January 14, 2021
Morality and practicality
By RONALD N. NEFF
Mr. Neff is senior editor of The Last Ditch.
A RECENT EXCHANGE among some like-minded friends raises a question that shows up now and then in circles where the question "what is to be done" is raised. The question is this: Given that the state has no rights of property, and that therefore there is no possibility of violating its rights by using violence against it, does a similar vulnerability adhere to entities that benefit from state action and that in some cases act as if they are proxies for the state? And if it does, at what point is it possible to draw a bright line between the justice of using force and injustice?
Supposing it to be moral to occupy a government office and take over all the effects in it, is it similarly moral to attack a monopoly utility company and occupy its offices and effects? What about a lobbying firm? Or the offices of a tech platform? How deeply entrenched must an apparently non-government entity be in the state before it should be regarded as part of the state and fully guilty of its predations and murders?
One of those participating in the discussion answered, "What has morality got to do with the current situation? We know for a fact that violence works." And another agreed, saying, "The only issues now are strategy and tactics: how to avoid action that helps them and harms us."
I will not be answering the implicit or explicit questions here, except for this one: "What has morality got to do with the current situation?"
I will not keep you waiting for my answer: Everything.
Most moderns, and modern Americans in particular, have somehow concluded that morality is an ethereal set of notions that don't really pertain to real life. It is fun to think about, but only when you're pretty sure you can arrive at a conclusion to the effect that what you want to do is "moral." (Especially when the subject is sex. You should have heard the invocations of morality in college dorms of the 1960s! "But it's all right if you're really in love, right?")
The teaching of William James that the moral is the practical has found a real home in the thinking of most Americans, especially in political thinking, where policy wonks will invoke the admonition "Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good." Pragmatism appeals to Americans, at least it used to, because it appeals to the American "can-do" spirit. It must be remembered that James was a somewhat ethereal figure himself, and would no doubt be regarded as an egghead these days, even by people who have fully embraced his philosophy without so much as knowing his name.
Another philosophical trend that lives side by side with pragmatism is positivism, a set of ideas even more unworldly than pragmatism. No one who is interested in purchasing a home or starting a business is going to be troubled by any of its conclusions. Real people don't bother reading Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, Rudolph Carnap, or A.J. Ayer. But somehow the ideas of those worthies have trickled down through the academics to the court intellectuals, into the popular media and the ordinary high-school graduate, and finally even to uneducated puppets who pose as news anchormen. And now all that matters in making judgments of any sort is the appearance of things, and not their substance.
The substance of things, after all, is either unknowable, or invisible, according to the many schools of positivism. We do not know what a thing is; only what it appears to be. We do not know that A is the cause of B; only that the one follows the other, and there is no guarantee that it will follow the next time. Such things as mathematics and logic are merely each of them a calculus that follows rules that "we" agree on. They have no basis in reality, whatever the hell that is. Similarly, "we" don't really know what a cue ball is; "we" know only how to describe it and "we" can recount how it behaves. All the science that "we" think "we" know is tentative. That which is certain bears no relation to reality: it is merely a manipulation of symbols.
The habit of arriving at conclusions instantly is an example of positivism at work. One understands that a reporter has to report what he is seeing at the time it happens. But neither he nor anyone else should be opining on the "meaning" of what he sees until it has been examined. But that takes too long, and we want something that passes for understanding right now. This is easily seen in a report of something that happens that is sure to be of wide interest, and particularly if it will stir up the passions. Thus, we see a policeman with his knee on a prone subject who dies, and we are instantly expected to conclude that the policeman killed the subject. Maybe he did. But the appearance will not tell us that. We have two choices: we can wait for study and analysis (perhaps an autopsy) or we can arrive at a conclusion immediately, at which point, since the intellect is not engaged in appearances, we must let our passions take over. The latter choice is the popular one, and it has the merit of making the instant-concluder appear caring, while the former choice makes one appear cold, calculating, and uncaring. And no one wants that. It looks unfeeling. And once you care more about making an instant judgment than in making a correct judgment, feeling becomes very important. Since the instant judgment was dependent on appearances, it is divorced from the intellect. And having displaced the intellect from its function, the passions are in charge, and feeling is the measure of all things.
The role pragmatism plays in the matter of ethics is pretty clear, but that of positivism is less so. G.E. Moore's idea that goodness is a simple property, apprehended directly the way yellowness is apprehended, has not found much of a home in ordinary thought. Neither has the positivist view that morality is just a kind of word game, one in which the words signify only how we feel about things. I would say, rather, that the role positivism has played rears its head in the statement "violence works."
That seems to be at first just an application of pragmatism, but it is more than that. After all, how do we know it works? What counts as working? And the answer is to be found in the appearance of things. A given action yields the expected or desired result, and we accept that as the basis for saying, "It works." That is, the appearance is that "it works." Indeed, on that basis, one might even consider pragmatism to be a subcategory of positivism.
But although everyone agrees that "appearances can be deceiving," they are, as they say, "good enough for government work."
And now I have let the cat out of the bag. What government offers us and can only offer us is an appearance that all has "worked." Government "works" in the short term, and the short term is long enough. It is not possible to judge the long term, because the long term requires analysis; it requires study; it requires dispassionate thought. And it requires memory.
A man with a long memory is not likely to be a faithful servant of the short term. A man with a long memory is likely to make connections, to see contradictions and inconsistencies. He is likely to notice the effects that flow from a policy or action, not merely those that were promised or appear to be produced. Anyone who will think about Social Security for
10 minuteswill see that this is true.
So where does morality fit in? It might depend on what you think about morality. If you think it's just a set of rules to follow to make you feel virtuous or to make you look virtuous, then it doesn't. It has hardly any real value at all. If it is a luxury, it is a fairly cheap luxury.
But what if it is exactly what Ayn Rand said it was an objective necessity?
There are many things that are necessary for a man to live. But we are so configured that we can do without them for short periods of time. If it is water, or food, or air, we shall find out pretty quickly that they are an objective necessity. If it is sleep, it may take us longer to discover it.
Other necessities may take a lifetime to make themselves felt, and one may reasonably ask, "If it takes a lifetime, in what sense are they necessities?" And here we must admit the existence of gradations. For to answer that question, we have to ask an earlier question, "Necessary for what?" And the answer is not "To live." But "To live in a certain way."
Consider friends. Aristotle insists that in ranking the various goods and pleasures of life, friends must rank very high. Indeed, he asks whether we can call a man happy if he has no friends. And surely it matters what kind of friends one has.
Those of us who neglect exercise might say that exercise is not necessary, but when we give our full attention to the matter, we know that it is good and that to exercise would make our lives better in some ways.
And so I say that some things are necessary not merely to live but to live a life that fully captures our nature. Or in a phrase for which Rand was often ridiculed, a life of man qua man.
I just used the phrase "a life that fully captures our nature," a phrase that should instantly set off alarm bells for a positivist. At once we are alerted to the fact that what I am talking about is utterly incompatible with positivism and therefore with pragmatism. I am talking about something that has to do with substance, not with appearance.
When are talking about substance, we are talking about what is, we are talking about reality, we are talking about truth.
And if we are talking about truth when we talk about a life that fully captures our nature, we are talking also about that which is objective, not subjective, we are talking about something that can be false or mistaken. In other words, moral statements can be true or false. They can be true or false as surely as anything you know about mathematics. There is a difficulty in providing the basis for knowing the truth about the matter. As Socrates says, men do not dispute about questions of mathematics (though those involved in number theory would disagree), but rather about what is good. But the difficulty in arriving at an answer does not suggest that arriving at an answer is not possible. It does not suggest that arriving at an answer is merely a matter of taste.
If, to live according to our substance, according to our nature, to live a life that fully captures our nature is what morality is about, it follows that morality is very much about reality, about truth.
Of all things that may be mysterious about reality, this we can be sure of: there are no contradictions in it. The Law of Contradiction is permanent, more unchangeable than the law of the Medes and the Persians. It brooks no exceptions.
And from that we must conclude that to live a life that does not capture our nature is to live a life that is running afoul of the Law of Contradiction. And therefore afoul of the truth.
And therefore the assertion "The only issues now are strategy and tactics: how to avoid action that helps them and harms us" is false. Morality is always an issue for the same reason that what is true is always an issue. For the moral is a subset of the true. And it cannot tolerate a contradiction.
To be sure, a man may live a lie, and it may never catch up to him. That, at least, is one of the benefits of being mortal: eventually we are loosed from the contradictions to which we have bound ourselves. The contradictions a man attempts to live, the lies he attempts to live, undermine what he is, and what he should be. Thoughtless men go through life without understanding this, but they are undermined nonetheless. They simply do not know their lives have been undermined. They simply do not know that they are less than their nature would permit them to be. They do not know they are diminished. And because we are mortal, we may never have to make the full payment for that undermining. Unlike Dorian Gray, we may never have to see what we have become or what the path we have chosen will lead to.
Socially, I am talking about liberty. The only way to deprive a man of his liberty is to incorporate a lie into one's view of the world. I cannot predict what lie it will be, for there seems to be an endless stream of lies that will be invoked to that end.
But for now, I am not particularly interested in liberty, but only in goodness. If men aim at goodness, and if they are determined not to try to live in opposition to the Law of Contradiction, liberty will take care of itself. And, though it is not obvious, that brings us to violence. And war.
The curious thing about war is how people think about it. If one objects to some domestic policy that has been put in place to support the war effort on the grounds that it violates some moral principle or other in particular, liberty he is sure to be told, "But we are fighting a war."
This answer has no logical merit. And the speaker normally attempts to imbue it with logical merit by raising his voice when he gets to the word "war." Is it necessary to remind the reader that amplification is not an inference rule, and that it does not impart validity to an argument or that volume does not impart truth to an utterance? The answer "But we are fighting a war" can function as an answer to an objection only if it somehow carries with it a collection of other propositions, which, when strung together, produce an argument. And if that is the case, so far no one has revealed this collection.
The curious thing about a war is that even after it is won, its success is temporary. That is what it means to be a temporal event. The benefits said to be won by it are subject to change, and change includes loss. (It is understood that that which is temporary still may last a long time: the Norman Conquest has not been reversed. But William the Conqueror's line no longer controls England.)
A sound argument, however, endures forever. And an unsound one is unsound for all eternity.
Another important fact about war is that no one goes to war. Let me rephrase that: no one goes to war. Collectives go to war, and that is why the reasons they give for doing it are always flawed. The moral applies to individuals, not to collectives.
Collectives, after all, do not truly exist; when those who make them up decide to leave, they cease to exist.
There is a sense, then, in which collectives are not part of the natural order. They are real only so long as those who make them up, make them up. And no longer. But those who make them up are real whether they are part of a collective or not.
And if collectives are in some sense unreal, it follows that they are divorced from truth, from the moral. Such reality as they have derives from the people who are part of them, and each of them brings his reality with him. From which it follows that no collective can morally do what no individual may not do.
But this is war! We have to save our nation. We have to save our liberty.
Fine. Do it without violating the Law of Contradiction. It is not a question of whether the nation survives or a group of people survive. All action is a question of whether the person shall survive, whether he shall survive in a way that fully captures his nature, captures the truth of what he is.
Wage your battles, but do not lose sight of what each one of you is. Every battle is a network of individual acts, of personal acts. And those personal acts are not separate from the persons who perform them.
What does morality have to do with the current situation? What does reality have to do with it? What does truth have to do with it? What does the Law of Contradiction have to do with it?
To say that survival is the greater law is to claim that survival is greater than existence. It is to claim that survival is greater than nature. And greater than the Law of Contradiction.
The question that lies at the heart of the remarks with which I began this discussion is usually phrased like this: "Is it moral to do such and such to certain kinds of people?" Sometimes it's "Can such and such be done to them?" Or even "Is it right for us to do such and such to them?" What those questions obscure is the matter of who exactly is going to do the such-and-such. A lot of personal responsibility can be hidden by a careful use of the passive voice and verbal nouns without subjects or that have plural subjects.
The question, then, is not properly what we should do or may do in the case of war or oppression. The question is what I should do or may do. If reason gives me leave to kill that man over there or to smash his windows or steal his property, then one may follow reason. But the reason in question must be derived carefully, and must not rely on such bromides as "this is war!" The question is always, "What is good for me to do?" After all, I am the one who has to live with the departure from reality if what I do is wrong. The collective will not be affected by it.
It is worth remembering that the collective always asks the individual to do what the individual would never do on his own. The collective always requires that the individual not obey his conscience, but rather the requirements of the collective. The collective always requires that the individual place its good (presuming that the good of the collective has any meaning) above his own.
Of course, the individual may find good reasons to apparently not follow what is good for himself, as in the case of a man who dies trying to save others. But notice that the others for whom he is dying are specific others, not amorphous others. The others are people who at the moment have specific meaning to him.
So I say of the question of what should "we" do in the present circumstances, do not frame the question in that way. Rather frame it as what should I do? What is the action that is most compatible with my ability to fully capture my nature?
And in making that judgment, it is worth remembering how Aquinas and Rand and others think of evil. Evil is unproductive. It can only destroy. That is because the good is what is the closest to what is real. It follows that the evil partakes of the unreal, of nothingness, and has power only insofar as it partakes also of the good to some extent. In our world, there is no such thing as unadulterated evil. Evil is always and everywhere the distortion of the good.
Most of us have forgotten that it used to be common to speak of evil as somehow related to nothingness. Permit me to remind the reader that it used to be common to speak of zero as the "naught." Naught = nothing. And nothingness, then, would be ... naughtiness. The word has an odd sound to us anymore. We think of it as a form of cuteness: "Oh you wicked, wicked child" can just as easily be rendered, "Oh you naughty, naughty child."
But let us look at the translation of the Epistle of James (appointed for the Fourth Sunday after Easter) as it appears in the traditional Book of Common Prayer: "Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness ..." Anyone who imagines that
St. Paulis enjoining us to cover our heinies at the beach is missing the point. He is enjoining us to set aside all things that bring us close to nothingness. The immoral brings us close to nothingness, to non-being.
I am aware that all this sounds terribly academic, although academics were the first to deny it. Let me try to make it seem a little more homey.
Let us suppose that we are out some evening for relaxation. We are drinking, we are laughing and telling stories. But gradually things seem to be slowing down. Maybe it's about time we all went home. But then I say to you, "Let's go to my house. My cat has just had kittens. We can put them in a bag and set fire to it in my back yard."
There may have been a time when people considered such activities to be fun. But I doubt that you can find many today, and I'll wager that those you might find you would not want to spend time with.
The free-market anarchist view is really no different. It took a long time for people to conclude (probably they did not even know they were concluding it) that setting fire to a sack full of kittens was not really a man's way to have fun. That there is something unmanly about it. And it is worth remembering that the word for "man" in Latin is "vir," and it meant not only a man, but a man who had in some sense fully captured his nature, hence, who was virtuous.
It is my claim that to fight as though the only thing that matters now is strategy and tactics is to become less manly and to be somehow closer to nothing. And to fight fully mindful of the good is part of the project of fully capturing our nature, to become fully manly. Ω
January 14, 2021
© 2021 Ronald N. Neff
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