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New Rousseauism, Post-Modernism, and Moral Primitives
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Epistemic status: speculative
When we think about the thinkers that have most informed today’s egalitarianism, we often think about Marx who introduced conflict theory — that the world is a zero-sum battle between the oppressor (capital) and oppressed (labor), and the alienation of the latter by the former that stems from that conflict.
That idea has gotten a lot of mileage, but a thinker that is perhaps more instrumental to understanding our time is Rousseau.
Here’s a radically simplified version of Rousseau’s argument:
We all have a pure self (“man is born free and everywhere is in chains”)
Our pure selves are tainted by society.
If we remove the tainting of society, then we can be happy and pure again.
This was in sharp contrast to the Christian ideas:
We have a corrupt self
Our corrupt selves are saved by Jesus
If we work to remove our sins of desire, we can be happy and pure.
They both agreed that there was an innate moral compass, but disagree as to the morality of that compass.
This disagreement has profound implications—Firstly that we now create our identity instead of it being given to us. Secondly, what makes us who we are is not our external circumstances, but our internal lives. Not who we are, but what we feel we are. This recent development, just within a few generations, has changed our sense for what constitutes a fulfilling life.
Carl Trueman, the author of Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self described this change well:
“As an example, consider my grandfather if he was young today. He was a working class man who left school at 14 and worked in a factory until the age of 65. He beat metal into shape for the car industry for over 50 years of his life, the kind of job that I would look on as being a bit of a drudge. But if I were to ask him if he found his work fulfilling, I think his response would be yes, it was fulfilling because it enabled him to put bread on the table and shoes on his children's feet. Yes, he’d say, I got a tremendous amount of satisfaction from my work, because it enabled me to provide for my family.
I suspect if you asked me that question, my instinctive response would be something like yeah, I get a real buzz out of teaching. It gives me a real buzz to explain an idea to a group of students and to see a few light bulbs going on. There's a great sense of psychological satisfaction that I get from performing in front of the class. That difference is the difference between economic man and psychological man, in a sense, it's a difference between all the other previous types of human beings, and the one that exists in the present. Notice, my grandfather was an outwardly directed person, his satisfaction comes from outward things. Whereas my sense of selfhood and identity comes from an inner feeling of psychological satisfaction.”
We’ve gone from economic to psychological man — we have ascended Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
You see this shift also in broader culture. You look at early car commercials, the gist of which is “buy this car and you’ll get from A to B faster”. At some point, they shift to “buy this car, and you will get the most beautiful woman imaginable”. Advertising becomes about the fulfillment of desire, not the fulfillment of utility. Every commercial you watch, every sitcom you watch, every movie you watch is an extended commercial for the idea that the meaning of human life is to be found in personal psychological satisfaction.
You see this stark change in how we used to view certain actions. How common do we hear things like: “I've been living a lie, and now that I've quit my job and pursued this hobby, or dumped my partner and taken up with this other person, and finally I am truly myself”. The idea is that our psychological feelings are who we truly are, we are not that which society has told us to be. Modern storytelling amplifies this: Often when someone leaves their partner for someone else, the focus is not on the person who's been left behind. The focus is on the heroic person, who's had the courage to be himself at last.
This idea — that we often celebrate people listening to their truth, no matter what consequences — was recently displayed in this absurd Atlantic piece where someone throws away their family in the name of self-actualization.
In the days when priests replaced therapists, you used to go to them to explain your suffering, and they would contextualize how your suffering fit into a broader context, how your feelings should change because they are a means to an end. Today, we encourage the health of the feelings to be the end, and external commitments as merely as means. When we don’t like the commitments, we can discard them.
How did this transition to New Rousseauism happen — this idea that we have pure selves, our pure selves our tainted by society, and if we remove the tainting of society, then we can be happy and pure again?
According to Trueman, there are four thinkers who set the scene and discredited Christianity enough that Rousseauism could take its place: Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.
What each of them does is essentially say that the external world doesn't really impose any moral authority upon you. What fills this gap, of course, is interiority.
Darwin says that human beings were descended from animals, there's nothing exceptional about us. This discredits the metaphysics of Christianity, the accuracy of its claims.
Nietszche comes in and says, there's no such thing as human nature, we're not to feel any kind of obligation to anything beyond ourselves as individuals. Therefore, identity all comes down to you, it all comes down to your will, it all comes down to your self creation, your body is a tool by which you can become you. This discredits the moral authority of Christianity, the external obligations its imposes. “God is dead, we have killed him”.
Marx comes in and says what we think of as human nature is really a product of the economic structure of the world in which we live, and that structure has to be overcome in order to move towards the liberation of the workers at the end of time. This is an alternative to Christianity, a Heaven on Earth.
Freud says that we are at our core sexual beings, that your sexual preferences express the real you. So sex then becomes not simply an activity, but becomes a fundamental part of who you are. Not a behavior as much as an identity. This also undercuts Christianity because….uh…..it just does.
I want to zoom out and talk about what I’ll call Moral Primitives: Simple underlying building blocks which combine together to create complex, emergent phenomena. You can think of Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud as each moral primitives when stacked on top of each other, paved the way for other primitives to emerge, like New Rousseauism.
It’s interesting to see how these primitives intersect with each other over time.
In the same way that tech entrepreneurs take tech primitives like the iPhone and GPS and create Uber, moral entrepreneurs take moral primitives and create new movements.
I’ll introduce a few new moral primitives and then give some examples that connect the dots:
One primitive is the knowledge principle which states that knowledge is subjective. Stephen Hicks in his book on Postmodernism traces the history of this idea starting with Kant, who asserted that people couldn't perceive reality outside of the mind. It was all subjective. To speak of truth as an external relationship between mind and reality is nonsense, Kant claimed.
Postmodernism is anti-realist in the sense that, according to post-modernism, it’s impossible to speak meaningfully about an independently existing reality. Having done this, postmodernism denies that reason or any other method is a means of acquiring objective knowledge of that reality. As a result, Postmodernism believes that all knowledge is socially constructed.
Consider this thought experiment: When you say that someone else has an “accent” you are "other-ing" them. There is no objective center from which to view other people as having an accent. Postmodernism, which takes the most extreme implications of the knowledge principle, tries to apply this reframing to every part of life, including knowledge.
Now combine the knowledge principle, that knowledge is subjective, with the power principle, that whoever controls power controls knowledge. You can think of post-modernism as both combining the knowledge principle and the power principle.
Now combine those two principles with what’s known as “critical theory”, which states that the world is (arbitrarily) segmented into oppressor/oppressed. Nearly every single disparity is due to oppression, and the explicit goal of critical theory is to liberate people from any oppression. You can probably see where this is going.
Also add “Standpoint epistemology”, the primitive stating that the oppressed group has moral authority over the oppressor group, since they understand the perspective of both the oppressor and the oppressed, whereas the oppressor only understands their vantage point. If data contradicts the experience, the experience is correct, not the data.
Before connecting all these dots, some quick historical context that explains how some of these primitives intersected: Critical theory emerged because communism wasn't taking place like it should have been. People were tricked into being too happy by capitalism to rise up and revolt, the logic went. Antonio Gramsci pointed out that the kind of institutions that produce culture are responsible for shaping consciousness. So critical theory became a way to try to understand how the correct place of analysis that Marx missed was not economics, but rather culture.
Unlike postmodernism, critical theory says that ideas might be true, but their truth creates problems in society. And so we have to now rethink them. Postmodernism says that all knowledge is socially constructed and tied up in language. So whoever has power, controls knowledge.
Critical theorists get a lot of flak, but their origins help garner sympathy: They were staring at Nazism in the face and saying "what led to this"? Traditional theories don't take values into account, so critical theory jumped in to bridge the gap.
Then it got bastardized in the US, where postmodernism and critical theory were shoehorned together in the sense that the the one thing that cannot be deconstructed, the one thing that's objectively real, is this oppressor versus oppressed paradigm, where there is a hierarchy of oppression and we must cede moral authority to it.
OK, let’s zoom back in and use these moral primitives to help us understand what’s happening and make some predictions on where things are going.
Another implication of Freud is that morality comes down to taste, nothing else. And so anything society doesn’t allow, might not be wrong, as much as it’s just your own aesthetic preferences. This logic would pave the way for LGTBQ acceptance in the future, and will lead to greater acceptance in the future for more and more groups.
Freud’s perception of sex is a radical departure from what preceded it. In Ancient Greece by contrast, there was lots of homosexual activity, but no Greek thought of himself as as gay (or straight). Sexual orientation just wasn’t an identity like it is today, where one can be gay, and never have had sex with anybody. Before Freud, sex was something you did. Post Freud, sex is something you are.
This explains the idea of, say, a “demisexual”: someone who only enjoys sex with someone they’re connected with. While this has been the norm for some time, the identity for it is new. There are hundreds of different variations of these terms and they’ll only continue to proliferate.
Greta Thunberg for X
In a Rousseauian world, children have increased moral authority — since they are the least tainted by society and thus the most pure. Pick any cause and just add a Greta like character. Combining this idea with the increased tolerance notion, anything that’s held back by an old taboo will eventually be eliminated as the old generations get replaced and the stigma wears off. You can see it now: “Just add Greta. It’s that simple.”
Abolishing the Nuclear Family
As an example, to take it back to Freud, it’s worth noting that while Freud believed sexual desires expressed your true self, he believed we should repress those desires, because the alternative is chaos. Then the Frankfort school folks applied Marxist critique to Freud by saying that, when he said sexual repression was necessary, he failed to realize that the civilization he's talking about is just a product of history. Freud was writing in the 1930s, and so they linked sexual repression with worshipping a fascist dictator — that the former trains them to look for a dominant father figure who rules them. So what’s needed is to shatter the bourgeois sexual codes that lead people to instill dictators, which in the 1930s were in ample supply.
They do this by saying we need to shatter the power of the social unit that has most responsibility for cultivating those repressive sexual codes in young people, the bourgeois nuclear family. This was also supported by the Marxists, who saw the family as a threat to the state.
Think of how many movies, even Disney movies, have been produced that present the family as oppressive, and children as being fundamentally damaged or made less authentic by the tyranny of the parents. Think of many of the big debates that go on in contemporary society about education, they're typically about the respective rights of parents, relative to the school or relative to the state.
New groups using critical theory to gain power
Critical Theory is not so much a method of inquiry as it is an array of semantic and rhetorical levers that can be pulled, as needed, to arrive at a desired conclusion or achieve one's goals. Right now, groups using critical theory are largely organized around race and gender, but there are other axes of discrimination that exist in the world, groups we don’t even conceive of today. Expect groups we don’t even conceive of today to gain “critical consciousness” and they realize the disparity compared to other groups and seek to remedy it. They’ll use knowledge principle, power principle, and critical theory to stake their claim.
These are just some examples of how moral primitives explain certain trends and what could happen as a result.