Partial Perspectives

It is inspiriting without doubt to whizz in a motor-car round the earth, to feel Arabia as a whirl of sand or China as a flash of rice-fields. But Arabia is not a whirl of sand and China is not a flash of rice-fields.

-G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

The story is familiar enough. Some institution is accused of racism, sexism, or a lack of diversity and representation. An entire discussion is held based on how to potentially rectify this. The answer, historically, has been to covertly transform the targeted institution into a venue for rent seeking. Its original purpose becoming subsumed under a new telos of diversification.

That this process mostly occurs in white countries isn’t disputable. While a mono-causal explanation is unlikely, it is worth noting that there is a certain implicit assumption that underlies all contemporary western political life that helps explain how we have arrived at such an unprecedented state of affairs. This assumption is what allows accusations of “euro-centrism” to go largely unchallenged in academia or entertainment media, and it is why most Americans cannot even conceptually articulate why their homes should not be subjected to unending waves of mass immigration. It is an assumption that is nearly coterminous with liberalism, namely, that all moral and political decisions must be universal and objective in order to be rational.

This means that all morality and politics must be separated from questions of identity, which is intrinsically particular. In practical terms, it means that all action that does not fall under this criterion must be judged as unjustly discriminatory. Any alternative to liberalism must include a thorough conceptual rejection of this premise, the corollary being a return to seeing social identity as central to human life instead of an accident waiting to be overcome by utopian political projects.

We can understand the notion of a system of universal and objective ethics through the lens of impartiality. In everyday usage, impartiality means fairness or being free of a bias that would presumably cloud decision making. In sports, referees are valued for their impartiality; it isn’t difficult to understand that a game could not be conducted fairly unless someone were capable of judging outcomes without favoring one team over another. However, this analogy suggest more than just a defense of impartiality. After all, what if you aren’t a referee but a player? In this case, impartiality would not only fail to be a strength, it would be an actual weakness. Players are supposed to favor their teammates over their opponents, it’s what makes a good player. This suggests, at the very least, that impartiality can only be conditionally valued, yet its unconditional elevation to summum bonum is foundational to liberalism.

In the 20th century, the most popular American articulation of impartiality as ethical lodestar was from John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice, but the idea was brought to prominence during the Enlightenment by thinkers like Smith, Godwin, Mill, and Kant. Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, develops impartiality to such an extent that he inverts Christ’s commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves by recommending that we only love ourselves to the extent that our neighbor loves us. William Godwin, in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, employs a “lifeboat scenario” where a building is on fire, two people are trapped inside and you can only save one. One is Archbishop Fénelon, a man considered important to many people, and the other is your mother. Whom do you save? What does justice demand?

The idea, found repeated again throughout all of these thinkers’ writings, is that your personal attachments, which are properties of your personal identity, are irrational and therefore have no bearing upon questions such as these. Rawls takes this impersonal approach even more seriously with his “veil of ignorance,” which is a principle by which a just society is supposedly organized. Here, a person or group responsible for establishing the general rules or rights within a society cannot have any knowledge about the position they will, in fact, occupy within this world once they enter it. You wouldn’t, for instance, know whether you would be a male or female when deciding how men and women are to be treated, which would presumably lead you to make the most fair and just decisions. Justice, in this case, consists precisely in a total abstraction of identity.

These strands of thought serve as the philosophical justifications for our public and practical disputes even today. Why should western schools teach from a western perspective? Why should we favor our countrymen over immigrants? Why should western media seek to represent non-westerners? The assumption in all of these discussions is that white people, as liberals, have no perspective of their own, no point of view that contextualizes their experiences or prioritizes their ethical obligations. We are to make decisions without an identity, like an angelic being hovering over the world but not participating in its life. We owe everything to everybody all of the time and anything less is mere bigotry.

Contrast this with Cicero’s On Duty, a work given special prominence in Christendom before the advent of liberalism. Cicero goes so far as to say that honorable behavior entirely consists in the rightful discharging of the obligations that we have as members of families, marriages, friendships, and countries. An ethic without identity is simply incomprehensible. He questions those who would give freely and beyond their means to strangers at the expense of kin; men who do this are often not really interested in generosity but rather pride and exhibitionism. They want to be publicly acknowledged as good people (who does this remind you of?). Although he begins by acknowledging that all men are united in their humanity, meaning their ability to reason, he continues to further delineate an order of ethical obligation based on natural affection, which for the most part includes people united by race, nation, and language, and then even further specifies itself to our friends and our kin.

Most of this should strike you as congruent with the social and moral development of human beings. We learn to be human by living within families and within communities of related people, and we recognize the danger posed to development when people are deprived of these incubators of natural affection. Furthermore, the commonly observed hypocrisy of white liberals and the popular accusation of virtue signaling suggest an implicit understanding that emptying yourself of identity and perspective as a moral principle does not, in fact, make you morally superior but is often just a mask used to conceal a serious failure of maturity.

The motivation to create a purely abstract universal ethic was, in part, motivated by the desire of Enlightenment thinkers, popularly beginning with Descartes, to critically reevaluate all forms of human knowledge, including ethics and politics, in order that they might be created anew with the quantitative certainty of mathematics. It is time to recognize the failure of this project (and like MacIntyre admit that it cannot, even theoretically, succeed). We must embrace an ethics and politics that understands identity and the natural obligations entailed by it as essential to human happiness rather than unfortunate accidents that require absolute transcendence.

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