Yesterday, I read an interesting article by an “amoralist” (someone who doesn’t believe in right and wrong) about something he labeled “moral pornography” and it rather reminded me of the way we “discuss” child abuse cases in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
In the article, the writer, philosopher Joel Marks, takes a grisly murder trial as his example, but he could just as easily have used one of the high-profile child abuse cases that quite regularly lead the 6 o’clock news here. The outrage, the horror, the condemnation! In a world of moral ambiguity and confusion and dispute, we finally have what is clearly “an open-and-shut atrocity”. “Here at least, at last is wrongness pure and simple,” Marks writes. “Let us despise it with all of our moral might.”
But why are we really so exercised about these cases?
Marks suggests our fascination, if not fetishisation (my term, not his) might be rooted in motivations other than the ones we like to pride ourselves on (our own goodness and moral superiority, for example). He makes two proposals. The first is that our indignation and outrage might actually disguise a desire to get back at all the wrongs done us by that long list of unpunished wrongdoers: bosses, exes, kids, governments, and so on. While I don’t this first suggestion wildly convincing, it’s Marks’s second point that hit home for me: Another reason for our repulsion by and attraction to these stories, he argues, is that by focusing on “the behavior of extreme malefactors” we can feel better about ourselves, and without having to actually do anything. If you doubt this, read some of the letters to the editor that invariably follow publicity of these cases and take in the heaping doses of self-righteousness. All of which, Marks argues, does little but increase the amount of “moral vilification and moral egotism” in the world. And what good does that do? I’d say a good case could be made that it does harm. But of course unless you heap outrage and indignation on “these people” you’re written off as a bleeding heart liberal do-gooder.
What, you might wonder, is Marks’s alternative as an “amoralist”? It seems to be to insist that no one is more or less guilty of wrong-doing than anyone else – but since I don’t really know anything about “amoralism” I’ll leave the possible solution to a future post. In the end, I don’t think you need to be persuaded by the amoralist position to agree that all this high-dudgeon stuff— the way the media and we the public salivate over every little “morally pornographic” detail of the child, the injuries, the family, their sex lives, the home, the conditions, what they eat, what they smoke, etc. etc. etc.– does no good at all. And it probably does harm.
In the end, though, I know that arguing that we not wallow quite so much in our own self-righteousness, that we not pore over every detail, is surely shouting weakly into a stiff Wellington southerly.
UPDATE: 24 November: I rest my case.