Friday, February 11, 2022

No Moral Leaders

 I think a peculiarity of the modern age is the tendency to make up ethical ideas that have no real foundation, often because of taking metaphors too seriously or simply word recombination or loosely associating very different things without considering how they relate in reality. This is not strictly confined to ethics (one of my pet peeves is 'knowledge production', since knowledge is not a product and thinking of education as a kind of production gets you into very wrong territory very quickly), but ethics seems particularly prone. One that I've seen a lot of recently, for what reason I don't know, is 'moral leader' or 'moral leadership'.

Obviously one hopes that in this or that leadership position someone acts morally, but this is not what people mean -- they mean people who lead other people in morality itself, somehow. Recently I've seen people arguing about whether comedians in general or a particular group of activists were 'moral leaders'; I've seen people call rabbis, imams, bishops, and other ministers 'moral leaders'; I've seen people argue over whether certain politicians or religious leaders or community leaders retain their status as 'moral leaders'; and more. The fundamental problem with it all is that there are no moral leaders, because moral leadership in this sense is an incoherent idea based on a confusion about how morality works. 

No politician is, or ever has been, a moral leader; no bishop, priest, pastor, or similar minister is, or ever has been, a moral leader; activists and comedians are very certainly not moral leaders; no saint is, or ever has been, a moral leader. No one is. The realm of morality has no leadership roles for us. Human beings can give good moral advice and they can provide good moral examples, but that is all, and, being human, they will do both sporadically and inconsistently. There are certainly no positions that give you any special authority in matters of moral advice and moral example; moral advice and moral example do not get their quality from the status of the adviser or the profession of the person who is the example.  If you think that someone has the right kind of experience to give good advice, or if you think that someone has show how to do something well, then by all means adapt this advice or example as you can. But advice and example have their own standards.

It is, moreover, unjust to demand of people what they cannot possibly deliver. To demand of others that they be your moral leaders is to abdicate your own moral responsibility and to set them up to fail by giving them an impossible task. What is more, adding an impossible demand to their real responsibilities makes it harder for them to fulfill those responsibilities. We do not have politicians in order to be 'moral leaders'; their responsibility is to perform the duties of their offices in an effective manner appropriate to the particular purposes of the offices. We do not have bishops, priests, pastors, rabbis, and the like to be 'moral leaders'; their responsibilities are things like preserving and maintaining the integrity of the sacraments or rituals, preaching the word, researching religious laws, organizing worship and religious charity, and so on. We do not have policemen to be 'moral leaders', but to enforce the law with due process; we do not have firefighters to be 'moral leaders' but to put out fires and rescue people from them; we do not have doctors to be 'moral leaders' but to provide medical information and perform particular skilled interventions. And so forth and so on. In all these positions we expect people to give advice relevant to their position and the experience they develop it in it; in all these positions we we hope that people will be good examples to others. But their purpose in that position is to perform an office, do a job, fulfill a duty, and all of them (even religious ministers, which people seem particularly to want to saddle with special moral leadership status) can do their job in at least a mediocre way even if they are bad at giving advice about it and don't make for great examples in doing it. And performing their office is the standard to which they can justly be held in those positions.

I suspect that this attempt to appoint people to the fictional position of 'moral leader' (or sometimes to strip away a fictional 'moral leadership' status) is related to the kind of universalized donatism that you sometimes find people affirming, in which people who are morally flawed are not conceded to have any authority at all, so that if they have a position of authority for some particular purpose and they are morally flawed in the way they exercise it, they are 'illegitimate'. Human people being what they are, it hardly needs to be said that this really requires that we recognize virtually everyone as 'illegitimate'. In reality, most offices and positions are not that fragile; authority can be genuinely exercised even when exercised defectively; and legitimacy depends on fulfilling a very particular role and performing very specific tasks, not being a moral paragon. And, while you can always encourage better behavior, it is, again, an injustice to demand otherwise of people.