Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Part 2 of 7)

by | Sep 16, 2005 | POLITICS

Adapted from Chapter 1 of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle. Whereas religion holds that God creates truth and moral law, subjectivism holds that people do; it is the view that truth and morality are not objective, but “subjective”–not discovered by the human mind, but created […]

Adapted from Chapter 1 of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle.

Whereas religion holds that God creates truth and moral law, subjectivism holds that people do; it is the view that truth and morality are not objective, but “subjective”–not discovered by the human mind, but created by it. This creed comes in several varieties, two of which are: personal subjectivism and social subjectivism.

Personal subjectivism is the idea that truth and morality are creations of the mind of the individual–or matters of personal opinion. Social subjectivism is the notion that truth and morality are creations of the mind of a collective (a group of people)–or matters of social convention. Personal subjectivism has been around for thousands of years; its father was Protagoras of ancient Greece.[13] Social subjectivism was born in the late eighteenth century; its father was the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.[14]

These two versions of subjectivism have been accepted over the years in varying degrees and with numerous twists. What is important for our present purpose is that, in some form or another, the notion that people create (rather than discover) truth and morality has been prevalent among intellectuals for almost a century. As sociologist Michael Schudson notes: “From the 1920s on, the idea that human beings individually and collectively construct the reality they deal with has held a central position in social thought.”[15] And the dominant views on morality have been shaped accordingly. Let us look first at the ethics of social subjectivism.

Social subjectivism holds that truth and morality are matters of social convention. As Stanford professor Richard Rorty puts it: “There’s no court of appeal higher than a democratic consensus.”[16] In other words: The will of the majority determines what’s true and what’s right.[17] Social subjectivism’s basic moral tenet is: Don’t place your self, your independent judgment, your personal values, your selfish concerns, above those of the group or the “common good.” Rather, you should subordinate your own thoughts and interests to the beliefs, needs, and desires of the “whole”–of which you are merely a “part.” On this view, being moral consists in pursuing not your own well-being and happiness, but the “greater” well-being and happiness of the group or collective. Your life is not an end in itself, but a means to the ends of society; thus, you should make personal sacrifices for society’s “greater good.” To do otherwise–to pursue your own selfish goals in disregard of the “collective will”–is to be immoral.

Note that the moral common denominator of religion and social subjectivism is altruism: the theory that being moral consists in self-sacrificially serving others. (Alter is Latin for other; “altruism” literally means “other-ism.”) According to altruism, self-sacrifice for the sake of others is the standard of morality. Thus, as philosophy professor Louis Pojman acknowledges, “complete altruism” means “total self-effacement for the sake of others.”[18] While the general theory does not specify which particular others you should sacrifice for, both religion and social subjectivism are quick to fill in the blank: Religion says the significant other is “God”; social subjectivism says it is “society.” Religion says you should sacrifice for the sake of the “holy”; social subjectivism says you should sacrifice for the sake of the “whole.”

In one form or another, altruism is the generally accepted and propagated morality today. By and large, people equate “doing the right thing” with “selflessly doing things for others.” Mother Teresa and Peace Corps types are regarded as paragons of virtue; selflessness is considered the mark of morality.

For a homey example of the ethics of social subjectivism, consider the widespread “volunteerism” or “community service” crusade. Presidents Clinton, Carter, Ford, Bush Sr., Bush Jr., General Colin Powell, Oprah Winfrey, Nancy Reagan, Alan Keyes, William F. Buckley, and so on–liberals, moderates, and conservatives alike–have all joined hands to advocate this so-called ideal. Why? What brings this unlikely crew together? The mutually accepted and unchallenged premise that people have a moral duty to serve others.

“Citizen service is the main way we recognize that we are responsible for one another,” says Clinton.[19] Bush Sr. trumpets “an ethic of community service” and rhapsodizes about solving “pressing human problems” by means of “a vast galaxy of people working voluntarily in their own backyards.”[20] Bush Jr. tells us that “Where there is suffering, there is duty” and that “Americans are generous and strong and decent, not because we believe in ourselves, but because we hold beliefs beyond ourselves”; thus, he asks us “to seek a common good beyond our comfort” and “to serve our nation” by “building communities of service.”[21]

Keyes, Buckley, and their ilk advocate mandatory service. Keyes claims that “citizenship in the end is about understanding that each and every individual must offer and must participate in the national life”; thus, he wants to establish a system in which “people are thrown together to live for a couple of years a common life of service.”[22] Extending the mandatory-service agenda to the realm of business, Buckley calls for “a national corporate commitment to public service,” acknowledging: “I sound like a goddamned socialist!”[23] Which brings us back to Clinton, who, applying the same idea to the realm of education, urges “every state to make service a part of the curriculum in high school or even in middle school,” adding: “There are many creative ways to do this–including giving students credit for service, incorporating service into course work, putting service on a student’s transcript, or even requiring service as a condition of graduation, as Maryland does.” (In 1993, Maryland became the first state in America to require community service as a condition of high school graduation. Since then, hundreds of school districts nationwide have followed suit.) Why? Because, says Clinton: “Every young American should be taught the joy and the duty of serving, and should learn it at the moment when it will have the most enduring impact on the rest of their lives.”[24] General Powell chimes in, admonishing young people: “Listen, you’re going to be a real citizen in this country; you have to serve; you have to do something in service to your community.” How? Powell tells them: “By tutoring younger children or working at a hospice or homeless center.”[25] And so forth.

But, one might ask, what about individual rights? What about the basic principle of America? How does mandatory service reconcile with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? And what about a child’s education? What about his future? Shouldn’t he be learning math, science, English, and history during school hours–not “volunteering” or being forced to serve the homeless?

Powell’s answer: “If you want to know what violated my rights, it was integral calculus, not community service.”[26] So, teaching a child math is a violation of his rights, but forcing him to empty a stranger’s bedpan is not? Surely the General is joking. As to the reason for his sarcasm, we will get to that later.

The point here is that the goal of the “community service” crusade is to spread the idea that in order to be “moral” one must be altruistic–one must selflessly serve others.

Given the self-sacrificial nature of altruism, it is not surprising that some people reject it altogether–in both its religious and its social forms. But the rejection of a negative is not the adoption of a positive. And in the absence of a rational replacement, the only alternative to altruism is the so-called “selfishness” of personal subjectivism.

This series of articles are adapted from Chapter 1 of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle.

Related Articles:

Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Part 3 of 7)


References:

[13] See Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, trans. Kathleen Freeman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 125; and Wilhelm Windelband, A History of Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), Vol. I, pp. 91–94.
[14] See Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1929), esp. pp. 22–25; Prolegomena, trans. Paul Carus (Chicago: Open Court, 1997), esp. pp. 79–84; and Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Mary Gregor (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), esp. pp. 40–41, 58–59.
[15] Michael Schudson, Discovering the News (New York: Basic Books, 1978), p. 6.
[16] Richard Rorty, “The Next Left,” interview by Scott Stossel, Atlantic Unbound, April 23, 1998.
[17] Cf. Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), esp. pp. 13–14, 21–22, 29; and Achieving our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), pp. 27–29, 34–35.
[18] Louis P. Pojman, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, 3rd ed. (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1999), p. 78.
[19] President Bill Clinton, radio address to the nation, April 5, 1997.
[20] President George Bush, quoted in Howard Radest, Community Service: Encounter with Strangers (Westport: Praeger, 1993), p. 8.
[21] President George W. Bush, inaugural address, January 20, 2001.
[22] Alan Keyes, Washington Journal, C-SPAN, January 19, 2000.
[23] William F. Buckley, quoted in Mother Jones, January/February, 1996.
[24] President Bill Clinton, radio addresses to the nation, April 5 and July 26, 1997, emphasis added.
[25] General Colin Powell, “Helping Hands,” interview by Elizabeth Farnsworth, Jim Lehrer News Hour, April 28, 1997.
[26] Ibid.

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Craig Biddle is the editor and publisher of The Objective Standard and the author of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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