Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | Things Fall Apart

The following is the second in a series of reflections on modern's society's rejection of absolute truth. For the first, click here.

The year is 1914. Europe is on a hair-trigger, a network of secret arrangements has managed to create a precarious balance of power between rival nations, and Germany is attempting to stave off the risk of running a two-front war with France and Russia. A Serbian terrorist by the name of Gavrilo Princip levels a pistol at the Austrian Archduke and fires two shots. Within a month, Russia, Serbia and Austria are at war. Germany, guided by its brutally pragmatic and aggressive theory of Realpolitik, decides to invade the neutral country of Belgium...

...five years later, Europe is a wreck, laid waste by the deadly combination of modern technology and a rejection of morality. Yeats pens the third line of his poem.

Things Fall Apart”

Rewind several hundred years. Remember Thomas Hobbes, that guy who argued that reality was simply matter in motion and that imagination was nothing more than "decaying sense"? Well, devoid of a concept of moral imagination and having relegated man to nothing more than a sensing beast, Hobbes conceived of man's life as naturally “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” and in need of some absolute sovereign to impose order upon it.

A few decades later, John Locke, in his Essays Concerning Human Understanding, agreed with Hobbes' general theory of the imagination, but with a few modifications. For Locke, the imagination also contained the power to manipulate sense perceptions and refashion them as desired. A man with a conception of “gold” and “mountain” could easily put these ideas together to form the conception of a “gold mountain.” Armed with this "creative imagination," the sky was the limit. This was, after all, the height of the Scientific Revolution. The era had seen massive advances in technology as man examined the world around him, broke it apart, and put it back together in a myriad of ways.

Locke's theory of human nature didn't seem too bad either. He conceived of men as rational, decent chaps who were generally civil to each other. Being a part of a society that had been steeped with a concept of God, Locke also postulated certain divinely granted natural rights – life, liberty and property. Equipped with these natural rights, man could come together contractually to form a government that was truly "of the people." He no longer needed a monarch. The Age of Reason was picking up steam and, combined with the Scientific Revolution, man was about to hit his pinnacle, eliminate all obstacles, and join together in eternal bonds of fraternity.

But the euphoria couldn't last forever. In the 18th century, another radical empiricist named David Hume called Locke's bluff on several key points. If all of reality really was nothing more than matter and the laws of physics, and if the imagination was simply a way of breaking apart and putting together sense perceptions, then where did this concept of natural rights come from? Where were these immaterial "laws of nature and nature's god?" You can't see him, touch him, taste him, smell him, or feel him. So how could you know he exists?

In short, if man is a material being, locked in a material world, and if the only tools he has for navigating the world are his five senses, then how does he get to an immaterial God or, for that matter, any immaterial “natural right” or “moral truth”?

This critique was picked up by a group of philosophers known as "the Vienna Circle," who began meeting in Austrian coffeehouses during the years shortly before and after World War I. They embraced a doctrine known as logical positivism, which held, among other things, that knowledge of God was ultimately impossible. Their argument was:
  1. Every meaningful statement must be able to be traced back to sense perceptions.
  2. Statements about God cannot be traced back to sense perceptions.
  3. Therefore, statements about God are not meaningful.
The task, then, was to reduce ethics to something natural or material. Hume got the ball rolling by declaring that “only passions move the will.” That is, man has irrational desires for all sorts of things, he is going to do what he jolly well pleases to get those things, and any sort of appeal to morality he makes is simply an attempt to rationalize what he's already decided to do. Or, as the early 20th century American pragmatists argued, ethics is merely a sophisticated way of figuring out how to do what you already want to do.

Also in the early 20th century, the Germans started crafting their two-front battle plan in accordance with the philosophy of Realpolitik. The concept? Politics isn't about morality, it's about power struggles and advancing the interests of the nation in whatever way possible. The result? The most advanced technology, the most brutal warfare, the most death, and the most devastation that history had ever seen. Millions of lives rendered solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. 

And whither is morality?

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
 -Ludwig Wittgenstein

(Next week: The Centre Cannot Hold)

Posted by Nick Barden


  1. While I certainly agree that the increasingly materialist and humanist philosophies of the modern era have done substantial damage to our sense of morality, I think the three-way association between materialistic philosophies, /Realpolitik/, and warfare has been generally overstated (although it does certainly exist to some degree).

    I mean, go back just about 100 years before Hobbes, and you find that warfare is the norm, and peace is an abnormality. Today we think of "peace is normal, and is broken by war," but that's a new concept. Until very recently, war was the norm, punctuated by freakish moments of peace. It's often argued that warfare wasn't as harsh back then, but compare the casualties from the Somme with the casualties reported from Adrianople (378). They're approximately the same number of casualties, and the Goths at Adrianople didn't even have machine guns.

    Even societies with strong religious boundaries and understandings of established religious order and human rights, etc, typically operate along /Realpolitik/ lines. Take, for example, the entire history of the Goths inside the Roman Empire (they were Christians, incidentally--) or the freedom,democracy,&rights-saturated Athenian Empire. Or, to name a few others (some Christian, some not, but all with a very structured ethic system based on religion) we have Rome, Sassanid Persia, the Ottoman Empire, the Carolingian Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Mali Empire, the Spanish Empire, the Han, the various Mongol states, et cetera.

    You may also want to differentiate a bit more clearly between "ethics" and "morality". They're not the same thing (although you philosophers apparently like to pretend that they are.)

    Again, though, I should emphasize that I'm not so much disagreeing with your interpretation of the history as suggesting that it may be *potentially* misleading without a broader perspective.

    ...and here's to hoping my entire post makes sense.

  2. Thanks Andrew.

    It's true that there has been war throughout history, and it's also true that war was often calculated to serve the interests of the state. But I believe there's something different with Realpolitik. Previously, when countries went to war, they tried to reconcile their actions with some sort of objective moral standard. Rome believed in "fatum," thinking that she was ordained by the gods to expand her empire. The Crusades specifically invoked religion as a justification for war. Even the wars going on a century before Hobbes were based on intricate and complicated claims to legitimacy that purported to follow some sort of objective notion of justice. With Realpolitik, Germany saw no need to attempt to justify their decision ethically, and instead decided to run their plan on straight-up pragmatism. I think that's alarming, and is a symptom of a general decline of morality in the West overall.

    There were definitely also large slaughters prior to World War I. But the technology of the 20th century, with better artillery, machine guns, chemical weapons, and, later, nuclear weapons, was definitely capable of causing significantly more destruction than previously. When you look at World War I as a whole, more people lost their lives from 1914-1918 than any other 3-4 year period in the history of the world. Technology is a double-edged sword, the more technologically developed we become, especially with military technology, the more urgently we need leaders with a moral center.

    As for the distinction between ethics and morality, I'm not sure I want to open that topic. But I'm familiar with the distinction and I stand by my usage. :)