Saturday, July 26, 2014

Recourse To Fundamentals

It happens, from time to time, that I am reminded of the fundamental, unbridgeable disjunction between the Left and the Right: the one that argument can never resolve and which renders all our attempts to reason with them utterly insane. The personal tragedy in such a reminder is that I should ever need it; the greater tragedy is that so many others cannot grasp the lesson at all.

In a lesser irony, today's reminder comes from a Liberty's Torch reader. Peruse my brief exchange with "Bob R" and give it a few moments' thought.

Perhaps the most important essay of our time is C. S. Lewis's masterpiece The Abolition Of Man. The great Christian polemicist says so much, of such importance, in so few pages that I often despair of ever producing anything of equal power. Indeed, that essay is the major reason I've occasionally expressed an ambition to become known as "the C. S. Lewis of the 21st Century," as hopeless as such an aspiration may be.

Lewis's key point in the second segment of this mighty work is one that should be indelibly imprinted on every thinking mind:

From propositions about fact alone no practical conclusion can ever be drawn. This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved. This will cost you your life cannot lead directly to do not do this: it can lead to it only through a felt desire or an acknowledged duty of self-preservation. The Innovator is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premisses in the indicative mood: and though he continues trying to all eternity he cannot succeed, for the thing is impossible. We must therefore either extend the word Reason to include what our ancestors called Practical Reason and confess that judgements such as society ought to be preserved (though they can support themselves by no reason of the sort that Gaius and Titius demand) are not mere sentiments but are rationality itself; or else we must give up at once, and for ever, the attempt to find a core of 'rational' value behind all the sentiments we have debunked.

"Practical conclusion." "Imperative mood." "Practical Reason!" What innocent phrases Lewis employs to illuminate the heart of human experience! How much metaphysics, how much insight into human nature, lurks behind each one! Just a few days ago, I blathered about the importance of using words according to their exact, publicly acknowledged meanings. Quite a few persons wrote that I must be joking -- that the meaning of a word is necessarily a relative, receiver-centered phenomenon that no one can cement down. For my rebuttal, ponder Lewis's use of the word "practical" in the above and tell me what you think he meant.

Yes, context matters. Doesn't it always?

The "language corruption" essay addressed a political subject: the deliberate distortion or misapplication of words to serve a covert political purpose. However, the overarching subject is much larger. Indeed, it goes all the way to the core of Lewis's intent in his argument about "Practical Reason."

Nor is Lewis the only writer to address it:

    "Are you going to be as impractical as that?"
    "The evaluation of an action as 'practical,' Dr. Ferris, depends upon what it is that one wishes to practice."

You know where that comes from, don't you? If not, relax; here's another citation from the same book, from one of the most powerful soliloquies ever to appear in a work of fiction:

    “It is not your particular policy that I challenge, but your moral premise. If it were true that men could achieve their good by means of turning some men into sacrificial animals, and I were asked to immolate myself for the sake of creatures who wanted to survive at the price of my blood, if I were asked to serve the interests of society apart from, above and against my own – I would refuse. I would reject it as the most contemptible evil, I would fight it with every power I possess, I would fight the whole of mankind, if one minute were all I could last before I were murdered, I would fight in the full confidence of the justice of my battle and of a living being’s right to exist. Let there be no misunderstanding about me. If it is now the belief of my fellow men, who call themselves the public, that their good requires victims, then I say: The public good be damned, I will have no part of it!”

Only Man, among all God's creatures, has conscious intentions he seeks to serve. Many of those intentions are instrumental only: do this to get that, where that will serve some other purpose. But some are linked to the cores of our souls, wherein lives the conscience:

    “Christine, I’m a priest. I have to work from certain postulates. According to those postulates, the soul is the seat of conscience, of an individual’s real and unalterable identity. Creatures without souls are also without moral choice. They act strictly from innate drives, motivations built right into their flesh. You can’t have a moral nature, the ability to know right from wrong, unless you have a soul. You can’t love, or be grateful, or understand loyalty or duty or justice. So either those postulates are wrong, or your soul is as real and valuable as mine.”

(If you don't recognize that book, I have no sympathy for you.)

My point, just in case even the citations above haven't clarified it adequately, is a simple one:

Moral premises underpin all reasoning.
They are Reason's indispensable foundation.
Therefore, you cannot support or refute them by reasoning.

A brief but relevant digression: Quite a number of religiously inclined persons react to any citation of Ayn Rand the way a vampire would react to a crucifix, except with increased anger and disgust. That's not wholly incomprehensible, considering Rand's open, repeated condemnations of religious faith. Needless to say (for anyone who's been reading Liberty's Torch for a while, at least), I consider Rand to have been misguided on this subject. However, I find her aversion to religion comprehensible as well, for it's the same sort of error as that of those who reject all she ever wrote: a discarding of the baby with the bathwater.

I must have written a thousand times by now that positions from which authority can be exercised will sooner or later be occupied by persons whose highest priority is the acquisition of authority. This Iron Law of Power will eventually corrupt any and every sort of hierarchy. Nor is it restricted to the political (i.e., coercive) forms of authority. It's done quite a number on every religious hierarchy Man has ever experienced. This is made clear by even the most cursory study of the history of religious institutions.

Here's an illustration of that tendency about one of the oldest religious systems, from the great Paul Johnson:

Moses is the fulcrum-figure in Jewish history, the hinge around which it all turns....He was a Jewish archetype, like Joseph, but quite different and far more formidable. He was a prophet and a leader; a man of decisive actions and electric presence, capable of huge wrath and ruthless resolve; but also a man of intense spirituality, loving solitary communion with himself and God in the remote countryside, seeing visions and epiphanies and apocalypses; and yet not a hermit nor an anchorite but an active spiritual force in the world, hating injustice, fervently seeking to create a Utopia, a man who acted not only as an intermediary between God and man but sought to translate the most intense idealism into practical statesmanship, and noble concepts into details of everyday life. Above all, he was a lawmaker and a judge, the engineer of a mighty framework to enclose in a structure of rectitude every aspect of public and private conduct -- a totalitarian of the spirit.

[Emphasis added by FWP.]

Rand's reaction against religion because of the Ultra Vires tendencies within religious hierarchies is nicely symmetrical to religious persons' wholesale reaction against Rand's thought because of her rejection of religious faith.

There is no salvation in human authorities. He who claims to stand as "an intermediary between God and man" is quite as dangerous as any coercive institution. Note the frequency of religiously animated injustices and atrocities throughout human history. Note that they continue in our time, though they're concentrated among devotees of a single "faith." Thus, when Rand writes in Atlas Shrugged:

"Dagny, how did you do it? How did you manage to remain unmangled?"
"By holding to just one rule."
"To place nothing--nothing--above the verdict of my own mind."

...she speaks tellingly of the pretensions of both secular and religious authorities. So! You claim to be in possession of a revelation? Show me. Show me how it accords with my moral precepts, my sense of the laws of Nature, my conscience. I shan't let you get away with saying "God told me so," for that's an attempt to borrow an authority that doesn't belong to any individual man. What you proclaim must be consistent with what I know of how the world observably works; it cannot rest upon preference, intention, or wishful thinking.

Which is why of all the moral creeds ever dispensed unto Man, only the simplest of them:

Now when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they assembled together. And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked him a question to test him: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." [Matthew 22:37-40]
Now a man came up to him and said, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to gain eternal life?" He said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments." "Which ones?" he asked. Jesus replied, "You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false witness, honor your father and mother and love your neighbor as yourself." [Matthew, 19:16-19.] worth more than the breath with which its Founder expressed it.

To sum up: You cannot argue moral premises. Either they express the natural law, or they are irrelevant or contradictory to it. In the first case, their adoption will conduce to health, flourishing, and an increase in human happiness; in the second and third, the consequences will be dire. Only actual practice -- Lewis's "Practical Reason," rather than any abstraction from it -- will tell the tale.

So when Bob R -- or anyone else -- declaims about rights, he's either talking to a fellow fish about water, or he's making incomprehensible mouth noises at someone predisposed to rape him the moment his back is turned. Indeed, whenever I do it, its impact is no greater. At best, to declare one's stance on rights constitutes the donning of an emblem by which those who share those premises will recognize a compatible mind.

Though the Right is a fairly diverse community of thought, among whose allegiants many detail differences of reasoning and position can be identified, we tend to agree on our moral premises: i.e., the Rights of Man. The Left has no moral premises to which it will hold fast; their sole touchstone, as with the villains of Atlas Shrugged, is "Can we get away with it?" Which is, of course, entirely consistent with their drive for power over all persons and things. Once more, with trumpets:

Morally different is a synonym for evil.

Don't bother arguing about rights with the Left. Save your breath and keep your powder dry. The hour of decision will soon be upon us.


Tim Turner said...

Fran, I've had a bad day. I know better than to do this, but I want to argue with you.

Your points seem to flow, but, playing devil's advocate, let me start here:

"There is no salvation in human authorities. He who claims to stand as "an intermediary between God and man" is quite as dangerous as any coercive institution."

And you add Dagny's assertion, "To place nothing--nothing--above the verdict of my own mind."

...she speaks tellingly of the pretensions of both secular and religious authorities."

You then quote: "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

Well, any "reasonable person might agree, but according to DAGNY's thesis perhaps her own mind might find that commandment repugnant to her own thinking. That is, I don't think Jesus' words ANSWER or repute Dagny's assertion of, "her own mind."

The trouble is, we as a group have lost the ability to JUDGE the mind of someone like Obama - by his actions - as something we want to have nothing to do with.

We allow him to speak for hope, change, fantasy or power instead of using our own minds and morality to judge. Yes, judge.

Francis W. Porretto said...

What was it I said about the inapplicability of reason to moral premises, Tim? And (postulating for the sake of the discussion that God exists) what does your mind say about the Two Great Commandments and the Seven that Christ commended unto the "rich young man?" That they're "reasonable?" Or that they comport with your own moral premises, wherever those might have come from? Finally, do you think Dagny would have disagreed? If so, why?

Tim Turner said...

Well, there's the thing.

A) Reason is inapplicable to moral premises.

B) "A lot of people" would agree with the moral premises Christ postulated, whether or not they "Believe in that Bible stuff."

C) The implication of Dagny's point is that if she (or anyone) does NOT agree with the moral premises of Jesus or "a lot of people," you can't argue with her (or them) or expect them to change except on their own terms.

I agree with all that. What "gets me" is that nobody except us (we?) crazy right-wing bloggers
seem to be applying any sort of attention to the morality of government or its practitioners.

Then again, we seem to be the only ones looking at the morality of cultures with any sort of objectivity, so I'm not surprised that this culture is not looking at its government with a view consistent with my own.

bryan in vt said...

it seems clear that the dilemma here is probably the one that gives the right pause and blunts any righteous sword we might choose to wield - which is that only an individual may identify morality as a foundation, but that no individual may impose it upon another out of respect for the fact that morality is freely accepted as such or meaningless...

bryan in vt said...

i should add that the best we can do is agree, or not... and that conflict between these two mutually exclusive worldviews is inevitable.

or as mike v would say - do the people serve the state, or does the state serve the people.