Sunday, September 13, 2009

Modern Philosophy as Sophistry

The Geography of Good and Evil: Philosophical Investigations, byAndreas Kinneging (ISI Books, 2009) is a terrific book. It is excellent prose: clear, precise and penetrating. And it is bold and unshackled by the stifling conventions of contemporary political correctness. It challenges modernity as a degeneration from the classical and Christian tradition. I previously posted on his chapter two, which deals the the "solid night" of the Enlightenment. It was called: "Kinneging on the Difference Between Liberalism and Conservatism.

In this post, I just want to note an interesting point Kinneging makes in chapter 5, where he discusses the basis for moral values in modernity. Kinneging distinguishes between moral values, aesthetic values and vital values and notes that the dominant view today is that the vital values are the highest and that the moral values drive from them. The most fundamental value, according to the dominant view today, is life itself and moral values are valuable because they serve vital values.

We see this is in evolutionary theory which posits the moral values as arising because of their utility in the struggle for survival, as for example, in a liberal like F. A. Hayek (cf. The Fatal Conceit, ch. 1). But as Kinneging says (p. 72), the classic formulation of this view is in Thomas Hobbes' Leviathian.

There Hobbes describes his chaotic state of nature, which is a war against all. Hobbes speaks of "natural laws" that man must obey in order to ensure his own survival. But these "natural laws" are not laws in the Aristotelian/Thomist sense of inhering in the nature of things quite apart from whether they are recognized may man, useful to man or even known by man. In modernity, they are simply techniques for survival. Kinneging writes:

"He must, for instance, honor contracts - be true to his word - because his
failure to do so would ultimately imperil peace in society. The result would be
man's descent into a state of war where his life is no longer secure. Man should
also show gratitude, because in gratitude eventually leads to a state of war,
where his own survival is also at stake. For the same reason - self-preservation
- every man should accommodate himself to society, show mercy, and not treat
anyone with contempt, among other things." (72)

Of course, any first year philosophy student can spot the gaping hole in this argument. It is that if the opportunity to act immorally comes up in such a way that one could get away with it and be reasonably sure of not getting caught, then there is no reason to act morally. Moreover, if one thinks one is strong enough to win the war against one's enemies, then there is no reason not to rob them blind and repel them by force if necessary. Hobbes assumes that people will be moral even when they do not perceive it to be in their best interests just because it is necessary that most people act this way most of the time in order for peace and security to exist in society, but Machiavelli most certainly does not.

Kinneging points out that Hobbes’ argument is not original with him; it is advanced by Glaucon at the beginning of Book II of Plato's The Republic. Glaucon argues that man would prefer to commit injustice if he could be assured of getting away with it, but Socrates argues that justice is to be preferred both in itself and for the good results that flow from it. For Glaucon, Hobbes, Machiaelli, Nietzsche, Hayek and much of modernity, man acts morally "purely and simply because to do otherwise would imperil his own like." Moral values derive from vital values; all morality is really self-preservation. Machiavelli and Nietzsche believe that certain men are exempt from the rules that govern most of us and that they should take advantage of the fact that society is based on moral rules to gain and exercise power by considering themselves above and beyond morality.

Kinneging points out that Socrates argued that "the highest value should be assigned not to life but to a just life" and that "it is better to suffer injustice than to do injustice." (73) Jesus Christ also teaches this message in the Sermon on the Mount: "He too preaches that we must always do what is morally right, irrespective of what others do to us, even if it costs us our lives." (73) In other words, moral values outrank vital values and must never be compromised even to save our own lives. And both Socrates and Christ died for the sake of justice.

I haven't got time in this short post to summarize how Kinneging defends the Greek-Christian traditon of the absoluteness of morality against ancient and modern sophistry. My point simply is to point out that modern philosophy is based on sophistic arguments and viewpoints, which have already been decisively refuted and transcended by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas. Modernity presents itself as progressive and as better because newer, but in truth it is neither progress or new. It represents a lapsing back into the aspects of pre-Christian paganism that were left behind by the progress of Western civilization.

Ed Feser's book, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, makes the same arguement in great detail. Both Kinneging and Feser view the Enlightenment as the fall of darkness on the West and both see the future hope as consisting in a return to the sources and a reinvigoration of the classical and Christian philosophical tradition.

Anyone who has spent time in the ethos of the modern university has felt the oppression of the spirit of sophistry. The focus is not on truth or logic, but on how to be persuasive, how to market consumer goods to people who do not need them and on how to manipulate public opinion in order to gain profit and power. This ethos is centered on the business and law schools, but it makes itself felt throughout the university, even in the arts faculty. In the science faculty, the emphasis is on "useful" knowledge; that is, knowledge that enables us to manipulate nature in such a way as to enable humans to satisfy their desires more easily.

Like the sophists of ancient Athens, modern universities pride themselves in teaching young people what they need to become rich and successful, powerful and famous. They pride themselves in being shallow, in being unconcerned for truth and in prostituting themselves to "customers" for cash.

The point is that to call modern philosophy "sophistical" is a grave insult and it is to reject it to the extent that the label applies. Kinneging gets the last word; he ends chapter 5 as follows:

"This analysis allows us to make a brief comment about the current
debate surrounding 'values.' One of the roots of this debate is the
feeling that moral values are no longer taken seriously (enough). . . The
sense that there is something wrong with this can, I think, be explained by teh
face that we, like Socrates, Christ and Kant, sense that this 'transvaluation of
all values' is in disharmony with the nature of things. Unlike Socrates,
Christ and Kant, however, we are unsure of how to put this into words. It
therefore behooves us to return to those sources. That is where we can
find the words to say what we mean." (76)

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