The word empirical is being used here in the sense of knowledge that is directly available to the senses and can be scientifically verified by observation or experiment.
In modern times, only knowledge drawn from the empirical realm came to be recognised as valid. This created a major problem: it is difficult to recognise the existence of an inherent good or value from this realm alone. Therefore, how do we know what good to follow? How should we act and what should our life goals be?
If there is no source for morality or life goals in an external reality, then they are derived instead subjectively from the self. As the Social Pathologist says of moderns,
They had to place the locus of these goals in the mind or self.
This has consequences. As I wrote in an earlier post on this issue:
And here too perhaps are (some of) the seeds of liberal autonomy theory. If human aims and goods are particular to my own mind or self, rather than something grasped as part of a non-empirical reality, then the world becomes a radically individualised place, a place of wandering individuals seeking to follow their own self-generated good, whatever that may be.
I had a comment from a reader calling himself EmoCivil. He writes as an atheist who accepts the "empiricist limitation" on knowledge, but who doesn't want it to lead to the dissolution of existing cultures and societies. He wrote:
Atheists are left with only desires (our source of motivation), and beliefs (our means of desire fulfillment). So our goals, aims and morals are all reducible to sense/desire/emotion (otherwise they are non-sense).
He accepts, as the Social Pathologist predicted, that the "ought" of human behaviour is located in the self and its desires. The self has a desire, based perhaps on emotions, and then we have beliefs about how best to satisfy these wants.
Can a society be held together on this basis? EmoCivil puts forward a case that it can:
Does that lead to moral relativism or liberalism? Maybe. But not necessarily, because of: the desire for homogeneity; the homogeneity of desires; and the desire for group strength...
Also, the desire for ethnic group strength (relative to other ethnic groups) may push the culture in yet another direction: towards behaviours which promote genetic strength.
So we have more desires to balance other than to just be "radically individualised". Perhaps the better aim is: slowly towards a culture that is homogeneous, strong on group self-defence, and otherwise fulfilled individually.
In other words, people desire to live in an homogeneous society and to maintain the strength of their ethnic group. Therefore, desire can still be appealed to in order to justify conserving one's own tradition.
EmoCivil draws out the argument at his own site:
...we do need to justify everything we say. The obvious starting point is: why should emotion be authority? The short answer is: because emotion is all that honest atheists have to direct our lives with. And emotion is the only justification for suggesting how we ought to behave.
But he identifies a major problem. The atheist/empiricist movement was supposed to create more emotionally satisfying lives. Instead, it developed ideologies (like liberalism) which repressed important emotions:
Alas, after the early 20th century failure of atheist leadership, came a vacuum of authority which was filled by the over-reacting and emotionally-suppressing ideologies of diversity and globalisation, etc. And those ideologies continue to dominate today due to a 21st century failure of atheist leadership which is allowing us to be led down ... well, I'm not sure where it's leading, but towards an inhuman and unsafe Western world might be a good description...
It's true our lives are more emotionally satisfying in some areas: we have endless more options to enjoy ourselves in the modern world. And yet, the modern world has become repressive of certain emotions - those arcane desires for: social cohesion, ethnic homogeneity, personal safety, border protection, national security, freedom of speech, limited government, a non-sexualised public space, reasonable norms of citizen appearance, etc. There is much angst out there.
An emotionally satisfying environment needs to be non-invasive:
Most people would agree that, in emotional terms, a non-invasive environment is desirable. And such an environment solves a few of our big current issues. If we agree that pain is something undesirable, that flags a number of bodily invasions to be avoided, including: noise, theft, assault, racial diversity (despite all the propaganda, we still seek out homogeneity), visual diversity (tattoos, piercings, low-hanging jeans, ethnic garb), linguistic diversity (not in my ear, thanks), religious diversity (are you sure Islam is a religion of peace?), cultural diversity (don't teach my kids about homosexuality), diverse body language (effeminate males), threatening body language (gangster chic, public swearing), fear of big government, fear of ethnic crime, over-stimulation from sexualised public space, etc. If we are emotionally conscious, all these are discernible as bodily or sensory invasions in the form of tension, pain, unease, repulsion, worry, fatigue, etc. That makes them undesirable and, dare I say, bad and wrong.
EmoCivil describes the connection between emotional assaults, weakened authority and civilisational decline:
All the above mentioned emotional assaults (broken windows) results in a loss of respect for the ruling authority. There is a prevailing sense that no strong authority is protecting our interests. Also, an analogy between noise and diversity can be drawn, because they both cause pain or tension via the nervous system. Diversity amounts to visual noise. With broken emotional windows and increasingly noisy auditory and visual environments there is a prevailing sense of a civilisation groaning along in pain, with a comfort level and productivity akin to working under an airport flightpath, and resulting decline in empathy and increased drop-out rate, drug use, aggressive behaviour, etc. In such a stressful environment we also see opportunistic groups vying for ascendance to replace the weak authority. So there is an urgent need for a compelling atheistic vision to help reverse our civilisational decline.
You'll notice in this that there is an appeal to human nature, to our emotional nature. This is what allows him to make general claims about what is good or bad for human communities.
What do I think about all this? First, in a secular country like Australia I don't think it will be easy to create the change we need through religious conservatives alone. So it's encouraging that a serious atheist like EmoCivil recognises the damage currently being done by liberal society and is trying to fashion his own response to it.
And there is some force to his argument: it's not difficult to make a case that humans, by nature, feel more emotionally satisfied within a relatively homogeneous ethnic group of their own.
Even so, it seems to me that EmoCivil has a harder time of it as an atheist in upholding his own tradition than a religious conservative would.
The argument that "it makes me feel good" or "it is what I desire" is not as strong as the argument that "it is inherently right or good".
(A religious conservative, or at least someone who does not reject a non-empirical reality, has a realm of transcendent truth or value to draw from: truth or value that transcends particular human wills and that can be known within human cultures. The inherent value of a longstanding tradition, the identity that is drawn from membership of this tradition, our connectedness to generations past, present and future, our responsibilities as men to defend this tradition - all of these can be discerned to have this higher, transcendent meaning.)
There are other hurdles that EmoCivil will have to overcome in pressing forward with his view. What happens, for instance, if desires or emotions conflict? This is an issue that looms large within liberalism. If my life aims and goods are generated by my own self, then who is to say that they should be impeded by some other person whose life aims and goods are similarly self-generated?
How do liberals respond to this in practice? Some liberals get very touchy about who/whom issues. They are less interested in how people orient their will toward an objective good and more interested in the issue of "whose will?". And so they focus obsessively on issues of dominance, privilege, oppression and inequality.
In theory, liberals could solve the conflicting emotions issue by deciding the matter democratically. But, again, in practice most liberals aren't satisfied with this. Liberals like J.S. Mill worried that the general will might get in the way of his individual will. He therefore stressed the principles of non-interference, autonomy and individual rights - and these principles taken together tend to uphold an individualistic view of existence rather than a communal one.
Another way for liberalism to solve the conflicting emotions issue is to make public policy neutral, so that the decisions we make are kept within our own private realm. So some liberal theorists will accept the right for people to choose to live within their own ethnic or national tradition - but only as a private choice rather than as a state policy. But this effectively undermines the opportunity to live in such a manner. If the state is neutral, and runs a policy of open borders and non-discrimination, then it's difficult for private citizens to hold together an ongoing ethnic or national tradition with their own limited private resources.
Finally, liberalism also attempts to solve the conflicting desires issue by limiting the range of choices to more trivial life aims. If an "acceptable" lifestyle involves choosing as an individual amongst shopping choices, or travel choices, or entertainment choices then the desires or emotions that people have aren't likely to conflict in serious ways.
(Note that modern liberal societies also emphasise careers and career choices do lead to conflicting desires. Not everyone can be selected into law or medicine. This does then cause the "who/whom" issue to become a major issue, leading to affirmative action programmes and the like.)
For all these reasons I expect that religious conservatives will have to provide the steadying backbone of a conservative movement. Nonetheless, I wish EmoCivil well in his attempts to provide a more conservative alternative to liberal modernism. I do think his argument that humans by nature are more emotionally satisfied within a stable and homogeneous culture of their own is a good one for him to go with.