Post Modern, Post Moral?

“… In fact what is crucial is that in which the contending parties agree, namely that there are only two alternative modes of social life open to us, one in which the free and arbitrary choices of individuals are sovereign and one in which the bureaucracy is sovereign, precisely that it may limit the free and arbitrary choices of individuals. Given this deep cultural agreement, it is unsurprising that the politics of modern societies oscillate between a freedom which is nothing but a lack of regulation of individual behaviour and forms of collectivist control designed only to limit the anarchy of self-interest. The consequence of a victory by one side or the other are often of the highest immediate importance; but, as Solzhenitsyn has understood so well, both ways of life are intolerable in the long run.”

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (35)

MacIntyre’s famous critique of liberal morality came at least two decades after his abandonment of orthodox Marxism and roughly three years before his self-identification as a Thomist. His journey from Marx’s London to Saint Peter’s Rome took him through the ruins of modern morality. What he found were decrepit temples, still adorned with the traditional language of morality, but whose liturgical meanings were long since forgotten. In the place of priests, moral illiterates grasp at what remains, going through the same motions and mouthing the same words they half-remembered. The artifacts remain, but their life essence is gone. This, MacIntyre argues, is what contemporary moral discourse has been reduced to, a destruction wrought by the  “Enlightenment” in its (failed) attempt to rationalize morality. Kant’s failure to rationally justify morality and Kierkegaard’s failure to situate it within the freedom of choice leaves only emotive arguments; “this is good because I desire it.” Our postmodern world is also, therefore, post-moral.

As I wrote in a previous article, the contemporary world fails to understand the true nature of human freedom. This linguistic confusion carries over to moral confusion when the later is built solely around the idea of “free choice.” I do not wish to belabour the debate over whether this development is for good or ill, firstly because I have already made my stance rather obvious, but more importantly because whichever side one comes down on, the truth of MacIntyre’s analysis above should be apparent. The fact remains when individual consciousness is the supreme or only moral value under consideration, society itself cannot help but swing wildly between anarchic freedom and bureaucratic repression. The Left and Right of modern secular liberalism are merely two different conclusions to the same premised argument; they only switch which side they argue for depending on the issue. The Right is libertarian on gun control, economic exchange, and free speech while bureaucratic on homosexual unions, abortion, and free speech. The Left is libertarian on drug use, sex education, and free speech while bureaucratic on healthcare, college tuition, and free speech. Neither side can claim moral authority when the morality of both is predicated on the same, faulty, assumption.

Functionally this means that where fault lines between moral conclusions appear there can be no rapprochement. After all, there can be no discussion when “the good” is reducible to merely “that which is desirable to me.” The result is that our moral direction shifts with each set of votes cast, continuously going back and forth with the tide of opinion. This does not mean that some things are not worth fighting for, nor that we should abandon those causes which are “of the highest immediate importance,” but rather, we cannot continue to pursue them based upon a faulty moral guidance system. To continue as we are is “intolerable” and unworkable in the long term. 

Christians knew of a better way to do moral thinking: a way that guided civilization for roughly 1600 years before the advent of modernity. It’s time to return morality to its proper place within theology. Divorcing the good from the true (and for that matter, the beautiful) has brought devastation to our culture. Our age is one that is skeptical, if not outright hostile, to authority, but without the authority of transcendent moral truth there can be no moral progress as, after all, one cannot judge progress without knowing the destination. It is only in the restoration of virtue, guided by teleological knowledge, which can restore civilization to sanity. Once again, C.S. Lewis’ wisdom speaks to us;  “Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”



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