Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Everyone a "Philosopher"

First (the Dodo) marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle ('the exact shape doesn't matter,' it said) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no 'One, two, three, and away,' but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out 'The race is over!' and they all crowded round it, panting, and aking, 'But who has won?'

This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for along time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, 'everybody has won, and all must have prizes."

Lewis Carroll

Courtesy of Arts and Letters Daily, I found a compellingly spot-on take on contemporary moral relativism by Anthony Daniels at New Criterion (for such a profound issue, his analysis is remarkably brief and easy to read). Basically, his thesis is that moral relativism results when we grow too impatient for absolute and irrefutable philosophical justifications for ethics and morality. When no secular version of the Ten Commandments is unanimously forthcoming, the automatic fallback position is, "Well, then everything is relative."

It is a kind of black and white thinking: if ethical guidelines do not club us over the head with irrresistible force, then they must be wispy and dispensable. We crave an ethical absolute that, outside of religious strictures, is no longer available. It's a bit like violating a diet one is on and then deciding, "Well, what the hell, I may as well eat everything in sight."

Why is relativism increasingly a problem? Daniels has some interesting answers. One is the relative decline, in global terms, of Western political and cultural influence as compared to Asia (and, as I would add, Islam--could it be that some Westerners, viewing the fanaticism that characterizes a small but highly visible fraction of Muslim culture, implicitly decide that maybe relativism isn't so bad by comparison?). Second, the broadly decried emphasis upon individualism and consumption for several decades now has coarsened moral considerations.

But third, and interestingly, he suggests that, well, increasingly educated populations are less satisfied with the kinds of simplistic (but potentially useful) moral doctrines that prevailed in centuries past (think the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule). That is, the average man on the street is much better than his ancestors at sophristy, that is, bending philosophical arguments to suit his own inclinations. He has just enough knowledge to be dangerous.

The problem is that as many philosophers of course have argued, ethics broadly considered draws on far more than the working out of logical syllogisms in some university library. It depends on evolutionary psychology, which hasn't much changed we can assume. But is also rests on the cultural consensus of shared tradition and decorum, on a kind of moral common sense that we increasingly seem to have lost. As individuals and as a culture, we have become clever enough to question and undermine communal common sense--but as my son teaches me anew every day, it's a lot easier to take things apart than to put them together.

I see an interesting correlate here with psychiatric diagnosis. Some seem to think that if mental disorders aren't as structured and as clearly laid out as, say, the periodic table of the elements, then they don't exist, or are merely social constructions. But there are levels of cultural common sense, the sense of ethics and the sense of illness, both of them falling under the wide rubric of the sense of the proper way to live. The common theme here is the tolerance, or lack thereof, for ambiguity, which is the natural habitat of ethics, law, and medicine.

The question is how much whole cultures can live with ambiguity. Socrates died because he was accused of blurring the clear black and white signposts that were "the gods." Those signposts served useful purposes, but they were also used to bludgeon people to death (just ask the Grand Inquisitor). But did Socrates have a substitute that whole cultures can live with? Can people live amid infinite shades of gray, without going blind or starting to hallucinate?

What is the good life anyway? Supposedly W. H. Auden said or wrote somewhere, and I paraphrase, "The purpose of my life is to help other people. What they themselves are good for I have no idea."


Anonymous said...

Moral relativism is a point of no return. Society has evolved with increasing cultural/social/psychological complexity, nuance, individualism, and variables that tease life beyond predictability. It's becoming almost impossible to agree on absolute doctrines to govern ethical living.

The closest thing we may have is the consequentialist principle of do only that which doesn't cause harm -- and even that's subject to relative interpretation. Good intentions on their own are not always conducive to good outcomes; so I think we should be aiming for that tenuous middleground of intending well, insofar as the perceived best calculation of most probable consequences resulting from that intention, are on the whole positive. To intend well, but foresee disastrous consequences, and still proceed with the intention, is absolutely evil.

Retriever said...

As a Christian, I live with all kinds of ambiguity, but a pretty fair idea of the good life. For someone more articulate, let me just quote Jonathan Edwards, the greatest American divine ever. Most people know him only as the "SInners in the Hands of an Angry God" guy (a great sermon, by the way). But as far as answering your question, here are some:

"The happiness of the creature consists in rejoicing in God, by which also God is magnified and exalted."

(a related idea, but I cannot find the exact quote is that we contribute to the glory of God to the extent that we do good on Earth)

"True liberty consists only in the power of doing what we ought to will, and in not being constrained to do what we ought not to will." (this one gives people the heebie jeebies if they are scared by predestination)

"Resolution One: I will live for God. Resolution Two: If no one else does, I still will." (who can resist an Alamo faith?)

Here's a cool 2003 biography of him by Marsden, http://www.amazon.com/Jonathan-Edwards-George-M-Marsden/dp/0300096933

Anonymous said...

Here’s another tack.

Representational consciousness is a marvelously adaptive, but intrinsically flawed, capacity. Like road maps, mental maps are not, themselves, the geography they represent. (The map metaphor has problems and so does the notion of mental representation, but bear with me.)

Mental maps inevitably contain a host of built-in shortcomings, but that doesn't mean they are useless or completely wrong. There are necessary compromises associated with the underlying problem of representing a big dynamic reality in the more cramped dynamic space of the mind. Even with their intrinsic shortcomings, we need some organizing structures and guideposts to function. Maybe we can think of ethics as a subset of mental organization, sharing the larger set of problems associated with a representational mind.

I’m oversimplifying, but you could say that the obsessive-compulsive patient is caught in this problem of representation, tormented by the disparity between mental contents and larger “reality,” trying to nail reality down and banish uncertainty. But no system of rules and no set of rituals ever banish the shortcomings of a representational mind. For the obsessive-compulsive, representing reality is a game of whack-a-mole.

But, abandoning all rules throws the baby out with the bathwater. It's is the histrionic solution—deny everything and pretend that maps don't exist. Instead of whack-a-mole, representing reality is like nailing Jell-O to a wall.

These two solutions to the intrinsic tensions of a representational mind—the obsessive-compulsive solution and the histrionic solution—are, perhaps, related to the false dichotomy between absolutism and relativism.

Just a thought.

Novalis said...

I like it, I like it a lot--it would seem that we live in a histrionic age. The Victorians would be morally obsessive; when was the happy medium, one perfectly poised month in 1910?

Who was it--Borges, some philosopher?--who talked about constructing a map on a 1:1 scale, i.e. the same size as the original? THAT's obsessive.