Monday, May 07, 2012

Continuing the answer to John Holbo's questions. Repeating myself in some new ways.

Modern liberalism begins in universalism, treating various people's interests as equal or equivalent. But the global view of individuals as actors has given us an asocial model of morality:

"If her interests have the same value as his, then my interests must have the same value as yours."

The objective logic of self-other symmetry means that for the first time in history self-interest has officially been given moral weight: "officially" because in daily life it's still assumed that generosity outweighs selfishness. The experts however now have been divided from the folk; and they're left with the trolley problem.

Here is the divide between the arts and humanities, and the sciences, (and the modern social sciences); between "Continental" and "Analytic" philosophy; between the practical (humanist) liberalism of the Renaissance and ideological (idealist) liberalism of the Enlightenment.

The old theological morality placed us under a higher authority to whom all owed obeisance. This had the force of law and grounded our obligations to each other. The latter were often informal: self-interest was seen in general terms as a given not a value. Those who rose above it could be called exemplary but those who didn't were far from alone.

Contemporary academic philosophy - metaphysics analogizing science- says self and other objectively are equal, so all we need are rules and laws to constrain us and our desires. But rule-breaking has consequences that obligation-breaking doesn't, and by focusing only on rules our understanding of and comfort with more flexible obligations begins to fade. The moral imbalance favoring selflessness is lost, and people, unwilling or unable to face difficult moral decisions, are forced towards an illusory simplicity and certainty.  The result is a rise in arguments from fantasy and wish-fulfillment. We end up with masters of exemplary ideas who by their own admission live mediocre lives.  As I've said before: "Marking to the mean puts downward pressure on the mean," while liberal idealism idealizes the result.  We have "neo" liberalism and "liberal" ethnic nationalists, as many Zionists define themselves; liberals who call for the return of the whipping post; and loudly self-designating liberal political philosophers who live by choice under authoritarian governments about whom they choose to stay silent.

We tend towards self-interest in our beliefs as in other things. When self-designation carries more weight than our appearance in the eyes of others, others are discounted. Self-designation is now the rule of the day.


"If her interests have the same value as his, then my interests must have the same value as yours."
That and the paragraph below it are good.

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