"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Conservatives for moral relativism?

Never woulda thunk it. But thank God there's less here than meets the eye.

Jason Lee Steorts, managing editor of National Review, has found occasion in the latest Batman movie to wax philosophical. In the spirit of good pedagogy, he even goes so far as to offer "Lessons from the Joker." If he hasn't actually taught a college class in ethics, I'd bet my clunker—all $900 worth of it—that he's taken one. And I rather doubt he liked it. The lesson he peddles now is of the sort that undergraduates learn in such classes despite what the prof thought he was teaching.

JLS's main premise is, to be sure, indisputable. Appealing to reason, no matter how sound in the abstract, is useless for the purpose of motivating somebody who "chooses to be irrational." Similarly, appealing to beauty or love won't work with somebody who's too far gone to care for such values. Now in good Aristotelian fashion, JLS also assumes that moral philosophizing aims, inter alia, to motivate people to be good. So, confronted with somebody who doesn't care about what's reasonable, or at least what's rational to value, moral philosophy is powerless. Here's what JLS concludes:

My friends ask what makes me a conservative, and sometimes I wonder myself, but there is an answer, and it’s that I hate vandals. The problem with vandals is not that they are wrong about a conceptual matter. The problem is that they smash beautiful things. They couldn’t care less about your rules or your God or your conception of the good. You have to stop them with tools that work.

One of those tools is the very large group of souls hiding in the shadows, hearing things get smashed, maybe a little afraid, maybe a little amused, maybe wanting to smash up a few things themselves — but not quite knowing what to think or do. These are people we want on our side. And you know what? A lot of
them don’t believe in your rules, or your God, or your conception of the good. They’re not going to, either. They’re going to stop listening when you thunder against “moral relativism.” That’s the world we live in.

But they have preferences, and there are things they find beautiful. If you want them on your side, you need to trust that there is some overlap between your preferences and theirs — and then you need to give them a picture that is right for them. I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s neither a stone tablet nor a logical operator.

What it might be is a movie in which a lunatic does something dramatic with a knife and somebody’s mouth, while two groups of ordinary people independently choose to do, not the right thing, but “the right thing.”

JLS's strategy for combatting the Jokers, then, is direct the attention of the squishy middle, the not-quite-so-far gone among us, to the preferences they share with the more-or-less good, more-or-less reasonable people—viz., the Decent Folk Like Us.

Doubtless such a strategy can work—up to a point. So long as residual loathing of the evil and/or the ugly remains latent among people generally, exposure to the actes gratuités of the Jokers of this world can cause some of them to reject what's wicked and/or ugly about what otherwise seduces. In my student days, I used similar means to induce my share of colleagues to execrate certain artists, religious charlatans, politicians, even sexual partners. But is motivating the waverers to share the "preferences" of the DFLU all that moral philosophy is, or should be, about? Is the only sort of moral philosophizing worth bothering with really just an emotional strategem, as the ancient Sophists believed? If so, then all we can do is cause people to recoil from the brink before they start finding the abyss too attractive for our tastes. For in the end, it would all just be a contest of tastes.

In the state of contemporary culture, we have less time for that than many are wont to think. Relativism is not a strategy for combatting the effects of relativism. But JLS seems to believe it's all we've got left to work with. And he produces an actual, philosophical argument for that belief:

Moral absolutes are decision procedures or exclusion criteria applied to all possible cases of action. But no decision procedure or exclusion criterion justifies its own application (in contradistinction to the application of other possible decision procedures or exclusion criteria). A separate level of justification is required, if the application is to be justified; and this is just the level at which we assume that the will is unconstrained (i.e., that it may choose freely among logically incompatible decision procedures or exclusion criteria). Even if we offer it a reason to choose one decision procedure or exclusion criterion rather than another, it will be free to call that reason into question; and so on ad infinitum.

We had discussions like this when I took my first philosophy class. Of course it is possible, in principle, to call all possible n-order justifications into question. Hence it is similarly possible for "the will" not to be "constrained" by any of them—and therefore by any of the precepts they are meant to justify. We can choose to be irrational, which in ethics means choosing to be bad. But so what? It is similarly possible to call into question any attempt to adduce sense-experience as evidence of what physical objects are like, or even that there are such things. For that matter it is possible, in the present sense, to reject the logical principles of excluded middle and non-contradiction. I've known people who are proud of doing that. Some of them had enough intellectual conscience to offer such substitutes as "fuzzy logic" or "mystical experience"; but a few felt no need to offer any substitute other than their own pig-headedness. Bars, dorms, and lunatic asylums are full of people who will reject even elementary common sense so as to avoid conceding a point they dislike. Thus it is always possible to maintain a principled skepticism by "choosing" to reject what is generally taken to be obvious or even self-evident. To be sure, that can be quite reasonable in specific contexts—those contexts, that is, where one actually has good reason to question what people generally take to be obvious. But as a general policy, radical skepticism is not reasonable. It is nihilism. Nihilism is not an argument; it is a tantrum. Even Nietzsche recognized as much—which is why he produced a few actual arguments for favoring the imaginary übermensch over the real God, until too strong a dose of reality drove him into the lunatic asylum.

JLS knows that the purpose of arguments is to persuade the reasonable, not the unreasonable. His mistake is to conclude that, given why moral philosophy cannot persuade the unreasonable, it cannot persuade the reasonable either. Well, it can, and sometimes does. As for the nihilists, those who take unreason as far as they can, the job is to restrain them rather than argue with them—even as God restrains, for the most part, the Great Nihilist Down There. In the meantime reason remains reason, and works on the reasonable.
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