Thursday, April 25, 2013

The spectre of nihilism

It might seem from some of my previous posts that I see philosophical thinking as outmoded and impotent. This is not my view, however, as I have consistently argued that there is and will remain an important place for philosophical thinking within – and on the margins of – the various sciences.

But I do – as I have most recently discussed here – have misgivings about pursuing areas like ethics and metaphysics independently of scientific investigations.

At the risk of boring those who don't have a vital interest in these matters and aggravating those who do, I want to air here a couple of my doubts about ethics.

I acknowledge that I am making very general and sweeping claims that reflect a personal – and also, in a sense, a conservative – perspective. But I wouldn't be making them if I didn't think they were objectively plausible.

Philosophical ethics, as I see it, is fatally incomplete because it carries within itself an implicit promise to provide fundamental justifications which it cannot fulfil.

Even if foundationalism is out of favor amongst philosophers, it seems to me that the very existence of a discipline of normative ethics inevitably raises expectations that philosophical reason can provide a basis for morality. But, of course, it can't. (And nor can science, I hasten to add.)

Moral philosophers have done some valuable work over the years clarifying ethical questions and elaborating ethical systems or frameworks of various kinds. But, more often than not, they have brought to their work strongly formed but unacknowledged convictions.

Most have been aligned with traditional religious and/or humanistic schools of thought, while some have operated within radical traditions of various kinds.

My point is that, loosed from the constraints of such implicit, culturally-formed convictions and beliefs, reason can all too readily become a destroyer of values, a kind of universal acid.

Our values are bio-cultural products, and there is every reason to see some of them as quite delicate and vulnerable.

In fact, the spectre of nihilism (which Nietzsche grappled with) has been a very real one in the West for at least the last century-and-a-half.

Writers in the Western tradition, from the Greek tragedians on, but especially within the last two centuries, have often written of a realm of chaos that lies behind or beneath the veneer of civilization. And many non-Western religious traditions also give credence or recognition to dark forces. (Think of the Hindu goddess Kali, for example.)

But philosophical ethics generally bears the stamp of two very optimistic (overly optimistic, in my view) traditions of thought: Western humanism, deriving from the Christian Platonism of the Renaissance, and the 18th-century Enlightenment. Both of these traditions looked beneath the surface of life and found, not darkness and chaos, but a reassuring order.

And yet the darkness and chaos is there – as a psychological reality, and maybe as more than that.

The view of the world which modern science is revealing has, in my view, a lot more in common with our darker religious and literary intuitions than with Platonistic humanism or with the cheerful deism of the 18th century.

Science is also throwing light on how our brains work, and the picture that is emerging seems, in general terms, to vindicate thinkers such as Nietzsche and Freud (who emphasized the role of unconscious elements over conscious rationality) rather than the rationalists.

Increasingly, I am coming to see ethics in terms of what is conducive to mental well-being and the social integration of the individual.

And certain forms of rationality-based introspection and discourse can actually work against these goals.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Ten conservative insights

1. Conservatives are more inclined than progressives and radicals to find value in the present, in life as it is, with all its imperfections and injustices. Resentment, in particular, is to be avoided at all costs.

2. And you can't really value the present without valuing the past. A sense of history is all about seeing the past in its own terms, and not just as a source of debating points for current controversies.

3. Though non-conservatives often resist the idea, conservative modes of thinking are, in fact, universal, as human brains are structured in a conservative way. This was evident long before evolutionary biology and brain science spelled out the details. The narrator in Proust's great novel about time and memory, for instance, reflects on the way our concepts are formed in our early years and affect the way we perceive new things. His concept of a flower was based on the flowers he saw in childhood, and exotic forms encountered in later life – like orchids – were somehow not real flowers.

4. Conservatives give due recognition to the familial and social instincts upon which cohesive societies – and, indeed, the individual's sense of self – are built.

5. They also tend to place great importance on certain (unfashionable) character traits – like self-discipline and frugality, for instance.

6. Related to this, conservatives have a more sophisticated notion of freedom than leftists and libertarians. They know that a lightly regulated society which allows the individual to exercise personal judgement and discretion to a high degree will only function properly if individuals are generally honest and self-disciplined. Personal freedom has its roots in morality rather than in law or politics.

7. Society is organic. This is a metaphor often used by conservative social thinkers. The essential point behind it is that social life and cultures grow and develop over time according to their own imperatives and may be tended, as a plant or garden is tended, but not controlled.

8. Another angle on this, for those who are wary of metaphors, is that the world is more complicated than we think and our theories are always going to be unable to take full account of that complexity. If conservatives are seen to be averse to theorizing (about the moral, social and political realms), it is because they recognize that social reality inevitably transcends any models we might construct.

9. And, clearly, trying to implement or actively impose such models on the real world is asking for trouble. Unintended adverse consequences are guaranteed.

10. It is important to be sensitive not only to the ever-present possibility of unintended consequences but also to the contingencies of time and place. Caution and pragmatism tend to characterize conservative approaches to political action.