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Reality and Moral Rigor

Updated: Mar 24, 2020

Lee Siegel's piece that appeared in the July 25, 2018 edition of the NY Times, Whatever Happened to Moral Rigor?, fascinated me because it reminded me of my days in undergraduate and graduate school while taking courses in philosophy and theology. From Metaethics to Epistemology, professors and students regularly engaged in the age-old debate about whether moral knowledge was possible. Throughout history, philosophers provoked scholars and the occasional "everyman" with questions of this sort because theirs was a rigorous style of thinking that got to the heart of justified, true, belief when it came to the weighty moral ideas of the day. Siegel seems to hearken back to this era of deep philosophical reflection as he speculates about morally reproachable behavior today.

Using James Baldwin as his guide, the famed Harlem Renaissance writer, thinker, and playwright serves as Seigel's exemplar when it comes to applying model moral deliberation to achieve moral clarity on ethical grievances in society. Seigel summarizes the issue as follows:

Today we still revere Baldwin, but by and large we no longer follow his [Baldwin's] lead as a thinker. There is little patience now for such a rigorous yet receptive moral and intellectual style; these days we prefer ringing moral indictment, the hallmarks of which are absolute certainty, predetermined ideas and conformity to collective sentiments....

Today, however, our dominant cultural style is very different. We thrill to a kind of pornography of exposing and shaming. We favor predetermined verdicts that have been arrived at by collective sentiment — a cultural style that accuses first, presents evidence often without questioning it, then makes a judicial finding and passes a sentence....

In matters of law and public morality, let justice take its course along the lines of due process and fair play. But in the realm of the free operation of intellect and imagination that is culture, let there bloom the suspension of moral judgment for the sake of a better understanding of our moral natures. It’s not because we owe anything to the likes of Harvey Weinstein; it’s because of what we owe ourselves.

As I stated in the outset, I find Whatever Happened to Moral Rigor? thoughtful and intellectually stimulating, but it is also morally problematic. In short, Siegel's analysis is flawed because as he elevates "moral understanding" over the "oughtness" of morality, he errs by conflating the essence of ethics (oughtness) with the secondary explanatory considerations of psychology (understanding). Construed in this manner, moral philosophy and the treatment of moral wrongdoing becomes an exercise in literary criticism or "Shakespearean psychoanalysis". Not only is this a flawed approach, but it also overlooks or ignores the importance of moral expectations and how the absence thereof contributes to a lessening of moral accountability at all levels of society. Siegel's analysis might work for the scholar or journalist, someone who has the luxury of contemplation and reflection without the responsibilities of investigating and rendering decisions. For the business owner, politician, school administrator, or civic leader, however, morally reproachable behavior is a risk that imposes serious liabilities and thus can't be complicated by introducing mitigating factors that have nothing to do with violations of codes of conduct, ethical standards, or ethical norms and standards of decency.

In closing, Siegel's appeal to "moral understanding" on behalf of the perpetrator is inadequate and flawed simply because it places a value on consideration for the offender rather than being a voice for the apparent victim. From government to business, leadership must never lose sight of moral scandals, unfair practices, and dishonesty. Corporate and organizational cultures must be protected from impudence and moral recklessness at all cost. In the end, Siegel's call for more understanding when it comes to moral hazard is unrealistic for the marketplace. True, we must be tempered and responsible when confronted with moral wrongdoing, but ours is not a society where Plato's philosopher kings rule and have the luxuries of the contemplative life. Simply put, Siegel's "rigor" is unrealistic and tone deaf to the realities of today.

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