The Field and the Road


I am becoming convinced that the paradigms of our moral philosophy have a fundamental flaw.  Traditional morality tended to be binary – something is either right or wrong, good or bad.  Modern morality denies categories of right and wrong.  In some ways this is an outworking of traditional philosophy (Plato and Aristotle), and the struggle between ‘universals’ and ‘particulars’.  Plato points up with one finger to the universals, and Aristotle’s fingers reach out to the individual particulars.  Are there rules and categories that hold for everyone, or are there only the particulars of the individual?  Do we have categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’, or is everyone free to define whatever gender they choose?

In Western tradition, the concept of categories use to be the general norm, there were some nuances and grey areas; but generally people walked the ‘narrow way’ of virtue and knew ‘right from wrong’.  Moral issues have always been debated (can war be justified?), and moral norms have always been broken (theft, murder, adultery, …), but the belief that there were moral categories endured; at least up till modern times.

Today we seem to be caught in a strange blend; rationally wanting to follow Kant and Hagel, giving up on universals and seeing only the existence of particulars, the only truth is the truth that I perceive at this moment (ie gender identity).  This is irrationally thrown together with an absolute belief in an undefined  ‘social justice’ that is intolerant of any opposition (while demanding ‘tolerance’ of diversity!).

Such a state did not come about from nothing, but rather is a reflection of a long philosophical history.  I find this history best captured by two people:  Franz Brentano (as translated and explained by Barry Smith), and Francis Schaeffer (in Escape from Reason).    Brentano sees the history of philosophy as going through a series of cycles, starting with Aristotilain realism, having a growth of development, then declining into skepticism and finally mysticism.  I agree with him, but would go further and say that rather than a repeating cycle it is a spiral, that ever tightens and becomes more restrictive.  Schaeffer sees the history of philosophy as a series of struggles between Plato’s universals and Aristotle’s particulars, with the progressive death of grace, nature, freedom and rationality.  Philosophy, up until Kant and Hagel, sought a unified knowledge that would logically unite ethics and science.  Kant and Hagel brought about the ‘death of philosophy’ by separating mathematics and logic from meaning and values.  You could measure and define mathematics, chemistry and physics; but there could be no discussion of their meaning or value.  Meaning and value were a personal, subjective faith; hence, outside rational discussion.  I can have exhaustive statistics on arrests, deaths and other social and psychological events; but while screaming for ‘social justice’ and stopping ‘hate’, without definitions there is little or no agreed upon, articulated policy of how to change it  (other than a Utopian faith in revolution).  Our moral collapse is merely a reflection of a larger philosophical collapse.

When Kant and Hagel created ‘modern’ philosophy when they separated reason and faith (physics from meta-physics), they did not set out to destroy philosophy, but thought they could save it with a new dialectical approach.  They were willing to sacrifice a ‘unified field of knowledge’ in order to preserve human autonomous reason.  We are now facing the unintended consequences of this choice.

Before ‘modern’ times, philosophers would argue where the ‘stake in the ground’ should be driven.  They would disagree, pull up the stake,  and move it to different places in the field where they thought it belonged.  There was debate, and continual moving of the stake, but agreement that the stake should be somewhere within the field (although its exact boundaries were not defined).  This created an environment in which rational debate over values could exist, and a broad (though fuzzy) agreement over what the field (domain) of discussion covered.

With modern thinking, there is no stake or field.  Everyone has their own stake, and they march from ‘now’ to the future, down the road and over the horizon to the (assumed to exist) place where they think the stake belongs.  There is absolute, existential, certainty that the stake belongs there; and nothing can be allowed to get in the way of the ‘progress’ to get there.  The universals and particulars have not gone, but manifest themselves in the rhetoric of the ‘left’ turning down the road of socialist collective (universal), or turning to the ‘right’ for individual (particular) freedom and autonomy.  Plato and Aristotle are no longer walking about talking with each other; but are marching in opposite directions, with no means of dialogue.  Both the Democrats and Republicans (in the United States) have departed the field of discussion and compromise, to head down their respective roads, and confront (with stake wielding violence if necessary) anyone who stands in their way.  This is where we end up in logical positions that are absurd: age (or gender) is an individual state of mind, therefor if I am chronologically 16 years old, but perceive myself as 21, I should legally be allow to have a drink in a bar. It is my perception and my choice, who are you to call me wrong (you ageist bigot!)?.

I envision a needed return to the field, but not to the way it was.  Everyone looses their stakes, as there is not one (unknown) correct place to stand that is logically or individually determined. The stakes are placed as a safety perimeter bounding the field.  Anywhere within the field is a legitimate place to stand and talk, though people may want to shift locations due to changes in time and weather.

Traditional Christian thinking was reasonable, but not rationalistic.  While Aristotle insisted on the law of non-contradiction (A != -A), Christian thinking started and ended in mystery – the unknowable.  God is one God, but exists as three persons.  Christ is incarnate, he is both fully God and fully man.  These understandings became the stakes that defined the perimeter of the field.  One person could emphasize the unity of God, as long as they did not deny the three persons; another could emphasize the difference of the persons, as long as they acknowledged the unity of essence; and any place in between is also acceptable.  The Church councils identified already existing boundaries (what was the nature of God), and carefully placed stakes at these locations; the stakes did not make the boundaries, but visibly marked them for all to see.  The heresies of Arianism and Modalism were truths taken to a logical extreme, wanderings down a road beyond the boundaries the stakes identified.

This is where conversations about ethics and politics will be strolls around the field; an agreement on where the stakes are, but difficult discussions about where one should stand at any given moment.  The stake on one side says to be a generous giver, without asking whether the recipient is worthy; the stake on the other side says that if a person does not work they should not eat.  How do we stand between charity and responsibility in any given situation?  We need economic sufficiency and ecological responsibility; how do we decide whether to cut a forest or protect the trees?  The church is hierarchical (with God at the head) and conciliar (with every person in the image of God); how do we avoid dictators or mob rule?  These issues have no single answer, and different positions have been, and may be, necessary under different conditions.  Determining the position of the moment requires thought and discussion, as well as compromise.  The only wrong answer is when one sets a path down the road and strays outside of the staked boundaries.




White Privilege

I have debated with myself on whether I should write this post, since an article in the Huffington Post  got me thinking more seriously about the issue.  Some might say I am incapable of writing on the subject (since I am a white male), but I don’t believe the ‘ad hominid’ fallacy that my genetics prevent me from being logical.

This is a difficult issue, because it embodies a lot of emotion and experience in addition to a long philosophical history.   Anyone who denies the pain and suffering based upon racial and gender differences has to have a very narrow experience of life.  I do not want to minimize the real pain, both individual and social, but I would like to try and separate the reality of the pain from what is presented as the ‘obvious’ cause and solution.

The woman in the article sites a number of personal experiences when she felt singled out and abused for her race and gender.  For some there were clear connections (racial slurs), but not in all cases.  Not having been there, it is hard to deny her conclusions, but I begin to get uncomfortable when she starts ascribing almost all of her interpersonal hurts to ‘white privilege’.

I don’t want to start a debate of ‘my hurts are worse than yours’, but what do I ascribe my hurts from bullying in high school to (or am I not allowed to claim ‘discrimination’)?  Before I started high school, my parents moved to a small southern Indiana town.  One day, a teaches was visiting our house and said, “You are not from around here, are you?”  When asked why they said this, the response was, “You have too many books.”  I felt an outside minority much of the time, and there were days when walking down the school hall someone would randomly punch me in the back, or throw things at me.

My point is not to deny racial and gender problems, but that the problem is bigger (but not less).  Differences threaten people, whether the differences are racial, nationalistic, gender, economic or culture.  There is a fear of the different, that turns to hatred; and while it starts out between large groups, it eventually divides individuals and can even internally tear a person apart.  I don’t think that the philosophical solutions that are going around in recent times are willing to grasp this complexity; it is not just ‘my group’ that has a problem, but it is universal.

One of the problems I have with ‘white privilege’ is that I see it as the most current manifest of a long philosophical history of trying to identify the root of evil.  Ever since the Enlightenment, when the traditional Christian doctrine of ‘the Fall’ was rejected in favor of wanting to affirm the goodness of all humanity, there has been an effort to identify a new cause of evil.  Rosseau wanted to blame civilization for our ills, the ‘noble savage’ was his ideal of a person free, wise and good in a state of nature.  Freud ascribed our problem to sexual repression, and Marx blamed economic differences between the bourgeois and proletariat classes.  Modern leftist view hold that our problems (inner city or international) are the result of poor education and economic opportunity.  With ‘white privilege, it is now DNA that is the popular deterministic cause.

Whatever is pointed to as the potential cause (economics or white privilege), there is a common pattern:

  • The person or group suffering is a victim, who is not responsible and limited in being able to bring about change.
  • Someone, or something, else is to blame.  The problem is in the system or someone else.
  • The solution is to remove any privilege or advantage, bringing everyone to the same common level (usually the lowest common denominator).
  • It requires government force, or group violence to change (or eliminate) the problem.

While the logic may be new, the attitude is embodied in old humor.  It reminds me of the old Russian joke about a poor peasant who’s only cow has died, and he sits in despair staring at his neighbor’s cow.  His guardian angel feels sorry for him, and asks God what can be done for him.  God tells the angel that he can grant the peasant one wish.  The angel goes to the peasant and asks him what he wants, “Do you want a new cow, do you want a horse?”  The peasant looks at the angel and says, “No, I want you to kill my neighbor’s cow.”

While economics and opportunity are contributing factors, I think that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn more correctly understood the fundamental problem when he said

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956