There may be no more common move in the history of public discourse than the pompous moral judgment. I can’t identify the first time it was used, or detail the historical ebb and flow of its popularity as a language game, but the world we live in is unthinkable without it. Baudelaire, for instance, identified it in the early 1860s as the unifying link between French bourgeois literature and its socialist opposition: “Moralize! Moralize!”
I also can’t identify my first own uses of the game. Generally speaking it’s less essential to children than to adults. Children are more blatant about their desire for power over others. They want it and see no need to hide the fact. Later, when they become ashamed of the naked desire for power, which is to say when they become old enough to be subject to moral judgments and learn to submit to them, they play the game of pompous moral judgment with youthful fierceness, subjecting adults and especially each other to a series of often quite vicious judgments. The judgmental naivete of those approaching adulthood can be remarkable for its fervor and absoluteness. As their ability to make judgments becomes more refined, they might be said to have learned to speak like adults, although many adults remain overwhelmed by the urge to judge.
The goal of the pompous moral judgment is obvious enough then: power. Yet its remarkable attractiveness doesn’t come solely from exercising or fantasizing about power. Instead it comes also from the feelings of satisfaction and security that result from believing very deeply that one has the right to use this power, that one uses this power over others (or would if one had it) in order to make the world better. The pompous moral judgment suggests that if we control others, we do so only in the name of the good, both theirs and ours.
Surely most of us have felt the power of pompous moral judgment at some time or other, even if only in minor ways. For instance, the sheer pleasure of judging people, often but not always those who are not present, is a common feature of almost all social occasions.
I say “pompous moral judgment” as opposed to “moral judgment” because of the element of self-satisfaction. It’s possible to judge other people without feeling better about oneself, but that’s a very rare behavior nowhere as common as pompous moral judgment. And the role of the concept of truth is of course crucial here. The vast majority of pompous moral judgments are untrue. Stereotypes, generalizations, cultural biases, and willful obfuscation of the details are common. Still, some pompous moral judgments are more accurate. These judgments are only pompous to the extent that they make the self-satisfaction or power of the speaker their main goal. The pompous moral judgment doesn’t wish to make positive change so much as it wishes to be identified as the voice of such change.
Without tracing the history of the development of pompous moral judgment, I can still clarify several of its key features.
The conservative version of the pompous moral judgment almost always involves the casting out and destroying of evil. All values and persons who seem opposed to the values and interests of the conservative individual or group get cast in the role of evil and are subject to whatever penalties are deemed proper for the evil they are accused of causing. As a social category, “evil” might be defined as any thought, behavior, person, culture or nation (to use just some likely examples) who deserves punishment. One of the pleasures of the conservative pompous moral judgment is the conviction that one has the right to decide and impose what form this punishment will take.
Unfortunately though, especially for those of us who would like to feel that empathy and sympathy can be connected to significant action, the pompous moral judgment is also a common feature of leftist rhetoric. The usual form taken by the pompous leftist judgment looks something like “I pass this judgment on you because your behavior causes suffering to others,” or even more stridently, “I pass this judgment on you because your behavior doesn’t actively alleviate the suffering of others.” Or, in short, “I pass this judgment on you because you are not doing enough to stop other people from suffering.”
It is not the fact of the suffering of others that makes this rhetorical move a pompous moral judgment. I’m hardly denying that others are suffering. Maybe even we ourselves are suffering, although the fear of pompous moral judgment may make us hesitant to say so, because one main element of the leftist pompous moral judgment is that it is always being made in the name of someone who is more vulnerable, and suffering more, than you—and such a person always does exist. What makes this leftist form a pompous moral judgment is not the fact of real suffering but precisely the degree of self-satisfaction one takes in being able to accuse others of failing others who are suffering.
The fabric of a great deal of public political discourse is often little more than the endless clashing, by day and night, of pompous moral judgments. The right judges others as evil as a way of insisting on their right (and acting on it) to power over them, while the left, acting always in counter-judgment, asserts that the right is, at best, callous, and at worst evil. Because the implication of evil remains possible even in leftist discourse, the conservative and radical modes sometimes become confused, and the leftist form of pompous moral judgment can bleed into the rightist one. In fact the difference between them is often less about content than positioning. The conservative pompous judgment is the voice of power; the radical the voice of resistance to power. And this is true even when the voice of power is conventionally considered leftist, such as when, under authoritarian communist states, it seems radical to insist on the right of the individual to economic or aesthetic self-determination.
Not doubt much that is politically worthwhile does get done by leftist activism, but it is not the pompous moral judgment itself that gets anything done. The pompous moral judgment is never more than a cover story for activities which may be beneficial or harmful. At best, the pompous moral judgment becomes an enabling rhetoric for worthwhile change. At worst, it simply brings another pompous moralist into power.
As might be clear then, one of the ironies of the leftist version of pompous moral judgment is that saying “Your behavior does nothing to alleviate the suffering of others” also does nothing to alleviate the suffering of others.
While the history of the avant garde is at least as fraught with pompous moral judgments as the cultures from which it comes, one key element in that history has been a rejection of the tone of pompous moral judgment, a tone often described as “serious” or “mature,” since pompous moral judgment usually claims that seriousness and maturity belong to itself alone.
It is not, for instance, a lack of pompous moral judgment that makes Duchamp’s urinal almost the essential avant garde gesture. The implication that all art is no more art than an urinal if one calls the urinal art certainly contains within it the violent glee of pompous moral judgement: “I could just as well piss on everything you call art.” What is different about this gesture (and here I’m also noting the maleness of the gesture; it’s a urinal we’re talking about) is the openness of the glee, the childish flippancy of the judgment, and the way the flippancy is linked to a crucial insight. It acknowledges the game element of pompous moral judgment and that art too is a game.
In Umberto Eco’s novel Name of the Rose, it turns out that what pompous moral judgment, and the power it supports, fears most of all is laughter.
Laughter, flippancy, childishness, the gleeful acknowledgment that the game is a game: a critique of pompous moral judgment that doesn’t deny the real consequences of judgment but denies the seriousness of that judgment. It is laughter that insists that the real consequences in question are not the consequences of seriousness but of folly.
There’s danger in laughter too, of course. Laughter can all too easily forget the realness of consequences. The acknowledgment that the game is a game could easily lead someone to keep on playing while being less concerned with the consequences, simply because it is “only a game.” Such a person could easily attempt to return to the child’s naked desire for control with the ruthlessness of an adult. “Power is only a game we play”: a phrase worthy of the mythological Caligula. Who but a desperately pompous adult could play the game with that level of willfully childish viciousness?
As anyone can see, especially those more willing to laugh, my critique of pompous moral judgment contains a new layer of pompous moral judgment in its pleasurable feelings of superiority (which I hope you are currently sharing, along with a bit of discomfort) to the rhetorical game of pompous moral judgment. Even the phrase “Saying that ‘Your behavior does nothing to alleviate the suffering of others’ does nothing to alleviate the suffering of others” does not alleviate the suffering of others. Yet with any luck, I’m playing the game of pompous moral judgment here with a difference. In knowing that the game of pompous moral judgment is indeed a game, and laughing at its foolishness, I’m trying to suggest that it might be worthwhile, sometimes, to play so many other possible things.