10 steps to avoid moralising

by The Editor

AFEATURE: South African public discourse is awash with moralisers – people who care little for argument or reason, evidence or logic, but rather wish nothing more than to shout their position from the treetops, in the belief that it represents some universal truth. The effect of this on debate is damaging. It is also infectious. What follows below is a list of ten suggestions to avoid moralising. Hopefully, they constitute a helpful guide to some of the pitfalls inherent to moral indignation, and how best they can be overcome.

10 steps to avoid moralising

By: Gareth van Onselen

17 January 2013

South Africans, particularly those who express themselves online, are prone to moralising. That is, to outrage about the behavior, attitudes and values of other people, about which they adopt an absolute moral position, based on little more than their personal belief. It is not a phenomenon particular to South Africans, but we certainly do excel at it.

Typically, a piece of moralising will take the following form:

That person / position / idea / organisation is appalling / shocking / wrong / evil / corrupt / useless / stupid. My position is politically correct / racist / sexist / extreme / religious / prejudiced / cultural / intrinsically correct. Everyone should adopt my position, obviously. Those who don’t are fools / incompetent / damned / self-serving / unethical.

You will find many examples in the comments sections of websites, on Twitter and Facebook, and more subtle variations on that generic description in the mainstream media.

Notice, in particular, that two key elements of good argument are missing: evidence and reason. A position is simply stated as fact. And then its ostensible moral virtues preached, as if a sermon were being delivered. I have suggested that position is usually prejudiced in some way, if not explicitly then because its absolute nature renders it too extreme for rational engagement. But that is an objective assessment, to the moraliser it is simply the obvious truth, unquestionable and beyond dispute. They are right, not on the evidence, but because they believe themselves right, and the world must be so told.

That last point is an important one: a moraliser feels a compulsion to pass public judgement about others; they must express themselves, about others, to an audience. And so they seek out those platforms that allow them to do this. Thus, there often beats at the heart of moralising rhetoric a giant, pulsing ego. And, as will all egoism, you can be sure it is fuelled by low-self esteem. Put another way, their position is about them, not the nature of the world. Moralisers see themselves as the sole custodian of truth and regularly spend much time squabbling about authority and status, their dignity easily impugned – just as easily as they would impugn the status of those that dare challenge them. Dig a little deeper, however, and they are usually no more authorative than the next person.

Here it is also worth saying something about the way in which Twitter and Facebook structures interaction. Absolutism is curt by nature. Because it does not rely on evidence or reason, merely some moral position, it does not require space. And so it thrives in those environments which are defined by limited depth and, as a result, often limited attention. In such places it is harder to contest the veracity of a claim and so absolute proposition is met by absolute response. And emotion, not rationality, rules the roost.

As a result of all this, often a moraliser will be inconsistent, unable to reconcile their own behaviour with the extreme positions they adopt. Indeed, unable generally to appreciate the subtlety and ambiguity that defines the human condition. Likewise, their positions will be inconsistent, each one an isolated bubble of absolutism, entirely unrelated and contradictory to some other position they hold, on some other issue. In turn, their universe will be defined by heroes and villains – each person being beyond reproach or the devil incarnate and, ironically, able to switch positions in the blink of a morally outraged eye.

When moralising becomes prevalent in a society, its effect on public debate can be profound. Unable to engage rationally, the temptation for reasonable people is to respond just as stridently, to simply state their position and forgo evidence and logic in an attempt to make an impact, each discussion reduced down to some base shouting match about right and wrong, good and bad. That, of course, is to the detriment of public debate.

Thus, in an attempt to better understand the problem and the pitfalls inherent to it, here follow ten steps to avoid moralising.

10 steps to avoid moralising

1. Avoid absolute statements. Principles are absolute in abstract (excellence, tolerance, freedom, etc.) but their manifestation in the real world is not. Take a moment to separate the two things, to identify those practical things that demonstrate a principle and speak to those but understand where one principle is exemplified no doubt its opposite lurks not far away. Absolutism is the death of rational discussion.
2. Have a clear idea of what your principles are. Adopting any position for the sake of an argument requires a set of values and ideals on which that position is based. By better understanding those underlying principles, not only will you better understand your position but, in a rational manner, using reason and logic, you will better equipped to counter an opposing view. Simply believing something is right or wrong, without being able to explain why, is not good enough.
3. Use evidence. Any argument is only as strong as the evidence on which it relies. Sometimes that evidence is reason itself but for the most part practical evidence is invaluable. Be able to support your argument with facts. In turn, be sure the facts support your argument.
4. Have perspective. Make sure your position on one issue is consistent with your position on others. It is for this reason that a full understanding our your principles and values is important. They are your guides to consistency and, with it, an assurance of credibility. It is no good to adopt position A, only to find out it contradicts position B, both positions are rendered compromised when this happens. Likewise, try to understand an opposing point, its merits and flaws. Such perspective enables you to precisely identify what you are opposing, if you oppose it at all, rather than merely gainsaying for the sake of pride.
5. Chose your words wisely. The English language is a wonderful thing. It contains adjectives that limit discussion because they are extreme and absolute and those that more accurately reflect a complex position, that are reasonable and measured. There is a place for passion, as there is for silence, you will be surprised at how effectively it can be conveyed in a reasonable way.
6. Be self-aware. We all have prejudices. Only by understanding what they are, are you properly equipped to prevent them from tainting an argument. If you do not cater for them and if not explicitly, they will permeate through your argument implicitly and, regardless of its veracity, detract attention away from the case you are trying to make. Sometimes it is best simply to state them upfront, if only to disarm an opponent from suggesting it is those prejudices, not your evidence or logic, which is responsible for your position.
7. Avoid ad hominem attacks. It is too easy to dismiss an argument in favour of attacking its author. That is, to bypass debate by personalizing your response. You will disagree with many people, you may even detest them, but stating that denudes whatever argument you wish to make of its worth. Reason and logic care nothing for personal animus, they exist regardless.
8. Don’t ascribe your prejudices to others. You might well believe something absolutely. That doesn’t mean its right. People often forget the point of debate is progress, to identify good and bad ideas alike and, by doing so, that we might learn and grow. Be open to the possibility that some other idea might simply be better – more reasonable, better evidence, greater veracity. If you simply assume you are right, from first principles, the door to intellectual progress is closed. By all means, argue your position as stridently as you can, within the bounds of good argument, but once you have done that, take a step back and assess the nature of the discussion itself. Is there anything to be learnt here?
9. Don’t get consumed by mediocrity. Apart from self-awareness and perspective, it worth trying to engender excellence. That is, to surround yourself with good ideas, best practice, critical peer review and wisdom. Very often the temptation is to surround one’s self with agreement, to only indulge those things and people that agree with you or mirror your view. You can always tell a moraliser by the degree to which he indulges sycophancy. That is perhaps understandable, their ego is usually insatiable but it is a sure path to ignorance. And ignorance breeds absolutism.
10. Think before you write. I am loathed to conclude with a cliché, but there is much wisdom in this particular platitude. Argument lends itself to passion and passion, in turn, can lend itself to rage. Anger clouds judgement. Just as importantly, time and patience lends itself to considered thought. So take a moment to assess exactly what it is you want to say and to make sure you have crafted your message in the most powerful way possible. Also, have some faith in history. For the most part it cares little for the immediacy of the moment, and tends to filter out superficiality in favour of those important and insightful arguments that do not live or die by a brief flash of emotion in time.

These ten suggestions are not exhaustive, certainly each of these ideas can be expanded upon. No doubt there many other steps one can take to ensure more argument and less moralising but, I suspect, should one adhere to them, the chances of preaching are greatly reduced and of actually debating much enhanced. And that is something from which we all can benefit.

I look forward to the comments.

  • Gareth van Onselen (@GvanOnselen) is the Editor of Inside Politics (@insidepols), Winner: Best Political Blog 2012.

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