Two cheers for vulgar morality

The name of this blog means something, though not what one might think.  From Socrates on, most Greek philosophers and their European descendants maintained that morality was a fact in the world, like my nose or your SUV.  The goal of moral philosophy was to identify and isolate this fact.

The problem was, nobody could find it.  When someone thought they had finally figured it out, everyone else disagreed.  Since it would be difficult to disagree about the factness of my nose or of your SUV, the whole enterprise became mired in despair.

Enter the postmodernists.  To them, there’s no such thing as morality.  All human rules are subjective, not facts at all.  Therefore, they are arbitrary.  So, why bother?

There is still another way to look at the matter, first proposed by the great sophist thinker, Protagoras.  Morality isn’t like my nose at all, he would say:  it’s the set of behaviors favored by the community.  Why “favored”?  Because, across the long sweep of history, some behaviors were found to be successful, and others failure-prone.  Courage has been an element in every successful community, for example; selfishness has been associated with failure everywhere.

But what’s “community”?  Isn’t it a matter of identity and choice?  That’s the postmodernist take:  Protagoras would disagree.  The community is given.  We are born into it, and we can either adapt to its ways or exile ourselves from it.  Get roaring drunk in your backyard:  the community will have something to say, regardless of your identity.

But isn’t this as subjective and arbitrary as anything the postmodernists preach?  Not really.  Morality is objective in the same way that money or language are objective:  I can argue a dollar bill is an arbitrary unit of value, but even if I win the argument, I won’t get more than 100 cents for it.  Similarly, the behaviors demanded by morality are shared and known to all.  Courage is known, as is cowardice.  Disregarding morality, like abandoning the dollar, doesn’t lead to freedom but to chaos.  The penalty for continued disregard is failure of the community, and of most individuals in it.

The wisdom of Protagoras was considered conventionalism by the philosophers.  Because morality so conceived was based on public opinion, not logic, it was called vulgar morality.

The postmodernists who more or less monopolize the discussion today are linear descendants of the philosophical school.  They refute virtue with logic.  They mock traditional ideals of behavior and prefer revolutionary cant.  Marriage is enslavement by the patriarchy.  Sexual fidelity is a symptom of pathological repression.  Honesty is delusion and courage is fascism.

What of reproduction?  Do we have a moral duty to have children?  In a post some time ago, I asked that question.  A blog with the happy name of Rum&Monkey has picked up the question, and run a survey.  The answers are what one might expect: what’s community anyhow — the duty is to teach the children well — there’s too many people on the planet — a kind of rock and roll postmodernism.

Then there’s this article by Phillip Longman.  The gist of it:  liberals aren’t breeding.  In liberal Seattle, “there are 49 percent more dogs than children.”  Fertility, it turns out, isn’t just a biological attribute.  It “correlates strongly with a wide range of political, cultural and religious attitudes.”

This correlation between secularism, individualism and low fertility portends a vast change in modern societies. In the USA, for example, nearly 20% of women born in the late 1950s are reaching the end of their reproductive lives without having children. The greatly expanded childless segment of contemporary society, whose members are drawn disproportionately from the feminist and counter-cultural movements of the 1960s and ’70s, will leave no genetic legacy. Nor will their emotional or psychological influence on the next generation compare with that of people who did raise children. [. . .]

Tomorrow’s children, therefore, unlike members of the postwar baby boom generation, will be for the most part descendants of a comparatively narrow and culturally conservative segment of society. To be sure, some members of the rising generation may reject their parents’ values, as often happens. But when they look for fellow secularists with whom to make common cause, they will find that most of their would-be fellow travelers were quite literally never born.

Does one have a moral duty to reproduce?  No more than one has a positive duty to marry or have friends or be charitable toward any given person.  But morality, Protagoras would insist, comes as a package.  It can’t be cherry-picked.  A person isn’t an addition of individual quirks but a pattern of behavior:  tip the pattern to selfishness, multiply it among large numbers, and one arrives at the sociopolitical equivalent of a suicide pact.

Postmodernism rejects tradition and community in moral decision-making.  All that’s left is me.  Liberalism in this new century also means an aggressive pursuit of abstract personal rights, and a demand that the state take the place of family and community.  All that exists is politics.  Whatever one thinks of the rights and wrongs of these outlooks, they are doomed to brief careers.  After one generation, the traditionalists, opinionated carriers of vulgar morality, will move into the deserted places left by postmodernist children who never were.


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