On being a tribal Christian

Christianity is certainly a thing distinct from the traditional civilization of Europe.  While Christianity was integral to our now dead civilization, it is meant for the entire human race.  Our faith is ultimately in Christ, not in Christians, not even those Christians who are our ancestors and who built Christendom.  And yet I do find it unseemly how our modern Christians try to prove our faith in Christ through our faithlessness to each other.

Hence the constant apologies.  Apologies to the Muslims.  Apologies to the Third World heathen.  Endless abject groveling before the Jews.  One should, I suppose, admire the faith of a man like Pope John Paul II who, in order to carry the Gospel unto all nations unencumbered by the sins of past faithful, was so thoroughly merciless in throwing his fellow Catholics under the proverbial bus.  “Yes, we Catholics have all always been greedy sadistic bigots.  But the Gospel is about Jesus Christ, not us!  You don’t have to give up your contempt and hatred of us to embrace Him!”  I suppose it might be true that a particular religion holds the ultimate truth about God and morality even though all its followers have been complete scoundrels, but I doubt many hearers will find this plausible.  And yet even if it did work in winning converts, the whole thing would leave a bad taste in my mouth.

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Traditionalists must be anti-antiracists

because race is a social construction, of course!  (Not that social constructs can’t also be biological realities.)  While we aren’t obliged to defend intraracial cohesion per se, anyone who attempts to destroy intraracial cohesion will inevitably end up attacking things that we do care about.

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Cross-post: One God, many peoples V: Propositional peoplehood

Allow me to wrap this up.

Universalism, we’ve seen, goes way back.  The ideas of universal brotherhood, a universal natural law, and even of a single ultimate God were known to the pagans.  Far from a sign of spiritual advance, the separation of God from one’s people and social order has often marked spiritual decline.  In Voegelin’s terminology, the compactness of the world, the sense that local rituals and duties connect to ultimate reality, is lost.  The world’s Axial Age, and Israel’s Prophetic Age, were the time when people started to intuit God’s transcendence but didn’t know how to handle it.  They could no longer see God’s presence in the ancient theocracies and vaguely imagined Messianic kingdoms in which this tension could be overcome.  In the moral order, the question was how one could justify particularity in light of this new universalistic perspective.  Having mentally “risen above” the tribe, how does one get back down?

Christianity did not create this problem.  Christianity is one proposed solution, the most adequate on offer, in my opinion.

What is the other solution?  Imagine the predicament of man who loves his tribe or country but has come to accept that this love, loyalty, and piety are rationally and morally indefensible.  His highest moral principles condemn his noblest sentiments.  In fact, you don’t have to imagine this–you’re living it–but I’ll get back to that.  How can he live with such a spiritual wound?  The problem, as he misconstrues it, is this:  how, from a universal perspective (shedding, as he imagines he must, his own “empirical ego”) can it be justified to favor this group in particular?

The group must be special in some absolute, objective sense.  The only quality that really matters is morality, and the heart of morality (as he understands it) is universalism.  And here is the solution!  His group is the one to have discovered universalism.  That doesn’t, of course, mean that they own it, that they can hoard this treasure for themselves.  Quite the opposite!  They have a duty to spread their light to those still in darkness.  This is, indeed, the very essence and reason-for-being of the group:  to spread universalism.  A group dedicated to the abolition of groups.  A universal, a propositional people.  So our man lays down his natural loyalty, and in return he is allowed to pick up a new unnatural loyalty.  His new love, for an idea rather than a concrete people, is a cold and inhuman thing compared to the love he left behind, but it is the only thing his cold and inhuman morality of universal brotherhood will allow him, so he makes due with it.

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There’s no such sin as “racism”

While taking Zippy’s warnings about the dangers of nominalism seriously, I’m going to mostly agree with the neo-reactionaries on this one.  Being an essentialist doesn’t mean insisting every word refers to a real essence.  A word may fail to refer to an essence if it

  1. contains a mischaracterization in its definition.  For example, suppose I define “spousal exclusionism” to be the sinfully discriminating practice of not being willing to have sexual relations with anyone other than one’s spouse.  Although I can easily cite cases of this behavior, the word is still nonsense because the behavior it describes is not sinful, and cramming moral disapproval into the definition cannot make it so.
  2. arbitrarily singles out some instances from others that are essentially the same.  For example, suppose I discover the sin of “even-day arsonry”, the crime of committing arson on an even day of the month.
  3. arbitrarily joining distinct things.  For example, making up a word to refer to either orange juice or peanut butter but no other kind of food.

Every use of the word “racism” is meaningless on at least one of these counts.

If by “racism”, one means “the sin of having a special loyalty and preference for one’s own group”, then it is guilty of #1 above:  it is trying to define a natural and non-sinful attitude to be sinful.  “Racism” as “the sinful belief that one race is superior in some way to another” is also guilty of this, because such a belief may be true or false, but there is nothing inherently wicked in entertaining it.

(By the way, the suggestion that we moderns have discovered a sin that the wise men of antiquity didn’t know about should automatically be greeted with suspicion.  There is, after all, no other obvious evidence that we possess the refinement of moral sensibility to make such discoveries.)

If by “racism” one means “sinful acts perpetrated against members of other races”, then it is guilty of #2 above.  For example, if a man sets out to kill the first ten people of other races he comes across, he will certainly be guilty of a grave sin.  He will be guilty of the sin of murder.  The fact that he sought out members of other races rather than seeking out his own or being indifferent to the race of his victims does not change the nature or gravity of his sin one iota.  Thus, to prove that racism is a real sin, it is insufficient to show that some whites have treated some blacks unjustly.  One must also show that there is something wicked about having done unjust things to blacks in particular, so that if the victims had been whites the act would in some aspect have been not as bad.

If by “racism” one means “the inclination that leads people to mistreat those of other races”, then one is guilty of #3 above, because there is no single such inclination.  There are several, and they are very different in quality.  For example,

  1. Mere selfishness.  Slave traders didn’t have to hate blacks to be willing to make money off of them.  In this case, the racial aspect just involves the lack of a restraint.  The sinner’s bond with his own people would have deterred him from committing the sin against his own kind but not others for whom he has no such bond.  The racially-dependent variable is, in itself, a morally positive thing; what it’s doing is keeping him from doing injustice to some people.  It is just inadequate in itself for a fully moral outlook.
  2. A sense that the other race is a threat.  E.g. tribal warfare.
  3. A belief that another race is an “oppressor”, that is, one of the evil forces of Leftist demonology.  This phenomenon is quite different from the previous case of the natural instinct of loyalty to one’s tribe under threat in that this form of racial hostility is mediated by Leftist ideology.  Much black-perpetrated violence against whites is probably of this kind, and I suspect the public school system has a great deal of culpability.

Surely more is obscured than revealed by having a single word for all of these phenomena.

I therefore propose that the word “racism”, which in practice really does serve no purpose other than to pathologize whites, should be retired and replaced with the following:

  1. a nonjudgmental name for preference for one’s own race
  2. a nonjudgmental name for belief in differences between races
  3. a name for the lack of moral restraint toward those outside one’s own nation or race, that is, an undeveloped sense of justice toward man qua man
  4. a name for hatred of the perceived enemies of one’s race.  This name should include moral disapproval but with the recognition that it is a common deformation of a healthy feeling of protectiveness towards one’s own group under threat.
  5. a name for ideological hatred of Leftist scapegoat groups

The moral perils of trying to overcome racism

Let me first say that I shall be discussing race as a social construct, rather than a biological fact.  A person’s race shall refer to the group of people with whom he identifies, and, most importantly, the group of people he identifies as his ancestors.  Does this mean that I regard biological race as an illusion?  No more than I regard skin color as an illusion.  Race certainly has some biological reality, but morally it’s not a very interesting one.  For my purposes, a person is white if he or she thinks he is white, and everyone around him or her agrees.  And similarly for every other race.  For it is a fact that people–even and especially “anti-racists”–classify others and themselves by race.

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In defense of natural law I: The audacity of natural law

Consider the following statements:

  • It is intrinsically immoral to have sexual intercourse with someone who is not one’s spouse.
  • Parents have a duty to raise their children, and children have a duty to obey and revere their parents.  Unless extreme circumstances make it impossible, children should be raised by their biological parents.
  • It is intrinsically immoral to deliberately cause a sexual act to be infertile.
  • It is immoral to drink live blood.
  • Suicide is intrinsically immoral.
  • It is always wrong to kill an innocent person, even if he has low quality of life and wants to die.

Setting aside for the moment the all-important question of whether or not these statements are true, what they have in common is that they all belong to the natural law system of ethics.  They all take a set of biological facts–coitus, filiation, death–and purport to read moral meanings out of them.  The natural law presumes that the human body is charged with meaning, so that biological acts and relations have their significance built into them.  The “natural meaning” of the act exists prior to and independent of what the actor understands or intends by that act, and yet he is morally bound by the natural meaning none the less.

I saw a nice example of natural law reasoning in the movie Vanilla Sky.  (It’s not very good; don’t watch it.)  I don’t remember the characters’ names, but in actors’ names here is the setup:  Tom Cruise has been sleeping with coworker Cameron Diaz in an informal relationship, and then he decides to leave her for Penelope Cruz.  (When you’re Tom Cruise, you can do those sorts of things.)  Diaz’s character becomes distraught and pleads with Cruise that he can’t just leave her like that after they have coupled.  ”Your body makes a promise even if you don’t.”  This is a natural law way of thinking.  We say that fornication is wrong because when you have sex with someone, you make her a promise–whether that’s what you and her want to communicate or not–and that promise is the same one a person makes at a wedding ceremony.

This way of seeing things is very different from the modern mentality (although, as we’ve seen, the old mentality pops up in unexpected places).  Modern man is, whether he admits it or not, strongly shaped by Cartesian dualism to see the body as “brute matter”, as res extensa distinct from the res cogitans (the soul).  Meaning, it is believed, is a distinctly mental phenomenon.  Its origin, and indeed its whole being, is in the mind.  What an act means is what the actor intended it to mean and what he knew his observers would take it to mean–no more, no less.

Modern ethics is usually consequentialist or deontological.  Sin is identified either as harming someone else or instrumentalizing him (treating him as a “mere means”).  Harm and instrumentalization are defined solely in terms of the person’s preferences and choices.  Natural law agrees that harm and instrumentalization are wrong, but it defines them differently, in terms of man’s natural telos and natural meanings.

Modern man finds this idea of normative natural meanings foolish and arbitrary.  Natural law advocates are said to be ignoring the person to focus on the body, of ignoring intention to focus on biological function.  Natural law is accused of committing the “naturalistic fallacy” by hostile philosophers; Catholic heretics accuse it of “physicalism”.  These accusations have the merit of getting at the essence of the disagreement.  It it’s “physicalism” to believe that sex, parenthood, etc. don’t just mean what we decide for them to mean, then we natural lawyers are physicalists.

The modern critique of natural law has an undeniable plausibility.  Biological facts can no doubt affect our and other people’s desires and thus indirectly become morally relevant on modernity’s terms, but it is not obvious how they can dictate duties to the res cogitans independent of these considerations.  And yet, there are strong reasons why we should give the natural law account a careful hearing before we dismiss it.

First of all, one must be clear that to object to physicalism means having a quarrel not only with a few Catholic ethicists, but with the consensus of all mankind.  Across ages and cultures, all peoples have believed in natural meanings.  If nothing else, they have all agreed on the moral import of filiation and kinship.  That one person emerged from the uterus of another is a biological fact.   The social state of “motherhood” recognizes not only this fact, but also duties and rights that are supposed to flow necessarily from it.  A man has no right to expect love from his neighbors or coworkers.  His behavior may warrant their respect, but love can only be an unearned gift.  He has no right to ask his secretary “Why don’t you love me?” nor would she probably have any answer.  Love was never “on the table”.  A man can expect his mother to love him; the very relationship gives him a rightful expectation.  ”Mother, why didn’t you love me?” is a natural question for an unloved son to ask.  There probably is a reason, although no reason could justify so grave a failure of duty.  I have special duties to my children and my kin.  Partly, this is because they happen to be the people who are closest to me, but this isn’t the whole story.  I would fail morally if my brother on the other side of the country were homeless and I didn’t fly him to me and take him under my roof; yet there are homeless strangers in my very county to whom I am not obliged to make such an offer.

The consequentialist and deontologist can only agree with these intuitions by accident.  They will often grant that having children raised by their biological parents is administratively convenient.  As a practical matter, it would be hard for the State to find enough caretakers to replace all these parents.  But the family is only a matter of practicality, and in fact its ultimate value is open to question.  After all, it puts children at the mercy of people with no childcare training and next to no official supervision, all because of a “biological accident”; our bureaucratic age wouldn’t tolerate such feudal anarchy in any other area of life.  Similarly, they may agree that a particular act of adultery was wrong because it hurt the other spouse’s feelings, but they must also admit that this is because that spouse is being irrational.  A regime of universal promiscuity, where sex is “just like shaking hands”, might well be a happier world, and, consent assumed, wouldn’t obviously involve reducing any other person to a “mere means”.

Here is the second reason to consider carefully before rejecting the system of natural meanings.    As the two examples above indicate, a world without them would be a nightmare.  Unchecked by natural law, consent, efficiency, and happiness maximization would replace the love of parents with the expertise of childcare professionals; it would erase the bonds of family, ethnicity, and nation; it would reduce sex to a meaningless pastime.  Our desires would be satisfied.  We would all be happier.  Or would we?  For me, one of the most important aspects of happiness is the knowledge that I personally matter to some particular other people.  Being a man of no great importance, these people are a half-dozen family members.  What I do matters because they depend on me and they care about me.  In the post-natural bureaucratic utopia, there will be nothing like this.  What I do won’t matter much to anyone else–this will be true by construction.  If anyone really depended on me, that would limit both our freedoms.  It would make my dependent unequal, because if I failed that person would suffer, through no fault of his own, relative to those depending on someone else.  There must be supervision, uniform rules, backups and failsafes, so that in the end I can’t be allowed to matter to anyone else.

As Hegel pointed out, there is a leap from abstract right and morality to the ethical life.  We have no way to put abstract moral rules (e.g. utilitarian or Kantian) into effect–no way to know what they mean–until we are embodied in an “ethical society” where everybody has a specific place and duties.  How, though, are we to assign these particular duties?  Modern abstract ethical systems can only produce abstract organizations and can never provide this element.  In the past, it has always come from relationships like marriage and filiation that rely on natural law for their normative character.  After they are wiped out, a utilitarian calculus of the future may register the unhappiness that results, but it could not replace what it had destroyed.  Natural law seems to be the only way to lock particular people in duties to each other.  There is true happiness from the sense of meaning this provides, and the utilitarian rulers of the future might be forced to reinvent natural law as a “noble lie” to fill this void.  Let us then see first if we can defend the theory honestly as truth.

A defense of natural law must establish several points.  To fail on any one of them is to fail overall.  First, it must defend the claim that there are natural meanings.  It must establish that these are not merely projections of our subjective wishes or the mistaking of the customs and assumptions of our own culture for universals of nature.  This will be part 2 of this series.  Next, it must argue that these natural meanings are morally binding.  This step is often skipped over, but I think it’s a crucial and underdeveloped part of the theory.  Suppose we allow, with Cameron Diaz, that sex has a natural meaning that includes commitment.  Why could not the man and woman simply agree that this natural meaning is not the one they intend to give it?  That way, no false expectations would be generated; moving on would not be a betrayal.  That natural meanings are binding I will argue in part 3 of this series.  Finally, we must ask how the two meanings, what something naturally means and what we intend, are meant to relate to each other.  We must show that natural law does not itself fall back into a different sort of dualism.  This will be the subject of part 4.

Should liberals try to understand conservatives?

Sometimes intra-liberal debates can be fun to watch.  Remember that spat some years back between the evolutionary psychologists and the feminists over whether there is an evolutionary explanation for rape?  The ev-psych guys were throwing out their usual “just so” stories, and feminists were outraged, saying that any natural explanation of rape would somehow justify it.  To understand is to approve, so if something is bad, we must try not to understand it.  Now there’s a similar argument going on in the halls of liberaldom about whether or not they should try to understand a phenomenon that most of them would put on a moral par with rape–political conservatism.

Jonathan Haidt is a Leftist psychologist who tries to plumb the reactionary mind.  As always, the Chronicle of Higher Education is the place to go:

To Haidt, the evolution of morality can help make sense of modern political tribes like this one. And in that evolution, the big question is this: How did people come together to build cooperative societies beyond kinship?

Morality is the glue, he answers. Humans are 90-percent chimp, but also 10-percent bee—evolved to bind together for the good of the hive. A big part of Haidt’s moral narrative is faith. He lays out the case that religion is an evolutionary adaptation for binding people into groups and enabling those units to better compete against other groups. Through faith, humans developed the “psychology of sacredness,” the notion that “some people, objects, days, words, values, and ideas are special, set apart, untouchable, and pure.” If people revere the same sacred objects, he writes, they can trust one another and cooperate toward larger goals. But morality also blinds them to arguments from beyond their group.

How much of moral thinking is innate? Haidt sees morality as a “social construction” that varies by time and place. We all live in a “web of shared meanings and values” that become our moral matrix, he writes, and these matrices form what Haidt, quoting the science-fiction writer William Gibson, likens to “a consensual hallucination.” But all humans graft their moralities on psychological systems that evolved to serve various needs, like caring for families and punishing cheaters. Building on ideas from the anthropologist Richard Shweder, Haidt and his colleagues synthesize anthropology, evolutionary theory, and psychology to propose six innate moral foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation….

And the six moral foundations are central to how Haidt explains politics. The moral mind, to him, resembles an audio equalizer with a series of slider switches that represent different parts of the moral spectrum. All political movements base appeals on different settings of the foundations—and the culture wars arise from what they choose to emphasize. Liberals jack up care, followed by fairness and liberty. They rarely value loyalty and authority. Conservatives dial up all six.

This is not bad.  Note that he’s explained conservatism in a way that isn’t manifestly derogatory.  Some attempt is being made to understand conservatives’ motivations, to understand us on our own terms, even if he doesn’t accept those terms himself.  It’s better than Corey Robin version that we conservatives just want to rob our workers and rape our wives.

As I said, Haidt is a Lefty himself.  His primary concern is to understanding these moral cues so that the liberals he approves of can more effectively manipulate the populace.

Now Haidt wants to change how people think about the culture wars. He first plunged into political research out of frustration with John Kerry’s failure to connect with voters in 2004. A partisan liberal, the University of Virginia professor hoped a better grasp of moral psychology could help Democrats sharpen their knives. But a funny thing happened. Haidt, now a visiting professor at New York University, emerged as a centrist who believes that “conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals.”

So far Haidt hasn’t had much luck interesting political types in his ideas. He reached out to Democratic politicians in his home state of Virginia, like Mark Warner and Tom Perriello, as well as to the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group tightly wired to the White House. But folks in Washington strike Haidt as too fixated on dodging daily bullets to think about the long-term future of liberalism. The few political people who gave him any time seemed more interested in tapping behavioral science for fund raising, or simply too busy to engage with his ideas.

Needless to say, the intelligentsia is outraged that someone is trying to understand conservatives–as opposed to simple condemning them–even if he’s doing it in the interests of liberalism.  One must not admit that there are any moral arguments for conservatism, even invalid ones.

But even as Haidt shakes liberals, some thinkers argue that many of his own beliefs don’t withstand scrutiny. Haidt’s intuitionism overlooks the crucial role reasoning plays in our daily lives, says Bloom. Haidt’s map of innate moral values risks putting “a smiley face on authoritarianism,” says John T. Jost, a political psychologist at NYU. Haidt’s “relentlessly self-deceived” understanding of faith makes it seem as if God and revelation were somehow peripheral issues in religion, fumes Sam Harris, one of “the Four Horsemen of New Atheism and author of The End of Faith.

The theory frustrates some. Patricia S. Churchland, a philosopher and neuroscientist, has called it a nice list with no basis in biology. Jost, the NYU psychologist, feels Haidt makes a weak case for defining morality so broadly. Philosophers have long considered whether it’s “morally good to favor members of your own group, to obey authority, or to enforce standards of purity,” Jost says. “And they have come largely to the conclusion that these things don’t have the same moral standing as being fair to people and trying to minimize harm.” Following leaders can lead to horrific consequences, he notes.

Haidt acknowledges that the same beelike qualities that foster altruism can also enable genocide. But as a psychologist, not a philosopher, he generally sees his job as describing moral judgments, not advising what is right and wrong for individuals.

So, court theologians of the liberal establishment insist that their’s is the one true faith.  Imagine that.  Given how incredibly flawed consequentialism is as an ethical system, I would say that philosophers who prioritize “being fair to people and trying to minimize harm” to the extent liberals do should have a reduced “standing” on our attention.

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