Can Rightists Be Moral?

A provocative new book maintains that morality and liberalism go hand in hand. But red morality, together with those who advocate it, is disappearing

Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban and Prime Minister Netanyahu, in 2017.
Haim Zach / GPO

“How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Ariel Sharon,” a documentary film by Avi Mograbi, depicts the hesitations of a radical left-wing filmmaker who decides to cover the election campaign of the politician most hated by the Israeli left. It was the period before the 1996 election, and in Mograbi’s eyes Sharon was the most dangerous person on the right – responsible for the settlements, for the Lebanon War and for the Sabra and Chatila massacre. But when he spent time with Sharon – who at the time was running for Knesset on the Likud list – and got close to him, he discovered that the person he’d loathed for decades could be a nice guy. The overbearing general turned out to be a good-tempered fellow who liked classical music and lived with his wife in exceptional harmony.

During one of the high points of the film, Mograbi speaks by phone with a friend, who says something quite amazing to him: People on the right are nicer. “There are many more affable people on the right than on the left – you didn’t know, because you’re on the left,” she explains to him, undermining the very foundations of his existence.

Are right-wingers nicer than left-wingers? Not necessarily, but maybe so. The notion that people on the left are delicate creatures who aren’t capable of hurting a fly fails the test of reality. Nor are left-wingers “good people” who are out to disseminate grace and decency wherever they may be. Those traits belong, perhaps, to the legends of the righteous.

Leftism is a political path that strives to achieve certain goals, such as equality, liberation from oppression and the just distribution of resources. History shows that the means to attain such aims can be pleasant, but also aggressive and even extremely violent. Nevertheless, the image of the “nice leftist” is a widespread one, thus creating unfair expectations among people who belong to that political camp. Because, when a left-winger turns out to be “not nice” or “not moral,” he is immediately accused of being hypocritical and two-faced.

Some will argue that politics and morality are two separate realms with no necessary connection between them: One can espouse political views of one kind or another, and be a moral person. But there is another way of looking at it. In a newly published book (in Hebrew), “No Moral Ground: On the Poverty of Ethics,” philosopher Anat Matar puts forward a provocative thesis: that morality is left-wing.

In her book, Matar, a political activist who is known for her struggle on behalf of Palestinian political prisoners and Israeli conscientious objectors, takes issue with several modern philosophers of morality and ethics. She objects particularly to the attempt to set general moral principles, and to determine on their basis how to live and which are the worthiest political positions. In her view, “The shoulders of the accepted moral approach are too narrow to serve as a base for political thought and political activity.”

If so, how can we decide what the worthy outlook is? According to Matar, there is no point in aspiring to an objective, unbiased moral stance, because human beings are “political animals, self-interested and active.” Thus, every moral viewpoint is necessarily motivated by a political interest. The abstract morality that purports to be universal is simply the morality of victors. The left-wing approach is the backstop of ethics, and not vice versa, as is usually thought.

Like several philosophers since Nietzsche, Matar shows that liberal moral philosophy, which purports to be free of prior assumptions, is actually religious in disguise. Even if it presents itself as a secular approach, God can be found at its base. Abstract morality was ostensibly severed from its Christian roots. In the premodern era, morality was closely associated with religion. Anyone who did not belong to the Church or to some other religious community, could not be considered a good person. In a godless world, Matar offers the left-wing ethos as a kind of alternative root of morality. Even if she doesn’t say so explicitly, she presents the left-wing community as something of a modern substitute for the Church; for her, there is no moral redemption outside the left.

Matar deserves praise for shattering the supposedly self-evident notion that politics should be subordinate to morality. This is a courageous position, which can hardly be taken for granted in an era when people worship ethical codes and the empty ideal of “decency.” But it bears noting that in previous periods in the history of the left, Matar’s arguments would have been considered almost self-evident. By this I am referring primarily to the Marxist-Leninist conceptual world. The Bolsheviks viewed conventional morality as an ideology serving the bourgeois class. But the Bolshevik case also illustrates the low point that’s liable to be reached by an outlook that posits victory in the class war over morality. The history of the left is studded with similar nadirs – and not only in the Soviet Union.

The left-wing thinkers praised by Matar generally acted from a heroic minority position. But it bears mentioning that some of those dauntless socialist intellectuals in the German-speaking world, for example, became ruthless executioners after World War II – or, in other cases, fell victim to that same morality that is colored red.

Into the abyss

Puzzlingly, Matar asserts that today, “it is quite clear to every sensible person which struggles are worthy of being described as ‘moral.’” True, in her view there are moral quandaries that are as yet undecided, such as “confrontations between feminist and trans groups over the use of public toilets,” but these are exceptions. She is undoubtedly aware that in the 20th century, left-wingers slaughtered one another over different interpretations of the same left-wing message. Actually, that happened not only in the last century: It’s enough to recall the debate that raged in the most recent decade between radical left-wing circles about the proper attitude to be taken toward the war in Syria, or toward the Arab Spring as a whole, in order to ascertain that Matar’s confidence in the clarity of the left-wing position is too hasty.

Another problem is that there isn’t much import to left-wing morality in a world in which the left-wing camp is fading away. Matar crosses swords mainly with liberal or moderate philosophers, such as Martha Nussbaum or Emmanuel Levinas and his followers. The right, and certainly the extreme right, is outside the sphere of the discussion, and the rival is the liberal intellectual. That stance may have been appropriate for the situation that existed in the 1990s, and perhaps in the decade before it, in which liberalism was the hegemonic ideology. The present-day world has become, to a large extent, right wing, nationalist and conservative, and the left-wing camp – liberal or radical – has become depleted and is even vanishing in many places. Red morality, together with the community that bore its standard, has become almost extinct in large areas of the globe.

Toward the end of the book, Matar, too, admits that we are on a course of “ongoing deterioration into the abyss, both political and ecological,” and raises the frightening possibility of a post-left world. At the same time, she seems not to consider the meaning of morality and politics in this harrowing situation, which, indeed, should be a point of departure for all thought in the 21st century.