The concept of “moral equality” is very similar to the concept of “social justice” insofar as both manage to be tautological and oxymoronic at the same time. “Justice” is intrinsically “social,” so the “social” doesn’t add anything except to suggest that “justice” is attained by changing society as a whole on the model of making an injured individual whole in the courtroom. But in doing so it ensures that a great deal of injustice will be committed, because in “society” there is no governing frame for determining who has been injured. Likewise, insofar as “morality” already implies that we have obligations to each other, we are, as moral beings, already “equal,” which is to say, the same, with respect to having obligations to others. The only thing the “equal” adds is to suggest that morality involves making people more equal in other respects, which is of course the source of a great deal of immorality, in the simple sense of doing bad things like stealing and expropriating the property of others.
The “moral model” of the originary scene is a central concept to Eric Gans’s Generative Anthropology. For Gans, the equality on the originary scene, where all share in issuing the sign and consuming the central object, is the form taken by all morality, in any human society anywhere in history. I would agree with the centrality of the concept, but would suggest a different way of thinking about it. For Gans, the concept leads to a distributionist morality: in any social order, some members will contribute more to the wealth and well-being of the community, and the community will correspondingly reward those members; in short, there will be inequalities in wealth, power and status. The moral model comes into play when those with less resent those with more, and demand some kind of compensation: the “accumulators” need to prove that their productions are for the good of all by conceding something to such resentments. Even if I were to concede that this kind of resentment (and the response by the wealthy and powerful) emerges in all societies, I would still have to say it has nothing to do with morality, in any meaningful sense of the word which, it seems to me must include its commonsensical meaning of doing the right thing or at least not doing the wrong thing. Who, in this model, is doing the right thing? The “disadvantaged,” in making manifest their resentment? Even if they have a point, even if they are 100% right, they’re not being particularly moral in advancing their own self-interest. Even if they’re not immoral, they certainly aren’t presenting a model of moral behavior. Is it the “advantaged,” then, who behave morally when they concede wealth, power or participation to the resentful? If they were doing it out of love and a desire to help, the expression of resentment wouldn’t have been necessary; insofar as it is that expression that has prompted them to act, they are also behaving out of self-interest (a desire to avoid crime, riots, revolts, etc.), and therefore not modeling especially moral behavior. Is “society” as a whole more moral? It’s hard to know what it would mean to call a society, but not its members, “moral”; and, at any rate, it just seems as if they’ve institutionalized an extortion racket.
It seems to me that Gans’s use of the moral model focuses exclusively on the periphery, completely neglecting the center—it horizontalizes, and loses sight of the vertical. And you can never develop a coherent moral thinking focusing on the periphery, or the horizontal. On the originary scene, all are equal in relation to the center, equal, or the same in having that relation to the center. As soon as the center is established, so is a kind of “perimeter,” which no one may transgress. Rules emerge regarding the treatment of and approach to the center. They are first of all ritual rules, but moral insofar as they embody the coherence of the community, and everyone’s obligations to each other and the whole. As discourses of the center emerge, and models of action are attributed to figures on the central scene (mythology), new moral possibilities emerge: one can act like the one who rallied the community to repulse an attack by a neighboring tribe, or the one who put out the fire that almost ravaged the entire village, or the one who was always resolving disputes among members of the community. Morality takes the form of enacting these models, which are generalized in the forms of maxims and proverbs. Maxims and proverbs concerned with doing the right thingand not doing the wrong thing, and turning yourself into the kind of person who does right and avoids wrong consistently.
After the long history of kingship, and the penetration of Christian morality into Western society, Gans sees the liberal democratic order as recovering and restoring the originary moral model by establishing equality (and more, and more equality) amongst its citizens. I would first make the point I made previously—none of this implies that anyone is behaving well, or is doing the right things while refraining from doing the wrong things. In other words, liberal democracy has nothing to do with morality. The institutional mechanism by which the resentment of the have-nots towards the haves is manifested in liberal democracy is, for Gans, the alternation in power between the contending political parties (even in multi-party parliamentary systems, there tends to be two dominant parties). Gans has lately spoken of this in terms of a dialectic of “firstness” and “reciprocity.” To put it crudely, some people invent and create things, and reap the benefits; and then everyone else demands a slice of the pie. One party defends the former, one the latter. What I said above about the irrelevance of morality to this kind of arrangement holds here as well. Neither the inventors and creators nor everyone else need to be good and decent people for any of this work. One could speak of a kind of center, and therefore a kind of morality, insofar as the institutions are founded on laws which generate precedents, which in turn provide a model for living good lives. I can’t think of Gans ever discussing, say, the constitutional order in these terms, which would anyway undermine his model: if public morality involves, say, protecting the constitutional order, the main political conflict would be between those defending that order and those subverting it in various ways. But that would be a conflict between good and bad, and therefore not really a political conflict it all—if the established public morality called for selected representatives according to constitutionally prescribed procedures, and those representatives then serving in their offices in constitutionally prescribed ways, how could there be an “oppositional” party? What would it be for—overthrowing what everyone agrees to be good? Even if we could say that there are different ways of interpreted the constitutional morality, if all parties are in good faith trying to do that, they would be continually striving to narrow the differences between them—which is exactly the opposite of what multiparty democracy promotes.
Gans has come to speak of his model as accounting for conflicts that get institutionalized in terms of firstness vs. reciprocity. All conflicts in Western democracies get formulated as some version of the underdog vs. the overlord: the underdog naturally elicits everyone’s sympathy, while enough grudgingly and tacitly admit that the overlords actually keep everything running to prevent their complete extinction—in most cases, at least. But we may be in a hall of mirrors here: Gans is assuming, reflecting upon, and providing a kind of blessing for an order that, of course, pre-exists his model. If one has lived all one’s life in the US, it seems completely natural that blacks, as a whole, would resent whites, as a whole (with each and every black resenting each and every white? To exactly the same extent?), because some whites did bad things to some blacks over a long period of time. However, if we subject all these naturalized assumptions to scrutiny, we can see it’s not very natural at all. What model accounts for a young black man in, say, Chicago, feeling resentment for some elderly white woman in, say Miami, because another white man enslaved some other blacks 200 years ago? Even if we factor in 10,00 events (and why do some get factored in and lots of others don’t?) it doesn’t add up to the tidy model of whites as overlords and blacks as underdogs. If we really want something close to an experiential, commonsensical model of resentment—someone else usurps the center I thought I deserve, or thought no one should occupy (that guy down the block is ruining my property values with his unkempt lawn, my coworker is stealing at work while I follow all the rules, etc.)—then this certainly doesn’t provide it. Such resentment, i.e., political resentment, needs to be ginned up, and a lot of effort and resources need to be expended in doing so, and in naturalizing it. I’ll leave the “high-low v. the middle” model out of this discussion, but suffice it to say that the have-nots themselves are not the ones investing the effort and resources into giving these conflicts their convenient moral narrative structure.
This is even more true for all the other equalizing movements modeled on the civil rights one—women, gays, immigrants, even the environment. A kind of shell game is being played here, and the moral model is in fact critical to exposing and explaining it. Gans has argued recently that victimary thinking or “political correctness” is predicated on the model of a conversation—just as, at a dinner party with a small group of friends, you would go out of your way to avoid offending someone whatever your actual opinion of him, in our social mediated order we react strongly against anything that would offend some of the “guests” at the universal public “table.” (Leaving aside that some may prefer rougher, blunter table talk than others.) I would extend the analogy: the imaginary of modern egalitarianism presupposes that the entire world is a single scene. If that’s the case, then the model of the originary scene would apply. But this is ideology, not morality. Whatever we would take to be the center of this scene is really an anti-center, systematically seeking to terminate all competing centers in the name of victims selected so as to pummel a particular institution or tradition (the target institution or tradition would in fact give us the explanation of the framing of victimhood). Could some kind of global articulation be attempted in a different way? Only if the question is not how to make us all equal and over-abundant in rights, but how to build institutions that can allocate power effectively at very different levels.
The application of this egalitarian version of the moral model to liberal democracy is ideology because it is an attempt to ignore the legacy of the big man—the one who seized the center and became the locus of worship and distribution. The Big Man has never gone away, and is not looking ready to any time soon. In fact, the Jewish and Christian moral innovations would make no sense without presupposing the existence of imperial monarchies. The fact that big men are now selected by tightly controlled processes called “elections,” and blocked and harassed by a series of mostly ineffectual but distorting institutions muddies up that reality, but doesn’t change it. If you don’t want to look at the center, it’s because you don’t want to see the heir of the Big Man sitting up there—the egalitarian version of the moral model allows for the fantasy that the occupant of the center is just a spontaneous synthesis of our individual desires, and therefore not really a ruler. But if there is going to be a ruler, how do we clear the way for him to act morally, ethically and effectively? Regarding governance, this is really the only meaningful question. Ask a supporter of liberal democracy whether the system he endorses is the best way to get the best rulers in place, and ensure they act in the most reasonable way. He will look at you like you are crazy, because he has never asked himself the question—and then will call you immoral for asking it.
Morality doesn’t counter (“check and balance”) the occupant of the center; rather, it refrains from seeking to tear apart that occupant, whether physically or symbolically. Once the center is occupied anyone can imagine himself at the center, and anyone can be violently centralized by a convergent mob of others. To be moral is to resist such processes, whether they target the occupant of the social center or a potential scapegoat on the margins. The institutional component to morality is the construction of practices that removes from our attention to the center everything sacrificial—that is, everything that is aimed at settling some issue among us, the potential convergents, rather than allowing delegated, responsible agents to follow clearly inscribed imperatives for how to intervene under given conditions. Meanwhile, a refusal to violently centralize allows for the emergence of love and kindness—if I’m not looking for signs of provocative, deserving victimage in the other (what is he after? Why is he in my way?) then I can see signs of virtue, a kind of at least potential discipline, and an instigated victimage one wants to protect. Of course, people sometimes need to be criticized, condemned, punished, removed from their positions or even just disliked, and it better to do such things firmly than hesitantly. But, as much as possible, such actions are done in the name of a center, that is, of the system of practices that sanctifies the highest level of deferral so far attained. Morality can’t be uploaded to the political order—people in positions of responsibility can act morally or immorally in those positions, but voting or contributing to one or another, much less protesting, petitioning, etc., can’t make anyone more moral. That’s all just grabbing for bits of power. The moral model always involves soliciting others in the preservation of the center, which means the near center, one that enables the practices which include soliciting others to join in its preservation. That, an actual scene, is where we can look for the instantiation of the originary moral model.