‘Why talk of morality?’ It’s a question I get asked a lot, especially as I am writing a book on the history of moral thought. Many on the left are uncomfortable with, indeed hostile to, moral arguments. Morality, they insist, is the province of the right. Politics is the true terrain of the left. Engaging in moral debate is, in their eyes, a means of constraining, not of promoting, social change.

It is true that the right often exploit morality as a means of individualizing social issues, a way of pinning the blame on some of the weakest in society for the problems caused by public policy, social inequality and economic failure. But as I have argued before, for instance with respect to the riots earlier this year, ‘Morality is as important to the left as it is to the right, though for very different reasons’. It is important to the left because ‘There is no possibility of a political or economic vision of a different society without a moral vision too.’

In his book On Evil Terry Eagleton neatly skewers the anti-moral arguments on the left:

The American Marxist Frederic Jameson writes of ‘the archaic categories of good and evil’. One is forced to assume that Jameson is not of the view that the victory of socialism would be a good thing. The English Marxist Perry Anderson implies that terms like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are relevant to individual conduct only – in which case it is hard to see why tackling famines, combating racism or disarming nuclear missiles should be described as good… Jameson and some of his leftist colleagues… tend to confuse the moral with the moralistic. In this, ironically, they are at one with the likes of the US Moral Majority. Moralism means regarding moral judgments as existing in a sealed domain of their own, quite distinct from more material matters. This is why some Marxists are uneasy with the whole idea of ethics. It sounds to them like a distraction from history and politics. But this is a misunderstanding. Properly understood, moral inquiry weighs all these factors together. This is as true of Aristotle’s ethics as it is of Hegel’s or Marx’s. Moral thought is not an alternative to political thought. Ethics considers questions of value, virtue, qualities, the nature of human conduct and the like, while politics attends to the institutions which allow such conducts to flourish or be suppressed.

I agree with all of that. And yet the predicament lies deeper than simply the left misunderstanding the relationship between morality and politics. At the root of the problem is the ambiguous place that morality occupies in the modern world, and the way that political and social changes of the past few decades have exacerbated that ambiguity.

In the premodern world, morality grew out of the structure of the community, a structure that was a given. Societies changed, of course – the Greece in which Plato taught was very different from that in which in which Homer had written – but few people entertained the idea that it was possible to will social change. Morality was about how to define right and wrong behaviours within the given structure of a society. Every individual possessed a fixed place in society (his ‘station’) from which derived his duties, rights and obligations. Moral rules both derived from, and defined, his role within that community, his duties towards other members and the actions that were compatible with his role and duties.  The structure of the community, the role of the individual and the rules of morality were all bound together by divine law – all were vested in the authority of God, or of gods.

The emergence of the modern world, from about the sixteenth century onwards, brought with it four main changes that transformed the language of morality. First the idea that morality should be invested in God became less plausible. Not only did religious belief erode over time, but even devout thinkers (Kant, for instance) were less likely to look to God to set moral boundaries. Second came the dissolution of traditional communities. Social structures were no longer given but became debated politically and challenged physically. Liberals and socialists, conservatives and communists, monarchists and republicans: all contested the idea of what constituted a good society.

Third, the concept of individual autonomy became far more important. In the ancient world, and even in medieval Europe, an individual’s identity and interest was bound up almost entirely with the community in which he lived. By the seventeenth century, the individual was emerging as a new kind of social actor, and one detached from the specifics of a community. ‘With money in the pocket one is at home anywhere’, as Moll Flanders puts it in Daniel Defoe’s novel. A whole host of economic, social and political changes accompanied the transformation of a feudal to a capitalist economy. The new individual arrived on the scene both as the consequence of the dissolution of old social and economic forms and as an agent of that dissolution. The relationship between the individual and the community became framed increasingly by politics rather than morality, while ethics became less about fidelity to God-given community-defined rules than about the individual making the right personal choices.

And fourth came a new distinction between the public and the private spheres. In the premodern world, since it was only through the community that the individual discovered his identity and integrity, so there could be no such distinction. With the rise of the individual as an actor in his own right, there was carved out also a private sphere separate from the public arena.  This distinction helped redefine ideas of freedom and liberty, restrain the coercive power and scope of the state, and made political equality possible. But it also exacerbated the growing tension between morality and politics. Morality came increasingly to be seen as properly belonging to the private sphere, and as a set of prescriptions for individual conduct.  Politics became the language of the public sphere and of collective conduct.  Insofar as there was debate about ‘public morality’ it was largely couched in the moralistic sense of which Eagleton speaks. It was out of this process that morality came to be seen as a matter for the right, while the left saw itself as doing only politics.

But while the left often rejected any truck with morality, moral claims were, as Eagleton points out, implicit in every political project. Or, to put it another way, belief in the possibilities of social transformation transformed the concept of ought. As people rejected the idea of society as a given, so ought became a political demand: how society ought to be was defined by the political possibilities of social change.

The history of the past few decades has, however, especially in the West, been a history of disenchantment with such possibilities. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 came to symbolise not just rejection of the tyranny of the Soviet Union but also disenchantment with the very idea of collective social transformation. As the Wall was dismantled so were Utopian dreams. In the post-Cold War world, the broad ideological divides that had characterised politics in the previous two hundred years have been all but erased. Politics has become less about competing visions of different kinds of societies than a debate about how best to manage the existing political system.

Disenchantment with politics, disillusionment with ideas of social transformation, the demise of the traditional left, the erosion of the political sphere, the rise of managerialism – all have transformed the relationship between morality and politics. There is today, especially in the West, is no sense of a real alternative to the way society is.

It is striking how different the debate about morality is in Cairo, say, or Beijing than it is in London or Washington. From Bahrain to Libya, from China to Uzbekistan, people are heroically struggling, against formidable odds and often the most brutal of responses, to create better, more democratic societies. I have written of how, whatever the immediate outcomes, the uprisings in the Arab world have transformed the political landscape of the region. And yet, even in these struggles, the possibilities of social renewal, and the alternatives that appear achievable, have become severely constrained. Here, too, there has come to be a strong managerial streak in political debates.

In premodern times moral codes were rooted in the very structure of society. For much of the modern era moral claims emerged implicitly out of the project to transform society.  Today moral claims, particularly in Western liberal democracies, remain detached from the structure of society but they are also disengaged from attempts to change society. They are neither a means of defining people’s roles and behaviours in society as it exists, nor a way of defining society as it ought to be.

The language of morality has become more significant as the political sphere has imploded and political issues come increasingly to be seen in moral terms. Yet the very language of morality has at the same time fractured. More and more we tend to think of social issues as moral problems. And yet we lack an adequate language through which to explore any issues in moral terms. That is why it is critical not just for the left, but especially for the left, to start thinking seriously about morality.


  1. As an unrepentant and total radical and “lefty” – I have always believed in morality. I instinctively think of anyone vaguely right wing as inherently immoral. You know – people like Hitler and Franco and Thatcher. I still do. Look at politics today and see the proof. “The most violent element in society is ignorance.” Emma Goldman.

  2. The main culprit is maybe Marxism with its determinism and “scientific” belief in “historical laws” etc. Socialism existed a long time before Marx. Before his time what should be called socialists were often inspired by religion and were often regarded as puritanical.

    • It’s far more complex than that. I am, at this very moment, writing the section of my book on Marxism and morality. I’ll post an extract when it’s done.

  3. Thanks Kenan – I really enjoyed this piece. I wonder whether there are specific aspects of a Capitalistic and consumer driven society that may work to insulate us from moralistic ways of thinking. With all of the recent global economic crises, so much effort is focused on keeping the current system afloat. Are questions of ethics taking a back seat? If so, I wonder what it would take to change things…

  4. The difference in moral views between the left and right is that the highest value for the left is justice while that for the right is liberty.
    There must be a balance for a balanced society, as the Pledge of Allegiance makes clear: with liberty and justice for all.

    • “… freedom without Socialism is privilege and injustice…
      Socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality…”
      Mikhail Bakunin, 1814 – 1876.

  5. Ed Allen

    Great piece Kenan, thanks. Are you familiar with the latest Sam Harris book ‘The Moral Landscape’? It argues that it is possible to develop a “science of morality” based on the primacy of “human well-being” and I thought that chimed rather well with your argument here.

    I am excited by the possibility that the left could return to invoking morality as a reason to change society (and that when asked to justify their position could demonstrate with confidence and clarity why their position is “a higher peak on the moral landscape” than the status-quo).

    • Ed Allen

      A devastating critique!

      “concepts such as goodness, happiness and wellbeing only have meaning in a world in which conscious, rational, moral agents exist that themselves are capable of defining moral right and wrong and acting upon the distinction” – an excellent point well made, and I also dislike the notion of ‘fixed’ or ‘concrete’ morality that arises from a supposedly ‘scientific’ definition.

      That said, I must admit that I still admire his desire to sweep aside the simplified version of moral equivalence that I have often heard from many of my fellow lefties and I think that neuroscience will undoubtedly play a role in the future of moral thought.

      But yeah, thanks again for the article and reply!

  6. Charles Wheeler

    Have to admit to being completely nonplussed by the premise. The idea that ‘the left’ (a pretty broad range) haven’t been interested in morality strikes me as absurd.

  7. Mark Robert B Baldo

    This was well-argued and made me interested about your book, sir.

    Actually, recently, I have been reading a lot of Alasdair MacIntyre and have been listening to Michael Sandel. They were saying almost the same thing, particularly Sandel who argued that it is impossible to avoid talking about the good when talking of political issues.

    Your account of how morality changed when modern philosophy came was strikingly similar to MacIntyre’s well-developed socio-philosophical exposition of the Enlightenment and how it fractured moral understanding. He concluded that it was because of modern philosophy that most debates today are intractable. Funny enough, he likened the Enlightenment project to a nuclear catastrophe. What we were left with is pandaemonium. :))

    • MacIntyre was, of course, a Marxist who found Catholicism, though even as a believer he maintained a historical view of morality. There is much I admire in MacIntyre’s work, in particular his refusal to see ethics as inhabiting a distinct domain cut off from the rest of social, political and economic developments. I disagree with him, however, on the question of the Enlightenment, and its consequence,and on the idea that a return to a moral world requires a return to small-scale communities. There will be a section on MacIntyre in the final chapter of my book.

  8. Mark Robert B Baldo

    Hmm. I do not think MacIntyre wanted us to return to small-scale communities. I think it was more radical than that. It seemed to me that he believed the modern world as it stands today to be quite beyond salvation for it has lost interest in a moral world. He then believed that something like the Benedictine monasteries ought to be built to preserve moral knowledge.

    I found it helpful to read A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller which MacIntyre used to illustrate his thesis at the beginning of After Virtue.

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