Tuesday, June 03, 2008

More on Morality (part 2)

And onward we tread:

This part of Kant's philosophy is quite fascinating, but unfortunately also quite technical. (It also contains some fundamental errors, in my view.) If you're interested in learning more, however, the _Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals_ is probably the best place to start.

I picked up Kant, almost at random, from a library several years ago. The experience proved less than useful, so I don't see myself picking him up again until I've approached his thought from an amateur level. Nonetheless, your suggestion is appreciated.

I'd be happy to debate this, but you'll first have to give some content to your maxim, "the government that govern least governs best." What is the least that a government can govern and still be a government? I'm not sure what the relevant criteria are; but, I still have to say, none of the candidates that I can imagine would make for anyone's choice government.

Briefly, I consider myself a libertarian, and thus a descendant of the classical liberals of earlier centuries--who, I will add, would be appalled by the degradation of their once good name.

Ron Paul, the presidential candidate I support, recently wrote a book that offers a good--and relatively short--primer on libertarian thought. But to summarize the principle in a briefer note, I quote from libertarian columnist Ilana Mercer:

This writer holds that the sole role of a legitimate government is to protect only the inalienable rights to life, liberty and property, and the pursuit of happiness. Why life, liberty and property, and not housing, food, education, health care, child benefits, emotional well-being, enriching employment, adequate vacations, ad infinitum, as promised variously by the remaining (viable) presidential contenders? Because the former impose no obligations on other free individuals; the latter enslave some in the service of others.

This government, that governs least, is one that also governs best. The founders did a reasonably good job of giving us such a government, with the lamentable exception of their toleration of slavery. It is to that form of government that all libertarians long to return.

But the story of the Fall is situated in a mythical pre-history: it doesn't explain anything. And, in any case, how does thinking about evil in these terms help you to minimize its presence in the world?

First, a number of intelligent people, Augustine springs to mind, held the myth to be true. The essential point isn't the talking snake, or the cleverly placed fig-leaves; the central fact is the racial sin of Adam and Eve, of which we all--save Christ and His mother--suffer.

Thinking about evil in terms of the fall is imperative for two reasons. First, it gives us the impetus and the power to mitigate evil by understanding its origin. Turn on any confounded talk show, and in between paternity tests, Oprah and her heirs will be explaining that the evil of which we are all capable is not our fault; it comes from a chemical imbalance in the brain, an absent father, or a drunk mother; being hugged too much--or too little. This placates the sullen masses, but it solves nothing; moving the guilt up a generation only begs the question. Worse, it removes from our view the only thing we can change: namely, ourselves.

Second, as Chesterton points out: "Without the doctrine of the Fall all idea of progress is unmeaning... Unless there is a standard you cannot tell whether you are rising or falling... If you wanted to dissuade a man from drinking his tenth whisky you would slap him on the back and say, "Be a man." No one who wished to dissuade a crocodile from eating his tenth explorer would slap it on the back and say, "Be a crocodile." For we have no notion of a perfect crocodile; no allegory of a whale expelled from his whaley Eden."

I don't ask you to believe in the Fall, but if you do not understand what it represents, you'll never be able to understand Christianity. I can provide a basic reading list if you'd like. I'm not intending to be condescending, but you appear to understand even less of Christianity than I do of your philosophers. You must have attended Catholic school.

Again, no self-respecting atheist invokes the concept of God to explain a positive phenomenon. I suspect the problem here is that you understand evil in theological terms that no atheist would accept. If you define evil as "that which results from the Fall," I simply don't believe in evil. But evil can be plausibly defined in more neutral terms, as I've briefly attempted, in which case it might be explained with reference to psychological disorders or, with a more philosophical conception, in terms of the structure of human action.

Aquinas points out that the existence of evil is the one real objection to belief in God's existence; if you're unimpressed with the objection, we need not dwell on it, but it comes up often enough that I felt compelled to at least address it.

Do you believe humans are capable of willfully and maliciously committing evil? If so, you either implicitly recognize the fall, or you believe that the universe is essentially amoral; beast competes with beast for evolutionary advantage without any regard to ethical concerns. Otherwise you must conclude that those who commit evil do so unawares--the Socratic paradox. I confess an inability to see any other alternatives.

No one is categorically prohibited from self-immolation, but there are very few circumstances in which it would be an ethical action, only in those extreme situations where it is impossible to go on living without surrendering oneself to the worst kind of moral depravity, e.g., in a concentration camp, perhaps, or in some kind of post-apocalyptic scenario where survival is impossible apart from an economy of cannibalization. (My inspiration for the latter: Cormac McCarthy's _The Road_ -- a fantastic read.) Self-actualization, by the way, is not merely one good among others. It's the framework in terms of which ends can appear as goods for us. In any case, if I still seem to be contradicting myself, please explain how.

What good is an ethical system that can't even "categorically prohibit" against "self-immolation"? Really now, you think Hegel and company are superior to Catholicism when you admit you can't even offer a defense against suicide?

The central flaw with your system, which I repeat again, is this: you wish to believe in self-actualization, but this so-called good must be tempered according to the society in which the individual is attempting to actualize himself. But surely you see how these can be in contradiction since there is no guarantee that the desires of the individual fit with his society.

Let us construct a society in which music is forbidden. Enter, stage left, Mozart, who wishes to actualize himself by becoming a brilliant musician. One day, while practicing, the society locks him up for violating basic societal protocol.

Now, either Mozart was wrong in attempting to become a musician, or the society was wrong to restrain him. If society is the higher good, than tyranny is acceptable as long as the society tolerates it. If Mozart's self-actualization is the greater good than "do what thou wilt" becomes the full extent of the moral system.

To take a more modern, and less apocryphal example--though the above is still very much valid--until recently, and for years still in some parts of the country, homosexuals were unable to self-actualize themselves in American society without fear--or worse. Now, who is in the wrong in this example, and why? I sincerely wish this question to be answered.

You're not the first to recommend McCarthy to me. I've made a mental note.

So you concede the point, but sincerely hope that historical trends continue and nothing too terribly bad (worse than the Crusades, the Inquisition, 9/11!) will come of ignoring it?

I concede that man does evil. This, you'll recall, is the ground upon which Christianity was built. Without the Resurrection, our faith means nothing, but without sin, there would be no need for the Resurrection at all.

I sincerely hope that historical trends reverse themselves. Our inability to learn much of anything from the twentieth century, and our refusal to turn to the Church, the only institution capable of resisting and correcting the excesses of man bear ill for us and our progeny.

This strikes me as quite extraordinarily irresponsible, at least from a political or philosophical point of view. (Morally I consider you to be largely in the clear, so long as you are not party to any such outrage and do your best to prevent and condemn them.) What I think you ought to conclude is that -- whatever your private faith -- our political culture needs to be guided by a different set of norms and objectives, fully transparent and publicly negotiated.

To quote Chesterton once again, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." If the only things you can come up with to indict Christianity are the Inquisition and the Crusades--you forgot the St. Batholomew's Day Massacre, by the way--the Middle Ages were one of the heights, if not the height, of human history.

Precisely why should we abandon the Christian ideal? It can hardly be because men sin; Long ago, Christianity proclaimed that men did, and would continue to do so. Moreover, it alone offers men a way of ridding themselves of sin, and even freeing themselves, however gradually, and never completely, from its power. Hegel offers nothing that wasn't revealed in the Cross.

The abandonment of a principle for emotional reasons isn't a legitimate refutation of that principle. Limited government has similarly been abandoned, but it will one day again be esteemed, probably on the other side of the gulag.

Meanwhile, you can't even codify your ethics, and you want to guide society? Your rhetoric is no different than those who ushered in the French Revolution. After two hundred plus years of secular nonsense, and more dead bodies than Christendom could even fathom, it's time to stop pressing ahead to further bedlams. It's time to look back to a Truth too long neglected. Without it, we know full well what lays ahead.

I'm also opposed to totalitarianism, but I don't see how this is relevant to our discussion. You're the one toying with the idea of a monarchy.

Totalitarianism was a word invented by Mussolini to apply to his own government; it's a distinctly modern concept, and one that applies quite well to our current system. Monarchs had power, to be sure, but the biggest tyrant of the Middle Ages held far less power than does the average head of state today. A return to monarchy probably won't solve our problems, but it would at least move the facade of consent and legitimacy which shroud our silly little system. My animosity toward democracy is because it has brought, and continues to bring about, totalitarianism. I would support any system that can provide for a reasonable free society. Universal suffrage and totalitarianism appear to be closely linked; my antipathy toward the former stems from my hatred of the latter.

I believe you when you say that you oppose totalitarianism, but I must point out that a large number of atheist intellects, from Wells to Russell, to the Marxists of the twentieth century, adopted or supported totalitarian ideologies as a way to drag humanity along into their various utopias.

One of the weakest points of your philosophy is that it's simply not going to appeal to more than a few intellectuals. When that happens, will you--and more importantly, those like you--resort to government coercion to enforce your whims? I pray that it will be otherwise, but history demonstrates an appallingly strong recourse to violence among atheist leaders.

The contrast with direct democracy actually helps to underscore the merits of representational democracy. You are right that very few people do know how to run a country, which is a tremendously daunting task becoming more difficult by the year. We need teams of experts to do the research for us and put together a plan, which we -- that is, the public, with the help of the media, its watchdogs, and our experts of choice -- can then scrutinize to assess how well it takes our interests into account.

Americans have been calling for experts to run the government since they were overawed by Wilson's education; later they hailed Hoover as the "great engineer", whose expertise would help produce a better society. The central flaw in this argument is that it presupposes that what prevents government from working well is a lack of knowledge on the part of those who attempt to run it. The real reason government does not work is that most government programs violate the basic laws of the free market.

Depending upon our degree of satisfaction with the status quo, we can involve ourselves as much or as little as we like; we can campaign and run for office on our own platforms, or we can abstain from political life entirely.

We are free to do whatever we wish, as long as we do not question the basic assumptions upon which the system is based. Thus anyone can be president as long as the government continues to: claim a "right" to take a portion of our income; invade foreign countries; spend billions of tax dollars in foreign aid; devalue the currency to profit the plutocracy; leave the important decisions up to the nine unelected judges on the Supreme Court.

There is no discernible difference between the two parties; yet the cries will invariably ensue that this is "the most important election ever". Our choice is between destroying the currency--and the Republic--to bring democracy to the Middle East, or destroying the currency--and the Republic--to bring humanitarian aid to war torn regions of the world, which strangely never works, and provide "free" health care to Americans. Some system!

The candidate most acceptable to the greatest number -- with constitutional protections in place to protect vulnerable minorities -- will take the office, and she will remain accountable to her constituents so long as she values her public image (eventually, her "legacy") and, especially, so long as she wants to be reelected or to be replaced by another member of her political party.

The constitution is dead. There is nothing in the document to prevent the elected representatives and the appointed judged from ignoring it completely; thus that is what they do.
Incidentally, this is the same flaw of Protestantism; a text itself cannot be an authority since men are compelled to interpret it, and do so in conflicting ways.

Politicians, if they don't care only for themselves, can do plenty of damage in the eight plus years, for only the president must endure term limits, with which we grant them power. Bush has done a marvelous job of wrecking the country in eight years; I have no doubt that the next president shall follow suit.

This is not a perfect system, but it is the best I can think of. Dissent, of course, is part and parcel of the democratic process; so your libertarian voice has a recognized place.

Yup. On the Internet.

(Also, I can't resist pointing out, the American "masses" have achieved a degree of cleanliness with no historical precedent, and this has no bearing whatsoever on their rights to be each treated with equal concern and respect by the government. Why would you elect to air this kind of prejudice -- however tongue-in-check -- eludes my understanding.)

I have no idea of what you mean by "cleanliness" in this context. If it regards our so-called rights, I question the "cleanliness" of a society that interned dissidents, or "terrorists", under Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, and Bush--Johnson, too, if memory serves. I further add that a Catholic can only bear through clenched teeth a nation that asserts its moral supremacy while simultaneously undergoing an abortion holocaust in which the death toll stands at over forty-four million.

I deeply love the American nation. My malcontent stems from her rejection of the principles upon which she was so wisely founded, and my utter despair for any positive political change before we reach a stage of collapse.

Not at all. One needn't delve into the messy theoretical details of *why* it's possible to achieve political transformation and cross-cultural consensus in order to effect the positive change.

Name one positive societal change that has occurred from Kantian/Hegelian philosopohy. Name one thing you would like to change about society, and explain how Kant/Hegel would aid you to that end. If you wish, I can provide examples based on the Catholic philosophy.

As for the assertion that atheism is a layover to paganism, I've met plenty of extremely well-educated atheists who are not pagans, and am, myself, a reasonably well-educated atheist, also not a pagan; so I'm going to go ahead and say, contra Chesterton, that your claim is simply false. Yet, if you have an argument to show that we atheists ought, by virtue of our own commitments, to endorse some kind of paganism, I would very much like to see it.

Let me take, for our discussion, Hilaire Belloc's defintion: "Paganism at large may defined as natural religion acting upon man uncorrected [later he substitutes "unsupplemented"] by revelation." (Survivals and the New Arrivals, p.133) I shall do my best to summarize his argument, but it might be worthwhile to read chapter five, which concerns "neo-paganism" in full.

For all your self-assurance about a Hegelian interpretation of Kant providing a cogent system of ethics, you're no closer to answering any of the great questions that plague mankind than were the various noble pagans Dante left in limbo. But unlike Socrates, you seem quite unaware of the fact that there is much that your unaided human reason cannot understand.

Now, you and your associates will probably dive deeper into various philosophical tracts in pursuit of truth. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will tumble merrily onward, completely indifferent to the abstractions of the philosophers. But the rest of the world will not be content to live without faith; man must believe in something. Thus he turns, to science, to a vague spirituality, to political reform, and so on and so forth.

I will provide two further quotes from Belloc which can only hint at his argument. It is worth pointing out, too, that he wrote this less than a decade before the pagan Nazis plunged Europe into horrific war.

"Paganism despairs. Man turned loose finds himself an exile. He grows desperate, and his desperation breeds monstrous things." p. 134

"Before the advent of the Faith, even despair could struggle to be noble. But since the medicine for the despair has been known, those who refuse the remedy turn base." p. 135

The pagans of old were not without sense. After all, they converted.

We see paganism too, in the crowds surrounding the Obama campaign. According to any rational standard, there is nothing in the man which should produce anything approaching the messianic adulation which accompanies him wherever he goes. His oratory skills are better than those of the current commander in chief, but one shudders when considering how Americans would act if confronted with someone like Cicero. To understand the Obama phenomenon, I think, one must remember that man who has lost religion will quickly find another one.

I tend to think that there is a reason the Middle Ages are also known as the Dark Ages, and that "medieval" has acquired a derogatory sense (this in spite of the best efforts of my very sweet and very knowledgeable Dante professor, a specialist in the period).

The reason is that most of our history suffers from a very strong bias in favor of the Enlightenment and thus against Catholicism. Edward Gibbon, for instance, whose influence has been profound, has provided the world with a history well worth reading. Still, as much as I admire his work and enjoy his style, much of it suffers from a fundamental inability to understand the medieval mind. Dante is an apparition in the sense that all geniuses are, but he was a product of the Middle Ages. The Commedia alone should get you to reevaluate your lowly opinion of that wonderful period of human history.

You've demonstrated that history is not your strong suit, which is fine--I am similarly ill-equipped to discuss the minutiae of most philosophical systems--but you should be careful about making broad historical assertions that are demonstrably false. Again, I can recommend some books here, but the essential point is that the term "Dark Ages" has everything to do with who wrote the history books.

All that we need to acknowledge is that, from the fact that a certain institution, ideology, or set of policies kept the peace and maintained social order for some group of people at some certain time, it does not follow that that institution, ideology, or set of policies can do the same for an arbitrary group today. I can elaborate on this, but I think you should be able to see the point without further explanation. Consider, for instance, why not advocate for the Athenian model? (Talk about cultural flourishing!) Or the Ancient Egyptian? (Talk about cultural longevity!) So again, I happily acknowledge the many contributions that the Catholic Church has made to our civilization, but its political performance in the Middle Ages does not establish (does not even begin to establish) that it could enjoy similar success today.

I consider the Reformation, and the subsequent "cleaving of Christendom", in Warren Carroll's phrase, to be one of the saddest tragedies of history. This may seem odd, or even cold, given the significant violence which has occurred in subsequent centuries, but the modern world would be entirely different had the Church not been fractured. The tragedies of the post-Reformation world can all be traced back to the posting of Luther's grievances--though, of course, it would be absurd to blame him for everything he unintentionally let loose upon the world.

The problem with your analogies is that neither Athens nor Egypt offered the world what the Church still offers the world, even as many have forgotten Her. Now, if you really want to revive Athenian democracy, I can explain why I think this would be a bad idea, but the fact of the matter is, no one is all that interested in reviving Athenian democracy. A return to a Faith that literally means universal, on the other hand, will be called for until the end of time. The Catholic Faith is the timeless antidote to the problems which confront mankind.

I suppose you could say that the most general principle remains the same: promote flourishing, reduce suffering. But I'm reluctant to say that cavemen share a morality with us because of how differently they realized this ideal, how much drastic change there has been in the possible content of the good life available to us, and how changed are the conditions under which we pursue our various conceptions.

There are two problems to this line of thinking. First, unless you're counting revelation as a positive influence on morality--which runs counter to your whole argument--I see no proof that morality has improved in the slightest. Sometimes men honor the elderly and kill their neighbors; other times they produce great art and leave their deformed young to die; often they tolerate slavery and engage in promiscuity.

Second, I must reiterate, that without some standard with which we may judge morality, all conception of progress is meaningless. An improvement in ethics requires some static point of reference.

I'm sorry that this has gone long, but I wished to be as thorough as possible. As always, I await your response.


PJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PJ said...

Hi Eric,

Yes, with regards to the length, I think we're pushing up against the limits of our format; we're each too well entrenched in our respective positions to be persuaded by anything less than a thoroughly systematic rebuttal of the same. I do still intend to respond, at least in brief, to what I see as the main points that you raise above, and then to attempt to sum up a few things more generally (with the usual apologies for my delays).

What I wanted to do in the meanwhile is make a suggestion for another way of proceeding. How would you feel about reading and discussing a text in political theory? My thought is that this is the realm in which we're most likely to reach some consensus (also: the realm in which it is most important that two people like ourselves be able to reach some consensus). The two candidates I have in mind are John Stuart Mill's _On Liberty_ or John Rawls' _Justice as Fairness: A Restatement_. Both are about 200 pages. I'd be happy to entertain other possibilities, if these seem too far from the libertarian wing of the tradition.

I'm currently reading J├╝rgen Habermas's _Theory of Communicative Action_, which is quite relevant, but almost certainly too long. I should mention, though, his dialogue with Joseph Ratzinger, published as _The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion_, which is another option of a different kind.

Let me know --

A Wiser Man Than I said...

How would you feel about reading and discussing a text in political theory?

I think that is an excellent idea.
The only caveat is that I am in the midst of a bet which precludes me from purchasing any books. I'll talk to the fellow with whom I am betting and see if he'll allow for a substitution.

Alternatively, I could simply give in, though I'd prefer to avoid that option. I'm sure this must strike you as a bit ridiculous, but at the very least it's been amusing to see how dependent I've become on acquiring new books.

The two candidates I have in mind are John Stuart Mill's _On Liberty_ or John Rawls' _Justice as Fairness: A Restatement_. Both are about 200 pages.

At first glance, I'd prefer Mills, but I would gladly read either.

Also, I'd like to reiterate that I intend to become more familiar with Kant and Hegel, but I'm simply not ready to read either of them at this moment. But looking ahead to later volumes, Durant provides twenty pages on Kant alone, and 15 on Hegel. Being a philosopher by trade, I have no doubt he shall help me contextualize both of them--as he did with Plato and Aristotle. Alas, that day is still months away.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Oh, I'd like to add that if we do decide to turn this into a literary discussion, it may be worthwhile to either give you posting privileges at this blog, or create another one whereat we can both post.

PJ said...

Wonderful! Let's read _On Liberty_, then. As it's in the public domain and freely available online, you needn't even purchase it to read.

I should mention, too, that I'm going to be away this next week and won't be online. But I should be able to make a dent in Mill during this time, and hopefully complete a response to your last post.

Just let me know if I need to do anything to accept or make use of posting privileges. To create another blog or forum seems unnecessary, unless that's your preference.

I look forward to the discussion --