Saturday, September 27, 2008

Universals, Nominalism and the Enemy

In Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, the Making of the Modern Identity, as he enters his final conclusions, he can be said to have strolled through the history of Western philosophy as it applies to the idea or history of the self. Without describing why we have moved from one philosophical position to another, we can at least see that we have. It is also reasonable to say that each new philosophical position precedes popular opinion, and judicial opinions (not one of Taylor’s subjects) can, I believe, be subsumed under popular opinion.

We can see that ideas such as universal benevolence, universal justice, and the notion that progress can be achieved by rationally planned improvement came from the Enlightenment. Moving forward in time, Taylor writes, “We still instinctively reach for the old vocabularies, the ones we owe to Enlightenment and Romanticism.

“That is why the Victorians are so close to us. In some ways we naturally think ourselves to have evolved away from them, beyond them. This is particularly true when we consider whatever we believe to be the most characteristic beliefs or practices of modernity, and often note with satisfaction that we have taken these further than our forebears of the last century. Universal equality is more radically understood, as twentieth-century social reforms, anti-colonialism, and feminism all attest; democracy is more integrally applied. All this is true. But what is remarkable is that the basic moral and political standards by which we congratulate ourselves were themselves powerful in the last century. Even more strikingly, the very picture of history as moral progress, as a ‘going beyond’ our forebears, which underlies our own sense of superiority, is very much a Victorian idea.”

In these modern times, however, “eternal verities” have been largely abandoned, and at best given lip service. A good deal of the impetus for this abandonment grew out of the French period, Tony Judt wrote about in his Past Imperfect. Sartre and most of the other Existentialists were Nominalists – not in the medieval sense in which it was argued that abstract terms such as “benevolence,” justice,” and “truth” had no palpable existence, but in the sense that there are no universal values or standards at all – only opinions.

One can imagine Sartre and the others who survived Vichy wrestling with matters of guilt. If there was no universal truth then who is to say that the collaborators were guilty of anything? And if post-Vichy France does condemn the collaborators, it does so because it has been victorious, not because it has a better grasp of truth or justice than they do. For many, Existentialism would provide a rationalism for their guilt. Yes, they once held the opinion that Fascist Germany was on the right track, but now they hold a different opinion. There is no point in feeling guilty, for all opinions are equal.

One hears that sort of argument from many Leftists when they discuss Islamism. Who are we, to insist that we are right and the Islamists are wrong? The Islamists believe they are right; so how arrogant of us to insist that our “right” supersedes theirs.

I do believe in universal values and standards. On the other hand, I believe that Liberal Democracy is right when it refuses to accept any person or group as being the arbiter of such matters. This doesn’t prevent me from believing as I do. It also doesn’t prevent Leftists or Islamists from believing as they do. However, just as I am prevented from forcing my ideas on Islamists living in America; so are they prevented from forcing their ideas on me. Also, if they carry out their ideological mandate, i.e., that Allah has commanded them to kill infidels, then they have passed from the realm of opinion and entered the world of action. When they act out this command of Islamism, then we who hold contrary beliefs must act out our opposition. Perhaps our Liberal Democracy accepts a sort of Nominalism when it comes to opinions we are permitted to hold, but it is not Nominalistic when it comes to actions. Acts against individuals and institutions of our society must be condemned. Those who perform such acts must be opposed with whatever force is required to eliminate them as a threat.

We can have different opinions about universals. We can accept the idea that others are entitled to their own opinions about them. We can even accept a sort of Nominalism in our Liberal Democracies, but we cannot accept enemies killing our citizens or attempting to destroy our nations and societies.

Lawrence Helm

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