Vice Dressed As Virtue

19 November, 2021

By definition, concepts of morality and cruelty appear as mutually exclusive. How, otherwise, could one call himself moral or virtuous while inflicting pain and suffering on another? But as Paul Russell, author and professor of philosophy at Lund University in Sweden and University of British Columbia in Canada, asks, what happens when the two combine? 

Here, Russell examines the distinction between the often innocuous ‘vain moralism’ – commonly known as virtue signalling – and the far more sinister ‘cruel moralism’. In his thought-provoking article for Aeon, Russell suggests that the fundamental irony inherent in the human predicament is that morality is itself both an occasion and instrument for many of the cruellest forms of immorality.

On the face of it, cruelty and morality are opposites. Just as morality stands as a check or constraint on our cruel impulses, so these impulses propel us away from morality. On closer examination, however, the relationship between them is more complex and much messier. One way of appreciating this is to consider our retributive propensities and dispositions, which certainly encourage causing pain and suffering to those we find objectionable or threatening. It would, nevertheless, be a mistake to consider the relationship between morality and cruelty entirely in terms of our largescale social and legal institutions and practices, such as prisons, and the forms of punishment associated with them. For one thing, these institutions and practices might or might not be cruel in terms of the definition provided. Beyond this, we shouldn’t overlook or ignore the way in which morality is frequently misused at a much more personal or everyday level, one that need not involve our legal institutions and practices at all. The particular form of cruelty that I am concerned with is a mode of moralism.

When I speak of moralism, in this context, what I am concerned with, in general terms, is the misuse of morality for ends and purposes that are themselves vicious or corrupt. Moralisers present the facade of genuine moral concern but their real motivations rest with interests and satisfactions of a very different character. When these motivations are unmasked, they are shown to be tainted and considerably less attractive than we suppose. Among these motivations are cruelty, malice and sadism. Not all forms of moralism, however, are motivated in this way. On the contrary, it could be argued that the most familiar and common form of moralism is rooted not in cruelty but in vanity.

The basic idea behind vain moralism is that the agents’ (moral) conduct and conversation is motivated with a view to inflating their social and moral standing in the eyes of others. This is achieved by way of flaunting their moral virtues for others to praise and admire. Any number of moralists through the ages – reaching back to the likes of François de La Rochefoucauld (1613-80) and Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) – have attempted to show that it is vanity that lies behind most, if not all, of our moral conduct and activity. While theories of this kind no doubt exaggerate and distort the truth, they do make sense of much of what troubles us about moralism.

One feature of vain moralism that is especially troubling is that an excessive or misplaced concern with our moral reputation and standing suggests that moralisers of this kind lack any deep or sincere commitment to the values, principles and ideals that they want others to believe animates their conduct and character. Moralisers of this kind are essentially superficial and fraudulent. We have, of course, countless examples of this sort of moral personality, ranging from Evangelical preachers caught in airport motels taking drugs with male prostitutes, to any number of highly paid professors wining and dining on the lecture circuit while explaining the need for social justice and advocating extreme forms of egalitarianism. For the most part, these characters and their activities – whatever their doctrine – are a matter of ridicule rather than of grave moral concern. Over time, the motivations behind their ‘grandstanding’ and ‘virtue signalling’ will be exposed for what it is, and the moralisers’ shallow commitment to their professed ideals and values becomes apparent to all. While we shouldn’t dismiss the vain moraliser as simply innocuous, there is no essential connection between moralism of this kind and cruelty or sadism.

The particular motivations behind vain moralism largely account for the cluster of vices associated with it. This includes hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness, pomposity, pretension and conformism. These vices are all evidence that vain moralism is at work. Cruel moralism involves a very different set of motivations and a different cluster of vices. Although vain moralisers might adopt cruel attitudes and practices if they serve their (vain and shallow) ends, there is no satisfaction or pleasure taken in the suffering and humiliation of others for its own sake. With cruel moralism, things are different. What gives cruel moralisers satisfaction is not enhancing their moral standing in the eyes of others but rather the suffering and humiliation of others as a means to achieve power and domination over them.

Via Aeon, Paul Russell, 22 May 2020. Read full article here.

Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership’s programs include the 2 day Executive Ethics, 6 day Executive Colloquium and year-long Vincent Fairfax Fellowship. We also deliver online and tailored corporate programs. Find the right program for you. They are all held under the Chatham House Rule to encourage genuine and open debate, and allow participants to candidly discuss sometimes sensitive issues in private while allowing the topic and nature of the debate to be made public, and contribute to a broader conversation. The alumni program offers ongoing leadership development support and a lifelong connection with Cranlana.

Photo by Dikaseva on Unsplash