Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The First Premise

Based on the observation that the norms of human behavior were varied and contradictory, the Greek sophists argued that a true standard of justice did not exist above the dictates of individual will. Essential to this argument is the unstated premise that a sanctioned standard of justice must be universal, or applicable to all people. Once we grant this premise, consciously or not, we are left with a limited number of valid conclusions. In order to understand Plato’s reply to the sophists, and the subsequent development of Western ethics, it is vital to recognize that Plato granted the sophists the premise of universalism, the first premise of Western ethics, and that to this extent he himself was sophistic. The disagreement comes in his conclusion. The sensible world disturbed Plato. He certainly did not deny the lack of uniformity in human behavior. He saw fickleness, inconstancy, and change. He perceived a tendency in people to deceive themselves. He witnessed the execution of the very man that he himself admired above all others. Face to face with a logic that insisted the world was governed by conflicting self-interests and that Socrates was merely a loser in the contest, he reasoned that universal justice was not something of this world. It was an idea or form visible only to the eye of the mind. It was ideal, in the original sense of the word. Let us think this through. We establish that a standard of justice does exist and that it must be universal. We have observed the incoherent multiformity of existing human laws and conventions. What conclusions are left to us? Plato’s is obvious, at least in hindsight. We imagine another world where perfect forms reside, and we give to an enlightened few, called philosophers, the vision to see into this world. To what extent it is possible to imitate the forms in this imperfect world of ours is unclear in the writings of Plato, but the forms themselves are other-worldly. Is this the only conclusion open to us? No, we could deny the existence of a separate world and insist that perfection is discoverable in this world. We could study all existing manifestations of justice, for example, and piece together a perfect amalgamation from the best qualities we find in each. This is Aristotle’s method. Or, like Cicero, we could promote one particular manifestation in this world, in his case the constitution of Rome, that we believed was better than all the rest. We would be obliged to justify our own insights, however, and we might find ourselves flirting in the end with the other-worldly. If we consider the violent political disagreements of our own age, we can see that combinations of special divine insight and practical application are common. We can look back to the tradition of philosophical solutions as an explanation for our present state as a cultured species, but it is perhaps more instructive just to recognize the logical bottleneck that the premise of universalism presses us into. Attempts have also been made to define a universal standard of justice, or morality, using empirical justification. Self-evident, inalienable rights would fall under this category, but “self-evident” suggests an inexplicable insight again. Academic liberalism, perhaps the most powerful theoretical force in the Western world right now, is a rights-based system of universal ethics that cannot get past this appeal to self-evidency, even though it claims knowledge as its justifying scripture. All I need to say in response is that the evidence is invisible to me. Arguments ad hominem and ad populum follow, of course, but these do not make the theory itself sound. They only serve to defend it by humiliating and ostracizing anyone who dares to attack it where it’s vulnerable.

Let us look back again. Do we accept the premise that a real and legitimate standard of justice must be universal? If so, does the apparent lack of one in this world mean that such a thing doesn’t exist and that self-interest is the true universal? Nietzsche’s answer to that question was a powerful yes, but if our answer to it is no, then where do we look for it? Was Plato right to say that it is an idea, and do we take the next step and say that the idea is ideal and unrealizable? Is every conception of universal morality an unrealistic figment of our creative imagination? If not, why are so many people involved in persuading and forcing others to adopt their own vision of it, or trying to eliminate, whether subtly or not, those whom they cannot convert? We can see when universalism entered the consciousness of the West. We can see its logical consequence. We can see the struggles that have taken place and continue to take place over the problem of definition that it produces. What if we were to say no to that first question? I almost suspect that we would rather continue to say yes to it, even if our very affirmation were a pied piper leading our species into inevitable extinction. We would rather perish than give up our most cherished premise.

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