More on the Grinch’s “More” and also Dawkins

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.
This entry was posted in Dawkins, dignity, government, John Milbank, morality, rights. Bookmark the permalink.

104 Responses to More on the Grinch’s “More” and also Dawkins

  1. Burk says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    “For the relativist, there is no ethical test.”

    Ah, but there is. The ethical test is what is desired.

    If we desire to live in a criminal atmosphere where the strongest kill the weakest and eat them, that is the society we will have. It has certainly happened. If not, then not. What do you desire? Our capacity to look far ahead, beyond our momentary impulses and time-honored traditions, does not depend on having some fable of objective morality. Rather, it depends on being part of a thoughtful community that takes its long-term good seriously, and listens to its inner desires, which for most people, are for peace, flourishing, love, and the like.

    Or do you desire to live in a dog-eat-dog society, but out of deference to the traditions and scriptures you believe in, act like a decent person anyhow?

    Like

  2. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    I guess I should have made clear that we were closing this comment thread out for everyone. Anyway, I will respond and then you are free to follow up on your own blog.

    “For the relativist, there is no ethical test.”-Darrell

    “Ah, but there is. The ethical test is what is desired.”

    There can be no test when the answer is relative to the test taker and one he doesn’t presume to test others regarding. And if the test is simply what is desired, then ISIS and the Nazis, anyone, in fact, passes their own test. Unless we “ought” to desire some things over other things, there is no correct answer and thus no test really. A test presumes a correct answer.

    “If we desire to live in a criminal atmosphere where the strongest kill the weakest and eat them, that is the society we will have. It has certainly happened. If not, then not.”

    You miss the greater point. The question is: What “ought” we desire? The relativist can only reply, there are no universal “oughts” only personal ones and those are not “better” or more moral than the other person’s, they are simply different. Therefore a dispute is not about morality, but will and “desire” and therefore reduces to who has the power to enforce their will and desire or protect themselves from those who will and desire differently.

    “What do you desire? Our capacity to look far ahead, beyond our momentary impulses and time-honored traditions, does not depend on having some fable of objective morality. Rather, it depends on being part of a thoughtful community that takes its long-term good seriously, and listens to its inner desires, which for most people, are for peace, flourishing, love, and the like.”

    You just gave us what you clearly think are more than just private preferences, but things all people should strive for, like “long-term good”, “peace”, “love”, “and the like.” And that we should (an ought) “look ahead” and be “thoughtful”. You tell us these are not objective (which is question-begging, because whether they are or not is derivative of whether or not God exists), but then speak of them as “oughts”. And if they are not “oughts” then who are you to justify the use of violence in defending them? Putting those huge problems aside, ISIS and the Nazis would tell you this is exactly what they think they are (were) doing. Again, you miss the greater point. The relativist cannot tell them they are wrong, just that he would not maybe choose their values. He cannot say his are better or worse. Therefore a dispute reduces to power, not over which is the moral or “right” path to take because each is relative. Neither you nor Bernard has addressed this glaring philosophical and logical problem even once, in this entire conversation. You both have managed to digress to some other irrelevant point—“hey, look over there”.

    So, again, you miss the fundamental problem here amidst your normal question-begging rhetoric.

    Like

  3. Burk says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    “You just gave us what you clearly think are more than just private preferences, but things all people should strive for, like “long-term good”, “peace”, “love”, “and the like.” And that we should (an ought) “look ahead” and be “thoughtful”. You tell us these are not objective (which is question-begging, because whether they are or not is derivative of whether or not God exists), but then speak of them as “oughts”.”

    I was giving a statistical, empirical statement of what most people want. An objective take on the subjective landscape, as it were! And then on top of that, most people want a society in which these wide-spread values get operationally put into practice, which leads to democracy, etc.. when normal people have power. Do they have power? That is the question of Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Dragnet, etc.. a question of policing and politics, not of objective morals.

    There is no “ought” about it, only observations of what humans generally want to have happen. Thus my direct questions to you, about your desires. Don't they comport with this scheme? Are they not subjective?

    We go around and around because you are not listening. You define an ethical test as premised on an objective answer, and then wonder why we keep coming back to explain all this to you, all over again. That not only need there be no objective referent, there really is no such referent, and we wouldn't obey if there were. Your own subjective state and ethics stand as an example. It is great to have ideals and examples, of the Christian, Hippie, Islamic, and many other kinds, (none of which are the last word in morals, incidentally, and which we chose, rather than the reverse… ), but where do they come from? Us.

    Like

  4. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    I’m not sure what is hard to understand in regard to taking it up on your own blog (who is not listening here?), but please do. Please do not respond any further. Thank you.

    “I was giving a statistical, empirical statement of what most people want.”

    A very easy observation to make. All one need do is look around after 2000 years of Judeo-Christian influence at a deep cultural level, and tell us, “Gee, it seems most people believe such and such.” What most people “want” beyond surviving is drawn from the reigning narrative or the one in which they are brought up, and in every case has an objective referent. So your observation tells us nothing about the objectivity or relativity of morality.

    “…And then on top of that, most people want a society in which these wide-spread values get operationally put into practice, which leads to democracy…”

    What you describe above, just as Bernard did, could describe any group, whether the Lion’s Club or the mafia. Woefully unhelpful or trivial. Second, if those wide-spread values get “operationally” put into practice, they may lead to democracy or they may not, it depends upon what those values are. How is this missed?

    “…etc.. when normal people have power.”

    The relativist cannot tell us what is “normal”; he can only tell us what is normal relative to him. Your statement assumes a “normal” a standard, a bar, something objective. That is closed off to the relativist.

    “There is no “ought” about it, only observations of what humans generally want to have happen.”

    Whether there is or not (an “ought”) is the question disputed–so quit begging the question. Good grief. Second, what humans generally want to happen tells us nothing as to what “ought” to happen. The humans in the early 1800’s here in America “generally” wanted slavery to be legal. A significant amount of humans in the early 20th Century wanted war, and gave us two of them. Humans in our own time generally want their standard of living to remain the same, the environment be damned. You still don’t get the fundamental problem.

    “You define an ethical test as premised on an objective answer…”

    No, I defined it as having no correct answer if one is a relativist. For the relativist, there is no correct answer to the question is such and such good or evil. There is only the answer of what those terms mean relative to him. He can answer “yes” or “no” but he doesn’t expect the next person to answer the same, thus, there is no correct answer. A test that has no correct answer is not a test; it is simply a reflection of the will and desire of the person taking the test. The relativist would agree with me.

    To simply beg the question and claim that morals come from us is exactly what makes the relativist understand that disputes then over morality reduce to power, since neither can be said to be “better” or more moral than the other’s. You clearly do not understand what is being talked about as to objectivity and subjectivity. This conversation is not about whether morality is objective or subjective/relative. It is about the ramifications if it is one or the other. I am assuming the premises of the relativist and drawing logical conclusions. No one has shown where they are illogical or unwarranted. Instead, we get entirely irrelevant or trivial comments they are either question-begging or “you too” responses, although Bernard did finally admit there is a difference if we assume an objective referent as to the justification of the use of violence. So there was some progress. Clearly not enough. Wow.

    If you need to respond, please do on your own blog. Thank you and cheers.

    Like

Comments are closed.