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

Saturday, July 17, 2010

How "choice" devours itself

Lydia McGrew has coined a chillingly apt metaphor for the culture of death: "choice devours itself." She has applied the metaphor to the specific issues of forced abortion, euthanasia, and "organ conscription," which are quite serious enough in themselves. But I believe her metaphor can be generalized to describe the entire direction that the societies of the secularizing West, and increasingly others too, are taking. The modern, secular, Western understanding of freedom sows the seeds of its own destruction.

In The Abolition of Man (1943)—a book I am not alone in seeing as one of the most prophetic of modern times—CS Lewis argued that "man's power over Nature" really means "the power of some men over others with Nature as its instrument." He predicted that scientific and technical progress in "eugenics," "psychological conditioning," and other areas will in due course give some people the power to remake others as they please. The question will then arise: What criteria will they use to determine how to remake humanity itself? Unless "the conditioners" acknowledge a rational, objectively binding set of moral norms governing themselves and everyone else, their only criteria will be subjective: their own desires, impulses, and preferences.  There would be no norms by which to evaluate, and choose accordingly among, those desires, impulses, and preferences themselves. Such a situation would recall Hume's dictum: "Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions." The conditioned would be the slaves of the conditioners' passions, and the conditioners the slaves of their own. In that sense, might would indeed make right.

Now in one way, Lewis' scenario seems quite fanciful. There has never been a time when people, even those who profess moral relativism in principle, have acted without lip service to the belief that at least some of the moral norms they acknowledge have universal and objective binding force, irrespective of whether this or that set of people also acknowledge it.  Callow undergraduates and ugly drunks aside, hardly anybody is willing to come right out and say that might makes right, full stop. Even Hitler spoke as though the might of the Aryan race went hand-in-hand with its general moral superiority, according to a standard that obtained whether non-Aryans, or unreliable Aryans, recognized it or not.  Lenin, Stalin, and Mao held that their atrocities were justified by the direction of history: dialectical materialism assured us that everything would work out in the end for the benefit of the masses. Even the worst megalomaniacs try to rationalize their libido dominandi in objective terms. Or at least they have so far; for such is the tribute that sophistry pays to conscience, where "conscience" is understood, à la Ratzinger, as the human race's collective anamnesis of the most basic moral truths. So we might think it likely, as some of Lewis' critics have, that once scientific and technical progress give us the ability to remake ourselves, the values by which we do so will be those of most of today's scientific community: rational, liberal, humane. In other words: the values taken for granted by the faculties of secular universities. What would be so bad about that?

The problem is that what's happening along the march for ever-increasing "freedom" and "choice" virtually precludes such a result. For what secular liberalism regards as moral progress, which is indeed making its way throughout Western society, contains within itself a pair of performative self-contradictions too basic to be sustainable. That is what the slogan "choice devours itself" ultimately means.

For the secular liberal, moral progress is thought to consist in facilitating what I call "radical autonomy." From this point of view, what's most precious in the human person is the capacity for fully autonomous choice. Within the limits imposed by the laws of nature and others' "right to choose," what is chosen is considered less important for human well-being than that it be chosen autonomously. That idea has much appeal. In a now-famous opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy put it thus:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.
To most Americans, that seems unexceptionable: Who, after all, wants the State to force our adopting beliefs on such matters? But that leaves us with two questions: What should those beliefs nonetheless be, and how would we know them to be justified?

As given by secular liberalism, the answer to the first question is that we ought to believe in radical autonomy. The whole tenor of modernity virtually impels us in the West to hold that moral progress consists in expanding the effective scope of such autonomy. The more "liberty," the better. And of course, if all adults are equal in virtue of possessing such autonomy, then it is an injustice to any of them to hold that some choices in the spheres Kennedy named should not be respected by law.  From thence derives much of the support for abortion, assisted suicide, court-imposed redefinition of marriage and family, and other practices thought to protect or expand people's autonomy.

In practice, though, it doesn't quite work that way. Allowing women to kill in their wombs the human lives they've generated, on the ground that respecting women's autonomy requires that, or allowing people to enlist others in their own demise, on the ground that they should be the judge of when their lives are no longer worth living, encourages a habit of thought which makes life more precarious for everybody. And allowing marriage to be redefined so that parenthood, if chosen at all, becomes a purely legal category rather than a primarily biological category just is going to undermine both the stability and the freedom of the family. Mind you, I am not here addressing the question whether abortion, suicide, or same-sex marriage are intrinsically wrong, or only wrong for the most part, or not wrong at all. My point is just this: a habit of thought in which the value of human life is seen primarily in terms of what we can freely choose to do with it, rather than as a gift from some transcendent source uniting reason and love, is a habit of thought which will lead to more and more people becoming victims of others' "choices."

At first that will be, indeed already is, the most vulnerable: children and the elderly. But no principled line, more secure than that drawn by raw power, can be drawn between lives exempt from such a fate and lives subject to it. It's all a matter of what "we" consider valuable, where "we" are the people with the votes and/or the guns. Once the value of life, and the reality of human nature, are no longer treated as givens but as measurable by some sort of calculus among "autonomous" human agents, no other result is possible. That is why, when the "might" in "might makes right" is that of politically institutionalized "choice," choice devours itself. Such is the first "performative self-contradiction" in the ideology of radical autonomism.

The other question I posed for secular liberalism is how we are to know what basic beliefs about the "mystery" of "existence" and "human life" are the ones we ought to adopt. That question is more difficult for secular liberals than most of them realize.

One might think that a thoroughgoing radical autonomist would simply reject the question, thus insisting that there are no such beliefs we "ought" to adopt, as though there were some philosophical standard other than autonomous "choice" for adopting one set over another. But such a stance is so plainly self-defeating that few proponents of "choice" are willing to defend it openly. For if what chiefly matters is the choosing, so that it doesn't matter what we choose unless we're insanely ignoring the laws of physics or inconsistently infringing others' "right to choose," then my freely choosing to reject radical autonomism must be respected as much as other's freely embracing it. But implausible as it may seem, that seems to be the rationale behind the sort of Western "multiculturalism" which cedes more and more ground to Muslim resident aliens claiming the right to be governed by Sharia law.

In almost every major city of Western Europe, we now have a de facto situation in which domestic violence, and the oppression of women generally, is legal on one side of a street and illegal on the other. Don't think it can't happen here. If such a situation be accepted as legitimate in principle, then radical autonomism is thereby giving up its claim to be objectively and universally binding. It can only be seen, even by itself, as just one more "choice" made without prejudice to any other sort of "choice." But if that judgment applies to Muslim fundamentalism, why not to any other brand of fundamentalism, or indeed to any comprehensive belief-system whatsoever? There is no principled basis for making a distinction.

Now to their credit, a few secular liberals, such as Christopher Hitchens, have seen the problem and addressed it. They attack multi-culti cravenness as just that, urging us to buck up and defend some version of secular liberalism as a universally, objectively binding morality incompatible with "religion." But that focuses attention on the second question I raised: how, without some version of what they call "religion," would we know which morality enjoys such status?

Most secular liberals point to the progress of science and democracy as evidence of the truth of their ideology. Our lives are just better, by a host of measures, for those products of modernity. We know more, we're more comfortable and longer-lived, and accordingly we have a wider array of "choices" befitting our personal dignity than did people before the Enlightenment and its effects took hold. What's cited as evidence here is indeed the case; but what, exactly, is it evidence for, other than the fact that it gives some of us more of what most of us find ourselves wanting? What ought people to value and therefore seek, irrespective of what some or most of them actually do value and seek?

Once again, secular liberals have no principled answer to that question. For answering it requires what John Rawls called some-or-other "comprehensive world-view" which, according to him and secular liberals generally, cannot be enshrined in the public sphere without infringing people's autonomy. We are to order our lives together only by investigating which public norms enable more autonomous human agents to get more of what they want by living together than the alternatives would. It's a purely empirical question of maximizing preferences and thus "choice." Aside from that, no vision of life imposing a universal scale of values on people should be embodied in our political institutions.

Now as we've already seen, such a position is self-defeating in its radical form. But let's suppose it can be suitably qualified to avoid that result. Rawls himself admitted that he too has a "comprehensive world-view" (CWV) in terms of which "political liberalism" is to be justified. So the only question becomes: which world-view?

The problem secular liberals have with answering that question is their naturalism, which can be either methodological or, more strongly, ontological. They're always telling us that people's CWVs are shaped by "culture," which in turn is shaped by the laws of biology generally and of evolution in particular. Now granted that is true to some extent, it leaves untouched the question to what extent various CWVs are themselves true, along with the question whether we can choose our CWVs freely, as Justice Kennedy assumes. If people's CWVs are wholly shaped by factors beyond the individual's control, then as Bertrand Russell once quipped, "some of us are determined to be right; others, to be wrong." Right or wrong, we would not be adopting our several CWVs for the reason that they are true, even if we think we are; for whatever our CWVs, our holding them as true is beyond our control, and hence we do not choose to believe them simply on the ground that they are true. Rather, we believe them to be true because we are causally determined to do so. But in that case, why should our CWVs be respected as those of autonomous agents?

A secular liberalism that avoids epistemological self-cannibalism must say not only that certain propositions and norms are those we ought to adopt as part of a CWV, but also that we can know them to be universally and objectively binding, and choose freely, for that very reason, to guide ourselves by them. Assuming there are such propositions and norms, it cannot be said that they bind on the ground that we choose them. That's because, for purposes of decision-making, we can only be said to choose them for reasons inherent in them—not arbitrarily or randomly, and not because were are causally determined to choose them by factors beyond our control.  If we chose them arbitrarily or randomly, then our choices would be no more worthy of respect than any others, and hence we would have no reason to make them as opposed to others. And if we were causally determined to choose them, then we could not be choosing them because they are true, but simply because we have no choice. That's not what secular liberals claim, or seek to claim, as the basis of personal autonomy.

Hence the second performative self-contradiction. Secular liberalism stands as much in need of self-justification as its competitors. It must explain why certain propositions and norms are those we ought to adopt as part of a CWV, how we can know them to be universally and objectively binding, and therefore why we ought to choose freely, for that reason, to guide ourselves by them. But that is precisely the kind of argument it cannot produce if all CWVs are equally products of culture and biology, with none admitting a justification that transcends both. And so if it is not to seek a justification simply in terms of the might of Western secular democracies, and the cultural preferences of their self-styled "enlightened" citizens, secular liberalism must produce an argument for claiming that "choice," within the limits already specified, trumps what is chosen. As I've argued, the only kind of argument that can do that will end up positing things beyond "choice" as universally and objectively binding criteria for choice. There can be no principled objection to including those as part of a CWV that undergirds the res publica. For excluding them in the name of choice deprives choice of the justification it needs to bind. So choice devours itself, unless something higher than choice must regulate choice without crushing it.

Now if there is an argument that is of the needed sort, elicits general assent among secular liberals, and does more than invoke their own preferences, I've yet to hear it. It is taken as almost self-evident that the sort of society in which secular Princeton philosophers are both possible and comfortable is the best kind. But as I've already argued, a CWV like that cannot explain why human life is intrinsically valuable or even why the values of science and personal autonomy trump all others. It cannot supply a sustainable rationale for itself. All it can do is justify a certain sort of "might" to itself, in its own terms, without reference to any transcendent source of reason and love.

For that reason, Lewis was essentially correct. In a society driven by "choice," the people who gain enough power over human nature will have nothing to prevent them from becoming as much the slaves of their own non-rational appetites as the rest of us. "Man's final conquest will be the abolition of man." Or: choice will have devoured itself. Unless, of course, the laws of "Nature's God" are acknowledged and respected as much as "the laws of Nature" themselves.
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