Pushing Against Moral Relativism & The Academic Fashions Of Modern Life-Some Links

I keep picturing a young Briton in Paris, within a doorway, observing the generation of 1968 pushing inexorably by, shouting through the streets, agitated:

‘No, that’s not really for me.

Roger Scruton At Spiked: ‘Academic Freedom In Conformist Times:’

‘Williams is also correct to lay bare the philistine consequences of reducing truth and knowledge claims to assorted wills to power. Yet, philosophy, which Williams does not touch on, has been, in the Anglo-American academy, largely immune to the replacement of truth by power as the goal of speech. Richard Rorty is to be deprecated because he tried to undo that. But he did not succeed. The same is not true of musicology (thanks to the likes of Theodor Adorno and Susan McClary), where, too often, it is now assumed that music is merely expressing and justifying various power relations. Work is needed on the question of what it is about a ‘discipline’ that makes it into a real discipline (that is, one in which there is the collective pursuit of knowledge rather than the battle for power). What is needed is a theory of different kinds of knowledge other than the factual: knowledge of how, what, and what to feel, etc’

From Kelley Ross, who takes a step back from moral relativism and good ‘ol American Pragmatism:

‘It is characteristic of all forms of relativism that they wish to preserve for themselves the very principles that they seek to deny to others. Thus, relativism basically presents itself as a true doctrine, which means that it will logically exclude its opposites (absolutism or objectivism), but what it actually says is that no doctrines can logically exclude their opposites. It wants for itself the very thing (objectivity) that it denies exists. Logically this is called “self-referential inconsistency,” which means that you are inconsistent when it comes to considering what you are actually doing yourself. More familiarly, that is called wanting to “have your cake and eat it too.” Someone who advocates relativism, then, may just have a problem recognizing how their doctrine applies to themselves’

And on Richard Rorty:

‘Pragmatism is really just a kind of relativism; and, as with Protagoras’s own strategy, it is a smoke screen for the questions that ultimately must be asked about what it means that something is “better,” or now that something “works.” Something “works,” indeed, if it gets us what we want — or what Richard Rorty wants. But why should we want that? Again, the smoke screen puts off the fatal moment when we have to consider what is true about what is actually good, desirable, worthy, beneficial, etc. All these responses are diversions that attempt to obscure and prevent the examination of the assumptions that stand behind the views of people like Rorty. It is easier to believe what you believe if it is never even called into question, and that is just as true of academic philosophers like Rorty as it is for anybody else. Being intelligent or well educated does not mean that you are necessarily more aware of yourself, what you do, or the implications of what you believe. That is why the Delphic Precept, “Know Thyself” (Gnôthi seautón) is just as important now as ever.’

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Into which vessels are American universities shaping young minds as those minds are shaped by this past few centuries’ great works?:

A.O Scott The Chronicle Of Higher Ed-‘When Critics Become Professors:’

‘It does not come because our students fail to respond to ideas, rather because they respond to ideas with a happy vagueness, a delighted glibness, a joyous sense of power in the use of received or receivable generalizations, a grateful wonder at how easy it is to formulate and judge, at how little resistance language offers to their intentions.

Trilling’s concerns are a mirror image of the ones Winters identified. The problem is not that scholarship — at least the apprentice version practiced by bright young students at fine old schools — is serious but that it is not serious enough. It is the art that is grave and difficult. Winters solved this problem by insisting that the split between art and learning was based on a romantic delusion about the emotive, expressive, and personal essence of art. Trilling, while noting that “nowadays the teaching of literature inclines to a considerable technicality,” found it impossible to contain the discussion of modern writing within the ambit of technique. To do it justice was to grapple with painful and personal matters, with one’s own thoughts about sex, alienation, injustice, and death, to “stare into the abyss” and then write a term paper about it.’

Let’s hope those vessels are more imaginative than the modern pop-art meta celibri-fame commentary one can find out in the popular culture.

As for that 3rd-wave feminist ‘male-gaze’ stuff, it must take a special kind of myopia to make your ‘personal’ life ‘political,’ and then end-up shilling for….Hillary Clinton.

Such a lack of imagination:

As previously posted:

On that note, Roger Scruton had some keen insights:

“The works of Shakespeare contain important knowledge. But it is not scientific knowledge, nor could it ever be built into a theory. It is knowledge of the human heart”

“…in the days when the humanities involved knowledge of classical languages and an acquaintance with German scholarship, there was no doubt that they required real mental discipline, even if their point could reasonably be doubted. But once subjects like English were admitted to a central place in the curriculum, the question of their validity became urgent. And then, in the wake of English came the pseudo-humanities—women’s studies, gay studies and the like—which were based on the assumption that, if English is a discipline, so too are they.”

Quite importantly:

“And since there is no cogent justification for women’s studies that does not dwell upon the subject’s ideological purpose, the entire curriculum in the humanities began to be seen in ideological terms.”

This is a matter of deep debate in our society right now.

Terry Eagleton, British Marxist and professor in the humanities, debates Scruton below.

Will Marxism & continental philosophy become further guiding lights for the humanities here in America as we find much more so in Britain?

Are we really that thick into the postmodern weeds?:

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Judgment, as Scruton points out, shouldn’t necessarily be subsumed to political ideology.  I would agree, and I generally default in assuming that each one of us is the ultimate arbiter of our own judgment.

But, no man is an island.

Does Scruton’s thinking eventually lead us back to the problems that religion can have with artists and writers?

Is there anybody whom you trust to decide what you should and shouldn’t read?

Parents?  Great authors?  Public intellectuals?  Professors?  God?  Laws and lawmakers? Religious leaders?  A school-board?  A democratic majority?  People who think like you?  A Council of Cultural Marxists?

The Department of Institutionalized Idiocy?

See Also On This Site:  Philosopher Of Art Denis Dutton of the Arts & Letters Daily says the arts and Darwin can be sucessfully synthesized: Review of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’

Martha Nussbaum says the university needs to be defend Socratic reason and still be open to diversity:  From The Harvard Educational Review-A Review Of Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.’ 

Stanley Fish also says keep politics out of academia: From The Stanley Fish Blog: Ward Churchill Redux…

Repost-Theodore Dalrymple: ‘What The New Atheists Don’t See’

Full piece here

Dalrymple claims that the new round of atheists, (or at least some of the current spokesmen of popular atheism) are glossing over the deep metaphysical questions surrounding the existence of God.  Very few popular thinkers who attempt to address the depth of the God arguments succeed, but those who do so within Christianity strike me, as does Dinesh D’Souza, as ignoring a few hundred years of thought as they gaze out from within their own doctrines.

Isn’t the pursuit of scientific inquiry and truth (fortunately) a separate enterprise from the religious pursuit of truth?

Some atheists seem to be in danger of becoming adherents rather than free thinkers.

Addition:  More on Roger Sandall’s blog here, as he discusses Roger Scruton.

One question seems to be whether we choose to give religious arguments any quarter at all.  The hard atheist line seems to be no.  Mine is…perhaps…

See comments.

Another Addition:  Agnosticism, right?  Thanks to a friend for bringing this up.  Here’s a pretty nasty critique of agnosticism from the atheist point of view.

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As previously posted:

Short piece here (video discussion included)

(approx 33.oo minutes long)

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Link sent in by a reader.  A British affair, but interesting:

‘For those who don’t believe in God, but do believe in humanity, how should we view religion? O’Neill argues for tolerance. That means we should be free to express our beliefs as we see fit, and others should be to criticise and even ridicule those beliefs’

It’s nice to see some pushback against the zeal of ‘activist’ and New Atheism, as well as eliminative materialism. Humanism can become anti-humanist after all, especially among environmentalists (some secular doomsday groups know how many people is enough).

But radical humanism, or renewed faith in humanism, must still ground itself in claims to knowledge and truth, in rationality, or in some thinking which can maintain civil society and mediate other competing claims according to its lights.  Why and how should humanists manage the public square?

Here in America, we’re arguably witnessing the decline of organized religion in public life and in many of our institutions, and perhaps the rise of greater numbers of unaffiliated individuals exercising their freedoms and arranging their lives in other ways.

It’s become quite easy to mock the religious and religious figures (Christian, mostly) as representatives of a defunct/backwards way of thinking, thus marginalizing them from public debate.  Of course, in my opinion, there remain good reasons to be skeptical of many claims to knowledge and truth made by the Church, to satirize the ignorance and abuses of earthly power, as well as the zeal of religious belief, but I’m generally content to leave it up to the individual should they choose turning inward to a relationship with God, to religious texts, or a church.

Perhaps the flip-side to liberal secular humanist faith is a lack of faith.  Surely some deep, liberal thinker out there has become thoroughly convinced that people are no good, after all, and can’t be trusted with their freedoms apart from his/her thinking or ideological commitments. Perhaps there’s a secular humanist political leader somewhere thoroughly sick of humanity for the time being, simply accruing more political power and influence because they can.

As far as satire or mockery goes, they would be just as worthy, no?

Recently, British popular thinker Alain De Botton floated the idea of building an ‘atheist temple’ in the heart of London.  He recommends combing through religious practices for useful organizing principles in response to the New Atheists.  You can read more about it here, which includes a radio interview/podcast.

Did the Unitarian Universalists get there first, with a mishmash of faith and secular humanism?

Towards a theme: Perhaps you’ve also heard of the Rothko chapel, in Houston, Texas:

‘The Rothko Chapel, founded by Houston philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil, was dedicated in 1971 as an intimate sanctuary available to people of every belief. A tranquil meditative environment inspired by the mural canvases of Russian born American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970), the Chapel welcomes over 60,000 visitors each year, people of every faith and from all parts of the world.’

There’s even a suite of music by Morton Feldman, entitled ‘Rothko Chapel’

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RelatedA definition of humanism:

“‘…a morally concerned style of intellectual atheism openly avowed by only a small minority of individuals (for example, those who are members of the British Humanist Association) but tacitly accepted by a wide spectrum of educated people in all parts of the Western world.”

Roger Scruton At The WSJ: ‘Memo To Hawking: There’s Still Room For God’

Related On This SiteFrom Darwinian Conservatism: ‘The Evolution of Mind and Mathematics: Dehaene Versus Plantinga and Nagel’

From Edward Feser: ‘Nagel And His Critics Part IV’

John Gray Reviews Jonathan Haidt’s New Book At The New Republic: ‘The Knowns And The Unknowns’

Steven Pinker somewhat focused on the idea of freedom from violence, which tends to be libertarian. Yet, he’s also skeptical of the more liberal human rights and also religious natural rights. What about a World Leviathan?: At Bloggingheads Steven Pinker Discusses War And Thomas HobbesFrom Reason.TV Via YouTube: ‘Steven Pinker on The Decline of Violence & “The Better Angels of Our Nature”‘Simon Blackburn Reviews Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Human Nature” Via the University Of Cambridge Philosophy Department

Evolutionary psychology and moral thinking: Franz De Waal At The NY Times 10/17/10: ‘Morals Without God?’

Timothy Snyder Responds To Steven Pinker’s New Book At Foreign Policy: ‘War No More: Why The World Has Become More Peaceful’

Charles Murray At The New Criterion: ‘Belmont & Fishtown’

A Few Quotations From The Stanford Encyclopedia On Positive And Negative Freedom

Full entry here.

Of course, there are other ways to think about freedom, as the entry suggests:

‘The two sides identified by Berlin disagree over which of two different concepts best deserves the name of ‘liberty’. Does this fact not denote the presence of some more basic agreementbetween the two sides? How, after all, could they see their disagreement as one about the definition of liberty if they did not think of themselves as in some sense talking about the same thing? In an influential article, the American legal philosopher Gerald MacCallum (1967) put forward the following answer: there is in fact only one basic concept of freedom, on which both sides in the debate converge. What the so-called negative and positive theorists disagree about is how this single concept of freedom should be interpreted. Indeed, in MacCallum’s view, there are a great many different possible interpretations of freedom, and it is only Berlin’s artificial dichotomy that has led us to think in terms of there being two.’

So perhaps, as a product of his times, Berlin needed reasons to explain how the Soviets could justify taking away individual liberties in the name of abstract freedom.

‘MacCallum defines the basic concept of freedom — the concept on which everyone agrees — as follows: a subject, or agent, is free from certain constraints, or preventing conditions, to do or become certain things. Freedom is therefore a triadic relation — that is, a relation between three things: an agent, certain preventing conditions, and certain doings or becomings of the agent. Any statement about freedom or unfreedom can be translated into a statement of the above form by specifying what is free or unfree, from what it is free or unfree, and what it is free or unfree to do or become. Any claim about the presence or absence of freedom in a given situation will therefore make certain assumptions about what counts as an agent, what counts as a constraint or limitation on freedom, and what counts as a purpose that the agent can be described as either free or unfree to carry out.’

Any thoughts and comments are welcome.  From the last paragraph:

‘What perhaps remains of the distinction is a rough categorization of the various interpretations of freedom that serves to indicate their degree of fit with the classical liberal tradition. There is indeed a certain family resemblance between the conceptions that are normally seen as falling on one or the other side of Berlin’s divide, and one of the decisive factors in determining this family resemblance is the theorist’s degree of concern with the notion of the self. Those on the ‘positive’ side see questions about the nature and sources of a person’s beliefs, desires and values as relevant in determining that person’s freedom, whereas those on the ‘negative’ side, being more faithful to the classical liberal tradition, tend to consider the raising of such questions as in some way indicating a propensity to violate the agent’s dignity or integrity. One side takes a positive interest in the agent’s beliefs, desires and values, while the other recommends that we avoid doing so.’

I almost always recommend avoiding doing so in the pursuit of liberty.

The classical liberal tradition…looking for classical liberals in the postmodern wilderness: Isaiah Berlin’s negative liberty: A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”… From George Monbiot: ‘How Freedom Became Tyranny’…Looking to supplant religion as moral source for the laws: From The Reason Archives: ‘Discussing Disgust’ Julian Sanchez Interviews Martha Nussbaum.New liberty away from Hobbes?: From Public Reason: A Discussion Of Gerald Gaus’s Book ‘The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom And Morality In A Diverse And Bounded World’…Richard Rorty tried to tie postmodernism and trendy leftist solidarity to liberalism, but wasn’t exactly classically liberal:  Repost: Another Take On J.S. Mill From “Liberal England”

Some Foreign Policy Links & Michael Totten At World Affairs Journal-‘Moscow On The Tigris: Russia Joins The Terror Nexus’

Full piece here.

Totten:

‘Look at a map again. Iran is a powerful state in the middle of the same Eurasia where Putin is building his union. An alliance of some sort with Iran isn’t strictly required, but it’s certainly helpful. At the very least, Putin wants good relations with the Iranians. And he wants America and American-friendly regimes away from his underbelly for the same reason he wants them off his western flank in Europe, where he fears the West and its economic and military alliances might encroach.

There’s no better way to win favor in Tehran than by co-sponsoring Iran’s own Middle Eastern proxies, Assad and Hezbollah. And there’s no better way to keep the West from breathing up his pant legs in the Middle East than by making himself the new power broker in a region long influenced by the United States, which he clearly sees as his biggest geopolitical foe.’

Without American involvement in stabilizing competing interests in many parts of the world, those interests which have their own reasons for defending and extending their own spheres of influence…will generally do so (from Russia in Syria, Ukraine & The Baltics…to China in the South and East China Seas).

Robert Kaplan doesn’t assert that geography explains everything, but rather that it can provide deeper contextual understanding as to what’s going on in the world today.

Look for increased nationalism and potential for conflict over shipping lanes and naval power in East Asia, for which America can provide much in the way of stability and the promotion of our interests, as well as that of a global liberal order (which can and will be challenged):

 

Short and long-term consequences to the Iran deal?  Podcast from the at the American Interest here.

A nuclear-armed Iran with the deal in place seems quite likely. It’s certainly risky business.

ISIS thrives in the lawless places:

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Some Russian links…as previously posted:

More on the Nemtsov killing: Don’t speak out.

Julia Ioffe at her site: ‘The Bizarre End To Vladimir Putin’s Bizarre Marriage:

‘An odd moment in the announcement came when Putin mentioned his confirmed children, two adult daughters whom we’ve never really seen, though there were reports in 2010 that one of them was marrying the son of a South Korean admiral.’

A reader passed along a video of Bill Browder, who made a billion, lost much of it, and got a look at Russian politics, money, and power up close.  The way he describes it:  Corruption all the way to the top.

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What goes around, comes around-An oldie but a goodie-George Kennan: ‘The Sources Of Soviet Conduct

60 Minutes had an interview with ‘Jack Barsky,‘ an East-German Soviet spy who ended up living in America.  To hell with it!

From The National Interest: ‘Inside The Mind Of George F. Kennan’,,,Eric Postner back in 2008: The Bear Is Back

Fatwas Never Die And It’s Always 1968 Somewhere

From The Independent- Well, it’s good to see the guys in charge of Iran back in the ‘community of nations:’

‘Ayatollah Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in 2005 the order still stands. 

The new bounty is the largest organised effort to assassinate Rushdie since the fatwa was issued.’

As previously posted.  Rushdie went into hiding for years, and could still easily be murdered for expressing his views in works of fiction (the kind which might well benefit parts of the Muslim world (and Iran) in evaluating just how it deals with the West, and the ‘modern world’:

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The mullahs with their moral absolutes and thuggish political opportunism aside, there are some in the West who won’t stand-up to such thuggishness.

Or, at least, they certainly didn’t in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders:

‘The decision by PEN American Center to give its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award to the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo has prompted six writers to withdraw as literary hosts at the group’s annual gala on May 5, adding a new twist to the continuing debate over the publication’s status as a martyr for free speech.

The novelists Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi have withdrawn from the gala, at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.’

The reasons?  Here are a few:

‘In an email to PEN’s leadership on Friday, Ms. Kushner said she was withdrawing out of discomfort with what she called the magazine’s “cultural intolerance” and promotion of “a kind of forced secular view,”’

Rushdie on such cowardice:

“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” Mr. Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

In their exercise of freedom, let such writers be one day judged by the truth they’ve expressed here.

No doubt, though, new levels of cosmic conscientious-objective-consciousness have been reached.

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.As previously posted:

How do you marry liberal idealism with the radical roots?  Shotgun-style.

Our institutions, bending to liberal ideals, will also involve a bending towards the radical base, which is not necessarily liberal.

Michael Moynihan at the Daily Beast  ‘‘Whitewashing The Black Panthers’

A new PBS documentary tries to excuse a murderous and totalitarian cult.

When his captors uncinched the noose around his neck and shoved him into a wooden chair, Alex Rackley might have assumed his ordeal was over. He had already endured a flurry of kicks and punches, the repeated crack of a wooden truncheon, ritual humiliation, and a mock lynching. But it wasn’t over. It was about to get much, much worse.’

That party at Lenny’s is still pretty awkward, at least the way Tom Wolfe tells it:

‘. . and now, in the season of Radical Chic, the Black Panthers. That huge Panther there, the one Felicia is smiling her tango smile at, is Robert Bay, who just 41 hours ago was arrested in an altercation with the police, supposedly over a .38-caliber revolver that someone had, in a parked car in Queens at Northern Boulevard and 104th Street or some such unbelievable place, and taken to jail on a most unusual charge called “criminal facilitation.” And now he is out on bail and walking into Leonard and Felicia Bernstein’s 13-room penthouse duplex on Park Avenue. Harassment & Hassles, Guns & Pigs, Jail & Bail—they’re real, these Black Panthers. The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny’s duplex like a rogue hormone.’

A British Muslim tells his story, suggesting that classical liberalism wouldn’t be a bad idea…as a more entrenched radical British Left and Muslim immigration don’t mix too well: From Kenanmalik.com: ‘Introduction: How Salman Rushdie Changed My Life’… Via YouTube: ‘Christopher Hitchens Vs. Ahmed Younis On CNN (2005)’

Free speech (used both well and unwell) meets offended Muslims: Mohammad Cartoonist Lars Vilks HeadbuttedDuring Lecture’From The OC Jewish Experience: ‘UC Irvine Muslim Student Union Suspended’From Volokh: ‘”South Park” Creators Warned (Threatened) Over Mohammed’

Race, Free Speech And All That-John Derbyshire Will Not Be Appearing At Williams College

From TheFire.Org-‘The Condescending Paternalism Of Williams President Adam Falk:’

As FIRE co-founder Alan Charles Kors has said: “You cannot say to people, you’re too weak to live with freedom. Only that group is strong enough to live with freedom.”

But that’s exactly what Adam Falk, the patronizing president of Williams College, has said to the college’s student body. Yesterday, Falk unilaterally canceled a speech by John Derbyshire, who was invited as part of the student-run “Uncomfortable Learning” speaker series.

From Adam Falk’s letter to Williams students about the matter:

‘Today I am taking the extraordinary step of canceling a speech by John Derbyshire, who was to have presented his views here on Monday night. The college didn’t invite Derbyshire, but I have made it clear to the students who did that the college will not provide a platform for him.

Free speech is a value I hold in extremely high regard. The college has a very long history of encouraging the expression of a range of viewpoints and giving voice to widely differing opinions. We have said we wouldn’t cancel speakers or prevent the expression of views except in the most extreme circumstances. In other words: There’s a line somewhere, but in our history of hosting events and speeches of all kinds, we hadn’t yet found it.

We’ve found the line. Derbyshire, in my opinion, is on the other side of it. Many of his expressions clearly constitute hate speech, and we will not promote such speech on this campus or in our community.

We respect—and expect—our students’ exploration of ideas, including ones that are very challenging, and we encourage individual choice and decision-making by students. But at times it’s our role as educators and administrators to step in and make decisions that are in the best interest of students and our community. This is one of those times.’

John Derbyshire raised quite a stir after publishing ‘The Talk: Nonblack Version,’

‘There is a talk that nonblack Americans have with their kids, too. My own kids, now 19 and 16, have had it in bits and pieces as subtopics have arisen. If I were to assemble it into a single talk, it would look something like the following.

Of course, what better place than a liberal arts college to talk these matters out?

Sigh.

Read up. Get your reasons and arguments together.  Show up at the debate, alone or with friends. Listen to the other fellow.  Think.  Respond.  Think some more.  Debate.

Publishing and disseminating the thoughts and ideas of others is not necessarily an endorsement of those thoughts and ideas, but it is absolutely vital in maintaining a free and open society:

Out of principle alone, here’s Derbyshire discussing his general worldview:

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Two older, but likely worthwhile links:

Brendan O’Neill At Spiked:

‘A true devotee of freedom of speech says, ‘Let everyone speak, because it is important that all sides are heard and that the public has the right to use their moral muscles and decide who they trust and who they don’t’. The new, partial campaigners for friends’ speech effectively say, ‘Let my friend speak. She is interesting. She will tell the public what they need to hear.’ These are profoundly different positions, the former built on liberty and humanism, the latter motored by a desire to protect oneself, and oneself alone, from censorship. The former is free speech; the latter ‘me speech’.

Back to Yale with Christopher Hitchens:

Full post here.

Reason post here.

NY Times piece here.

Old news I know, but it seems that the Yale Press was genuinely afraid that publishing this book could potentially lead to violence, and that they are responsible for the consequences of such potential violence.

Hitchens:

“…Yale had consulted a range of experts before making its decision and that “[a]ll confirmed that the republication of the cartoons by the Yale University Press ran a serious risk of instigating violence.”

See Also:  If you thought the cartoons were bad, more on the Fitna movie here.  From The NY Times: Review Of Christopher Caldwell’s Book “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West”  Libertarians love this issue:  Repost-A Canadian Libertarian Making Noise: Ezra Levant