Friday, June 16, 2017

Yes, But Who Defines "Good"

Conservatives like to paint the difference between conservatism and liberalism as the difference between absolute values and relativism. Hence George Neumayr in The American Spectator on the aftermath of the baseball shootings.
All of the post-Enlightenment ideologies that inform modern liberalism reject a divinely mandated moral law, which in the end is the only real prohibition on violence. If man’s will is the measure of morality, everything in principle is permitted and politics becomes a game of power that culminates in totalitarianism.

Under liberalism, the central question of politics shifted from goodness to power, from God’s plan for his creatures to man’s unfettered will.
This is all very well, except that liberals deny that there is a God and that there is a divinely mandated moral law. Also, liberals do not say that "man's will is the measure of morality." Rather, they would say that the so-called "divinely mandated divine law" is nothing more than God's will or, worse, the will of some priest determining that he had discovered the mind of God. On that view the "mandated divine moral law" is merely some conceited human's will demanding to be taken as the measure of morality.

The whole point of the Enlightenment was to rethink human society on the basis of human reason, rather than God's will.  Thinkers engaged in an effort to replace morality that issued from God's will or some prophet's will to morality based on the truth discovered in reason. But there is obviously a problem with this. Any great philosophical system is no less an expression of human will than the revelation of God's will in the mind of a priest. And in fact the Enlightenment did in fact birth some of the most horrible human "mandated moral law" in history in the disastrous socialist experiments of the 20th century.

Let us take the principle proposed by Martin Luther King Jr. and echoed by President Obama, that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." That would be a beautiful notion, but many people get the idea that the moral universe needs a bit of agency. That is how President Obama understands it when he says that "you can bend the arc of history in a better direction." Who is "you," Kemosabe? Obviously President Obama did not have Donald Trump in mind as the "you." Who gets to define "justice," and what powers shall they have?

In my view there is a way to get around this: it is to admit that any idea an individual human or a group of humans may have about the "moral law" or about "justice" is going to be incomplete, and that experience will show it to be incomplete and error-ridden. So we must start with the notion that whatever brilliant ideas we come up with for divining the meaning of "life, the universe, and everything," they are bound to be riddled with errors. Moreover, I would argue, any attempt to bend the arc of history is just as likely to bend the arc towards injustice as towards justice. Thus any human effort to discover the principles of the moral law and/or justice must start from the humble admission that "we" don't have all the answers. Or, as some wag said, the ideas of big minds can always be improved by small minds.

OK. So what does this mean? Well, it could mean that the best way to implement "change" is to follow the example of the business "start-up," by starting small and then, after solving the teething problems at a small scale, scale up to a larger size. It could mean that the wrong way to do "change" is to introduce a comprehensive and mandatory government program that starts at full scale, like Obamacare. It could be that capitalism is a very useful system because it is based on the price system that signals to all participants every day what is working and what is not working so that they can discover errors in their thinking and correct them. It could be that government programs in general are a very bad idea because it is almost impossible to change government programs on a day-to-day basis; indeed it is almost impossible to fix government programs when they break.

Today is the birthday of Adam Smith, famous for two works: The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. According to Fred Smith, these books develop two ideas that have decisively shaped the modern world.
Smith noted that humans’ evolved self-interest trait encouraged people to seek wealth-creating exchanges. That was the key element of his famous work The Wealth of Nations. But Smith also realized that such exchanges require that each party have some knowledge of what the other party seeks and what it would view as a fair deal. And that realization led Smith, in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, to focus on another human trait, empathy.
Self-interest and empathy. We need them both, and both are entwined with each other, in the Hegelian sense where the positive and negative are related to each other. Our own self-interest, in a world where piracy and plunder are discouraged, provokes us to think about other people: what do they need and what are they prepared to pay to satisfy their needs? To serve our own self-interest we have to empathize with the Other and think about what whey want and need in the process of getting what we want and need.

So maybe we discover the nature of the Good by serving our own self-interest through empathizing with the needs and the self-interest of the Other, rather than by divining moral laws and arcs of history.

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