Saturday, April 4, 2009

Axioms and Moral Fatalism

Does anyone find this just a few notches short of convincing? This is Secular Right's David Hume addressing the arguments over gay equality:

All I would add is that this is a sort of thing where reasoned arguments, that is, inferences from axioms, are probably overrated. The traditionalist and socially liberal voices in any sort of argument have to, by the nature of the beast, engage in structured debates which take as given axioms (e.g., the Bible, individual liberty) which result in a host of propositions. But this is ultimately just shadow-boxing, as an empirical matter social norms evolve over time through changes in the Zeitgeist which humans have a minimal comprehension of (probably because they are the Zeitgeist). Two generations ago traditionalists and social liberals would probably agree on their attitudes toward homosexuality, but not on the acceptability of women in the work place. Their premises, ostensibily derived from scripture and the Enlightenment, would be the same. But the terminal points which define the set of public policy and social positions which define the two camps would be very different. Also see Jim Manzi.
It may be true that, in the past, social liberals mimed traditionalist nostrums on gay rights (and much else), but I would trace this to the absence of consciousness-raising, which is to say the unchallenged status of traditionalist prejudice; and also, to some extent, to a failure of nerve among social liberals.

It does not trace to some fuzzy unfolding of any Zeitgeist, but to a concrete absence of pushing the arguments where they lead. The state of the Zeitgeist is, perhaps, the phenomenon under tension, not it is not causal in any important sense.

More troubling is the anti-intellectualism masquerading as fatalism. The claim is that we're powerless in the face of an unfavorable Zeitgeist, that there's simply nothing to be done about ongoing prejudice or injustice. We must sit patiently on the couch and wait for the Zeitgeist to catch up with our finer sensibilities. Why? Does the history of overcoming oppression and prejudice validate this claim?

To the contrary, moral arguments are not only possible but necessary, and chatter to the effect that everyone has axioms is trivially true but evasive. The point is, whose axioms are more defensible? Whose axioms produce better results? Whose axioms harmonize best with the rest of our expanding knowledge of how people are? Which axioms lead to the promotion of human happiness, fulfillment, and flourishing? Insofar as these are difficult questions, it is because they matter, and the current state of the Zeitgeist has something, but not everything, to say about them.

Justice comes to those who demand it. People waiting on the couch for the right Zeitgeist have their rewards too, I suppose.


Anonymous said...

I have yet to hear a cogent, logical argument why gay people should be discriminated against. All anti-gay-rights are just sophistry, and venom disguised as virtue.

No moral argument can be advanced to treat others badly because their personal preferences. Thus, there can be no "moral" arguments on the subject of gay rights.

Anonymous said...

As usual, here I am addressing prior failures in proofreading.

"All anti-gay-rights arguments are just sophistry, and venom disguised as virtue."

I say "personal preferences" when referring to gay people because the debate as to whether being gay is a decision, or is genetic, leaves me cold. Why would it possibly matter?