Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Moral Entropy

"Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night."
-Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night, Dylan Thomas

We sacrificed our gods, our community, even our families on the altar of rationality, and what have we earned through our devotion? A universe where we know so many reasons, yet have lost our meanings.

Over 200 years ago the philosopher David Hume noted that what is and what ought be have no obvious logical connection. In doing so he launched the pyre ship for Western Civilization. Although moral philosophers have attempted to mine ever deeper into the crevasses of human experience, veins of ethics are running dry all about us. This is the legitimization problem into which modern governments, and all mass-scale projects born of the age of reason, find themselves inexorably drawn.

The modern state pervades our life to an unprecedented level. We are surveilled, enculturated, and controlled through a multitude of wide-reaching governmental programs. Programs, such as public education, in which I hold heartfelt and deep respect, but programs without rational grounding. Rationality has cast down the universal morals, toppling them as axiomatic dogmas without grounding in the type of scientific evidence generally held to be necessary to claim a model holds impartial truth. In their place, we have enshrined common goals of public goals, seeking to anchor our failing ethic to telos, or goals/purposes.

The problem with this is twofold. Pragmatically, it is certainly open to argument how effective these programs are at their stated goals. With widespread dissent as to what the public good is, and how schools, welfare, market regulation, and government itself ought promote it, placing an ethic upon a notion of public goals seems to doom it to be a meager ethic. Small in scope, hard fought between different factions, an ethic of the nasty, brutish, and short sighted.

More fundamentally, one runs against the impenetrable bedrock of axiomatic assumption. Aside from our say so, what makes public good, good? To rephrase the question, if I want to be a misanthrope, why ought I not be? If I want to take my plastic grocery bags out an use them to asphyxiate horned owls, why ought I not, is it not, "[our] planet to kill"? (The quote comes from the comment thread on a blog post of my sister's)

This is another reason I have a deep distrust for large scale entities, be they governmental, economic, political, or activist. I do not believe we have sufficient normative energy, morality, left to fuel these endeavors harmoniously, perhaps we never did. If power corrupts, why do we continue to raise power structures that loom ever higher is our world like modern towers of Babel constructed from wealth, technology, and organization of people on unprecedented scales. At the same time our system of accountability crumbles to unlamented dust. If the divine right to rule spawned abuses, at least it provided a framework in which the ruler was to be held accountable. We are constructing a world where the rulers have no right to rule, only the naked fact that indeed they are ABLE to rule. A world where corporations are REQUIRED by law to circumvent laws if the expected cost of paying off the fine is less than that of coming into accordance with existing regulations. In short, a world where the systems of power are hardly held in check by a dysfunctional and dying morality.

I do not advocate a regression to the systems of morality which previously existed. Having heard the siren call of reason we can hardly stop up our ears and attempt to mandate a shared public morality through government religion, at least not if we wish to be taken seriously. The Pandora's box which we have opened contains too many blessings, medicine, technology, a glimpse at the terrifying beauty shining from a universe laid bare before the merciless manipulations of modern science, I do not believe that we could shut it, even if the majority could be convinced that it is necessary.

Rather, I urge us to turn toward the concrete, to the all encompassing web of human interrelations in which we find yourselves enmeshed. As I always have, I suggest that all notions of worldly value left for us to cling to in solidarity is the value of our fellow human flotsam in the maelstrom of modernity. Unfortunately, this moral too falls afoul of the axiomatic criterion. I can tell you why I believe shared humanity is important, why I feel it is the only thing of worth in the world, but I cannot logically derive why it should be important to you. Thus, in the end, all we are left is the moral darkness closing in around, an entropic demise of the ethical world long before the speculated mirror event in the physical realm. But if all is to be overcome by tides of chaos, is it not best that we go into the end, or whatever new beginning this may be, secure in the company of each other?

"Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

3 comments:

elfarmy17 said...

I love that poem. I first read it in Matched by Ally Condie. Different context than here, but marvelous all the same (I never say marvelous- hm.)

You've made a lot of good points here. I think large organizations identify themselves as a different type of entity than a person, which allows them to justify doing things as a company that they would never, ever do in their personal lives.

Kenny said...

Marvelous, absolutely MARvelous! I don't know why, but that is what the word "marvelous" reminds me of.

I'm glad you believe that I have a point here, and even more glad that it is good. I get worried when I veer from my appeals to logos into pathos, like I think I did in this post.

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