The temptation to pontificate and publicly philosophise is one any sane person should avoid. You just end up producing stuff that looks pretty stupid/conceited within a short space of time. Everyone cites Fukuyama’s hubristically titled The End of History as an example of this. They’re right. A 2016 snapshot suggests that while Western-style liberal democracy produces societies that are nice to live in, imposing Western-style liberal democracy on, to pick an example at random, anywhere in the Middle East, tends not to be a success. Possibly the opposite.
So with 3 days till a very very significant US election, and with Brexit being possibly undermined by the kind of people a majority in the nation has had enough of, it’s worth considering – with humility – what our ‘society’ is all about – how did it develop, how it could crash and burn.
There are two themes that I want to emphasise. Two out of many I know, but this is big ticket stuff. First up is morality. Yup. How unfashionable.
If there is no objective standard of morality, then the universe is simply a vast empty wasteland. It does not determine what our values ought to be; rather, we project our values onto it. These values would then not be derived from Nature or Nature’s God. Instead, they would originate with us. But exactly which part of us would tell us what to value? Not reason, since reason (on this account) does not apprehend anything objectively good in the world. No, it would simply be our base wants and desires, which are arbitrarily shaped by our environment. Ethics would be a hopelessly subjective enterprise, driven ultimately by emotion rather than reason. This kind of moral subjectivism often appears, on the surface, to be every bit as dogmatic as the old moralism, but it has a crucial difference: Subjective moral norms are impenetrable to rational scrutiny or argumentation. In a culture that has imbibed this philosophy, public shaming is a more powerful tool than debate, and it is more powerful still to combine shaming with a harsh curtailment of free speech. In many ways, we are seeing this logic play out in our culture in real time.
That was Justin Dyer in a highly intelligent piece in National Review Online, applying the thinking of CS Lewis, specifically from The Abolition of Man. Lewis famously said of universal principles that apply to man:
These then are the two points that I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in
Do we, in this 21st century, still have “have this curious idea that we ought to behave in a certain way**”. I think we do. We certainly adhere to the follow on in that we “do not in fact behave in that way”. Apply these formulae to the current presidential race, it’s all there.
The whole issue of absolute v relative morality was a specialty of one of the heroes of The Knife, the chain smoking, practical anti apartheid, fervent Catholic, hyperintelligent Fellow of All Souls, Sir Michael Dummett. He summed it up beautifully in his description of the moral relativism that surrounds us: “it will bring down a curse upon us worse than that which God called down on the builders of Babel; rather than our speaking different languages, not to be speaking a genuine language at all.”
That Babel fits perfectly with the current hypocrisy of the campaign. It’s quite breathtaking. Dyer continues in his Lewis article with the pay off: One of Lewis’ main contentions in Abolition is that moral subjectivism ultimately undermines the key concepts at the base of all of our political institutions. Natural rights, the value of the individual, the common good, human dignity, and social justice are meaningful only in light of what Lewis called the “human tradition of value”
Serious stuff. So from where did we derive “the key concepts at the base of all of our political institutions”? Which brings me to my second topic, nothing big, just Western Civilization.
I live in the middle of Western Civilization, metaphorically if not geographically. I agree entirely with George Neumayr‘s brilliantly concise take on Europe in 2016: Postmodern high culture’s insouciance about the intellectual and moral foundations of the West has magnified a crisis of civilizational confidence throughout Europe. The false claim that the roots of democracy run no deeper in the cultural subsoil of Europe than the Enlightenment has hollowed out Europe’s understanding of its own worth, by ignoring the contributions made to the modern freedom project by Biblical religion, the ancient Greek confidence in reason, and the classical Roman conviction that the rule of law is superior to the rule of coercive force. A Europe unwilling or unable to give an account of why its idea of the human person and human community is superior to others on offer in the 21st-century world is unlikely to be able to defend itself against external threats, or to cope with those once-external threats that have become internal threats.
You may not like that view, but it’s based on facts, of the kind which are becoming unpopular. Neumayr invokes the Böckenförde dilemma to describe the potential catastrophe which is leading to the populist wave across Europe (and the US). Not that I have a problem with populism, far from it, although it can certainly have unsavoury manifestations: The modern, secular liberal-democratic state rests on a foundation of moral and cultural premises — on a fund of social capital — that it cannot itself generate. Put another way, it takes a certain kind of people, living certain virtues, to make the machinery of democratic self-governance work. So if Europe is suffering from various forms of a democracy deficit, that might well be because it is suffering from a more fundamental social-capital deficit, which is to say, from a moral-cultural deficit. The rest of the West, including the United States, is most certainly not immune to this deficit. But it seems more advanced in Europe, with more immediately visible consequences.
The Böckenförde dilemma is well described as:
..the existential dilemma of liberal democracy, which on one hand contradicts its principles if it does not guarantee the freedom also of those wishing to destroy it, and on the other cannot allow that this destruction be implemented.
I don’t want to conflate morality with religion, they’re separate, however intimately connected. Given next week’s events though, it’s worth noting that back in 1796, in his Farewell Address, George Washington had no such qualms:
Let it simply be asked, where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
So, there you have it. The Knife’s prescription for cultural survival: acknowledge the existence of absolute morality, and understand where we come from.
**If this sounds a bit like ‘conscience’, then maybe it is. For an analysis of conscience v the unconsciousness beloved of Freudians, try the awesome Fulton Sheen, in Peace of Soul