Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Values vs. Interests

Dinner with a friend occasionally allows one to plunge into the foundational philosophical issues, disregarding the day's din. In this case, it was the longstanding discussion between materialism and metaphysics -- although he protested that it was not. The crucible in which these views were tested was the basis for human conduct, social convention, law.

My friend held to the traditional, majoritarian view that humans respond to certain essential values that they develop or absorb from childhood on. In other words, we have a nonmaterial, psychological machine, so to speak, that processes certain thoughts and yields certain abstractions called ideas -- in this case they are ideas about what ought to be done.

The ancient Hebrews asked for a king anointed by God and the Romans claimed the Emperor was divine, hence ordained to rule.

Bossuet, court clergyman to Louis XIV, christianized the idea with his theory of the divine right of kings. This echoed Charlemagne's own ecclesiastical scholar court jester, Alcuin of York, who argued that "the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness."

Alcuin, I'd guess, would have seen his opinion confirmed in this summer's town halls.

It took 13 centuries for a very chastened Christianity, in the voices of Jacques Maritain and the postwar Christian Democratic parties of western Europe, to adopt democracy, under the motto vox populi, vox Dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God). Too late; that was two centuries after the seizure of the Bastille.

Not only has power traditionally been seen as flowing from godhead to crown and scepter, but also to all morals, laws, socially sanctioned customs and so forth. Or, among philosophers in a theist ocean, ideas spring from the psyche and its archetypes, whence spring philosophies, legal systems and the ordering of what Hegel called "civil society."

Karl Marx was not the first one to dethrone this idea, but he was among the most articulate of early, rationalist critics. In a view he summarized in the much-debated 1858 Preface to his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, he wrote:
In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.
These words, which essentially state that the struggle for survival is the basis for everything deemed holy and sacrosanct, or at least, legal and enshrined by custom, struck me like lightening when I belatedly first came across them, while working, oddity of oddities, for the U.S. Catholic bishops, several decades ago. Until then, I had been a modern Thomist.

I never came to embrace the mechanistic view of historical materialism as expressed by the Leninist parties, but I will freely admit that my more recent, post-Christian ethic of survival bears some debt to old Karli.

The fundamental human striving is to survive. As a friend undergoing cancer treatment reminded me recently, we live pretty much like the man who, having flung himself from the top of a tower of Notre Dame, thinks to himself as he falls, "I hope this lasts a while."

To my mind, having rejected the existence of a soul, the metaphysical or spiritual world, all of which puts the existence of any god into serious doubt, it no longer seems plausible that a reality other than the material actually exists.

We have material interests, sure. We canonize these interests in our customs, our laws, even our religions and philosophies. But we do not have values founded in any "higher," nonmaterial source, simply because such a source does not exist.
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