The valuelessness of our values

Over at Public Discourse, a two-part series on the influence of John Rawls’ political philosophy has just wrapped up, penned by Randall Smith.

A pertinent excerpt from part two:

When all comprehensive doctrines are bracketed out of political discourse, what is left tends to be scandalous, sensational, and empty. When interlocutors can no longer appeal to a shared conception of justice and shared notions of rational criteria of judgment, all that is left is power and suspicion. We suspect that our adversaries’ arguments didn’t come first, with the conclusions following from the reasonability of those arguments. Rather, it often seems that their conclusion came first and only later did they search for supporting arguments to buttress their position publicly. But if this is the case, then, as Nietzsche argued, what we call “arguments” are only masks for a person’s will to power.

. . . [B]y inculcating these suspicions and dispositions in young people, we have managed to raise a culture of media-savvy adults who specialize in seeing through the illusory and fictitious claims of their opponents, but who never take the time to examine their own. Since there is no way of securing rational agreement, the partisans of each side resort to self-assertive shrillness. And political discussions in the public realm have become increasingly shallow—something more akin to a children’s mud fight than the rational discourse America’s founders hoped would characterize the civic life of the American republic, or the “tolerant” discourse envisaged by Rawls. [my link]

The basal truth implicit in Smith’s argument is that of the priority of the rational good to my own will. There is a natural, ontological transcendence or priority of the end and the object of our souls’ desiring to our own being. This is the only ground for any “shared” or “common” rational criteria, for otherwise humankind is the measure of all truths and its final solution is violence.

Counterintuitively (to we who imbibe from our earliest years the milk of the modern dictatorship of relativism), the only basis for a truly fruitful, rich, diverse, and fulfilling social life is agreement about the most profound truths. This is because the diffusiveness of what is most of all good for human life is found in a unified source. Our political and social lives as practically unified and complete are inevitably rooted in an ontological claim.

Counterintuitively yet again, the search for this agreement and desire for achieving a deep conviction about the most profound truths is the only basis for meaningful tolerance. This is because the ethic of such a search when carried out simultaneously articulates the dignity of the human person, which dignity is founded upon the previous ontological claim about the universally diffusive source of goodness. Our political and social lives, open to legitimate disagreement and continuous patience towards neighbor, require an epistemological claim about human limits that nonetheless recognizes the objectivity of charity in truth.

Without both of these grounds, what we take to be our own values become valueless. The assertion of the self-imbuement of value to our values is a claim to idolatry; the defense of this assertion as the reciprocally possessed public right of the citizen is a facade for polytheism.

J. Pollock, "One: Number 31"
J. Pollock, “One: Number 31”
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