The dead end of moral individualism

Guardian reporter Helen Davidson wrote in January of a massive expansion of “orphanage tourism” (Westerners going abroad to help or adopt orphans) in Cambodia. Surely such selfless, Angelina Jolie-style generosity is a beacon of hope in a bleak world?

Not quite. As it turns out, Western do-gooders are funding a multi-million dollar enterprise that creates orphans. Over the last five years, “orphanage tourism” has led to a 75 percent increase in the number of orphanages. Children are being sold into what UNICEF’s Rana Flowers describes as an “incredibly abusive and exploitative” system.

To the economic free-marketeers, this is good example of supply meeting demand. To the rest of us, it is an apparent paradox: an attempt to do good that ends up achieving the opposite.

How to make sense of this contradiction? To begin with, the only real power we seem to have is that over our personal conduct. Although we aspire to social change, any action begins with a personal moral choice to take a stand. Of course, when moral outrage drives people to demonstrate or organise at work, it pushes over into collective action and towards political thinking. The moral vision isn’t lost, but provides force for something more powerful.

The individualist starting point carries a risk. It’s all too common for a moral gesture or lifestyle choice to masquerade as a solution. In this way, an apparently ethical stance becomes self-serving. The German philosopher Friedrich Hegel, keenly aware of this problem, discussed a number of individual types who embody it.

The “knight of virtue” was his name for one. These ethical individuals have a vision that the system can be used to pursue good. So we get “ethical entrepreneurship”. The ethical entrepreneur’s business model incorporates those who are seen as needy – “third world” producers or the homeless, for example. When a normal business pays its workers or producers, it is called a wage. When an ethical business does the same, it is called “community empowerment”.

But an ethical business is still a business; it still must compete in the market and pay its “producers” less than the value they create for the enterprise. But given that its products often are more expensive, it relies on a related species: the ethical consumer or investor. These people buy absolution in the form of “fair trade” coffee, quirky handicrafts and “ethical” stock portfolios.

Notwithstanding that the Vatican pioneered the sale of such “indulgences” hundreds of years ago, everyone feels happy – except those who are trapped as exploited victims. Microfinance is an example of this. Hailed as “empowering”, microfinance enterprises in India granted loans of as little as $US100 to ultra-poor slum dwellers otherwise incapable of qualifying for loans. “India’s microfinance sector was once touted as a saviour of the poor and a good bet for investors …”, noted the Economist in 2013. “Things went downhill fast.” There were scores of suicides of small farmers. “It is alleged that they were hounded to their deaths by lenders’ coercive recovery practices.”

Not all ethical businesses are so disastrous, but none can escape the fact that inequality and marginalisation are necessary parts of their business model. In a way, it’s like drug dealers running rehab centres.

A more radical individual type is the “virtuous conscience”. In the past, these advocates of a moral lifestyle could be found leading crusades against alcohol and obscenity, and preaching salvation through Jesus. Today, they aren’t so interested in Jesus – but they still harbour an almost perverse interest in consumption and obscenity. Thus, you get lifestyle-ism, identity politics and privilege checking.

Taken to an extreme, the virtuous conscience can descend into what Hegel called the “insanity of self-conceit”. For example, an obsession with “calling out” privilege leads to fragmentation and marginalises the uninitiated. But this needn’t bother the virtuous conscience. The more humanity is mired in sin, the more the virtuous conscience can feel saved.

The final type of moral individual is the “beautiful soul”. Despairing of changing the world, the beautiful soul retreats into the conviction of its own goodness. This isn’t as hard as it sounds. To the beautiful soul, war is caused by hatred. Inequality is caused by greed. The problem with politics is negativity and deceit. So, the key is to embrace the opposite values. This wisdom is all the more compelling if attributed to a Buddhist monk or a Native American shaman.

This type of thinking isn’t marginal – the statement by a young Greens candidate for Manly in last month’s NSW election bemoaned cynicism and negativity in politics, and pointed out that idealism and naivety “can only contribute positively to our political culture”. In many ways, the beautiful soul is the least serious. For them, morality is just window-dressing: vacuous exhortations to “be swept away in the wake, or stand up and be counted” (by voting for yet another aspiring politician) shows only the beautiful soul’s reconciliation with the world as it is.

The thread running through these examples is that they all are stuck on the level of moral individualism. Taking a moral stand might be a starting point, but if morality doesn’t rise to an understanding of the system, it not only fails to change capitalist society – it helps reinforce it.