What kind of moral life is possible depends on what the world is like. The view educated men in the modern West take seriously is that what exists is (1) the world described by modern physics, and (2) sensation and desire. Those things are somehow just there, and no one understands or agrees on their relationship. Given such a view, there’s no basis for an organized understanding of what’s good that’s authoritative and applies regardless of what someone’s particular thoughts and desires happen to be. There are just things various people want from time to time.
In such a setting no coherent reason can be given for doing anything other than wanting to do it. On the other hand, wanting to do something is accepted as a reason for doing it. So there’s a sort of relativistic definition of the good—if it rings your bell go for it—but that definition is thought objectively correct. Moral intolerance is therefore extremely offensive to the modern mind. Nonetheless, modern ontology leaves several distinct moral possibilities open. Which of them is realized depends on:
- The relation between the good and technological reason. Is the good doing what you want most immediately and intensely, or is it determined by calculating what satisfies the most desires most reliably over time? So you can be a romantic or you can choose bourgeois prudence instead.
- The relation between individual and society. There are social intentions and desires as well as individual ones, so you can be an individualist or a collectivist depending on which you choose as the standard.
- The relation between sensation and self. We want particular sensations and we also want to achieve a particular understanding of who we are. So you can choose between hedonism or existential self-definition.
- The relation among conflicting wills. Depending on whether you ignore, give equal status to, or achieve pleasure and self-definition by crushing the wills of others, you can be a egoist, a universalist, or a sadist.
Where you come out on these four points determines your moral stance. For example, a Nazi is a romantic collectivist existential sadist, while a mainstream modern American is a bourgeois individualist hedonistic universalist. The Europeans are perhaps closer to the social democratic ideal, which is like the current American ideal but collectivist instead of individualist. A Randian, in contrast, is a romantic individualist existential egoist.
None of the possibilities is particularly attractive or interesting, so people combine them or try to have things both ways. Superman fantasies combine the expressiveness of doing what you want with the safety of assured victory. Sade and others combine hedonism and existential self-realization, hoping to find transcendent self-realization through the most extreme hedonism. Communism combines the intellectual appeal of the social democratic ideal (“scientific socialism”) with the emotional zip of Naziism.
On a more moderate and practical level, Americans like a touch of existential self-definition tossed into their hedonism to add spice to their career and consumer choices. Pre-60s there was a more solid existential aspect (“make something of yourself”) so the hedonistic aspect was less important. The most stable setup, as always, relies on a balanced approach, a mixture of the American liberal-individualist and European liberal-collectivist ideals for society at large, with enhanced romanticism and existential self-definition floating around on the margins to provide vicarious thrills and so mitigate the boredom of bourgeois hedonism. “Stable” is of course a relative term: we shall see how long a run current arrangements manage.
It’s worth noting that the pre-60s American configuration (bourgeois individualist existential universalism) is clearly the best of the possibilities:
- Thought and discipline are better on the whole than pure impulse,
- It’s impossible to choose between the individual and society, since man is social, but if the choice absolutely has to be made a concrete individual is more real than a concrete society and so should be chosen,
- The attempt to be something definite is nobler than simple pursuit of pleasure, and
- Whatever the problems with simple universalism, it’s better than pure egoism let alone pure sadism.
So the general impression among Americans that America was notably good as well as notably free had its point: America was not only the first modern country, but a country that was distinguished by its attachment to the best form of modernity. A problem, of course, is that it couldn’t last. Man can’t live without the transcendent, without an orientation to something beyond experience, and abstract restraint, discipline and law-abidingness are too content-free to be a satisfying substitute. So in the end men either devote themselves to drugs and distractions or they turn to stronger stuff: unbridled pursuit of the immediate, submergence in the collective, radical egoism, lust for power. Plato described the latter process as the devolution from oligarchic to tyrannical man in his Republic.