Thursday, June 18, 2009

From Rorty to Obama to Beyond

This is the second of a 2-part series on Darwin’s impact on philosophy and politics.

In the first part, I investigated how Darwin’s materialist vision shaped Nietzsche’s moral philosophy, and then how both Darwin and Nietzsche crystallized the thinking of Adolph Hitler, which eventually led to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

Needless to say, this version of events is not popular with materialists, but I would wager that a fair examination of the evidence (see my essay here) leaves no room for debate: there is a direct, logical road from Darwin’s evolutionary theory (which – as Richard Dawkins states – made it possible for the first time “to be an intellectually-fulfilled atheist”) to the gas chamber.

This essay continues with that theme…150 years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, and 65 years after D-Day, materialism continues to be the foundation of modern philosophy, and that philosophy, in turn, continues to have a major impact on our politics.

Needless to say, however, the shape of materialism has changed. There are no Nietzsches on the intellectual scene today. And there are no Hitlers. And there is good reason for that: the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust required a shift in materialist thinking.

Once the concentration camps were opened, the materialists became legitimately scared by the implications of their philosophy…those implications had proven dehumanizing and devastating for all…so what was their solution?...Simple...Deny the value of philosophy, period!…Not the value of materialism, per se, but the value of philosophy… the quest for truth was meaningless...the quest for a morality based on truth was pointless…yes, science would go on…and materialism would go on…but philosophy would not.

The philosophy which negates philosophy is called relativism.

According to Wikipedia:

Relativism is the idea that some elements or aspects of experience or culture are relative to, i.e., dependent on, other elements or aspects.

Common statements that might be considered relativistic include

* "That's true for you but not for me" * "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" * "You can't judge other cultures by the standards of your own"

Relativism suggests that our own cognitive bias prevents us from observing something objectively with our own senses, and notational bias will apply to whatever we can allegedly measure without using our senses. In addition, we have a culture bias—shared with other trusted observers—which we cannot eliminate.

Wikipedia lists several relativist philosophers (Thomas Kuhn, Bernack Crick, etc.), but the most famous philosopher is Richard Rorty…indeed, when I was in college, I took an “Intro to Philosophy” course, and Rorty was one of the philosophers we studied…back then, I found Rorty to be vague and meaningless…and I still do…but even so, he encapsulates the idea of relativity better than anyone…

From Wikipedia:

In his “famous and controversial work” Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), “Rorty attempts to dissolve so-called philosophical problems instead of solving them… Rorty opts out of the traditional objective/subjective dialogue in favor of a communal version of truth. For him, "true" is simply an honorific knowers bestow on claims, asserting them as what "we" want to say about a particular matter.

In his book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity...

Rorty takes a deflationary attitude to truth, believing there is nothing of interest to be said about truth in general, including the contention that it is generally subjective… "truth" (as it is used conventionally) is considered to be unintelligible and meaningless…

As for moral relativism, for Rorty, this accusation can only be considered a criticism if one believes in a metaphysically salient and salutary moral, which Rorty firmly does not…

Rorty then discusses his liberal utopia. He gives no argument for liberalism, and believes that there have been and will be many ironists who are not liberal, but he does propose that we as members of a democratic society are becoming more and more liberal…

In his utopia, people would never discuss restrictive metaphysical generalities such as "good", "moral", or "human nature", but would be allowed to communicate freely with each other on entirely subjective terms.

Today, Rorty-style relativism is the ideology of the Left…and indeed, it is the guiding principle of President Obama’s Administration…Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution made this connection in a May 2009 article in The Weekly Standard. I’ve posted most of the article below…

As candidate and as president, Barack Obama has presented himself as a postpartisan pragmatist. He has generally refrained from speaking in explicitly ideological terms, and earned a reputation as a silver-tongued orator. Yet on important issues he has seemed anything but pragmatic, adopting rigidly left-liberal or progressive views, suppressing salient consequences, and putting forward misleading or incomplete arguments disrespectful of the case on the other side. In fact, Obama is a pragmatist, but of a kind that is anything but postpartisan.

To be sure, distinguished scholarly authority has vouched for the postpartisanship of Obama's pragmatism. In January 2008, writing in the New Republic, Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein--a friend and former colleague of Obama's at the University of Chicago Law School, an informal adviser to Obama's presidential campaign, and now head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs--argued that Obama was a "visionary minimalist" who, though "willing to think big and to endorse significant departures from the status quo," would "prefer to do so after accommodating, learning from, and bringing on board a variety of different perspectives." Returning to the topic in the New Republic in September 2008, Sunstein emphasized that Obama "prefers solutions that can be accepted by people with a wide variety of theoretical inclinations"; his "skepticism about conventional ideological categories is principled, not strategic"; and his "form of pragmatism is heavily empirical; he wants to know what will work."

Sunstein's idealizing portrait, however, overlooks the influential refinements of pragmatism wrought at our universities over the last two decades.

As befits his successful journey through the academy--Columbia B.A., Harvard Law School J.D., senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School--Obama practices a pragmatism that reflects the 1990s revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century school of thought launched by Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. In its original philosophical, or anti-philosophical, sense--as in its ordinary, everyday sense--pragmatism stands for flexibility in solving problems as opposed to insistence on solutions that conform to religious or metaphysical dogma or rigid moral and political agendas. At its most extreme, philosophical pragmatism denies the very existence of objective truth, arguing that opinions we declare true are merely those that have proved useful to one interest or another.

In the 1980s and 1990s, philosophy professor Richard Rorty--in scholarly papers, learned books, academic lectures, and generally accessible writings--infused pragmatism with a decidedly partisan meaning. Or perhaps, as Rorty suggested, he brought out the original pragmatism's latent partisanship. His synthesis proved popular in philosophy departments, among political theorists, and in law schools. While Obama may never have read a word Rorty wrote, the new pragmatism permeated the atmosphere of the university world Obama inhabited. It proclaimed that philosophical questions were subordinate to political questions, and that the proper political question in America is how to promote progressive ends.

In Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, originally delivered as the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University in 1997 and published the following year as a short book by Harvard University Press, Rorty stated his synthesis most succinctly. Proceeding from the dogma that "nobody knows what it would be like to try to be objective when attempting to decide what one's country really is, what its history really means," Rorty declared that there is no point in asking whether any particular account "got America right." Nevertheless, Rorty seemed to think he got right the nature of right and left in America. The right, he proclaims, is the party of the status quo, defined by the quest to preserve inherited privilege. In contrast, the left, or the left that takes its cue from Walt Whitman and John Dewey--"prophets," proclaims Rorty, of a "civic religion"--is the party of hope; it seeks to bring the reality of America into harmony with democracy's progressive promise.

Although scorning traditional philosophy as obviously refuted and flatly rejecting biblical faith as childish nonsense, Rorty celebrates democracy's progressive promise not as an alternative to religion but as an alternative faith. Agreeing with Dewey that "democracy is neither a form of government nor a social expediency, but a metaphysic of the relation of man and his experience in nature," Rorty teaches that the proper aim of American politics is nothing less than to embody in social and political life "a new conception of what it is to be human." This new conception rejects all claims to "knowledge of God's will, Moral Law, the laws of History or the Facts of Science." Instead, Rorty concludes, the pragmatist will make "shared utopian dreams" his guide to politics.

To realize its utopian dreams, the new pragmatism makes use of a fundamental deception. Purporting to focus on practical consequences, it equates what works with what works to increase government's responsibility to promote social justice in America. Although it reduces morality to interest and dismisses the distinction between true and false as a delusive vestige of an obsolete metaphysics, it treats the progressive interpretation of America as, in effect, good and true. Under the guise of inclusiveness, it denigrates and excludes rival moral and political opinions.

So too it seems for Obama's pragmatism: It appears to be another name for achieving progressive ends; flexibility is confined to the means. This helps explain the sometimes glaring gap between Obama's glistening postpartisan promises and his aggressively partisan policies. Judging by his conduct--as pragmatism officially instructs--Obama appears to have concluded that the best way to maintain public support for progressive programs is to divert attention from the full range of their consequences and, where possible, to refrain from making progressive principles too explicit…

A truly postpartisan pragmatist--or a pragmatist in the ordinary, everyday sense--would pay attention to the long-term economic consequences of massive government costs and expansion. He would also show interest in the full range of moral consequences of his policies, in particular the practical impact on citizens' incentives for responsibly managing their lives of a great enlargement of government responsibilities for managing their lives for them. But a pragmatist for whom it is second nature to measure all policy by how well it promotes a progressive agenda might well ignore or deflect consideration of these awkward consequences…

As president…Obama has skillfully exploited the American hunger for a politics of compromise and accommodation to ram through Congress an extremely partisan transformation of American government.

The problem is not partisanship, but a deceptive form of pragmatism, where pretending to be nonpartisan is a pragmatic strategy for imposing far-reaching progressive policies on an unwary public. This pragmatism is unpragmatic because it suppresses inconvenient consequences, and disrespectful of citizens because it obscures its governing principles and ultimate intentions.

It is also a threat to our freedom, which depends on a lively understanding of our constitutional principles and an informed and robust debate about the full range of consequences--social and economic, moral and strategic--of our political choices.

Indeed, in November 2008, the left-wing website Below the Belt, observed…

Richard Rorty’s 1998 work, Achieving Our Country, reads like the masterplan of Barack Obama’s successful presidential election campaign. In the book, Rorty calls for a reconfiguration of the American Left. He argues that, since the 1960s, progressives in the United States have been engaged in a cynical and detached ‘politics of spectatorship’…

Rorty’s critiques of the Left’s ‘politics of spectatorship,’ and its sole focus on ‘cultural politics’ were adopted very successfully by Barack Obama’s campaign…

Overall, the Obama campaign seemed to follow – word-for-word – Rorty’s advice for the American Left: (1) restore hope in America and inspire people to exercise agency; (2) focus on economic issues and avoid polarizing ‘cultural’ debates.

What should we make of all this?

First of all, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that Obama is a deep thinker…while he is an excellent politician (in the sense of getting himself elected and staying popular with the voters) and it would be reasonable to assume from his academic credentials (Columbia, Harvard Law, etc), that he has above-average brainpower, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he’s a “deep thinker,” per se. We have no evidence that Obama is a man who takes ideas seriously – whether they be political, philosophical, or moral. By default – not by choice – Obama can be described as a Rorty-style “relativist” and “pragmatist.”

There are 2 major problems with relativism…The first is that it’s false. Splitting the difference between truth and error only leads to error…if one person says “2+2=4” and another person says, “2+2=6,” while it might be pragmatic to say “2+2=5,” it would NOT be CORRECT.

Second, as Rorty demonstrates (and other experts have observed), relativism (while seemingly centrist and moderate) is actually an ideology of the left. If there is Truth, then it is Truth, regardless of where we mortals place it on the political spectrum. Conservatives are confident that Truth is on their side – and eager to demonstrate it through facts, arguments, logic, and experience. The Left does not have that confidence. They win arguments not by seeking Truth, but by blurring it; by denying its existence; by calling the search for Truth “partisan” and "divisive,” by calling opposition to their agenda – the surrender of the individual to the state – a “false choice.”

What does this have to do with Darwin and Nietzsche?...well, as I’ve pointed out before, materialism – as an intellectual exercise – is dead, and indeed, today’s materialists essentially concede that point by shifting their arguments from “materialism is true” to “human beings don’t have the ability to decipher truth” (see my post here).

During the past century, the moral confidence of Nietzsche has become the weak insecurity of Rorty; the messianic boldness of Hitler has become the small-ball pragmatism of Obama. What links all of these men through 100 years of history is an epistemological commitment to Darwinism – and the quest – ever shifting – to derive a moral vision from the swamp of Darwininian materialism. And of course, it will fail. Like it must.

Consider the ability of pragmatism to deal with arguably the most important political issue of our time – stopping the descent into government spending, debt, and control.

Take a look at these 3 charts…

Before I continue, let me just state for the record that I don’t think that Rorty-style relativism got us into this mess…politicians have lied and stolen from the voters since the beginning of time…indeed, the following 3 quotes illustrate that democracy has always been vulnerable to the corruption of greed (the greed of both politicians and the voters themselves).

"When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic." - Ben Franklin

"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been about 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness; From selfishness to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage." - Alexander Fraser Tytler

"Democracy is a form of government that cannot long survive, for as soon as the people learn that they have a voice in the fiscal policies of the government, they will move to vote for themselves all the money in the treasury, and bankrupt the nation." - Karl Marx

With that in mind, the key question is: how will Rorty-style thinking affect America in 2009 and beyond? Should we be confident that “moral relativism” and “pragmatism” will get us out of this, or make it worse?

Needless to say, I am pessimistic…Using Rorty’s philosophy, the political elite sees themselves as referees…when it comes to spending the taxpayers’ money, the question isn’t whether (for example) spending billions of dollars to subsidize rich farmers is right or wrong…the question is: what’s the right amount of money to make the farmers happy without making the taxpayers unhappy?…when it comes to cultural matters, the question isn’t whether racial quotas are right or wrong, or whether a “backdoor draft is moral or immoral…the critical issue is “what can we get away with in order to stay in power?”...and what, pray tell, are the consequences of that philosophy? Debt and tyranny.

If Hitler was reductionism on steroids, then this is “reductionism light”…instead of the hard tyranny of gas chamber, we have the soft tyranny of high taxes, racial quotas, recycling laws, and the persecution of religion in the public square…Ironically, by facilitating and encouraging a dependence on government (see Charles Murray’s speech), we are seeing the coming of Nietzsche’s “Last Man.”

In his recent speech, “Live Free or Die,” Mark Steyn stated…

To rekindle the spark of liberty once it dies is very difficult. The inertia, the ennui, the fatalism is more pathetic than the demographic decline and fiscal profligacy of the social democratic state, because it's subtler and less tangible. But once in a while it swims into very sharp focus. Here is the writer Oscar van den Boogaard from an interview with the Belgian paper De Standaard. Mr. van den Boogaard, a Dutch gay 'humanist' (which is pretty much the trifecta of Eurocool), was reflecting on the accelerating Islamification of the Continent and concluding that the jig was up for the Europe he loved. 'I am not a warrior, but who is?' he shrugged. 'I have never learned to fight for my freedom. I was only good at enjoying it.'"

However, as Steyn’s speech proves, even the “Last Man” is not truly the “Last Man.” Instead, he is the last civilized man; the one who is finally pushed aside by the forces of barbarism – all of those forces which are untainted by feelings of inadequacy, relativism, guilt, etc. Who are these barbarians? Someone like this guy…

So even if we avoid a repeat of “reductionism on steroids," we may find ourselves in a state of tyranny or anarchy (or both). Such might be our fate. Unless we choose a different fate.

In conclusion, there is a strange, perverse logic from Darwin to Nietzsche to Hitler and then from Rorty to Obama…whether it’s the “hard reductionism” of the old era or the “soft reductionism” of today, it's reasonable to say that reductionism is incompatible with a healthy, successful democracy…that fact alone should make us question the truth of materialism…and lastly, it should make the quest for a materialist alternative an urgent priority.


Note: Sources for the economic graphs can be found here, here, and here.


Cerebus said...

Excellent blog! I will be back.

Todd White said...

Thank you, Sir! Stop by anytime...