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When Good Values Are Bad For Us

November 17, 2012, 6:35 AM

We have a tendency to fetishize moral virtues: respect, tolerance, love, etc., are generally regarded as good things. It is good to respect and be respected, it is good to tolerate and be tolerated, and so on. However, being human, we have tendency to mistake tools for walls. Thus, when you respect something or love someone too much, it becomes obsession, a kind of deification; the object and/or value becomes something inviolable, beyond criticism or dissent from outside perspectives. This gives it a property of absolutism, of one kind or another, and therefore distorts it.

A prime example of this is human life: in general, most of us consider being alive and our individual lives to be of extraordinary value. This is why killing is an important and sensitive topic: whether doing it to oneself or to others, for malicious or moral purposes. This is why for many people any and all killing is automatically wrong, instead of being the nuanced and complicated discussion it actually is.

And, at the other end, why starting a life is viewed with such protective zeal: to highlight the benefits, and indeed moral importance, of being childless often makes ordinary people say outrageous, derogatory things. Women are “selfish” for not wanting to be pregnant, you are automatically a “misanthrope” for not wanting more life, and so on.

This fetish of appreciating life to the point of inviolability allows for abortion defenders to be labelled as child murderers; advocates of legalised euthanasia are compared to Nazis and receive death threats (irony?).

Virtues themselves can become poisoned by fetish. Tolerance, generally, is a good thing for societies to have, but when tolerating differing views means there is no “true” perspective (“only interpretation”, as Nietzsche mocked) or that any criticism is “intolerance”, then we have tossed freedom and reality into the bubbling cauldron of paranoia. We can take only tentative sips of the very properties that allows for tolerance to exist at all, lest we burn ourselves on mass outrage.

For example, criticism of Islam is lumped into the poorly-named Islamophobia*; one is called a racist for concluding Islam is misogynist, anti-science, and intolerant of criticism, despite providing book-length evidence that it is. The reply shouldn’t be the equivalent of shouting “racist!”, but countering the arguments.

The fetish application to moral subjects tends to encase virtues and objects in absolutism, which makes theme extreme and, therefore, wrong,

We’re All in Danger

But it isn’t only fringe religious or moral crusading groups that poison virtues, hardening their insides into inviolable properties. We all are in danger of doing or have done it.

We do it for loved ones or heroes: “There’s no way he would ever hit/rape/be racist/etc., he’s my lover/an important writer/etc.”

We do it for our countries: “We are the greatest nation on Earth and everything we do benefits everyone, whether they like it or not.”

And, worse, to ourselves: “There’s no way I’d say anything misogynist/racist/etc, because there’s no way I, as good person, can really hate women/different races/etc.”

Respect, love, adoration become walls we put up, atop which sits the object of our value, the same walls which prevent any dissent from entering to change our minds. This is why it’s much harder to point out racist sentiments to someone who otherwise isn’t a racist; harder when generally good people refuse to believe that mockery and dismissal of rape victims for wearing “revealing” clothing is hateful of women (and male rape victims) – since wardrobe often has little to do with why the rape occurred.

Few people consider themselves to be not good or to be actually bad:

Only “bad” people are racists or sexist, and so on.

I’m not bad,

therefore I cannot be a racist.

Even accepting that you are "not bad", doesn’t negate that you can hold sexist or racist views.

Here, fetishizing the virtue of being “not a bad person” means being morally perfect. It is applying infallibility in the same way that inviolability is applied to human life or tolerance, as we saw before. This applies absolutism where it can’t and should not exist. We shouldn’t be ashamed to admit we’re all potential murderers, abusers, haters of some minority, and so on. We should do everything we can to avoid these, but we’d be ignoring our fallibility to say we’re completely and utterly incapable of becoming such people or performing such actions or holding such views.

It is also beneficial to recognise this because when it’s pointed out we are making sexist/racist/etc. statements, for example, we shouldn’t and won’t be so quick to dismiss our critics: we must be able to argue rationally why our statements are not prejudiced, using proper argument; or we’ll benefit by being shown to be wrong and, thus, can give up the unjustified view.

We are not so perfect or pure that we should think we’re beyond such failings. Recognising we’re human means recognising we will probably fail or are failing somewhere: what’s truly inhuman is refusing to acknowledge you’re not perfect. To bring absolutism to a moral object, action, or virtue is to ascribe godlike properties to very mortal phenomena.


*Unjustified hatred and intolerance of Muslims or “Muslim-looking people” does exist, but this term “Islamophobia” does victims an injustice by focusing on the justified fear of any theism’s tenets, rather than unjustified fear of all Muslims.

Image Credit: Holbein d. J.; Danse Macabre. III. The Expulsion (16th Century) (source)


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