We are (probably) all Modernists

I was asked recently to respond to an angsty college freshman who laid out a fairly textbook understanding of postmodern moral relativism:

People define values in their own ways…humans define good and evil…for those who disagree with the majority opinions of society, society is hell…If we want to define a massacre as morally okay, nothing is stopping us other than constructing a majority moral opinion to allow that.

The thing is, there’s a lot more to it than that. One of the first blows against this conception is Game Theory, specifically such ideas as the Tragedy of the Commons or Prisoner’s Dilemma – essentially, although, yes, everyone can assert their own values and their own moralities and pursue their own goals, there are mathematically and physically provable situations in which everyone benefits from cooperation, whereas everyone pursuing their selfish interests actually causes a total detriment to society. Laws and Moralities don’t just benefit the majority at the expense of the individual – they benefit the individual as well, by creating dependable, predictable surroundings. Morality and Law and Order may come at the expense of some liberties (e.g. taxation, legal restrictions) but they are necessary preconditions for other sorts of liberties: the liberty to travel the world, to read new books, to cultivate individual interests, for example, would not exist without moral and legal agreements about airline safety, about copyrights or university educations or infrastructural and logistics systems, of shared norms about the free flow of information and guarantees about freedom of inquiry and expression. There are strong reasons societies tend not to deem wanton massacres as “okay”: because all people benefit from living in societies where they aren’t okay.

This paradigm is struggling to be standardized at the global level (e.g. Universal Human Rights). However, a gadfly tends to get in the way: Moral Relativism. Who is the Human Rights-slinging West to tell other countries what they can or cannot do? Who gave Liberal Democracy – the ideology of the former oppressive colonizers – moral ascendancy over other ideologies like traditional religions? The problem is that this appeal to tradition and the rights of local societies is often a cover to perpetuate atrocities: if someone is truly Morally Relativist, they must be okay with slavery, with genital mutilation, with pedophilia, for these things are part and parcel of many traditional cultures and religions. However, to that extent that we oppose these things, we are not truly Morally Relativist (believing that all moral systems are equally valid) and we are not truly Postmodernist (believing in the hollowness of any broad claims to authority and believing in sovereignty of the individual to determine his or her own morality). To the extent that we oppose these things, we are at least partially Modernist – we believe in a broader morality, we believe in a certain shared sense of human rights, and we believe that securing these rights is a form of Human Progress.

We – most people reading this blog – believe in Modernism, in at least some sense. We believe that there are moral victories for mankind. We rejoice in a country throwing off the shackles of tyranny. We think that computers should be getting faster and cheaper. We believe that there should be more medical treatments available tomorrow than today. We rejoice in the liberation of enslaved girls. Why? Because we believe that we as a species can and must aspire for more.

But where do those ideas come from, and what does that future look like? That is to be hashed out in your comments and in future posts in this blog.

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