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The morale of morality

Questioning fetishised nihilism

This piece of writing is a direct response to Jason McQuinns essay Demoralising Moralism:
The futility of fetishised values, and unless otherwise specified, all quotes are taken from that piece. I
write this one now for two reasons. Firstly, because I think that my own moral perspective was not
fully addressed in that essay and I want to clarify so as to at least alert McQuinn to the possibility
- and merits - of what I see as a non-fetishised moralist approach. Secondly, because I want to
bring my own critique of moral nihilism to the table, and to suggest that, in McQuinns own
chosen terminology, I see it as fetishised in the same way that he appears to view moralism.

In general terms, I feel that my approach falls into the category he makes around the
halfway point where he says that he is specifically not speaking about some unlikely form of
nonfetishized system (or nonsystematic set) of values, although my motivation for using this toolset is not
as he imagines to insist on calling [it] moral merely in order to confuse things. But in the interests of
pure honesty and full disclosure, I should say that recent conversations with Bellamy Fitzpatrick,
Osmia, Lincoln Finch and Jeriah Bowser have begun to make me wonder as to whether what I
am espousing is really moralism at all. More than one reader has pointed out that it could be that
what I am espousing is closest to moral particularism. So I should say at this juncture that I am
not fully sure exactly whether McQuinn is addressing my conception of morality at all.

In trying to determine an answer to this question, I want to first focus on how McQuinn
makes a dichotomy of the idea of compulsion. I fear that he is using the term compulsory
differently to how I understand it, as Ive always taken the word compel to refer to something
that drives you (and while I dont like heteronomous driving, I do not see the idea of having self-
chosen principles helping to drive you along as a bad thing, as I will come to shortly). He might
mean mandatory or imperative, since these are terms that refer directly to the heteronomous
urge that produces and justifies rules, but as I have tried to point out on many different
occasions, whether or not an individual places any credence in, subscribes to, or even - moment
to moment - acts on or follows a moral principle, will always, I believe, be a matter of their own

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choice. So this is not just an exercise in pointless etymology but a kind of disclaimer, and a
summary that should serve to make a distinction between a moral libertarian toolset and a system
of dogmatic commandments.

I feel that while McQuinn makes a similar distinction between a kind of personalised ethics
and adherence to a compulsory morality, that some of his criticism actually fall outside of this
remit and apply to other conceptions of morality, including mine.

Another distinction McQuinn makes centres on fetishisation, by which I assume (he does
not offer his own definition) he means the way in which some ideas are injected with a special
mysticism, and thus an ideology is born. In this sense, I do not think that my values are fetishised:
in fact I believe that they are all based on reality. For example, in upholding the moral principle
that murder is always wrong, I would point to the fact that it removes the most universal and
essential value of all - life - without which all values are impossible. Even a non-fetishised ethical
approach based on personal values is not possible if there is no guideline whatsoever against the
obliteration of the most fundamental of all values.

I guess the biggest problem I have as a moral libertarian that is often misunderstood by
fellow freedom-lovers, is that they steadfastly refuse to consider how a person could live according
to principles (that they have chosen for their selves) without that amounting to self-subjugation to a
system. If the choice to live according to guidelines - that one has thought carefully about, to
assist oneself - is to be described as self-subjugation, then why does this not apply equally to all
types of choices? A Wolfi-type character choosing to attend an orgy for reasons of pure desire
according to a creative nothing would be self-subjugation to desire, no? The biggest difference
that I can see between an approach based on personal guidelines and one based on desire is
whether one has a preference for chaotic, spontaneous choices with few or none over-arching
themes at work, or a holistic process of evaluation with constant feedback loops and maximised
consistency.

A second problem, that I wasnt even aware of until I read McQuinns essay, is that
apparently it is possible to imagine that moralism tends to result in always seeing the entire social world in

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a series of single-issue blinders. Since I make almost exclusive use of overarching themes when
analysing human behaviour, I cant imagine how this could possibly apply to me, yet McQuinn
says moralism without the compulsory or fetishised conditional. Will McQuinn let me stand
as an example of a moralist who is entirely unconcerned with single issues?

I think McQuinns best point in this essay is the one found in this paragraph:

One of the most striking aspects of moralistic practice involves the generally futile attempts to communicate
across the finite ethics/compulsory morality divide (which will surely be evidenced in moralistic reactions to this
essay). Even when those who have no belief in any fetishized value-systems make quite clear that their criticisms
and commentary develop from their own practical experiences within particular social contexts and historical
situations, their words are almost automatically interpreted instead through a moralistic framework that assumes
these criticisms and commentary must be based on some undeclared, but still-transcendent system of values!
Moralists most often see only other moralists, even when none are there. And, further, moralists often see and
criticize these other (phantasmic) moralists as being exceedingly (yet occultly) moralistic, even when absolutely
no evidence can be found for such a charge!

He is right: I have seen this happen. But I should say that personally, I am a moralist who is
willing to accept that those who claim not to be using moral principles to guide their behaviour,
are sincere in their statements. But that leads straight to my question as to what these people are
using, other than the aforementioned pure desire, to make their decisions, if anything.

Conversely, I would argue that McQuinns worst point is when he alleges that whatever
the specific content of compulsory morality, the effects are basically similar. A persons ability to think clearly
and act decisively in his or her own interests (within appropriate contexts) is compromised or sabotaged. If people
are not able to consciously act in their own individual and communal interests, they will almost certainly end up
acting instead in the (alien) interests of another in some fashion.

In fact, I would argue the exact opposite: that a person who wholeheartedly rejects moral
principles as guidelines that can drive (compel) him is robbing himself of the ability to fully
achieve their individual and communal interests, and that their own stance could really be seen as

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(to borrow McQuinns own over-used term) fetishised amoralism, which I would see as an alien
interest, given how every human community that we have knowledge of exhibits behaviour that
clearly points towards some moral principles as guidelines. And while I do not wish to defend the
peculiarities and sometimes downright mania that past iterations of human behaviour have
exhibited, I do feel that in the ego vs. origins debate, that there is at least some value in not
forgetting that the earliest and simplest human communities are some kind of exemplars for us.

In other words, when I see people who have read Stirner, Nietzsche et al and go on to
propound an explicit moral nihilism, I see people that are (and perhaps want to be) exceptions to
the fundamental, axiomatic values that all humans require.

McQuinn brings his essay to a close with this very interesting paragraph:

Critical self-understanding involves the simultaneous development of a finite ethics, a set of values
consistent with what are considered and felt to be ones most important interests, that are expressed in everyday life
activities. These values are organic expressions of ones radical subjectivity, of ones self-possession, self-
understanding and self-activity. They dont originate outside of ones life, demanding ones subjection, because they
originate from ones own direct life-experiences and serve ones own interests.

What I read in this is that it is ones interests (and desires?) that should shape ones
behaviour in place of moral principles? But then how are these interests formed? What in turn
influences them? Whim? Or does McQuinn use interest interchangeably with desire? And with
value? To me, this expression very much smacks of do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the
law, and I find that kind of sentiment empty, pathological, and unhelpful either to the individual
- or to projects of individual and social liberation, as I shall now come on to explain.

I try to always consider how a given body of thought translates to my own project of
liberation from society. And so I would suggest that the fact remains that for all radicals who
reject morality, the most they can say against government, capitalism, society, modernity or
civilisation is that they dont like it. For those that wish to see a revolution and therefore for

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society itself to continue, they are then faced with a triumvirate of what I see as unanswerable
questions:

1. How do you convince people to revolt when all you can offer them as extrinsic motivation
is Hey, I dont like this, do you feel like not liking it too? And maybe helping us change things?

2. What is to be set up in place of the incumbent society if the revolutionaries cant agree
on moral principles? How could they possibly all be satisfied if they have different interests and the only
thing they agreed on is that they didnt like the old system?

3. If society is to be maintained rather than dismantled, from a morally nihilistic


perspective, this would mean that the revolutionaries find something desirable about it (and the necessity of
submitting a portion of ones will to a system outside of oneself, that is implemented only for some bizarre
crypto-collectivistic reason). What could this possibly be?

And for those like me that dont want to see a revolution but the disintegration of society
into a patchwork pattern of differing consentient communities, its enough for us to know that we
would be able, in those communities, to select and nurture the principles that we would live by
that would end up (probably fairly quickly) being automatic and entirely implicit, as they surely
were in the lives of primitives.

I should say finally that I dont know McQuinns mind (as expressed in his writing) well
enough to know if he himself wants revolution or societal obliteration. Precisely what he means
by creating a subversively radical social theory in concert with other rebels and putting it into practice with them
with the aim of directly eliminating as many aspects of domination and social alienation as possible is unclear.
For me, the most disturbing element of that sentence is the pragmatist concession of as many
as possible, suggesting that it could be desired by the individuals concerned to allow some
domination to remain in order that others be dissolved.

I cant really think of any other way to end this piece of writing other than to invite
McQuinn, should he desire it, to respond. Perhaps I have gotten the wrong end of the stick
entirely?

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