When Morality Becomes Materialistic: Why Everyone Is a Victim Now

It's no surprise my pointing out that, wherever you look, everyone is a victim. Even people with cultural and material privilege and power see themselves as victims. Everyone, it seems, is now a victim, everyone is persecuted and oppressed.

Again, this isn't a new insight, how a "victim mentality" has become ubiquitous. Nor is it new for me to point out how this culture of universal victimhood makes political discourse impossible. Our political discourse is increasingly characterized by a politics of grievance and resentment. 

The reason for this development might seem straightforward. Since victims possess moral authority we all grab at that power, all rush to stand in the place of the victim to leverage moral demands upon others. Still, this dynamic raises the question, Why do victims possess such moral influence, and why is that influence growing?

Here's my theory, a theory rooted in Jonathan Haidt's moral foundations theory. Recall, there are four moral foundations, four different ways cultures label something as morally "good" or "bad." The foundations are:

  1. Harm & Care: Something is "bad" if it causes harm to others.
  2. Justice & Fairness: Something is "bad" if it is unfair or unequal. 
  3. Ingroup Loyalty: Standing with your group (e.g., family, tribe, nation) is "good" betrayal and disloyalty are "bad."
  4. Respect for Authority: Respecting and submitting to tradition and authority figures is "good."
  5. Sanctity & Purity: Respecting sacred spaces, times, objects, traditions, rituals, and institutions is "good." 
Here's the thing to note about this list. The first two foundations--Harm and Justice--tend to privilege empirical, material evidence. You can publicly point to locations of demonstrable harm or inequity. Consequently, it is no surprise that Harm and Justice tend to be privileged in courts of law where convincing judges and juries is of paramount importance.

Now, contrast Harm and Justice with the other three foundations--Ingroup Loyalty, Respect for Authority, and Sanctity/Purity. As scholars have pointed out, these foundations are rooted in cultural norms and, therefore, are more subjective. Generally, one should stand with one's group. But what if your group has become bad? Think of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the plot to assassinate Hitler. Same goes for respecting authority. What if a political or traditional authority has become oppressive or corrupt? Finally, people vary widely upon the degree to which something may or may not be held as holy or sacred. Some people, for example, would never let an American flag touch the ground. Others might burn it. 

In short, because these foundations are rooted in cultural and subjective norms they are much more difficult to rally around in a pluralistic society. When the nation was more culturally homogeneous that was once possible, but as we grow culturally diverse appeals to Ingroup Loyalty, Respect for Authority, and Sanctity/Purity will struggle to gain a wide political consensus and traction. There's just too much cultural diversity surrounding these subjective norms, no material fact a majority within a pluralistic democracy could agree or rally around regarding what is "right" or "wrong."

Lacking appeals to subjective, cultural norms, our moral discourse has become materialistic. Pointing out harm and inequity is the only moral discourse now left to us. Which means pointing out how you've been harmed or treated unfairly is now the only way we can affect the political process. Only victims are recognized when morality become materialistic. Politics is reduced to adjudicating between accusations of harm. 

All of which leads to the paradox of modern morality and politics. To effect political change you have to become a victim. To win an election you have to become a victim. It's the strangest twist. 

Victimhood has become our will to power. 

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply