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Skepticism and dogmatism (snippet from book-to-be)

The fundamental question of political legitimacy is the nature and purpose of authority, and thus the nature of man, the world, moral obligation, and the human good—in other words, which religion is correct. Liberalism cannot get by without answering that question, but it answers it indirectly, by claiming moral ignorance. We do not know what the good is, it tells us, so we should treat all desires the same. The satisfaction of all desires thus becomes the unquestionable good. Man becomes the measure, human genius the principle of creation, and individual will the source of value. The limitations on moral knowledge on which the liberal outlook is based lead to a definite result, and so become constituent principles rather than limitations. In short, they constitute a religion, a fact concealed by the moral doubt that is liberalism’s first principle.

This new religion, based on the denial of the knowability of truth, consists in nothing less than the deification of man. To refuse to talk about the transcendent, and view it as wholly out of our reach, seems very cautious and humble. In practice, however, it puts our own thoughts and desires at the center of things, and so puts man in the place of God. If you say we cannot know anything about God, but only our own experience, you will soon say that there is no God, at least for practical purposes, and that we are the ones who give order and meaning to the world. In short, you will say that we are God.

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You wrote:

“Liberalism cannot get by without answering that question, but it answers it indirectly, by claiming moral ignorance.”

I have a question.

Does liberalism adopt this position of moral ignorance as a tactical matter, or because it really believes it?

1. The tactical approach is just that an assertion of the good (moral knowledge) leads to conflict, conflict creates disorder, and because all rational men seek order the claims to the good must be subsumed to the greater good of order (Hobbes).

2. The ideological position is the assertion of moral ignorance, as a matter of rational investigation and conclusion. Anyone who claims moral knowledge is insane, or at least irrational (Rorty).

Interesting question. I suppose there’s a mixture of motives. Some start off like Descartes with a demand for perfect demonstrative certainty, but discover the demand can’t be met and so become skeptics. I suppose something of the sort is the position you ascribe to Rorty, except he seems to stir in some arbitrary evaluative dogmatism at the end (“don’t listen to people who claim moral knowledge because they’re talking in a way people who deserve to be listened to don’t talk”). Others start off like Pontius Pilate with the intention of doing something for the sake of a system of social power that won’t bear looking into but has pragmatic benefits, and respond to objections by saying “what is truth.” It seems to me the absolute dominance of liberalism we see around us requires both motives.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

After thinking about this, I propose a third way, after the skepticism of Cartesianism or the pragmatism of a Rorty or a Pilate.

The third way is the road of positive moral knowledge, which is I associate with JS Mill. This positive moral knowledge is the radical personal autonomy of the individual, which is the highest good. All other interests or goods are subordinated to this highest good, and this creates an attitude or posture of “moral ignorance.” This moral ignorance is the refusal to take any position, or the discounting of any position, that might impede upon the autonomy of any individual.

Interesting. In a way, this seems like an individualized version of the Pontius Pilate view. “X has some sort of power and authority simply because it exists, makes choices and does things. I want that power and authority to be absolute. I therefore declare that no moral principle is knowable that could derogate from that power and authority.” It’s the same line of thought whether X is the Roman Empire or, for example, me.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Have you read Paul Gottfried’s books on the way “liberalism” has changed over time?

I’ve published a review of After Liberalism, which is the book that emphasizes that issue, that takes issue with his outlook on the point. Gottfried naturally disagreed with the review (his reply in Telos doesn’t seem to be available online). I equally naturally disageed with his disagreement.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I recall this:

“When supernatural authority has been abandoned the authority of conscience steps up front (the more emancipated one is from theology, the more imperativistic morality becomes) to compensate for the loss of a personal authority. Or the authority of reason. Or the social instinct (the herd). Or history with an immanent spirit and a goal within, so one can entrust oneself to it. One wants to get around the will, the willing of a goal, the risk of positing a goal for oneself; one wants to rid oneself of the responsibility (one would accept fatalism). Finally, the pursuit of happiness becomes the authority, the goal, the sanction and, with a touch of Tartuffe, the happiness of the greatest number.”

- Nietzsche

He’s right I think that if the Good isn’t a feature of the world (if it were, then the world would have purpose as a basic feature and could be best understood as God’s creation) then we fall back on various unsatisfactory substitutes. I have no idea though why he thinks simply positing a goal for oneself is better than the other possibilities. What sense does it make to talk about “responsibility” if there’s no general moral scheme of things by reference to which I can be held responsible? And if the idea is that we all just posit goals, because there’s nothing to posit them for us, what’s wrong with the logical reflection that we all equally posit them so if achieving one goal (our own) is good then achieving them all and so attaining the greatest happiness for the greatest number must be better?

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

He’s still pointing to the same basic logic that you point to - when the transcendent is gone, “liberal” ideas eventually take hold.

I’d be interested in seeing how you think true Christianity can make a come back, given present conditions. Have you read any Guenon? Nietzsche, obviously, believed that Christianity had within it the seeds of its own destruction. I’d like to understand what forces you think led to the diminishment and current debased state of traditional Christianity since you obviously disagree with Nietzsche.

It occurs to me that European New Right, and even European writers like Chantal Delsol, have a critique of bourgeois, “safety first” values that the American Right lacks. The Europeans critique the way middle class values lead to socialism - the American Right tends to want to defend the bourgeois order.

Is there a logic within bourgeois society that leads to socialism? This is what Evola said, and it’s hardly uncommon to find European writers saying it too. What is the difference between your definition of “liberalism” -and its values and agenda - and the middle class - with its values and its agenda? The middle classes historically tend to put commerce and material interests above everything else - a tendency which can only serve to denigrate religion and render it little more than a hobby or sentimental affectation.

I appreciate your thoughtful remarks.

I’ve read Guénon. Also Evola for that matter.

It seems to me that what saves Christianity and makes a return to type a possibility, rather than a perpetual spinning out of the implications of principles that grow ever more abstract, is the doctrine of the Incarnation. God became man, which means (1) the world can adequately express God, which means that we have to take the world seriously as it is as opposed to what we would like to make it, and (2) the truth is a concrete and indeed personal reality disclosed to us through revelation, tradition and the Church rather than a theory. So there’s always a reason to return to the sources in all their concreteness, without however believing that the sources give us a simple set of rules that need only be applied literally or that subsequent developments are worthless. For how such a return might come about at this point, putting divine intervention and such aside, I follow Darwin: what is capable of life lives, what dies dies.

As to what has happened that led to the present situation, I think a way of thought and social organization exemplified by modern natural science and the modern state that is extremely effective with regard to some issues but hopelessly inept with others has staged a sort of coup d’etat. It was able to do so because it is single-mindedly devoted to pragmatic effectiveness, and also because the custodians of higher principles were thoughtless and corrupt. Still, if modernity doesn’t work in the long run, because it destroys social and spiritual order and all complex social functioning including its own, the resulting situation won’t last forever.

Agreed that there’s a bit of a problem with the American Dream. That’s one reason Tocqueville among others thought it was so important that Americans be religious and William James thought he had to look around for a moral equivalent to war. It’s been right on the whole though for American conservatives to defend the bourgeois order given the actual alternatives, for the same reason Plato in the Republic prefers oligarchic man to democratic or tyrannical man. Nothing’s ever perfect, and you do the best with what you’ve got. Still, Plato said the oligarchic man gave rise to the democratic and then the tyrannical man as well as struggling against them. Something similar applies to the development of liberalism I think. So it does seem to me that things have gotten to the point that Americanism and the middle class lifestyle no longer quite do it.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

God became man, which means (1) the world can adequately express God, which means that we have to take the world seriously as it is as opposed to what we would like to make it, and (2) the truth is a concrete and indeed personal reality disclosed to us through revelation, tradition and the Church rather than a theory.

Some, of course, would argue that this is the origin of liberal humanism and materialism - that the emphasis on incarnation became the way the transcendent began to be removed from life.

Spengler, for example, said that Christianity was the grandfather of Bolshevism. “Taking the world seriously” is what some claim leads to materialism too. Does Christianity have within it the seeds of liberalism? In that cases, “returning” to traditional Christianity might then merely restart the sequence of the fall away from it. If the fall from traditional Christianity isn’t part of the historical logic of Christianity, then what propels the movement away from the transcendent and into pure materialism?

I appreciated your comments on the American middle class. It will remain to be seen whether the American Right can develop a critical look at the values of the middle classes. This is one of the biggest differences, that I see, between conservative thinkers in the US and Europe. The Europeans, like Delsol, have just such a critical take on the bourgeoisie – whereas the Americans tend to focus on political ideologies like “liberalism” and do not go after the social classes (with their values and lifestyles) that embrace these ideologies.

You can certainly read liberal humanism as a Christian heresy. Cut out Christ as true God as well as true man and also the other persons of the Trinity and that’s what you get. As always there are opposing heresies, Islam for example. I’ve commented already on Christianity and modernity and whether the movement is necessary and irreversible so I won’t repeat myself on that point.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Dear Mr. Kalb and Fellow Readers,

Mr. Kalb says liberals propose, “We do not know what the good is.” Here are examples. When I heard the news, I went to my liberal buddy who was of course soured by the killing of Al Zarqawi, one of our key opposition generals in the war on Islam and by the Israeli killing of the leader of Hamas! My buddy (a Jewish person at that) did not see this as good. Instead he rambled, as liberals must do when untied to what is good. He thought it a bad public relations event in our efforts to convince Iraqis of the benefits of democratization. But wait, he does not even think we should be trying to democratize Iraq. I agree with the latter, but the hypocrisy (as Ann Coulter fearlessly points out) is striking and typical of liberal argument. (I will be glad to explain Ann Coulter’s seemingly insensitive remarks about the 9/11 widows.)

His other idea is it was demeaning for us to use our enormous power in the form of two 500 lb iron bombs to “assassinate” one of our key opponents. His premise is the American peoples’ idea of good does not sufficiently justify such action and such powerful force. I calmly asked whether Washington should have refrained from using cannons and whether he (not the brave Delta Force targeters) would have preferred to be the first through the door of the murderer’s stronghold.

He changed the subject and repeated the litany that we should not be in Iraq because we are encouraging terrorism against us. What perhaps he means is he is unconvinced we are good and the terrorists are bad; therefore, the terrorism is justified. I replied that talk, negotiation is not a magic shield; at some point, one must actually fight back. (A good the liberal will not admit: the Lord does not prohibit us from fighting. Many others and I have had to fight back against bullies; it is a good thing. His idea is consistent with the idea we should not have entered the war in Europe during the 1940’s because we would have been encouraging blowback.) No rebuttal to my reply.

At some point, he brought up Hiroshima and Nagasaki as examples of unnecessary, excessive force by America. And he said America should have demonstrated the A-bomb to the Japs on some remote location, which would have persuaded them to surrender. I pointed out his faulty reasoning: Hiroshima was the demonstration, and it did not work. He finally agreed. (Sure I read John Hershey’s Hiroshima in High School, but it was nothing more than one of many sad tales of sad events in history.) The Japs had plenty of time to surrender or call for an immediate truce to discuss the issues before Hiroshima. Also, I pointed out that his idea was not necessarily “good.” We had only two bombs, and more were a year away; why waste one in a nonmilitary demonstration?

So liberals do not think there is something known as good.

Paul Henri

Dear Mr. Kalb and Fellow Readers,

Liberalism says we know nothing except through experience. In contrast, transcendence is not based on experience. It includes the belief Mary is our mother. We could construct an experimental argument from the many Marian appearances, but this would be ineffectual against the liberal. The liberal would require the Blessed Virgin to take up residence here on earth and issue edicts from a throne before believing in her.

So why do so many lberals go to Church? They are trying to cover all their bases? They want truth and comfort, which they know only God can give, and they know we know we are of the flesh.

Paul Henri

Paul Henri

Liberals go to church to convert the church to liberalism.

I would like to know if it is possible to do political philosophy without political theology. In other words, when talking about the ideal state, can philosophy discuss such an issue without turning into theology? John Milbank calls philosophy liberal. I think he has a point, if what he means by philosophy is theologically autonomous philosophy.

Obviously, anyone holding that God is God, and not man, would have to reject this type of liberalism, and thus it could not be the publicly authoritative tradition. Is this an accurate characterization of “pragmatic” liberalism? Pragmatic liberalism (Jeffrey Stout and Gary Gutting), of course, does not explicitly deny the possible existence of a transcendent being who may or may not have revealed himself and his will for the political order to man in a public manner; it just does not recognize any such being or revelation in its political philosophy and ideal political order, claiming ignorance of any publicly authoritative revelation that demands political recognition. And, of course, PL doesn’t affirm that “we are God.”

Yet one could argue that a claim of ignorance to the existence of public revelation is a dishonest claim, for since the Church exists as a public institution claiming to be the embodiment of a publicly authoritative revelation, the Church is publicly recognizable as at least a possible candidate for a publicly authoritative revelation. In other words, the Church’s claim is an objective fact of society, and any philosophy that deals with the question of what should be publicly authoritative in society cannot prescind from this fact; in how it conceives of the ideal political order, it must either affirm or deny the truth of this claim. Claiming “ignorance” of the Church’s public authority, but then articulating an ideal political order wherein her authority is not publicly recognized, even if everyone recognized her authority in their private lives, is effectively to deny the truth of her claim. This amounts to a theological judgment against the Church, and the embodiment of this denial in a social tradition is an anti-Church religion.

God Alone!

God Alone!