February 23, 2005

the declining value of truth

I've been thinking a lot about the Bush administration's ability to pile up lies and not get caught. All presidents have a bit of it, and Clinton had more than most, but the Bush administration beats the pants off anyone else I've ever read about. Weapons of mass destruction? Compassionate conservatism? All these lies get exposed, of course, so in a sense you could say they're getting caught, but nobody seems to care. I think it's partly a problem of the intellectual value of truth, both in academia and in the popular imagination. Because no matter what people say about the ivory tower, theoretical perspectives eventually get out and affect people's self-conceptions and the way policy gets made.

Here's my theory (in the basic basic version). Back in the day, when the Enlightenment was getting started, Enlightenment philosophers looked around for a basis for morality, and decided that, like truth and thought and being and all sorts of other things they were interested in, morality was universal and followed universal laws. In fact, morality was made up of universal laws, all of which stemmed (said Kant) from the categorical imperative. So, ok. Morality is a universal law. Where does this universal law come from? Really, ultimately, this is the biggest problem with Kant. Why is it this rule instead of some other rule? Who decides? And he and people like him go through a lot of verbal gymnastics about this, but they never really answer it.

Social contract theory is the same kind of thing: Locke goes on and on about natural rights and he and Hobbes tell all these stories about the state of nature and how we came together for mutual protection. The Hipster Monk said it best: "Oh yeah, remember when that happened? That was great. Sheesh. I love fake histories." When your theory of morality is based on a series of events that never actually happened, you're in a bit of trouble. The basic problem is this: why are life, liberty, and property the 'natural' rights? How are they defined? Where do they come from?

Mill and Bentham disagreed, and said that instead, morality was all about the outcome: the greatest good for the greatest number, or the utility, of an action. Which is nice, but there's something intuitively wrong with a theory that says that morality is all about pleasure; they also run into a bit of trouble with minority rights, which Mill at least was very big on. Someone other than me put it this way: if you get enough screaming Romans into the Coliseum, the misery of the Christians they're watching get eaten by lions is going to be outweighed by their pleasure, so feeding the Christians to the lions is the right thing to do.

The basic problem with both systems of morality - the absolute law and the total relativist - is that they don't provide a decent theory of the person. If your moral actions are predetermined by absolute law, you become an automaton, unable to respond to change and circumstance and totally indistinguishable from anyone else; if they are determined only by pleasure, you have no constancy from moment to moment and become unrecognizable as a single individual. Man, I wish I could remember who wrote the article I got this from.

Anyway, the other basic problem with both systems of morality is that they assume that there is a universal and constant truth, and that there is what Nietzsche calls a "pure will-less timeless painless knowing," either of the universal law or the maximum utility. This started to fall apart with people like Kierkegaard writing these little vignettes about Abraham, the modernist writers really did a number on it, and it kind of collapsed on itself, as I see it, under the weight of finding out that that "universal" truth had actually been the truth as the people with power saw it. Nietzsche, in On the Genealogy of Morals, went to the edge of this and looked into the abyss in which truth could not exist; but he didn't jump. That took longer, and it took post-modernism.

Now I'm going to talk about post-modernism, with the disclaimer that I don't really know much about it. I think that puts me in the same boat as most of the people who talk about pomo, though. Maybe even a little better than most. As I understand it, pomo has this basic idea that truth is all perspectival and contingent, that the self basically is fragmented and inconstant, and that we should accept our overlapping and interrelated identities. In terms of thinking about truth, pomo mostly sees it as largely a matter of perspective and function and contingent factors rather than universal.

If truth is perspectival, if it's all really a matter of where you sit and what's useful to say, then having respect for other people's opinions becomes really really important. And I think you can see that: people talk about how what they do or think is no better or worse than anything else: that's just my opinion, they say. It's a sensible, reasonable response to a world where "truth" was and is so often used to justify repression, violence, discrimination. But it also has a lot of problems.

One of those is exemplified by Condoleezza Rice's response to Barbara Boxer's questioning: Rice just kept saying that she was a good person, and claiming that the war in Iraq had been about something that can now be justified rather than about weapons of mass destruction. She, like other members of the Bush administration, says things which are just shy of demonstrably false (e.g. have demonstrably false connotations) and it gets reported with something someone else says but with no evaluation of the truth. Two opposing perspectives is all the media can provide. And, importantly, that's what people see in such arguments: two opposing perspectives, and truth nowhere. Truth is inaccessible, and maybe non-existent.

I don't really blame the Bush administration for this problem, though they're certainly exploiting it. In our adversarial political system, someone would have eventually figured out that this trick worked. The right is milking this for all it's worth: in fact, there was an article on Inside Higher Ed about "The New Repression of the Postmodern Right" that talked about a bill in the Ohio legislature as an expression of radical subjectivity in service of the right. They do invoke absolutes all the time, but in this way that makes it unclear what, exactly, the absolute means. What is freedom? Freedom is whatever the Bush administration defines it as being. There is no knowable history, even for the last four years. Terms have no real meaning. Except, possibly, within the religious right - but that's not what crops up in Bush's usual speeches. He may actually be a religious absolutist, or he may be trying to manipulate the religious right into supporting him: you can't tell. And that, my friends, is post-modern.

I don't know how to address this, really. I like the neo-Aristotelian critique of pomo and the Enlightenment both, but I'm not sure how it applies to a national government with international power. I also have to go to the grocery store.


the hipster monk said...

two things:

first, we might want to think about how the big G-O-D fits in with how enlightenment thinkers were trying to deal with morality. susan neiman's Evil in Modern Thought is great for this.

second, easily distracted has an interesting post about africa and misrecognition and arrives at the startling conclusion that, "Perhaps we should worry less about garden-variety stereotypes sprinkled through popular culture like gaudy ornaments of some barely-recalled past, and worry more about the fervid dreamers, who see a whole and coherent picture in their imagination and set out to compel the world to align itself with their vision."

are coherently imagined pictures necessarily inethical? does it make sense to hold a belief without to some degree wanting others to share it?

North said...

Ah, the big G-O-D. I think we have to look at the Enlightenment in the context of a gradually secularizing Europe in which philosophers weren't willing to give up the basic idea of God but were also unwilling to stick with the old ideas about who/what God was. This is, for example, when deism got big.

Also, Nietzsche says truth and God are the same thing. Which I think is interesting.

More to say about coherent pictures later, but: I think what he's saying is not that people want others to understand their ideas, but that they will literally try to change reality if it threatens their vision. Totalitarian states are notorious for this.

Or maybe that's just my take on that particular sentence.

the hipster monk said...

i suppose i just meant to point out that in casting about for a basis of morality, it wasn't like there wasn't an obvious answer already looming - namely, God and Commandments and the Church and whatnot. doesn't it kind of seem like the Categorical Imperative and other "universal" explanations are a half-way house between the absolute "because i said so" of christianity and modern relativism?

also, "[trying] to change reality if it threatens [one's] vision" seems to me like something people do all the time, just to different degrees. so i'm wondering where one draws the line between probably healthy struggles for self-determination and some kind of imperialism.

clearly i am preoccupied with spectra and how lines might be drawn on them.

North said...

doesn't it kind of seem like the Categorical Imperative and other "universal" explanations are a half-way house between the absolute "because i said so" of christianity and modern relativism?yes exactly! I think this is what I was trying to say.

maybe you should become a chemist and use a spectrometer.

the hipster monk said...

ha ha.