Moral vs. Pragmatic Arguments

Last week I finished reading an amazing SF novel, Alanya to Alanya, by the brilliant L. Timmel Duchamp. If you’re interested in feminist science fiction, dystopias, and thought experiments on social change, you should definitely pick it up.

In the afterword, the author wrote something that caught my attention:

“…I’m chilled and sobered by the reflection that just as it never occurs to Kay Zeldin to argue to Sedgewick, Torricelli, and Vale that their tactics are just plain morally wrong–for her arguments with them are always pragmatic, rather than ethical–so today, in the US, questions of morality seldom enter into discussions of social, economic, and political policies.”

It reminded me of something Nora and I talk about every now and then–that when exposing and debating about racism, we often find ourselves making pragmatic arguments instead of moral ones. While we both find this to be annoying, we recognize that this is often the only way to reach certain folks.

Still, it chafes. Because the bottom line is that racism, sexism, prejudice, whathaveyou, are just plain wrong. It’s morally wrong. Yet discussions inevitably turn to the pragmatic. I suppose that’s because morality is so fluid. While I believe that all people have morals, whether they are religious or not, not all morals are the same. So going with a pragmatic argument is like going for the objective instead of the subjective. But then even pragmatic arguments can be subjective.

So let’s start from the moral viewpoint, shall we? Racism, sexism, prejudice, are wrong. They’re bad. Supposedly, most people in our society agree that this is true. You be hard pressed to find anyone who will say the opposite in public. Yet even those who don’t secretly disagree don’t understand this fully, I think. Because when you talk to them, they’ll say lynching and separate lunch counters is definitely wrong, but only having one black person on a television show set in Southern California is just a matter of casting or lack of actors or or or… you see? The sense of wrong is explained away.

It’s all about identifying racism as racism (or sexism as, homophobia as, etc.) and not just an unfortunate way some people think or act. It’s about getting people out of the mindset of “It’s just a ______.” Because for non-privileged people, it’s never just anything, is it. It affects us. Sometimes harshly. Once you push aside that mindset, it’s another step toward getting to the moral core of it all.

But how do you get people entrenched in their privilege to take that step? Thus far, I’ve used pragmatic arguments. But while those are usually good and objective, they don’t go deep enough. Moral arguments, forcing people to be conscious of right and wrong, that is where the key lies, I think. How, though?

13 Responses

  1. Why are you so interested in that pharagraph from that book you were reading? I don’t see anything in it that’s sooo amazing. No offense. If you are offended, tell me.

  2. @kellysday: Duchamp’s point is that when we criticize current social/economic/political policies, we consider whether they are practical, but rarely whether they are moral. The problem with this approach is that immoral things may be condoned if they are also practical, convenient, or useful. This is why, as the Angry Black Woman says, privileged people give everyday racism/sexism/prejudice/etc. a pass.

    I have the same problem with getting people to consider the moral side, but no solutions…

  3. I just finished the third volume of that saga, and my head is still reeling from the sheer volume of ideas those books brought forth, many not very comfortable to have around.

  4. Well, I think moral (and pragmatic) arguments must be made, but I really truly believe people are more influenced by habit than by anything else. No amount of reason or passionate discussion will change behavior.

    People use outrageous and absurd arguments to justify their immoral habits all the time, simply because changing the habit is difficult. It’s a habit.

    Sometimes I think we’d all be better off forcing the habit change than trying to convince the masses that this or that needs to change.

    Segregation doesn’t stop until integration is forced. Wage discrimination doesn’t stop until equal pay is forced. I could go on…

    So, the real question is how to change habit? How to force the issue?

  5. Elaine, good point. It’s kind of like smoking, isn’t it? You can tell someone that smoking is bad – it’s bad for their health and their family’s health and it’s draining away money that can be used for other purposes and every argument under the sun. yet people will still smoke.

  6. Making moral arguments is what more evangelical religions have been doing for a while, and the effect often is to get people’s backs up. I don’t know that moral arguments in this area would work any better, justified as they are.

  7. Excellent post and topic.

    If you say “morality”–people hyperventilate and think you are talking about God. (That’s okay with me, I like God.) But that’s *why*, I think.

    The atheists came up with a good way around this, to say something is either “harmful” or “helpful” rather than bad or good. (I am not saying everyone who uses these terms is atheist, but that in my observation, atheist utilitarians popularized these terms.)

    Personally, I’d like to *merge* the terms, and just everyone ASSUME we mean bad/harmful and good/helpful and then just get on with it. :)

  8. I haven’t read the novel, but in terms of morality vs other ways to change behaviours, as an anti-racist educator I would say: whatever works to get that “Ah Ha!” moment going for folks. Multiple tactics is the best way to increase the possibility of personal (and political!) change.

    As for the more philosophical roots of what is or isn’t moral behaviour with respect to racism and other oppressions, historically morality has been linked to what’s popular or legal or commonplace. Slavery and lynching were legal in their time, of course. While I may believe in a deep common human moral core that we all may have, and that we each express it differently depending on how much privilege/oppression we’ve experienced, this doesn’t work in reality.

    Thanks for the food for thought.

  9. I think it’s possible to use moral arguments to convince those with privilege to at least confront the existence of said privilege. Instead of merely talking about it though, you’d have to show the person (in some way) what it’s like to be a member of a disenfranchised group.

    Now, I have no idea how one would go about this, but I feel like people tend to be convinced more if they see something with their own eyes, rather than being told.

  10. moral arguments are fine, but the pragmatic stuff will have to come up sooner or later. Also, it’s often the case the different moral goods will conflict. The pragmatic results are often a way to make a decision.

  11. For me, it’s more than a matter of moral versus pragmatic. There’s also a huge, huge component of “incorrect” there for me. Racism is incorrect, provably, incontrovertably so. For me, as a hyper-left-brained little weirdo, that drives me ape when people say stuff like, “Well yes, I can see that black people and white are not substantially different in any fundamental way, BUT STILL … ” and it just drives me up a freaking wall.

    So I tend ot base my arguments more in that which is provably correct or incorrect, much more than morality or pragmatism (though pragmatic arguments hold far more value to me). Morality is a quagmire, and people twist that argument around on you constantly. It’s a septic-tank issue, where if you let the whole issue of “morality” come up, you instantly lose.

    The fact of the matter is that any claim that skin color or hair texture of anything else is a substantive difference among humans is simply, demonstrably incorrect. We pretend there is a difference, and we pretend that these differences matter. That has as much currency as money — another thing that has no intrinsic value but we agree to rpetend it does, and so it rules our lives. But inherently, no value at all. Saying otherwise is like saying that rocks fall upward.

    And yet people are horrifically resistant to this. Drives. Me. APESHIT.

    I’m not sure of moral, pragmatic, or factual arguments are the most effective; I suspect you need all three. But myself, I tend to rely on factual ones.

  12. I like the point about racism being simply incorrect, Janis!

    I think it’s also about people’s material reality. People live in their own little worlds. You can (and should!) make all the political and moral arguments you can think of against racism– but ultimately it’s going to be something in that person’s experience that gives them the ‘a-ha’ moment. They go on strike and and are thrown together with people of other races on the same side in their union. A white person witnesses a black person experiencing racism and sees it for themselves. A sexist man’s daughter is attacked and he realizes that rape jokes aren’t funny. It’s different for everyone, it can be something small or gigantic, but I think that’s what really, ultimately changes people. And if there’s a real, fighting left that puts those ideas out there, and if you keep making those political and moral arguments everywhere you go, when that moment happens they can suddenly say ‘Oh! Now I get what Angry Black Woman was talking about!’

    At least that’s been my experience in ten years of organizing… :)

  13. I think we see, through history, that White supremacy has a way of switching between moral and pragmatic arguments at any given time in order to consolidate dominant power. For instance, the “scientific” racism that predominated in the past (recognizing these arguments still exist) spoke a language of rationalism, while the culturally-based racisms that predominate today (I mean Moynihan-report CRACK-type bullshit — exploiting class/sexuality/gender-based fissures to construct Black people as “deviant” because of supposed cultural deficiencies) can be very moralistic. Ultimately, both pragmatism and moralism can be used, through language, discursively, to reinforce hierarchy. I think it’s very important for antiracists to actively examine what “pragmatism” or “morality” are understood to mean in a given situation, to not relinquish our claim on either term, and to challenge the stupid dichotomy that is sometimes assumed to exist between the two.

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