We Live In A Gesellschaft
"It's a mutual, joint-stock world, in all meridians."
A little while ago I wrote about how I thought public apologies don’t actually work. In short, it’s because the public has no consistent character: anyone can be a part of the public and thus refuse the apology. By refusing to accept it on principle and stating it publicly, that is due to an abstract claim, they can gather to themselves others who agree, thereby creating their own public or forming their own small society. Organizing around principles is often how the faceless public takes on a character: one becomes this or that sort of person, involved in this or that cause.
I recently read an essay by Robert Pippin entitled “Hegel on the Political Significance of Collective Self-Deceit.” One passage, about the Beautiful Soul section of the Phenomenology of Spirit particularly interested me. The “Beautiful Soul” describes the moral condition of modernity, after Romanticism and Kant, when people reflect on their own moral principles. These principles should be universally and rationally understandable to others, they are articulable: they are not just behaving according to the immemorial roles and norms of one’s traditional society. The problem is that under this moral regime, no one is ever found to be acting truly dutifully: a rigorous moral judge will always find self-interest behind people’s actions. Hegel points out that the judge is also acting self-interestedly: by refraining from action and judging others for failing to live up to their principles they are able to maintain their “pure” moral status. I believe these roles of self-interested actor and moral judge are not meant to denote separate individuals, although some people can be more consistently “one way” or the other. We can inhabit these moral positions at different times in our lives, maybe even multiple times in the same day: sometimes we are involved in exculpatory self-justification, sometimes we are involved in the moral condemnation of others. Hegel seems believe that this moral system collapses under the weight of its own contradictions. People will somehow realize they actually cannot inhabit the position of pure moral judge and that they are always involved in similar types of self-interested action as the people they condemn. Here’s Pippin:
Such rigoristic condemnation is, according to Hegel’s view, irrational, self-contradictory even, and he suggests that no one can be presumed to have adopted such a stance without also being aware that it is self-contradictory. It demands that individuals not be the individuals they are, that morality is asking for some conformity to strict standards that are impossible to fulfill. He suggests also that this realisation will eventually win out, that there will be something equivalent to the Christian confession that ‘we are all sinners’, and this confession will occasion some mutual forgiveness.
Hegel seems to believe that a kind of secularized version of the Christian understanding that we are all flawed and inevitably will fail to live up to our standards. I guess this will lead to more qualified judgments of others and less painful self-contradiction. Of course, as Pippin points out, this doesn’t really happen in modern society: “Such self-deception can clearly be borne quite well. Indeed, self-deceived moralism has reached something like epidemic proportions in the post-Hegelian world, our world, something that is not merely the ‘fault’ of the self-deceived, but also of their audience.”
I think the word “audience” is key, another word Pippin uses in regards to self-deception, borrowing from Bernard Williams, is “conspiring.” These are both forms of association: “audience” necessarily public, “conspiracy” is a private association, namely one that wants to pervert the public interest to private ends. (In that sense of the word, one has to admit that our world is actually quite rife with conspiracies.) I want to suggest this form self-deception persists because of the inherently associative nature of our society. And it persists because it is profitable. The problem is that holding people accountable and holding grudges and not forgiving is a principle of association: it creates a public and it can simulate the bonds of genuine community or become a vector for social advancement. It forms selves and societies. Power comes through the organization of groups of people for some purpose; by binding them together, in other words. Political parties, businesses, markets, corporations, all bind together. Guilt is a debt, a bond: it binds the wronger to the wronged. “It's a mutual, joint-stock world, in all meridians,” as Melville writes in Moby-Dick. Holding certain moral judgments becomes like holding a valuable financial instrument: they can accrue interest and they can form the capital for one’s own political or business career; people can even pool similar moral judgments to form corporate entities. Forgiveness lets people go: it sunders a debt; it’s a voluntarily surrender of power.
This entire system is easily taken advantage of by people who just won’t abide by the rules, who just hit the gas on self-deception and never look back. Trump, for instance, never paid his bills and never said he’s sorry. There’s obviously a self-interested logic that ‘works’ for him in a way: he got pretty far doing this. I’m still convinced his refusal to take seriously any of the debts of society is what attracted many people to him. The other path we can easily imagine: a person who insists on rigorous moral judgments of others and is never moved or stopped by the reply, “Well, you essentially do the same thing sometimes!” Such people can get very far without self-reflection and will attract others that want to participate in the self-righteousness. These people’s selves are obviously damaged or incomplete in some way, but telling them so seems to have very little effect. I’m not sure what institutions could solve this problem. But perhaps we can foster an attitude that more readily notices contradiction and self-deception in ourselves and others, not necessarily to furnish the material for further condemnation (although sometimes condemnation can certainly be justified) but to realize the imperfection of the entire arrangement. But, as I recently remarked to a friend, these sorts of dramas really need a good novelist rather than a theorist.