Thursday, May 10, 2007

Is there a universal basis for morality? Part One

We live in an age of utter cynicism. There are many reasons for this, but prominent among them is the horrible direction in which "progress" has taken us.

The nineteenth century was an age, to a large extent, of positivism and belief in natural, inexorable progress toward some better state of collective being. The dominant paradigm of the intellectual world everywhere reflected that basic optimism, which itself was based on the values of the Enlightenment as carried by its missionaries, the merchants and rising "middle class" everywhere. Science would bring increased freedom, and steady improvement in everyone's lives. Reason would lead naturally to increased cooperation and universal brotherhood. Civilization would become humane, its legal structure evolving toward "natural law" based upon universalities.

While the first World War was a massive, horrifying shock to this optimistic worldview, the second World War put it to rest, and we have since been passing by its grave daily on our way to work, casting it scornful, disapproving glances.

Indeed, an age of optimism has given way to an age of cynicism. Somehow the Enlightenment did not bring what its prophets augured, though it has brought to a select few profits and power undreamt of before. Science, instead of bringing freedom and improvement, has, for most of the world's population, only resulted in more efficient and inescapable forms of exploitation and control. It has, for all of us, brought the horror of vastly more effective weapons of mass destruction and of individual annihilation.

Reason has become a whore, used spuriously by those who have no respect for it and who cast the worst of aspersions upon its actual adherents, giving us a more scientific, self-absorbed consumerist tribalism rather than universal brotherhood. Civilization has merely improved its capacity for propaganda, collective self-deceit and war. "The worst are full of passionate intensity, while the best lack all conviction..."

The law has abandoned any pretense at universality, instead scoffing at the idea of morality as anything more than "generally accepted beliefs" (which, given their previous bases for morality and their belief in the natural universality of their own narrow views, is probably a good thing anyway) and wholly reflecting the cynicism of the age.

The events of the twentieth century have resoundingly and painfully rebuked humanity for its arrogant assumption that evolution -- biological, social, cultural or otherwise -- is "progress," that history is a natural progression toward better, higher. No, evolution is adaption to circumstances, not improvement, and it is noteworthy to remember that the height of evolution is the development of sophisticated predators, not its unusual and unique hominid children that have come to dominate the planet. History has no guarantees that the world of the future will be a better one, and current events suggest it may be steadily worsening.

So, it is no wonder that the most prevalent epistemological attitude toward philosophy, morality and truth is a disapproving denial of universality, and indeed in many ways of objective reality itself. Post-modernism is a reaction to the foolish, self-righteous strutting of an eager modernism that has since shown itself to be nothing but a charlatan. But is it the answer? After all, if we accept post-modernism, we, as a matter of course, have little hope for peace and true progress toward a better world. And, indeed, post-modernist thought tends toward self-absorption and abandonment of interest in the outside world, concentrating instead on one's own limited "circle of influence." Post-modernism, in fact, plays right into the hands of the worst of us, those who love power and thrive on conflict.

I once heard someone say that the optimist is someone who sees the value of everything and the price of nothing, while a pessimist is someone who sees the price of everything and the value of nothing. Could it be that we have swung from one unsustainable extreme to another? Could it be that, rather than defining the extent of what is possible, modernism and post-modernism merely express two possible answers among a larger variety available? Might there be another answer that provides humankind with a new possible direction, with new hope for that universal brotherhood that today, given the comeback of fundamentalism, fascism and sheer cynicism throughout the first world, seems laughable?

I have thought long and hard on this subject for most of my life. I have wondered at it as a puzzle to be solved. Is there a way to resolve the conflicting views, needs and perceptions of all human beings into a social, or at least intellectual, reality that is consistent and truly universally-applicable?

Put another way, is there a universal basis for morality that is not culturally-biased, based on superstition or collective self-deceit? One that is not self-serving, serviceable only to the needs of a certain region or nation, or even species-specific? A morality that is not only logically-consistent and able to withstand the deepest of scrutiny, but also compelling and useful to an ailing, technologically-advanced humanity in thrall everywhere to the worst of men using creeds of bigotry, hate, propaganda and fear to control their wards?

I think there is. I will elaborate in a second post. For now, however, I would love to hear anyone's thoughts on the matter.