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Thoughts on the 20th Century, Moral Relativism and Paul Johnson

Bryan Caplan has some thought-provoking comments about Paul Johnson’s “Modern Times” – in my opinion, one of the greatest works of history by a historian of any era, let alone ours. Johnson, a devout Roman Catholic who has written about, and met, many of the leading figures of post WW2 history, including Churchill, is a writer never afraid to let you know his point of view. He enjoys overturning certain stock images of historical “heroes” and “villains”; he memorably defended the reputation of Calvin Coolidge, a much underestimated POTUS, and tries his best to be nice about Richard Nixon (I think he does not quite succeed), and reminds us of what a great old fellow was Konrad Adenauer. Johnson is also merciless towards Ghandi, whose reputation he trashes.

The great thing about the man – now in his 80s and still going strong as a writer – is capacity for narrative, for making history a story; he is stickler for dates. You really do get the “sweep of events” from Johnson, in much the same way you would from an Edward Gibbon, Hugh Trevor Roper or a TB Macaulay (whom he some ways resembles). (Here are more thoughts on Johnson in the same blog.)

Like Caplan, I am not entirely sure that moral relativism captures the full nature of what went wrong in terms of the 20th Century, although I think Johnson does capture quite a lot of the problem with that concept. For me, the ultimate disaster of that century was the idea of the omniscient State and of the associated idea that governments, run by all-knowing officials, could solve many of the real or supposed problems of the age. The 20th Century was not unique in witnessing the growth of government, but it was an age when government had, like never before, the technology at its disposal to be immensely powerful, probably more so than at any time since the Romans (and even the writ of Rome had its limits). We are still, alas, in the grip of that delusion that government can and should fix problems, although there is perhaps, hopefully, a bit more cynicism about it than say, during the late 1940s when the likes of Attlee were in Downing Street.

Johnson is right, however, to point out that in a world where there is no stated respect for the idea of impartial rules and law, no respect for reason and for the idea of objective truth – or at least that it is noble to pursue truth – that terrible consequences follow; every irrationality, might-is-right worldview, will fill the vacumn. However, unlike Johnson, I do not think that morality requires the anchor of belief in a Supreme Being, and he tends to make the mistake, like a lot of devoutly religious folk, of assuming that atheists, for example, cannot arrive at a moral code, which seems to rather overlook the role of people such as Aristotle, who had a huge impact on views about ethics, and from whom other religions have borrowed (think of the Thomist tradition in Catholic thought, for instance).

Stephen Hicks, in his book on post-modernism, comes to a similar conclusion in certain respects. Another gem of a book is Alain Finkielkraut’s gem, “The Undoing of Thought”.

The sleep of reason really does bring forth monsters.

23 comments to Thoughts on the 20th Century, Moral Relativism and Paul Johnson

  • Jayson Virissimo

    However, unlike Johnson, I don’t think that morality requires the anchor of belief in a Supreme Being, and he tends to make the mistake, like a lot of devoutly religious folk, of assuming that atheists, for example, cannot arrive at a moral code, which seems to rather overlook the role of people such as Aristotle, who had a huge impact on views about ethics, and from whom other religions have borrowed (think of the Thomist tradition in Catholic thought, for instance).

    I think it is fair to say that Aristotle’s ethics do not have theological foundations, but you make it sound as if Aristotle was an atheist. He was not.

  • Valerie

    I agree that atheists can be, and are, very moral people. The funny thing is that their “moral code” ends up sounding quite a bit like the Judeo-Christian one.

  • The funny thing is that their “moral code” ends up sounding quite a bit like the Judeo-Christian one.

    In that many moral theories are likely to reach the same conclusions even if just for utilitarian reasons, it is hardly surprising there is going to be some commonality once you get past the more weird social conventions masquerading as moral theories.

  • If you think that the moral-code of atheists tends towards a judeo-christian moral framework that might have a lot to do with your living in a Judeo-Christian country.

    Living in Japan I have found most Japanese with whom I have talked about such things to be atheists in a practical sense. If asked some may regard their ‘religion’ as a blend of (mutually incompatible) Shinto and Buddhist beliefs but most simply view their religious traditions as extensions their Japanese cultural heritage, and enjoy them for their aesthetic value and social ritual.

    Despite this Japanese values are not Judeo-Christian or western values.

    Nominally atheist China, is also far from atheist.

  • Correction… Last line should have read ‘Atheist China is also far from Judeo-Christian in its outlook’

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Valerie, not really. I mean, the idea of Original Sin, for instance, is destructive of morality, just as is the idea that Man is inherently good. If Man is sinful from the day he was born, how the heck can he be held accountable for something over which he has no control? This surely contradicts the idea of taking responsibility for one’s actions.

    Truth is, there is a lot in the Bible, or indeed religion generally, that is of questionable merit in moral terms. Of course, a lot of secular ideas have been incorporated into religion, as I pointed out in my post.

  • Religion did not come up with morality. It might have codified a flavour of it, but it is a conceit to say that morality or moral code was born of it.

  • norton

    Contemporary moral relativism is to a large extent a product of the horrors of the twentieth century. From what I gather a number of postmodernist philosophers claim that the concentration camp and the gulag were the inevitable outcomes of modernist ideological metanarratives with their notions of history as a linear progression and their claims of knowledge towards universal truths.

  • “Contemporary moral relativism is to a large extent a product of the horrors of the twentieth century.”

    No – if you do the reading you can trace the history of contemporary moral relativism through the pragmatism of Charles Sanders Pierce and William James all the way back to the discussions of epistemology in Kant and Hume.

  • RRS

    Let me submit (again?) for this erudite group:

    Are not “Morals” commonally recognized and accepted groupings of obligations (the “oughts” and “ought-nots” of living); thus placing (modern) ethics as the selection and effectuation of the means of meeting and performing obligations as well as of not evading them.

    [Older "Ethics" may have applied to earlier (often correctly) assumed commonality.]

    The factors that can make for commonality have incurred many and increasing forms of disruptions. Amongst many peoples, social orders, cultures, nations – “commonality is not as common as it once was…..”

    “Duty,” once a commonality of obligation in the time of the Scotish Enlightenment, is seldom evoked in Modern Times – at least after WW II, its last major evocation.

    With the huge movements of peoples, as well as internal mobilities within societies, it has become more difficult to establish durable commonalities out of ephemeral relationships with the constant disconnects of Modern Times.

    We seem now to be at a stage of comparative analysis, as much as one of relativism.

  • Paul Marks

    “Natural law is God’s law – but if God did not exist, natural law would be exactly the same”.

    Francisco Suarez – but a common place among Scholastics.

    It is not God’s WILL that makes something “good” – for example rape and murder would not be “good” just because God commanded them.

    That is an extreme Calvinist (indeed Islamic) point of view – one to be rejected with contempt.

  • Kim du Toit

    Every single book of Paul Johnson’s should be required reading (if not standard textbooks) in all high schools in the Western world. Add Barzun’s From Dawn To Decadence, and with just those few works, we could create generations of schoolchildren who would be completely impervious to PoMo moral relativism.

    Which is why the education- and political solons move heaven and earth to prevent young minds from being exposed to any of the above.

    My three (home-schooled) kids were required to read all of Johnson’s works, and when the kids fulminate against the modern State and its acolytes (a frequent occurrence), my wife and I just smile quietly to each other.

  • morpork

    Pearce has only inchoate, student union bar views of morality, religion or indeed even the atheism he so trendily wears, which is why he comes out with:

    “the idea of Original Sin, for instance, is destructive of morality.”

    Well, I think Thomas Aquinas might have a thing or two to say about that, but maybe they didn’t have a copy of Summa Theologica for Dummies in the student bar when you were there Johnathon?

    “Truth is, there is a lot in the Bible, or indeed religion generally, that is of questionable merit in moral terms….”

    Truth is, presumably there is also a lot which is not of questionable merit on your own moral terms (whatever sands they may be built on). Your point being?

    “…of assuming that atheists, for example, cannot arrive at a moral code, which seems to rather overlook the role of people such as Aristotle…”

    Jayson has already made the point that Aristotle was not an atheist. Maybe someone had nicked the copy of Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics for Dummies from the student union bar as well?

    Yes, Johnathon, there is no reason at all why atheists can’t come up with a moral code. What they can’t come up with is a reason why one moral code is better than another: why, for instance, Jesus’ 11th commandment, “love one another”, should be better than Lenin’s: “Who? Whom?”

  • Morpork: Obviously your own presumably religious moral code sees nothing wrong with discourtesy and plain rudeness. Why is disagreeing not enough? Why do you have to be an offensive boor about it? Do you think it’s conducive to a fruitful exchange of views? If this website were my property I’d want to throw you out on your ass after a comment like that. If you are invited into someone’s house do you talk like that as well?

  • “What they can’t come up with is a reason why one moral code is better than another…”

    Survival of individuals as individuals in society with others.

  • Richard Thomas

    What they can’t come up with is a reason why one moral code is better than another: why, for instance, Jesus’ 11th commandment, “love one another”, should be better than Lenin’s: “Who? Whom?”

    The fallacy is to assume that there need be such a reason why. The question is whether such a moral code is more fit to guide the actions of the interactions of individuals. Simply, less fit codes will tend to be displaced by more fit codes.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Paul Johnson may have a great sense of narrative, but he has a poor grasp of facts. According to his A History of the American People, the Columbia River flows through Nevada, and Confederate General Joe Johnston, the victor of First Manassas, was killed at Shiloh. (Albert Johnston was killed at Shiloh; Joe survived the war.)

    I counted literally dozens of comparably gross errors in that book.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Rich, yes, I heard that Johnson’s book on the US had some errors in it; there are probably a few other howlers. It happens.

    morpork, you challenge, in boorish fashion, my argument that a belief in Original Sin – the idea that one is born a fallen, depraved creature despite having not done anything apart from being born – is at odds with the idea that praise and blame make no sense when applied to a creature incapable of rational thought and action. Why does this idea get up your nose, exactly?

    I know that Aristotle was not an atheist, and if you read my original posting, you might have realised that I said no such thing. However, Aristotle quite clearly did ground ethics on rational, not supernatural, foundations. For some reason, this bothers people, who consider themselves incapable of wiping their arse in the morning without being told to do so by their imaginary friend in their heads.

    As to whether my atheism is “trendy”, I have no idea. It is not as if I ditched my previous Christian religion (I am a lapsed Anglican) on some sort of whim.

  • morpork, replies like that get you kicked from commenting here, but I will give you the reply you certainly do not deserve regadless.

    Yes, Johnathon, there is no reason at all why atheists can’t come up with a moral code. What they can’t come up with is a reason why one moral code is better than another: why, for instance, Jesus’ 11th commandment, “love one another”, should be better than Lenin’s: “Who? Whom?”

    By using reason to derive why one moral theory is better than another, that is how. Read things like The Ethics of Liberty or almost anything by Ayn Rand to see that process at work without reference to supernatural imaginary psychological constructs (in fact I do not agree entirely with the two authors in question but the notion there is no way to derive correct moral theories without saying “because God says so” at some point is facile and indicates you probably aren’t as well read as you think you are).

  • Paul Marks

    Morpork you write as if demanding an specific example.

    Very well I will give you one.

    The Bible presents what Joshua did as good – i.e. the invasion of lands and the killing of people (including women and children – who had done him and his people no harm) as good.

    This is wrong – it is WICKED, and if Joshua had a voice in his head saying “I am God and this is what you must do” that makes NO DIFFERENCE WHAT SO EVER.

    “That is just your subjective opinion” on the contrary it is the view that “whatever God wills is good because God wills it” that is subjective (in fact it is EVIL – such a “God” would really be the Devil). As Saint Thomas Aquinas would tell you – after all you cited him.

    Knowing what is right and and what is wrong is well within the grasp of human reason – and it is objective, not subjective.

    It is the fact (and it is a fact) that we sometimes fail to do right and avoid wrong that shows are flawed nature (the real meaning of “original sin”). It is not that we can not work out what is good and what is evil (someone who has never heard of the concept of God can do that) – it is the fact that we fail to live our lives in accordance to what we know to be right.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I see that a follow-up comment by this “Morpork” idiot got deleted by the editors, as it was nothing more than abuse.

    That got me wondering about the psychology of some (certainly not all) religious people. Whenever someone likes me points out, not particularly controversially, that ideas, or values, or whatever, can be and are sometimes grounded in rational enquiry of the facts of nature, rather than by some “Holy Book”, it sends such folk into a funk, perhaps born of panic. It is as if I have punched them in the face.

    A lot of people who are religious like to preach the virtue of humility, but I have noticed, in the case of the now-banned commenter here called “Gabriel”, for instance, how remarkably rude, arrogant and nasty they are when challenged to debate. (In fairness, it would help if some atheists such as Richard Dawkins could also learn a few manners).

  • tehag

    Stephen Hick’s Explaining Postmodernism is available for free at his web site, should one not wish to pay the author for his work.

  • Paul Marks

    Jay Thomas – what you say about Japan and China has got me thinking.

    I find Chinese and Japanese society (at least their politics – which is, being a political animal, what tends to interest me) very hard to follow. Yet I find South Korean politics (etc) easy to follow – no more difficult than I find British or American politcs.

    This can not be race – as the Koreans are as Asian as the Chinese or Japanese.

    Nor can it be the difference between democracy and dictatorship – as Japan is a demcracy.

    Is the reason I have less difficulty understanding Korean discussions of the role of government (and ethics generally) because a much higher percentage of Koreans are Christian?

    I do NOT think so (I find it very hard to accept such an explination) – but I can not think of another explination just now. Of course that does not mean there is no other explination – I have (most likely) just failed to think of it.

    Mike:

    Yes the choice of the Pramatists was the death blow to American intellectual life – at least in the mainstream universities (and in the institutions dominated by the people they turn out – such as the schools and the media).

    The choice of Pierce and William James (and Dewey and…) meant the rejection of both the “Common Sense” (“Scottish Philosophy”) of Noah Porter and James McCosh (that had been so central to America – and to American understanding) and a rejection of Aristotelianism as well.

    There are many differences between the Common Sense school and Artistotelianism – but there are common strands.

    Human beings exist – as reasoning agents capable of choice. There is an “I” – the self is not an “illusion”.

    Right and wrong (good and evil) exist – they are not arbitrary or subjective, and human beings can choose between them in their conduct.

    The world is a real place (it exists independently of our perception of it) and our choices have a real effect on other people – who exist (as reasoning agents) just as we do.

    All of this is upheld by such varried philosophers as Aristotle, Ralph Cudworth (17th century), Reid and the others in the 18th century, such thinkers as Porter and McCosh in the 19th century – and such varried 20th century thinkers as the Oxford Realists (Sir William David Ross – and especially Harold Prichard), the Catholic and non Catholic Aristotelians (in many countries) and YES the Objectives who follow Ayn Rand.

    And the basis of it is denied not only by the Pragmatists, but also by the Logical Positivitists (see Joad “A Critique of Logical Positivism”).

    And YES Mike – in the modern world the denial of the basis of morality and good sense goes back (in terms of influence) to David Hume.

    Whether Hume was really serious in his attack on the existence of agency (of the capacity for real choice – indeed of the existance of the reasoning self, the agent, the “I”) and of objective (not arbitrary) right and wrong (good and evil) and of the existance of objective world (which exists independently of our perception of it – and is inhabited by real human being, agents, who we can effect for good or ill by our actions) ………..

    I do not know whether David Hume was serious in his attacks or whether he was just trying to wake people up from their dogmatic slumber (what better way of doing that than to DENY THE OBVIOUS – in order to see how people would react). But the fact remains that many people down the centuries have been influenced by Hume (directly or indirectly) in parts or all of their thinking – and that this influence is pernicious.

    Many years ago I was made aware (in various ways) that a leading member of the libertarian movement was a follower of Hume (and NOT in the sense of Hume as jest maker – challenging people to wake up and be aware of the basis of their beliefs). I did not contradict him before others – I did not want to “make waves” over such “obscure matters”.

    I was wrong, I made a bad judgment – and I greatly regret it.

    He who bases his philosophy on David Hume (in the sense of taking him seriously – rather than interpreting him as someone who was just trying to wake people up) builds his house on sand. This is folly – grand folly, and a person who is guilty of such folly is very likely to show folly in other ways, for he is guilty of a fundemental (a strategic – not just a tactical) error of thought.

    As I have pointed out above – such a person shares the same philosophical foundation as the people who dominate the universities and the institutions controlled by the people turned out by those universities.

    There is a rejection of real human choice involved here – indeed of the very existance of humans as “beings” i.e. as agents.