Friday, September 07, 2007

We're not allowed to have the important things?

Here is liberal writer David Fiore:

Any time a human being chooses to describe themselves as anything but a "human being", liberalism has been thwarted.

... The liberal subject is always merely that - he or she can have no group affiliation, no "sexual orientation", no gender in fact! As far as the state is concerned, each person is a "unit" and that is absolutely all.

This strikes me immediately as being oppressively inhuman. It takes away important aspects of the human experience, such as our existence as men and women and as members of particular ethnocultural traditions. It treats us merely as abstracted units, without a given nature and without the connection to history, people and place which we derive from "group affiliation".

So the question is why liberals like Fiore adopt this position. I've put a part of the answer often enough: that liberals have turned to individual autonomy as their prime good, and that this makes unchosen identities and inherited affiliations morally illegitimate.

Still, we then have to ask why autonomy should be adopted as the overriding goal. I've suggested that the liberal theory of being is faulty: liberals assume our distinction as human beings is that we can self-create who we are. This then means that to be fully human we must be, above all, autonomous, self-determining agents.

There's undoubtedly more to it, though. For instance, there's a variety of ways to arrive at the belief that transcendent goods either don't exist or can't be known. Once you arrive at this belief, then meaning has to be individually constructed or asserted. What then matters is our autonomy to individually construct our life's purpose.

Here is how one modernist thinker puts it (with admirable brevity):

We all find ourselves existing. Now we must all decide our own meaning or purpose.

A traditionalist wouldn't accept this. If you believe, as a traditionalist, that transcendent goods exist, and can be known (at least imperfectly), then it's not a case of constructing our own individual meaning (out of nothing), but of relating our own lives to these larger, objective goods.

As for David Fiore, he makes these claims:

Ideally, society is a pact between people that makes the existential struggle for meaning as pure as possible.

... If, as I (and all non-pantheists) believe, we have no access to the noumenal, then two thousand years of tradition are as useless to us in ascertaining what is "right" as the word of any living, breathing person.

The message here seems to be that we can't know, and that therefore longstanding cultures embodying the ideals of generations past cannot point to important truths.

Why should Western intellectuals come to deny transcendent goods? It's possible that it has to do with a modernist project to make knowledge certain - to the same degree that knowledge in the natural sciences is made certain. As Jim Kalb recently put it, there is a modernist preference for directing reason to things that are "clear, distinct and verifiable".

It's a project which not only leaves out those areas of knowledge which can't be made distinct along scientific lines, but which also often ends in a profound scepticism about our ability to know the external world at all.

Finally, I'd like to quote a small part of Jim Kalb's reply to David Fiore. It focuses on a particular issue - the likelihood of liberalism achieving social cohesion - but also sets out in condensed form a general outline of liberalism:

As you seem to say, liberalism understands man as essentially an ego with thoughts and desires but no particular qualities that are relevant to what he is. He has no binding connection to anyone in particular. His connection to his next door neighbor shouldn't weigh more for him than his connection to someone in Borneo. He can't assume that he shares any common goods with others. He does have the abstract realization that everyone else is in the same position, and he'd agree that it would be better for all men to get what they want than otherwise.

So I suppose the question is how much social cohesion can arise out of such abstract realizations. Not a lot, it seems to me ...


  1. ... If, as I (and all non-pantheists) believe, we have no access to the noumenal, then two thousand years of tradition are as useless to us in ascertaining what is "right" as the word of any living, breathing person.

    There's so much to criticize in just this statement alone. What is tradition but the accumulated wisdom of all those who have lived before us? One man does not and cannot live long enough and simply does not have the time to discover everything about everything. Therefore tradition in some part of virtually every aspect of our lives is necessary to some extent. Imagine what the world would be like if every man had to start from scratch upon birth and learn everything necessary to survive and grow on his own. It's just not possible.

    People like this guy probably cannot even accept the physically/chemical/astronomical-cosmological limitations of the universe, so good luck showing them the light on human nature.

  2. Andy, excellent comment.

    I'd like to underline one particular sentence in your comment:

    "One man does not and cannot live long enough and simply does not have the time to discover everything about everything."

    This is especially true given that many of our most important life decisions are made when we are young and have had little time to accumulate our own life experience.

    So to leave every individual to work things out from scratch is likely to do much harm. We just don't have the time before adult life is thrust upon us.

    It's important that we get some useful guidance from the cultural norms of the tradition we belong to.

  3. Fiore is working with the discredited blank slate theory of human nature, much beloved on the left since it seems to allow for unlimited pursuit of social utopia. This is the same philosophical anthropology as that of Rawls, in which cultural diversity is banalized as nothing more than arbitrary individual lifestyle choices that are pursued in private. The result is a picture of the human being emptied of all defining connections and commitments, nothing more than an abstract cipher, a fictive generic entity. This is an extreme version of the notion of human universalism inherited from the Christian tradition. In fact, we are born into families, kin groups, language groups, religions, nationalities, and so on, and our identities are not chosen. They are more like fates. They are in fact constitutive of the person, who is no more than an abstract cardboard cutout without them. Liberals dream that all such contingent identities will eventually evanesce and that we will converge on a universal homogenous rational civilization, but this flies in the face of everything we can observe. To hold such a view today, when the most powerful forces in the world are nationalism and ethnic and religious identity, is to be utterly disconnected from reality by reason of holding to a false view of the human condition. Liberals like Fiore look down on members of faith communities without realizing they too are believers - and their beliefs are not merely non-rational, but anti-rational, since what they believe is clearly untrue as an empirical matter, whereas religious people believe in things unseen that by their nature can never be proven or disproven.

  4. Thucydides, you put it so well.

    If only we had lecturers as articulate and clear as you at Universities, we wouldn't have such problems so prevalent around us.