Friday, December 2, 2011

Justice Without Justification

There's an outstanding essay by Colgate professor Robert Kraynak in the current edition of The New Atlantis. The article is titled Justice Without Foundations and in it Kraynak explores the attempts of two groups of modern thinkers to maintain a moral system based upon values like freedom, justice, autonomy, equality, and dignity while at the same time recognizing that, by rejecting Christianity, they have forfeited any possibility of providing an objective foundation for these values. They're simply subjective preferences that are invested with an aura of sanctity that has no rational justification.

The two groups Kraynak directs most of his attention toward are postmodern pragmatists, particularly Richard Rorty, and scientific materialists like Daniel Dennett and Stephen Pinker.

He begins with these observations:
Every age has beliefs about the good life and about ultimate reality that seem normal at the time but are strange and inconsistent when viewed from a broader, more historical perspective. Our present age is no different — not only in the liberal democracies of the West, but also in the globalized world influenced by Western ideas. The strangeness of our day consists in a strong moral passion for the virtue of justice sitting alongside a loss of confidence in the very foundations for justice, and even an eagerness to undermine them.

People today display extreme moral sensitivity to injustices that they understand as violations of the equal rights and equal dignity of all persons — especially the rights of persons thought to be victims of discrimination and oppression. This sensitivity leads to demands for government policies on behalf of “social justice,” and for changing social customs to protect individuals and groups from insensitive words and actions.

But at the same time that people are asked to become more aware of injustices and indignities, the foundations that might justify such obligations are disappearing from philosophy, religion, science, and culture. In many cases, they are being actively undermined by the scholars and intellectuals who are the most vocal in protesting injustices. Among the leading intellectual currents shaping our culture are moral relativism and scientific materialism, especially Darwinism.

Neither supports very well the demands for moral sensitivity and social justice — understood today in terms of equal respect and equal rights. For the crucial requirement of human equality is a conception of human dignity, which views human beings as having a special moral status in the universe, and individuals as having unique moral worth entailing claims of justice.

What is so strange about our age is that demands for respecting human rights and human dignity are increasing even as the foundations for those demands are disappearing. In particular, beliefs in man as a creature made in the image of God, or an animal with a rational soul, are being replaced by a scientific materialism that undermines what is noble and special about man, and by doctrines of relativism that deny the objective morality required to undergird human dignity.

How do we account for the widening gap between metaphysics and morals today? How do we explain “justice without foundations” — a virtue that seems to exist like a table without legs, suspended in mid-air? What is holding up the central moral beliefs of our times?
These are all important questions, questions to which the modern atheist is ill-equipped to offer a cogent answer.

Kraynak goes on to talk about how atheistic thinkers like Rorty, Dennett, Pinker, et al. are forced by their naturalism to live their lives in what Francis Schaeffer described as a two story building. In the lower story naturalists live their lives as rational beings, but, when they want to make moral judgments, they have to leave reason behind and leap to the upper story where non-rationality reigns.

Rorty is an interesting case because he, at least, recognizes that this is precisely what he's doing and even refers to himself as a "free-loading atheist." I.e. he admits to living off the moral capital of Christianity while denying the God from which that capital flows. Kraynak writes:
The best place to begin the discussion of justice without foundations is with the late American philosopher Richard Rorty, the influential spokesman for “non-foundationalism.” As a professor at the University of Virginia and Stanford, he made a strong impression on students by telling them to stop philosophizing and to live pragmatically on behalf of social justice and human dignity.

His rejection of philosophy was ... elaborated on in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) and other writings, describing the futility of reason to grasp the external world of nature, or to provide rational foundations for knowledge, both moral and metaphysical....

He further maintained that political values such as democracy, equal rights, and respect for others are non-foundational commitments that North Americans and Europeans have built into their social conventions. Hence, we do not need philosophy to teach us how to act politically, because the ideals are embedded in our language and traditions; all we need to do is to affirm them by human sympathy and active citizenship.

The problems with Rorty’s position have been noticed by many critics — none more astutely than Peter Lawler in Aliens in America (2002). In developing these criticisms, it is useful to examine a little-noticed 1983 essay of Rorty’s called “Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism.” In that essay, Rorty honestly admits that his moral sensitivities are “postmodern” in the sense of being rationally groundless; yet he asserts that they are still legitimate as borrowings from Judeo-Christian notions of human dignity inherited from the past. With intentional irony, Rorty describes people like himself as “free-loading atheists.”

His justification [for "moral" behavior] is that he is part of a community of moral traditions inherited from Judaism and Christianity, which teaches us to care for a homeless person like the Good Samaritan would do.
Of course, if he had been born into a community that taught the virtues of ethnic cleansing and slavery then those traditions would be justified as well. For Rorty what's right is whatever your community teaches. Morality is simply a convention, like the rules of grammar. The rules could be different than they are, there's nothing really right or wrong about them, and if the relevant community wanted to change them, whatever they decide would then be the new norm.

There's much more to Kraynak's analysis at the link, and I urge anyone interested in the contemporary intellectual and philosophical climate to spend the time it takes to give it a thorough reading. It's important.

Specks and Logs

Jim Wallis of Sojourner's magazine gives us a good example of the Biblical aphorism about discerning specks in the eyes of others while being unable to spot the log in one's own eye. In a recent column on his blog Wallis complains that some Christians have been willing to dump their family values principles in order to embrace a candidate, Newt Gingrich, who has been divorced twice, married three times and had an adulterous affair while married to his second wife:
A piece by Michelle Goldberg in Newsweek chronicles some evangelical voters in Iowa trying desperately to contort their values in order to justify supporting Newt Gingrich. She quotes Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council as saying, "Under normal circumstances, Gingrich would have some real problems with the social-conservative community... But these aren’t normal circumstances."

In other words, this guy clearly doesn’t stand for our values but we are ready to jettison those in order to make sure our party wins the 2012 election. Newt Gingrich’s three marriages – serving his first wife divorce papers while she was suffering from cancer, and cheating on his second wife while leading the impeachment battle against Bill Clinton for lying about his sexual sins – would normally be disqualifiers for family values conservatives.
Set aside the fact that Wallis repeats a slander here, the story about Gingrich serving divorce papers to a dying wife, which by now most informed people know is apocryphal.

What's really astonishing about this piece is that Jim Wallis, who calls himself a pro-life pacifist who esteems marital fidelity, would, if given the choice between Democrats like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama and almost any Republican, vote for either of those Democrats. Yet Clinton had multiple affairs, was accused of sexual harassment and even sexual assault. He vetoed legislation that would have outlawed partial birth abortion and launched a war in Bosnia.

Barack Obama twice voted in Illinois against legislation that would have protected newborn babies from being intentionally allowed by medical staff to die, has killed numerous terrorists with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, and launched a war in Libya.

And now Wallis chides other Christians for failing to put their principles above politics?

What am I missing?