Skip to content

The squeals of the formerly dominant

David Hume (1711-1776) from a portrait by Allan Ramsay

“Generally speaking, the errors in religions are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.” — David Hume

As a liberal and firm believer in free speech, I am willing to take my lumps from what others say and think. But whether on principle it strengthens my case or weakens it, the pressure of my Humean moral sentiments compels me to say that I am sick to the point of nausea of hearing conservatives going on and on about “cancel culture.” In retrospect, it was predictable: If a day ever came when the dominant moral order was brought down and its flaws aired and challenged, that dominant moral order would squeal in a very unbecoming way, never doubting its own superior virtue, half-blind to its flaws and to the weakness of its own case (and therefore of its need to change the subject), and bringing all its intellectual power to bear on trying to turn the tables on its critics.

Dominance takes multiple forms. Economic dominance is one. Racial dominance is another. But we talk far too little about another form, moral dominance. All forms work together to preserve power and privilege. Conservative intellectuals can’t make a case for economic dominance or racial dominance, though that’s clearly what millions upon millions of conservatives want. But on the matter of moral dominance, they think they can slip one past us. If moral dominance is lost, then economic and racial dominance can be maintained only by naked power, which gets us awfully close to what the Republican Party has become.

Ross Douthat tries to slip one past us today in his column in the New York Times, Do Liberals Care If Books Disappear? It is, of course, a rant about Dr. Seuss books. There is no need to get into the argument about six Dr. Seuss books going out of print. Do conservatives have a point? Sure they do. I might even be able to spare a moment or two of concern about six Dr. Seuss books going out of print, but only after I’ve finished being concerned about thirty thousand other things that conservatives are blind to and don’t care about and don’t write about.

In the light of my own moral sentiments, which are not attached to religion, a big part of what makes Douthat so wrongheaded is his catholic thinking. Douthat also is a Catholic with a capital C, though his religion is secondary to what I see as his worst foible — love of authority and love of the old order. The word “catholic” with a lower-case c has a somewhat shaggy meaning in English, but that meaning has to do with universality and the safety of orthodoxy. I would spin it like this: To think in a catholic way means to safely think the way a great many others think, to have authority on your side, and to think the way people have thought for a very long time. In other words, dominance with deep historical roots.

The matter of moral dominance needs to be a part of the cultural conversation that we’re trying to have amid all the cultural uproar. Conservatives need to be shown how they’re trying to assert moral dominance against the moral claims of minorities, and thus block justice. Conservatives have even made “social justice” into propaganda dirty words. And minorities need to feel greater moral confidence in challenging the blindnesses of the dominant economic, racial, and moral order. Did some well-off conservative provocateur lose his or her job, or feel a new and unexpected chilling of his or her rights, after saying something offensive? If so, that’s truly a bad thing. I will put it on my list of concerns, in position 33,432. Right now I’m much more concerned about those whose rights have been chilled for centuries.

Is philosophical work being done in this area? Not much, as far as I can tell. Googling for “moral dominance” brings up very little. But it did bring up a short paper with the title “The Demise of Ethical Monism,” by Philip A.D. Schneider. Schneider does not occupy a position in one the great university philosophy departments, though he holds a Ph.D. from Duke. He is, of all places, at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina. He makes a case not for overturning the moral order but for replacing what he calls “ethical monism.”

Schneider writes (italics mine):

“[W]hen we judge that another person’s decision is immoral, we are implicitly recognizing that this person has selected an ethical theory to justify what they sense to be a dominant value in the situation. We are saying further that our dominant value, and its supporting monist ethical theory, is being rejected.”

If I understand Schneider correctly, then I would apply it to Douthat’s column thus: Douthat is trying to preserve the dominant (and monistic) moral order by rejecting the moral values of a competing moral order.

Douthat is not by any means the only conservative intellectual doing that. Confronted with the atrocities of the Republican Party and lacking any principle with which to defend it, conservatives must grasp at any floating flotsam for their propaganda. It’s almost all they’ve got right now, which is why they’re so shrill on the subject of “cancel culture.” Conservatives are being told by conservative propaganda that their way of life is threatened. That’s how they see the challenge to the dominant economic, racial, and moral order. So why aren’t we talking about that, instead of six Dr. Seuss books? I’ll venture an answer to my question: Because they don’t have a philosophical, or a principled, or even a religious answer that will pass muster with thoughtful people. What they have left, and what they fear to lose, is their dominance.


  1. Daniel Daves wrote:

    I think it would be intellectually dishonest to say that liberals or left-leaning people in general don’t have some propensity to desire to ban forms of media that go against their politics or social morals. Though the institutions that are removing the Dr. Seuss books and Pepe Le Pew from future circulation are private, they are kowtowing to the whims of liberal moral outrage. How can a cartoon skunk be held responsible for perpetuating rape culture while no one has said a peep about video games like Grand Theft Auto that allow players to burn prostitutes instead of paying them? I almost miss Trump being in the news cycle because at least the eye of the outrage had a focal point.

    Friday, March 12, 2021 at 12:23 pm | Permalink
  2. Henry Sandigo wrote:

    I think the Dr Seuss issue is a bunch of bull shit. I raised my daughters on Dr S and Twain. They did not become radicalized or racist, nor do they degrade any race or lifestyle. They have taught their children to respect all walks of life. In a way this radical look at literature is similar to the people who fought developers and lumber companies by burning buildings equipment and in some case lives were lost. There are better ways to fight or change our ways.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2021 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *