Thursday, November 11, 2004

Clearing Our Heads

One part of reinvigorating liberal politics means rediscovering its basic ideas and reacquainting ourselves with its best thinkers. Another part means clearing the conceptual cobwebs out of our heads, particularly in cases where we find ourselves unwittingly siding with the Right's nihilism, against our own moral values.

To do this, we have to escape that logical dualism which assumes that the opposite of a false (or disbelieved) position must be true. As regards our battles with the Right on morality, too many of us are prone to the popular historicist myth that about 150 years ago, something called "evolution" came along and overthrew something called "religion," and that most remaining questions about "the meaning of life" were thus settled once and for all among intelligent people.

We really need to get over this idea, because it never happened. And it never will. You can't disprove religion with science or logic. Worse, the mere attempt tends to do more damage to science than to religion. The effort to explain (or explain away) the meaning of life in scientific terms almost always involves sloppy argumentation, special pleading, unjustifiable inference, and good old-fashioned wishful thinking.

This bothers me, because I've very often had good progressive folk insist to me that science "proves" that morality has no objective reality, and that nothing is good or bad. In my opinion, that's a very odd claim for an innately moral being to make. It's a bit like arguing that sex doesn't exist, while you're in the middle of an orgy.

This bears looking into, I think. Where on earth did we come up with this weird, self-defeating notion - which I believe none of us actually uses to assess the horrors of geopolitics or of daily life - and how are we going to get rid of it? Why does the concept of basic morality seem illusory to so many people, while selfishness is thought to be not merely real, and not merely natural, but the true and only motive force of human and animal societies? Why do so many "rational" people on the Left accept this belief, when it's not only totally unproven, but totally irrational?

Beats me. I do know that one of the silliest - but most common - post-Darwinian attempts to argue away morality is based on morally framed opinions about what is and isn't "natural." Obviously, this is a deeply flawed argument which refutes itself by presupposing the objective existence of right and wrong - of good and bad - and in so doing, promotes the very teleological fantods that science was supposed to have cured: to be "good," one must be true to nature. And that certainly doesn't include heeding one's conscience or compassion, because...well, because it just doesn't.

As human beings, we're innately moral and teleological. Alone among earth's creatures, we tend to do things on purpose, and having done them, we tend to judge them. As such, our morality and teleology are natural, inescapable, and apparently unique to us. Human beings can't derive lessons about morality from animal behavior, as the Social Darwinists cynically or foolishly pretended to do, anymore than they can derive lessions about the writing of symphonies or the building of spacecraft from animal behavior. But that doesn't make symphonies or spacecraft unnatural or illusory.

I take a resolutely functionalist view of this matter; I'm not interested, particularly, in knowing what's "true" in the cosmic sense. I'm interested in knowing what works. And it seems to me that in any culture you can name, a moral distinction is made between the aggressor and the victim of aggression. In every culture, there's a distinction between the man who breaks into a house and kills its owner, and the victim of that crime. Grant me this inch, and I'll help myself to a mile: this ethical distinction between aggressor and victim represents a sort of moral axiom, and the ability of the average human being to recognize it shows either that it is necessary (in materialist terms), or that it's true (in religious/ethical terms).

That's my view of morality in a nutshell: it's an axiomatic system in which certain notions must be accepted as given. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is a perfect example.

The fact that you can ignore these axioms, or make up your own ("might makes right, man!"), doesn't impress me much. I could hire myself out as an accountant, and make up my own system of accounting that overturns traditional mathematical notions, and it might be quite some time before the business that retained my services went bankrupt. But that would hardly mean that I'd "disproved" traditional accounting. Quite the opposite.

The question is, where do I get the crazy idea that such moral axioms "exist"? From the same place as anybody else: faith. When someone argues to me that we're obliged to torture Iraqi children, it's mere faith that tells me "that can't be right." Everything I know and feel about life tells me torturing children is wrong, though I could never prove it to the satisfaction of, say, Donald Rumsfeld. Which, I suppose, makes me - and anyone who agrees with me - essentially religious.

And indeed, the fundamentalists complain all the time that "secular humanism" is a religion, because it offers particular perspectives on the meaning of life, and compassion, and humanity's place in the universe. That's not really true - there are too many differing viewpoints under the secular-humanist umbrella to make such generalizations - though if it were, I think I could live with it. But the fundamentalists argue at the same time that secular humanism has no conceivable moral underpinning, because it's not a religion. And I'm not sure they should be able to have it both ways.

My point is that the way to attack fundamentalism is not through science; that's the same old dance of death we've been in for years. It just plays into the fundamentalists' hands, and it also weakens science by forcing it to serve as a modern creation myth, or a branch of metaphysics. The problem with fundamentalism is not that it's not scientific, but that it's not moral...not in its intent, and not in its results. We need to oppose these people's immoral faith with our own moral faith; to do this, we need to understand that each of us has a moral faith that has nothing to do with science, but is no less potent for that.

Fundamentalists, by and large, are a lost cause. But how we fight them matters in terms of winning moderate people over. For instance, a lot of Christians aren't "young-earthers" and don't have a huge problem with the idea of evolution per se. What they have a problem with is the idea that the theory of evolution has somehow objectively demonstrated that there are no possible grounds for making moral judgments.

We don't believe that either. Do we? I certainly don't. And if there are any Leftists who truly believe that "might makes right," or that "nothing is really good or bad," I urge them to seek work with the Bush administration. Because behind their veil of false piety, that is precisely what neoconservatives believe. And I'm not sure that we can defeat them by continuing to sing their song.

We have to remember that there is no insuperable conflict between right-wing Christian militarism and the alleged philosophical implications of evolution. There never has been. If the fittest are to survive (pretending for a moment that this irritating tautology actually means anything, or that what's fit today will necessarily be fit tomorrow), then all the fundamentalist Christian needs to do is look at America's nuclear arsenal and feel certain that God has made us the fittest. That's what Phyllis Schafly meant, essentially, when she said that the bomb is "a wonderful gift that was given to us by a wise and loving God." It's also the logic behind Manifest Destiny, that uniquely awful mating of Social Darwinism and triumphalist religiosity.

Personally, I'll accept truly moral religious ideas, and truly moral atheistic ideas; it's pretty easy, since they tend to be identical. I don't much care whether there's an afterlife. It's immaterial, really (no pun intended). Even if we're all bound for worm-eaten oblivion, I'd rather have Simone Weil and Albert Einstein as my traveling companions than Paul Wolfowitz and Pat Robertson. In the meantime, I think we need to relearn the ability to see morality and teleology as objectively real, necessary, highly functional aspects of human exceptionalism, whether we choose to see that exceptionalism as a gift of evolution or God. I know that'll sound like pure heresy to some, but I'm convinced that the opposing view - that predation of humans by humans is not only natural, but can't be condemned on objective ethical grounds - is not only morally false, but belongs by all rights to fascism, plutocracy, and their allies.


Thersites said...

Ever read any Habermas? You sound like you're coming from a Habermas direction.

More advanced thoughts later...

Phila said...

Habermas? No, I don't think so. He's one of those guys whose name gets jumbled together in my mind with a bunch of other people, like Braudel, whom I also don't really know anything about. (My shameful secret: I'm really not too well read in 20th-c philosophy.)

I'll take your word for it and check into it...God knows, nine times out of ten my "bright ideas" tend to be old news to everyone but me! It's the curse of being a high school drop-out...

echidne said...

This post is an example of why I like to read everything you write. Either you agree with me (which shows you're smart :)) or you discuss something that makes my thinking part drool with excitement: ah, a new lovely morsel to chew on!

The science-religion split is false and you make the point very well. Moreover, much of the science today is of the quasiscience type which is no more scientific than any religion. This is clearly shown in some of the evolutionary psychology arguments which advance to lengths of several books without using any valid empirical evidence. Science without testing is really not science.

I don't know why we have ethics, but I know that even my dogs have ethics of their own. There are things they just don't do: they don't attack puppies, for example, whatever the puppies do, and they share their food with other dogs who are hungry (yes, I have seen this). Ethics is not quite the same as morals, perhaps, and the emphasis on morals leaves out a lot of very important ethical questions. For example, morals seems to be tilted towards individual behavior, especially in sexuality, whereas ethics applies to a wider field of inquiry, including morals but covering more. Though this may be just semantics.

Phila said...

Thanks, Echidne...the feeling's more than mutual!

You said, "Ethics is not quite the same as morals, perhaps, and the emphasis on morals leaves out a lot of very important ethical questions."'re right. I suppose for my purpose, I'd class morals as feelings about right and wrong - conscience, for instance - whereas an ethics is a system generated to promote or justify those feelings. And it's true...this raises some very important questions that are very hard to answer. It seems like a lot of people have strong moral feelings, but terrible ethics...I guess that's what I was groping towards saying above, but I hadn't looked at it quite that way!

There's also the question of horrible ethical systems that pervert sincere moral feelings (e.g., patriotism may be laudable, but imperialism isn't), versus the horrible pseudoethical systems that come from sadism, self-hatred, misogyny, and so forth...all of which are pretty widespread on the Right.

I'm completely grasping at straws with all this stuff. But my feeling is that the Left is in danger of becoming too reactionary, and that that's just what the Right is hoping for. Somehow, we have to get out of this endless action/reaction loop where we're tricked into prancing around in devil suits to frighten the fundies....

Phila said...

Still mulling over Echidne's light of it, I guess I should say "The problem with fundamentalism is not that it's not scientific, but that it's not ethical..." Because it may well be moral...but the ethical system it generates isn't.

That works for me. One thing I said that I didn't like was that fundamentalism isn't moral in intent...though it bugged me, I left it in, mostly because it's therapeutic for me not too edit myself too closely, which I used to do to the point of paralysis. But I think Echidne's distinction is the one I was looking for...unless I completely misunderstand her, which is always possible! Either way, thanks again!

echidne said...

No, you didn't misunderstand me at all. That's what I meant. And I also agree that we should get out of the action-reaction loop with the wingnuts. They are controlling us like marionettes to some extent. I'm going to start looking for articles on the net and elsewhere on liberal ethics and I'm going to start talking about them. Framing the wingnut stuff against this background, rather than letting the wingnuts frame us and our ideas. As an example, take something like what Jesus says about caring for the poor. Compare this to some leftwing ethics, and then dig up data concerning what the wingnut churches give to the poor (not very much, I know this already).

Though ridiculing the wingnuts is still a good strategy, too.

limbix said...

"morality" can be quantified mathematically in nature in everything from yeast organisms to human social groups in terms of altruism, cooperation, etc. "Morality" exists emiprically in in all strata of behavioral ecology.