The Social Problem of Moral Inequality image

The Social Problem of Moral Inequality

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R R Reno argues in First Things that we are confronted by a moral inequality in society that is at least as damaging as income inequality. It's a fascinating argument, which moves from the way in which working- and middle- class families socialise and teach their children, building on Basil Bernstein and Mary Douglas, through to the way in which the elitism of contemporary ethical discourse marginalises and patronises working-class people. I'm no sociologist, but the whole piece has a serious ring of plausibility to it:

“To explain this dismissive assumption about rules and rituals, [Douglas] turns to Basil Bernstein’s study of working- and middle-class London families. He distinguished between two modes of social control. Working-class families tended toward what he calls positional control systems and restricted speech codes. Social roles are assigned rather than negotiated (thus “positional control”), and their obligatory demands explained in clear and unequivocal terms (thus “restricted codes”). “Why can’t I play with dolls?” Answer: “Because you’re a boy.”

“As the child develops, Douglas explains, “his experience flows into a grid of role categories; right and wrong are learnt in terms of the given structure; he himself is seen only in relation to that structure.” Thus the progressive criticisms of unthinking conformism, empty ritual, and rigid rules that suppress individuality.

“In this mode of social control, a successful, honorable life flows from settled habits encouraged by clear rules. What it means to be a good Catholic, a good father, or a good worker largely depends upon reliably occupying the sharply defined social positions. This certainly requires self-discipline and sacrifice. But roles are easily identified, and the rights and wrongs can be simply stated.

“Middle-class families socialize their children differently, emphasizing reflective analysis more than clear rules. They use personal control systems and elaborated or enhanced speech codes. Parents explain the whys and wherefores of rules. “Why should I do my homework?” Answer: “Because your mother and father want you to succeed.” Or “Because it’s important to live up to expectations.” As Douglas explains, in this instance “control is effected through either the verbal manipulation of feelings [or] through the establishment of reasons which link the child to his acts.”

“In this system, becoming a moral person—a good, sensitive, caring person—flows from endless negotiations with a wide variety of demands. For example, a good father needs to know what society expects (all social systems have rules), but he must also help his children navigate expectations in ways that blend or balance social conformity with individuality. In this and countless other ways, moral success requires adept manipulation of the open-ended, enhanced code…

“[Charles Murray] finds himself baffled by the moral attitudes of elite Americans. They lead relatively disciplined lives that accord fairly well with older norms. Yet they affirm a flexible, non-judgmental ethic. They hardly ever have children out of wedlock, but don’t speak ill of those who do. They clump in super-wealthy neighborhoods, often for the express purpose of protecting their children from the negative influences of behaviors they refuse to condemn.

“He shouldn’t be baffled. There’s no contradiction ­between elite non-judgmentalism and their disciplined lives. Their flexible ethic flows from the personal mode of social control and its elaborated codes. Today’s wealthy parents exhort their children to “make healthy choices” and “act responsibly.”

“These open-ended principles leave a great deal of room for judgment, true, but as Douglas explains, living by them is existentially demanding. An elaborated code makes the moral life a complex personal project “continually stirred into a ferment of ethical sensibilities.” Successfully achieving moral status—attaining the respect of one’s peers—requires a high level of verbal and symbolic skill. For example, what does it mean to be “inclusive”? A Bethesda–Chevy Chase High School student is well trained to answer that question. Not so a kid from Anacostia High School.

““It sounds like this mother’s heart is in the right place,” explained Kirsten Filizetti, a San Diego psychologist, when asked to comment for a newspaper story about a parent who punished her daughter for cruelly teasing a fellow student. “She was trying to help this girl understand what she had done and teach her a life lesson. However, parents should be careful about introducing shame and guilt onto kids as a form of punishment.” She should sit down with the child and help her understand the motivations behind bullying.

“It’s a small, almost innocent episode of therapeutic hauteur. But it’s typical and reflects the way in which our society is now divided by a moral inequality as severe as—and in all likelihood more damaging than—income inequality.

“A rule-based mode of social control is ­egalitarian. Its terms and application are broadly available. You don’t need advanced verbal skills or a high IQ to shame your children for stealing or lying or bullying. But Filizetti wants “understanding,” something for the most part accessible, as Douglas recognized, only to those who have the aptitude and training to transform simple moral rules into subtle systems of principle, circumstance, and emotions.

““Tolerant,” “progressive,” and “inclusive” are also part of the enhanced code now dominant. Those who are not adept at using (or manipulating) these terms are largely disqualified from exercising influence. If a working-class parent whose moral outlook is defined by clear rights and wrongs speaks up at a PTA meeting, the educational “professionals” are very likely to respond in a patronizing way: “I can understand why you might not want your child to have to talk about sexual orientation, but here at Glenn Spring elementary school we are committed to creating an open, inclusive environment for all students.” Moral authority—indeed, basic moral competence and the right to speak in public without being corrected by one’s betters—is restricted to enhanced-code virtuosi.”

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