I wrote on postmodernism in Epidemic Irrationality and since then wrote (in Illiberalism) on one feature of the rise of postmodernism, a descent into battles that do not preserve or protect individual freedom, but instead squabble over just how much individual power to disgorge in favor of the collective.
Foundationalism and Coherency Theory
A key feature of classical liberalism is individual freedom with respect to state power. The age in which classical liberalism had its high-water mark was around the time of the founding of the United States. What was going on at that time? The political philosophies invoked (those of Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau, among many others) were possible in a climate in which there was no longer one monolithic church, as a result primarily of the Reformation, but there was still a strong cultural presumption in favor of Christianity. This was important, because Christianity provided a moral code attached to a fixed Source, that was generally accepted. Not everyone at the time was a Christian, of course, but the idea that morality had a transcendent source of some kind was predominant.
That is an idea at odds with postmodernism. The chief feature of postmodernist thought is that people believe things because they are trained to believe them, or they adopt beliefs because of the constellation of other beliefs they already hold, formulating on the fly a set of beliefs based on how ideas cohere with existing ideas – coherency theory.
The chief feature of Christian thought was that people believe things as a result of what they best understand some ultimate truth to be. The project is one of going about discovering the truth that is “out there,” not formulating a truth of their own from the culture around them.
The point in Illiberalism was that classical liberalism was a realistic goal of governments because of the exercise of self-restraint by individuals. Greater personal freedom was made possible because freedom from church or state would not result in immediate anarchy, in a shared culture that subscribed to a transcendent, foundational set of truths about what is right and wrong.
This seemingly self-evident observation actually raised eyebrows. What do I mean? That atheists can’t exercise self-restraint? That Christians are morally better because they have a conscience and atheists don’t?
No. The point was that there was a shared cultural belief in the source of morality; that there was a transcendent Source of individual conscience and therefore of self-restraint. At that time the belief in a foundational, objective morality was primarily a function of religious belief. Whether religious belief was valid or not, it contributed to a shared culture that was not nearly so splintered as today’s. That shared culture better supported self-governance.
It is not true that without a belief in a god, there is no self-restraint. To the contrary, we all have a conscience, and we all have a sense of morality, because it is God-given to everyone. Our moral sense doesn’t derive from belief in God. It derives from God.
Biology vs. Transcendence
I recognize there is disagreement, however, about the source of the conscience, or the moral sense, that everyone has. Generally, theists attribute individual conscience to God. Atheists obviously don’t do that, so they generally explain the moral intuition as being a biologically evolved property of mankind. Usually atheists advancing this explanation cite the need for social living as reinforcing evolved intuitions about what is right and wrong.
I criticize the atheist view of the source of morality not only because it’s incorrect, but because I don’t think it’s coherent. If we have empathy for our neighbor because we’re all evolved to live socially, that doesn’t make it morally “right” or “wrong.” It just attempts to explain the existence of the intuition.
I would grant that it also attempts to explain why evolution would attach the morality component to the intuition; that is, a “rightness” and “wrongness” rather than just “correctness.” The idea would be that the morality element lends weight. Evolution would be said to result in not only a sense of what one ought to do and not do, but also shame and opprobrium in event of failure, thereby communally reinforcing the dictates of conscience.
We would be calling that evolved conscience “moral,” but that is a word derived from a theist paradigm. The feeling – in this example empathy – doesn’t actually relate to morality, it relates to biological helpfulness. Because (in the atheist view) we understand that’s what’s going on, it can be overcome by the exercise of our reason. If you violate the moral sense, you’re just allowing your reason to overcome your intuition, it’s not really “right” or “wrong.”
If the source of our moral sense is merely evolution to enhance survivability through social living, the particular moral position is by definition not from an external and unchangeable source, but from a social source malleable to circumstances.
That certainly has implications for law and culture. Most significantly, if we actually believed biology – now and through genetic heritage — were the sole source of morality, then it makes sense that our intuition of right and wrong is whatever we feel society around us is telling us. It would make sense that right and wrong continue to adjust and change to circumstance, rather than being moored to some “out there” principle. It would therefore further make sense that we as a people can cultivate a shared morality that moves and changes with the society.
It would also mean that it is acceptable – even morally valid – to shout down opposition, especially opposition entrenched in an outmoded constellation of beliefs about what is moral and what is not. The transgression is not merely a violation of an objective and transcendent moral code which the tribe honors. Instead it is seen as a rejection of the tribe itself. It is therefore personal.
Understanding this, we can better understand the outrage, scorn, and ridicule visited upon those who transgress the political correctness of the tribe. It’s not about finding objective truth. It’s about establishing a coercively collective “truth” through struggle. This is where postmodernism takes us.