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The Vice of Selfishness

The Left shouldn't sharply separate "moral" discourse from "self-interested" discourse, because the two are closely intertwined.

Evan Burger’s response to my essay “Revolutionizing Ethics” was expected. While I trusted that Jacobin readers would appreciate a dismantling of “moral sentimentalism” — the absurdly narrow moralizing by politicians and pundits about deep structural problems with our society — I anticipated resistance to my proposal of incorporating moral appeals into the movement. This second part of my piece was less developed and would not satisfy those critics who see morality as mere class ideology.

However, I was taken aback by Burger’s oddly Randian appeal to the virtue of selfishness as a better tack to pursue. I suspect Burger was trying to be provocative in rejecting my proposal. Whatever his reasons, Burger suggests a course that would cause more problems that he recognizes.


To begin, I would reject the way Burger frames the problem. It is unhelpful sharply to separate “moral” discourse from “self-interested” discourse, because the two are closely intertwined. Justice, for example, is a “moral” norm, but it would be in the narrow self-interest of most Americas for the United States to become a more just society — i.e. a country that distributed income, wealth, and political power more fairly. Moreover, moral norms are so basic to our psychologies, our identities, and our preferences that it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to identify things that are in our “narrow self-interest” over which morality has no influence.

Take, for example, Burger’s awkward appeal to my discussion of climate change:

Here, moral considerations only unnecessarily complicate the issue. The obvious foundation on which a mass movement for sustainability could be built is not principled concern with our responsibility to the Earth, but shameful, slimy self-interest.

On the contrary, an appeal to “slimy self-interest” complicates the issue. For who is the “self” whose interest is at stake by the threat of an environmental apocalypse? Not me. I can perfectly well see myself living my life to the end without being severely affected by climate change. So from the standpoint of “slimy self-interest,” I do not care a bit about the issue.

But as a normal, non-psychopathic human being, I actually do care about my daughter’s future, the future of her children, and generally about the future of human life on Earth. I also feel responsible for those things. If you insist on asking whether I care because I feel responsible, or I feel responsible because I care, not only would I not know what to say, but I also would find the question uninteresting. Trying to pry apart the “self-interested” and “moral” components of this attitude unnecessarily complicates what is straightforward and commonsensical to me.

As for determining the best strategy for getting the public to care about sustainability — whether we should appeal to our self-interest in our own survival or to our moral responsibility to Earth and the human race — I’m willing to put that question to the test and go with what works. In the end, the important thing is saving the planet and humanity.

One can find the same confusion running through Burger’s response. For example, he contrasts union norms such as worker “solidarity” and workplace “democracy,” on the one hand, with the income benefits of being part of a union. But on deeper reflection, his contrast confuses. Unions find worker solidarity and workplace democracy important, in part, because they benefit workers. And apart from the straightforward benefit of higher pay, workers also favor solidarity and workplace democracy because they are appropriate forms of social relations between themselves and management. Moreover, workers favor them not simply as a means to win a power struggle for greater pay (though it often comes to that) but also as a means to secure their rights and what is due to them. Again, I don’t find it helpful to cleave the moral and prudential aspects apart.

I agree with Burger that the Left can do a better job of showing average Americans how they can benefit from left-wing policies. (And even if I disagreed, I am sure Burger’s expertise as an on-the-ground labor organizer would have a lot to add.) However, I would disagree with Burger if he thought that was the only argument that needed to be made — the Tom Frank “What’s the matter with Kansas?” line that the working-class is stupidly voting conservative against their own self-interest. As Corey Robin has argued persuasively, the interests involved are quite complicated and have to do with race, gender, power, the family, self-worth, and a whole host of other issues that go beyond a narrow construal of self-interest.

I also suspect that campaigns focusing on narrow self-interest may not be as effective as Burger thinks. Consider the dynamic of Burger’s pitch: Dear Archie Bunker, working-class Republican voter, you are confused about what is in your self-interest. Let me explain to you what you would really value if you were fully informed. (Do we also explain to our voter what a “non-rationalistic, non-individualistic” form of self-interest means?) I suspect that voter would welcome that approach with the same enthusiasm as television viewers greet the paternalistic lectures of MSNBC’s punditocracy.


Although the Left should be experimental and pragmatic in seeking the right formula for building the movement, it can also learn from past success. On this score, I invoked Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, who led the most successful mass movement of the prior generation. His assassination cut short an ongoing campaign for economic justice and an end to American imperialism that, despite the tragedy, had both immediate and lasting success.

King’s moral discourse was able to bridge two sides that have since largely remained apart: the religious left and the secular left. Although King’s speeches were inspired Baptist preaching, his language resonated with non-believers precisely because they appealed to a common moral framework that both sides shared. It was a fundamental part of King’s movement building — one that Burger should keep in mind.

Of course, King was also brilliant at appealing to self-interest. He marched on Washington in ’63 for jobs and a higher minimum wage — not just “freedom” or “justice.” He later came to push for a guaranteed basic income. But if the King focused only on wages and jobs — only on self-interest — what reason would those with good jobs and wages have to support the movement? What reason would the Establishment have to yield to King’s demands? Certainly not self-interested reasons. Without a moral appeal, King’s words could not address the country as a whole.

In looking for a rebirth of left-wing activism, I have closely followed the “Moral Mondays” protests at North Carolina’s state capitol. One of its key leaders is Rev. Dr. William Barber II, president of the state’s NAACP conference, whose speeches revive Dr. King’s calls to justice. When I hear Barber, I take him at his word. I really do think that there is such a thing as justice and I believe that he is calling for it, because he believes that the North Carolina legislature and the country as a whole have violated it.

Burger, on the other hand, writes:

Johnson makes the classic mistake of accepting a discourse at face value — he takes for granted that people are really doing things for the reasons they say they are doing them. To be sure, moral language plays a key role in the politics of America today, just as it did in the civil rights movement and other left mass mobilizations. But that “morality” is merely a rhetorical cloak to hide nakedly self-interested positions.

Here I would insist that I am making no mistake at all, classic or otherwise. Granted, motives can be complicated, but I do think it wrong to deny that Rev. Barber is motivated by justice and that justice explains his role in the protests. That being said, the more important point is that it would be incredibly alienating, I suspect, for Burger and others to claim to Rev. Barber and the public at large that the “Moral Mondays” crowd is really just motivated by naked self-interest. Not only is it patronizing and based on armchair theorizing, but, more importantly, it closes off the potential for dialogue and collaboration. It is a recipe for losing.


I suggested that the Left take back moral discourse from the Right because I felt that we were not exploiting a powerful tool at our disposal that history had shown to be effective. Even if my opponents believe that morality is mere class ideology, they should grant that moral discourse does have such power. It is a basic fact of psychology that people are generally responsive to collective norms and susceptible to their associated moral emotions — shame, guilt, anger, fear, empathy, etc. If we want to move the body politic in our direction and if moral discourse has such power, why should we let theoretical doubts about morality’s grounds stop us?

It has certainly not stopped the Occupy movement; norms such as justice, fairness, and equality have been central. Occupy Finance, a primer on reforming the US financial industry and economy written by Occupy Wall Street’s Alternative Banking Group and released on the protest’s second anniversary, appeals to “economic justice” throughout. The conclusion of its introduction reads:

Economic arrangements, however complex, opaque, and interconnected, are created by human beings and can be changed by them — by us. Taking on this responsibility is daunting, but also exhilarating. It is the first step in the direction of economic justice.

The same point applies to the raw power of the “We Are the 99%” Tumblr campaign. It did not go viral because contributors wrote placards stating simply what they wanted for themselves. It went viral because they told their stories about how the economic system screwed them over. It offered narratives of injustice.

In making these points, I am arguing for a pluralistic, balanced approach — not one-note moralizing. The 99% slogan was an enormously successful appeal that continues to resonate in mainstream media. Apart from its simplicity, I think its success lies in engaging a host of ideas and feelings all at once. There is what we may crudely call a “self-interested” aspect: We the 99%, the vast majority of the population, are not benefiting from the status quo. Assuming we live in a democratic society, we have the power to change things for our benefit. But there is also a “moral” aspect: it is a grossly unfair and unjust state of affairs for the political economy to be structured to benefit 1 percent of the population at the expense of the other 99 percent.

The motivating power of the slogan depends on triggering many sentiments at once. We should try to replicate that success by honing ideas and slogans that engage the whole person.