Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Why Ideas and Values are Important Now

“The adaptations needed for living in a pluralistic global community without coercion or alienation or self-destruction will have to be cultural.”


We now live in a pluralistic global community that has access to or potential access to weapons of mass destruction. Ever since WW II there has been a concern that our technological advances may exceed the ability of our adaptive biological and cultural moral capacities to control that technology. In evolutionary theory, this possibility of humanity’s self destruction is called the “nuclear trap.” For more than 30 years the United States and the Soviet Union had military defense policies based on the threat of mutual assured destruction. Response times to a nuclear threat are measured in minutes. Coercive power thus reaches a level of absurdity in which it cannot be used without not only self-destruction, but the destruction of most of the foundations of life on earth. Today we are faced with more than the traditional conflicting super powers and ideologies. We also have a megalomaniac tyrant in North Korea who threatens the use of nuclear weapons, a sectarian Iranian government with an apocalyptic eschatology that both supports terrorism and is trying to develop nuclear weapons, and cults of radical Islamic terrorists who have the objective of destroying Western civilization. Probably the greatest issue of our times is the need to create a more stable world order.


"All men are created equal"
The adaptations needed for living in a pluralistic global community without coercion or alienation or self-destruction will have to be cultural. We have the historical cultural resources which transcend a narrow tribalism to include also universal values and affirm a respect for personal dignity and our common humanity. Yet in the current context of such atrocities as beheadings, burning or drowning of men in cages, the abduction of young girls into sexual slavery, ethnic cleansing, the genocide of minority groups in the Middle East, and a resurgence of autocratic governments, we are failing to adequately defend and promote those values in what is very much a battle of ideas. There are several cultural trends which have contributed to this failure:
  1. Legal Positivism. Legal positivism, for example, has been the prevailing legal philosophy in our law schools for several decades. It is the position of legal positivism that there are no universal laws or for that matter any universal morality. Legal positivism contends that from a historical and global perspective, laws and morality are only relative. There are no universal values such as human rights. Legal positivism is thus disarmed in the current battle of ideas. If everything is relative, then there is no foundation for criticizing or opposing the atrocities of the 20th Century or today. Most of our leaders have been trained in law school. Legal positivism, however, is only descriptive and not prescriptive. I am a physician and from a physician’s perspective, medical ethics are based on a respect for personal dignity and our common humanity. If there is to be generational survival and well-being, then there is the need for moral constraint. In this context the natural law perspectives in political philosophy and jurisprudence, whether they be secular as in Roman Law which was based on reason, or religious as in Judeo-Christian history, can be seen as an adaptation to reality. There is huge advantage to cooperation. It is what has made humanity successful. Cooperation requires community. To live in a community requires some moral constraint.
  2. Capital Punishment. It is harder for the United States to be a leader in creating a more stable and less violent world order when we still choose to continue capital punishment executions and there is a viable option of a life sentence without parole.
  3. Abolishing the death penalty would be a step forward in helping us to both understand and to convey that equality, understood as a respect for personal dignity and our common humanity, is the primary moral concept of United States constitutional democracy.
  4. An academic culture of “blame America first” This is a residual from the 60’s and the protests against the Vietnam War which has persisted as a matter of affirmation in our universities. As just one example, I have given papers at many international conferences and I am embarrassed to say that the most anti-American presentations are given by American professors.
  5. An emphasis on diversity rather than what we share in common. Our common values have been undermined in part by a postmodern individualism in which, in the words of Woody Allen, “the artist creates his own moral universe.” What we share in common has also, however, been obscured by an emphasis on a politics of group identity and diversity. It also could have been pointed out in the discussions about American exceptionalism that from a historical point of view America was exceptional in that the free and equal individual became the basis of our communal solidarity rather than any particular type of nationalism based on ethnicity, language, or religion.
  6. An Orwellian political parsing and spin on language. As George Orwell observed, totalitarian regimes often distort and invert the truth by corrupting the meaning of words and language. For example, totalitarian communist regimes have, at least in theory, advocated equality as the common ownership of the means of production, but have actually denied political equality as well as the moral agency of other people. In academics there has also been a trend of deconstructing language such that one can say that an explanation depends upon “What the meaning of is, is.” President Obama couldn’t bring himself to even use the words “radical Islamic terrorism” even when ISIL describes itself as a fundamentalist Islamic group that uses terror. A major conflict in international affairs, however, has been between moderate Muslims and radical Muslims, with the radical Muslims being defined as those who are willing to commit atrocities based on religion, including the killing of moderate Muslims, as a means to their ends. The American public is capable of making this distinction and not to make this distinction in realistic terms attempts to ignore the problem of a radical Islamic ideology.
  7. Equality as the primary moral concept. There is a lack of understanding and thus difficulty in conveying that the primary moral concept of our government is equality, understood as a respect for personal dignity and our common humanity. The origins of the several moral concepts of equality in the Western legal tradition are also not appreciated.

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