The Categorical Imperative

There’s something that gnaws at me. I hear it whenever someone implies that I should do something that involves a sacrifice because it’s the right thing to do.

It’s that little voice inside my head: “But shouldn’t citizens be expected to make a moral sacrifice in the name of this abstract claim of justice?  Shouldn’t they accept this dictate in the name of righting a historic wrong?”

It’s the voice that asks for moral commitment, for selflessness, for sacrifice to the common good.

But then I hear a second voice in my head that said, “Yes, but what gives the government the right to force citizens to live up to an impossible standard of self-sacrifice?  No human will willfully do that.”

“Yes, but shouldn’t they?”

It’s the question of should.  It’s the question of ought.  Are we morally obligated to do what we ought to do?  Is it our responsibility always to do what we should?  

And who, after all, gets to tell us what we ought to do?

It’s a strong internal tension that I sometimes feel when considering complex social and political questions: the pull of the highest standard of morality and altruism, the notion that there is an absolute moral imperative to sacrifice for a given cause.  Here the title of Immanuel Kant’s famous philosophic principle comes to mind:  Is there a categorical imperative?  And if so, who decides what that is?

It’s an interesting personal reaction that I’ve always had, and long been conscious of.  I remember years ago when I left a teaching position partway through the school year feeling an immense sense of personal guilt, as though I were abandoning something important to which I was obligated to sacrifice my personal energies and even my own well-being.  When I left, it was simultaneously an act of survival and an act of guilt.  

Today I look back on the decision quite differently: No dysfunctional, exploitative organization has the right to side track my well-being in the name of their mission.  And shame on them even further for trying to play on my sense of conscience.  

This is a historical issue for the teaching profession, as I learned — the notion that teachers should be motivated by altruism and charity to work long hours, accept low wages and low status, and to sacrifice their own professional autonomy.  Within a few years of teaching, I’d learned to be wary of anyone outside the profession telling teachers to do something “for the good of the children.”

It’s Thomas Sowell’s “unconstrained vision,” isn’t it?  It’s the belief that human beings are capable of unusual moral behavior, particularly of self-sacrifice in the name of a cause, that is at the heart of Sowell’s unconstrained vision.  On the other hand, the belief that human beings are simply incapable of such selfless charity, represents the constrained vision.  I think the constrained vision also goes a step further and says that humans have good reason to be wary of such calls for personal sacrifice: because such situations are ripe for abuse by those calling for sacrifice.  History shows us time and time again that the leaders of mass moral movements themselves always revert to a self interest on their own part that is hypocritical and exploitive at best and utterly destructive for those in their following at worst.

Still, that tug of the moral is quite powerful.  It’s the voice that asks, “Shouldn’t whoever has the strongest moral claim receive the most resources?” or “Shouldn’t the cause with the most moral weight receive the fundamental focus of our efforts?” 

Of course, these questions are rarely simple.  “Whoever has the strongest moral claim” is often just another way of saying “whoever possesses the most power.”

After all, there are no pure actors.  Show me someone who’s channeling such a categorical imperative and — just like with the powerful reformers who lecture teachers about their responsibilities — I’ll show you someone who’s definitely not living by these same lofty principles.

This is the collision of Sowell’s two visions:  the notion of the human beings as capable of amazing moral sacrifice — doing as they ought or should — versus the vision of humans as being fundamentally incapable of much more than basic self-interest.  


And I think it is just this constant moral imperative that bothers me most about current progressive left social justice advocates, particularly in the field of education.  Here’s a great example from a recent book called, “We Want to Do More Than Survive,” by educator Bettina Love.  The passage below is one of the most extraordinary passages I have ever read, and a perfect encapsulation of everything I don’t like about the modern movement for social justice in education:  

“White folx can also embrace Black joy by helping, advocating for, and wanting Black folx to win . . .  White privilege is giving something up so Black folx can win.  If folx with privilege are not using their privilege to demand justice and advocate for dark folx and all their identities, then they are complicit in White rage or male rage and thus are condoning injustice, violence, and the educational survival complex.  By winning, I mean White folx ensuring that people of color are being paid equally or more than their White peers . . .  Silencing your White voice so dark folx’ voices can be heard . . .  White folx embracing Black joy is loving seeing dark people win . . .” (121).

What a striking passage.  It’s got everything: the absurd jargon (“folx,” “Black joy,” even “dark folx”) that seems almost purposely opaque.  It has the incredibly arrogant, unreflective moral certainty that this goal is the correct one, and in fact the only one, which everyone should put aside everything else to accede to.  But what stands out the most to me is that this passage — and so many others like it that I’ve read — takes you aback by its strident tone and extreme comparisons.  But as I’m starting to realize — that’s the tactic.  It’s trying to shame people by committing the false comparison of small acts (or even inaction) to grand injustices.  

For example, Love accuses any “folx with privilege” who are not doing just what she wants them to do of being “complicit” in something terrible.  This has become an incredibly familiar pattern in this sort of literature.  I’ve begun to think of it as the “complicity” argument — and it’s a classic use of scare tactics.  If you don’t do this, then you’re complicit in evil.  If you’re not with us, you’re completely and utterly against us — and you’re against all that is good in the world.  

I see this same “complicity” argument used over and over in critical theory; the more I see it, the more I see it for what it is.  It’s not an insightful systemic analysis; it’s rhetorical tactic, nothing more and nothing less.  In fact, it’s usually not an insightful systemic analysis, ether — because, as I’m starting to realize now that I take the time to start reading philosophers of liberalism (like Friedrich Hayek) or philosophers of education, these modern critical theorists usually barely understand the social structures their criticizing.

In this case, what Love is actually accusing “folx” of being complicit in is completely and utterly unfair, to the point of being a non sequitur.  If you’re not simply allowing another group to “win” — which she specificies means “getting paid as much or more than you” (again, one wonders exactly what she means by this — should someone less experienced get paid more than you?), she accuses you of being “complicit” not in some generalized systemic racism, but in “White rage” or “male rage.” And not only that!  Let’s not stop there.  You’re therefore also “condoning injustice, violence, and the educational survival complex”!

There are so many questions that could be asked of this!  For example, what if it is a person of color who refuses her dictates?  Are they still complicit in “White rage?” What if it is a woman — is she “complicit” in “male rage”?  And what is “White rage” — is this somehow different from “Black rage”?  What about male rage — is that different than female rage?  (A page earlier she suggests that joy is different than Black joy, so perhaps this too is possible.)  And isn’t rage an emotion, not a crime?  If so, how can someone be “complicit” in it?  And why is it somehow an expression of “rage” to, for example, not step aside and let someone else “win” (whatever that means)? 

As if this was not enough guilt to layer on, Love accuses non-compliers of “condoning injustice, violence, and the educational survival complex.” Again, so many questions!  How is not “letting black folx win” somehow condoning violence?  Which injustice exactly is being “condoned” by not following her requirements?  And I’ll leave aside the question of what the “educational survival complex” is — and why this is a bad thing to “condone” it — she attempts to explain this elsewhere in her book (and her definition and analysis seems so offhanded and shoddy that it could be a whole other long blog post).

But when you step back, you can see what she’s doing.  It’s not thoughtful analysis.  She’s just trying to put a ton of weight on those who disagree with her.  If they won’t do this extreme thing that she’s barely defining, then they’re complicit in some bad stuff.  And let’s not stop there — they’re also condoning some really, really bad stuff, too.  How dare they?

This seems like a common tactic in progressive, Theory-inspired literature.  Love’s argument is in this case quite similar to the central argument of ed professor Robin DiAngelo in her bestselling book, White Fragility.  DiAngelo’s central point (which Love also writes admiringly about) is just as defensive as Love’s: If you fail to agree that by DiAngelo’s nearly-nonsensical definition of racism you’re a racist, you’re not arguing with her in good faith, you’re exhibiting “white fragility” — which is not a weakness to be pitied but a racist bullying tactic that you’re using to “perpetuate” (another classic Theory verb) injustice.

When you step back and look at it, it’s kind of comic, really, how transparently incommensurate it is: If you don’t completely agree with me, you’re bad and evil for a whole number of reasons.  I’m not going to carefully explain my definitions and terms — in fact, I’m going to use purposely new and opaque jargon — both to keep you off balance, and to ensure that I’m not going to receive clearly thought-out disagreement.  Again, look closely at this, and this insistent moral vision — this voice of what you should do, of what you ought to do — is not the voice of the righteous, asking you to live up to a moral code that the speaker is herself a fastidious adherent to.  It’s the voice a poorly informed partisan who’s using the classic tricks of rhetoric — straw manning, non sequitur, and the ethical fallacy of moral equivalence (dramatic consequences if you don’t agree!) — for the purposes of persuasion.  It’s rhetorical — nothing less, and nothing more.

And what I — dare I say, loved — about Love’s passage, is that it says so nakedly what so many other writers (like DiAngelo) will not: our tribe just wants to win.  Just let us win.  Let us make more than you.  Silence your own voice.  And if you don’t do any of these things, you’re complicit in bad, bad stuff.


So really, when you’re talking about critical theory as rhetoric like this, Sowell’s constrained view — that humans just aren’t capable of such things — is almost beside the point.  Because the point is that you’ve got some serious rhetoric coming at you.  And you have to ask yourself:  Who is this person to tell me what to do?

It’s one thing to say that someone should or ought.  It’s another thing to actually do that yourself, isn’t it?