Saturday, June 18, 2016

Are We Really Spineless?: How Principles Can Be Both Arbitrary & Non-negotiable


When tyranny, oppression, or genocide appear, what nations do the most to oppose them? When a society wants help pulling itself out of poverty, who is willing to lend a hand? In certain ways, modern Western society is heroic. It has some of the strongest principles of any culture in the world. We are willing even to go to war to bring democracy, equality, and freedom of speech to other nations.

Whether there are other motives also involved in some of our wars is beside the point. Despite whatever economic or cultural struggles we might be undergoing, Western civilization remains an example and ideal in politics and civic virtue.

But if this true, if our principles do indeed provide such a powerful and shining exemplar, how then can it also seem that we are the most relativist, nihilistic, and anti-ideological culture? How can we, on the one hand, unwaveringly denounce the treatment of women in certain societies, while at that same time believing that all such values and principles are subjective? How can we send our young men and women to fight and die to overthrow a foreign dictator while at the same time preaching that all ideology is harmful? How is it that militant atheism and non-spirituality is so common among our intellectuals, yet we consider the persecution of religion under the Soviet regime to have been an absolute wrong?

It could be that a culture is not the sort of thing that has ideological consistency. Perhaps ideological inconsistency is essential to the ecological vitality of a culture. This could be an interesting line of thought, but it’s not what I’m getting at. To understand my point, consider what we hate about our own society. It’s too sheltered; there’s not enough adventure or danger; there are too many technical rules and regulations and laws; politicians don’t talk about the important issues, not honestly; we have it so good but everyone feels so “entitled” to more; too much advertisement and propaganda, billboards and web banner ads; a media too biased toward the establishment; the hopelessness (or at least extreme slowness) of trying to oppose or change this establishment. 
Perhaps what we really hate about our own society is our own lack of principle. We lack adventure because we lack courage, and we lack courage because we lack strong principle. We have so many rules to make up for having so few principles. Our politicians lie because they lack the courage to stand up for principles, and we lack the courage to vote for politicians that stand up for principles. Because we lack principles to stand for, we stand for our own “entitlements.” We listen to the media and to establishment because we’ve stopped to listening to our own consciences.

If this is true, the problem is not special to our time. The most powerful civilizations in history have always tended to spoil their citizens, at least a bit. Rome did so with feasts, plunder, and gladiator fights.

Like those of the Romans, our principles may be falling victim to their own success.


C.S. Lewis wrote: “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

So lets turn to old books. We can a learn a lot from the literature of previous civilizations. It’s the whole point of recorded history.

In his book, “The Western Canon,” which attempts to establish what the most important books in our culture are, literary critic Harold Bloom spends several pages ridiculing Freud’s theory that Shakespeare’s plays were written not by Shakespeare but by an anonymous nobleman, while praising Freud’s essays as some of the best ever written. Interestingly, Bloom himself has written an entire book, The Book of J, arguing that much of the Old Testament was written by a non-religious, very-intellectual woman of King Solomon’s court, and that much of it was satire. Only later, according to Bloom, were the “pious” parts of the Bible added so that it could become a religious text.

Could it be that the source of the principles of Western culture, the Bible, was originally written as an entertaining story and nothing more?

One lesson we might take from this is that literature has a life of its own. As it is passed down it evolves into a shape that best helps its culture survive. We don’t know much about William Shakespeare to begin with, so what difference does it make if his name was different? It is the plays themselves that have beauty, and perhaps truth and something of goodness.

But the real point of Bloom’s argument is that the Bible doesn’t have a divine source. Bloom takes this idea to the extreme, I think. He writes as if literature and religion exist in a vacuum, as if they were not the source of the principles we live by.

People are always saying we need to give up the idea of scripture as authority, that we need to replace it with arguments based on evidence.

This idea is not new. It goes back to the Greek philosophers. There is a lot to recommend it. Obviously if you’re looking for facts, it’s better to study scientific experiments than holy texts.

Facts, sure. Get them from science. But what about principles? What about values? A lot of philosophers hold to a stronger version of the above idea: “All beliefs, even principles and values, should be established by rational argument based on evidence. Nothing whatsoever should be based on sacred texts. The morality they teach is outdated. Do we really want to go back to the Law of Moses?”

The difference between a value and a fact is that a value is imperative. A value tells you what you should do. Facts are not imperative. A dog can know his way home but never come home because he doesn’t want to. It’s the dog’s values that are wrong, not his facts.

The philosopher G.E. Moore called it the “is-ought fallacy.” You cannot prove an ought from an is. You may know how to build a nuclear bomb, but that doesn’t mean you should. You may know that our government is corrupt, but that doesn’t mean it should be.

You can argue logically concerning values. You can prove, using logic, that one should do something. For example, if the dog should eat, and it can only find food at home, it follows that the dog should go home. But notice that we proved this ought based on another ought. Since you cannot prove values from facts alone, you can only prove values with the help of other values.

Imagine that you have a chart of all your values. You want to the try to prove them all. To avoid circular reasoning, each value will have to be based on some stronger value. Charity is based on love. Law is based on justice. Reason is based on honesty. At the base of your tree you will have some value or values that are strongest. And these strongest values are unprovable.

Take a moment to think about what that means. The most sacred values are the ones you cannot prove.

This is why it’s nonsense when people say that science should replace religion. You cannot prove your most sacred values. Evidence simply doesn’t matter. No other values can be brought in. They simply are.

You can do this analysis with anyone’s set of values. Every value tree has a root. You cannot argue over this root.

We live in a complex world, so in a healthy person or society, this root is something extremely complex and robust. It’s not easy to sum up the values of any belief system. It typically takes years to master the doctrines of a certain philosophy or religion.

While you cannot disprove the root, it can still become corrupted and rotten, and your values can collapse. I think normally this is called madness. Conversion can happen; people’s values can change; but unless the new values are something time-tested, you can’t predict what will happen. (If you could then life would be uninteresting. We’d all simply pick the evolutionarily-best value system and never think again.)

This is why I’m worried that we keep talking about tossing religion.


My beard has grown quite long recently, and after my wife compared it to Jesus’ beard I suddenly wondered how we know that Jesus had one. Doing a little online research, I found that the traditional images of a bearded Jesus originated around the 4th century AD. Before then images of Jesus were very rare, because religious illustration was considered idolatry. The few illustrations of Jesus that we do have from before 300 AD were mostly unbearded. There are no descriptions of a beard in the New Testament, or of long hair.

The beard and long hair first appeared in illustrations based on traditional portraits of the Byzantine Emperor. Typically emperors had beards. Beards were more imperial. As King of Kings, Jesus would have been expected to have a beard.

But who cares if Jesus had a beard? Is it any more significant than what Shakespeare’s real name was? Isn’t it more important what he actually taught?

Some argue that Jesus of Nazareth probably never existed at all, that the story evolved from earlier myths about a Virgin birth, or at best several different stories about would-be messiahs in Jerusalem around that time.

But all of these questions are factual. The truth is we lack records. The teachings of Jesus themselves are no less at the root of our values. The Sermon on the Mount would be no less sacred if it turned out it was uttered in jest by the Queen of Nabatea, or offered ironically by a Thracian beggar, or sung drunkenly by a pig from Gaul.

"Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or the age to come." Jesus, Matthew 12:32.

Just as you cannot convince a nonbeliever by appealing to scripture, you cannot disprove religious principles by attacking their source in scripture. The existence of certain sheets of paper with text on them is a fact, and bears no weight either way. It is always the spirit of the law that matters, not the letter, not even the physical ink on the page.


They say that this world is unreal, with no foundation, no God in control. They say it is the result of sexual desire and has no creator other than lust. … They believe that sensory gratification is the purpose of human civilization. Thus until the end of life their anxiety is immeasurable.” This is from the Bhagavad Gita, which is thousands of years old.

Why is it that high civilization tends toward the belief that material wealth and physical pleasure is the purpose of life? In our culture this is called “utilitarianism” and it forms the basis of the most popular theories of ethics taught in the universities. We believe this because we have spoiled ourselves. To have deeper principles than material gain takes courage, and courage takes effort.


The correct way to read philosophy: change your life.


Sacred values can’t be argued, nor can they be persuaded. To persuade you must appeal to something deeper.

One of my friends said to me, “Religion needs to stop trying to convince us to be moral by appealing to the afterlife.”

But the truth is you cannot appeal to anything else at all. You can only appeal to the most sacred value, Goodness itself.

To criticize religions for using sacred texts is silly because how else would you record your most sacred values, but with paper and ink? And if you can’t make a rational argument for them, should we be surprised that there are so many non-arguments in scripture?


The new conventional wisdom is that moral values aren’t real, that they’re arbitrary and subjective.

Maybe they aren’t literally real in the sense of being actual objects, but a lot of important things aren’t actual objects, like the number two, triangles, and freedom. And what’s wrong with being subjective? Arbitrary is defined as “subject to individual will or judgment.” But on what basis do you judge values? On the basis of more sacred values.


I once asked the president of an atheist society where to find values, if not in religious texts. He vaguely mentioned the Humanist Bible, a book he hadn’t read. The New Yorker describes it as “A marvel ... written in a crisp, beautiful English.” In this book’s version of Genesis, instead of an allegory about humankind’s fall from innocence, we get the story of Newton seeing the apple fall from the tree, and the unambiguous conclusion, “Those who first set themselves to discover nature’s secrets and designs, fearlessly opposing mankind’s early ignorance, deserve our praise.”

I prefer the inflected debate to the monotone conclusion. Was there not something beautiful, too, in our innocence?

I prefer the Old Book, the Living Book, whose purpose and authorship remain obscure, to the New and Improved Book, contrived and sterilized and obvious. If I must I will pray to an ancient tree, knotted and gnarled and half-bare. But I will not bow before a new radio tower, no matter how crisp and beautiful its tune.

Perhaps later, when it has aged, and gained hard wisdom, and become tainted with life.

I told him if I had to choose a non-religious source of values I would go to Plato. He dropped the topic and went on to his proofs and arguments.


But purpose is the first thing to decide.

We must teach our children values. It’s a sacred responsibility.


Why do we keep forgetting that principles must bottom out, that the tree must have a root? Even objective reasons must bottom out. Mathematical systems need axioms.

Our excessive rationality might be to blame. Reason compartmentalizes. It focuses on the argument and not the assumptions. It forgets the context, the big picture.

Reason is not really a foundation. It’s a way of building on a foundation. It requires unproven assumptions to get off the ground. But we’ve become so obsessed with reason that we have started to think of it as a foundation, and fool ourselves that we are being broad-minded and principled when in fact we are being narrow and sacrificing what is most important.

A close friend of mine said she kept worrying about what other people thought of her personality. That maybe they were finding her unfunny and annoying. It was making her depressed. I said that I overcame my anxiety by forgetting about getting people to like me and resolving to stick to my principles even if they were unpopular. If they disliked me for being principled, I finally decided, their opinion didn’t matter.

If you care about your “personality,” or what people think, or fashion, or not looking foolish, or looking rational and not touchy-feely, or seeming pious, or being perceived as successful, then you are sacrificing your own personal fulfillment for something far less important. It matters what people think. But it matters more to stick to your principles.

This is what it means to be broad-minded. You don’t judge based on popular opinion, but on your own rich intuitions of virtue. This is not the same as open-mindedness, to suspend all judgment. Without judgment there is no principle.


We hear this a lot: “Humanity had always thought it was at the center of the universe. But then we realized that the Earth actually goes around the Sun, which is just another star at the edge of our galaxy, which is just another galaxy among billions and billions in the universe. We thought we were the highest of God’s creatures, but we’re just latecomers on the scene of evolution, a blip in a drama which has been going on for billions of years. The truth is that the universe just doesn’t care about us. Reality is cold, hard, uncaring, and unloving. Morals, values, principles, philosophies, and religions are all purely subjective. We invented them. The objective truth is that the universe just doesn’t care.”

Why should certain objective truths trump all subjective truth? The idea that objective, material reality is more important than subjective value, this itself is a value. No objective facts about atoms and galaxies and evolution determine by themselves what we should value most. You cannot derive an ought from a mere is.

Of course material reality is unfeeling. We’re talking about non-living matter. We shouldn’t expect it to care. But why should we value the material perspective more than the human perspective?

If values are subjective, why not value subjectivity more than objectivity? Humans more than atoms? Why not posit humanity as a primary value in the universe? We may not be at the geometrical center of everything (wherever that is), but that doesn’t prevent us from being of central importance.


Once you start valuing material goods over spiritual goods, you’re on a path to destruction.

Recently I got into an online debate with an extremely intelligent and well-read historian of philosophy. He argued that Greek tragedy ruined Greece because it made its soldiers less willing to die for the glory of their nation.

I responded that Greek tragedy has survived for thousands of years, but no Greek nation-state has survived that long. I said that Greek tragedy has taught us many human truths.

He believed that America should teach its young men courage again and conquer the world.

I replied that world conquest means little, that the armies of Genghis Khan, though they created the largest empire that has ever existed, had less an influence on human evolution than Tibetan Buddhism, whose wisdom has never conquered physically yet has changed the world spiritually.

He scoffed, saying that Tibet had failed to keep its people free from Chinese rule.

Later, he began making white-supremacist jokes publicly online, saying that we should enslave the Blacks and Jews, and I broke off our correspondence.

If your fundamental value is material power, then your duty is to use any means necessary to enslave the world. But if your fundamental value is spiritual goodness, then your duty is the quieter, more fulfilling, and more everlasting feat of teaching the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment