‘Critical morality’ is undesirable as it requires a surrender of one’s personal moral reasoning to the interpretation of morality by a biased party, akin to how a hivemind would subjugate individuality to further itself
Every legal system has to deal with the question of morality in some form or the other –it chooses to have laws which are based purely on morality, laws which have a moral element and laws which have no moral element whatsoever. Often, the moral element boils down to a debate between conventional/positive morality and critical morality. As per HLA Hart, positive morality refers to the “morals accepted by the society” while critical morality refers to a set of “moral principles used in criticism of actual social institutions including positive morality.”
Although critical morality provides us with a convenient response to social harms propagated by societies, it is itself a very dangerous concept. From a literary perspective, critical morality is extremely similar to the idea of a ‘hivemind’. In this post, I seek to draw parallels between the legal concept of critical morality and the literary concept of a hivemind and demonstrate the undesirability of critical morality.
The hivemind is an idea utilised in the sci-fi/horror genre. Broadly speaking, a hivemind refers to a group of individuals all of whom either possess or are controlled by a single consciousness.Usually, the hive is controlled by an alien which forcefully assimilates individuals by suppressing their identity through an evil machination. Those who are assimilated into the hive reject all other opinions, claiming that the hive provides enlightenment and true purpose. Popular examples are the Borgs in Star Trek and the insects in The Empire of the Ants. Now, the loss of one’s identity is such a terrifying notion that we instantaneously treat the hive as evil, however, we fail to realise that the hive itself lacks any sense of morality. The hive simply exists as an alternative moral/ideological doctrine, one which reveals to you only on your assimilation in the hive and then acts as the universal truth which is only contested by blasphemers or ignorant fools.
Surprisingly, critical morality also behaves in a similar manner. The core features of critical morality can be understood as follows:
- It is universally applicable, irrespective of which society/ time period an individual inhabits.
- It enables us to perform a normative evaluation of societal practices and the morals held by a particular society, therefore it is the ideal moral code which can exist and towards which we must strive.
- It is the limitation of human cognition which prevents us from always utilising critical morality correctly, therefore, the social evils of the past were based on the wrongful equation of positive morality with critical morality due to faulty human interpretation of critical morality.
We observe that there is no distinction in how critical morality passes normative judgement as opposed to the change in perspective undergone by a person assimilated by a hivemind. Both claim to be universal, objectively true and rejected only by those who are limited by their cognition. Therefore, critical morality can be rightly called a hivemind by itself. Now, it is necessary to discuss the consequences of the same – rejection of any moral element in ‘critical morality’ and a loss of credibility on the opposition against positive morality.
Absence of ‘morality’ in critical morality
Critical morality as a legal parallel to the literary concept of the hivemind loses any claim to being the ideal moral doctrine which can pass normative judgements. It is merely reduced to an alternative moral doctrine which presents itself as the correct doctrine. Similar to a hivemind, its ability to provide an objective and universal moral doctrine requires a surrender of one’s individual notions of morality and replacement with what critical morality prescribes. If the individual accepts what critical morality demands from him unconditionally as the ideal moral doctrine, the actual need of any moral element disappears. Consider a parallel situation – an individual is to become part of a hivemind. Here, irrespective of whether the individual voluntarily accepts or is forcefully assimilated, they will believe their new consciousness to be the truth, which means that no matter how immoral the hivemind’s object may be, it is still moral for the simple reason that it is the only moral doctrine which exists for the individual.
Hypocrisy of criticisms against positive morality
The most important consequence of the hivemind nature of critical morality is that arguments against positive morality lose their credibility. The most prominent argument against positive morality is how it is actually immoral and objectively incorrect as per the normative standards laid down by critical morality. However, this stance against ‘communitarianism’, i.e. the belief that a community should have the right to preserve whatever factors (including socially accepted moral values) compose its identityfails because it relies on the same premise it criticises positive morality – an imposition of moral standards.
Consider the example of the movie ‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’, in which aliens took over the bodies of human beings and turned into emotionless copies. Released in 1956, it serves as an allegory to the fear of communism seeping into American society and corrupting the people.As a conflict between capitalism and communism, adopting any one of them makes it the correct and objectively moral ideology for the individual. Both seek to further the ideology and impose it as the correct way of thinking.
But what about the accepted usage of critical morality?
A question may arise at this point about the use of critical morality in legal theory – if it is merely an alternative form of positive morality with the social reformers serving as the role of the alien parasites trying to assimilate us, should we abandon the theory? There are only two possible answers – either we accept that all appeals to morality will inevitably be based on personal notions of morality which means that they must be treated as such and moral elements in legal questions must be reduced as far as possible; or we must align ourselves absolutely with anyone notion of morality and accept it as the true objective moral standard. To put it simply, the options available are either reject/minimise the role of morality or choose your own hivemind rather than it choosing you.
It is clear that the concept of critical morality requires a surrender of one’s personal moral reasoning to the interpretation of morality by a biased party, akin to how a hivemind would subjugate individuality to further itself. By conveniently appealing to critical morality as a means of settling legal debates only increases the gap between two opposing ideologies and causes difficulty in bringing about social change since the reformers also impose their own sense of morality. Therefore, it is necessary that we not strive towards critical morality as an objective moral standard.
<http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/hive_minds> accessed 21 December 2018
LW Martin, ‘It’s Time to Embrace the Hive Mind’ (The Portalist 26 July 2018) <https://theportalist.com/its-time-to-embrace-the-hive-mind> accessed 21 December 2018
Jeff Saporito, ‘Was “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” intended as a political allegory? (ScreenPrism 5 February 2016) <http://screenprism.com/insights/article/was-invasion-of-the-body-snatchers-intended-as-political-allegory> accessed 21 December 2018
Arjun is a 2nd year BA LLB (Hons.) student at National Law School of India University, Bangalore.
Image Source: Crowd Series by Misha Gordin