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 a 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 then 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 forth 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. This 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 manufacturer 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 suggests 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 the 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.