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12.14.2004

A response

This is a response to Addendum to "On 'Left' and 'Right'": the values question, by Blimpish.

There's no doubt that I can't argue in defense of any of the institutions of the Left. I'm in no position to do so. I'm certain my viewpoint here isn't unique, but I'm nevertheless presenting this only as a personal reaction to the right/left dichotomy that Blimpish presented. As usual, I've got more starts and stops in here than I know what to do with, and I'm afraid I've not managed to make all of this coherent. After a couple hours of this, though, I'm stopping where I am. I hope there's something interesting in here.

"- The Right see values as wholly given. [...] Values are simply how we interpret 'right' and 'wrong' as goods relevant to this world, here and now. Values consequently have a natural and common hierarchy, according to their current rightness. Choice is limited to allowing some varying balance between values of similar rank within that hierarchy; these choices are to be judged against the hierarchy.

- The Left sees values, as something we choose, existentially. That is why some on the Left seem to place authenticity and resolve - that the values are freely and sincerely chosen - before the specific values themselves. After all, if values are down to personal choice, then it becomes difficult to impose a common hierarchy on them. This view is truly pluralist, in expecting people to hold to different sets of values, and rather than judging them against an external hierarchical standard, judges them instead on their pluralist spirit."

also: "Metaphysically, the underlying position of the Left I've outlined here is ultimately nihilistic - or, put another way, it has no solid ground from which to argue, and so stands right above the abyss."

As I see it, the Right to which Blimpish is referring is religious. It's suddenly become, in my dealing with this, impossible to separate Conservatism from Religiosity. Faith is, I think, a belief in something unknowable, or at least unprovable. Whether the items of faith are traditions or God or a set of laws laid out as absolute in an ancient text, they are the things that form the foundation for a Right-thinking person's morality, and they are the things that form the basis for a politics of the Right. This realization at once simplifies my stance, in that at the very least I can state without reservation that I'm not this kind of person, and complicates it, in that my viewpoint essentially stands in opposition to the validity of faith as the underpinning of morality, and I've got no shortage of friends who are faithful people, and I don't want to offend them. (In fact I'm hoping not to offend anyone; the post to which this is a response was, I think, very respectful, and I'm trying to acheive that level of discourse here.)

I think Blimpish stretches too far in order to show a contradiction on the Left between believing that all values are created equal and that space must be therefore made for all values. ("To function, you see, pluralism requires that each person provide space for each other's values, which means values then have to be judged.") Leftists, in general (though I'm sure individual examples can be found,) would never argue that a value system that encourages, say, sacrificing every family's first born in the name of science is somehow acceptable in practice purely by virtue of the fact that someone believes in it. What I think we do have trouble with (I certainly have trouble with it,) is stating categorically that a person who holds any particular belief should be devalued simply because he or she holds (note the word "holds," not "practices,") that belief. The reason I have trouble with that is that I'm accutely aware of the fact that all moral systems are flawed.

So then I need to get into the discussion about how it's ridiculous, and dangerous, to blindly say, "oh, it's okay that they believe that... they aren't PRACTICING it." It's around this matter that I've seen a lot of people on the Right getting very indignant about the views of the Left. People don't have moral systems that they value without some possibility, or intention, of practicing. If you allow that it's okay to teach first-born killing you're going to have to live with the possibility of there being, at some point, an epidemic of killings of first borns. And of course that's unacceptable.

But there's the rub: while not ALL systems of moral belief contain something akin to first-born killing, many do. There is no fulcrum upon which to weigh all of these varying belief systems except whatever fulcrum one has available. So while people on the Right (and, of course, many on the Left,) have this wholly-given morality to use, those of us who have not been given one (and how is this thing given?) are forced to accept that all such systems are flawed. This Includes the system that would allow us to believe that because we are able to create our own moral code we should create a code such that we can do whatever the hell we want, whenever the hell we want.

If all moral systems are flawed, then why not get rid of all of them in favor of the one, true moral system, the one that we've cut from whole-cloth, the one that is flawless? Hmmm?

Possibly because there's no such thing. We may dream of a time when we can at last jettison all traditional moral systems in favor of some Utopian system that will solve the world's problems, just as soon as we figure out what that system consists of, but that's not a realistic goal. Maybe the realists among us, who don't want to legislate a Utopia into existence, are just struggling to keep monolithic institutions from being accepted as The Way. If there were such an institution that didn't have flaws, we'd believe in it. Which would of course mean we would no longer be Leftists.

In his post, Blimpish refers often to the idea that the Left has no solid ground on which a declaration of right and wrong would stand. To which I'd answer that the ground on which the Right stands its declarations of right and wrong is only solid if you agree with them. Any group of traditionalists is going to have a different ground, and none is any more solid than another.

"The Left has thrown off the hang-ups of metaphysics, of ultimate right and wrong, in favour of the machine of choice so that everyone can get as much out of this life as possible; the Right is unsure where this has taken us and where it will take us, and whether we might be assuming too much about our power over the world."

I'm not sure who's claiming to be sure of where this has taken us and where it will take us, for starters. Certainly not me. But from my perspective the premise is off. I threw off the hang-ups of metaphysics, of ultimate right and wrong, when I came to the conclusion that they were insupportable for me. The fact that the Right is presented (as it is here) as having no doubts about ultimate right and wrong means one of two things (possibly one or the other, depending on which adherent you're dealing with):

1. The Right has no doubt about the black and white nature of right and wrong. There are ultimate, inviolable laws of moral behavior. I do not know what these laws are. I don't know how to find common ground on this point, as these things cannot be argued and are therefore perhaps beyond the realm of discussion. You either get it or you don't. I don't.

2. The Right clings to a solid foundation, to concrete definitions of right and wrong and a mythology to give them weight, as a canard. We are talking about society and how to better it, or how to maintain it, and the Right is convinced that the best approach to this is that there be an explicitly defined moral code to which society can adhere. Their traditions and institutions are therefore designed to support this code.

(I'm not proposing that either of these describes anyone in particular. My inclination is to assume that there must be conservatives who fit each side. The way I've presented the latter sounds harsh. It's also probably how we get so many conspiracy theorists on the left. Regardless: I can't discount it. These hierarchies that the Right espouse have powerful things at the top, by definition. They have an ultimate authority at the top of the pyramid. If the people at lower tiers of these pyramids accept the word of whatever's at the top as wholly given, who's making sure whatever's at the top is on the level?)

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