Morality and modernity

Modernism believed in the power of science to deliver truth and progress.  To the modernists, facts were hard, undeniable things which the scientific method uncovered and explained, in a long march to enlightenment.  All variables were known and accounted for.  Such power allowed the manipulation, for human benefit, of atomic particles and social forces alike.

The modernist idea suffered near-fatal trauma in the violence of World War II and the slow-motion failure of the Soviet Union.  Human command over the facts of nature were shown to produce ever more horrific weapons, while efforts to plan an equitable community ended in killing fields, gulags, and disintegration.

Even nature lost its lawfulness, and science its bearings, as the most brilliant scientists began to describe a contradictory, fundamentally incomprehensible universe.

In the realm of ideas, the only attempt to replace modernism has been a wholly unserious one:  what is loosely called “postmodernism.”  This is the assertion that there is no truth, that all human relations, even sex and race, are “socially constructed,” and that all previous explanations of the world, including scientific ones, are self-serving lies perpetrated by Eurocentric white males.

Logically, postmodernists should refuse to “privilege” any information over any other, and embrace nihilism in morality.  Yet they jump out of the way of speeding vehicles, travel in modern aircraft rather than flying carpets, and live in a permanent state of righteous indignation against, for example, Eurocentric white males.

Postmodernism’s lack of seriousness extends beyond its flawed premises to the thunderingly obvious truth that nobody has ever acted on its principles.

I’d go further:  we are all still modernists under the skin.  We avoid grand statements about progress or enlightenment because we have a bad conscience about these ideals, but we expect every illness to be researched and cured, every social “problem” to be “solved” like a mathematical equation, and every inch of our environment to be under our command.

We retain the modernist’s faith in our ability to grasp cause and effect.  A sense of sinfulness pervades our researches, however, and to atone we drag our findings, like corpses, into a postmodern boneyard of self-loathing and self-flagellation.  The best example of this is climate science, with its contention that humanity has destroyed the atmosphere yet can, by a heroic effort, “save the earth”:  a postmodern accusation coupled to a modernist fantasy of control.

We still pretend to understand the great causal framework of the world – but we don’t understand, the world is too complex, the variables too many, human life too limited in time and scope.  The best guesses often lead to bitter surprises:  a stalemated war, a financial crisis, an electorate in revolt.  And in the hard sciences, a suspicion that truth itself wears out like an old shoe.

We are overwhelmed by the world.  I believe the modernist perspective contains a primitive element which denies this predicament and transforms hope into fact.  The question, for me, is how to avoid this error without triggering postmodernist petulance.  Consider this a value statement:  I want to retain much of the modern world, including modern science, progress, and even that white male instrument of oppression, the Enlightenment.

Start with the rules of community life:  with morality.  Unlike the modernist, I accept our ignorance of the cosmic framework of cause and effect.  Human life abounds with unintended consequences.  Attempts to impose rationalist formulas on the social fabric will therefore end badly – in rage and frustration and failure.

Morality, I deeply believe, is given.  By whom?  By our ancestors.  By the community.  Is this the tyranny of conformity?  Rather ask the question:  if individual reason can’t produce a successful moral order, what can?  Morality can only be the result of cultural evolution:  of behaviors found successful by a specific people, over time, in a given environment.  It’s the wisdom of experience, and it trumps pure logic in every domain of action.

Here’s something I believe in:  treat every person as my equal.  I didn’t arrive at this rule of conduct by way of reason.  It was given:  part of the cultural baggage of being American.  It’s irrational on multiple levels, not least in that it works differently in different places.  Equal treatment in the ballpark, for example, employs behaviors very different from equal treatment at the workplace.

Here’s another belief I hold:  turn in an honest hard day’s work.  Why?  Isn’t it better to be idle rich, or even an idle sponger?

I have never found a satisfactory answer to this question.

Moral ideals like equality, honesty, and hard work aim to forge a particular type of community:  in our case, one in which every citizen is free to pursue happiness in public engagement and in private activity.  The wisdom of the American moral community, past and present, has detected a connection between behaviors based on these virtues and consequences favorable to its chosen moral order.

But this is long term and grosso modo, scaled to the community’s history, not an individual’s life.  Morality is given.  The individual might interpret the ideals, but can’t challenge or reject them.  A moral adult doesn’t ask why:  only children and postmodernists do.  And the proper answer isn’t “Because the consequences are favorable” but another question:  “What’s the alternative?”

In fact, we are profoundly ignorant of consequences.  That is a major difference between my position and the modernist’s:  a radical uncertainty when confronting the causal framework of the world.  I might treat others equitably and inspire anger or contempt.  I might work hard yet be left behind by a clever free rider.  If I aspire to moral adulthood, I won’t require happy but improbable fictions.

The American moral order is self-justifying.  This is true of France, China, Swaziland – of every community under the sun.  Like the Old Testament God, each moral order proclaims:  “I am that I am.”

The virtues demanded by the American moral order are absolute, not consequentialist.  I treat people equitably and work hard because it’s the right way to act, not because I expect favorable results.

Modernity, progress, and the Enlightenment have been baked into the software of the American moral order.  To embrace the latter is to promote the former.  (Interestingly, the same can be said of many Christian virtues.  Our house has many mansions.)

Moral facts in the American moral order are perspectival but objective.  Given human limitations, this is the only kind of truth available to our species.

It may be that truth wears out, and things fall apart.  I have no say in that.  In morality, the choice is between the wisdom of the community and my own personal thoughts and desires.  One is broad and capacious, the other narrow and self-centered; one is a rock and will wear out slowly, the other is a phantom which never really existed.

In reality, my subjective life was shaped and expressed by the American moral order.  I am what it is.  Of course, there’s often friction, and sometimes pain, in this unequal relationship.  I may powerfully crave something forbidden to me.  That is the tragedy of the human condition, which unserious minds, clueless about alternatives, label “social construction” and pretend to reject.

But sometimes my personal desires fly on the wings of a community ideal – for example, watching my children grow into free citizens and moral adults – and in those moments I transcend my desires, my meager dreams, even my life, and become part of something far larger and better than myself.  And that, in turn, is the glory of the human condition.


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