No, you are not of ‘greater moral value’

I loathe the expression ‘check your privilege’ – it serves entirely to silence debate and foster division – but I did have an occasion yesterday when I truly understood the temptation to use it.

I had been delivering a talk on how scientists can have a greater impact on public policy at one of the UK’s leading science institutions (which I shall not name, as in all other respects it is a truly fantastic place). During the Q&A, one of the scientists then proceeded to ask, ‘I find it difficult to try to impact policy because, as a scientist, I have a greater moral value than our politicians and others of those who have taken the country in its current direction, and I find it difficult to know whether I should or how I can engage with those who are not my moral equals.'(1)

Let’s set aside for a moment the huge problems with asserting yourself to have greater moral value – rather like anyone who has to tell you they’re powerful probably isn’t, the same goes for being moral. Or indeed the more fundamental problem of judging oneself to be of ‘greater moral value’ than many others(2). And to be fair, a number of others in the room did look embarrassed.

With great effort, I managed to valiantly restrain myself from asking the individual concerned whether they’d had the opportunity to debate their relative moral value with a person trying to raise a family on minimum wage in Bolsover(3). Instead I gave a hopefully helpful answer which cited the recent study that showed that increasing education made no difference to the ability of Republicans to understand or model Democrats, while it actively decreased the ability of Democrats to understand Republicans; and then went on to cite Haidt. I’ll confess I may also have used the words, ‘Get out of your filter bubble’.

I suspect (and hope!) most of my readers, regardless of political persuasion, do not spend time congratulating themselves on their ‘greater moral value’, but given we all have to battle against filter bubbles, I felt it might be useful to share a few key sources on understanding and empathising with morality across political divides. All are written by Labour/Democrat votes, which may enhance credibility, given that I write from the centre-right perspective.

Firstly, the study mentioned above is well worth reading, to give an appreciation of the extent of the problem.

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a leading academic psychologist and former speechwriter for Barack Obama; he currently identifies politically as a centrist. The book discusses, using evidence duplicated repeatedly across different countries and classes, the six moral ‘foundations’ that humans use to make moral judgements and how the relative weighting of these systematically varies between those on the right and the left.

The Road to Somewhere – David Goodhart. Goodhart is a 30+ year Labour member who writes about how public policy in the UK has been for decades run by, and in the interests of, only a subset of the population and calls for policies which will take into account the needs and values of the whole nation.

I can tolerate anything except the outgroup and The Toxoplasma of Rage by Scott Alexander. Alexander publicly advocated voting for Hilary Clinton in 2016. Two lengthy blogposts on how bigotry can masquerade as tolerance, and what being tolerant really means and how division is stoked through controversies – the latter was reprinted in full by New Statesman. Most of the rest of the blog is good too.

(1) The wording may not be precisely correct, but the core ‘greater moral value’ is verbatim.

(2) It’s completely reasonable to say one is doing an action for moral reasons; e.g. ‘I give to charity because I see it as a moral obligation’. Or to judge an action as moral or immoral. But to set one person, or group of people, as being of ‘greater moral value’ than another goes against a pretty fundamental concept of the equal moral dignity of all humans.

(3) Yes, I am aware some academic positions are precarious, and everyone’s circumstances are individual, and so on and so forth, which is one reason why I didn’t actually say this at the event even if, statistically speaking, it’s almost certain to be valid.

2 thoughts on “No, you are not of ‘greater moral value’

  1. Are you sure they didn’t say/mean “greater moral values” , i.e. place greater value on being moral than politicians. In that light I would agree with them and their statement.

    1. I have no idea what they ‘meant’ beyond what they said, but in a fairly long (>1 minute) intervention they clearly said that they were of greater moral value and how or whether to engage with those who were not moral equals.

      I think the statement that one group of people places a higher value on ‘being moral’ than another (unless we’re talking about serial killers/terrorists or similar) is also hugely problematic. In general proclaiming your own, or a category to which you belong, moral superiority is neither helpful nor a good look. I find it quite worrying that you, as an academic, think academics are morally superior to other groups of people.

      Historically, groups which considered themselves to be morally superior have often gone on to do bad things, either because they felt the normal rules didn’t apply to them or because it was felt it was inappropriate to turn in or report individuals for transgressions because, after all, they were part of the morally good side.

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