Oppression-Based Morality

In my last post, I talked very briefly about the leftist oppression-based morality, versus the religious sin-based one. It’s a concept I’ve been thinking about for a while, so it deserves a slightly less brief exploration.

The sin-based morality deserves little exposition, since we all know what it’s based on. The five sixths of the world’s people who are religious have made sure knowing the basics of sin-based morality is basic cultural knowledge everywhere. Even the one dominant conservative morality that’s secular, Confucianism, is sin-based.

That’s obviously not the only way to organize things. The liberal moral system is, ostensibly, based on rights and infringements. In this conception, you don’t start with what you must do or refrain from doing, but with what you, as an individual, have the right to expect. Even moral prescriptions that are identical to sin-based ones are framed differently: “you shall not murder” becomes “everyone has the right to life”; “give 1/40th of your wealth to charity” becomes “freedom from want.”

But in practice, most liberals employ a morality based not on the individualist conception of rights, but on the egalitarian one of oppression. The religious concept of sinning against God or (wo)man then becomes the concept of oppressing some marginalized group: women, minorities, homosexuals, fat people, etc. It tends to work better than merely talking about rights, because a) it also holds that inaction can be oppressive, b) for the last 200 years the spearhead of liberalism has been not just rights but also equal rights, c) it fosters greater in-group boundedness, and d) it relates to more leftist moralities than just the liberal one.

It’s certainly a good frame to understand various intra-left debates, like the one on Feministing about prostitution (which, incidentally, is clocking at 51 comments so far without a single radical inanity).

3 Responses to Oppression-Based Morality

  1. belledame222 says:

    Well, it is interesting. Over at Bitch Lab’s and elsewhere, we were starting to get into discussions of various cultural manifestations of shame and guilt.

    What I said is that it strikes me that the whole “purify, purify” thing you get in the more extreme radical lefty political groups (including, but not limited to, radical feminism), makes me think about Christianity a lot. I don’t mean just fundamentalism; I mean, the whole notion of “you have already sinned in your heart. (and that’s just as bad as if you’d actually done the deed).” and the whole “patriarchy” as monolith thing in particular, i had been thinking, often feels very much like the “Original Sin” doctrine stood on its head (and then i started the Angela West book, “Deadly Innocence,” which pretty much confirms this impression).

    but what i was saying was, and perhaps you relate to this–where i come from, it’s not that we don’t know guilt–oy, do we know guilt!–but it plays out a bit differently, at least in theory. It’s not so much “you inherited a stain on your inner being, and before you can do anything else you must undergo a conversion, be washed clean.” It’s more, “You fucked up. Go make amends.”

    Where the guilt starts to turn into less healthy manifestations–and yeah, i do see this playing out in various lefty circles as well–is where it becomes clear that there is -nothing- you can too that would sufficiently make amends; yes, there is a certain amount of inherited “sin” as well; but the main point is, you DO need to be doing something, but it’s gonna take a long long time, you may never see the end of it in your lifetime, and you may still get the wrath of ____ on your head no matter how hard you try.

    this tends to make people rather defensive and wonky.

  2. belledame222 says:

    anyway, i’m not entirely sure i’d make that clean distinction between “liberal” and “conservative” in this context, although i understand where you’re going with it, i think.

    This has been something that’s interested me for quite a while: well, particularly as regards the U.S. (i think it clearly also plays out at least somewhat differently elsewhere). We have this binary political system, which is sort of wrapped up with, but not quite synonymous with, the “left/right” division–depends who you ask and when, obviously, but more and more it become apparent that R/D is not synonymous with more fundamental splits, especially lately. anyway:

    There are a couple of ways you can look at this. The most obvious split is the bipartisan divide that goes back to Whigs and Tories. This is the root of the “mainstream” divide between Republicans and Democrats, more or less.

    But actually I think the -real- divide is something else: the Enlightenment values in which the Founders based the bones of the U.S. Constitution, and the Puritans who came before them.

    and both of those needless to say have common roots as well, if you go back far enough: the Reformation, for the most glaringly obvious one.

    But while the Enlightenment had much to recommend it, as did the (white, well-to-do) Founders, it obviously falls down in certain places; and i think that this is why cracks and fissures are increasingly evident, and why the extreme right wing is able to exploit them. because a lot of us don’t want to really look at the -roots- of the problem here, historically as well as philosophically. this is why a lot of for example radical POC end up in some ways connecting more with people on the “other” side of the aisle, sometimes (and of course in other ways being much farther from them than the more mainstream “liberals,” and often going in different directions altogether, or attempting to).

    more on that later at my own spot, i think.

    for me, though, it always comes back to–well, the philosophical part, i mean, the historical roots of who benefits from “individualism” and so forth are well documented already–but what i’m interested in is, are, the limits of “reason.” What happens to the Dionysian side when it’s banished in favor of Apollonian values.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    I think the oppression vs. sin distinction is completely orthogonal to guilt vs. shame. Western culture is largely guilt-based, so its religious morality, Christianity, is based on guilt and sin, and its leftist morality is based on guilt and oppression. The idea is that when you commit an infraction, you’re guilty of oppressing someone.

    Although some people use that morality to attack people’s personal choice, this isn’t necessary. The blogospheric model I have for oppression-based morality is Alas, not I Blame the Patriarchy. The people who said that by asking them questions I’m oppressing them have the same opinion of Twisty that I do, as far as I can tell.

    The reason I posit it as a liberal/leftist thing is the reaction of the liberal blogosphere to the race flamewar. If there were a Bush Sr. lunch comprised only of white people, and an antiracist conservative, say Abiola Lapite, said it was racist, the right-wing blogosphere’s reaction would be uniformly negative in a way that would make TRex look mild. In the moral system of conservatives, oppressing people may be bad, but it’s not the most important thing to avoid, and women and minorities who challenge hegemony are not to be regarded as fellow supporters of equality but as enemies.

    Even if it’s not ideological, and I think it is, the mere fact that the liberal side includes feminists and antiracists, and the conservative side includes religious fundamentalists, can account for the difference. When religious fundamentalists tell people to act in accordance with Christian morality, nominal Christians feel guilty about not living up to their standards, while atheists scoff; when feminists and antiracists tell people to act in accordance with leftist morality, nominal equal rightists feel guilty, while outright sexists and racists scoff.

  4. […] One of the things discussed on the Pharyngula chatroom was the issue of morality. Religious conservatives have done a pretty good job at convincing people that the only alternative to conservative morality is no morality. The left-wing oppression-based morality is viewed not as a moral system but as an unnecessary drag on people. […]

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