The Psuedo-Conscience of Modernity

Today I had breakfast at my favorite vegan cafe – I’m not vegan but the food is good – where I was confronted with anti-cruelty arguments in pamphlets for veganism. The moral certainty that attaches to such arguments is so alien to the secularity underneath them. The fact that hedonism is the real principle is obscured by the Puritanism of the histrionics stating the view. That such hedonism is morally dubious does not seem to enter the mind.

Further, a friend just reported that the American Philosophical Society has politicized their policies against schools that require traditional morals about marriage, life, and family, in the name of defending previously unheard of civil rights. Again, a new kind of Puritanism that is centered on the premise if hedonism seems behind it.

In our present day, it seems that we see a new Victorianism, where the authority of a public conscience has become sacrosanct. But this authority of conscience is absurd given the account that modernity gives us about conscience.

Both traditional and modern accounts agree that the formation of conscience is like the formation of a habit. It grows and develops according to reinforcement which comes through custom and training. However, the modern view argues that this is all there is to it and that the impression that we have that we are obliged to follow duties immediately recognized by intuitions is an illusion created by the reinforcement of what were originally merely hypothetical imperatives but which had become second nature to social custom before we were born into it. Consequently, we no longer are aware of their rationale but are still aware of their imperative force. So we construe it as a basic duty.

Be that as it may. It may well be true that intuited obligations were originally hypothetical imperatives. Still, the epistemological foundation of such an analysis – some version or another of the Verification Principle – is famously self defeating. If we grant that we know anything at all, then there may be most anything that could be a basic belief – including basic moral beliefs. These may even be hypothetical imperatives but ones the that realize an objective good or end to human nature whether individually or socially. These original intuitions would not just be customary. They would be constitutive of the proper functioning of human nature.

A way of trying to grasp what this original moral information wired into nature might be, one might seek to describe the way humans actually make moral judgments in the world. It’s here that the thesis of descriptive moral relativism is given – that different cultured hold different duties as valid than other cultures do. However, this picture is richer than is often presented. Fundamental moral codes and moral decision procedures have more in common across different cultures than first appears. The picture is consistent with a moderate moral objectivism that affirms that different codes aim to recognize objective moral truths from the perspective of their own concrete situations – and sometimes they make mistakes.

However, modernity, once it accepts that conscience is purely epiphenomenal to nature, goes about to rescript in totum according to one ideal theory or another, similar to the attempt to rewrite language into a more pure ideal or scientific form. Such extremity can only be a risky experiment. The result is, by it’s own lights, a radically altered conscience that has also lost sight of the experimental riskiness of it’s project and the cost of what might have been the natural basis of the moral life.

Besides this Cartesian-like radical replacement of our previous formal frameworks, there is the implication that conventional morality is neither necessary nor obligatory but neither is any alternative morality. The wedding of Nietzsche with Mill underneath the mask of the mechanism of conscience shows that modern morality is just a bid for power by the alert morality brokers over those who simply conform to conscience. But for all they know, the sheep may just be the beneficiaries of a kind of induced moral psychosis that both stands as moral truth for them and between them and moral truth.

But to those who bank on the possibility of moral truth will be sensitive to the history and demographics of traditions of moral thought and only change as necessary – rejecting Cartesian remove and replacement for the example of Nurath’s boat, fixing leaks by moving boards around whole staying at sea. Such an exploration of tradition will be for them a standpoint that will enable them to see through the power games of modern Victorianism. Rather than moral tradition representing a moral monstrosity, it may be the only cure for a generation where everyone is a moral monster.

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