January 28, 2012


Justice without Foundations (Robert P. Kraynak, Summer 2011, The New Atlantis)

The best place to begin the discussion of justice without foundations is with the late American philosopher Richard Rorty, the influential spokesman for "non-foundationalism." As a professor at the University of Virginia and Stanford, he made a strong impression on students by telling them to stop philosophizing and to live pragmatically on behalf of social justice and human dignity. His rejection of philosophy was influenced by Heidegger's critique of metaphysics, which Rorty elaborated on in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) and other writings, describing the futility of reason to grasp the external world of nature, or to provide rational foundations for knowledge, both moral and metaphysical. Surprisingly, Rorty claimed that his philosophical rejection of foundations did not mean that he was a moral relativist, nor did it require him to abandon his political commitments -- especially for social justice, which he understood as a "progressive" version of social democracy and economic equality. Rorty argued that, rather than an approach of direct rationality, these commitments could be embraced pragmatically by following the likes of John Dewey, and poetically by following the lead of Walt Whitman.

He further maintained that political values such as democracy, equal rights, and respect for others are non-foundational commitments that North Americans and Europeans have built into their social conventions. Hence, we do not need philosophy to teach us how to act politically, because the ideals are embedded in our language and traditions; all we need to do is to affirm them by human sympathy and active citizenship.

The problems with Rorty's position have been noticed by many critics -- none more astutely than Peter Lawler in Aliens in America (2002). In developing these criticisms, it is useful to examine a little-noticed 1983 essay of Rorty's called "Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism." In that essay, Rorty honestly admits that his moral sensitivities are "postmodern" in the sense of being rationally groundless; yet he asserts that they are still legitimate as borrowings from Judeo-Christian notions of human dignity inherited from the past. With intentional irony, Rorty describes people like himself as "free-loading atheists." [...]

What Is Man that Thou Art Mindful of Him?

Despite the inconsistency of Darwinians and moral relativists, they perform the useful service of showing how indispensable is the concept of human dignity, even when it cannot be adequately explained or justified. The great puzzle is that everyone seems to believe that man is different from all other creatures in the universe, in some essential and fundamental way -- "enough even to make a moral difference," as Dennett says -- but that no one seems to know why. Perhaps the task of explanation is too daunting for modern philosophers and scientists to undertake, because it would require a return to classical philosophy. Other philosophers have pursued this course by seeking a rational explanation for man's dignity in the philosophy of Aristotle: the proposition that man is an animal with a rational soul tied to a material body -- that is, an embodied rational soul. For Aristotle, the nature of humans as embodied rational souls places man at the top of the animal kingdom, as the highest living being. This notion of natural hierarchy gives human beings a lofty dignity in the cosmos, though not an absolute dignity, as it is a comparative ranking, with human beings above the beasts but below the gods or heavenly bodies.

The difficulty of defending Aristotle's argument for man's dignity as a rational animal is that it is useful for practical ethics but it lacks a solid scientific and metaphysical foundation, if we accept modern cosmology and Darwinian evolution. Man's rational soul might be a transient accident of evolution, or an insignificant part of an infinitely expanding and indifferent universe. The only way to vindicate the rational soul as a basis for human dignity in light of modern cosmology would be to argue along the lines of physicist Paul Davies in his brilliant article, "The Intelligibility of Nature" (collected in Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature [1993]). Davies makes a powerful case that nature's rational and mathematical order means that intelligibility is inherent in the design of the universe. Even though the natural universe is expanding and evolving, it is constantly forming higher and higher levels of intelligence through a sort of self-organizing complexity -- implying that the universe favors rationality or intelligence, and that man's rational soul has a kind of cosmic support in nature's design. In his provocative book Are We Alone? (1995), Davies goes so far as to assert that, since nature seems to inherently incline toward intelligence and awareness of itself, intelligent life should exist elsewhere in the universe; its discovery would vindicate the dignity of man as a rational creature.

This argument is highly speculative, of course, and it reminds us that the special dignity of man is something that people believe in as an article of "moral faith" without being able to prove it definitively. But does the persistence of this belief mean that man really is special? Not necessarily. The belief could be an illusion -- a product of our fondest wish to feel that we are important in the grand scheme of things. But the special dignity of man could just as well be a genuine cosmic mystery -- something that is true or real, yet inexplicable on purely philosophical or scientific grounds (except as a speculative argument). If indeed the special dignity of man is a true but inexplicable cosmic mystery, then we are led by the limits of reason to consider other sources of knowledge besides philosophy and science; in particular, we may turn with a new openness to the revealed knowledge of the Bible and ask what it says about the place of man in the cosmos.

According to the Bible, man has a special glory or dignity compared to other creatures because humans are the only created beings made in the image and likeness of God. Yet the mystery of man as a creature made in the image of God -- the Imago Dei -- means that the Bible does not attempt to define man in terms of particular attributes or traits. Indeed, the Bible never says if it is reason or language or free will or even the capacity for love and justice that makes human beings essentially human. The Bible is not "essentialist" in the philosophical sense of identifying an essence of man. Yet it does refer to man as a special creature in the universe, and even invites us to ask, what makes human beings special?

One interpretation of the Biblical answer is that man's special dignity in the created universe is a case of "mysterious election" by the mysterious God, whose divine name, YHWH, means "I will be what I will be," and implies that God chooses by His inscrutable will to make the universe and man according to His purpose and design. While reason can perceive that design in a limited way, it is ultimately a matter of faith that God's mysterious will is "good" -- meaning, that His order is not perverse, tragic, or indifferent. This notion of man's mysterious place in the moral order of the cosmos is best captured in the lines of Psalm 8:

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.

The awe and wonder conveyed in this Psalm is a poetic account of the special election of man as the highest creature in the universe (or second highest, after the angels), whom God has mysteriously selected to possess a special dignity -- to be crowned with glory and honor and to be given dominion over the rest of creation. Yet, not only is no clear reason given for God's special favor, but we are not even told what man is: it remains a question -- What is man, that thou art mindful of him? -- without an answer. Still, as a result of man's special moral status, we are asked and even commanded to treat people with love and charity as human beings -- as mysteriously created beings who are made and favored by God. These moral commands are known by divine revelation rather than by reason, and they rest on the foundational claim of man's inherent dignity as a creature with a divine image -- for which reason and free will are only outward signs rather than essential traits. In other words, the divine spark in human beings can be glimpsed, but never fully grasped, so that the essence of our humanity remains a mysterious feature of this singular being called man.

These biblical themes point to the challenges of finding adequate foundations for justice. The central problem in treating people justly is that doing so assumes human beings have a special kind of dignity which comes from a moral status that is different from other creatures. Philosophy and science seem unable to find adequate grounds either to explain the special status of man or to dismiss it as an illusion, leaving us perplexed by the strange predicament that everyone believes in human dignity without knowing why. Postmodernists simply despair and throw up their hands at reason, yet cling to human dignity as a kind of irrational moralism or inexplicable sympathy for our fellow humans. Darwinians have confidence in reason as a foundation for science but not as a foundation for morality -- so that, if Social Darwinism is to be avoided, what is required is an equally irrational leap of faith in human dignity, in defiance of natural selection. Kantians acknowledge the need for foundations in practical postulates of morality, but also despair of proving them. And Aristotelians who acknowledge the need for demonstrating the rational soul falter before the difficulties of the task in light of modern biology and cosmology. Is it not reasonable to infer, then, that all of these philosophers and scientists are pointing toward the notion of man's special dignity as a genuine cosmic mystery -- something that is both true and rationally inexplicable because we hardly know what man is or how and why he got here?

If that is the case, then our inquiry should remind us of the age-old debate about the relation of reason and faith, and point us also to its best conclusion: reason is a very powerful, but ultimately limited and incomplete, tool for finding the whole truth about man. Thus reason must seek its completion and perfection in faith. But the faith that completes or perfects reason cannot be an arbitrary faith, like the irrational leap of postmodernists and Darwinists in accepting human dignity; rather, it must be a reasonable faith -- a faith that is beyond reason while not being against reason. Such a reasonable faith is what the Bible offers us: the mystery of man as a creature favored or selected by an all-powerful Creator whose will is inscrutable but benevolent. This is a faith that arises from awe and reverence at the true but insoluble mysteries of the created universe, and the special place of man in the order of creation. And it is a faith that shows us that the Judeo-Christian conception of man provides the most plausible account of human dignity -- and that divine love is the ultimate foundation of human justice.

Conservative Postmodernism, Postmodern Conservatism (Peter Augustine Lawler, Fall 2002, Intercollegiate Review)

What has distinguished the modern world, above all, is a particular definition of what a human being is. That definition does not describe a real or complete human being. It was not even meant to be completely true, but mainly to be useful as a fiction in the pursuit of unprecedented freedom, justice, and prosperity. Modern thought has held that a human being is an individual, and the modern individual is an abstraction, an invention of the human mind. That individual is made more free from social and political constraints, and less directed toward duty and goodness by God and nature, than a real human being ever could be. The modern individual is distinguished from the political animals--the citizens, statesmen, and philosophers--described by the Greek and Roman philosophers, and from the social, familial creatures described by Christian theologians. The modern individual is liberated from the philosopher's duty to know the truth about nature, from the citizen's selfless devotion to his country, from the creature's love and fear of God, and even from the loving responsibilities that are inseparable from family life. Conservatives today oppose liberal individualism both because its understanding of the human being is untrue and because that definition erodes all that is good about distinctively human existence.

The modern world has now ended only in the sense that we have now seen enough of it to judge it. Although we have reason to be grateful for the wealth, health, freedom, and power that modern achievements have given us, we know that the individual's pursuits of security and happiness will remain always pursuits--and not possessions. So even as the modern world continues to develop, we can be free of its characteristic delusion, its utopianism. We can speak of its strengths and its limitations from a perspective "outside" modernity, and that perspective is the foundation of conservatism today. Conservatives can be (perhaps the only) genuinely postmodern thinkers. The reason we can see beyond the modern world is that its intention to transform human nature has failed. Its project of transforming the human person into the autonomous individual was and remains unrealistic; we can now see the limits of being an individual because we remain more than individuals. The world created by modern individuals to make themselves fully at home turns out to have made human beings less at home than ever.

Conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism, but it is, obviously, not postmodernism as it is usually understood. Most allegedly postmodern thought emphasizes the arbitrary character of all human authority, the freedom of each human being from all standards but his own will or creativity, and the death not only of God but of nature. These allegedly postmodern characteristics are really hypermodern; they aim to "deconstruct" as incoherent and so incredible any residual modern faith in reason or nature. They shout that everything modern--in fact, everything human--is nothing but a construction.

Postmodernists in the usual sense often do well in exposing liberal hypocrisy, but they can only do so in the name of completing the modern project of liberating the individual's subjective or willful and whimsical perspective from all external constraints. Conservative postmodernism, by acknowledging and affirming as good what we can really know about our natural possibilities and limitations, is radically opposed to liberated postmodernism--and to the modern premises it radicalizes.

Nothing like Mr. Kraynak and Mr. Lawler to bring a bunch of great themes together and provide us with some clarity. 

Nowhere was Special Providence more evident than in the Anglosphere managing to remain outside of Modernity for its duration.  While the End of History and The Long War mark the universal arrival at Postmodernism, it was our good fortune to arrive there directly from pre-Modernism.

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Posted by at January 28, 2012 7:38 AM

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