Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Footnotes to Nietzsche

Douglas Murray:

In the same way that massive intrusion into our online lives came not from ‘big brother’ but from our own desire to share the minutiae of our lives with the world, so the great intrusion into what we do with our bodies came not just through some top-down diktat but from a rising and generalised agreement about the most efficacious use of the public coffers. An opt-in health insurance system allows you to take whatever risks you are willing to pay for with your own body, whereas the NHS gives everybody an interest in everybody else’s body. And without strong ethical or moral guidance from any other source this rampant utilitarianism becomes the dominant ethic in the land. It does seem to have some idea of a life well lived: a non-smoking, non-drinking fitness fanatic who starts a family in their most productive years and has the decency to die at just the moment when they risk taking out more money than they have put in.

Brendan O'Neill:

The new feminism, this global franchise, this pop and political phenomenon, is not really a movement. Nor is it, as men’s rights complainers argue, a feministic conspiracy to do down men. Rather, it is but the keenest expression of the mainstream misanthropy and turn against Enlightenment thought of the modern West itself. The ‘male’ values being attacked are really the universal values of reason, autonomy, progress and truth — values that both men and women need, and deserve.

I've been watching the women's World Cup this month. I hadn't ever paid attention to women's football before, not because of my virulent misogyny, but because of prosaic time constraints. Good stuff. I'm enjoying it. Reporting my initial impressions to my inamorata, I said that it was nice to see the absence of dirty fouls as well as the general lack of belligerence and aggression. The men, by contrast, are constantly scrapping, shoving, mouthing off, squaring up, and generally acting the way you'd expect athletic young men to act toward each other in a highly competitive environment. "Testosterone poisoning, I'm telling you," she said. "Yeah, well, good luck selling that one politically," I replied.

From there, we went on to talk semi-seriously about how Huxley's dystopian vision of chemical coercion seems to be much more relevant today than Orwell's more conventional story of political totalitarianism, Nietzsche's idea of aristocratic vs. slave morality, psychological vs. physical cruelty, and the possibility that behavior modification rooted in utilitarian ethics might prove to be a defining issue of our century. What I mean is, take the idea of testosterone being the root of most of the serious problems in the world. I can envision this becoming more than just a fringe notion worthy of ridicule. I'm not predicting that a feminist vanguard is going to seize political power and forcibly neuter "problematic" males; I'm just saying that if anything is going to challenge the axioms of liberalism, it could likely be some form of utilitarian public safety issue, married to trendy fixations on biochemistry and neuroscience.

I've been lately thinking a lot about liberalism and its past and future alternatives, wondering how long this relatively stable, peaceful state of affairs (in this country, if not the wider world) will last before people get impatient and start fantasizing about a system without gridlock and diluted compromise, a system where we can finally achieve everything we can imagine, a system which will be little more than a narcissistic fantasy of unrestrained power, where everyone who matters shares your beliefs and goals, and anyone who doesn't has been marginalized or eliminated.

As evidenced by the post title, I find myself, while reading the above pieces, thinking about the death of God. With that famous phrase, Nietzsche of course was referring to a cultural center of gravity, what Yuval Harari calls an imagined order. As more people lost faith in Christianity, in a shared moral yardstick, what would become of their morals and values? What would come to fill the void? He feared the worst and was subsequently proved correct. But even now, with those paroxysms of violence passed, we still struggle to find values in common to anchor society.

I also find myself recalling Matthew Crawford's quoting of Tocqueville, where he observed that, barring a recognized source of moral authority, people will measure themselves against each other. "Normal" will be judged according to statistical aggregates. As Murray says, utilitarian consequentialism fills the void when a culture loses its sense of identity and purpose, and that itself is another form of uninspiring compromise.

But has there ever been a "shared moral yardstick" that was anything other than a cultural/political aristocracy capable of imposing its values on society? We shudder to think of doing that sort of thing anymore. Nietzsche would likely say that we still have a cultural/political aristocracy, just one that's been poisoned by its own self-loathing, wallowing in post-modern, post-colonial guilt. The big, transformative ideas that fired the imaginations of the intelligentsia in the past have turned to dust. But what new idea might come along to persuade them to dream again?

As Michael Lind said, the next great religion to seize hold of the cognoscenti won't present itself as a religion at all, in the same way that Marxism, Nazism and Freudianism all claimed to represent the cutting edge of science in their day. We look back scornfully, wondering how anyone could have seriously believed in any of those ideas. But how likely is it that we have finally outgrown all such delusions? What notions might our culture take for granted that will likewise appear ludicrous a century from now?

My provisional answer is, as I said, the promise of biochemical and genetic modification. Throughout the last few centuries since the Enlightenment, the dominant project has been to shape the system to best serve human needs. In the recent cases of Marxism and Nazism, this has obviously led to even greater suffering and destruction. Now, I think, the logic will turn toward shaping people to fit better within the system. A kinder, gentler form of eugenics, perhaps, one which isn't so much about an intrusive state forcing sterilization upon "unfit" members of society, but one which allows consumers more choice in selecting the behavioral traits they would like to emphasize or suppress through medication, or in genetically designing their offspring for maximum advantage. Perhaps, like Freudianism, this might be the kind of idea that appeals more to artists and thinkers than policymakers, but I could imagine it becoming a dominant theme of the cultural cognoscenti in the near future. And being a pessimistic sort, I could likewise imagine people a century hence looking back in bewilderment at our hubris, wondering how we could have ever believed that we had the wisdom and ability to reshape human nature to our specifications without incurring unintended consequences.