on the moral peril of cliché and what to do about it

1. It’s likely that the moral beliefs and precepts that should guide us are unoriginal. Billions of people have already thought about the same matters; it’s unlikely that any of us will hit a new theme that has merit.

2. To shun moral ideas that are clichés would mean putting oneself above duty and justice for aesthetic reasons. That is immoral. It is a form of aesthetic immoralism common in modernism and post-modernism.

3. But clichés have moral drawbacks. Because they are well-known and well-worn, they lose their psychological force; we can ignore them. (Think of a phrase like “war is hell,” and how little it influences us.) Because they sound right and are easily portable, we can apply them where they do not belong, committing Whitehead’s Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. We are especially likely to misuse them to excuse and justify ourselves, because we are fierce advocates for own cause. As George Eliot’s narrator remarks in Middlemarch, “the use of wide phrases for narrow motives” is a common human frailty. Eliot adds, “There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men.”

4. The solution, I think, is to regard one’s own moral worldview not as a list of precepts (each of which will be a cliché), but as an intricate network of ideas and implications, some general and some concrete, many in tension with each other. Only the most concrete and particular elements will be original–coming directly from your own experience. The general ones will be, for the most part, clichés. But the overall structure will be unique to you and should demand your attention.

(I treat these issues at probably excessive length in Reforming the Humanities and in a longer post “on the moral dangers of cliché.”)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.