John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright

The Desires of Individuals are My Highest Value

This post is related tangentially to the last.

A comment left here made the remark that in a “recent discussion I had with an atheist […] he was unable to posit a single non-religious point that was in any way positive, advantageous, or otherwise non-relativist. When I told him to go and die in whatever way seems best to him, he said that he would go kicking and screaming. Had I decided to respond, I would have said that I see no reason why in a relativist system one should do anything with any feeling at all.”

In reply, another commenter opined "You do things with feeling because you have feelings for those things. Eat because you're hungry, love because you love, work because you feel dissatisfied with idleness, or because you need money to eat, learn because you're curious, fight for justice because you're outraged, or because you have an eye for your own rights and safety.”

He continues: “I've never understood why this is so hard to get. You do what you want because it's what you want to do, that's what wants *are*. No, there's no materialist philosophy telling one what to want, ab nihilo. This is not a flaw."

This reply is inadequate. The first comment, in effect, is asking what warrant one has for taking one’s mere feelings and appetites as a given, and the second comment, in effect, is answering with wide-eyed simplicity that one must take one’s feelings and appetites as a given because nothing else is imaginable.

I can only assume man behind the second comment did not really understand the question, or that he means something other than what it sounds like me means. But if it is not a flaw that no materialist philosophy tells one what one should or should not want, this implies that philosophy ought not rank, order, judge, condemn, praise or blame any appetite or feeling. The mere fact that a given appetites exists at all is sufficient warrant and justification to act on it.

Because I do not believe anyone in his right mind could actually mean this, let me argue not with the man, but with the comment.

The comment means one should take one’s mere feelings and appetites as a given, as a standard beyond question, and beyond criticism.

Let me offer ten quick reasons why they most certainly cannot.

First, feelings and appetites have no forethought, and take no long-term consequences into account. When the gambler is deciding whether to bet the rent money on a promising pony, or a married man pondering whether to arrange an assignation with an available paramour, or a drunkard is thirsting for another drink even if it might kill him, or a soldier sees the terror of war and is tempted to flee to safer environs, or a schoolboy is tempted to fib and flatter a bullying professor, or a politician is tempted to spend the tax moneys meant to be a provision against a day of war for some momentary spectacle, parade or monument to amuse the multitude, or a starving farmer is tempted to consume his seedcorn despite that he will have no harvest in years to come, he only indulges his appetites and feelings at the expense of his prudence.

Second, feelings and appetites have no conscience. Not long ago in Scotland there was a surgeon who became known briefly for his willingness to amputate the legs of those few people who desired it for sexual reasons, either personal, or in order to make themselves attractive to that small clientele that found amputees sexually attractive. Only if the surgeon regarded the feelings and appetites of his patients as paramount over their best interest could he bring himself to perform these operations. More than merely prudence is offended here.

Third, and related to the last, feelings and appetites have no sense of decency, no shame, and no judgment. Feelings and appetites must be judged against a standard of what is wholesome, healthy, normal, and right. Obviously if you are a person afflicted with a perversion, sexual or otherwise, you know that frequently the strongest and most persistent feeling in your heart is the one least wholesome.

Arguments that favour abandoning norms of behaviour boil down to two: (1) a mere perverse denial that men can reason out (or learn from a sound authority) what is and is not perverse; or (2) a mere hellish desire to escape the condemning eye of the conscience.

Fourth, conflicts between mutually exclusive appetites cannot be resolved, unless reason stands as the arbiter. This is true both when two jarring appetites war in one man’s breast, and when two jarring appetites drive two men to conflict. Those of you with children know what squalls of tears erupt when the five-year-olds want to play two different games, or each use the same toy, or watch different TV shows. No parent can resolve even these simplest of conflicts without recourse to some sort of objective standard of arbitration, even simple standards such as “He had it first” or “He did his chores” or “It is his turn” or “Learn to share.”

Fifth, feelings and appetites have no sense of honour. If a man insults your wife, or spits on your flag, or tramples the cross of your Savior, your feelings might incline you either to be humble and accept the insult, or to smite the fellow: but honour will dictate when it is proper to yield to insult, and when it is proper to fight. Honour is simply not the same as a feeling of anger. It is a passion that motivates us to avenge an injury even when we are reluctant, or afraid, or for any other reason have no appetite for combat.

Sixth, feelings and appetites have no sense of virtue, no sense of moderation or temperance. When you ask yourself if your appetite is proportionate, the right amount and the right time for this appetite, you can either ask the appetite itself, or ask your sense of moderation and temperance. If you ask of your appetites for food, or sex, or dignities, power, position, money, fame, or ask of your feelings of spite and malice and self-righteousness, or ask of your feeling that you must win at any cost, or ask of your feeling that you cannot look at an issue that offends you with an objective eye, the answer you get from all those feelings is an overwhelming affirmative. All these feelings are zealous and ambitious and selfish. In economic terms, they are always in demand. They can never be finally sated. Don Juan can never have enough lovers; Baron Harkonnen can never have enough food; Edmund Dante cannot have enough vengeance; the Joker just wants to see the world burn. A disordered appetite always presents itself as if it is justified. It always FEELS right.

Seventh, feelings and appetites have no sense of justice. We always judge our emotions to be right, if we consult nothing but our emotions as judge of conduct. One might as well have a jury composed only of the fatuous and doting grandmothers of the accused.

Eighth, feelings and appetites have no patience, no sense of the limits of reality. To use a topical example: His Honor, President Clinton’s appetites no doubt told him that he could perform an unnatural sexual act on a young intern in the Oval Office. The appetite presumably did not offer to him the option of waiting until after a divorce, so that it would be lawful for him to wed and bed the young lady, and waiting until after his term of office was served, so that no shame would be brought upon his name, his party, his office, and his nation, and so that he was no longer a superior exploiting a subordinate. Had he been patient, served his term, divorced his wife, married the girl, and taken her to Niagara Falls, neither his conscience or the world would have noticed or condemned the act, and he would not have been tempted to perjure himself, or tempted to indulge the public’s eagerness to be deceived. Presumably, the limits of reality told him she was beyond his reach. Presumably his sexual appetite, masculine pride, and ambition of power, told him the opposite.

Ninth, feelings and appetites have no sense of logic. Merely because to have one’s cake and eat it too is not possible, does not make the mutually contrary feeling any less full of passion and force. We frequently suffer appetites and feelings for things that are not merely impractical, but logically not possible. The entire political program of socialism, in fact, is nothing but acting out appetites and feelings unrelated to economic reality: a desire for a free lunch. No one doubts the passion and zeal of these enemies of mankind. It is not because of a flaccidness of their appetite for bloodshed, or their greed for the unearned, or their devotion to dishonesty, that one condemns them.

Tenth, feelings and appetites have no sense of reality versus fantasy. I can recall, to use an embarrassing example, infatuations with characters from Japanese anime, or from novels, or role playing games. I have seen people deliver to actors or actresses gushing expressions of emotion which rightly should have been proffered to the character portrayed, and this character was entirely imaginary. We are well aware of irrational, illogical, or unrealistic fears, fears that have no grounding in fact at all, and fears are merely a species of appetite or feeling, an appetite to avoid. If we take seriously the idea that all feelings are a sufficient justification for themselves, this means that a child being afraid of a monster in the closet, or a Leftist panicking over global warming and preparing, like Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia, to sacrifice of modern industry to avert the disaster, is perfectly justified, even if the monster is imaginary.

A shallow man feels no need to justify his appetites and feelings. He does not reflect on them: they are merely a given. A profound man rules his appetites and feelings, and distinguishes between justified emotions and unjustified. He is a sceptic: he takes nothing for granted. If someone says “You do what you do, when you want to do it, because you want to do it” and he then wonders what is so hard to understand, he is pretending he does not understand what is obvious. Ironically, he asks why his infinitely shallow doctrine is too deep for us.

Prudence, conscience, decency, reason, honour, virtue, justice, patience, logic, and a respect for reality all militate against that unthinking self-indulgence that is the only standard the moral relativist can erect as the standard of action.

The moral relativist stupid enough to say that moral standards are relative to the culture one was raised in, or even relative to the culture one adopts, either must expel himself from the Western world, burning churches, flags, libraries, schools and courthouses, and every other institution, or must stand self-condemned, his actions proving his words a lie.

Our culture is absolutist, and condemn moral relativism in no uncertain terms. In religion, Christendom has always held God to be the arbiter of right. In Politics, Americans have always held certain truths to be self-evident. In mathematics and physics, the West has always held natural reality to be the final arbiter of disputes. In law, Anglo-American law has always held precedent and written statute to be objective and final.

I must also mention that all cultures are absolutist. Despite popular errors to the contrary, the cultures of the East shaped by the teachings, in the Far East, of Confucius and Buddha, and in the Near East, of Mohammed, are also based on absolute moral or legal principles or both. Buddha does not offer the Four Noble Suggestions and the Eightfold Yet Optional Path, nor does the Prophet recite the five pillars of Islam as being merely the Nonbinding Suggestions of Allah.

The only place moral relativism is found is in the counterculture, and then only used as a defensive manoeuvre in argument and debate: no one lives this way and no one thinks anyone can live this way. It is merely a rationalization, a way of silencing criticism, that is only applied to certain principles the relativist wants to break. All other principles he accepts, relies on, and defends.

Perhaps my experience is insufficient, but I have yet to meet someone calling himself a moral relativist who spoke and acted as if murder, rape, robbery, theft, fraud, insensitivity, discourtesy, political incorrectness, judgmentalism, fundamentalism, lynching blacks, shooting abortionists, beating homosexuals, discriminating against Jews and Irishmen, electrocuting murderers, spanking children, segregating the races, allowing gun-ownership among the hoi polloi, or voting for Sarah Palin were not evil and abhorrent under all imaginable circumstances, unconditionally and absolutely.

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