Archive for the ‘After Virtue’ Category

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 5)

June 16, 2019

Interestingly (to me at least) the very nihilism at the heart of the Republican administration which is putting together this panel actually suggests an argument that something like this is actually necessary.[i] According to Alasdair MacIntyre, it was inevitable that Western culture would collapse into Nietzschean nihilism once it ceased to base morality in the values of a particular culture. The Enlightenment dream of a universal ethics valid for all persons qua persons was a fantasy from the start. All morality has to be rooted in and derived from some vision of human flourishing. The virtues recommended by that ethics are the character traits that aid in living the sort of “good life” embraced by that particular culture. Outside of any social context, those virtues are arbitrary and unsustainable. Unless you embrace the sort of eudaimonia prized by Athenian gentlemen, the Aristotelian virtues such as bravery, self-control and pride won’t make any sense. An Augustinian Christian’s virtues such as humility and universal love would seem absurd to Aristotle, just as some of his virtues would seem to be nothing more than “glittering vices.” In MacIntyre’s understanding of the history of Western thought, the Enlightenment project of basing ethics on universal reason alone apart from all religious, national or other communal standards was doomed from the start, and in fact cut the foundation out from under human moral thought. The result was emotivism, where moral language simply collapsed into a contest of wills, each individual attempting to get everyone else to feel the way he or she felt about whatever point was being debated. From this point of view (sometimes called “communitarian ethics”), the moral nihilism of Donald Trump and the Republican Party is simply an open acknowledgment of the fact that God is dead and has been for a long time, and all the lofty claims by liberalism to seek universal ethical standards has simply been a fraudulent attempt to impose the standards of their group on everyone else through trickery and persuasion. The notion of “human rights,” from MacIntyre’s perspective, would be rights as defined by a certain group using a certain understanding of human nature, but using language that asserts their view to be the only legitimate one. Conservatives, in this view, are simply more honest in relying on political and physical force rather than sophistical argument.

If MacIntyre offers a reason to doubt the common notion of “human rights” as a culturally and religiously neutral, universal ethical standard, then MacIntyre also offers a solution that would cast more doubt on the legitimacy of the State Departmet’s human rights panel as presented in the press. In his essay, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” MacIntyre argues that loyalty to one’s own group is the cardinal virtue, the one essential quality for any further moral life.[ii] The virtues stem from one’s vision of the good, fulfilled, “happy” human life; and that vision of human flourishing is conveyed to one by one’s particular culture. Without a particular culture, one has no human ideal to seek to live out, hence no virtues as habits enabling that good life (or vices to lead away from it), no moral roots, and one’s moral life simply withers away. Each of us are products of our culture, and our vision of the good life comes from that culture. However, MacIntyre says, that does not mean that everyone in the culture agrees on everything. For example, he points to Adam von Trott, who was involved in a plot to kill Hitler.[iii] Trott did not act out of commitment to some abstract universal morality; he acted because he felt the Nazi leadership of Germany had betrayed German values and German culture and had to be stopped. On this view of patriotism, “dissent is patriotic,” if it is rooted in core values of the community itself and aims to perfect the community as a project. To discover those core values in any community, one would have to look not only at its explicit claims but at its overall history and trajectory, what that society valued as shown in its deeds and its aspirations and what it seemed to be striving towards.

By this standard, conservatives today seem to be going astray; they do not discover and live out their country’s values, but try to recreate it in terms of some other, smaller community’s project. For example, conservatives in America today do not study history; they rewrite it. Even in the communitarian view, facts are facts; what value one puts on those facts may be another matter. And the facts are that the leaders of the American Revolution, the “Founding Fathers,” studied and quoted Enlightenment philosophy, particularly social contract thinking inspired by Rousseau and Locke. They distrusted religious extremism, what we would call “fanaticism” and which they called “enthusiasm.” They embraced the scientific, empirical investigation of truth. Many (roughly half) were Freemasons, embracing a religious liberalism that rejected sectarian or what we would call “fundamentalist” spirituality; a good many were not even Christian, but rather Deists. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, the three men selected by the Continental Congress to write the nation’s Declaration of Independence, were religious liberals. Jefferson, who is credited with describing the “separation of Church and State” as a “wall” between the two, was the third president of the United States; yet in conservative circles he is treated as an outlier and unimportant fringe thinker compared to Aquinas despite the fact that only two Catholics signed the Declaration of Independence.[iv] In an attempt to undermine “liberal” and “Democratic” importance in American history, the Christian Reconstructionism or Christian Dominionism promoted by such religious conservatives as Rousas Rushdooney and Jerry Falwell has sought to present the American revolution as a conservative revolution against a liberal monarchy. In fact, it is no coincidence that both the British Conservative party and the Americans who supported King George III were called “Tories.” So when Pompeo says the State Department’s new panel on human rights will seek to express “our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights,” this seems disingenuous. The overall thrust of conservative efforts, including those by some people on the panel, has been not to return to the principles of the Founding Fathers, but to rewrite them. A better way for such a committee to establish “our nation’s founding principles” would be to include historians who could review the personal views and public writings of our Founding Fathers, as well as seminal texts such as the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech and other documents that have contributed to the wider civil religion of the USA.

To be continued….

[i] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue second edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pp. 1-78

[ii] Alasdair MacIntyre, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” in Morality and Moral Controversies, ninth edition, ed. by John Arthur and Steven Scalet (Pearson Education Inc., NY 2014) pp. 405-410; originally presented in The Lindley Lecture, Department of Philosophy, University of Kansas (1984).

[iii] “Patriotism,” p. 408

[iv] For example, Brian Thevenot, “TribBlog: SBOE vs. the Media,” The Texas Tribune March 22, 2010 (https://www.texastribune.org/2010/03/22/sboe-removes-thomas-jefferson-blames-media/). The actions described here are by no means unique to Texas, but are representative of conservative rhetoric for at least the last several decades.

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pt.3

April 4, 2015

In the elder days of art

Builders wrought with greatest care

Each minute and unseen part, 

For the Gods are everywhere.

—-quoted by Harry Frankfurt

I first read After Virtue in 1988, about four years after the second edition was published. It holds up remarkably well. If anything, the early 21st Century culture buttresses his argument that we live today in a Nietzschean/Weberian emotivist society. MacIntyre argued that in the late 20th Century moral language had degenerated into a contest of wills, and claims to moral truth were employed as disguised attempts at manipulation. In the 21st Century, claims to objective empirical truth are likewise emptied of real content, and instead employed as weapons to dominate the other. One example seems to be the climate debate. This is largely a factual debate, it would seem, though it is treated as a moral debate because one group claims its property rights and individual liberties are at stake, while the other claims it is harmed and threatened by the selfishness of the first. In this debate, the factual claim was made that scientists who argued that human activity is a leading cause of climate change for the worse were engaged in a vast conspiracy to gain grant money by purveying falsehoods.[1] But when a major denier of this claim is found to have been funded by the fossil fuel industry, this is not taken as refuting the claims of “climate deniers.”[2] The mere suspicion that “those guys” had mercenary motives was enough to discredit them; but the admission that “our guy” has financial motives does not trigger any self-doubt or retraction, because the factual claims themselves are irrelevant. They were only rhetorical stratagems, not true factual claims.

Whether or not one sides with the 97% of climate scientists who believe human activity is altering global climate for the worse, any objective observation must admit that when someone claims the 97% are all part of a vast conspiracy while rejecting stronger evidence that the 3% are themselves paid to support the opposite view, that is prima facie evidenced that something is going on besides a disagreement over fact claims regarding economic entanglements.   The claim of a vast conspiracy by scientists to fabricate climate evidence was really a rhetorical weapon disguised as a fact-claim, just as the emotivist argues that claims to moral truth are merely rhetorical weapons or tools. Emotivism has grown from a moral theory to an epistemological principle, at least in the popular culture. We have moved from being a culture that no longer believes in “good” to one that also no longer believes in “true.”

Harry Frankfurt has discussed this phenomenon in his seminal essay, On Bullshit.[3] In this essay turned book, Frankfurt attempts to describe “bullshit” as a concept distinct from lying or other forms of misstatement. “Lying” implies that the liar knows what the truth is, and for some reason just wants to avoid it in this case. The liar really depends on everyone else being honest, or at least on the liar himself or herself knowing the truth in order to avoid it. The bullshitter, by contrast, does not care about the truth one way or the other. Instead, he or she is simply engaged in some other linguistic exercise, attempting to achieve goals quite apart from any engagement with truth.[4] The bullshitter is concerned with how the audience perceives him or her. The bullshitter wants to seem intelligent, or patriotic, or serious, or whatever, and says whatever he or she feels will lead the audience to believe this. The bullshitter is primarily engaged in manipulating others, not in avoiding or discovering truth.

At this point the connection between the theory of moral language known as “emotivism” and the theory of general language known as “bullshit” converge. Frankfurt writes:

            One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are, but that cannot be anything except bullshit.[5]

Emotivism would seem to be a subspecies of bullshit. The one difference, and it is significant, is that the emotivist is not committed to an unconcern with the truth. MacIntyre’s description of the historical origins of emotivism make this clear.[6] The members of the Bloomsbury circle believed they were making statements of moral fact, when in reality their moral debates were simply contests of will. They did not mean to bullshit and therefore were not bullshitters. Emotivism began as a theory that said, in essence, that people may think they are describing facts when they are actually not. Thus, someone can be simply mistaken, and have a deep concern for “the truth,” but not find it because, the emotivist says, there is no truth to be found. But once someone does accept the claims of emotivism, he or she must either cease using moral language at all, or become a bullshitter.  The bullshitter is the self-aware emotivist.

Dr. Frankfurt argues that bullshit is more corrosive to society than lying. The liar is parasitic on the process of seeking and sharing truth; the bullshitter has said that truth does not matter. But society cannot long exist without truth. No organism can. If some cod decided that whether or not sharks were actually in the area did not matter so much as whether the others followed their direction, and the rest became so befuddled about sharks because the leaders were constantly making contradictory claims, and the whole species finally gave up on believing there was a way to know whether there were sharks around or not, then it would be a short time before they were all devoured. Fish, however, do not have the ability to ignore the plain evidence of their senses to their own destruction out of party loyalty or ambition or a desire for attention. Humans, however, can choose bullshit over reality. We can and in many cases have turned supposed debates over the truths of a case or the best possible resolution of a problem into mere contests of will with no actual concern for reality.[7] But when the decision-makers in a society cease being interested in whether they have the facts straight, or whether the policies they propose will work or are working now, then it is only a matter of time before that society collapses. And in a democratic society, we are all decision-makers, and must all care about truth if we are to survive.[8]

To summarize: MacIntyre’s historical argument of the state of moral language is that once “morality” and “ethics” meant something very different: a concern with the particular fulfillment of human nature, of what is “good” for a person to seek and attain, and how to do so. The Aristotelian understanding was that the goal of human life could be found within the nature of human life itself, and called this eudaimonia or “happiness.” The Augustinian development of the Hebraic-Christian tradition argued that this goal lies beyond the human life itself, in its relationship with God. But in the Enlightenment, philosophers threw out both tradition and religion, Aristotle and Augustine, and sought to preserve the basic moral values and language of these without any particular foundation. The ultimate result was emotivism. Moral language ceased to have any fixed meaning, and became available for another purpose: manipulating others to fulfill one’s own irrationally-chosen goals. And to continue this line of argument further with Frankfurt’s discussions as a prompt, the recognition of the hollowness of moral language spread beyond the philosophers to the society as a whole, and from the sphere of moral debate to all levels of discourse, until all truth-claims and not just moral truth-claims became mere tools of the bullshitter to manipulate others and attempt to bend society to his or her own whims. Ultimately, however, this is not sustainable; if we are to survive as a species, we need to “be true to the earth,” as Nietzsche might put it, and seek those truths that will enhance our survival.

But if we are to do that, we ultimately must attack the problem that started all the others: the difficulty moral language has fallen into since the Enlightenment. Until there is some sort of broad consensus regarding moral truth, we cannot expect much headway in the search for consensus on other sorts of truth, since moral nihilism will continually push us towards a general epistemic nihilism.

[1] “Weathering Fights” The Daily Show http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/x1h7ku/weathering-fights—science–what-s-it-up-to- last accessed March 19, 2015

[2] “Things Just Got Very Hot for Climate Deniers’ Favorite Scientist;” Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/02/23/the-favorite-scientist-of-climate-change-deniers-is-under-fire-for-taking-oil-money/ last accessed March 19, 2015.

[3] Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). Also, see the interview on “The Daily Show,” http://thedailyshow.cc.com/video-playlists/cuwvn6/daily-show-10035/zz9jnz (last accessed March 25, 2015). Note that in the interview, Frankfurt mentions that the essay was first written in 1985, but published as a book in 2005; so his initial insight is contemporaneous with After Virtue but it somehow was more market-relevant in the 21st Century.

[4] On Bullshit, pp. 55-56

[5] On Bullshit, pp. 61-62

[6] After Virtue, pp. 16-17

[7] Nietzsche said much the same thing, but he thought that the will-to-power was itself a survival instinct; thus he assumed an underlying pragmatism would drive our creation of facts. Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in a Premoral Sense,” http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl201/modules/Philosophers/Nietzsche/Truth_and_Lie_in_an_Extra-Moral_Sense.htm last accessed April 3, 2015

[8] On this point, see Harry Frankfurt, On Truth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pt.2

March 24, 2015

Up to the present in everyday discourse the habit of speaking of moral judgments as true or false persists; but the question of what it is in virtue of which a particular moral judgment is true or false has come to lack any clear answer.

—-Alasdair MacIntyre

 

One of MacIntyre’s more important contentions is that philosophy is a central activity in human culture. True, today’s academic curricula isolate it as an esoteric occupation for professors and wannabes only; it is generally an “elective” course offered in isolation from history, political science or any other field that would give it meaningful context. In turn, the other social and physical “sciences” can carry out their activities without consulting the long history and broad context of human thought which once was encompassed by the term “philosophy.” Political philosophy may deal with what a “just” society would be, what the true function of a political commonwealth is, and so on; but political science primarily discusses only how power is gotten and used, regardless of goals or values. I noticed this myself when, as a young philosopher, I made some brief forays into the world of the political science majors. Their concerns and mine simply had no intersection. They were solely interested in how they could implement their agenda when they graduated; what that agenda should be was no concern of them, or of their professors and textbooks. The assumption was that whatever the leader wants is what is to be achieved, and political science is the study of how to achieve that. Whether it should be achieved is the province of philosophers or prophets, they might say; but they would then say that philosophers and prophets are mere dreamers who can and are ignored by the doers. Thus, the goals of politics are the topic for discussion by people who politicians are not to listen to; the political scientist is supposed to study and advise politicians, and the political scientist’s field is not goals but only means. This is exactly the sort of society MacIntyre says we should expect when emotivism becomes the dominant theory of moral language; when moral language is treated as merely a tool to manipulate others, questions about goals largely drop out and only questions about means to ends remain, regardless of how arbitrary those ends might be.

The hollowness of late 20th Century society can be illustrated, MacIntyre thinks, by considering the “characters” in the drama of our social life. He uses the term “character” as it might apply to a medieval morality play: as soon as The Fool steps on stage, we all know what that person will be like, what he will say, and so on. Values, behavior, and social role are all one in “the character.” Another term might be “social archetype.” And the character that MacIntyre believes is most central and illustrative of today’s society is The Manager.[1] The Manager is supposed to be an expert in achieving any sort of end, the essential leader in any bureaucracy; and since we live in a bureaucratic society, The Manager is the most important character. And the expertise of The Manager, as Weber has shown, is the manipulation of others to achieve whatever the goals of the organization are. It is not The Manager’s part to choose those goals, but only to achieve them. It is not The Manager’s job to bring people together to discuss a problem and find the best solution; it is his (or her) job to so shape the initial assumptions and boundaries of the discussion that the group comes to the conclusion The Manager has already chosen, while believing they actually played a real role in setting the goal so they will fully buy into the plan. This is the very sort of leader that an emotivist society would have, and the only sort it could really recognize: one that claimed authority not on the basis of wisdom or justice, but only on effectiveness. The supposedly esoteric debate over the meaning of moral language, which was thought to be locked away in ivory towers where emotivist philosophers wrote and taught, actually is both the expression and cause of the moral vacuum underlying our society as a whole. The Enlightenment sought to found a fairly traditional morality (don’t lie, don’t kill etc.) on notions of human nature as such, rather than the teleological or theological foundations that had supported morality since the days of Socrates and Moses. That project failed, and MacIntyre argues that it was impossible from the start. We live now in the society born of that failure: a society with no foundation for moral thinking and no consensus what moral language even means, but continuing to use the terms of morality as rhetorical devices to manipulate others to follow the agendas set by the preferences of those with the strongest wills.

To be continued…

[1] Alasdair MacIntyer, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame, IN; University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pp. 27-32