ETHICS ISSUES: LIBERALISM, PROGRESSIVISM and The Rest
The study of ethics goes back at least to the birth of philosophy some 2500 years ago, with Socrates positing that ethical truth was not only rational but demonstrably absolute. Plato expanded on this thought, and since then countless philosophers have put in their two cents worth with no visible damage to Socrates’s original conjecture. Aristotle’s subsequent metaphysics defined ethics as “virtue as a means to happiness,” opening the door to scholastic conflict and beginning a long history of questioning just what is meant by happiness (and virtue, for that matter). Truth, however, remains sacrosanct despite all assaults (and opinions).
The rapid proliferation of newspapers, journals and literary salons in the 18th Century caused an explosion in mass communication that encouraged public venues where ideas, political and otherwise, could be discussed, developed and proliferated. An informed public was empowered to challenge the status quo to a degree heretofore unprecedented. Globally, the American and French Revolutions were encouraged in large part by this phenomenon (c.f.: Federalist Papers, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense). It was the birth of the Enlightenment, itself a revolution against tradition.
THE LIBERAL ETHIC
Today’s liberal ethic is rooted in the cultural revolution of the Enlightenment (and consequent advent of Modernism, ‘the culture of rational discourse’). “Enlightened” intellectuals rejected the inference, reason and traditions of the past, especially entrenched historical religious authority, embracing instead an ethic of secular natural reason—conclusions based solely on evidence—pioneered by Descartes and his largely mechanistic approach to the world. Although the Enlightenment commenced within the realm of Christianity, the “philosophy of language” nevertheless sought to drive any religious thinking from philosophy with a fusion of scientific-technical and secular humanistic values.
The movement reached its zenith with Karl Marx, whose humanistic socialist theories directly challenged traditional aristocratic authority. Marx would create a mass society; his activist State managing its economy to provide employment and welfare for all, and assure social conformity. He abandoned many of his own theories as they proved to be untenable, but the seeds of socialism had been planted.
Marxist ideas spawned the Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt School) in Germany in the early 20th Century in response to a perceived need to spread communism. The Frankfurt School came to New York in the 1930s and California in the ’40s, finding a convivial home at the University of Wisconsin-Madison along the way. Whereas Western thought is founded in the individual, in communism all valid ideas are professed to come from The State. The Frankfurt School initially employed Sigmund Freud’s psychological conditioning methods in an attempt to dislodge the structures of traditional Western society by promoting the idea that certain of its beliefs are disrespectful of others and must be tempered to atone for past inequities and injustices. Result: the birth of another ethic, PC—Political Correctness.
PC’s foundation lies in the Frankfurt School’s Critical Theory, a term not embodying critical thought so much as criticism itself. Based on Marxist conjecture and an underlying thesis that “all history is about which groups have power over which other groups,” its goal was to combine social theory, philosophy, economics and cultural criticism in its behalf. Its framework includes Deconstructionism, an outgrowth of the “philosophy of language” that removes meaning from existing text, reinserting another meaning of current choice. (It amounts to one’s being told by the ‘enlightened’ what one thinks, a simplistic but correct description of the work of Jacques Derrida.) Eventually, critical theory abandoned its German idealistic roots and morphed into American pragmatism, a strand of thought appealing to practicality and common sense.
The Progressive faction within liberalism emerged as a result of societal changes brought about by industrialization. It eschews corporate concentration of power, the disenfranchisement of the electorate and militarism, advocating peace, human rights, civil rights and liberties, social and economic justice, a preserved environment, and nonviolence.
Postmodernism began as a reaction to the modernist certainty of scientific (objective) efforts to explain reality, focusing instead on idealism, relativism, skepticism and the ‘relative truths’ of each individual in an effort to understand his own reality—venerating mediocrity, as it were. But postmodernism continued the modernist rejection of absolute truth and will remain an undeveloped ideology.
The modern liberal practice of rejecting formal convention in favor of good intentions spawned its own unique ideology (a body of doctrine, myth and belief) rather than a primary socially-grounded philosophy. Ideologies claim to be indifferent, but by definition have an agenda (see belief) and tend to breed extremism in their effort to debunk conflicting philosophies (i.e., if facts intrude, the well-meaning liberal’s response may well be: “that’s just not the way we do things.” This approach is characteristic of an ideology.)
The later 20th Century witnessed an ebb in democracy with the lessening of vitality in the public sphere. The promise of unlimited scientific progress was weakened with the realization that science might go too far (the atrocities of both World Wars—ethnic cleansing, Nazism, and thermonuclear power). Television and the computer led to an increasingly depersonalized mode of interaction, the public consuming media (and therefore subject to being manipulated by it) rather than personal attention to politics and interfacing with other people. In effect, democracy was colonized by mass media and the liberal elite, and politics became more of a ‘spectator sport’ than a personal involvement
Liberalism has come to define mass media (newspapers, television, even Hollywood) and dominate the Democrat Party in recent years. This New Left attracts a class of humanistic intellectuals with a tendency to command power—a technical and cultural elite of doctors, lawyers, engineers, academics and highly-paid professional bureaucrats. This elite deems itself superior to the working class (historically more representative of the party) by virtue of its higher education and remuneration (a phenomenon exemplified by wealthy politicians and CEOs who are effectively part of the highly-paid bureaucracy). Academe has become almost exclusively liberal, leftist ideology becoming stronger the farther one goes up the scholarly ladder.
THE OTHER ETHIC
The modern conservative ethic appeared in the early 19th Century as sort of a counter-enlightenment, but its tradition dates back at least to Socrates. Historically it embraces a tendency to preserve the historic established order. Modern conservatism favors individual freedom, financial responsibility, limited government and a strong national defense. Based on tradition, rationality and social stability, conservatism reacts cautiously to change, more aggressively to abrupt change. It necessarily includes a spiritual dimension that has shaped its morality, and considers its rationality in the wider context of spiritual and religious characteristics. It is a strong ethic that cannot be considered secular in any sense, and is generally regarded as being “behind the times” in liberal quarters.
Conservative philosophy is grounded in natural law. Conservatism holds that freedom and property are closely linked, and opposes involuntary collectivism in favor of voluntary community. Other key aspects of conservatism are stability, an enduring moral order and the principle of universality; to wit, to be valid, a moral judgment must make an assertion that is not restricted by reference to conditions under which the judgment is made. In these efforts it champions virtue. Plato enumerates four moral virtues: Justice; Courage; Prudence; and Temperance. Justice is concerned with proper moderation between self-interest and the rights of others; Courage is the ability to confront fear, uncertainty and intimidation; Prudence is the ability to judge appropriate action at a given time; and Temperance is the practice of self-control, abstention and moderation. That these historic secular attributes were later co-opted by the church has been sufficient reason for their being largely overlooked by modern liberalism.
The current state of American society is that of disparate beliefs. Politics is split roughly down the middle—Democrat and Republican—Democrats favoring liberalism, Republicans favoring conservatism. The Democrat party is by far the more activist, its many incongruent factions vying for recognition. It is also by far more secular (although it is interesting to note that the nation’s spiritual divide is significantly wider: two-thirds religious vs. one-third non-religious).
The “enlightened” ethic of eliminating religion from tradition has resulted in “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” In its secularism the left has compromised ethics by renouncing spirituality and, by association, morality. That there is a spiritual dimension to mankind independent of religion is undeniable, yet it is decried by the liberal establishment because of its conservative bias (not only as tradition, but an incapacity to be proven scientifically).
Morality as an essential part of the culture suffers because of the concept of relative truth held by the enlightened modernist. Any ‘theory of truth’ is incongruous—ethics and morality are in fact rooted in truth, an absolute not subject to proof, a first principle of natural law. A meaningful ethics cannot stand in the absence of first principles, and morality without ethics is untenable. James Madison said it: “There is no maxim… more liable to be misapplied…than that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong.” Truth is not subject to political opinion—it is a disambiguation.
The Enlightenment greatly overstated its case by summarily throwing overboard more than 2000-years of scholarly philosophy—in the words of one contemporary philosopher, “a flight from authority.” Philosophy need not yield to science; science hasn’t replaced it, only expanded it. Science is not the new paradigm—it is part of the original—it must yield to philosophy. Nor is tradition the enemy of rationality, it is instead a valid element of any scholarly effort. (No tradition-neutral perspective exists by which traditions can be judged.) Additionally, intuition often leads to correct scientific theories even before evidence is produced; it can provide a sound basis for experiment. And while aristocracy and religion may be out of vogue, they existed long before modernity and there is every reason to believe they will outlast it. We are in fact now witnessing a decay of materialistic liberalism.
An effective philosophy is necessarily a work in progress but ethics is not. Ethics provides the foundation. While the Enlightenment has made worthy contributions to the cause, previous philosophers have done the same for thousands of years previous. The shortcomings of Modernity are obvious as evidenced by current cultural conditions (for instance, it seems to have forgotten about virtue). Two thousand years of previous philosophy have much to offer that must be re-inserted into the mix. An appreciation of truth as a first principle is an initial requirement. Without it there is no standard.