Interview with Hans-Georg Moeller, Author of The Moral Fool

Hans-Georg MoellerCan morality become a kind of dangerous pathology?

In his new book The Moral Fool: A Case for Amorality, Hans-Georg Moeller critiques the ethical “fanaticism” of Western moralists, such as Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, and the utilitarians, Moeller points to the absurd fundamentalisms and impracticable prescriptions arising from definitions of good. Instead he advances a theory of “moral foolishness” extracted from the “amoral” philosophers of East Asia and such thinkers as Ludwig Wittgenstein. The moral fool doesn’t understand why ethics are necessarily good, and he isn’t convinced that the moral perspective is always positive. In this way he is like most people, and Moeller defends this foolishness against ethical pathologies that support the death penalty, just wars, and even Jerry Springer’s crude moral theater.

Here is an interview with Hans-Georg Moeller about his new book:

Q: What’s wrong with morality?

Hans-Georg Moeller: People usually assume that morality is a good thing. It is generally believed that a moral person is somehow better than a person who is not moral and that a society which holds moral values in high esteem is better of than one which does not. I do not think that this is the case—and this is what the whole book is about. It is about pointing out the “sick” aspects of morality, about the “pathology of morality,” so to speak. I think that morality does not deserve to be valued as much as it is today.

Q: What is morality?

HGM: I think it is a way of thinking and talking about people, groups of people, actions, and events in terms of good or bad. Once we talk or think morally, we create a distinction between “us” and “them,” our values will seem good to us and others who do not share them will seem “bad” or even “evil.” This can create a lot of problems, both socially and individually. In wartime, for instance, moral talk and moral thought flourish. Likewise, thinking of the people around us in a very moral way is rather stressful and will create a lot of tensions. Imagine a family in which moral values dominate everything else, including the affection the family members feel for each other: life in such a family will probably be quite miserable and thus somewhat “sick.” In short, I argue that a high degree of moral language and a highly moral mindset is not an indicator of the “health” of a person or a society, but, to the contrary, a worrisome symptom of tension and uneasiness.

Q: What is a “Moral Fool”?

HGM: The “Moral Fool” is a figure that I take from Asian philosophy, from Daoism and Zen Buddhism in particular. As opposed to the moral heroes from Greek antiquity up to today’s Hollywood films, the Moral Fool is an entirely average person. He or she, like most of us most of the time, simply does not immediately conceive of the people he or she meets or the situation he or she encounters in moral terms. Even though morality has such prestige in our society today, in most of our dealings we function quite well and are able to more or less enjoy our lives without the necessity to make moral judgments. Rather than seeing anything wrong with this, I think it is a paradoxical amoral virtue. I do not argue for immorality, but, as much as possible, for moral abstinence, I argue for amorality, not for immorality. In many situations, amoral approaches may work more effectively and less pathologically than morality, for example, law in a courtroom and the aforementioned affection in a family. These are two important antidotes against morality that we already make frequent use of. In fact, I think, people do already act as moral fools most of the time. And I think there’s nothing wrong with this and that society—and philosophy—should embrace it.

Q: Can you give some concrete examples for how morality can be “sick”?

HGM: Yes. I think that moral “sickness” is different in different societies. In my book I focus on moral pathologies in today’s “Western” countries like the USA, Canada, or Europe. The most obvious example, which I alluded to already, is war rhetoric. How could mass support for the “war on terror” and obedience to the government—against actual facts and reason—be produced? Mainly through an intense use of moral language and the creation of moral outrage against an “evil” foe. It is a very common strategy to stir up moral mass hysteria in war times. Another example is how death penalty trials are performed in the U.S.. Why have there been so many wrongful convictions? I argue that this is mainly due to the intensity of moral argumentation in these cases. The jurors are overpowered by moral language so that they themselves will feel morally guilty if they do not vote for the extinction of a supposedly evil person. When it comes to deciding about the death penalty in an American court, the scene changes from an attempt to establish the facts of a case to a moral drama pitching the “innocent” against the “perpetrator”—and who would then dare to vote against the innocent?

Q: Didn’t a lot of things in society get better because of moral engagement, the civil rights movements for instance?

HGM: I discuss this issue in detail in my book, and my view is this: Yes, moral awareness and moral activism has played a historical role in improving the situation of oppressed groups such as African Americans or women. However, civil rights movements are called civil rights movements for a reason. What is much more important for these groups than being morally emancipated is to get certain rights that they lack. Just look at the current debate about gay rights in the USA. In every single state where there was a popular referendum on gay marriage it was defeated by the “moral majority.” But most of the American courts faced with this issue decided on a legal basis in favor of gay rights. Minorities will always have a hard time achieving moral esteem, but in a society where there is not only a separation between religion and the state but also a separation between morality and the law minorities might win some important legal victories.

Q: What about the efforts of so many philosophical and religious thinkers to find out what is good and to distinguish it from what is evil?

HGM: Interestingly enough, there have always been a number of philosophers who were highly suspicious of ethics; Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, for example. I follow these thinkers rather than the likes of Kant or contemporary ethical theorists who believe that they are able to identify what is “really” good. The attempt to define criteria for moral goodness has often ended in grotesque failures. I cite a number of examples of “shocking” or ridiculous ethical demands by some of the great heroes of today’s academic ethics, such as Kant’s moral defense of murdering “illegitimate” children or Bentham’s “scientific” suggestion of measuring weightlifting abilities in order to establish people’s strength for tolerating pain so that the moral quality of certain policies that might inflict pain on them could be objectively assessed. I argue that the history of “philosophical” ethics accounts for not much more than a series of unwarranted academic presumptions.

You can also read an interview with Moeller about his previous book The Philosophy of the Daodejing.

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