Monday, January 03, 2011

WHAT GOOD IS CHARACTER?


I have often taken the developments of the past Postmodern 40 years to task for Deconstructing* a lengthy list of the structural components of American and Western society, culture, and civilization. The idea is to get rid of a lot of ‘old’ and, of course, ‘oppressive’ stuff – which may be deliberately and consciously oppressive, or may be oppressive yet simply seem like the ‘normal’ and ‘ordinary’ thing to do, or may simply feel oppressive to somebody (whose particular group or Identity happens to have the sympathies of a vote-addled Beltway).

Having thus Deconstructed whatever you’re not happy with, you then have some space to ‘reform’, ‘change’, or be (pick one or several) progressive, transgressive, or – rarely considered – regressive.

The philosopher Roy Turner takes a look at K. Anthony Appiah’s recent book, ‘Experiments in Ethics’.**

Appiah is a celebrated commenter in the New Mode, and much given to opening up space while maintaining the modulated tone and careful, sober and mature appearance of heavy-duty, serious philosophy. Deconstruction is, like, philosophy, man! He is much in demand among the Correct godlings and godlingesses who preside over the various bosky glades of academe.***

Appiah has written his “little” book – read: small and thin – in order to “relate the business of philosophical ethics to the concerns of the ordinary, thoughtful person, trying to live a decent life”.

I’m all for that. Although you will note the number of what the late-Victorians called “portmanteau words” or suitcase words: empty containers that can be filled with whatever the owner wishes to stuff them with: ordinary, thoughtful, decent.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? Trying to determine what is ordinary, thoughtful and decent and what is … something else and should be more accurately described using other terms.

Philosophy has always been a matter of thinking and of reasoning, at its core. But since Reason was one of the first targets of Deconstruction, and since Thinking is not easily given to simple, material scientific validation as in the physical sciences, and not easily quantified as in the social sciences, then there’s always going to be a gap between Philosophy and the type of Evidence and ‘Proof’ that the physical scientists offer in regard to the Laws of Thermodynamics and Gravity (although once you get into 20th century Quantum Mechanical science then you are catapulted back into realms beyond the Material).

The ‘social sciences’ – once regarded, with some accuracy, as ‘soft’ sciences – have always relied on a curious blend of a particular practitioner’s assumptions and presumptions and visions, combined with a concern for numbers: statistics, algorithms applied to groups of human beings and social forces … that sort of thing. The ground here is a lot softer, mushier even, than Newton’s or Copernicus’s.

The social sciences, then, were clearly useful to Deconstruction: they were ‘sciences’ and could provide the status of ‘scientific proof’ or ‘evidence’, while at the same time they were limited by few solid actualities and realities, and thus, being of the consistency of play-dough, were able to provide as much space an any enterprising Deconstructor might choose to open up.

So it can come as a surprise to nobody when Appiah burbles authoritatively that in order to develop his thoughts here chosen to base himself in “social sciences” because they are “fairly straightforward”. Which is a statement that says much more beneath its surfaces than it does above them. Because “straightforward” here refers to the results of ‘studies’ that can be tailored to give you almost any results you seek. And because “straightforward” can thus easily degenerate into a code-word for “Correct and just what I want to hear”.

Appiah is concerned that there is, as best he can determine, “a serious problem with the ordinary citizen’s moral intuitions”. By ‘ordinary’ he means the folks who ‘just don’t get it’; and ‘moral’ of course is a vital realm of human inquiry and guidance that doesn’t lend itself to material evidence and proof: Newton and Copernicus wouldn’t be able to prove ‘morality’ with carefully observed and painstakingly devised mathematical calculations designed to reveal the presence of clear laws.

And yet, to say that therefore ‘morality’ doesn’t exist because you can’t prove it mathematically is an assertion that can’t possibly be true. There are, as I always say, planes within the phenomenon of human being and human existence that are not material, and that do not exist on the level of physical, observable, material reality, but that are still very much real.

THAT is the confounding reality about the complexity of human being – perhaps of Being itself – that has always been a stumbling-block for the Modern spirit (forged in the budding ‘science’ of the 15th century in the West) and even more so the Postmodern spirit (forged in the 20th century in the West).

Appiah locates this problem in the fact that the moral intuitions of the ordinary citizen are too often “unreliable and incoherent” (read: un-Correct) and this, he thinks, stems from the very problematic existence of “common sense”. He wants to undermine and de-legitimize the authority that those ordinary people (curiously, he calls them “citizens”) ascribe to ‘common sense’.

Now you can’t just go and laugh. Recall that in the Jim Crow South – which by the time of the fine first phase of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s had been in effect for almost 70 years – generations of otherwise decent folks had been raised with the ‘common sense’ that the ‘traditional’ if peculiar Southern approach to race was just that: ‘common sense’ and ‘tradition’; and that to flout it would be ‘immoral’, putting the entire Southern white community at risk of losing its structure and the beliefs that framed and shaped its life and world.

It was precisely this problem that captured the attention of many ‘progressive’ and liberal thinkers, as it had many 20th century European thinkers, especially in the postwar period as European colonialism came to be considered a wrong-path to take, or at least to continue.

The trouble – especially for American politics and culture – lay in the conclusions that were drawn from the Jim Crow situation.

The traditional Catholic (that organization had put the most sustained and comprehensive Western thought into the matter of the moral) assessment would be that while there is a moral element, and a vital element it is, to human beings and indeed to Reality itself, yet that moral capacity or potential had to be well-formed. Since it would operate in the non-material realms of thought and belief, of ‘conscience’, then the human conscience had to be well-formed.

To use a somewhat ham-handed analogy: if a starship’s guidance computers were going to work in the trackless wastes of deep space, then they needed that first set of Prime Coordinates, against which every other bit of location-information or course-plotting information would be judged. If the starship computer didn’t have accurate Prime Coordinates, accurately entered into its core from the get-go, then the vessel would sooner or later lose its way out there, despite the best efforts of its crew, no matter how capable they were.

The Catholic idea was that God was the Prime Coordinate, and God’s Law of Love (a poor translation choice in English; ‘respect’ might work better). Since it was not always clear – dealing with this type of Laws isn’t the same as conducting research on gravity or thermodynamics or opticks – and since young humans had to have their conscience-computers programmed with the Prime Coordinates in at least basic form as early as their  mind began to form in childhood, then in the ‘shipyard’ of the Family the child-new vessel would be given that priceless and indispensable set of Prime Coordinates.

Nor were these Coordinates in essence a matter of opinion or consensus, any more than Gravity was a matter of opinion or consensus. This was the way Reality was indeed structured and governed, created by God. (I’m not delivering a sermon here; I’m trying to convey the position which the Church held.) A vessel would have to conform to the Reality of the Universe’s dynamics, like a plane has to conform to aerodynamics, or it will not stay in one piece very long; like a plane has to be able to figure east from west and north from south or it won’t be finishing its journey (UNLESS the whole idea of a plane trip is simply Aimless Wandering).
Humans being humans, two things followed: A) their cultures and traditions became part of the moral fabric or Trellis that helped to shape and sustain them; and B) the effects of selfishness and disrespect would always be present, seeking to bend what Martin Luther King aptly termed “the moral arc of the universe”. This deforming dynamic would be present in humans and through them in the institutions they created and in the traditions and ‘common sense’ that they derived and developed.

So there was always a need to help shape a ‘properly informed’ conscience; to give the human conscience those Prime Coordinates and then to ensure that it stayed close to them. And – even more dynamically – to continually assess the general assessment of the accuracy with which those Prime Coordinates were being conceived: as historical developments moved along, you had to both i) ‘judge’ them in light of their conformity to the Prime Coordinates and ii) expand your concept of how those Coordinates figured into the course you were pursuing (perhaps it would need to be changed due to what you recently discovered, or due to the deflections of gravitational pull, that sort of thing).

But Americans – although they pretty much invented the Star Trek vision itself – were never quite patient in the careful-thinking department (many of the Framers were concerned that people could not be trusted to function as The People, to deliberate carefully and to keep themselves well-informed and to ensure that their children were well-formed in civic competence, you will recall).

Quick, sweeping, ‘practical’ solutions – known for their ‘cash value’ in William James’s unhappily pragmatic and materialistic phrase – was the American way. And much more so in the late Sixties than ever before.

Back then to Appiah, who is unhappy with not only the deep complexities of ‘moral’ thinking but also with the un-Correctness of the moral as it relates to the agendas of the revolutionary agendas of the Identities.

It was ‘common sense’ for quite some time to think that the earth was flat, he notes. Which is true. But that is not the realm of the ‘moral’ (let me call it the Moral from here on, just to keep the perspective of how vital it is to adequately and accurately grasp Reality). While it may well be that humans will continue to make discoveries in the material realm (which is the only realm in which genuine science and its remarkable Method can operate), such that at some point common-sense about the material realm will change, yet the Moral common-sense can never change because it is built into the unchanging nature of Reality itself (if, you assume, in the Catholic sense, that God is moral and created the universe to give it that ‘moral arc’).

So while We no longer think it is common-sense to assert that the earth is flat or that the sun revolves around it or that the earth is only 6,000 or so years old, you can’t really imagine a human reality in which it is no longer common-sense to Love (or Respect) other human beings. (Although just how to demonstrate that Respect, as individuals and societies and cultures, is always going to be a dynamic frontier.)

A humanity that no longer considered itself bound to Respect its own kind (add if you wish: because that is how the Creator Shaped humans) is not going to be a humanity, but is going to be some other type of being. And such a ‘development’ will involve not an E-volution but a DE-volution into some lesser and nastier type of being.

Appiah, much given to the political and the Postmodern, isn’t interested.

If human beings continue any sort of moral discourse, it is not because there is some beyond-material (or Meta-material) Moral ‘out there’ or ‘up there’ or even ‘in there’ (in the nature of the Reality or imprinted in the nature of the human being him/herself). Rather the ‘moral’ sense is some capability, like being able to play football or drive a car or sew, that can be taught and perhaps changed rather easily and conveniently.

After all, Moral with that capital-M implies a boundary, a limit, and also a criterion of judgment by which humans not only judge others but under which each human stands under judgment him/herself. And if there is a Moral, then there is a Creator of the Moral who will also be doing some Judging. All of this is wayyyyy too judgmental for the Postmoderns. (And to some extent, alas, Americans too – who sort of have always eased their path by figuring that since the country was especially chosen by God, then it sort of had a license to do whatever it thought best; the post-Sixties variant being that America is still special but not because there is a Moral God or any God but because its ideas are so reeely reeely great.)

There is another prof at Princeton with Appiah (you’re paying top dollar for this stuff) who adds that in physics there is a sort of “folk physics” (common misconceptions held by most scientifically uninformed or scientifically untutored people) and then there is genuine physics. Which is true enough.

BUT, the prof, continues, maybe then there’s the same sort of situation in the matter of morality: there is a ‘folk’ morality that is held by the uninformed (those who ‘just don’t get it’, perhaps) and a more genuine morality held by … well, apparently by those who ‘do get it’.

But this sally falls right into the deep trough separating material, this-plane-of-existence science from other-plane-of-existence Morality. And, as the Catholic view has always noted, if you are dealing with so vital a human capacity – imprinted in the human by its Creator – but therefore also not ‘material’ but rather beyond-material (or, ‘spiritual’, if you wish) then this Princeton prof is trying to compare rocks and oranges and figures there is a world-class level of knowledge to be gained from it.

And as Turner points out, there isn’t a well-established body of evidentiary material knowledge relating to moral issues the way there is such a body of knowledge in physics.

To use my own example – and a vivid one it is but only so that it is more clear: a simple German with no formal scientific training might not have understood or might have had whacky ideas about the jet propulsion dynamics of the ME-262 jet fighter, and you couldn’t have trusted him/her to go near one at the Luftwaffe test hangar. BUT a simple German (as many of them did) might have had a ‘common-sense’ feeling that it wasn’t right to go killing the mentally-disabled just because they were in the way – and held to that despite the protestations of officially-approved academic and medical professionals with wall-fulls of degrees and credentials in their field who supported the program.

(Yes, you might then ask about the Holocaust: once, as Hitler did, you simultaneously terrified people into realizing that if they disagreed with the government they and their loved ones would pay dearly for it, and also then offered them – especially the young (a special interest of Hitler’s) – a ‘scientific’ proof-theory that dehumanized other human beings and monsterized them as a ‘threat’ … then you as a government or a movement began the truly diabolic work of dividing not only human beings from each other (Aryans from Jews) but also from their own true natures. Thus the Prime Coordinates of the Moral have to be not only early-implanted in the budding human conscience, but also carefully and courageously nurtured; this was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s insight, which he backed up with his own life).

Turner acutely observes that what both Appiah and the other prof, one Harman, “seem to find attractive” is the type of social science “literature” that “seems to undermine the ordinary thoughtful person’s faith in the notion of character”.

I would say that this goes back, at least, to the American experience of Jim Crow: if so many ordinary and decent Southern folk for so long considered it ‘moral’ to impose the Jim Crow regime on Southern blacks, then clearly 'morality' and 'character' are suspect terms, and they are clearly so liable to evil-manipulation that they lose all legitimacy.

But that’s to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

King himself held for the clear immorality of Jim Crow and had every confidence that once that was demonstrated to white Southerners then their natural moral sense would start to kick in, overcoming the decades of inculturation into the vision of the Jim Crow regime. He didn’t hold that Southern whites were naturally immoral or that morality didn’t exist (indeed for him Morality was more attuned to Reality than Jim Crow, which was not only evil but un-Real and out-of-sync with that “moral arc of the universe”).

The Jim Crow experience – and King’s overcoming of it – demonstrated the validity of the ancient concerns for forming children with the accurate Prime Coordinates as early as possible, and then the responsibility of adults and their culture to help the child grow and expand that Moral competence, and then they would exercise (in a democracy) through their Citizenship competencies the Moral influence to ensure that the culture and its laws conformed to that Moral.

If you can see how to do things differently, be my guest.

Morality is an on-going process that requires constant self-judgment the same way sailing a ship requires constant checking-on (‘judging’) the vessel’s course. And it requires constant assessment of the culture. And a certain amount of judgment. And a certain amount of courage, especially when the culture (as in Bonhoeffer’s Germany) starts to go haywire.

Turner observes that Appiah and Harman “both abhor this notion [of ‘character’], although it has long been implicated in ethical theory” and that what Appiah apparently likes about what particular pieces of social-science ‘literature’ he has selected is their “explosive revelation that conduct, far from stemming from character or reflecting something deep and stable in the psyche, is determined by the situations in which we find ourselves. Conduct is a creature of context.”

I accept that Turner, a philosopher, uses the word ‘psyche’ and not ‘soul’; I’d opt for the latter. In fact I subscribe to the Catholic vision that ‘soul’ is precisely that ground – Given by the Creator – within the human that imparts a depth and stability.

And also the human quality. For animals, conduct is indeed a result of context: the fox, as Carlyle mooned, will go after the chicken if there are reasonable prospects for success, and will waste no time worrying about whether this is the proper thing for a fox to be doing or what consequences this foxy assault would have on the chicken or its loved ones. Of course; there is no love in the example, the fox’s nature is to find food and chickens are – in the foxes’ world – the food, and there is no common-ground in the animal world between the fox and the chicken. And there is not even any capacity within the fox to entertain such matters.

All of which simply goes to show that animals and humans are different in some fundamental way, and that you can’t easily or usefully draw analogies between the behaviors of one animal species toward another (especially when one species is the natural prey of the other), and that humans are morally responsible in a way that lower animals are not. It’s not easy being a human and conducting a Moral life, and ‘groovy’ and ‘just doing what feels good’ don’t even begin to comprehend the magnitude of the task of human Mastery and Command of the Self.

Harman actually goes further than Appiah and asserts “virtues and vices” to be “nonexistent”. So then, Harman can ask breezily, “If we know that there is no such thing as a character trait and we know that virtue would require having character traits, how can we aim at becoming a virtuous agent”.

They pay big bucks for this sort of stuff at Princeton (which is reflected in the tuition).

But this is the type of discourse the Brits neatly label If-I-Were-A-Horse talk. Because we don’t ‘know’ any of the things on which Harman builds his conclusion. It’s a mind-game. I have seen an awful lot of this type of ‘philosophy’ and ‘thought’ passing for ‘knowledge’ and ‘evidence’ in this and that field of the Postmodern empire. The Beltway has been far more impressed with it than it had any right to be.

As Turner says, this bit from Harman implies, among other things, that “if someone supposes that developing a robust character would sustain a morally decent life in the face of changing circumstances, he is plainly mistaken.”

Yes, humans are imperfect even in attempting to ‘do the right thing’. Which doesn’t mean that the right thing doesn’t exist but simply that it takes a whole lotta serious work and thought and courage to do the right thing, and it is vital – humans being social animals – to have a culture and traditions in place that support that endless and ongoing task (and responsibility) and so you shouldn’t go Deconstructing lots of serious stuff unless you’ve really really really thought things through. And that does not include simply coming up with If-I-Were-A-Horse ‘proofs’ that can only ‘work’ in maybe getting you a free beer (or single-malt, or Chardonnay or Bellini) at the local pub. But it’s no basis for national policy. (And can you say “Iraq War”?)

And as the Eastern mystics long ago realized: the fact that six blind men each have a hugely inaccurate mental picture of elephants based on each blind man’s hugely insufficient information, doesn’t mean that elephants themselves don’t actually exist.
Among the experiments upon which their assertions primarily rely, Appiah and Harman are particularly fond of those conducted by researchers who determined that when approached for pay-phone change (how old are these experiments?) strangers are more likely to give it when near a “fragrant bakery” than outside a “neutral-smelling dry-goods store”. (Are these government-funded experiments, or are they covered by tuition?)

Appiah, drawing himself up to full scholarly authority (think of Gandalf revealing himself to Bilbo when the little guy doesn’t want to leave the Ring of Power in the envelope on the mantelpiece, or Mithrandir revealing himself as Gandalf the White against the evil spirit of Saruman possessing Theoden of Rohan), ladles it on with a trowel: “Many of these effects are extremely powerful” and “huge differences in behavior flow from differences in circumstances that seem of little normative [that is to say ethical] consequence”. Notice the hyperbole in language as well as the disproportion between the experiments’ results and the conclusions Appiah draws.

About all I can see this establishing is that if you take some drugs (those naturally occurring endorphins prompted by the scent of fresh-baked bread) then you’ll be nicer to srangers. Surely this is not news. Indeed, Our hard-pressed troops on the Eastern Front are now given – as a matter of military policy – all sorts of drug-cocktails (and are also going to be required to take ‘positive thinking courses’).

Yes, a few nice endorphins may give folks a little bit of extra leeway in feeling benevolent (although I am guessing that’s not so effective nowadays), but you can’t base the entire pyramid of Deconstructing the concept of human character and the existence of the moral or the Moral on such a pin-point. There is a reason that the pyramids were built with the wide and thick part on the bottom; it’s a big part of the reason why they are still standing.

But if drugs are the only way to make humans more benevolent, then We are heading into some dark future that heretofore was only the province of Science-Fiction of a particularly dysphoric and dystopic bent.

And if the only thing that makes you do the right thing is having been in a situation where you’ve just had a pleasant experience and are feeling kinda good about life, then ethics and humanity are reduced to a ridiculous shell. And a profoundly inadequate and inaccurate conception of what the human Task and Mission really involves. It is a job of work. And, if I may go beyond even the best philosophy, you can’t do it alone or Alone.

And apparently what the Germans found among the Einsatzgruppen troops in the Ukraine is also true now in Afghanistan: certain acts, especially if ordered with some regularity, result in the troops needing an awful lot of alcohol or drugs to dull the pain. The operative question being: why the pain if there is no Moral within the human himself? You can order troops to fire machine guns into concrete or sand-bag targets day in and day out and your only command problem will be – for some – a degree of boredom. But if you order the same act when the guns are aimed at human beings … something else happens altogether.

How many Allied and Central Power senior officers didn’t bemoan the fact that in the trenches of World War 1, facing each other day upon day, their troops had a disturbing tendency not only to live and let live but to purposely refrain from offing the other side’s guys unless specifically ordered to and supervised by the officers themselves? The celebrated ‘Christmas Truce’ on the Western Front horrified the generals (as well it should have) but it would have become an annual tradition with a wide popular base among the troops if the bosses hadn’t threatened courts-martial and the inevitable firing-squad from your own side.

You can see where all of this is useful to Appiah and the cadres of Deconstruction. If there is no ‘character’ then you can’t ‘judge’ folks for not having it; you can’t ‘oppress’ people by expecting them to conform to it; you can’t insist that this or that progressive or transgressive excitement isn’t a good idea; and so you open up all sortsa ‘space’ for folks to ‘beeee freeeeeee’, as the Boomers always figured was the way to go. In fact, you can't insist that there is some Beyond or some capital-letter anything that might stand in the way of the total autonomy of every individual (and that of course would be good thing because autonomy is a total good and Shape and Boundary are totally bummers and anyway it's in the Constitution and et cetera and et cetera and et cetera).
But, Turner judges rightly, “Appiah and Harman are untroubled by flawed reasoning”. And this has been a problem with the ‘revolutionary’ approach that all the Identities adopted in the Sixties and that the Beltway accepted as ‘progress’ and the media valorized in sound-bites and cutesy feel-good, upbeat and ‘constructive’ reporting.

What Turner judges about Appiah and Harman applies as well to far too much of the Postmodern world: “Character is part of being human. We lean nothing of how we live with it from Appiah and Harman or the experimentalists, who have nothing to say about the qualities or conditions of a decent life, let alone offer any advice for its attainment.”

You might say that Appiah and Harman resemble those fabled Chinese ‘scholars’ who sought to learn about the horse from ‘studying’ the Unicorn. Having constructed their own ‘reality’ they then figure they can learn about genuine reality (or Reality) by studying their doodles. And, having gained the ear of the imperial government, they THEN insist on making the rest of the people accept the cartoonish conclusions they have drawn from their own cartoons.

Does any of this have a familiar ring?

And if so, What then is to be done?

NOTES

*Formally, the term Deconstruction is from the realm of literary criticism. It refers to a French-based philosophical-literary method that presumes from the outset that there are deep-seated contradictions, whether purposeful or unconscious, at the heart of a work (literary or film) and thus sets out to expose them by delving below the target-work’s surface meaning.

Of course, you can see what might happen if you give yourself over to a Deconstructive turn of mind and simply aim it like a destructo-beam ray gun at anything (philosophy, culture, ideas, other people’s beliefs, other people’s actions): you can, as the system intended, cut apart just about anything you aim at.

The system is not designed for ‘CON-struction’. Having created ‘space’ by blowing apart what’s already there in a work, Deconstruction then yields to whatever the wielder chooses to fill the newly-created space up with.

I use the term in the more general sense: the Revolutions of the Identities needed to create ‘space’ in American culture – its practices, its beliefs, even its credibility and legitimacy – in order to trowel in whatever ‘fresh, progressive and cutting-edge reform thinking’ the particular Identity’s advocates sought to force-feed into the national bloodstream.

And you can always imagine it in a more literal sense of the building trades: de-constructing a building means ‘taking it apart’. I have often used the image of a ship at sea or a plane in flight – carrying passengers – to better convey the actuality of what it means to vigorously and excitedly Deconstruct a culture and a society and a civilization. Which is what has been happening in these parts for 40 years. (You can be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the deconstructors lost control of the amazing destructo-beam and somehow hit the economy as well as ‘the culture’.)

**The article is entitled “Ethics Made Easy: ‘Feel Good, Do the Right Thing’”, by Roy Turner; it is in the Oct-Nov 2010 issue of ‘Philosophy Now’ magazine, pp. 29-31. The article is available online only to subscribers or by purchase here.

***Where, by the by, 85% of college grads – those who have secured the vital Ticket to Success – are now returning home after graduation to live with their parents, up from 65% in 2006. I can’t imagine what happens to those young adults who don’t have much of a family life to return to. Another sign that the water is now rising into the previously dry decks of the ship reserved for the marvelous Knowledge-and-Service society that would remain unsinkable as the gritty, sweaty, and so repugnantly and oppressively ‘male’ productive culture was ripped out and tossed overboard into History’s voracious ocean.

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