There is so much here in Milbank’s essay one could comment on, but I want to focus specifically on the idea of the “more” spoken of in my last post in reference to the Grinch in the holiday Christmas classic most, if not all of us, are familiar with.
In the discussion of dignity and rights, Milbank writes:
“For some, this usage is little more than a superficial ornament to a more basic discourse of rights, and thus dignity should be, at best, a subject of rhetorical and not substantive consideration.”
What most people do not understand or seem to grasp is that without some objective referent, all the language we use to express and describe our thoughts regarding moral/ethical, considerations or degrees of such, using words like “better”, “best”, “greater”, “higher”, “improved” and all such words of abstract measurement are nothing more than these “superficial” ornaments and purely rhetorical. They are not substantive terms or descriptions and they cannot be without some objective referent. If all one is talking about is what those terms mean to them personally, then they have made themselves the measure of all things. The problem with the liberal secular idea is that it wants to use moral language but undercuts its very ability to be authoritative by telling us at the same time there is no objective referent to such language other than the power of the state. Thus, might makes right. It is literally the enshrinement, the establishment, the enthronement of the bully mentality, under the guise of a moral language that is purely for decoration, or we might say deodorant, something to cover up the smell of something rotten. The only reason we see it otherwise is because of a sentimental, nostalgic attachment to what the words use to capture: an actual good, the “more” of something beyond language, something our language and minds were trying to capture. Another reason is our pride. We can hardly see ourselves as bullies. We are the good guys, right? Thus, we name our actions and purposes “good” after the fact, realizing that what we were going to pursue, whatever it was, we were going to do regardless.
Now, to the above, all the secularist/materialist can offer in response is: Yes, true, but “you too”. You may call your use of moral language objective, you may reference God’s existence, but it is really just your personal, subjective, opinion, like mine, and oh, by-the-way, God doesn’t exist. In other words, all they can do is accuse the other of the same and beg the question. Otherwise, they basically agree with the above. They are left with the realization that their moral vision, at bottom, is: might makes right. Power is all. Everything reduces to power and power, after the fact, tells us what is “good” or “bad”. Nothing else. This is the mind-set of the bully. What is very telling is that the secularist/materialist can only respond “you too” but will rarely try to outright defend “might makes right” because it would mean telling us that if the South wins the Civil War, then they end up being “right” true, moral, and good and the same for the Nazis. Without the “more”, this is the dilemma one finds himself. Thus the weak, insipid, dodging, question-begging, logical fallacy of “you too” is all that is ever offered in defense.
The secular liberal western experiment has yet to address this fundamental problem. I believe the only reason it has “worked” this long is that it was able to operate under the cover of the more compelling Judeo-Christian narrative, which it was able to tap into for the content and context to its use of moral language. However, as it more and more tried to isolate that tradition and even undermine it, it undercut its own ability to then keep the gravitas, the weight, the history, and substance of that moral language, which was tied intrinsically to that narrative alone. The secular was entirely imagined and is wholly parasitic upon the Judeo-Christian narrative for any moral suasion and substance—for the “more” than the merely ornamental. Without it, it does reduce to a bully who operates out of a sensibility of pure power. There is no “more” to it other than power or the “store”, in this case representing not physical toys but only money and guns. The secular isn’t, ultimately, a narrative that can rise above the narrative of organized crime, even if the crime bosses show up in church every now and then. It wants to believe there is a “more” but it doesn’t have the philosophical or historical resources to provide for a “more” and, in fact, undermines the very idea of a “more”. Anytime a person tells us that murder or torture are simply subjective cultural taboos, codified into law, they are always, at the same time, telling us there is no “more” to it than that. The same is true when we are told that “facts” are true but values “only” opinions and neither true nor false. It is the perspective of the Grinch before his epiphany.
And then Milbank at one point writes:
“We have never abolished and could never abolish dignity as hierarchical status in favour of dignity as equal human worth based on right. To try to do so is instead to give more worth to the evermore worthless, as we see today. It remains a mystery to our media commentators and to many academics that Britain, since the 1950s, has become less deferential, yet more economically and socially unequal. They are unable to see the obvious – namely, that a collapse in deferential respect for the dignity of representative status and virtuous achievement necessarily results in increased inequality because axia will not tolerate a vacuum: where worth is no longer regarded, only money retains any value.”
There will always be deference in any society, culture, or grouping of people. The most so-called equalized societies are still deferential to some model or type of citizen, even if it’s the anti-citizen, the rebel, the criminal. There will always be a model, a type, an example, which is held up as that to which we should aspire. Shorn of a “more” however, what happens is the one thing left retaining value (money-or the desire for such) ends up providing the type, the model. We see the love affair between the lower and middle classes for the millionaires, for the Kardashians, for the athletes, for the Trumps, for the “winners” for any who can turn something into gold, regardless of what that “something” might be. Without a “more” however, this is exactly what we should expect to happen over time.
*The liberal secular left would agree with many aspects of what I note above, but they balk at the “more” being something transcendent or spiritual. They want there to be a “more” but they simply don’t have the philosophical resources to provide one. Now, I could be wrong. Perhaps the liberal secular left believes it can provide a “more” but if so, we certainly have yet to see it and such remains a fundamental problem for that worldview/narrative.
And then we come to Dawkins. The writer is supportive, a fan. And yet, even he can see the problems with Dawkins’ “either/or” simplistic view when it comes to anything outside his area of expertise. He writes:
“But where Dawkins has found criticism in recent years, even from his closest supporters and fans, is his insistence that human affairs can somehow be magically explained within the tight parameters of this dogmatic scientific approach: where logic and evidence are the only requirements of an argument. Human beings are incredibly complex, illogical, and emotional creatures, and therefore trying to understand their various cultures, wide range of behavioral patterns, desires, political allegiances, tribal prejudices and crisis of identity, through the prism of scientific understanding, by itself, is an idea built on foundations of sand.”
The writer is absolutely correct. However, the irony, what he probably missed, is that it also means that he and Dawkins are also “incredibly complex, illogical, and emotional creatures and therefore trying to understand their [his and Dawkins’] various cultures, wide range of behavioral patterns, desires, political allegiances, tribal prejudices and crisis of identity, through the prism of scientific understanding, by itself, is an idea built on foundations of sand.”
In other words, the above applies equally to atheists and agnostics as well. There is something else going on as to how and why any of us have come to inhabit the narratives we do and it can never be understood only through the “prism of scientific understanding”. Putting that aside, he still shows how Dawkins is trapped within a narrow, shallow, and simplistic view of the human condition and relations, once he ventures out of the empiricism of science. And this is exactly what we should expect given a narrative that refuses the “more” of existence and the human condition.
*None of the above is meant to suggest that the secular left is amoral, or anti-moral, or bad people or any other such nonsense. That would be a total and complete misreading of the above. I note this because of the perennial misunderstanding by atheists that if one asserts such a view lacks an ontological, objective referent for morality it means atheists are then immoral, bad people, or without empathy/sympathy. Such is an abject failure to understand what is being asserted.