing: hands empty of anything practical to do. Why would radical critics focus not on specific policies, governments and global initiatives? Because these are bound to fail, or even prove counterproductive, without some way to account for chronic failures and the immanent limitations of everything humankind has tried so far. It is pointless, they believe, to focus on particular contexts and sets of circumstances. Only a mastery of trans-cultural and trans-historical constants can avail. Only with such mastery can one know which moral constants to affirm, which to adjust and which to smash.
The hope that one can live a life of decency is one of the constants in need of smashing. In one form or another, the idea that treating strangers decently is an important component of a virtuous life has been with us since times immemorial. But has it helped? The deconstructionists of decency say no. The urge to decency has failed to sufficiently empower individuals who want to offer meaningful assistance to others. Moreover, they argue, decency is an essential ingredient in the consolidation and reproduction of morally condemnable situations: Sometimes the aspiration to be decent reflects nothing more than a manufactured desire to comply with the rules of oppressive systems. What is required, therefore, is an alternative, and above all new, large-scale project guided by a clear understanding of the big picture—of the structural foundations of our political universe. In other words, the deconstruction of decency is saturated with theoretical grandeur but utterly empty of practical guidance.
The theories that inform the genre never really get to the second paragraph, after the first one invariably ends with what amounts to an exclamation point. They rarely discuss the stages that fall between the initial step of discrediting inherited thinking about being a good person and the final outcome of total emancipation. But the deconstructionists readily admit that their analytical accounts have blind spots, and in a sense they are proud of that. Indeed, the admission of limitations in their methods serves to magnify the issues at stake in the deconstruction of decency: It is portentousness without real portends.
The argument, again, is that the reversal of traditional ethical perspectives is necessary in order to open up mental space to engage in new ways of thinking. Our revised moral sensitivities will then enable us to invent new solutions to seemingly intractable problems. The massive recalibration of the existing coordinates of good and evil will eventually weaken the cultural constraints that prevent us from individually and collectively realizing our full potential as ethical beings. Put differently—and somewhat more provocatively—decency in this view generates excessive opportunity costs. Novel modes of action cannot emerge, or be evaluated or sorted out, until existing ethical conventions are shattered. The plea of the decency deconstructionists thus boils down to this: Trust us, because even though we don’t know where we’re going, we know the way there.
The deconstruction of decency is thus defined as the putative first act of an exhilarating drama, the thorough reconstruction of society, and the most important characteristic of this drama is that it revolves around a Pascalian wager. Its protagonists ask the rest of us to allow them to make choices based on the premise that a better future exists, but a future we cannot by definition yet know the way to. This is precisely how Pascal characterized the nature of faith in God: “It is by being without proof that they show they are not without sense”, because, presumably and plausibly, not everything that is true is subject to empirical proof. One is reminded in this regard of Tertullian’s famous remark, Credo quia absurdum, (“I believe because it is absurd”), which is itself only an absurd remark when there are other ways to come to surety.
As with any god-dependent wager, the priesthood of decency deconstruction asks us to assume certain risks. Above all, those who assail established moral norms seek to compel individuals to cope with confusion and relativity in distinguishing civic-mindedness from complicity with evil. Hypothetically, what might emerge as a result of this dislocation are conscientious individuals whose moral infallibility will be grounded in theoretical insight. But an alternative outcome is also possible. The delegitimation of existing ethical standards may lead people to behave badly, in ways worse than conventional decency prescribed. When the conventionally decent person leaves, the mega-humanist may arrive; more likely, however, the hitherto tamed but now untethered immoral beast might not be far behind.
Or perhaps people will not turn into beasts, but into something even worse: a crowd of moral automatons. The deconstructionists focus on the primordial individual as the agent of all purposeful behavior. How people will reinvent themselves as moral beings amid a community of beings, however, is far more difficult to predict. They might reconstitute themselves as a community of autonomous individuals willing and able to take their collective fate into their own hands. But they might as readily turn into sullen onlookers who withdraw into their little worlds of private joys and impermeable fantasies. So the deconstruction of decency might result in demoralization and indifference rather than moral exultation.
Finally, in the course of reconstructing society decency might be redefined as an elite project that assigns to the masses the role of followers rather than self-directed actors. After all, the deconstruction of decency is undeniably driven by disdain for ethical inferiorities who try to help others without fully comprehending the world they live in. The deconstructionist carves out for himself the role of ethical Űbermensch unbound by conventions, traditions and common sense. What could well emerge in the aftermath of the deconstruction of decency, then, is a particular configuration of power: prophets of redemption surrounded by disciples ready to surrender, rather than cultivate, the autonomy to make moral judgments. The very notion of helping the needy will then be superseded by the desire to shape one’s life in accordance with the vision of self-anointed godlike elites who can inspire faith, but not any genuine understanding or empathy to go with it.
It seems, then, that we have a choice as to whom to trust with our moral facility: mediocre ethical dilettantes still informed by musty old texts supposedly suffused with superstition (if not worse), and attached to actionable virtues such as modesty and moderation; or supposedly gifted moral virtuosos attracted to radical experimentation and adventurous transgressions in the service of a future they proudly admit they cannot describe, and who have no idea how to help anyone in particular. Some choice, huh?