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Seeking moral realists

Idealists can be inspiring,but their service religion has some shortcomings

Written by New York Times |
April 14, 2012 12:13:54 am

If you attend a certain sort of conference,hang out at a certain sort of coffee shop or visit a certain sort of university,you’ve probably run into some of these wonderful young people who are doing good. Typically,they’ve travelled in the poorer regions of the world. Now they have devoted themselves to a purpose larger than self. Often they are bursting with enthusiasm for some social entrepreneurship project. These people are refreshingly uncynical. Their hip service ethos is setting the moral tone for the age. It’s hard not to feel inspired by all these idealists,but their service religion does have some shortcomings. In the first place,many of these social entrepreneurs think they can evade politics. They have little faith in the political process and believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it.

That’s a delusion. You can cram all the non-governmental organisations you want into a country,but if there is no rule of law and if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won’t add up to much. Furthermore,important issues always spark disagreement. Unless there is a healthy political process to resolve disputes,the ensuing hatred and conflict will destroy everything the altruists are trying to build. There’s little social progress without political progress. Unfortunately,many of today’s young activists are really good at thinking locally and globally,but not as good at thinking nationally and regionally.

Second,the prevailing service religion underestimates the problem of disorder. Many of the activists talk as if the world can be healed if we could only insert more care,compassion and resources into it. History is not kind to this assumption. Most poverty and suffering — whether in a country,a family or a person — flows from disorganisation. A stable social order is an artificial accomplishment,the result of an accumulation of habits,hectoring,moral stricture and physical coercion. Once order is dissolved,it takes hard measures to restore it. Yet one rarely hears social entrepreneurs talk about professional policing,honest courts or strict standards of behaviour; it’s more uplifting to talk about micro-loans and sustainable agriculture.

So if I could,presumptuously,recommend a reading list to help these activists fill in the gaps in the prevailing service ethos,I’d start with the novels of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler,or at least the movies based on them. Noir heroes like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon put the focus squarely on venality,corruption and disorder and how you should behave in the face of it. A noir hero is a moral realist. He assumes that everybody is dappled with virtue and vice,especially himself. He makes no social-class distinction and only provisional moral distinctions between the private eyes like himself and the criminals he pursues. He (or she — the women in these stories follow the same code) adopts a layered personality. He hardens himself on the outside in order to protect whatever is left of the finer self within. He is reticent,allergic to self-righteousness and appears unfeeling,but he is motivated by a disillusioned sense of honor. The world often rewards the wrong things,but each job comes with obligations and even if everything is decaying you should still take pride in your work. Under the cynical mask,there is still a basic sense of good order,that crime should be punished and bad behavior shouldn’t go uncorrected. He knows he’s not going to be uplifted by his work; that to tackle the hard jobs he’ll have to risk coarsening himself,but he doggedly plows ahead.

This worldview had a huge influence as a generation confronted crime,corruption,fascism and communism. Noir’s moral realism would be a nice supplement to today’s prevailing ethos. It would fold some hardheadedness in with today’s service mentality. It would focus attention on the core issues: order and rule of law. And it would be necessary. Contemporary Washington,not to mention parts of the developing world,may be less seedy than the cities in the noir stories,but they are equally laced with self-deception and self-dealing.

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