Last week, the global media expressed its moral outrage at the Presidents of top U.S. universities, accusing them of softness on antisemitism and gross moral hypocrisy. They were accused of not stating that calls for the genocide of Jews were unequivocally against their code of conduct. Yet something more profound was going on here argues contributing writer and editor for the IAI, Charlie Barnett. From warnings of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic to Nietzsche in the Genealogy of Morals, the Presidents were weaponising morality. And unfortunately many of their critics were guilty of exactly the same.
Last week the global media was transfixed by a moment that some describe as historic. After the October 7th massacres and Israel’s subsequent military response, incidents of anti-semitism had risen by 337% in the U.S.. Many of these took place on university campuses. Elise Stefanik chaired a Congressional hearing into the matter and when the Presidents of Harvard and Pennsylvania were asked if calling for the genocide of Jews violated the universities’ rules or code of conduct, the answers were downright strange.
Instead of unequivocal condemnation, Claudine Gay, still President of Harvard, said, ‘it can be, depending on the context’. Elizabeth MacGill answered ‘if the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment…it is a context dependant decision.’ Both statements suggesting somehow that there are contexts where calling for the genocide of Jews might not violate either university’s rules or code of conduct.
Both presidents received immense backlash for what many saw as their ambivalence towards antisemitism. That MacGill and Gay later condemned antisemitic calls for genocide in no uncertain terms, and the former resigned, went little way to ameliorate the resentment many felt towards them. But something more than mere outrage at their indecision was going on here.
Moral codes, like justice are weapons used by induviduals to advance their interests and worldview.
In Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus made a stark observation about morality. ‘Justice is the advantage of the stronger’. Moral codes, like justice, are weapons used by individuals to advance their interests and worldview. And the idea of a morality based on timeless truths is a historical fabrication. A point that Nietzsche would converge on thousands of years later in the Genealogy of Morals.
Whilst many would take issue with the philosophical dimension of this conclusion, the sociological one is prophetic. Morality is weaponised all across our politics and institutions and no one can be considered blameless. It is precisely those we venerate at the pinnacle of our institutions, whether it be the conservative establishment, or the left-wing educational elite, who are most guilty of this.
To illustrate, in Gay and MacGill’s clarificatory remarks after the incident, both emphasised that the doubt in their testimony was to do with their personal and institutional attachment to free expression. Gay said, ‘our university embraces a commitment to free expression. That commitment extends even to views that many of us find objectionable, even outrageous’. And MacGill said ‘in that moment I was focussed on the university’s longstanding policies that align with the U.S. constitution which say that speech alone is not punishable’. Both appealed to the moral value of free expression in defence of their statements.
The problem with this is that Harvard ranks the lowest for freedom of expression in the country, two standard deviations below the second-lowest, the University of Pennsylvania. 70% of Harvard students say that it's acceptable to shout down a speaker and 30% that violence to stop speech is permissable. Harvard’s policy is to ensure free speech whilst limiting discourse deemed not ‘civil’ or that shows ‘grave disrespect for the dignity of others’. This guidance has been used to de-platform figures on the right as well as gender critical feminists. Yet none of these caveats seem to have been deployed with nearly the same willingness in the recent instances of antisemitism.
The same hypocrisy however also applies the other way around to those on the right like Elise Stefanik who typically defend free expression. After Harvard dropped Stefanik from their advisory committee in 2021, she gave an interview lambasting them for their ‘monoculture approach’, shutting down ‘robust debate’ and ‘critical thinking’. Others on the right have also been deeply critical of the firing of academics for dissenting or controversial views. Yet when MacGill and Gay expressed such views, Stefanik, backed by 70 members of congress, called on both of them to resign.
Let’s be as charitable as possible here.
Gay and MacGill are not secretly fine with antisemitism. Similarly, Stefanik doesn’t simply want to shut down points of view she doesn’t like.
But equally, neither have a consistent set of moral values they adhere to. Stefanik and her supporters don’t somehow piously uphold the values of free speech and robust debate. And neither do Gay and MacGill uniquely want to create a safe and tolerant environment by limiting controversial speech.
Both parties have points of view. Stefanik, that allowing chants of ‘intifada’ on campus will lead to open season for Jew hatred on campus. And Gay and MacGill that by pubicly condemning these chants, legitimise criticism of Israel could be shut down.
Both sides defend points of view and use moral claims to do so. But when the ethical principles espoused seem to no longer promote the desired results, those principles are dropped and a different set of values brought to the fore. When free speech and robust debate don't seem to quell antisemitism, Stefanik, having previously advocated for free speech and robust debate, will switch to supporting the removal of those with views she dislikes, in the service of her actual goal, to squash antisemitism.
Those who are more educated, more intelligent and better informed are often more, not less, prone to moral bias. This includes the very same philosophers who study and are aware of such bias.
Likewise this same weaponisation of morality explains why universities known for being notoriously bad at defending free expression on campus, making the case for the corrosive effect of microaggressions or arguing that speech can be a form of violence, will suddenly become the most ardent free speech warriors when they feel their interests are threatened.
In his book the Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt made one of the most salient moral observations of the 21st century, corroborating Nietzsche’s aforementioned observation, but also David Hume's famous quip that "reason is, and ought to only be, the slave of the passions and can never pretend to aby other office than to serve and obey them". Moral judgements are not rational. Humans rely on intuitions that are followed by post-hoc rationalisations. But something more important in this picture is often not mentioned. Those who are more educated, more intelligent and better informed are often more, not less, prone to moral bias. This includes the very same philosophers who study and are aware of such bias.
Gay, MacGill and Stefanik would likely go at lengths to demonstrate that their positions are not bias and in fact consistent with their moral values in some way. And indeed their rationalisations might be persuasive. But importantly Haidt makes us consider the crucial fact that morality is often a tool of persuasion rather than sincerity. Messages with moral arguments are far more persuasive as has been well-documented. When individuals frame political arguments that chime with the values of the target audience, that audience is far more likely to be swayed.
It is no coincidence for example that Piers Morgan, under pressure by Rupert Murdoch to improve his TV ratings for his show Piers Morgan uncensored, has ramped up the moral rhetoric when it comes to the Israel-Palestine question. His interviews tend to consist of two controversial guests thrashing it out, either accusing each other of lacking integrity, or that the other supports an evil ideology. For good measure, Morgan always begins with the moral litmus test of ‘Do you condemn Hamas?’.
Additionally, Konstantin Kisin and Mehdi Hasan, two extremely effective orators, have both admitted that a sure-fire way of winning these debates is not by logic, reason or even better argumentation, but through the ‘zinger’. A kind of viral, 15 second moment where you ‘expose’ your opponent and win your audiences moral approval.
Putin utilised the language of morality when he argued that the West was hypocritical for their use of cluster munitions in Ukraine, having previously condemned them in the Middle East, not mentioning that the only reason why this discussion had arisen was because of his invasion of a sovereign country in the first place.
Those who proposed the Covid lab-leak hypothesis were deemed ‘dangerous’ and ‘misleading’ by various outlets, social media companies and individuals who wanted to limit that hypothesis as a topic of discussion. Two terms laced with moral evaluation. Now the U.S. Department of Energy argues this to be a likely cause of Covid-19 and such moralising criticisms have been dropped.
Ethics is a dangerous game if we don’t understand why people are playing it. Nietzsche opined that there is only ‘interpretation of moral phenomena’ that humans bend to their will. Focusing just on moral arguments in themselves might seem the more philosophically rigorous approach, ignoring personal interests and biases. But doing so averts our attention away from the underlying reasons that humans act the way that they do, and make the arguments they make. It is only with this knowledge that we can see through the rhetoric that seems to plague today’s moral and political landscape.