Kenneth Smith - Dramas of the Mind  

Dramas of the Mind by Kenneth Smith   

12. EXTINGUISHING ETHICS I: The Wholesale Method

The Europeans... must be forc'd to do Good, and have no other Prompter for the avoiding of Evil than the fear of Punishment.

—Adario (c. 1700)

An Indian who is as bad as the white man could not live in our nation; he would be put to death... The white men do not scalp the head; but they... poison the heart. It is not pure with them. His countrymen will not be scalped, but they will, in a few years, become like the white men, so that you can't trust them, and there must be, as in the white settlements, nearly as many officers as men to take care of them and keep them in order.

—Black Hawk (1832)
from Touch the Earth


The declining force of morals and ethics is measured not just by the incidence of abrogations but, just as importantly, by the dismissive attitude the issue evokes, the indifference which is decadence. Truly, it is banal to decry decadence: invoking the fear of a corrosive attack on social structure — the customary order of norms and values — is so perennial as to induce cynicism.

But the charges I make have a very different composition: in the peculiar case of modern individualist-iconoclastic culture, with its anti-traditional and relativistic-nihilistic thrust, it is not enough to say that social structure is compromised and corroded by decadence or licentiousness. For indeed the decadence and license are, in our case, structural — direct effects of some of the most essential and defining features of our dynamic social order and its variously obligatory ideologies. All previous civilizations have rested on expiring premises and were, at last, as mortal as the individuals they encompassed. But modern civilization has been laced all its life with some formidable toxins, subjective solvents that were more readily containable when its order was more of a heady promise than a squalid reality. It is the order itself that carries germs of its own self-disintegration: this was the dirty little secret Nietzsche unearthed within the issue of nihilism, that it was precisely the highest values of Western civilization that were self-destructing by their own immanental logic. Nihilism is a significant symptomatology, a system of effects revealing that our civilization's limited virtues and values uncontrollably modulate into vices. During the centuries of its genesis, the Faustian-Promethean modern dynamism subverted its own roots, the residues of tradition in itself; but in its mature state, as an entelechy, it continues to subvert itself and the institutions and principles that at one time helped to stabilize it.

Let me describe first two quite general modalities that tone our ways of living and thinking as moderns, and that profoundly menace the very prospect of morality and ethics. These modalities — aspects of the same principle — have always stood in unrecognized conflict with the founding presuppositions of intersubjective systems of duties and rights. One of these modalities is abstracted or nihilistic individualism, no longer embedded as traditional individualism was in cultural or political media, and no longer encumbered with religious or communal constraints on its way of understanding itself. Traditional individualism had substantive preconditions, that is to say, one had to be actually competent and fulfilled in specific ways to qualify as an individual: to be truly free and independent, one had to cultivate a repertory of traditional norms and perspectives as a system of optics from which oneself as well as the world might be criticized and disciplined. The possibility of discriminating judgment, of hierarchicalized values to differentiate higher from lower tendencies, virtues from vices, within oneself — the possibility of transcending the distortive-delusionary seductions implicit within human nature — such a concrete and demanding work of self-emancipation (spiritualization, the empowering of reason as an actual force and not just an impotent ideal-intellectual perspective) was the warrant for calling oneself individuated.

In typical modern presumption, individuality is perceived as a passively incurred birthright, not an achievement but an abstract metaphysical status. That modern concept of individuality is distinctively empty, gutted of the concrete panoply of forms and forces that used to give purchase to finite human will and conscience. Traditional self-identity had to be appropriated, mastered; modern self-identity is apparently to be had for the asking, the effect of mere presumption. Modern abstractionist individualism — undeveloped, devoid of particular organs of self-comprehension and self-control — in the broadest sense has utterly different value from traditional individualism: not only is it no longer implicated in a commonweal of mutual norms, as resources for self-structuring, but indeed its very identity consists in a vacuous territorial integrity. Its autonomy consists not in its spiritual musculature but in an abstract repulsion of all that is alien: modern individuality defines itself by its very repellency, its structural polarization over against everything that is other. It is largely unrecognized that these two radically incompossible forms of individuality — concrete and abstract, traditional-moral and modern-licentious — have been in covert combat: and the distinctively modernized institutions of education, economics, politics, etc., have been adapted precisely to minister to the abstractionist point-of-view, the atomistic or morally isolationist concept of individuality. The metabolic exchanges of norms that made traditional individuality political and cultural in its very essence, seem to modern individuality to be threats to its integrity, to its sovereign authority over itself: its peculiar abstractionist form of freedom necessitates that it should be privatistic, incommunicado, monadic, barbarically shorn of culture. Its archetypal thinker is Descartes, purging his mind of conventional assumptions in order to generate what paucity of ideas truly is latent within his own proprietary mind. Such individuality is motored by an anarchistic, abolitionist self-concept: ethically and morally it is solipsistic and monologic, related only to its own evacuated self — which is to say, it may or may not determine itself to a code of self-consistency, but as far as morality or ethics is concerned, all this code will yield is a policy of non-intervention, "respect" interpreted solely as an injunction against trespass. In a social order extrapolated from such monadic cells, the only intersubjectively valid moral determinant is to judge not, to allow others as much license as they allow themselves — a moral/ethical code without interdictory force, an order with the bizarrely deformed authority to unleash but not to bind. An ethics or a morality without power to prohibit is really without power to command: all it can do is ratify extra-moral and sub-ethical appetites, that is, enjoin us to indulge, consume, and enjoy. This regime of licentiousness helps us not at all in defining the boundaries of rights, much less the obligations of positive commitments, among individuals.

That peculiarly modern grasp on the concept of individuality — obsessed with the right to resist all authority above or outside one's own ego — stands in a wholesale antinomy to morality and ethics: it makes their kind of order impossible not for particular reasons but modally; not because of particular acts or assumptions but rather because of the existential status or metaphysical laws governing such a peculiar concept of individuality. That concept makes stony ground indeed on which to seed any morality or ethics; and yet, no individual — and by modern hypothesis, this is all that ultimately exists and has valid metaphysical standing — bears particular responsibility for precluding the possibility of morality and ethics. That preclusion was impersonally inbuilt within the a priori ideology of modernism: the normative order that transcends individual egos is thus conceptually volatilized, and quite anonymously. The possibility of an objective grasp and grounding of morality and ethics is foreclosed upon, in advance of the issue ever being raised. Ideology, as a kind of perversely disabling culture, has that kind of a priori power to prejudice the comprehensibility of alternative concepts and norms; but it is the peculiar content of modern ideology that makes it so pernicious, salting the ground against the regrowth of moral or ethical culture.

Complementary to that abstractionist individuality is another modality that colors the entire field of our subjective activity. In Husserlian terms, it might be called our moral-ethical intentionality, the telos or intended object toward which we orient ourselves: what is ultimately the object, the stake, in morality and ethics? Modernist discussions, theoretical no less than practical, typically define such questions in terms of "interest": this is the currency in which our practical anthropology and psychology traffic, the bottom-line about human motivation as our modern sciences of human behavior conceptualize it. "Interest" — in every case, selfish in its origins — composes a vocabulary utterly different from that of morality or of ethics. Interest is a de facto consideration promoted to de jure functions: it is conscripted to do the work traditionally performed by the concepts of rights, duties, and values, but it has no clear title to such ideal authority. No one else's interests intrinsically obligate me to respect them; indeed, by definition, the fact that they are not my own enjoins me to disrespect them as norms, at the same time I take them into account de facto as motives making the other person's actions calculable. Interests, rather than creating a coherence of perspectives, instead fracture the world into idiosyncratic points of view, a field of surds ultimately untranslatable into one another's terms: by the laws implicit in the concept of interest, apparent convergences of interest are never to be taken as stable and ultimately valid — they are ad hoc accidents, dissoluble at will.

Although the authority wielded by self-interest seems a mere capitulation to objective factors, interest is indeed without any de jure power to vindicate itself as obligation: we are ultimately free arbitrarily to construe our interest however we want, in terms of this complex of factors or that, consistently or not, independently of others' interests or not. Interest is radically relativistic and subjectivistic, incorrigible from any higher or external viewpoint, and therefore defenseless against internal delusions: by its very modality it is proof against criticism, impenetrable to objective understanding or judgment. Interest is utterly lacking in the normative-objective grounding that Greek culture found in natural law or Christian culture found in divine teleology: social Darwinism, or the Invisible Hand by which individual aggrandizement is transmuted into social benefits, does not suffice for a normative determination of what we ought to do. It is a principle which leaves entirely open the possibility that the noblest option might consist in refusing compliance with it. Most disconcerting, from a traditionalist point of view, is that the concept of interest (interpreted in modernist dynamic terms as fulfillable through maximal aggrandizement) would seem to invoke an obligation to be exploitative and predatory, with a presumptive right to such behavior. How can such a right imaginably be a right, when it cannot command in normal circumstances the respect (the correlative sense of obligation) of its victims? As a concept it yields a rationally incongruent order of privileges, not rights; particularities that cannot be universalized. It invokes a vision of economic Realpolitik, in which, as Thucydides saw, the powerful do whatever they can and the weak suffer whatever they must: in short, radical injustice devoid of any hope of redress, social "order" conceived as atrocity against the very idea of morality or ethics.

Self-interest as a concept inherently implies the ascendancy of economics and psychology, as formats of self-understanding, over the traditional-normative methods of philosophy, religion, or politics. Self-interest as Weltanschauung indeed provides a kind of apparently objective warrant for the scientific validity of those notorious pseudosciences: as long as we conceive of human beings under the rubric of self-interest, those predominating amoral disciplines will seem the only rational and empirical approach to use — but all they can capture of human personality and behavior is the very aspect they presuppose. This is formally a specimen of an infamous fallacy, the gnoseo-ontological circle, that is, the petitio principii between how we go about knowing and what it is that we intend to capture by means of this knowing: epistemology and metaphysics are always in danger of reinforcing and ratifying one another, establishing a hall of mirrors in which our supposed investigations of reality are only internal confirmations of the prejudices we carried to the inquiry to begin with. Thus do the most abstracted and impersonal "sciences" develop the structure of a delusion, an incestuously closed system of thought. To view human beings as self-interested seems only natural and empirical, not a conceptually constrained interpretation, not a cultural bias or the special pleading of an ideology. The a priori or presuppositional origin of that concept grows less and less visible, less disputable or dubitable: but all ideologies, like all dogmatisms, inveigle their way into absolute status by just such degrees.

Even a shallow exposure to Hellenic or Judaeo-Christian culture suffices to alert an active mind that this conception of human essence is not historically invariable. Self-interest, as a putative modern virtue, remains that same disintegrative, obscurantist, viscous force that was identified in ancient cultures as a patent vice, even the very fountainhead of vices: it is the primal social-political-religious chaos which traditional systems of norms sought to constrain as hybris and sin, as the privatistic insanity of the idiotes or apolitical individual, as the disease of the soul sundered from God. Self-interest was classically understood as the sepsis against which morality and ethics sought to provide controls, not to encourage as if it could be a value, a source of order. Where traditional cultures yielded an acute sense of form — directorial principles, structuring intelligence modeled after that inherent in nature or in a cosmogonic God — modern modalities take for granted, instead, inherently formless media, entropic centrifuges: blind means elevated to the authority of ends, instrumental-utilitarian facts devoid of proscriptive power but nonetheless imposed as ultimate bounds on conscience and judgment — in these limitless or excessive norms of economic-psychological materialism, one can find no delimitation of what is forbidden, no concept of vice, bestiality, ignobility, slavishness, delusion, evil. A floor of infinite subjective possibilities opens under us here, even as the technology brandishes a cornucopia of objective possibilities: maximized power coupled with minimized discipline shows us the virus of nihilism at the heart of imperial power-lust, intoxicant totalitarian temptations. That abyss is the oblivion of moral/ethical order, of determinate direction and accountability: its airiness is the volatilization of finite human/cultural controls, it is the sublimation of substance into vapor, finitude into infinitude, liberty into license. Nihilism — the doctrine that nothing is objectively prohibited, the radical disparagement of all humanly contrived, intellectually artificial norms and values, the demotic and sophistic discovery of the advantages of groundlessness, the ultimate unleashing of the demon of modernist freedom — is the decisive self-accusation of a culture as devoid of a vision of aristocratic nobility as it is of an impulse of transcendent spirituality. The ethos of self-interest, which makes venality seem consubstantial with virtue, has thus no standard of honor, character, or radical self-candor, and no standard either of sacrality, intrinsic value, or moral-ethical disinterestedness.

The modalities of abstract individualism and self-interest tend to make moderns generically resistant to the stringent resources of morality and ethics, anesthetized to their subtler appeals and allergic to their overt imperatives. The withering of morality and ethics is, just as it common-sensically seems, salient evidence of the decay of the traditional system of relations among the members of a society. In place of that more communal system, a format of externality or mutual alienation has grown up to be the reigning medium, as Dostoevski perceived in St. Petersburg and Joyce in Dublin, and others with them. These alienative modalities create a holistic bias against morality and ethics; they militate against the very preconditions of those systems of bonds by ruling over our conscience and understanding at their root, in our a priori fund of norms and ideas that dictate to us what is ultimately conceivable.

The circularity or feedback between what we presume to be knowledge and what we presume to be reality indeed has great implications for the negligence of philosophy, religion, and other humanities. Without the resources of those disciplines, ethics and morality will certainly remain little more than emotivism or sterile, intellectually schematized rules. But the two modal ideologies of abstract individualism and self-interest, as our dominant modern metaphysics of human beings, precisely occlude any appeal to those disciplines: those ideologies make an understanding of human existence, human potentialities, human lawfulness, seem to be intuitively obvious, immediately available without recourse to traditional funds of culture. They seem to capture man as an apparent and simple fact, not as a mystery or a problem for interpretation: they carry the apodictic force of a drunken stupor, in which we forget the agility, grace, and nuance that sober thinking is capable of. Goethe's warning, that an age of "terrible simplifiers" was dawning, has indeed been borne out, as, for most moderns, the need for philosophy — and its value to a subtilized, searching understanding or independent conscience — has been obsolesced by the delusionary objectivities of our age.

Keynes' dictum, that supposedly practical minds are in fact the slaves of some theorist who has been defunct for centuries, has not lost its bite: those who subscribe to these modal modernist ideologies see them not as concepts but as apparent self-evidence, as human reality itself. The ideologies cover their tracks, efface themselves into a presumptuous transparency: they predigest a simplified world for simplified minds, who cannot under that cult begin to understand the problems they pose for themselves, for others, for the very order of the human world. The atomistic social metaphysics which is particularly characteristic of Anglo-Saxon culture — that peculiar anomie which passes for normality and ultimately so erodes ethical criteria that its own pathogenic force goes undetected — indeed makes it seem that nothing is at issue in society, economy, polity, and history except isolable individuals: not the structure of coordination among them, not the subliminal harmonics that make them cultural creatures, not the defining a priori modes that damp the amplitude of understanding and conscience. For these subtleties we search in vain through the rationalistic thinking that dominates our academic world, and must turn instead to more circumspect theories — Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Arendt, Rieff, and others sensitize us to issues well beyond the range of obtuse, abstract intellectualism, with its specious regimen of objectivity. They undercut, thus, the vitiating ideologies that obstruct both the theory and the practice of morality and ethics.