Kenneth Smith - Dramas of the Mind  

Dramas of the Mind by Kenneth Smith   

13. EXTINGUISHING ETHICS II: The Retail Method

The modern ideological "modalities" — abstract individualism and self-interest — have already been discussed as non-specific or systemic worldviews, conditioning a nebulous background for thinking about man, society, nature, and God. Those modalities tune us down to a limited range of what is conceivable and acceptable, and do so broadly and unobtrusively, without ever erupting into our consciousness as ideas, much less as ideologies. Passing for obvious, for natural evidence itself, they bypass our critical understanding and work their effects across the spectrum of more specific ideologies. Only when we compare the modernized ("bourgeois") societies with the residue of traditional society (or with their own prehistory) are we struck by the normalized fragmentation, the habituated dissociation or atomization. This anomie, this loss of coordinating cultural harmonics, makes moral/ethical eccentricity seem standard and structural; but behind that idiosyncrasy lies the modal ideologies that make us resist any values that seem to violate our sovereignty as abstracted, self-interested individuals. This idiotization or reduction of each mind to a private moral/ethical world is not (as it seems to be) grounded in the metaphysics of the Human Condition but is a modernist artifact, a peculiar cultural effect of a civilization otherwise purged of cultural residue.

Within the specific ideologies that dominate the climate of modern self-understanding, however, there are particular premises that are also hostile to aspects of morality/ethics. These can be detailed, but first it must be understood that, within the abstractionist formats of the individualism and self-interest previously described, human beings still require a modus vivendi. Devastated of traditional norms and grounds of objectivity, they seek the replenishment of these functions through artificial devices, through doctrine and intellectual supposition, through whatever may be abstractly available. As Nietzsche keenly put it, rather than be void of will — paralyzed, inert, blind — human beings would rather will the void and enslave themselves to destructive principles, to norms inimical to their own human-natural needs. It is into this cultural/religious/political/philosophical void that ideologies (a uniquely modern phenomenon) fit. Ideologies are ostensibly rational and comprehensive systems of ideas — pre-fabricated worldviews or philosophies of life that obviate the need for the gritty, concrete work of self-cultivation and the self-elaboration of understanding by which traditional generations digested their world. Ideologies are ready-to-wear philosophies, culture made incredibly easy and insultingly simple: what is volatilized in the process, of course, are the procedural skills of thinking and valuation, the arts of achieving certainty amid controversy. In exchange for that birthright of concrete and self-competent individuality, the ideologue receives a sumptuous mess of pottage — a regularized scheme of interpretations that coordinates him with other ideologues, that is case-hardened against criticism, and that enables him to evert his critical intellect against the flaws of other perspectives. Ideology is the prospect of unthinking thought, of heteronomy at the control-center of intelligence and conscience: it is precisely the prosthesis that modern individuals, abstracted from tradition, culture, and the art of philosophizing, need.

There is no ideology of mass import that has not claimed scientific status — that is, accomplished objectivity, freedom from the vices of perspectivism and subjectivism that encumber premodern culture and philosophy. It is as much the modus vivendi of concrete individuality as the paralysis of abstract individuality that ideologies claim to be the cure for — they provide relief from the self-desolation of abstractionism, and from the hard work of analyzing, assaying, and achieving certainty in the concrete problems of living. Every ideology is thus a species of pseudoscience, a narcotic absolutism promulgated as an intellectual panacea: they are ways of making traditional autonomy — self-competent, self-doctoring individuality — superfluous, and they illustrate thus the pernicious ambiguity of virtue and vice in modernist context. For abstract freedom cannot be lived, and for the sake of moral-practical nourishment turns around into its opposite, the most intimate kind of slavery the secular order ever had to offer, radical capitulation to heteronomy, the alienated displacement of the prerogatives of subjectivity by impersonal-anonymous order.

Ideologies govern through the repertory of norms one is subject to, the unempirical and irrefutable fund of a priori assumptions implanted precritically or through the coercion of shaming conformism. Ideologies control, in this way, what can and cannot become questionable; they stage-manage the perspectives and strategies from which we approach issues, and they prescribe the glossary in terms of which we formularize those issues. Neither rational argument nor empirical evidence suffices to impeach the axiomatic a priori: it is the Hydra that cares little about the loss of this or that particular head. An ideology is a protean organism of presuppositions that is secure just through the incompetence of its carriers critically and objectively to articulate and understand it: it evades and yet haunts the impoverished conscious ego in such a way as to impose a relentless Sisyphean task. It dominates through the very fact that it cannot be encompassed by the paucity of idea-contents it dictates. Ideologies thus have the structure of a delusion, in which, as Kierkegaard observed, one is least able to think of what one most needs to think.

Ideologies, in the sense of systematized perspectives, flourish today in numbers and diversity far beyond the Right/Left polarity variously traceable to the New Deal or the French Revolution: I treat here only the three that make up the majoritarian superorganism, setting as they do the cultural dominant of current Western civilization. In their historical phases, these ideologies have indeed viciously conflicted with one another; it remains true that they often lay incompossible demands on anyone who subscribes to more than one of them. Each of these ideological systems of course is refracted through individual understanding and conscience in such a way that their character as ideologies may be tempered, reduced, or subverted altogether. In the particular context of the present discussion, I make no effort to give an exhaustive inventory of their tenets and implications, of course. It is the overlap or intersection of the three that make possible, to whatever extent, a triune system, reminding us of what was often remarked by Marx, Weber, and others, that each of these systems in fact has laid significant preconditions enabling the authority and format of its successor to take root.

Those three ideologies are Christianity, Capitalism, and Science: I refer to them collectively, as a loose composite, by the acronym CCS. Like every ideology, each of them arrogates to itself the status of being ultimate or unsupersessible; each denies being an ideology (as ideologies will do) by identifying itself with objectivity per se (selfless Faith, the Word of God, the facts of life, aseptic truth, or other preconceptions of a perspectivally privileged status). Each separately, and all three together, place themselves beyond criticism by disputing their origin among individual opinions and beliefs: in significant ways they claim to transcend the world of culture, in which polymorphous and variant interpretations are possible. Like any well-established ideology, each of them exercises the power to preclude challenges from arising by means of pre-emptive countercriticism or discreditation.

No matter how many variations each will permit within its own structure, each radically proscribes independence of mind and conscience: each fashions a universe of discourse admitting of no escape, and fealty to its values is a precondition for being taken seriously. This limited flexibility, if one thinks about it, is indispensable for them to predominate as master-ideologies, perspectives in a position of hegemony. As a whole, CCS claims closure or completeness, and so founds the presumption of Western civilization that it is somehow the end of history, the beyond-which-not of cultural evolution. Within its own perspectival ambit, CCS insists it is the whole world of feasible variations of justice, desirability, and fulfillment: in its own view, it is identical with the spectrum of human value-possibilities, a comprehensive and exhaustive compendium of meaningful intellectual options. Outside its ideological precincts only error and vice are possible.

In simple, sober fact, each subsystem in CCS is a historical phenomenon, in no way as timeless, deathless, and universal as the naive are encouraged to imagine. At some point, each ideology was profoundly inconceivable or pernicious in its moral effects; at some point again, each will cease to be (if it hasn't already) viable and humanly sustainable. From being cultural assets they will become liabilities, drains on morale and conviction, obstructions to innovation, justice, inspiration, and clarity.

CCS constrains its participants to believe it has a monopoly on goodness (Christianity), justice (Capitalism), and truth (Science). All the ethical virtues are anchored, it is supposed, in CCS. I will enumerate some points diametrically opposed to that claim, just for the sake of rupturing the complacency through which CCS retards clarity and mires its proponents (directly or indirectly, virtually everyone) in self-obscurity. I argue that CCS, severally and as a whole, may have come to pose the single most concerted threat to ethics and morality, considered as natural excellences in eudaimonically endowed human beings, that is, individuals in whom will, judgement, intelligence, and conscience are developed to their full expanse, to the maturity of their potential. CCS has become, as nihilism makes overt, a circumscriptive and provincial abstractionism, a sophisticated prison. Ethics and morality have been crippled almost as severely as culture and philosophy have by this vitiating and demoralizing master-ideology. Nihilism makes explicit the implicit contempt for human culture, the abstractionism, which all three ideologies in CCS have fostered in different ways; it makes overt the sterility and value-annihilation, the demoralization, that CCS perpetrates. A doctrinal itemization follows, substantiating to whatever degree the preceding charges.

(A) Christianity: The authoritarian basis of this religion, like any force inducing obedience and control, produces a simulacrum of moral and ethical behavior which is necessarily inauthentic, not motivated or produced through moral and ethical means, but rather through an appeal to fear and desire. The religion postulates an omniscient God who polices all and thus converts all autonomous (self-invoked) guilt into heteronomous shame. As omnipotent, God has dictatorial power to make anything whatsoever into a value or a vice by extrinsic fiat, abolishing in principle the whole intrinsic validity of values. God's powers of eternal damnation subvert ethical and moral behavior wholesale by undermining innocent respect for what is inherently right, interposing an ulterior motive for doing what is right (thus corrupting the peculiar mode of imperative we call obligation into merely a form of prudence or motivation from self-interest, that is, bribery or punishment through appeal to desire or fear).

It is a measure, of course, of how far contemporary fundamentalism has fallen from the primitive Christian ethos of love and humility that it musters such vindictive tides of self-righteousness: the fideism that is foundational in Christianity thus overtly occludes the ethical virtues of self-criticism and open-mindedness. Christianity originated as a movement radically disillusioned with the ancient world, a fin-de-siecle wave of nihilistic disparagement of all human-temporal accomplishments: its yearning for a transcendent God is profoundly motivated by its sense of the futility inherent in the variable historical world and mutating human will.

Christianity poses a misanthropic discreditation of human motives and the prospects of self-discipline as rotten to the core with original sin: it capitulates to salvation-from-without because it has given up hope in any immanental human means ever being able to temper, much less cure, egocentrism and subjectivist venality. In these and other ways, Christianity has historically worsened the pathological conditions of which itself is apparently a symptom, a despairing and human-all-too-human reaction.

(B) Capitalism: Capitalism is scientized economy, a rationalistic-mathematicized materialism. Indispensable to the calculability it demands is an attitude of instrumentalism, the reduction of humans — their lives, needs, motives, and talents — to means to production or consumption, to the extension of the market or the aggrandizement of capital: inherent in this exploitative attitude is a routinized alienation, a disaffiliation from the human order, an objectification of potentially anything human as a neutralized kind of thing. Capitalism increasingly manifests a presumptuous economism, the imperializing domination of other conceivable perspectives by that of the economy: politics, the arts, education, religion, etc. are seen merely as useful extensions of the processes of marketing and profiting. Economism — a modernist perspective by which capitalism's reaction-formation, communism, is just as marked as capitalism — is ultimately a kind of totalitarian imperative by which every form of motive and value other than profit-rational calculation and the satisfaction of consumer-appetites is punished for its deviation from the ideological norm: by this systematic and impersonal punishment, human/cultural/moral ends are programatically subverted by means. Much as it may rail against the waste and irrationality of bureaucracy, it is ultimately capitalism that has fostered a regime of depersonalization, a systemic dominion of implacable and amoral laws that have the character partly of determinism, partly of accidentalism or chance: just like Christianity, capitalism typically discredits human-scale initiative or individual purposiveness, quite the contrary of the apparent celebration of individualist entrepreneurship. The monomaniacal pursuit of profit and market-advantage makes amoral decision and nihilistic indifference to human needs and values (those off which no profit is possible) into an apparent norm and advantage, even to the point of constituting an obligation to be "objective" (peculiarly exclusive of other obligations). By a subliminal kind of pressure, all norms and ends are utilitarianly reduced to wants and appetites heteronomously serviceable by an external market: the very structure and laws of the market tend to militate against self-sufficiency and autonomy, thus against the freedom, independence, and self-confidence indispensable for ethics and morality. As Marx already noted, modern economy tends to create dependency on passive acquisition of not just goods but also criteria and value-priorities from the market and advertising: again, a condition militating against intuitive and autonomous intelligence. Capitalism holds sway over the political and cultural domain by a punitive dispensation or denial of economic largess to discourage contrary or independent value-perspectives, that is ideological coercion, to the extent of harassment, blacklisting, surveillance, and even imprisonment.

There is a modal bias in (materialistic) values such that they fix solely on proprietary goods which are exclusivist, divisive, competitive, socially and legally a matter of finite self-interest. As with Christianity, capitalism tends to reduce the imperative of obligation modally to prudential motivation (a derogation of ideals per se, in behalf of the presumptive ultimacy of self-interest). In whatever degree of organization, capitalism remains an authoritarianism; in its functioning it feeds a plutocratic order in which power and privilege devolve upon individuals irrespective of their merits — if anything, that aggrandizement tends to select for the least scrupulous, confirming suspicions that conscience and humane values are more likely to be liabilities than assets in the myopic view of business-culture.

(C) Science: Even individuals who long ago managed to wean themselves from the previous ideologies' tribal idols are liable to wince at the inclusion of science in this list. But in actual fact, science nowhere exists in the abstracted and idealized form in which it prefers to conceive of itself: like Christianity and capitalism its very plausibility rests on institutionalized hypocrisy, on a compulsory conflation of ideality and reality in the most self-flattering way possible. Like any ideology, science tends to become the captive of its own abstractions, dismissing as inessential or anecdotal any ideologically unprocessed evidence of corruption or other irrationality in its structure or ranks. Modern science, in spite of its professional or methodological finesse, is unmistakably a species of belief-system, a consensual community marked by groupthink and the customary ostracism of renegades and heretics. For most of its theorists and practitioners, highly specialized as their understanding is, the validity of work outside their immediate field is taken on faith; and certainly for the semi-educated lower-level technicians no less than for the masses of laymen, science is a form of fideism, the perpetuation of what is de facto irrational belief which demands uncomprehending, subjectively motivated capitulation. In the course of his famous Obedience to Authority experiments, psychologist Stanley Milgram made inadvertently a secondary point just as significant as his primary point about latent submissiveness — namely, that in our society science in fact has the practical value of being an authoritarianism: since the time of those experiments, indeed, science has become even more overtly an economic/academic power-broker, as a conduit for corporate and federal funds that have made major science departments into extensions of proprietary R&D divisions. Less than ever can science truly claim to be disinterested research; it has become an obviously establishmentarian enterprise, coopted by technology and economy to the point that pure theory like unexploitable research is withering. In virtually every era, science has promoted metaphysically biased perspectives such as determinism and probabilism: these are modes of explanation inimical to will, responsibility, self-discipline, and obligation — they advance an ideology of depersonalization. Science has always been marked by an extravertive methodology with a consequent inability to assess norms, ideas, and other a priori elements by any direct a priori analysis such as introspection or philosophy: science deals with its submerged a priori factors only as they are mediated through experimental procedures and results. The sciences of human behavior have systematically sought to discredit moral suasion as an ineffective form of appeal and encouragement, instead favoring processes of covert manipulation of others, disrespecting their conscious resources of self-determination. Although it professes value-neutrality, in fact science is more commonly colored by a positivist value-negativity, a presumption of the irreality of values and norms which, far from remaining agnostic or abstaining from judgment, takes up the determinate position of dismissing norms as nugatory subjectivism.

Likewise, science has generally maintained an overwhelmingly iconoclastic presumption against prescientific tradition. In its formal strictures of methodological self-discipline, science has professed a value-neutrality or amorality which leaves science strictly as such unable to account for the professional codes of ethics and institutional values claimed to be binding on scientists as humans, that is, real participants in their larger society. Science's very methodology and schemes of concepts have always favored some form of scalar and metaphysical reductionism (mechanistic determinism, chemico-physicalism, biologism, geneticism, etc.): by virtue of its superior intellectual rigor, that privileged domain of "hard-science" concepts is always presumed to be the explanatory principle of which the mundane human order is nothing but a phenomenal effect — all human seeming is thus discredited as a kind of veil of Maya, a naive folly. The abstractionism that in one form or another afflicts all human thinking — the fallacy of imagining that our intellectual constructs, aspectival as they are, somehow exhaust the significance of the reality they refer to — is particularly severe in science: by a notorious ceteris paribus clause, or by Ockham's economical Razor, scientists customarily discount everything beyond their immediate focus of interest; the specialization of intellect seems to exercise legislative powers over reality, including the reality of human beings and their behavior.

Behaviorism in particular but all the behavioral sciences thus tend to reduce human beings either to isolable individual motive-systems or to heteronomously conditioned functions of their social circumstances. In the naivete scientists generally have about their own objectivity — imagining that it requires no rigorous moral self-discipline or stringent self-understanding, imagining that it is simply available for the asking — they are most often oblivious to their own ethnocentrism: obtusely they impose particular values and motives as if these were universal and invariable. Science often presumes itself to be apolitical in the sense of being free of the contentiousness and controversy that afflict the humanities; but this is only a hypocritical affectation, rhetoric for public consumption — the sciences have their schisms and partisan bias like any human or cultural institution, all the more obviously in those disciplines whose object is human behavior and motivation. The facile, perfunctory kind of objectivity science has encapsulated in its corporate mythos — an abstractionist detachment without subjective or self-cultivational preconditions, an attitude that has passively died-away from human concerns, a hypothetically pristine transparency for lack of which one is a primitive or naif but which should be available on demand to any barbarian who wants to help himself to it — readily blinds scientists to their own biases and is thus the worst sort of impediment to human truth. By its very rationalist-intellectualist worldview, science licenses its proponents to indulge in a value-irrationalism: it claims to have a monopoly on rational objectivity, claims its methods are omni-competent and so probably extensible ultimately to any subject whatsoever. Science thus discredits at one swipe all competitive forms of knowledge and understanding, but most especially the value-laden lore and methods of the humanities, in whose precincts utterly different forms of objectivity are possible and necessary. The value-irrationalism (the amoral servility implicit in neutrality) to which science is exposed is indeed uncontrollable by scientific methods, and the atrocious and barbaric forces that have conscripted science in the past would find it no less unresisting today.

Within the viewpoint of dominant modal ideologies and the three convergent master-ideologies of CCS, it is presumptively individuals alone that decide the quality of morality and ethics. Patterns of decline, or of ideological concurrence of any sort, are unreflectingly dismissed as a priori inconceivable: only ephemeral and utterly accidental patterns will configure. Because only individuals have ultimate metaphysical status under this ideological regime, the dissonance or harmonics among them are presumed unable to capture anything essential. Our very sociality, like our historicity and our political/religious/cultural nature, is demoted by this ideology to incidental status, because we are conceived to be monadic individuals in essence who have by chance become socialized/acculturated, etc. The ideology itself militates against any ready recognition of its own influence or accountability for the erosion of authority, discipline, conscience, values, etc.; indeed such an ontological force as an ideology, under the terms of this atomistic ideology, could not conceivably exist, but neither could a language, culture, literature, etc.

Naive as it is to assume the perfect benevolence of one's ideology, it is no less so to characterize an ideology as wholly malevolent. Ideologies, like philosophies, generally rest on some exoteric bit of self-evidence, an abstracted common-sensical fundament. Like labyrinthine Moebius-strips ideologies modulate from the exoteric to the esoteric, from the indisputable to the indefensible, following a course of idiopathic or consonant interpretations and explications: in its own view, every ideology seems apolitical, internally controlled like the formation of a crystal. It naturally arrogates absolutist or monopolistic rights to itself as a belief-system: every ideology is a potential cult, or, under the right opportunities, a totalitarian structure — an exclusivist and a radically homogenized medium of thought, one in which perspectives have been reduced to zero-deviation, in which the structures of thought confront their adherents as utterly a fait accompli, with no need and no possibility for the individual initiative of thinking for oneself. This passivity itself will tend to atrophy the individualized aptitudes of critical and evaluative judgment, of conscience and athletically exercised will which make morality and ethics possible. The dependency-relations implicit in ideology, regardless of its content, retard both the concept and the practice of autonomy, of individuality as traditionally understood (that is, as concretely empowered with the arts of living and understanding).

To rationalism or intellectualism, it is inconceivable that a way of thinking can become too consistent; but this is just what an ideology accomplishes, a pathological coherence, the compulsory regulation of thinking and the purgation of dissonant implications or presuppositions. This largely unfelt compulsion is indeed a sign that some idea or idea-system has arrogated the powers of living thinking, that is, thinking has abdicated its ultimate adjudicative authority over itself. Every ideology attempts to legislate an abstractionist uniformity: but actually, subsurface or latent schisms remain, variorum-interpretations that have simply been unfree to express themselves. Typically, it is the "subjective" dimensions — of uninstitutionalized concepts, of unobjectified values, all tendencies that resist and challenge the ruling paradigm — that are thus repressed: indeed the difference between "subjectivity" and "objectivity" so-called may be little more than the historical relativity involved in what happens to have been incorporated into (or excluded from) the dominant perspectives.

Cogency is indeed as manipulable in modern circumstances as it was before Aristotle's codification of logical forms, if not moreso. The manipulation that was the work of freelance, naive sophists in antiquity is today institutionalized and scientized methodology, the pseudology of commercial campaigns and the science of persuasion and rhetoric. As Borges observed in his story "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," in modern society "... any symmetry with a semblance of order — dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism — was sufficient to entrance the minds of men." This is perhaps the dollar-value of nihilism, that under its culturally and ethically vacuous reign the fantastic may readily be made credible, the toxic desirable, the contemptible honorable. For even the most capricious or groundless kind of subjectivist content, properly promulgated and catechized, can pass for "objective" simply by force of its majoritarian emplacement, commercial advantage, or profundity of belief. Likewise, the most obvious and humanly inescapable considerations can be anathematized, deprived of their standing in court by the evidentiary rules of the established order: they have been prejudged as ideologically inane. In the case of the three master-ideologies of CCS, we may well observe the same subsurface equivocity, the viscous metamorphosis of value-orientations that pass for uniform under the abstract aegis of "Christian," "Capitalistic," or "Scientific." As Nietzsche's analysis let him to conclude, under schizoid modern optics, virtually any normative term — "democracy," "authority," "objectivity," "freedom," etc. — will mask an ambivalence of values, both authentic and specious, noble and base, healthy and corrupt. It is just those subjective disorientations — the alternate moral-normative fillings that animate those abstractions — that we need to fix and define: the mutating subtexts beneath the ostensibly stable ideologies are the coursing life of healthy or diseased spirit which is never perfectly subjugated under an ideological regimen. Virtues and vices mingle promiscuously behind the faces of our dominant belief-systems, and ideology is by definition of no use to the task of our discriminating intelligence and conscience in search of clarity.