Moral Inversion and America Today

Last week, I sketched out some main points of Michael Polanyi’s Science, Faith, and Society. [1] One aspect of his thought I neglected was his notion of “moral inversion.” This past week, Americans have seen the impact of the way in which the materialistic, power-orientation of our society causes a moral inversion in many people in which terrible acts of violence seem justified to a rootless moral conscience. As last week progressed, we saw nationwide riots, causing unbelievable damage based upon moral outrage concerning the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In the mind of the rioters, and those who have supplied the funds and encouragement for the riots, they are justified as a response to perceived American racism.

In his writing, Polanyi outlines a process he terms “moral inversion,” which he believes is a common characteristic of totalitarian régimes on the right and the left. Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and Communist China all were powered by an extreme moral energy unconnected with any form of traditional morality. Moral inversion, Polanyi believes, is the demonic power behind dehumanizing and violently social movements and the oppressive governments they create. For all the destruction they create, the leaders of these movements they understood themselves utopian visions of the common good. [2] Moral inversion is not limited to totalitarian regimes.

Moral Inversion

What is moral inversion? Polanyi believes that the strong demand for moral perfection characteristic of Christianity, when combined with the materialist reductionism of modern thought that ends in an objective moral nihilism, results in reason and morality that works in a destructive way. [3] In his book, Logic of Liberty, Polanyi describes the phenomenon (speaking of Russian Marxists and German Nazi’s) as follows:

“In such men, the traditional forms for holding moral ideals had been shattered and their moral passions diverted into the only channels which a strictly mechanistic conception of man and society left open to them. We may call this the process of moral inversion. The morally inverted person has not merely performed a philosophic substitution of moral aims by material purposes, but is acting with the whole force of his homeless moral passions within a purely materialistic framework of purposes.” [4]

Human beings are by nature  motivated by moral passions. When by education or training they are denied an intellectual ground for their moral passions, these passions, like a river that has run out of its banks, flow in an uncontrolled flood into whatever channel lies conveniently at hand. In modern, materialistic societies, that channel has been revolutionary action designed to create a new society along strictly materialistic notions. Communism or some form of national socialism has been the preferred channel. The disasters of the 21st Century have been powered by a moral energy resulting from this rechanneling of moral passions in a destructive way.

Moral Inversion and Hypocrisy

There is no critique of Christianity more common than the complaint that Christians are hypocrites—that is to say the Christians do not live up to the high moral ideals of Christ which they profess to admire. This is, of course, true. One only needs to read the Beatitudes to see that Christ upholds a moral standard to which we may aspire, but will not ever obtain. The perfectionistic impulse of Christian faith is responsible for a great deal of the moral progress of Western Civilization. Nevertheless, among those afflicted with a loss of faith, or no faith in moral ideals at all, this inability of Christians to achieve their ideals, can become a breeding ground for moral inversion powered by a feeling that traditional morality is hypocritical. This is made more dangerous by the postmodern charge that all moral claims are merely bids for power.

With the Enlightenment, and its exaltation of critical reason, Christian faith and morals were placed under the dissolving power of reductionistic, critical thinking. The materialism of the modern world, with its reduction of all reality to material particles and forces acting upon that reality eventually led to the critique of Nietzsche, that God  (spirit) was an illusion, that Christianity was a slave religion, and that the Will to Power was the final characteristic of all sound moral reasoning. This leads directly to the terrible irrational immorality of contemporary politics where winning is everything and any action however immoral is justified if it is in furtherance of a moral ideal held by a particular group.

Morality as Preference

The reductionist character of modern thought is seen in the tendency of the left (public morals) and the right (private morals) to reduce and constrict moral thinking to personal preferences. It is a short step from this position to a decision for a single moral good to the detriment of other, seemingly less important moral goods. [5] On the evening news this week, we have seen played out the view that eliminating racism is the supreme moral good, and other moral duties, such as protecting the rights of the accused to a fair trial, the duty of the prosecutors to investigate carefully before bringing charges, the rights of businesspersons to their property and businesses, the rights of the public to safe streets, etc. can and should be abandoned in the search for one single moral good. [6]

A Society Characterized by Moral Inversion is Unstable

It should be obvious that the views of Antifa, the violent looters, and the media egging them on are incompatible with the freedoms they purport to be advancing. A society built on terror will simply be a terror to everyone, good, bad, rich, poor, powerful, and powerless.  I was able to travel in Russia just after the fall of Communism. Communism was physically, morally, and spiritually impoverishing to everyone. What we see playing out on the streets of our cities in America is exactly the phenomena that lead to millions of deaths under Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pot Pol, all of whom played upon the moral sentiments of their people and created unmitigated horror and suffering for all.

This past week, I had the opportunity to visit my parents grave in the Missouri Veterans Cemetery in Springfield Missouri. Just across from their urn is a bronze copy of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. One single line caught my eye:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. [7]

As I stood at my father’s grave and pondered his leaving home for World War II, and the sacrifices he and my grandfather made in the defense of our freedom, the words “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain” rang through my mind. If we do not defend freedom and a free society in our time—not parts of it, but all of it—then our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and all those that preceded them, who sacrificed for the freedoms we enjoy will have been in vain—and a government of the people, by the people, and for the people will perish from the earth.

The moral outrage of the left, and the constant charge of “Nazism” against those who resist them betrays the deranged nature of their thinking. As I reminded a friend this week: from the beginning of the Trump Inauguration, the violence, the burning of cars in Washington, the deceitful bringing of charges that were privately known to be untrue against the President and his administration, the fiasco of the impeachment, the dishonesty of the Justice Department and other agencies, the conniving of the last administration instead of organizing a peaceful and honest transfer of power,  the refusal of college campuses to allow Christian and Conservative thinkers to speak, even the trivial fact that my neighbor can safely wear her Biden button in public, but other friends are in physical danger if they wear a “Make America Great Hat,” are telling. These, are not the acts of people who love our country and are seeking to maintain its institutions. They are the actions of a twisted and inverted morality, lacking in a moral ground and acting with an unhinged passion. They are the actions of New Brown Shirts and their morally bankrupt leadership.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Science Faith and Society: A Searching Examination of the Meaning and Nature of Scientific Inquiry (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1946).

[2] D. M. Yeager, Confronting the Minotaur: Moral Inversion and Polanyi’s Moral Philosophy (downloaded June 1, 2020). This is article is a critical examination of the Polanyi’s ideas.

[3] This is not the place for me to outline the long line of moral reductionism that ends in a Marxist denial of any morality unconnected to material process. Nor is it the place to discuss the movement of the Enlightenmnet towards nihilism, first fully exposed by Nietzsche and his concept of the Will to Power. Suffice it to observe that modern Western Society, lacking a transcendent faith in the reality of moral values has entered a period of moral nihilism, that can impact even those who deny that they accept it. The power orientation of our culture is a part of its plausibility structure. See,  Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1991)

[4] Michael Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty (Indianapolis Indiana, Liberty Fund, 1998), 131.

[5] The Christian author, C. S. Lewis speaks of this tendency for contemporary people, to discount the vast interlocking web of morality, which he sometimes calls the Tao, to exalt one moral principle to the detriment of the moral law as a whole. On the right, this has led to a preference for public morality, and on the right a preference for private morality. See, David Rozema, Lewis’s Rejection of Nihilism: The Tao and the Problem of Moral Knowledge” in  Pursuit of Truth | A Journal of Christian Scholarship (September 28, 2007, downloaded June 4, 2020).

[6] I do not by this want to be seen as not believing that moral protest against racism is wrong. It is not. I also do not minimize the activities of political opportunists and terror groups that may have contributed to the problems we are currently experiencing. These groups use the moral inversion of others for purely selfish purposes.

[7] Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address” November 19, 1863.


3 thoughts on “Moral Inversion and America Today”

  1. Thank you Chris for caring about this nation and for making some very good points. I too was struck with the profoundness of the Gettysburg Address that morning in Springfield. I think you, or I, should submit this to the Epoch Times, which in its uniqueness, promotes articles that speak truth for the good of all.

  2. Hi Chris,
    I have not heard the term moral inversion. I understand the concept, though. It is frightening to see people portraying themselves as acting for justice as they commit heinous acts of killing, looting and burning. I do respect the peaceful rallies as that is our right to do so. There is a counter movement supported by groups who want to destroy our country entering into all realms to do this. I pray that the core of our country sees and responds to this manipulation whose goal is to rid democracy in favor of what they call “Utopia.”
    It is anything but that. May God’s Spirit intercede and open the eyes of the people to the right solutions to these evil manipulators.
    Charlie & I hope all is well with you and Cathy.
    Peace in Christ. Carolyn Forr

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