A Confusion of Goods

February 13, 2012

Chris is in the process of taking umbrage, albeit very politely, about morality and the role some on the Left believe it plays in politics.  He is objecting to the use of ‘thick’ moral judgements in political discourse; judgements which do not relate to broadly held principles with an intuitive appeal, but rather focus on the mores of a situation or solution to a given problem, and which only achieve traction within a particular cultural or social context. He claims that this leads to a debased political discourse in which accuracy plays second fiddle to winning a hurrah from one’s own group (or political ‘side’). This is contrasted with the use of ‘thin’ judgements (like ‘Inequality is wrong’) to bring people over to your side from another; their universal appeal ostensibly makes this more likely. To Chris, if morality is to have a place in politics, it is in the sphere of ‘thin’ judgements, where a common context makes debate genuinely possible.

There are a number of problems with this analysis, not least the direction of the distinction between ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ judgements. The originator of this distinction, Michael Walzer, sees ‘thin’ judgements as arising from the ‘thick’; particular moral choices made in a particular social context give rise to broader principles, in much the same way as a particular agreement between a king and his rebellious barons, the Magna Carta, gave rise to broader principles around political liberty, while itself being mostly repealed.

Unfortunately for Chris’s argument, these ‘thick’ judgements are the very stuff of political discourse, dealing as they do with the allocation of resources and rights in a particular time and setting. Chris appears to want ‘thick’ judgements to be informed by ‘thin’ agreements between contesting groups, when it is agreements in the thick of it, so to speak, that give rise to the scope for ‘thin’ judgements.

Politics is never timeless, but particular; ‘thin’ judgements are the stuff of philosophy, not of policy debates. A commitment to accuracy in ‘thick’ judgements is separate from the pronouncement of particular judgements in particular contexts and is a ‘thin’ judgement itself. If accuracy is not required to participate in our politics, then this will eventually form a broader principle – but the continued commitment of British commentators to at least the appearance of accuracy indicates that in this ‘thick’ context accuracy is a ‘thin’ principle to which we can all adhere.

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