Showing posts with label morality. Show all posts
Showing posts with label morality. Show all posts

Friday, October 12, 2012

Liberal Morality or is Clarissa an Ayn Rand Villain

C. S. Lewis famously argued that everyone really believes in natural law whether they realize it or not for the simple reason that one cannot go very far without using distinctly moral language, which presumes a higher natural law recognized by all participants. For example to say that it is "wrong" to take something that belongs to someone else implies the existence of a code recognized and agreed upon even by the thief that has been violated. To assume otherwise is to turn the discussion into a matter of taste. I personally do not care for stealing, but you have different values so there is no reason for me to be talking so I better go and mind my own business. Thus our moral relativist is left with the choice of either removing words like "right," "wrong" and "fair" from their dictionary or admit the existence of absolute truths.

In a recent discussion with Clarissa, I found myself faced with what I thought was a straw-man position that existed only in satire, the point-blank denial of morality. In response to my question as to what level of taxes are immoral, Clarissa responded:

Izgad, I'm sure you know enough about the Liberal way of thinking to realize that no true Liberal can rely upon the concept of morality as even marginally useful. Liberalism is profoundly secular in nature, which makes it a kind of ideology that recognizes everybody's individual right to form one's own morality. I don't believe in a single morality that is supposed to govern everybody's actions. I believe that there is a multitude of moralities that are all acceptable and that should all comply with a higher rule which is the law of the land. ... You are absolutely right: the very word "moral" is alien to any true Liberal. It is a word that comes from a vocabulary that a Liberal does not operate with. The very questions 'Is it moral?' is not a question I, as a Liberal, can answer. My only answer can be, "It might or might not be moral according to the system of values you operate with." I don't care two straws what people do or do not see as moral. I recognize the existence of different moralities that govern the existence of different kinds of human beings. But I expect the law of the land to govern those existences irrespective of that which individual moralities might command. This, I believe, is the only way to overcome the religious barbarity that commands people to possess barbaric moralities.

What I find interesting here is the presence of three seemingly incongruous concepts, moral relativism, the need to oppose "barbaric morality" and the necessity of submitting to government authority as the means of doing this. If there are no moral absolutes than how can any morality be deemed barbaric? Furthermore, why should government then become the new moral foundation? I can at least understand a conservative telling me that we must obey governments, because they are ordained by God, but what business does any self-respecting liberal have for making a principle out of government obedience, particularly right after negating all moral principles. In Clarissa's specific case, I know she takes a strong stance in support of legal abortion. In her view, people who wish to ban abortion do not simply have another point of view nor are they even just mistaken. The strength of her language indicates that she views such people as either insane, wicked or otherwise ignorant. I would like to believe that Clarissa is simply engaging in rhetorical hyperbole when she denies morality. We can have a laugh and then get back to the serious business of hammering out moral principles as the basis of a political discourse. What frightens me, though, is that Clarissa, who has read Atlas Shrugged and seems to possess some limited degree of respect for Ayn Rand, uses a line of reasoning that closely mirrors that used by Ayn Rand villains, suggesting something darker than just rhetorical relativism.

When reading Rand it is important to look past the straw-man buffoonery of her villains to see the fundamental flaws in their reasoning; to understand not only that her villains are wrong in their beliefs, but also why. In an earlier post I set worth some of the reasoning behind the villains and their use of morality and relativism as cover for their bid for power; I wish to further elaborate on this line of reasoning and the role it plays in the novel.

The villains of Atlas Shrugged present a mystery, which lies at the moral heart of the story. They seem to contradict themselves; how can one promote the moral principle of "need over greed" in one sentence and then declare in the next sentence that there is no such thing as a moral principle. In particular, this contradiction perplexes Hank Rearden, who cannot bring himself to take people, such as his mother, wife, brother and the "wet nurse" government agent sent to supervise him, seriously. They claim no absolutes, but how can anyone pour steel without them? If there are no absolutes, why are they so insistent that he obey the government?  


Because Rearden does not take such people seriously, he is willing to indulge them in a paternalistic fashion. He assumes that they are moral at heart, they sure talk a lot about morals, but that, like children, they have not fully considered the full consequences of what they are saying. If he continues to be supportive of them, they will eventually recognize that he too is a moral person and will finally come around to his way of thinking. This plan works with the wet nurse, who eventually ends up dying trying to defend Rearden's steel mills against rioting government workers, but not with his family.

As Francisco d'Anconia insists, there are no contradictions; if you think there are, you must recheck your premises. Rearden struggles to resolve the contradiction he sees in his family's moralism and relativism. Bits and pieces of the solution to this mystery are hidden throughout the novel, but it is finally brought together by John Galt in his sixty page speech near the end of the book. Contrary to what one might expect, Galt's focus is less a defense of capitalism, but an admittedly dense discussion of epistemology. He builds a system of ethics from science and logic, insisting that one must never distort reality. By taking the villains' relativism as his starting point, Galt solves the contradiction in their ideology in a way that is truly frightening. If there are no objective measures of truth then there is no way to measure need. Thus need can be a limit on ten thousand copies of a book being sold in order that a less popular novelist can sell more books or that an incompetent steel manufacture be kept afloat by penalizing his competitors. The moral claims of the "aristocracy of pull" become a facade for their bid for power. Their claim to be pragmatists not concerned with moral theory really means that they do not wish to be held to other people's values even as they use government to hold others to their true "values." As such there can be no negotiating with these people. Even the attempt to talk to them in a civilized manner plays into their hands by granting credibility to their pretense of morality when they are nothing but savages seeking to steal whatever they can lay their hands upon.  

I would like to believe that Clarissa is deep down a moral person. Her concern with liberal causes such as abortion suggest that she is. Whatever our differences on practical public policy, we should be able to respect each other. What if I am wrong and this is all a deceitful ploy? Is Clarissa's defense of the needs of the poor really a demand for a cushy academic job for herself? She certainly does not believe that conservative government decisions should be respected. This leaves one to conclude that she has written herself a blank check for government decisions. Submission to government in the absence of absolute values means submission to her. What adds teeth to this view is that Clarissa strongly denounces any attempt to analyze her as if there were something to hide regarding her motives. Furthermore, for a relativist she seems oddly insistent on her own brilliance and is so willing to question the intelligence and even the basic moral decency of those she disagrees with. It is as if relativism stops by the gates of her "great brain" and all the rest of us mere mortals must acknowledge the limits of our mired in relativism intelligence and bow before her one true objective mind.

I enjoy talking to Clarissa precisely because her views are very different from mine. I am not a missionary trying to convert other people to my way of thinking. Rather I honestly seek to understand what motivates them. This means to discover what their underlying consistent moral principles are. If there do not appear to be any this does not mean that there are contradictions; it simply means that for some reason the person wishes to conceal their true values, perhaps even from themselves.  

Sunday, April 8, 2007

To Nuke or Not to Nuke: Some Thoughts about MAD

During the Cold War the United States operated on what is generally referred to as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). It was official US policy that if the Soviet Union took out a US city with a nuclear missile we would retaliate with nuclear missiles against Soviet cities. The idea behind this policy was that the leaders of the Soviet Union, as rational individuals, would not risk using nuclear weapons against us knowing that their actions would result in the annihilation of their own cities. Such a policy depended on our threat being believable. We were prepared to slaughter millions of Soviet civilians and the Soviets knew it. Dr. Strangelove aside, this policy worked. MAD created the circumstances in which no sane leader would ever resort to nuclear weapons.
I bring this topic up now as I wonder if the policy of MAD still applies today. If tomorrow New York City goes up in a mushroom cloud courtesy of Iran does that mean that we would nuke Tehran? What if Iran tried to use a nuclear weapon against us but failed; what then? What if a terrorist group used set off a nuclear bomb on US soil would we retaliate with nuclear weapons against every single country who aided this effort? More importantly then what we might actually do in such a situation is what our enemies believe we would do.
One has to ask is it moral to put MAD into actual practice? It is built around the concept of murdering millions of enemy civilians as an act of revenge. Nuking Iranian cities would not bring New York back. If we accept the logic of MAD then we should be consistent and apply it to other issues besides for nuclear weapons. If terrorists carry out attacks targeted against civilian populations then it should be morally acceptable to retaliate against the civilian population centers of the countries that aided the terrorists.
This would mean that we accept the notion that there is nothing inherently immoral about targeting civilians in war and that the only reason why one should not do so is that it would invited retaliations. I accept such a notion but I know that most people, even conservatives, do not.

Monday, February 12, 2007

My Government is Licensed to Kill

A lot has been made about Israel’s inability to make its case in liberal circles. Israel gets caught up in the cycle of violence argument and cannot escape the moral equivalency that goes with it. One may wish to simply pass this off as anti-Semitism and anti-Semitism may play a role, but I think that there is more to it then that. As I see it one of the major issue here is that the modern left does not see an inherent difference between the actions of governments and the actions of individual human beings.
While I believe in having a limited government, this government has an important role to play in society and in carrying out its mission it has the moral license to take actions beyond the normal scope of human beings. If someone were to shoot my friend or relative and I were to hunt that person down and kill him in cold blood then I would be engaging in vengeance and would be nothing more then a common murderer. If the government were to track down this same person and execute him they would be performing justice. Governments have the right to wage wars against other countries even though such actions are bound to cost innocent lives. The reason for this is that governments exist in order to protect the Lives, Liberties and Properties of those who live under it and in order to protect these things governments have to have the ability to violate the rights of specific individuals. The government can force me to pay taxes I do not support and make me obey laws I do not support. The government can even draft me into the army, hand me a gun and send me up a hill into certain death. The justification for this is that it is only by having such a government that the rights of populace as a whole can be maintained. Make no mistake about it, government is a Faustian bargain in which one barters away a large portion of ones freedoms.
Because of this, I have no moral objection to Israel bombing targets in civilian areas even though such actions cost innocent Palestinian lives. A Palestinian suicide bomber on the other hand is not acting on behalf of a government and for this reason is simply a murderer. Most of those on the Left today do not see any moral difference. When an Israeli soldier kills a Palestinian he is a murderer and when a Palestinian kills an Israeli he is a murderer. This turns into a cycle of violence; Israel kills in order to avenge the murders of Israelis and Palestinians kill in order to avenge themselves upon Israel.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Full Frontal Potter

The media have been all over it, squeezing the story for every bit of shock value it is worth. Oh my God, Daniel Radcliffe, the boy who plays Harry Potter, goes completely naked in a theater production of Equus. Parents are horrified. What should they do with their children.
My thoughts on the matter.
What is Danial Radcliffe doing that is harmful to children? I say this is a wonderful opportunity for parents to talk to their children about making moral choices and how moral choices can be complicated. Here are some starter questions to get the ball rolling. Is Dan doing anything wrong by running around on stage naked, if so what? Does it change things considering the fact that he is doing art and not simply porn? Considering the nature of the acting profession, should actors be expected to live by the same sexual code as other people? I say we all owe Daniel a debt of gratitude. If his actions spark these kinds of conversations then it is worth every stitch of clothing not on his naked body.