Sunday, September 12, 2010

An atheist conservatism?

The Social Pathologist wrote an excellent post recently on the foundations of conservatism. He noted that for most of history Western Man accepted the validity of knowledge drawn from both an empirical and non-empirical realm.

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.

41 comments:

  1. As an atheist I subscribe to what Richard Dawkins describes as "The selfish gene".

    In other words we help those who are related to us because we share genes. This is the explanation for family and it's widespread, cross-cultural nature.

    The state as i see it is a social construct, created to do the bidding of the biological construct [the family/tribe/nation] but grown and mutated well beyond what was ever intended by crazed insane people on a mission to an imagined utopia.

    The state has been leeching responsibilities from the family in order to gain greater power over society in order to "better" it.

    I believe that has made our society weak and without foundation. The only solution is to strengthen the family, the biological foundation of all human societies, at the expense of the state, which in its overstretch has weakened us to the point of almost no-return.

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  2. The problem with strengthening the family, and I'm not against it, is that the family can be your self justifying world. In ancient times people were always worried that someone would open their gates to the enemy, thereby advancing themselves and their family over the group, as family mattered much more than nation.

    On the point about empiricism you definitely get the feeling that conservatism deals with more primitive drives than the pure intellect or ego. You can build in your mind a detailed construct of how society "should" be. But we seem to know instinctively to a greater extent how to behave and what we should and shouldn't do. One of the left's big drives has been to silence or stifle that internal voice.

    I think this is an interesting time for conservatism because left wing views seem to thrive in and on an atmosphere of injustice. Most of these big "wrongs" have been righted so the left are really scratching around for something to do next. The idea that the planet has been "wronged" by the presence of humans is their big current idea and is so ridiculous that it will soon explode.

    We've already seen that the state can't just endlessly hand out money and must build and produce before it spends and that the multicultural paradise in practice leads to divisions and not greater unity.

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  3. "in a secular country like Australia I don't think it will be easy to create the change we need through religious conservatives alone."

    Good point, most of the 'alternative right' websites and blogs are coming out of the U.S, which is a much more religious nation than Britian, Australia or New Zealand. If athiest conservatives can't come up with a strong foundation for promoting conservatism then that presents a significant obstacle to the growth of conservatism outside the U.S.

    Arguably the biggest difficulty, as Mark points out, is reconciling competing desires.

    I was thinking you could perhaps base a system of athiest ethics on a balance between following your own feelings of what is right and following the feelings of what others in your community see as right. However, that still doesn't help you to prioritise when it isn't practical to strike a compromise.

    Another point about athiests, is they don't have organisations in which to bond and specifically contemplate and discuss ethics, like religious groups do, which is an important aspect of social connectedness.

    On the point of the family, I think it needs to be recognised that all man-made organisations can descend into tyranny if allowed to rule in isolation, so we need both secular government and the family to balance each other.

    Although, the family is currently too weak in the West, leading to excessive state power in social affairs, there are parts of the world where the family is too strong and civil society is too weak. Afghanistan would probably be a good example.

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  4. Well the big problem is that "mainstream" atheist morality is just universalism, which mainstream atheists mistakenly believe is somehow secular when it's inherently a supernaturalist religious belief in a line of descent from Puritanism, Transcendentalism, etc. There is simply no "ought" without faith. Non-deluded atheists know this.

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  5. I think I agree with Anonymous. Also the word atheism is ghastly, whatever happened to agnosticism?

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  6. I don't see how EmoCivil's argument works. He says that what we want is what is good. And what we don't want is "...dare I say, bad and wrong."

    Well, no, I don't think he has the right to call our desires "good" or our privations "bad".

    Our desires change all the time. What I thought was a purely evil assault on my tastebuds in the fifth grade (potatos) taste pretty good to me now. There are always some people who desire very bad things, some people who desire good things and a great many people who desire very trivial things. And all of them trade places not infrequently.

    So what's right and wrong changes on the whim of whoever has the power to enforce his will? Doesn't that make a mockery out of the idea of good and evil, law and chaos, right and wrong? Indeed, it means that good and evil, right and wrong, law and chaos don't actually exist at all. "Right and wrong" is just some thug's will...until some bigger thug comes along, knocks him off his stool and re-writes "Right and wrong" yet again.

    Talking about what is right when all you really mean is what you want is usually a sign of tyranny in government. Among little people, it's usually a sign of a manipulator. A man like that sounds like he's trying to get other people to relinquish what they want for a higher ideal, when in fact that "higher ideal" is just what he wants. Not exactly inspiring.

    And anyway, EmoCivil says that our desire for ethnic homogeneity makes ethnic homogeneity good. But lots of people desire God, too. Does that make God good? Wouldn't that be a strange position for an atheist to hold? How on earth could he with a straight face defend "flying spaghetti monsters" (Dawkin's description of God) as a good worth fighting for? But doesn't his position obligate him to do so?

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  7. Good post Batholomew.

    Mark referred to competing goods, so people want homogeneity but they also want to be individuals and to do their own thing. Which should dominate in which circumstance? As suggested sitting around democratically to decide it isn't a fix because decision making based on self interest, rather than higher principles, can merely reflect a group's, rather than the individual’s, self interest, perhaps to the detriment of others.

    When talking to a leftie you'll often hear them say, "oh intellectual rationality is the most important thing and evolution explains everything." But if you go on to raise a human rights issue with them they get very touchy. Human rights to them are a moral absolute. Why is this? How do the left justify their moral absolutes? When you hear an attempted explanation its usually torturous, "Because evolution requires us to be nice to each other...", eg group survival, but this isn’t convincing because its usually immediately followed by the importance of the individual and enlightened selfishness as the way to go, eg Richard Dawkins and the selfish gene.

    Alternatively they might say “treating people inhumanly isn’t rational”. I don’t know what that means, it sounds like the word moral has been replaced with the word rational. The whole analysis of morality with the left is embarrassing and on the whole I think they’re uncomfortable with too much exploration of the concept.

    Also many of the modern attempts to resolve issues with people's competing desires aren't resolutions but fudges to avoid the issue. Eg religion is ok provided its private. This sounds nice but doesn't really mean anything as religion isn't a wholly personal thing. As for the freedom to have a personal lifestyle this is merely the freedom to spend your money and associate with whom you wish, ie being personally engaged but socially irrelevant.

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  8. There is something odd about the whole thing. EmoCivil has mentioned emotions as a kind of surrogate for notions of goodness and wrong, but where do emotions come from? Emotions spring from the human heart. Where does the human heart dwell? In our bosoms. If you are a believer, as I am, you also believe that all humans were made by God. Although atheists will never confess to that, they often believe in nature (shielded behind science), and our convictions therefore do not greatly vary when you think about it. Of course, we Christians emphasise God as the only source and justification of good and bad while atheists rely on emotions and/or desire. But if God created all humans, it follows he also created emotions.

    I quite agree we ought to team up with atheist conservatives in order to gain political influence in countries where religion has come to fade. Even though their bases differ, we struggle to achieve the same standards.

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  9. From Jesse_7:

    "When you hear an attempted explanation its usually tortuous, 'Because evolution requires us to be nice to each other...', eg group survival, but this isn’t convincing because it's usually immediately followed by the importance of the individual and enlightened selfishness as the way to go, eg Richard Dawkins and the selfish gene."

    Good point, and the whole idea of evolutionists using evolutionary theory in order to defend niceness is the precise opposite of what evolutionists did until the mid-20th century. Then, they were hailing evolution as a way - indeed, the way - to break out of the whole niceness trap. Social Darwinism and all that. On this, capitalists and communists were at one.

    The phrase "Social Darwinism" appears to have been invented, and it was certainly popularised, by the anti-socialist and anti-communist Herbert Spencer. Hitler adored Darwinism and repeatedly used the German term for "evolution" (namely, Entwicklung), always with approval, in Mein Kampf. Marx - with his preposterous rot about "scientific socialism" - also revered Darwinian evolutionary theory, though his personal attempts to curry favour with Darwin weren't notably successful.

    This is one of the million-and-one ways in which most modern Darwinians won't face up to the implications of their own ideology. Most of them literally do not know about the gigantic role which Social Darwinism played in political life until it was discredited by (mostly) its Nazi form.

    They don't know, because they don't read any history to speak of. Getting their talking points from the Dawkins-Hitchens brigade is as much in the way of intellectual activity as they can attempt. The majority of them, as quickly becomes painfully obvious when they endeavour to collect their thoughts, haven't actually read Darwin himself. So they are genuinely shocked to learn that Darwin wrote phrases like "the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life."

    Incidentally, is there any evidence that the much-trumpeted Dawkins has actually done any real science - like, you know, experimenting in a laboratory - over the last, oh, three decades? I'm just asking.

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  10. This is an old problem, of course. It crops up in the conflict between realism and nominalism in metaphysics and epistemology as well. Conservatives tend overwhelmingly to be ontological/epistemic realists, while Liberals tend overwhelmingly to be ontological/epistemic nominalists.

    A productive approach for addressing this is to adopt a sort of Abelardian Conceptualism with a dual Foundationalist approach: one in which the truth status of knowledge is necessarily dependent on both coherence (a priori) and correspondence (a posteriori) truth.

    The traditional sides to this issue would argue from both the realist and the nominalist position that the conceptualist approach is predicated on a category error: treating an ontological issue as an epistemic one. However, the arbitrary need to separate the ontological nature of the problem from the epistemic nature of the problem is essentially arbitrary, since the two are so completely inter-related when it comes to arguments about the nature of universals.

    The traditional conservative positions all failed because they were inherently realist, and wide open to attack from the nominalists on the grounds of the borderline problem. The nominalist, Liberal positions are now all failing because of the anti-borderline problem. The only way out is a form of dual-foundationalist conceptualism implemented in moral and political theory.

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  11. This is a profoundly disappointing post. The author and some commentators, along with a large segment of conservatives, seems to conflate moral relativism with moral subjectivism. The first holds that morality evolved to govern and coordinate behaviors within groups located within a particular time and place. The second holds that morality is just a product of individual will.

    The two are most definitely not the same.

    What is so problematic is that conservatives are attempting the following straddle:

    A) There is one universally-binding morality originating from God.
    B) Our particular Western morality is important to our particular way of life and we want to preserve it.

    The first is Real and the second Nominal - demarcating between us and them is always a nominalist proposition. So, the conservatives are already trying to incorporate both realist and nominalist positions into their descriptions/prescriptions for moral order. In fact, conservatives who assert the particular importance of Western culture, without asserting the need to conquer the world, are already cultural relativists.

    Honestly, this is getting tedious. I've made this identical comment on over a dozen, probably a couple, of right-leaning blogs/sites. If the right can't even get this really basic distinction down then it probably deserves to lose the culture war.

    Sheesh, I feel like I'm trying to teach the Critique of Pure Reason to third-graders. So disappointing.

    BTW, GW, Correspondence Theory tends to be associated with apriorism, while Coherence Theory tends to be oppositional to it. Dunno, how you managed to reverse those two. Coherence theorists posit that we can ascertain no axiomatic "givens", therefore, all of our truth statements can only be evaluated in light of other truth statements we nominally accept. For correspondence to work you need an unquestionable foundation on which to base truth-seeking.

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  12. EmoCivil is immanentizing the eschaton (to put it in Voegelin style)! He's trying to take goods that come from a transcendant source and trying to work them into immanent sources. I think that runs into Hume's "you can't get an ought from an is". Admittedly, I don't know much of what I'm talking about, but when did that ever stop anyone on a blog comment section?

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  13. I would add that traditionalists can get a good idea of the "ought" from the "is", given a well-ordered society. It's a verification. For example, given no known functioning libertarian societies, we can have a good idea that libertarian "oughts" are wrong and / or incomplete.

    Given our dysfunctional society, we need to find a good "ought" to restore a good "is". I won't fault EmoCivil the Atheist too much for going back to when our society was well-ordered to try to identify a good "ought", but he won't be building on solid ground.

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  14. Southern Cross,

    I don't believe in God, and I'm not much of a philospher, but I'm not satisfied with athiest systems of morality (at least the one's suggested so far) because while science may explain the main reasons why morality evolved, science itself doesn't provide a sufficient justification for morality.

    My view is that while everything about man is rooted in biology and evolution, biology, and indeed nature as a whole, is so complex we will never achieve a full understanding of it, hence we can't base all our social values on the empirical.

    If humans can't even run a passable centrally planned economy, what hope have they of running a reasonably humane, balanced, sustainable society without some form of transcendental ethics.

    I have read that many Asian cultures have attempted it, but have either had to ditch it, or have had to develop a dual ethical system, with a secular one for the elites and a transcendental one for the masses.

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  15. Mike,

    The problem with a God for the masses approach, reason for the elites, is that there is an obvious disconnect between the two which can lead to dysfunctional hostility, distrust and differing agendas.

    If secular society is known for many social problems (although religious society may have many) shouldn't secular society move towards the religious? Rather than endlessly encourage the religious to move towards or incorporate the secular?

    Asher,

    Its a bit awkward to encourage the conquering of the world when we're having difficulties establishing conservative concepts in our own countries. Isn't it possible to say that many of our principles may be universal and right but that it doesn't necessarily follow that we should impose them on others?

    GW and others,

    I'm interested in your realist nominalist distinction, can you provide a few more examples? Sorry I've not studied this.

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  16. Asher wrote,

    "What is so problematic is that conservatives are attempting the following straddle:
    A) There is one universally-binding morality originating from God.
    B) Our particular Western morality is important to our particular way of life and we want to preserve it."


    There is nothing problematic about it, and I have no idea why you're pretending that traditional conservatives haven't already offered an answer.

    In short, metron ariston. Those things which are universal about man are governed by universal truths. The things which are particular about man are governed by particular truths. Universalism and tribalism are both excessive and therefore fallacious.

    For example, all humans have sex the same way. There is obviously one way that sex works best, and the law that best describes it could fairly be called universal. There's no reason for us to worry about "imposing our sexual mores" on, say, Afghan boy rapers. It's obvious that anal rape is not the best way sex works or even works at all, if defined as reproduction.

    But not all humans can, say, eat or drink the same things. Some humans (e.g. Koreans, Native Americans, among others) have low physical resistance to alcohol dependency. Other humans (e.g. Germans) have high resistance. There are then at least two ways that human consumption of alcohol best works, depending upon the population.

    What is universal about man is subject to universal laws. What is particular to man is subject to particular laws. The man who would make his body work best with his environment should follow both universal and particular laws.

    What's "problematic" about that? It's seems to be common sense to me.*

    *Of course, that a man should make his body work best with the environment or why he would even want to, cannot be explained naturally. And this is why I disagreed with EmoCivil. He starts in the middle of the story and fails to mention to whom he owes its beginning.

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  17. Thanks, Jesse.

    And, when you wrote, "The whole analysis of morality with the left is embarrassing and on the whole I think they’re uncomfortable with too much exploration of the concept." you were right on.

    When I challenged a liberal (not leftist) classmate of mine once about morality, it seemed like she had genuinely never before considered the is/ought problem. She had just taken it for granted that there was no such thing as "truth" and at the same time that non-discrimination/equality was self-evidently the "right thing to do".

    The nearest I can figure is that it's the words themselves that allowed her to doublethink like that. Since "ultimate truth" and "it's bad to discriminate" are composed of different words, she didn't see the relationship between the two.

    Anyway, good point.

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  18. Mike Courtman,

    We do agree that science cannot be enough justification for all things. Many people have already commented on Darwinism in previous posts, and there is actually little scientifical evidence to shore up Darwin's theory. Well, actually, people tend to altogether forget it is only a theory, and I also suspect entire swathes of the population would reject Darwin's teaching on 'favoured races'.

    We are both sceptical of science and rationality. That is one of the hallmarks of traditional conservatives; we confess that many things are beyond our understanding, which is showing humility rather than leftist hubris (shaping a new kind of man).

    Morality cannot be grounded in science. God provides a source of transcendental ethics in that he is beyond our reach. Atheists would like to prove God is a fallacy while Christians cannot prove he is not. There is no solution to that debate, for the only alternative is between believing or not believing. As you stated, it seems impossible to organise society with a satisfying outcome if it lacks ethics that are above the political fray, i.e. religious ethics. That is why I am a bit sceptical of attempts by atheists to coin a new form of conservatism. Of course, I appreciate that they may entertain different notions about creation or moral issues, and would rather have them grounded in 'emotions' than God, but if you admit God (or nature, as some put it) is the primary source of all that lives and dwells on the earth, it therefore follows he also created feelings, emotions, desire, lust and everything else, hence my relative disbelief.

    GW and others,

    I would like to know about about the distinction between realism and nominalism. I confess I have next to no education when it comes to philosophy, but that is something I would definitely like to remedy.

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  19. @Bartholemew

    What's hilarious about your response is that you use empirically verifiable justifications for both the universal and the particular. The whole point of Mark's original post was that empiricism is incapable of telling us what we "ought" to do. Your comment inadvertently suggests otherwise.

    I'd also point out that where the universal ends and the particular begins will be subject to hot debate between different particulars. Is there a universal criterion that demarcates that? Or is it the outcome between the conflicts of different particulars. Hopefully, you see how that's cripplingly problematic to attempting that conservative straddle.

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  20. Asher:

    How many schisms are you entertaining here? The universal v. the particular (difficult as you say) but also the "empirically verifiable" v. the transcendent?

    I agree with Bartholomew that you seem to emphasize division to little effect but erudition.

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  21. It's the same schism in this case, at least on one side of the equation. Transcendent and universal and synonymous. The principle of autonomy that Mark frequently speaks against is a transcendent principle. Not sure if you could say that particular and empirical are synonymous, at least in how most people use the terms. More on that later.

    I love screwing with people's minds, and have ample opportunity to do so living in the most leftist part of leftist Seattle. Imagine the most leftist part of Melbourne and you get the picture.

    When you meet a leftist get them to agree to some simple premises:

    - The empirical world is a world of cause and effect
    - "Cause is to effect" is simply another way of saying "rational"
    - Since nothing falls outside the realm of cause and effect, including religious beliefs, everything that exists is rational, including religious beliefs

    Great fun.

    See, every ideology, at least that I've encountered, does a straddle. When you talk to a leftist atheist who uses the term "rational" they are clearly using a transcendent notion of that term, especially when applying it to religious beliefs. A rigorously applied empiricism would simply look at religious beliefs as just another object of study. Left-atheists, then, are not actually intellectually honest when adopting the cloak of empiricism - read Mecius Moldbugs very lengthy take down of Richard Dawkins.

    But back to the schisms. A more accurate description of the opposites of transcendence and universal would be nominal or contingent. Much of what people believe is simply not directly verifiable by criteria-base truth tests.

    What does seem verifiable is that people need social order. Hell, nature itself requires order. And different orders produce different outcomes. And, different types of homo sapien life require different types of order to thrive. And, most importantly, many different types of life are incompatible with one another.

    One benefit of stressing the particular is that it helps us distinguishing friend from foe. In the end, universalism cannot countenance diremption in the world, since the real world is oneness, being. This why leftist simultaneously babble about diversity while viciously attacking any dissent from leftist orthodoxy.

    Christianity opens the door by admitting to the essential spiritual worth of each individual before God. Leftism expands this equal worth by demanding equality in every possible world.

    Leftism is simply the end-stage of Christianity. Granted, we can fight this degeneration and circumscribe the demand to a certain class of people, but the logical flow will always remain.

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  22. Asher-

    Thanks for your response. I suppose "universal" has transcendent aspects but I think of it as being confined to the realm of practical human affairs, whereas "transcendent" is metaphysical business. I'm still trying to learn the applications of nominalism and contingency.

    You say "A rigorously applied empiricism would simply look at religious beliefs as just another object of study." I know people who think like this, where reasoning and intellect are given supreme importance in social terms. It is difficult to coax an opinion from such individuals. Opinion per se does not hold their interest, but the process of analysis is endlessly fascinating. Rather like those who enjoy the chase but don't know what to do with the catch. Perhaps they believe that ceaseless study will distract humankind from its darker tendencies ... until study itself becomes morbid.

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  23. Asher said,

    "This is why leftists simultaneously babble about diversity while viciously attacking any dissent from leftist orthodoxy."

    So when a leftist says "diversity" they're really saying universalism, which in practice means unified oneness?

    So this means that leftists are opposed to hierarchy, which we know, at least in principle, and it also explains their furious conformity.

    Why are they so keen on social causes though? eg workers, minority rights etc. These surely aren't just convenient fronts to critique society?

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  24. With respect to Realism vs. Nominalism, if you are looking for more information on this issue, it directly pertains to long-standing schools of thought on what's known in philosophy as the Problem of Universals.

    The Problem of Universals is basically this: Are our abstract ideas about characteristics, qualities, types, generic relationships, etc. based in something real, or fundamentally arbitrary. Traditionally, this has been treated as a purely metaphysical (or ontological) question: focusing on the "real" part of the question (are universals REAL?).

    The traditional schools of thought on this fall into the camps I've mentioned:

    Realism: Universals (general abstractions) are real (think of Platonic Forms, and you've got the basic gyst of this position).

    Nominalism: Universals are arbitrary mental/linguistic constructs (think of, well, pretty much any modern philosophical tradition, actually).

    There is also another school often referred to as Idealism, but it's really a species of Realism in which the cause-and-effect flow of universals and mental abstractions is reversed.

    Realism suffers from the "borderline problem." To wit: if we compare a spectrum of colors between Blue and Green, in the middle between the two, there are a range of infinitesimally greener Blues and bluer Greens. If Blue and Green are existent real abstract properties of color, then where is the existent line between Blue and Green to be found among all those blue-greens and green-blues? How is calling one Blue versus Green anything but an arbitrary naming convention? This is where Realism falls apart.

    Nominalism suffers the "anti-borderline problem" in equal measure. Though the blue-greens and green-blues lack a bright-line distinction, we can clearly and consistently differentiate between Blue and Green in the cases where they do not blend. Nominalism cannot account for the objective consistency of the differentiation in abstract, and thus also fails.

    Following Boethius' re-introduction of the Problem of Universals, Peter Abelard formulated a new sort of approach to it in the 12th Century, which is more commonly referred to in its modern incarnations as Conceptualism. Abelard was enormously influential in Medieval philosophy, but mostly forgotten today.

    Conceptualism is often lumped in with Nominalism, but in its more modern formulations is quite distinct from either Realism or Nominalism.

    Conceptualism essentially performs a category shift (critics, such as the Analytics, would say "category error") in looking at the Problem of Universals as not solely an ontological issue, but also an epistemic issue. In other words, the Realists and Nominalists both fail because they do not properly account for the nature of knowledge and human thought in their discussion of the ontological status of universals.

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  25. The Conceptualists say, pro Nominalism and contra Realism, that abstract qualities do not exist per se as real entities. Like Parmenides of Elia, they note that one may see many men, but never Man. The abstraction isn't independently real.

    On the other hand, contra Nominalism and pro Realism, the Conceptualists point out that universals, qua mental entities, are very much real as mental phenomena and are also objectively derived from the particulars of reality through real epistemic means (genus/differentia abstraction, for instance). In other words, universals, properly derived, are not merely arbitrary mental constructs, but are reflective of aspects of deeper objective reality.

    This is a very complex subject, and I've just brutalized a couple of millennia of thinking about it, but the issue is directly relevant to the conflict over human nature and truth in modern political discourse.

    Is human nature simply an arbitrary social construct? Can you, as the Liberals assert, change who you are by what you believe and say? Here we see Nominalism put into political practice and a society torn apart by the failures of the anti-borderline problem.

    Is there, as the traditional conservatives often assert, a real standard of morality which exists independent of humans and context? They have no answer to the obvious rejoinder to this - "prove it" - beyond arbitrary assertion ("God says so") and thus also fail. They also get mired in the borderline problem whenever the complexities of real human actions and interactions defy their categories.

    Neither of these approaches is sufficient. The old socio-political systems predicated on fundamentally Realist premises became so brittle and inflexible that they shattered under pressure and are now mostly long-dead.

    The modern socio-political orders are now struggling under the weight of their own internal (and Nominalist-derived) contradictions, inability to acknowledge basic realities, and complete failure to draw objective distinctions of good/bad or right/wrong. Their failure is simply a matter of time.

    Thus, the big question is "what happens then?"

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  26. Asher wrote,

    "The whole point of Mark's original post was that empiricism is incapable of telling us what we "ought" to do. Your comment inadvertently suggests otherwise."

    Not really. I demonstrated that the universal and particular are empirically verifiable. Then, as an asterisked addendum, I wrote that,

    "Of course, that a man should make his body work best with the environment or why he would even want to, cannot be explained naturally. And this is why I disagreed with EmoCivil. He starts in the middle of the story and fails to mention to whom he owes its beginning."

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  27. Here is a recent philosopher who arrives at a similar conclusion to myself, that morality is reducible to desires: An Amoral Manifesto by Professor Joel Marks. But he believes that "morality is largely superfluous" and hence is not worried about an impending "howling wilderness" of nihilism. A little to optimistic for my liking ...

    "Hold onto your hats, folks... I have given up morality altogether! ... this philosopher has long been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely, that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t... I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. I call the premise of this argument ‘hard atheism’ ...

    ... the problem with morality, I now maintain, is that it is in even worse shape than religion in this regard; for if there were a God, His issuing commands would make some kind of sense. But if there is no God, as of course atheists assert, then what sense could be made of there being commands of this sort?

    ... What is it like to live in a world without morality? Is such a life even viable? ... I must learn how to live life all over again, like a child learning to walk.... Now that I have turned the philosophic eye on my own largely unexamined assumption that morality exists, I see that I have been a moral fool...

    ... But how do I justify them to myself, since I have no moral lights anymore? For example, on what basis would I myself be a vegetarian? The answer, in a word, is desire...

    I conclude that morality is largely superfluous in daily life, so its removal – once the initial shock had subsided – would at worst make no difference in the world. (I happen to believe – or just hope? – that its removal would make the world a better place, that is, more to our individual and collective liking...)"

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  28. This is a test. I tried to post some replies here but they disappeared almost as fast as they appeared. Not sure what is going on...

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  29. Thanks for the encouragement, Mark. I've got some life matters holding up my blogging progress at the moment but hopefully I can make some headway before too long. I don't have ready answers to the conflict issues you raise, but they're all valid points worth exploring. Trying to convince liberals to join our group is important, so long as the focus is primarily on forging ourselves a strong identity - Pick a Tribe, Any Tribe:

    "The central contention of this essay is that tribalism will prove to be an essential component, if not the central component, in allowing a defense of Western societies against Islam. There are two reasons for this. The first is that such tribalisms will tend to keep Muslims out of those societies in the first place, and the second is that certain types of situations impose such severe psychological pressure on those who would confront them that they cannot consistently or usefully do so without a type and degree of psychological reinforcement that can only be provided by a tribe."

    The group/genetic strength that I mentioned is a potential conflict with conservatism. With a lot of fat lazy white kids around, some will argue that a couple of generations on junk food and denatured living has bred a genetically weak race. They may argue, for genetic rejuvenation, for alpha males to breed widely, at the expense of beta males. Such a radical departure from traditional families is alien and I'd rather not see it happen. But the desire for genetic strength may push in that direction e.g. 25-year-old Charlotte had a child fathered by 79-year-old Raymond Calvert because "He has so much energy and vitality and is so caring". So, maybe she wasn't impressed with the vitality of men her age and hence opted for an older/stronger set of genes. Reconciling those conflicting desires may not be easy.

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  30. I just learned that Blogger now filters comments for likely Spam, and sends them to a Spam folder in the Comments tab where they await action. So I guess that's where my comments have landed.

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  31. Bartholomew, "Our desires change all the time" is an exaggeration designed to discredit desire-based philosophies as chaotic and unworkable. Sure, we change a bit as we age. Sure, there are some bad people. But these are not insurmountable problems in designing a philosophy that works for most of the people most of the time.

    "But lots of people desire God, too". If you feel some extrasensory perception (God, spaghetti monsters, dead people, etc.) then I won't stop you. Desires are an internal landscape, and only you alone know that landscape. Of course, I'll think you're crazy. But so long as the voices in your head don't tell you to attack me, I don't care what you feel or think.

    "that a man should make his body work best with the environment or why he would even want to". Not sure here. I used the word "natural" only once and then said "emotion is the only justification". Nature may guide us: by surveying the animal kingdom and observing "gee, all the animals appear motivated by desires, maybe I should do the same". Nature may suggest behaviours, but emotion is my final authority.

    "He starts in the middle of the story and fails to mention to whom he owes its beginning". The very beginning of life begins with a hard lesson in self/non-self distinction: a baby crawls around and only learns the limits of self by bumping into enough things. It only learns where its head is after clonking it on enough floors. It only stops chewing its hand when it starts to hurt. At some later point in our lives, culture and religion are introduced. And then even later we're all grown up to decide: what authority should I listen to? Only you can answer that. (I do plan to write a post on the topic of: Why Should Emotion Be Authority?).

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  32. EmoCivil,

    I'm not sure why your comments didn't get through. I'll look into it tomorrow. Apologies.

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  33. Very interesting GW thank you. If a conservative says "this is our morality because this is the way we've always done it" is that neither a nominalist nor a universalist positon? It is morality based on social custom rather than an absolute standard and yet isn't rapidly changing.

    The lefties today also push absolute standards when it comes to human rights.

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  34. EmoCivil,

    You were right. It's a new spam filter issue with blogger. I've "released" your comments from the spam folder.

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  35. "Of course, that a man should make his body work best with the environment or why he would even want to, cannot be explained naturally."

    Survival and self-interest.

    Joel Marks: "The long and the short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality."

    It doesn't. This guy is an idiot. Also he will probably commit a crime and go to prison.

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  36. When Professor Marks says that atheism implies amorality he is talking about universalist, transcendent morality. This is the morality with which most, probably all, of you were raised. In fact, the term comes from the Latin "mores", simply meaning custom. Leftism, as we know it, is impossible without the underlying assumption of universalism.

    Ending universalism pulls the entire rug out from under the ideological feet of the left.

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  37. Jesse_7,

    As far as using precedent or tradition as a justification for moral premises goes, it's fundamentally as arbitrary as anything the Strong Nominalists would suggest. It leaves many questions unanswered, not least among them: "WHY has it been done this way?" Also significant: "Once something has been done in the past, by the conservative standard does that automatically make it right?"

    Modern conservatism is deeply corrupted by this line of thinking, simply because Liberalism has been dominant in Western societies for so long that most of its premises have been adopted as traditional by the conservatives themselves. As a result, today's conservatives are not opposed to the Liberals in any meaningful way, but rather simply advocate a slightly less-Liberal Liberalism. Extremity and consistency tend to win out, and thus we have a couple of centuries of mostly uninterrupted victories by the Liberals.

    The platforms of today's major conservative parties, for instance, would have been considered recklessly and radically leftist by most of the "conservative" rightists of only a hundred years ago. This is not accidental.

    In becoming dependent on "tradition" as a moral and political justification, the conservatives have made themselves the pawns of whomever can direct the formation of those traditions (and similarly, whomever is writing history).

    As for the modern left, they are not consistent about their Nominalism because, really, it's impossible to be consistent about that position and stay alive for very long. That doesn't stop them from basing a large part of their worldview and political platform on fundamentally Nominalist premises.

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  38. "When Professor Marks says that atheism implies amorality he is talking about universalist, transcendent morality."

    And he is still wrong. I think he's just trying to come up with an excuse for not having morals.

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  39. GW,

    This is true and it explains the heat in the history and culture wars as both form such a strong justifying and legitimising concept.

    The argument that tradition is weak though I'm not sure holds up. The left by using tradition as a means to advance their arguments pay respect to it. Tradition can certainly also be used, arguably more easily, by the right to advance its agenda. Whether tradition is ultimately "right" or not is not a practical argument for people who have to make their decisions in the real world. The mere fact that things have been tested over time and accepted as tradition adds to their legitimacy.

    Society in a hundred years has changed, materially and technologically, so the politics of that time won't be the same as today.

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  40. Jesse_7,

    I don't mean to suggest that tradition is weak as a cultural and political force. Quite the contrary. It has tremendous strength, especially since cultural traditions are absorbed sub-consciously at a very early age, they carry enormous motivational strength in human behavior.

    But tradition as Tradition, in other words, as a fundamental justification for any kind of reasoned position on anything, is inherently arbitrary and thus normatively and logically weak.

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  41. I have to say, I'm an atheist, but I prefer far more a conservative Christian than a liberal atheist. By what I read from you I think you might know some thinkers like Robert Wright or Stephen Pinker, which are evolutionist psychologists, or biosociologists, because when you talk about the differences between men and women you remind me of them. They make a very strong point about a traditional view of life based on materialist terms. Like they compared the similarities in a lot of cultures and they argue that there is a moral pattern, and this moral pattern is very similar to our own traditional morals, so moral relativism is not science, just an ideology that will never became reality without bringing only disarrangement. They explain everything in evolutive terms, why group cohesion is important, social status, family values... And why more than cultural, this is part of human nature that diverge in form, but never in essence.

    Sometimes I feel inspired to write something like you on my own language, Portuguese, but treating people like evolved animals wouldn't give me that much credit. At the same time I can’t call myself a conservative and fool Christians that would read what I write. I’ll think of something to present my ideas, but an atheist not always can find a source of moral knowledge in the self or on individual emotions, human nature is much more of a rally point, I think.

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