Friday, 5 August 2011

The Absence of A Shared Moral Vocabulary

I’ve always found something deeply and intuitively repugnant about contemporary moral discourse. People are no longer human beings, instead they are individuals with rights and entitlements and rational agents with first and second order preferences.

Although some may say that such language is merely a useful functioning vocabulary, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the continual usage of such terminology will gradually take over our entire conception of humanity. The idea of the solitary, atomised individual alone in the universe with no connection to others, no history, and no roots to a home or sense of participation in shared values is, amongst the so-called intellectual class at least, a commonplace beyond question. This can surely only lead to an ever increasing sense of anomie and general despair as people are encouraged to regard themselves as porcupines: keep your distance from everyone and shields up as soon as anyone gets too close.

Of course it will also be argued that such vocabulary is merely the reflection of the historical times we live in, where global capitalism has undermined every sense of particularity, tradition, community of values and so on. In a world where money is king, the only role a person can play that is understandable to all is as a conduit for the acquisition and transfer of wealth. It’s no coincidence that Liberalism and Capitalism rose together hand in hand.

Moral philosophers have responded to this in a variety of ways, but every attempt at countering the mercantile takeover of the world by establishing a rational, objective moral philosophy has failed. From Kant to Hegel to Mill, Marx and beyond, all such attempts have foundered on various rocks. Today the field of moral philosophy is still dominated by the rights-based, liberal individualistic approach. This has lead to an ever-increasing tendency toward conflict and the increase in private litigation. This can hardly be surprising when the individual is king.

In most western universities debate about ethics invariably swings back to discussion of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice and Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. Personally I’ve always had a deep aversion to Nozick’s philosophy. Again, we have the atomised individual with supposedly inalienable rights presented to us as an a priori datum. The core of his philosophy lies in protecting at all costs an individual’s right to non-interference from anything outside of his or her self. And like all contemporary moral systems his account is completely ahistorical and for this reason founders. To build his house of cards, Nozick blithely assumes a platform of just acquisition. In essence, this is the assumption that as long as I have acquired my goods, wealth or property through “just acquisition” it is mine to do with as I please. Unfortunately there is no suggestion as to how we are to decide if something has been acquired justly or not. How convenient a way of evaporating long-standing historical moral disputes! We start in medias res and take it from there. No discussion of how property and wealth may have been acquired through exploitation, robbery and violence. Time somehow legitimises everything. All that matters is you and your bank balance.

As some of you may have guessed, this gripe has been inspired by Alasdair McIntyre’s After Virtue. I recently finished reading this volume and can only heartily encourage others to do the same as it is a genuine philosophical masterpiece. The book is a devastating account of how it came to be that our moral vocabulary no longer functions adequately and explains why our ethical debates are so fractious and divisive. If you want to know how we got where we are, check it out.

14 comments:

  1. If you ask me, I think it's not so much the political/ideological system that causes it as much as the mere human tendency to want to elevate one's self above others, further intensified by greater urbanization (where we don't even know our next door neighbors). This is further reinforced by an already-existing consumerist and image-conscious culture. Whether the media itself started it is up for debate. Regardless, the media does intensify these tendencies.

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  2. Very true, Filrabat. Whatever else we can say, we can be sure that with things going the way they are, that tendency is only going to be accentuated. Only a cataclysmic natural disaster seems possible to reverse it.

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  3. I truly cannot comprehend your personal disgust with someone else's desire to be an island; not part of the insane landmass. Please do me a small favor. Read and listen to the links I've posted just below. You may find them enlightening.

    http://epautos.com/2011/08/04/maybe-napoleon-was-right/

    http://reasonandjest.com/blog/2011/08/how-statism-is-a-sickness-and-not-just-a-destructive-political-system/

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFTaC6px0OE

    You've got it backwards my friend. The individual recognizes other individuals and errs on the side of caution - hence, antinatalism. He won't overstep his bounds. He won't impose his will. He does not conform out of fear of reprisal or of being alone. Simply put, the individual is the best damn friend you have out there. Treat him well and you will be treated well. All you have to do is refrain from imposition. Remember that there is nothing at all wrong with persuasion, but coercion is the problem that creates all new problems.

    If human beings kept their physical and emotional distance from one another, no more frightened and disgusting little simians would be born. Problem solved.

    The end of human existence is our common ground. It helps to look at the deeper reasons for why we desire that end and how it can best come to pass.

    Best wishes,
    Garrett

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    1. The obvious truth is we are individuals who are biologically primed to function within a fluctuating number of social hierarchies of varying permanence and fluidity.

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  4. Garrett, good to hear from you, my friend! I'm up the walls at the moment, but plan to read and watch those links asap. The one thing I'd say right now is that I have total sympathy with the desire to be a hermit/monk/solitary/wilderness dweller. My point is that as long as you have governments, rulers/ruled, large numbers of people living together having a common philosophy based on individualism is a disaster as it promotes nothing but selfishness and lack of concern for others. As someone who lives in London and experienced the recent riots, I know whereof I speak. In Britain, there is only a culture of atomisation, rights, money-pursuit and nihilism all manifesting under the guise of "liberalism" and "rights". It simply doesn't work and the chaos is only going to get worse.

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  5. Hey man, I know what you mean. There's only so much one can take in. I didn't know you were that near to the rioting. Sounds like you haven't allowed yourself to be dragged into the mire, but all the same, be careful.

    Unfortunately, similar incidents may begin to arise more frequently here in the United States as well. Y'know, the federal (and pretty much every state) credit card bill is waaaay overdue and people don't seem to understand what this can lead to. Did you hear about the mob insanity at the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds?

    As for me, while I would never even dream of violently ganging up against anyone, in the past I was almost a victim of mob mentality violence. Take my word for it... I know where you're coming from. Take care bro!

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  6. Thanks, Garrett! Appreciate it.

    On the topic at hand, I think living as a solitary/ hermit/ self-sufficient individual is a far more realistic prospect in the States, where there is a vast amount of territory and a still relatively low population density. In Europe, where space is at a premium and the population density is uncomfortably high, it's simply not an option. Geography and History determining philosophy....

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  7. You're welcome!

    You would think so. While there are certainly vast tracts of land left unoccupied and unused, they have been claimed by the federal government and are increasingly observed and patrolled by the thugs whom the feds employ. I know of people who have tried to live out of their motor homes or even a tent in the mountains to the south of my home turf. They constantly get harassed/arrested and have their property impounded by state rangers and their friends at the Department of the Interior. It's a constant struggle... and it shouldn't have to be. We get forced into this life; so if at the very least someone demands to be left alone in their home, then their home should be regarded as their castle and their privacy should be respected.

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    1. I agree with this.

      I have some experience with it too, in the past, where you weren't harassed so much.

      In Canada, by the way: less population density, even more land.

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  8. All sounds horrible. Looking at the global picture, it really does seem as if the only thing governments are interested in these days is to enslave their populations: longer working lives, reduced salaries and pensions, more and more privatisation and so on and so on. The monastery beckons!

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  9. Be rest assured Karl, if more people went into the monasteries they soon would be targeted by the state as a hotbed of subversion.Sad to hear from Garrett that the land of the free is anything but.

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  10. I think living as a solitary/ hermit/ self-sufficient individual is a far more realistic prospect in the States, where there is a vast amount of territory and a still relatively low population density. In Europe, where space is at a premium and the population density is uncomfortably high, it's simply not an option.

    Think of Asia (India, for example)! :(

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  11. Thanks for the comment, lifehater. Good to see you here as always. Rest assured that my monastery would have trenches, towers and turrets patrolled by heavily-armed professionals:-)

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  12. I would expect nothing less from a dedicated misanthrope and nothing less would do.The fundraising for the construction of such a fortress should begin at once:)

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