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People still read Sartre!

A lecturer and adjunct professor of philosophy in Ohio has commented on a column on natural law I published recently at Catholic World Report (republished at Crisis).

He’s an existentialist whose great heroes are Sartre and Beauvoir, so he doesn’t think much of it.

He apparently wants to say “Kalb’s a dogmatic extremist, I’m a reasonable guy.” That’s the normal way Internet discussions are carried on, and it’s a game any number can play if they think it worth the effort.

Not surprisingly, I don’t think the treatment’s justified. For example, I don’t see where I say “either the Catholic natural law way or the highway,” call “any non-Catholic viewpoint an ‘ideological fantasy,’” or claim the consensus gentium (which means “consensus of peoples,” not “consensus of the people”) does more than put the issue in question. (The issue at that point was whether the Supreme Court should have based constitutional law on the proposition that opposition to “gay marriage” could not be sane and well-intended.)

I do believe the Catholic natural law approach makes most sense of the world in which we find ourselves, consider the public moral and political outlook now dominant–the basic features of which he apparently buys into, and agrees are essentially technological–an ideological fantasy, and believe that looking at how people have thought they should live is a good foundation for thinking about how they actually should live. People aren’t more intelligent about life today than they used to be, living well isn’t something you can make up de novo, even with the aid of what’s now called social science, and some things do change but many don’t.

He says “We should not think in terms of general principles because being a moral particularist has better consequences for moral thinking in general.” Isn’t that a general principle? How about “the capacity that makes all other capacities possible is the freedom to determine our own being”? “The embrace of existential freedom and pragmatic experience yields a greater and more powerful worldview—one that captures the freedom we have and live”?

Or how about “Persons realize values into being because they are the type of being that is free to do so”? If he simply means that people have preferences and make choices I understand and agree, but don’t see how that point gets to be a “most important insight” or how it tells you that one choice is better than another–which is a function I’d think an ethical theory ought to fulfill.

What strikes me about his general principles is their absolute abstraction. That seems to me a basic problem with rejecting natural law and tradition. Instead of looking at how things actually work and have worked in organizing and carrying on human life, and more or less apprenticing yourself to what seems the best available way of doing so, you go for something that seems absolutely universal and indubitable because it is absolutely content-free and try to extract determinate results from it, maybe with the help of what you think is neutral scientific knowledge. It can’t be done, so the results in the real world are willfulness, arbitrary dogmatism, and bad faith.

I think there are problems as well with pretty much everything else he says. I’m not sure it makes sense to make more detailed comments though. There doesn’t seem to be enough common ground or interest to make it useful.

As an aside: he seems to think natural law necessarily has to do with God. While it’s associated with belief in God, since teleology in the world seems easier to understand if we think of the world as intended, it doesn’t depend on it, at least not without additional argument. There are many intelligent people who accept theism or natural teleology but not both. And there are certainly many people for whom acceptance of natural law is prior as more accessible than belief in God–the argument is usually from the former to the latter rather than the reverse.


He responds to my comments. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of mutual comprehension, but I’ll give some more comments anyway:

  1. His name is J. Edward Hackett.
  2. If “my way or the highway” just means “I agree with my own views and disagree with inconsistent views” then it applies of course to me like other people.
  3. “From his response, the term ‘ideological fantasy’ seems to refer to an ‘essentially technological [setting]’ where ‘people have thought they should live is a good foundation for thinking about how they actually should live.’”

    No. The first part’s OK, but the words after “where” present a principle I explicitly say I agree with.

    To repeat, “ideological fantasy” refers to the outlook now dominant, rather than to every possible view differing from my own. A longer explanation of what I have in mind when I talk about technocracy and ideological fantasy can be found in my First Things piece “Technocracy Now.”

  4. “I would say that values are given to us in experience with immediate insight, and that no foundation is needed to fix those insights given how particular most situations are.”

    What’s a “value?” The word suggests something more than an attraction to something, especially since he talks about “insight” and says “it’s in the experience of values that I discern their truth.”

    A “value” doesn’t quite seem to be a good, though. Man is rational and social, life is long and complex, the world has system, goods and people depend on each other, and evaluation is an art that we learn and grow into, so it seems we should think about how goods relate to each other and fit into the system of the world. All that seems part of being human. None of that seems to apply to his “values,” however, which are much more a matter of immediate personal response.

  5. “The in which world [sic] we find ourselves is … the one where stakes are high … people either embrace that freedom or don’t live up to the fact that they are radically free … meaning exists in the world because human beings create meaning through choice.”

    I don’t get it. How do the stakes get to be high, and why is living up to some thing a higher obligation, when (apparently) that’s so only to the extent someone’s arbitrary choice makes it so?

    Also, he said before that values are given in experience, and now he says meaning is given by choice. I would have thought the two (values and meaning) are very closely connected but it seems not.

  6. “There’s a reciprocity built into the existentialist ethics. Every project I take on in life must keep open the possibilities of others.”

    Is that something existentialists just decide? If so, why should anyone else care?

    There’s a problem trying to make freedom as such the highest standard. When choices clash the freedom of one must give way to that of the other, and saying you go for the resolution that maximizes freedom doesn’t get you anywhere without a metric to tell you which freedom is bigger. (That’s one way of stating the topic of my book The Tyranny of Liberalism.)

  7. “People think such goods/essences are knowable and govern what exists. This idea is absurd.” The idea’s unavoidable. He himself believes man has an essence, man is he who is radically free. He might say that’s minimal, but why is what’s minimal better than what’s most adequate? I’d rather live with the latter.
  8. He seems to agree with me that he likes extremely abstract and universal moral principles and particular moral judgments but not much in between. He seems though to want to call the former something like “principles regarding [lower-level] moral principles.” I’m inclined to say that if a principle is about how you should go about deciding things morally then it’s a moral principle but if he wants a more complicated classification I don’t see the harm.
  9. His comments seem motivated by his substantive social and political views. Mine of course differ. It seems to me his views on these matters are at odds with a social order that fosters human well-being and well-doing (and among other things are self-defeating in their effects–anti-freedom, anti-equality, anti-fraternity). I go into the issue in “Out of the Antiworld” and a bunch of other things I’ve written.