Harvard University The Threat

I’m working on a writing question and need an explanation to help me learn.

Summarize this by author Simon Blackburn:

7. The threat of false consciousness

In sections 3 and 4 we met theories that tried to discover hidden unconscious motivations, things that really move us, leaving ethical concerns exposed as mere whistles on the engine. We resisted their claims. But there is still room to argue that the social role of morality is tainted. Even if the motivations of its practitioners are sincere enough, this is because such people have been somehow sucked into a system. And the system may not be what it seems.

Consider, for instance, a feminist criticism of a piece of male behaviour. The man holds open a door for the woman, or offers to carry her parcel, or gives up a seat for her. A feminist may find this offensive. She does not have to say that the man intends to demean the woman. His behaviour, the feminist may maintain, is part of a ‘system’ or ‘institution’ or ‘pattern’ of such events whose net effect is a signal that women are weaker or in need of male protection. And this is what she finds offensive. Of course, the man in turn may find her offence offensive, and up start political correctness wars and gender wars.

The feminist may go in for the kind of hidden psychological theories we have met, saying that the man unconsciously intends to demean the woman. But that is unnecessary. She need not work at the level of individual psychology. All she has to say is that the man behaves as he does because of a system or socially institutionalized set of behaviours that are entrenched in the society, and that the upshot of the system is to demean women. This is enough for her critique to gain a hold.

For another example of this kind of critique, imagine a sincere cleric wringing his hands over his parishioners’ sins. He is genuinely upset. He believes they are doing wrong, and fears for their souls. His heart goes out to them. There is nothing, so far, wrong with him. But he may be a part of a system with a rather more sinister function for all that. The Church that taught him may be an organization dedicated to its own power, and as we already suggested, controlling people’s sense of shame and guilt and sin is an instrument of power. It probably works best if nobody from the Pope down to the individual cleric realizes that, either consciously or unconsciously.

So a critic might now suggest that ethics as an institution (I shall write this, Ethics) is a system whose real function is other than it seems. A feminist might see it as an instrument of patriarchal oppression. A Marxist can see it as an instrument of class oppression. A Nietzschean may see it as a lie with which the feeble and timid console themselves for their inability to seize life as it should be seized. A modern French philosopher, such as Michel Foucault, can see it as a diffuse exercise of power and control. In any event, it stands unmasked.

There may be a good deal of truth in some of these critiques. We can think of local elements of morality, at particular places and times, that certainly seem open to some such diagnosis. The passion with which the rich defend the free market can invite the raised eyebrow. A morality that gives us the right to their land, or the right to kill them for not having the same rituals as us, invites a similar diagnosis. The self-serving nature of systems of religion, or caste systems, or patriarchal or market systems, can be almost entirely hidden from view to those who practise them.

There is something a little off colour as well about some of the ways morality sometimes intrudes into people’s lives. The judge, the priest, or the elders, a panel of the great and the good, may tell people what they must do—but themselves they do not usually have to live with the consequences. If the girl was not allowed the abortion, or the family not allowed to assist the suicide, they have to pick up the pieces and soldier on themselves, perhaps in prison. Those who told them how they had to behave can go on lunching at the club. An impartial moral law can bear very unevenly on different people, and it is little wonder if people become disenchanted by an ethics largely maintained by those who do not have ‘skin in the game’, do not have to live it. Similarly, Anatole France spoke of the ‘majestic equality of the laws which forbid rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread’.

But although we may well accept examples of this kind of critique, I don’t think it could possibly be generalized to embrace all of ethics. The reason is implicit in what we have already said: for human beings, there is no living without standards of living. This means that ethics is not Ethics: it is not an ‘institution’ or organization with sinister hidden purposes that might be better unmasked. It is not the creature of some concealed conspiracy by ‘them’: Society, or The System, or The Patriarchy. There are indeed institutions, such as the Church or State, that may seek to control our standards, and their nature and function may need to be queried. But that will mean at most a different ethic. It does not and cannot introduce the end of ethics.

Central elements of our standards do indeed have a function, and it may be hidden from practitioners. An ordinary person may just be shocked at a broken promise, and that is the end of it. They do not have to reflect on the function of promise-keeping. But if they do reflect, then the point of the ‘institution’ of promising may come into view. Its point will be something like this. By giving promises we give each other confidence in what we are going to do, thus enabling joint enterprises to go forward. That is a point we can be proud of; without something serving that point, flexible plans for coordinated action become impossible. Here the description of the hidden function is not an ‘unmasking’ or a deconstruction. If anything it gives a boost to our respect for the norms surrounding promise-keeping. It shows that it is not just something about which we, the bourgeois, have a fetish. As I like to put it, it is not a debunking explanation, but a bunking one.

Other central elements of morality don’t even get this kind of explanation. They are less of a human invention than is the device of giving promises. Gratitude to those who have done us good, sympathy with those in pain or in trouble, and dislike of those who delight in causing pain and trouble, are natural to most of us, and are good things. Almost any ethic will encourage them. Here there is nothing to unmask: these are just features of how most of us are, and how all of us are at our best. They are not the result of a conspiracy, any more than the enjoyment of food or the fear of death are: they just define how we live and how we want to live and want others to live. Nietzsche indeed tried to ‘deconstruct’ the benevolent emotions, railing against them as weak or slavish or life-denying, but the attempt is unconvincing and unpleasant, a kind of Hemingway machismo that regards decent human sympathy as unmanly.

These have been seven threats to thinking about ethics. But there are other obstacles to living ethical lives, which occupy us in Part 3.


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