Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Code Fetishists and Antinomians

Our moral codes must not obscure the personhood of those around us.

The policing and disciplining of disagreement that I have been exploring in two previous posts—first and second—are the product of a massive cultural movement, in the process of development over centuries, that the philosopher Charles Taylor calls “code fetishism” or “normolatry.”

In an absolutely vital essay called “The Perils of Moralism,” included in this collection, Taylor explains that “modern liberal society tends toward a kind of ‘code fetishism,’ or nomolatry. … Code fetishism means that the entire spiritual dimension of human life is captured in a moral code.” This idea is first fully articulated in Kant’s deontological account of ethics, but it had been in the making for hundreds of years before that. “I want to argue that it was a turn in Latin Christendom which sent us down this road. This was the drive to reform in its various stages and variants—not just the Protestant Reformation, but a series of moves on both sides of the confessional divide. The attempt was always to make people over as more perfect practicing Christians, through articulating codes and inculcating disciplines.”

Eventually “the Christian life became more and more identified with these codes and disciplines.” But once that had happened, the Gospel itself became dispensable: all we had to do was to extract the rules from it, and the “values” that produced them, and we were good to go. Thus arise figures who use the codes extracted from Christianity against Christianity: Voltaire, Hume, Gibbon.

And thus also arises an antinomian counter-movement: “Modern culture is marked by a series of revolts against this moralism, in both its Christian and non-Christian forms. … The code-centered notion of order and its attendant disciplines begin to generate negative reactions from the eighteenth century on. These form, for instance, the central themes of the Romantic period.”

Thus modernity, at least since Kant, is characterized by constant tensions and frequent eruptions of hostility between two great opponents, the antinomians and the code fetishists. Most of the fights that afflict social media today are versions of this conflict: just think of the recent skirmishes between the self-described free-speech advocates on Reddit and the opponents whom they refer to as SJWs (Social Justice Warriors).

I think the key lesson to be drawn from Taylor’s account is that code fetishism produces antinomianism: antinomians are people who get frustrated by the code fetishists’ relentless policing and disciplining of disagreement—which the fetishists do because they are trying to build a more just society and think that codification and enforcement of rules is the only way to do it—and believe that a simply rejection of rules is the only way to resist. That is, both sides agree that morality is a matter of rules; but one side thinks that since rules require elaboration and enforcement, and other people are the ones elaborating and enforcing them, they would prefer what they see as the only alternative, a rule-rejecting, morally minimal commitment to freedom.

(At least, that is how the antinomians would describe themselves. The fierceness with which some of them persecute and attempt to silence dissenters—practices detailed in disturbing detail in Sarah Jeong’s new book The Internet of Garbagesuggest that a good many professed antinomians are actually code fetishists of a particular intense variety. Just for the purposes of this post I’m going to take the antinomians at their self-description.)

But what if this is a false dichotomy? What if the code fetishists and antinomians are both wrong, and wrong for the same reason: because they have unwittingly accepted the false idea that “the entire spiritual dimension of human life is captured in a moral code”? What if rule-following doesn’t produce justice, and the antinomians have an inadequate conception of freedom?

In an essay closely related to “The Perils of Moralism”—it even has some of the same sentences—Taylor suggests an alternative to this dichotomy. The essay is his brief but powerful foreword to The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich—a collection of interviews the writer and broadcaster David Cayley conducted with the great polymath in the late 1990s. This “testament” is enormously powerful and provocative itself, but for now I just want to highlight Taylor’s thoughts on Illich.

Taylor zeroes in on an obsession of Illich’s: Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan. For Illich, Taylor explains, “the Samaritan and the wounded man … are fitted together in a proportionality which comes from God, which is that of agape, and which became possible because God became flesh.”

The enfleshment of God extends outward, through such new links as the Samaritan makes with the Jew, into a network which we call the Church. But this is a network, not a categorical grouping; that is, it is a skein of relations which link particular, unique, enfleshed people to each other, rather than a grouping of people together on the grounds of their sharing some important property.

Illich believes that when we forget that what binds us is “a skein of relations,” we fall into a system of rules—we become code fetishists, for whom “the significance of the Good Samaritan story appears obvious: it is a stage on the road to a universal morality of rules.” But for Illich this is a “corruption of Christianity.” Our world looks very different if what matters is not the code we can abstract from a given situation but the situation itself—or, more specifically still, the utterly particular person who stands in front of us.

You can see the ubiquity of code fetishism—the can’t-see-around-it absolutism of normolatry—in Sam Biddle’s reflections on how he helped to ruin Justine Sacco’s life. He says that he apologized to her, but then elsewhere in the post he effectively walks back the apology:

I’ve been asked many times if I would post Sacco’s tweet all over again, and I still don’t know how to answer. Would I post the tweet again? Sure. Would I post the tweet knowing it’s going to cause an incredibly disproportionate personal disaster for Justine Sacco? No. Would I post the tweet knowing it could happen? Now we’re in dicey territory, and I’m thinking of ghosts: If you had a face-to-face sit-down with all of the people you’ve posted about, how many of THOSE would you do again? We’re wading through swamps and thorns, here.

Biddle would only “post the tweet again”—or at all—because he thinks that in it Sacco had violated some significant norm; but he would only hesitate because, having confronted her humanity, he realizes that code enforcement has a tendency to create “incredibly disproportionate personal disaster.” More crucially, he’s horrified by the very thought of scanning his history of social-media acts, because he could discover that he has violated codes himself, and then what would he do? “Swamps and thorns” indeed.

Biddle’s problem is that he is stuck between sensing the limits of normolatry and seeing no alternative to it except an antinomianism that strikes him as somehow irresponsible, perhaps even inhuman. He is morally disoriented by the confrontation with someone’s sheer personhood. He has the first inkling of the possibility that, as Taylor puts it in his summary of Illich’s thought,

even the best codes can become idolatrous traps that tempt us to complicity in violence. Illich reminds us not to become totally invested in the code — even the best code of a peace-loving, egalitarian variety — of liberalism. We should find the centre of our spiritual lives beyond the code, deeper than the code, in networks of living concern, which are not to be sacrificed to the code, which must even from time to time subvert it.

In this light, I think we can see that our dominant social media have a strong tendency to reinforce the normolatry-antinomianism dichotomy, and to obscure the need for “networks of living concern.” To search Twitter or Facebook for people using words you don’t like, or using important words in ways you don’t like; to scroll through a list of tweets or posts that employ a particular hashtag with an eye towards the absurd or offensive; to seek out particularly provocative tweets or posts in order to see how outrageous the replies are—these are the characteristic acts of the code fetishist. I pray you, avoid them.

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.




Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here