Values, Action and the Self: A Critical Reflection

David Cappella writes the first in a series on the intersection of “traditional values” and the variegated ethical contexts of today’s society.

“Metaphysics—in the sense of a search for theories which will get at real essence—tries to make sense of the claim that human beings are something more than centerless webs of beliefs and desires. The reason many people think such a claim essential to liberalism is that if men and women were, indeed, nothing more than sentential attitudes—nothing more than the presence or absence of dispositions toward the use of sentences phrased in some historically conditioned vocabulary—then not only human nature, but human solidarity, would begin to seem an eccentric and dubious idea.”

–Richard Rorty (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 1989)

In the above excerpt, the philosopher Richard Rorty places in stark terms the essential dilemma of ethical action in contemporary society—what is, or what could be, the basis for ethical decision making? And if there is no such basis, how can we justify even the most universalistic values such as human solidarity and dignity? Is it all mere language?

These weighty questions were taken up by the literary critic and popular writer, C. S. Lewis, in his perspicuous book, The Abolition of Man. In it, Lewis contrasts the ideal of humanity (or the human soul) conforming to reality to that of nature conforming to humanity’s desires. His argument is that, in the former case, the realization of objective values inherent to reality leads to the fulfillment of virtue, self-discipline, and knowledge (what he referred to in the Confucian sense as the Tao). Accordingly, in the latter case, if nature conforms to humanity’s desires then ultimately, because those desires originate in nature, this leads to a reversal wherein humanity conforms to nature (i.e., human nature).

In other words, Lewis argues that the solution to Rorty’s dilemma lies in finding an absolute, objective morality, as recognized and expounded in a variety of religious traditions.

As my co-blogger, Pearce Edwards, has aptly pointed out, this argument cuts to the heart of the “modernist” project, which came to a head in post-war optimism, such as Daniel Bell’s (The End of Ideology, 1960) claim that social knowledge and scientific objectivity meant the end of ideology and the passion of the ideologue—a view more recently reflected in Francis Fukuyama’s (1992), The End of History and The Last Man. Herbert Simon (Administrative Behavior, 1945), is heralded as leading the apotheosis of facts over values, or adapting appropriate means to established ends.

Historical experience has shown modernity’s grandiose promises to be untenable and misleading, and even susceptible to abuse by the corrupt and powerful. Much of the problem lies in the fallacy of attempting to derive an “ought” (ethical principle) from an “is” (descriptive observation). But this is only part of the more significant conundrum of justifying action in the context of freedom, a topic I’ve written on previously.

There are two factors that complicate human action in contemporary society because they are uncertain: unconscious desire and unintended consequences (See Anthony Giddens’ remarks on this in The Constitution of Society). As prominent psychologists have shown, including seminal writers such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, much of human behavior can be explained in terms of unconscious motivation, the inklings of which we can only hypothesize from our dreams and instinctual behavior. It is these unconscious impulses that Lewis fears will dominate as humanity continues to strive solely toward complete control over nature—indeed the rampant promotion of self-gratification and sexuality inherent to contemporary media is evidence of this.

Unintended consequences also limit conscious action: we mean to do good, but our actions lead to the opposite of what we intended. The ubiquitous nature of risk in contemporary society is characteristic of what Ulrich Beck has termed “second” modernity: this encompasses the simultaneous trends of globalization, individualization, the gender revolution, underemployment, as well as global risks (World Risk Society, 1999).

It is therefore within the complex and malleable bounds of unconscious desire and unintended consequences that we attempt to influence the world through willful and purposive conscious action. But the questions remains, upon what basis ought we to act? What values should order our priorities? Here I must take issue with Lewis. As much as I believe he has clearly articulated the problem of contemporary society, I do not believe he has found the solution. Lewis is far too quick to abandon the reasonable practice of vetting ideas and testing values through scientific criteria; in other words, testing the consequences of action and using such to inform future judgments.

As philosopher John Dewey notes: “Failure to give constant attention to development of the intellectual content of experiences and to obtain ever-increasing organization of facts and ideas may in the end merely strengthen the tendency toward a reactionary return to intellectual and moral authoritarianism” (Experience and Education, 1938). Accordingly, Dewey claims these experiential consequences are evaluated qualitatively (what William James termed the “pragmatic test”), in other words, was the action useful? But, again, one can imagine Lewis’ reply: what is deemed “useful” is ultimately susceptible to human desire, which is in term tainted by nature (i.e., unconscious desire).

In my own reflections and pondering on this question, I frequently find that a framework of human needs, or exigencies, seems to be the best fit. That is, our actions are justified in terms of meeting intrinsic human needs appropriate to the situation. The psychologist Abraham Maslow has written on this topic (e.g., Toward a Psychology of Being, 1962), where he expounds on a needs hierarchy of physical needs, safety, belongingness, esteem, and self-actualization and how individuals move from being motivated by deficiency toward being motivated by growth. This view—which places more emphasis on personality, individual purpose, and creativity—moves ethical action from being justified solely on consequentialist grounds towards the more nebulous area of virtue ethics (i.e., Aristotle).

In other words, defining “the good” in terms of fostering virtues or character conducive to human needs. I find this solution to the ethical conundrum satisfying on two grounds. First, it allows for difference; everyone has their own perspective and way of making sense of the world, this is what makes interacting with others so fascinating. Second, it allows for the development of a more fully integrated person, self-aware, and at peace with her or himself. Lewis would characterize this as the appropriate integration of the “cerebral” over the “visceral” man through the “chest” or the “seat of magnanimity.” I would more simply characterize it as the appropriate recognition of the intimate connection between the physical (empirically observed) world, the physical body, the mind (brain and feelings), intellect, and soul. This more complete self-understanding is an antecedent of love for others and ultimately love of God (if one believes in such a being).

Though we have now traversed back to metaphysics, perhaps I have at least indicated how questions of ethical action inevitably are traced back to these contentious areas of thought. As long as we remain critical of action—and aware of explicit and implicit justifications—this sort of conversation can be beneficial and, indeed, essential.

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