It is a category error to seek to prove whether or not God exists. The one thing we cannot possibly prove about God is that “he” is a not only transcendent but independently existing agency, since we can think and speak about him only with the language that, in anthropological terms, we invented.
But the notion of justice, in the sense of faithfulness to the “moral model” instantiated in the originary exchange of signs, can be defined without concerning ourselves with whether a preexisting God instilled this model in us or whether we invented it ourselves, given that the model itself, in the terms of the originary hypothesis, requires no outside intervention.
While it would be tendentious to assume that everyone has an “innate” idea of God, independently of the teachings of his parents and more broadly his community, it seems obvious that we need no lessons in order to acquire the “sense of (in)justice” that is triggered, within a human/cultural framework, by social arrangements that strike us as unjust, that is, non-reciprocal. This injustice is, in the first place, our own; but the enhanced mimetic ability that made us human allows us to experience injustice on another’s behalf.
The question as to whether we can experience an “act of God” such as an earthquake as an “injustice” may then be seen as a matter of cosmology rather than of morality, which concerns only relations within the human community. To call such a catastrophe an injustice cannot prevent us from distinguishing it from what we regard as the injustices inflicted upon us by other humans. This is made clearer when we identify this sense of injustice as resentment. No one ever resents an earthquake. To resent something is to experience it as a violation of one’s moral reciprocity with other humans.
That resentment can exist only between moral equals is illustrated by the fact that, under the Old Regime (with presumed analogies in other caste societies), the term ressentiment was reserved for the nobility. A noble could resent an insult only from a peer, not a roturier—someone to be whipped rather than challenged to a duel. Such people, equally able to feel resentment, would not have presumed to use a word that at the time suggested a sense of noble outrage.
Today, the world resentment has pejorative connotations, whereas “sense of justice” does not. But it is injustice that one senses, while what strikes us as just in the give and take of everyday civil life is simply its failure to trigger a resentful reaction.
The compatibility of this description of our fundamental moral relations with “common sense” belies the fact that, in the context of what is normally considered moral philosophy, it is altogether revolutionary, embodying a way of thinking that derives uniquely human values from a hypothetical model of uniquely human experience.
The vast literature of reflections on morality, justice, etc., when it does not attribute its “laws” to God, explains them either in metaphysical terms, that is, by a model a priori embodied in language—Kant’s “categorical imperative” being the high point of such formulations—or in relation to our biological-ethological inheritance—whence the search for analogies of moral interactions among higher animals, in the same way as researchers seek the animal precursors of human language.
In the first case, humanity, in its capacity for language and “reason,” must already exist in order that moral principles be understood as other than “instincts,” so that the morality we define is implicit in the instruments by which we define it—in a word, like mathematics, it is fundamentally tautological. In the second, whatever the interest of describing the pre-human precursors of specifically human phenomena, these precursors cannot by definition supply the reason why at some point a particular group of hominins found these behaviors insufficient and were motivated to replace them with the cultural apparatus of humanity itself.
Generative anthropology explains morality both generatively and anthropologically, by reference to a hypothetical event, the experience of which was the foundation of human existence. Those who have remained faithful to this perspective, at least to the extent of reading this Chronicle, should not be surprised that its inherent significance is in inverse proportion to its notoriety. Gresham’s law has rarely been so applicable to foundational thinking as in our time. Who, beyond the official representatives of academic disciplines, has the authority to evaluate the difference between this present writing and the latest outraged tweet? And who would think to wonder, in this day and age, which they would prefer?
In recent Chronicles I have expressed concern with our society’s increasingly unchecked reliance on what I have been calling the epistemology of resentment, which consists in accepting the reaction to perceived injustice as a definitive source of moral rectitude, dismissing the restrictions placed on it by the moral and legal codes with which we are, or once were, familiar. To make this faith one’s motivating principle, which is the central principle of revolutionary “consciousness-raising,” is to declare that any relationship that arouses this reaction, in particular one that embodies stable differences of “privilege,” is prima facie immoral.
As I pointed out in Chronicle 663, the use of the term “wokeness” to describe the “awakening” of the raised conscience is not mere propaganda. Its effectiveness derives from the simple fact that the resentment we are asked to “waken” to is our most primitive human emotion, transcended in the originary event by the reciprocal love of the participants as expressed in their peaceful exchange of signs, but always threatening to return outside the ritual context that reinforces this exchange.
But from an anthropological standpoint, the current experience of wokeness simply demonstrates that no objective criterion allows us to condemn a violation of moral equality, independently of its context in a given community. To use an all-too-timely example, in the mind of a student listening to a professor, there is no a priori measure of the acceptable state of moral equilibrium that one may claim to have had perturbed by a “trigger” of some kind, an equilibrium that presumably becomes increasingly delicate as the student becomes more “woke” to the hidden implications of the professor’s words.
The reason why there have always been religious and legal codes is that resentment is not an instinct, but a cultural reaction, and no such reaction is independent of the community within which it takes place. The existence of a social order requires that in this world, if not in the next, ethics trump morality. When they fail to do so, in order that the community survive, a new order must emerge from the ensuing chaos.
Morality in History
The use of resentment as a political weapon against the Burkean accreditation of traditional norms by the fact of having demonstrated their functionality, in contrast to those imposed ad hoc by the mob, brings to the fore the question of evaluating the eternal tension between ethics and morality in the context of societies less evolved than our own. It has become common to dismiss any form of caste difference (as well as that between the sexes) as a form of “oppression.” Slavery, in particular, is spoken of as a monstrous institution, dismissing its virtual ubiquity until recently in all societies since the Neolithic revolution—not to speak of its perpetuation in different guises today in the non-Western world, in particular, under the various forms of “socialism.” The forced-labor concentration camp, as Hitler would have been glad to admit, was an invention of the Bolsheviks that is still very much in use today.
As for the relations between the sexes, to hear contemporary young people discuss the mores of the past, one would think that the traditional division of labor between men and women was simply the result of “oppression,” sometimes fancifully attributed to a brutal masculine reversal of what had previously been an idyllic matriarchy. Even the fact that men are physically stronger than women is resented as a form of divine injustice. The claim that all these “injustices,” which the labor-saving devices of the modern market economy get no credit for having largely done away with, find their origin in the fact that women bear children is rejected as just one more myth of the patriarchy.
This infantile attitude toward history cannot, unfortunately, be simply ignored. Like wokeness, it reflects a genuine need, such as Rawls’ Theory of Justice attempted to supply: all non-reciprocity among humans must be justified. Yet in the absence of a transcendent commitment to one’s community, mediated by law and custom, there is no love to counter resentment—hence no guarantee that “wokeness” cannot be turned against any socially sanctioned manifestation of firstness.
The word “Marxist” is thrown around a great deal today by both the radicals who profess it and their opponents who denounce it, but Marx would have laughed at a radicalism that, beyond its ignorance of his writings and doctrines, has no notion whatsoever of the economic and political structures of the “socialism” it intends to impose. Marx did not waste his efforts on moralizing about the evils of the different economic systems, but conceived their succession as a dialectical progression. As one who sought to demonstrate the theoretical necessity of capitalism’s supersession by socialism, one can only imagine in what terms Marx would have described the Green New Deal.
A Word on “Race”
As I said in the previous Chronicle, the current wave of thuggery and groveling depends on the fact that until now, the United States, and the West in general, had enjoyed an increasing level of general prosperity, with Daddy and Mommy always there to provide even for our naughty radicals, virtually all of whose misdeeds go unpunished. The real sufferings of the black underclass have been, sadly, since the 1960s a functional part of this prosperity, one whose perpetuation provides a useful distraction from the ultimate “injustice” of meritocracy—that, outside the fantasy of El Dorado, different individuals have different abilities to obtain rewards from any economic system. The only genuine solution to these sufferings lies in the old Booker T. Washington/Martin Luther King reliance on character—as promoted by the best of the charter schools—while doing away with “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Responsible black thinkers like Thomas Sowell, who has just turned ninety, have been making this point for decades, but it is easy to understand how few followers he has found, when fame and fortune are rather on the side of the Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Dinesh D’Souza describes this situation quite well in his Death of a Nation. But if there is one point that I would nuance in his description of the continuity of the Democrat “plantation” from slavery through Jim Crow through Johnson’s Great Society until today, it is that one cannot simply blame one of our two parties for this development. At least since the Hayes administration, it has been more like an element of our political division of labor. That is the grain of truth in our national “white guilt.”
It is in this sense that national prosperity and relative stability have been dependent on “structural racism.” Maintain the black illegitimacy rate and the broad tolerance of black-on-black violence, along with the chaotic and ineffective inner-city public schools, and the rest of the population can purge itself of the subtler forms of resentment experienced in everyday life—when someone else gets the promotion, when someone else gets the girl, or boy, one desires, when one’s life ambitions are not rewarded—by thanking the fates that they are not subject to the far greater pain of “structural racism.”
Of course, the proper expiation for this societal guilt would be to denounce the politics and the policies that perpetuate this black underclass, including those of groups such as BLM and those who condemn mathematics as “white.” The use of euphemisms such as “diversity” makes it harder, not easier, for racial disparities to disappear. Affirmative action should return to its original function: to affirmatively prepare for college and the professions those who have not previously benefited from the best preparation, in order that they may earn higher scores on examinations rather than be given extra points because of their race. Low expectations indeed.
Resentment is, as no reader of Girard should need me to point out, a highly mimetic form of desire. The wave of national indignation over George Floyd is the product of a vast publicity apparatus that singled out this act of apparent brutality. Calling his unfortunate death “murder,” “tragic,” etc., is irresponsible virtue-signaling, unless we use this language for all such deaths, such as those documented by the (black) Hodge twins, who demonstrate the dubiousness of calling this one “racist” (see https://youtu.be/Q6FSoZBujeg ). That no one believes that poor Mr. Floyd deserved to die does not justify or excuse condemning the officer without a trial, let alone the police in general and the whole of American society. Nor will removing President Wilson’s name from a building raise anyone’s SAT score.
What anthropology teaches us is really only common sense, and the tension between Burkean normality and the “sense of injustice” is not subject to any transcendental judgment other than that which the community and its individual members find in themselves. Hence “awakening” others to resentment is not a difficult task.
Yet there is indeed a “sense” that opposes the “sense of injustice,” one yet more primitive than resentment, since it antedates the establishment of the human community: the unease—the panic—that we experience at the breakdown of the social order, and which begins to emerge when we sense that things have “gone too far.”
Given the largely symbolic nature of the “revolution” thus far, we seem to be a long way from that point. The current revolutionaries are not the enraged mobs of the past, led by young people who had been allowed to walk to school by themselves and who sometimes even suffered a black eye in a fight. The most fearsome aspect of the current “cultural revolution” is rather how readily adults that had been presumed worthy of authority have joined forces with it.
It is still too early to speculate about what kind of backlash all the sound and fury may provoke, or on who, aside from the “deplorables,” would be of a mind to participate in it. All I can hope is that they will all find a way to vote on November 3.