Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Reports of My Death are Greatly Exaggerated

Among the achievements of Western Civilization is the proposition that people by their very nature have certain fundamental rights.  In John Locke’s day, they were thought to be life, liberty, and property.  Thomas Jefferson listed them as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Our own Constitution returned to the Lockean formulation with the Fifth Amendment.  In any case, these notions of rights depend on a fundamental assumption about people:  Each of us is actually a conscious, self-aware being.  If we were all mindless, automated robots that only simulated consciousness, we would not have a moral claim on so-called human rights.  As self-aware, conscious beings, we begin life with a set of rights, established by natural law, the infringement of which amounts to a grave crime.


In Locke’s day, or in the Founders’, there was no doubt that this self-aware consciousness existed because each of us possessed a divine soul.  Really, the soul carried the natural rights, not so much the self.  The soul was an idea as old as Western Civilization itself, older than Christianity.  The ancient Roman Stoics wrote often concerning the soul (“de anima”), as had the Greeks before them (“peri psyches”).  But during the 19th century the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, in his atheistic and anti-Christian works, proclaimed the death of God.  Nietzsche has had a powerful influence on European and American thought, especially in the colleges and universities.  The late Allan Bloom recounted, in his The Closing of the American Mind, how the influence of Nietzsche pervaded the groves of academe.  Along with Nietzsche’s atheism, there also has crept into the universities a new view of the self.

Naturally, when Nietzsche pronounced “God is dead,” he likewise proclaimed the death of the soul.  But he did not stop there.  Nietzsche also proclaimed the death of the concept of the self.  He argued that we only think there is a self because our language requires us to have subjects for sentences.  Even when we talk about a purely natural phenomenon, like rain, we find ourselves inventing a subject to be the agent, the active cause, of the rain.  We may ask, “Is it raining?”  We may answer, “Yes, it is raining.”  Well, what is the “it” in those sentences?  Some conscious being, some agent?  Nietzsche could certainly not accept that God might be making the rain, and that left only blind, unconscious nature itself.  Rather than saying “it is raining,” perhaps we ought to say, “Rain is falling.”  Even that expression, though, just turns the grammar around and makes the rain itself the subject.  So, Nietzsche concluded, it is our language that makes us posit the existence of agents in general and selves in particular.  The self, therefore, is just an illusion.

Many theorists these days seem disposed to accept the death of the concept of self as old news.  CONSVLTVS is not so easily convinced.  The question is an important one, because the status of human rights as understood for centuries depends on the answer.  In an increasingly secular society, Conservatives are well advised to formulate their arguments in secular terms.  Religious arguments are simply a waste of breath in any dispute with unbelievers, and so CONSVLTVS intends to employ only secular reasoning.  (It is his conviction that secular reasoning is sufficient to make the Conservative case in almost all instances.)  So, leaving aside the question of an immortal soul, it should be apparent that if Nietzsche is correct then the entire Western concept of human rights will vanish like rain in a drought.  Without a self, there is no person to be disadvantaged by a denial of rights, no one conscious being whose well-being can be infringed.  Without a self, human beings are mindless automata, undeserving of moral stature.  Without too much fanfare, however, certain members of the academic community have accepted Nietzsche’s claims on the death of the self.  Though not intending a grand disruption in the legal theories of human rights, they have nevertheless continued Nietzsche’s work in that direction.

Of course, it is intellectually dishonest to evaluate the truth of a proposition by whether we like its implications.  So, the first step really must be to see whether Nietzsche’s proclamation on the death of the self is true.

Long before Nietzsche wrote, a French philosopher named Descartes was working through some existential problems.  Descartes, who unlike Nietzsche was a religious man, was concerned about how to establish the reliability of his sense impressions.  In the way that only philosophers have, Descartes asked himself if perhaps all his sense impressions might not be the creations of a wicked devil, sent by Satan, who deliberately kept him from seeing the world as it is.  What’s more, such a devil could even cause him to perceive a world when it did not even exist.

Given such a devil, Descartes would have no way of verifying any empirical fact through observation, which meant that the only thing he could accept as true were tautologies like mathematics (which functions within a closed logical loop and is therefore provable on its own terms).  Apart from such logical certainties, Descartes reasoned there was only one thing about which the devil could not fool him:  his own self.  He might doubt that everything else existed, but he could not doubt that his own mind existed.  As he put it, “I think, therefore I am.”

What would Nietzsche have made of such a statement?  He clearly knew about what philosophers call the Cartesian “cogito” (from the Latin, “cogito ergo sum,” “I think therefore I am”).  For Nietzsche, though, Descartes was just presupposing an agent, a thinker, because language (whether German or French or Latin) requires a subject for every sentence.  In the view of CONSVLTVS, however, Nietzsche missed the central insight of Descartes.  To put it plainly, if the self is an illusion, then who is being fooled?

Descartes’ certainty that his self was the one thing in the world that really existed derived from powerful logic.  Imagine that you had a self that perceived the world and was self-aware, but that also did not really exist.  The picture is impossible, because if the self does not exist, then it cannot perceive anything at all—even itself.  On the other hand, even if all it can perceive is itself, well, then it must exist.  But apart from logic, there is also a very deep instinct about the self that appears to be nearly universal among people.  We simply perceive the existence of the self as a fact.  It is very hard to describe in abstract terms, but so is any other part of experience.  CONSVLTVS knows exactly what blue looks like to him, but there is no epistemological certainty that you perceive it the same way.  Still, when you talk about a blue sky, CONSVLTVS will agree with you that the sky is blue.  Likewise, when you say “I,” everyone knows what you mean.

The universality of this experience is quite probably the real reason so many languages display a sentence structure that requires a subject (even if only implied).  So, Nietzsche had it backwards.  It is not that we only think the self exists because our language forces us to have a subject for a sentence.  Rather, we use language that requires a subject because we know our selves exist.

Here is another refutation of Nietzsche on this point.  If the self is an illusion, an artifact of grammar, then what is going on with sleep?  We actually know what it would be like to be mindless automata because we lose consciousness every night.  If there is no real self, then why do we perceive a difference between waking and sleeping?  Or, for that matter, between sobriety and drunkenness?  Since we do perceive these differences, we may conclude with Descartes that we exist as conscious, sentient beings.

In metaphorical terms, the self is like an irreducible singularity of awareness.  Behind all the masks and game-playing and habitual interactions we have with other people there is always that kernel of awareness.  And that singularity of awareness, that self, remains the bedrock of our philosophy of natural rights.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Restoring Honor, Rejecting Relativism

Today’s rally in Washington has significance beyond Governor Sarah Palin, Mr. Glenn Beck, patriotism, civil demonstrations, and the usual Leftist character assassination.  For the first time in a very long while, a national figure is appealing to honor.  That concept has lost almost all its serious content in the public vocabulary, apart from some residual meaning applied to the conduct of firefighters, police, and the military.  Outside that limited circle, the population seems to have lost all faith in honor, or indeed in any other relic of a shared moral culture.  But the fact that Mr. Beck felt able to appeal to honor, with a straight face, is an important development.


Mr. Beck’s success in the past several years makes it highly likely that he possesses a superb sense of public opinion.  Evidently, he sensed that a significant portion of the public would respond to a call characterized in moral terms.  “Honor” and “morals” and “duty” are the kinds of words that make many Americans uncomfortable.  Moral relativism has been king for at least a full generation.  For at least 30 years, children have been raised to believe that everyone may legitimately follow his or her own code of conduct, so long as doing so does no direct harm to anyone else.  The public schools follow this plan perfectly, of course, and it fits in comfortably with egalitarian rhetoric.  The unchallenged reign of relativism is what makes Mr. Beck’s appeal to honor so startling.

Relativism has soaked the national psyche so thoroughly that many young people cannot work up either sympathy or outrage when confronted with the most villainous conduct.  Recently, CONSVLTVS happened to meet a young woman trying to finish a bachelor’s degree.  At 27, she was already a single mother.  She struck CONSVLTVS as a perfectly conditioned member of her generation, in tune with the zeitgeist and all that.  Not long ago, there was a news story about a young Afghan couple who were stoned to death in their own village for marrying without permission.  Our single-mother student’s comment on the event was, “Well, what they did must have been really bad in that culture.”

     Such moral lethargy is not the only fruit of relativism.  Nothing is more tyrannical, more Puritanical after its own fashion, than moral relativism, which is actually a cloak for imperialistic political correctness.  Orthodox relativists often become enraged when anyone challenges relativism itself.  Rather than philosophically allowing the other party his own view, they defend their faith with a fervor that most traditionalists are embarrassed to muster.  The two systems are inevitably in conflict.  The relativists are always quick to point out that if society insists on traditional morality, society is imposing one moral code in favor of all the others.  But the truth of it, rarely acknowledged by the Left, is that insisting on relativism amounts to tearing down traditional morality.  Once there is broad consensus against traditional morality—as we observe in too much of our Republic these days—any assertion of traditional values becomes bigotry or discrimination.  (Think of the epithets used to describe Mr. Beck and Governor Palin at their rally today.)  So, by a process that should not surprise any student of human nature, the command that “all moral codes are equal” becomes a savage attack on traditional morality.

Tradition represents the consensus of a people’s experience.  Human beings are not born like blank slates on which anything may be written.  This notion, the so-called “tabula rasa” view of human nature, has now been thoroughly debunked by evidence from the fields of evolutionary psychology.  That anyone might need such evidence is a testament to the slender historical learning of certain academics.  History clearly teaches that people have a well-defined nature.  Given governments of tyranny, liberty, or license, people throughout history have behaved in remarkably similar ways.  The trickiest to maintain has always been representative government, which depends for its success on a national consensus of morality.

Further, that consensus must include clear rules of conduct that restrain some natural human impulses and encourage others.  In particular, the code must endorse self-sufficiency, self-restraint, and self-discipline.  The first duty of a citizen in a free republic is to take care of himself, so as not to be a burden on his fellow citizens.  By necessary implication, therefore, free citizens must cultivate all the traditional virtues.  They must also resist the familiar list of vices toward which human nature naturally inclines.  CONSVLTVS will expand on this point in a later post, but it is enough for now to point out that free societies require an explicit moral code.

Who remembers the 1970s?  “Do your own thing!”  “If it feels good, do it!”  Who remembers the putative distinction between morals and ethics?  Back then, many of us believed that it was an important idea, shiny, new, and insightful.  We liked it because it allowed us to reject traditional morality, especially sexual morality, while at the same time remaining fundamentally good people.  The gist of the distinction was that morals come from society, while ethics come from the heart.  Linguistically, the distinction is unfounded.  “Ethics” comes from Greek, while “morals” comes from Latin.  The two words are basically synonymous, referring to custom, manners, and that behavior which was traditionally endorsed.  But to give the words their 1970s meaning, the experience of 40 years has demonstrated that one cannot maintain a free society with mere “ethics.”  In hindsight, it should have been obvious.  When citizens do less to control their own behavior, the government must do more to control and sustain them.  Given the real nature of the human heart, self-ordered liberty requires more than “do your own thing.”

This point is not new to history, but most Americans younger than 60 will find it startling, challenging, or even absurd.  So, it is no wonder that many people are having a hard time with the word “honor” used by Mr. Beck for today’s rally.  CONSVLTVS welcomes his choice to employ the language of morality.

About that Mosque

Imam Rauf is the cleric who is leading the effort to construct a new mosque within two blocks of Ground Zero.  Now that his motives have become known, those who opposed the mosque from the start seem to have been more than prescient.  Far from being a genuine effort at reconciliation, the project appears more provocative the more we learn about it.  Thank goodness, it seems increasingly likely that, for one reason or another, the mosque will not be built.  If so, then the whole episode will remain valuable as a testament to how well most Conservatives articulated a pragmatic and sensitive position.



At the outset, it is worth noting that no one who opposed the mosque did so on legalistic grounds.  All the objections were made on grounds of sensitivity to those who lost people on September 11, 2001, when the suicide terrorists destroyed both towers of what had been New York’s greatest landmark—in the name of Allah.  To their credit, no one who opposed the mosque was prepared to abuse the court system by trying to obtain an injunction against the project.  Rather, they concentrated on moral persuasion.  Naturally, those in favor of the mosque argued off point, making an entirely irrelevant Constitutional case.  Their embrace of the project seemed to grow tighter as public opinion, moved by moral persuasion and the discovery of the apparent motives of the Imam Rauf, shifted more and more strongly against the building.

At this point, it is by no means sure whether the mosque will be built, though it seems less likely by the day.  Assuming the project is derailed, perhaps it is time to think of what might have been.  There are over a billion Muslims in the world, and hardly any of them are terrorists.  Our Republic, and indeed the whole of the West, clearly needs the goodwill of the moderate Muslim majority.  A true gesture of reconciliation, at or near Ground Zero, could have been a powerful demonstration of Islamic courtesy and Christian forgiveness.  Such a gesture, perhaps an inter-faith prayer center replete with stone-carved denunciations of the 9/11 murderers, endorsed by moderate imams, would have had great potential to find some common ground at Ground Zero.  Sadly, the people pushing the project appear to have been more interested in provocation than reconciliation.  The only proper response to such a challenge is exactly what we have seen:  consistent, sustained moral arguments against the project.

There is a further irony.  In making such a provocative gesture, rather than one of true reconciliation, the Imam Rauf and his allies have answered American tolerance with discourtesy.  Shortly after the original al-Qaida attack, and before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the Bush administration demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden.  The Taliban refused, citing the obligations of a host to a guest.  How ironic that the Imam Rauf, many of whose congregants are recent immigrants, seems deaf to the obligations of a guest to a host.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Last Straw, the First Post (Part II)

     History provides some strong counter-examples to the idea that gay marriage has ever existed as an acceptable alternative institution in the West. Often, proponents of gay marriage claim that objections to it derive only from Christian dogma. To the contrary, the practice was despised in pagan Rome, so much so that the few instances of it in history are cited as smears on the reputations of those attempting it. To the pagan Romans, such conduct was a gross aberration that proved the debauchery of two infamous emperors who attempted it. Nero, whom the historian Suetonius reports was twice married to other men, was one. That Nero would engage in such marriages was consistent with the rest of his character. He consistently mocked every social institution, to the point of having his mother killed so he would be free to marry his chosen girl (Nero apparently had an indiscriminate appetite). Suetonius delighted in reporting salacious details of the emperors, and there is a body of criticism that doubts his gay marriages as too obviously a slander even for Nero. Another Roman emperor who attempted gay marriage was Elagabalus. Again, marriage to another man was taken as evidence of the perpetrator’s lewdness and impropriety. Neither example establishes the acceptability of gay marriage among the Romans. To the contrary, the attitudes of the Roman people were firmly against the practice.

     The conduct of a third emperor confirms the aversion to gay marriage at Rome, even among a people tolerant of homosexuality. In the second century AD, reigning long after Nero and long before Elagabalus, there was Hadrian. He was an extraordinary man—soldier, architect, administrator, and patron of the arts. He also happened to have a passionate love for a young man named Antinous. The sources agree that Hadrian and Antinous lived fairly openly as lovers, but Hadrian never attempted to marry Antinous. Hadrian, as Emperor of Rome, could have done what he pleased, as had Nero before him. Indeed, when Antinous later died, Hadrian had him declared a god and encouraged the population to worship him. Antinous was thus deified, but he never became the bride of Hadrian. Hadrian, a far better emperor than Nero, knew marriage did not exist just for his private fulfillment. We know that and a bit more: However much we may sympathize with homosexuals, we cannot afford to re-make our institutions to accommodate their cultural aggression.

     If experience is the best teacher, then we should acknowledge the value of the experience of an entire people. In a person, well-considered experience is called wisdom. In a people, it is tradition. Yes, some traditions must change as circumstances change. However, as we should have learned to our regret in the past 40 years, pretending that we are so unlike our ancestors that we do not need their traditions leads to disaster. Indeed, it is a form of cultural suicide.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Last Straw, the First Post (Part I)

     Recent events have prompted CONSVLTVS to begin this web log. The intent is to provide a spirited but civilized defense of what is good in American traditions while remaining open to healthy innovation.

     One innovation that would prove unhealthy to the body politic is now upon us. With the moral imperialism characteristic of the Left, U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker has just found a brand new right in the Constitution: gay marriage. There are three reasons to lament (and work against) this decadent ruling. First, it is a usurpation of democratic power, one more in the familiar series of judicial affronts to representative government. Second, the ruling articulates a philosophy of breathtaking denial, in which the plain truth about men, women, and marriage is simply wished away. Third, it will inevitably lead to further dilution of marriage as a social and legal institution, to the serious peril of existing society.

     The arguments against judicial activism are not new, but they seem to need re-stating. When a judge decides that a new claim made by a given group amounts to a right that should receive protection under the equal protection clause, he or she is amending the Constitution. But the whole point about constitutions is that they are supposed to be hard to amend. In particular, our Constitution has explicit procedures for doing so, and those procedures wisely require an overwhelming political consensus before a change is made. When judges amend the Constitution themselves, they circumvent the procedure of the very document they pretend to serve. In effect, they act as dictators.

     In the case of so-called gay marriage, the judge’s ruling is not just dictatorial it is imperialistic. No culture in western history—not even ancient Greece—has ever considered a lifelong partnership between homosexuals to be marriage. Every society in the West, and the near totality of societies worldwide throughout history, has understood marriage as the union of the male and the female for the purpose of perpetuating the society of which the couple is a part. Homosexuality itself has been tolerated in the past, and such tolerance is commendable. Societies with laws calling for homosexuals to be killed, as in the Taliban’s Afghanistan, are barbarous and cruel. Civilized nations celebrate the remarkable contributions of some homosexuals throughout history, and deplore any pogrom. However, permitting homosexuals to live their lives in quiet dignity is one thing; capitulating in their conquest of our norms is another.

     For that is what Judge Walker and the Left are attempting to do: conquer an existing social norm and impose something new. If the Left were truly just concerned with fairness, the existing civil union statutes in California would have been enough. CONSVLTVS understands that civil union in California conferred on gay couples all the material benefits of marriage under state law. The law reserved only the term “marriage” itself. The judge’s ruling really is about forcing the people of California to redefine their concept of marriage to suit him. This is the attempted conquest of a word.

     Cultural imperialism is not new. Step one in the process is to promote a tacit consensus of moral relativism. All morality is a matter of agreement, says the standard Leftist argument, and so all moral codes are to be considered of equal value. Step two is to turn the relativistic acid on traditional morality and claim that it deserves no special privilege. Relativism thus corrodes the previous consensus on morality. Finally, via verbal sleight of hand, the Leftist next claims the right of privilege for his or her own code, over that of traditional morality. This legerdemain is self-refuting, of course, for if all moral codes are equal, then why should the code of the Left be superior to traditional morality? What principle gives the Left the right to impose its own moral code on the existing culture?

     Another trick in the current dispute involves replacing root assumptions. By tacitly assuming that marriage exists mainly (or even only) for the satisfaction of the married couple, the Left is able to disregard the role of marriage in every Western society for which we have records. The point about marriage, indeed the plain truth about it, is and always has been that marriage exists for the benefit of children, and ultimately the community and the state, as much as for the married partners.

     Marriage provides for the perpetuation of the body politic through the succession of generations. This succession necessarily involves procreation, for new citizens must be born for a people to continue. Could anything be more obvious than the sterility of a homosexual union? Moreover, the very fact that a union of man and woman can produce offspring is what justifies the state involvement in marriage from the start. The consequences to the community of illegitimacy and paternal abdication are enormous, as dispassionate observers have noted in the recent history of the West. Therefore, society historically solemnized the marriage relationship as a means of encouraging responsible behavior and strong families. The fact that so-called gay marriage is even being discussed shows how weakened the traditional understanding of the purpose of marriage has become. Indeed, when the sole purpose of marriage becomes the enjoyment or fulfillment of the participants, there will be no logical argument available against Polygamy. At least Polygamy is not unknown to history.