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Corrosive objections from the Rust Belt

Something I wrote, an analysis of liberalism, libertarianism, and conservatism, was enough to provoke a libertarian blogger (“larryniven”) to murder fantasies. I decided to address his concerns, but our exchange went nowhere. So I decided to reconstruct it, along with a short side exchange with a mainstream social liberal from Australia, into the following dialogue. Somebody might find the discussion relevant to something, so here it is:

He: How can you say ultimate standards are socially created, through tradition, and also that we need ultimate standards we don’t create?

Me: I don’t say that ultimate standards are socially created. Operational standards, engineering handbooks for example, are socially created. We intend them to comply with ultimate standards we don’t create, like the natural principles that determine whether a machine or structure works as planned.

So our understanding of ultimate standards arises socially, as our other understandings do, but the standards themselves do not. That’s the problem of knowledge. The question is always how we arrive at the best and truest understandings.

He: This stuff about objective ultimate standards doesn’t make a lot of sense anyway. Where do you get this insane idea that we need a really-existing objective value system to give our lives a sense of meaning?

Me: I’m not sure what you have in mind. If we find meaning in our life it’s partly because we find that the things we do make sense, and “making sense” brings in objective standards.

He: But making sense to humans obviously doesn’t require any correlation to objective reality.

Me: That’s right. It just requires a belief in the correlation. We always believe one is there in our own case. And presumably people do best if they’re right and one is really there. So we all believe that things, including moral standards and so on, can be known. The question is always how best to know them, and the particular point at issue is the role of tradition in the process.

He: Your system depends on some large degree of willfully suspended disbelief. It’s willfully irrational.

Me: I don’t say that “some large degree of willfully suspended disbelief” is a good thing. That would be a very strange thing to say. It does seem to me that skepticism is sometimes an affectation that people ought to drop, but that’s quite a different view.

He: The alternative to accepting something on its own terms, it seems to me, is skepticism; in order to accept something on its own terms, then, one must suspend one’s skepticism (i.e., disbelief).

Me: It depends on how skeptical you are to start with. A Cartesian skeptic doesn’t accept our experience of the world around us on its own terms because he thinks he might be in The Matrix or whatever. If tempted by that view most of us would drop it as unsustainable. It would be odd though to call dropping it a matter of “willfully suspended disbelief” when we can’t live as Cartesian skeptics and life must after all go on.

He: But your system is still irrationalist, because you want blind automatic acceptance of whatever tradition tells us. That’s ridiculous. Consider the case of slavery.

Me: Where does this “automatic” business come from? Saying tradition has rightful authority is not saying it’s automatically right.

People who attribute authority to the law, or market valuations, or the current expert consensus, or the arguments of philosophers, or their own best judgment, don’t normally say those things are automatically right. They usually reject some of the things those authorities have backed without rejecting the authorities themselves. Why should tradition be different?

He: You’re arguing against a straw man. Nobody is saying that tradition has no authority. No one wants to abolish culture or the good, beautiful and true.

Me: As you note in the original entry, I mention “affirmative action” as a case in point. I also mention “celebrating diversity.”

Both are aspects of multiculturalism, and as such they imply radical rejection of traditional authorities. Multiculturalism tells us that every tradition (ethnic, religious, whatever) that has ordered the life of a definable group of people should have equal status. The alternative, we are told, is subordination of one group to another. The result is that no such tradition can resolve disputed points—that is to say, no such tradition has any authority.

I agree that few people consciously favor the abolition of culture or the good, beautiful and true. They adopt principles that lead to bad things without consciously favoring those things.

He: You want us to accept traditions on their own terms, because that’s what we do and anyway tradition can’t function otherwise. But “we must” and “we do” are two different things. Also, why should any random tradition have the right to function as such?

Me: “We must” and “we do and can’t do otherwise” aren’t that different. And I wouldn’t say any random tradition has the right to function as such, only that we need some traditions to function and traditions can’t function unless they are viewed as authoritative simply as traditions. So at least in some cases we have to go with tradition pretty much as it is.

All of which brings up the question how to distinguish good and bad traditions, whether to say one tradition is better than another I have to have a system for resolving disagreements between the two that is independent of both. If that’s so, someone might ask, why appeal to either? Why not go with the independent system that says where each tradition is right?

But the conclusion doesn’t follow. I might be able to judge that one tradition is better than another even though I don’t have an independent way to decide the particular points on which they differ. For example, I might judge their relative overall performance:

  1. One tradition might be self-defeating while another isn’t. The libertarian tradition might be self-defeating, for example, if it can’t rationally avoid turning into liberalism. Or the liberal tradition might be self-defeating if it implies an ever-broader system of social reconstruction that ends by enslaving the populace at large to a small group of social managers.
  2. One tradition might deal with a broader range of issues, experiences, and situations more coherently and in a way that seems to do them more justice. That might be the case, for example if one is more inclusive: that is, if it can make sense of the other and its successes and can also make sense of aspects of life and the world that the other can’t deal with sensibly (while the reverse is not true).

He: Uh…and overall performance isn’t an independent method of evaluation?

Me: It’s a method of evaluating traditions, not particular issues. So we remain dependent on particular traditions to order our lives, thoughts, and whatnot.

He: But the basic problem remains. You say “Since society cannot be rationalized on clear simple principles, evolved social practices must be accepted to a large extent on their own terms.” So which is it? Must we always accept practices mostly on their own terms, or can we evaluate them mostly on some objective standard?

Me: We mostly accept them on their own terms. That’s how we learn and understand and carry on almost any fairly complicated activity. From time to time, though, when things come up that force the issue on us, we ask ourselves how the whole scenario is playing out, whether there’s a fundamental problem somewhere, and if there is, what to do about it. Normally we understand and deal with the problem based on aspects of our tradition that seem less problematic. In extreme cases, of course, someone might decide to chuck it all and convert to something else.

He: But what’s wrong with liberalism and libertarianism? They both have traditions, and their traditions (moreover) do indeed offer ways to make sense of human life that involve the notion of ultimate standards. And anyway, neither really seeks to eliminate the basic traditions of U.S. society: life, liberty, etc. and so on.

Me: The question is whether their ultimate standards and ways of making sense of human life really work in the long run, or whether they make human life less than it might be and eventually self-destruct.

You’re right they don’t seek to destroy the liberal traditions of U.S. society. But U.S. society has also depended on nonliberal traditions (e.g., Protestant Christianity, relatively strict sexual standards, local autonomy—read Tocqueville) that its liberal traditions progressively destroy.

He: How can you claim both that our current Tradition is harmful and bad and that every Tradition “must be viewed as authoritative in its own right”?

Me: American tradition includes destructive elements. That’s not unusual, every tradition does. Traditions aren’t perfect or completely self-consistent, any more than what people think they’ve learned from experience is perfect and self-consistent. But then the same can be said of every actual authority.

The point of the language you quote, by the way, is not that every tradition must be followed, but that no tradition can function as such unless it’s viewed as authoritative in itself rather than as a suggestion or summary of things that are already authoritative for some other reason.

If you’re interested in more comments on the issue, you can read a piece I wrote about it.

Kibitzer: This is all very interesting, but why say multiculturalism is bad? Tradition evolves and changes, you can’t stick with the same thing forever, and I think multiculturalism has been helpful loosening things up. You can see that especially in the way attitudes toward homosexuality have changed for the better.

Me: The usual view among fans of tradition is that tradition does evolve to accommodate new situations etc., but it’s normally best if it does so in accordance with its own principles so that there’s coherence of basic approach over time. That’s lost with multiculturalism. The continuity is lost, so you end up with a fairly chaotic and fragmented cultural situation in which law, contract, principles of freedom and equality, and psychological therapy are the available guides for dealing with other people.

The obvious issue the particular example presents is whether the habits, attitudes, conventions etc. relating to sex today (which seem mostly based on the principles I just mentioned) work better than the ones that prevailed 50 years ago—e.g., whether human relations are better, people are more likely to end up in situations that they find make sense, their basic needs and tendencies are better satisfied, human necessities like rearing the next generation are better taken care of, and so on. You seem to think things are better now, others say there are big problems.

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