Cultural observers are saying that we live in a time of increased division and social strife. Political discourse has degenerated into name calling, distorted quotes, misrepresentation, deep fakes, down right lies, betrayal, opportunism, insincere and impossible promises, and catchy sound bites. Some people blame the current president and others the former one. Still others blame the Electoral College, the corrupt media, the schools and universities, the coastal elites or the common folk of fly-over country, the churches, or social media. However I’d like to propose a different diagnosis: modern society is built a foundation of sand. Within its genetic makeup there is a principle of dissolution that will enviably work its own destruction.
The Killer Gene
In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas argued that, in order to be just, human laws must be based on the moral law, which in turn is based on the eternal law of God’s being and will. Moral law is vastly more expansive and radical than human law. But human law should conform to the moral law in so far as it is possible to enforce without doing more harm than good. And some aspects of the moral law are not humanly enforceable. Hence there will never be a human society that is governed wholly by the moral or eternal law.
Modern political thinkers in the 1600s shifted the legitimating basis of human law from moral and eternal law to a human agreement or contract made for mutual benefit. The fundamental principle in this theory is individual liberty, which can be limited only by the liberty of others. In 1860, John Stuart Mill put it this way: laws should allow maximum liberty and exclude only behaviors that cause harm to others. Or in the language of popular culture, “You should be able to do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone else.” Hence modern society recognizes no moral principle above human desire. An individual’s desires can be legitimately limited in law only by the desires of other individuals. Laws function to harmonize the conflict of desires.
Contemporary society accepts and builds on the modern understanding of the function of law, but it moves two steps further. (1) It transforms the legal principle of maximum liberty in pursuing desire into a moral principle. Originally, the principle of maximizing liberty was proposed as a rule for making laws. It was not proposed as a moral principle to bind and guide the conscience; for it had no advice about what is good and right. It was not concerned with virtue and vice but with harmful behaviors. But contemporary society views pursuing one’s desires and approving of others’ pursuit their desires as a moral duty or even a sacred duty. It is good and right to pursue whatever one desires as long as you celebrate as good and right whatever other people want to pursue. And if you disapprove of others’ choices you are violating your moral duty and have become a bad person deserving of condemnation. Unlike legislated law, which is limited to legal judgments about enforceable rules, morality is all-encompassing. Negative judgments can be made about the character and the otherwise legal behavior of others. One can show one’s moral disapproval in words and behaviors that are not illegal and do not have the force of law: protest, shunning, boycotts, and various forms of verbal “calling out.”
(2) The second step contemporary society takes beyond the original maximum liberty principle is this: after expanding the maximum liberty principle from the legal to moral sphere, contemporary society begins the process of reverse transferal. It is so outraged by the legal but “immoral” behavior of those who do not conform to its new morality that it demands that its morality be legislated into law. The quest for individual liberty circled around to become suppression of individual liberty. The very ones who protested so loudly against imposing morality on others now demand that their morality be imposed on everyone. What began as an effort to reduce the sphere covered by laws and increase private liberty has become the cry for more laws and less liberty. The protest against moralist and judgmental attitudes has become moralistic and judgmental. The limited legal sphere became the unlimited moral sphere, which returned as the unlimited legal sphere!
When a society founds itself on individual desire as its sacred principle and basic moral good, it has already set its trajectory toward failure. Human desire is unprincipled, omni-directional, and chaotic. Human beings in their curiosity can desire anything! Human desires conflict with each other and with the desires of others. It should not be surprising, then, that contemporary people cannot engage in civil discussion about important topics, because, according to contemporary theory, all speech arises from and aims at fulfillment of individual desires. Where there is no truth and reason is not honored, alliances are possible but agreements are not.
What you describe orbits closely around the ascendancy of Critical Theory in academia and popular culture. Have you considered writing on a philosophical and ethical analysis of Critical Theory.
No. I don’t know enough about it. I am so heavily invested in writing my current book on soteriology that today is the first time I’ve written a blog post since February. From the outside looking in “critical theory” seems somewhat slippery. Is Juergan Habermas the main theorist?
As I understand it, Critical Theory began as an application of Marxist theory to various media and art forms, which came to be known as the Frankfurt School. Since then, though, it has pervaded the Humanities—especially in race and gender studies—and permeated out from academia into the popular culture. Critical Theory’s influence is most felt in radical university protests such as at Evergreen State University (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/16/us/evergreen-state-protests.html), but it’s also quite prevalent in the rhetoric of current political debates surrounding the 2020 election. I’m convinced that one cannot make sense of the forces at work in contemporary American society without a robust understanding of Critical Theory.
Hi Dr. Highfield, this is Riley Haragan commenting. I just read this post based on my dad’s recommendation. I am takiang a course at UCLA this summer – “Philosophy of Law” – and I’d like to keep coming back to this blog post as I progress through the course.
It is a very timely post for me, I just emailed my professor about the coexistence of law and religion today, and how I suspect that law has expanded and somewhat superseded religion.
Isn’t it interesting how human beings have the innate need to judge things? This innate need has been our saving grace, but after the injunction – “do not judge anything” – became prevalent in modern society, the only thing left to be judged is judgment itself. And so with the same sort of “righteous anger,” that ought to be directed towards behaviors that are actually bad, this intense anger (that can’t be legislated away, or rationalized away through moral relativism, for it is such a base human force) is only expressed towards: the notion that anything is bad or good! Haha. It is truly paradoxical to think that way.
Great to hear from you Riley! Philosophy of law is a great topic for a course. I hope your professor really introduces you to the entire history of this subject. It involves REASON, which is a good thing. Sadly, today reasoning logically from clear premises is thrown over for name calling.
Indeed law and politics have become all-encompassing. Many people don’t know the difference between legality and morality. Since there is a moral vacuum they wish to fill it with law. As the postmodernists say, “Everything is political.”
Good luck in the course!
Good luck with your new book and may you find the time to do it justice.
I’ve hung back from this latest topic of yours daunted by it’s depth. And rather than quoting the words of Jesus as one often prefers to do, i’d like to share a small paragraph from the very last page of Arnold Toynbee’s book ” The History of Civilization – Hellenism” Oxford University Press 1959.
Here it be.
“A Hellenistic civilization may be overtaken by an eruption of the explosive Hellenic spirit that lies buried, but not extinct, beneath it’s Christian or Islamic surface. And, at the present day, Western Christendom is still feeling the effects of one unusually violent eruption -popularly known as the renaissance- which started in Italy about six hundred years ago and spread from there, first to the rest of Western Christendom, and then to the other parts of the world as a result of the recent worldwide process of ‘Westernization’. In the field of the arts and sciences, the influence of the rediscovered Hellenic culture was digested and transcended by western minds before the end of the seventeenth century. In the field of politics, a revival of the Hellenic worship of idolized local states is, today, the dominant religion of the West, and of a rapidly Westernizing world. It is only thinly disguised by a veneer of Christianity, Islam, and other higher religions.The tragic history of the Hellenic World shows that this Hellenic form of idolatry is a ghost of Hellenism that we harbour at our peril. The modern world must exorcise this demon resolutely if it is to save itself from meeting with it’s Hellenic predecessors’s fate.”
The same author starts his book with a quote from Matt 9: v10, Luke 4: v8 both quoting Deut 6:v13.
If one might explain that the context of this work discusses in detail (over the millennia) how mankind has consistently destroyed it’s own achievements by inexorably moving from unselfish invention and caring societies, to ‘city states’ where the sacred act of worship is turned inwards upon itself…a point which i feel you have made above, Ron.
Thank you for this Toynbee quote! Excellent! It’s hard to prove such a historical thesis, but it is very important that we probe the components of the worldview that we unthinkingly adopt. Most discussions about the social ills of today and the way forward seem pretty superficial. My aim in essays such as “The Logic of Social Suicide” is to suggest that we examine the unexamined presuppositions that drive us toward social disintegration. Making everything about me, mine, and the interest of “our” people will eventually break down all notions of universal human bonds. But without a powerful philosophical/religious vision the relentless centrifugal forces of individual passions, group characteristics, and group fears will win. Thanks!