Every age has beliefs about the good life and about ultimate reality that seem normal at the time but are strange and inconsistent when viewed from a broader, more historical perspective. Our present age is no different — not only in the liberal democracies of the West, but also in the globalized world influenced by Western ideas. The strangeness of our day consists in a strong moral passion for the virtue of justice sitting alongside a loss of confidence in the very foundations for justice, and even an eagerness to undermine them.
People today display extreme moral sensitivity to injustices that they understand as violations of the equal rights and equal dignity of all persons — especially the rights of persons thought to be victims of discrimination and oppression. This sensitivity leads to demands for government policies on behalf of “social justice,” and for changing social customs to protect individuals and groups from insensitive words and actions.
What is so strange about our age is that demands for respecting human rights and human dignity are increasing even as the foundations for those demands are disappearing. In particular, beliefs in man as a creature made in the image of God, or an animal with a rational soul, are being replaced by a scientific materialism that undermines what is noble and special about man, and by doctrines of relativism that deny the objective morality required to undergird human dignity. How do we account for the widening gap between metaphysics and morals today? How do we explain “justice without foundations” — a virtue that seems to exist like a table without legs, suspended in mid-air? What is holding up the central moral beliefs of our times?
Richard Rorty’s Free-loading Atheism T he best place to begin the discussion of justice without foundations is with the late American philosopher Richard Rorty, the influential spokesman for “non-foundationalism.”
[Rorty] 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.” He also displays exquisite sensitivity to human dignity in making this admission: he imagines “a child found wandering in the woods, the remnant of a slaughtered nation,” and asks if such a lost person should have “no share in human dignity.” He explains:
it does not follow that she may be treated like an animal. For it is part of the tradition of our community that the human stranger from whom all dignity has been stripped is to be taken in, to be reclothed with dignity. This Jewish and Christian element in our tradition is gratefully invoked by free-loading atheists like myself.... The existence of human rights, in the sense in which it is at issue in this meta-ethical debate, has as much or as little relevance to our treatment of such a child as the question of the existence of God. I think both have equally little relevance. Rorty’s point is that seeing a lost child wandering around as a naked, shivering homeless person inspires in him a strong sense of moral duty to “reclothe” that person with dignity (an elegant phrase), but not because he believes in God or in Kantian moral duties and rights. His justification is that he is part of a community of moral traditions inherited from Judaism and Christianity, which teaches us to care for a homeless person like the Good Samaritan would do.
In his book Achieving Our Country (1998), Rorty makes a passionate appeal for the left-wing ideal of America, as a nation with historic commitments to progressive politics. He is sharply critical of the cultural left in the universities for rejecting America as hopelessly unjust, and he favors the “Old Left” of trade unionists, Marxists, and socialists who emphasized economic over cultural issues and promoted political activism for economic equality.
Yet these commitments lead to major contradictions for Rorty. Not only does he undermine his commitments to human dignity and democracy by his denial of foundations, but he also contradicts his democratic tendencies by insisting that social justice requires a certain kind of moral authoritarianism — from teachers in classrooms and from the centralized state, in order to impose their views willfully on others. With his usual mixture of candor and irony, Rorty comments on his methods of indoctrinating young people who do not share his views on social tolerance. He says, for example, that his duty as a teacher requires him to impose upon his evangelical Christian students, who believe homosexuality is a sin, by curing them of their homophobic views, even if he lacks rational grounds for doing so. The preferred technique is poetic or narrative — which Rorty calls “sentimental education” because it appeals to the compassion of students by having them read personal narratives of gay people:
When we American college teachers encounter religious fundamentalists ... we do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. We assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned The Diary of Anne Frank....
I do not claim to make the distinction between education and conversation on the basis of anything except my loyalty to a particular community, a community whose interests required re-educating the Hitler Youth in 1945 and required re-educating the bigoted students of Virginia in 1993. I don’t see anything herrschaftsfrei [free from moral authoritarianism] about my handling of my fundamentalist students. Rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents.... It seems to me that I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause. I come from a better province. Rorty’s technique is to use disarming candor in referring to himself as a benevolent Nazi rather than a rational educator, and in admitting that he is not free of moral authoritarianism. The effect is to shock or lull the reader into overlooking the contradiction between claiming his views are merely contingent on his accidental upbringing (namely, that he comes from a different province than Nazis or his bigoted students) while also claiming that he is “benevolent” rather than “vicious” and serves a “better cause.”
Even if one disagrees with Rorty’s progressive views, one could admire his stance if he at least acknowledged the need for some metaphysical or rational foundation for the social justice he advocates. But Rorty refuses to budge on this point: “We can still be old-fashioned reformist liberals even if ... [we] start treating moral and scientific beliefs as tools for achieving greater human happiness, rather than as representations of the intrinsic nature of reality ... and see everything around us and within us as one more replaceable social construction.” Rorty’s message is that we can replace knowledge with hope, philosophy with social action, and have the certitude of committed reformers who seek to change the world while acknowledging all along that social justice is merely a humanly made convention or “replaceable social construction.”
Darwin and Democracy A nother powerful intellectual current of our times, and a crucial contributor to the undermining of foundations for our notions of human equality and justice, is scientific materialism, particularly Darwinian evolution. Darwinism differs from postmodernism in its affirming our rational knowledge of the external world of nature; and it is less sentimental, at first glance, about changing the world in accordance with ideals of justice. It also supports an objective idea of human nature, rejecting the proposition that we are socially constructed. This means that it is also more hard-headed and realistic than postmodernism in acknowledging the inevitability of such traits as greed, aggression, violence, war, natural sex differences, kinship and tribalism, inequalities of all kinds, social dominance, and other factors that make social justice in the modern democratic sense difficult to achieve. Darwinians are defenders of a biological naturalism, thus providing a useful antidote to naïve social constructivism, and are less inconsistent overall than postmodernists like Rorty because they are in some sense “foundationalists.”
But on the basis of those very foundations, Darwinians are divided and confused about what their scientific theory implies for morality and politics. Some argue that Darwinism provides a coherent theory of “natural right” that resembles Aristotle’s theory (but without the natural teleology); Larry Arnhart, for example, has developed such a theory, which he calls (in the title of his 2005 book) Darwinian Conservatism . Richard Dawkins, on the other hand, says that Darwinism tell us nothing about morality and politics, because evolutionary science only explains the way we are, not the way we ought to be, leaving politics to purely personal choice. Others, like Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker, are more complicated. They argue that Darwinism does have ethical and political implications: it permits a philosophy that acknowledges an essential “moral difference” between humans and other animals, and thereby supports progressive politics on behalf of liberal democracy, human rights, feminism, and justice.
And herein lies the problem. Insofar as Darwinians appeal to nature as a standard, they are not candid enough to acknowledge the most logical implication of their theory. The moral and political implications of Darwinian evolution do not point either to Aristotelian virtue ethics or to a progressive, democratic social justice that respects the rights and dignity of persons. Rather, it points to something like the Social Darwinism advocated by Herbert Spencer, Friedrich Nietzsche, or Ayn Rand — a view of politics in which the strong inevitably and even legitimately dominate and exploit the weak for their own purposes, and democracy, dignity, justice, and compassion are sentimental relics of Christianity, or, more accurately, prejudices of democratic culture.
Meanwhile, Darwinians who do not appeal to nature as a standard (because they are appalled by the harshness of natural selection) make a leap out of nature into a realm of “human values” that reflects the ungrounded ideals of modern democracy, such as autonomy, dignity, and human rights. These thinkers ironically end up like Rorty — as non-foundational defenders of social convention (albeit with greater sobriety about the limitations our evolutionary heritage imposes on social justice).
Consider the view of human beings and morality outlined by Daniel Dennett in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995). Darwin’s central idea, according to Dennett, is that the well-designed universe we inhabit actually arose from the mindless, purposeless, directionless forces of evolution, providing “a scheme for creating Design out of Chaos without the aide of Mind.” Darwin’s scheme, of course, is natural selection, which Dennett explains in mathematical terms, as one sort of “algorithm,” or procedure — in this case, one that sorts through alternatives using a simple mechanical rule repeated indefinitely until a single option is left. Unlike other algorithms that sort by logic, natural selection creates winners by allowing random variations to survive, a process that adds up to the semblance of a pattern or design over a long period of time. Dennett’s ambition is to apply the Darwinian algorithm to everything: to the origins of life from non-life, and even to the origins of our universe, by claiming that its laws arose from a myriad of accidental tries with other combinations in other universes that did not survive. This enables Dennett to argue that the universe and man are accidental products of evolutionary forces, but that they still have meaning and purpose once they are “frozen” in place. Thus, scientific materialism can be vindicated while avoiding moral relativism and affirming a culture based on modern liberal democracy and its respect for the dignity of persons.
If we look at Dennett’s argument with critical distance, however, we can see that it follows the typical contradictory pattern of scientific materialism: it combines dogmatic materialism in describing a universe that is indifferent to man (it’s all just “frozen accidents”) with idealistic moral principles that presuppose the unique status of man and an ultimate purpose to human existence. Dennett is so insistent on man’s special dignity that he even criticizes the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson and the behaviorist B. F. Skinner for mistakenly reducing human motivations and goals to those of other animals (survival, procreation, pleasure, and pain). Dennett repeatedly asserts that “we are not like other animals; our minds set us off from them,” and “what makes us special is that we, alone among species, can rise above the imperatives of our genes.” Dennett sees man aiming at higher purposes than the transmission of genes, and dismisses the idea of the “survival of the fittest” as an “odious misapplication of Darwinian thinking” by Social Darwinists. In contrast to them, Dennett strongly condemns oppression, slavery, and child abuse as “beyond the pale” of civilized life.
Yet, with all of his upholding of human dignity and distinction, he claims that his views are consistent with the accidental nature of the universe: the “world is sacred,” he says, but apparently it also “just happened to happen,” and human reason is merely “a byproduct of mindless, purposeless forces.” In other words, Dennett claims that the universe has no purpose but man still has a moral purpose (to be decent, humane, and just, and to pursue scientific knowledge). He assumes, that is, that some ground exists for a higher moral law in the nature and dignity of man, despite the fact that, from a strictly Darwinian perspective, one can find no objection to the strong dominating the weak, the survival of the fittest, or one tribe exterminating another that has a differing gene pool.