Moral Values and the Dissident Right

The way too many right-wingers approach the topic of moral values is mistaken.

In the context of morality, the word “value” is misleading. For there to be a “value,” you have to have someone who values something. It seems then that whether or not something is valuable depends on humans. Talking about “objective values” sounds paradoxical. Rather, a moral realist should be talking in terms of what is good and bad, what is right and wrong. These are more plausibly objective features of the world. For example, we can say that taking water into its roots is good for a tree, that gathering nuts for the winter is good for a squirrel, and so on. While one can argue that these things are projections of the mind onto reality, as Immanuel Kant once did, it cannot be successfully argued for. But the point is that the talk of values subtly begs the question against moral realism.

Yet, our moral discourse seems to revolve around values – what should we value? And how do we get more of it? How you answer these questions is what divides the various moral views on display in the public square. However, since talk of values lends itself to the view that morality can be boiled down to matters of personal preference – a view called emotivism – this creates a discourse that has no rational terminus. Every actor can only point to what someone else values and say “that’s crazy!” without giving much of an argument for their position or against their opponent’s.

The modern right – even the dissident right – is no exception to this. I have talked to many right-wingers who, when defending tradition, will appeal only to their arbitrary preference. I confess that whenever I come across this, I find myself taken aback. One of the Left’s main arguments against the Right is that it is entirely motivated by irrational feelings like nostalgia, narcissism, or even hatred. They don’t want to make society better. No, they only want to bring back the old ways because they like the old ways, and that’s that. The conservative or reactionary resists progress out of some arbitrary preference, and he’s willing to impose his will onto all of society through the barrel of a gun.

Now generally speaking, when the Left makes this kind of argument, they are merely begging the question. No liberal would stand being accused of favoring affirmative action simply because they found racial inequality to be “personally offensive.” Their position is motivated by their commitment to equality as an objective moral principle, and there are many arguments that intelligent liberals give for believing in this moral principle. They would claim that their subjective emotional reactions are the result of their moral principles, not the other way around. Yet for some reason, conservative or reactionary moral positions are somehow different. They are the result of subjective personal preference or prejudice. This is even though the Right has many intellectual heavyweights to call upon, like St. Thomas Aquinas, Edmund Burke, Roger Scruton, and Joseph Ratzinger, to name a few.

Yet many right-wingers do appeal to a personal preference for “the way things are” to defend their country’s old infrastructure from predatory capitalists or appeal to their heathen ancestry to justify their Odinism. I’ve even seen people deny the law of non-contradiction in the name of traditionalism. In doing so, they inadvertently occupy the frame of the enemy. The Leftist can justly say to such Right-wingers: “you are just imposing your arbitrary personal beliefs onto society! How irrational! How tyrannical!” But it is not as though these right-wingers are necessarily stupid or emotional, or that they don’t have other, better arguments for nationalism. Rather, I believe these right-wingers are ironically using the Enlightenment idea of reason as the basis of their argument.

The Enlightenment form of reason has no purpose outside of individual self-interest. “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions,” said David Hume. To Hume (and indeed, to all post-Enlightenment philosophers), there are no greater purposes. For this reason, he concluded that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to prefer the destruction of the world to the scratching of one’s finger or to choose one’s total ruin over causing the least of uneasiness of a stranger. This bizarre view followed from his belief that reason could not rationally determine what one should value, only what means one can use to acquire that valued thing. Thus, reason and passion could never oppose one another. This stands in stark contrast to classical forms of reason, which were aimed at learning the nature of things and their telos or purpose. To someone like Aristotle or St. Augustine, the purpose of the faculty of reason was to discover Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. They would have seen Hume and his successors as having corrupt minds.

The conclusion the Humean must take is that we live to pursue our self-interest, whatever that may be. Starting from this premise, it’s easy to see how one gets the modern economist’s understanding of rationality as being directed toward maximizing the satisfaction of whatever desires we happen to have. After all, David Hume and Adam Smith were both parts of the same Scottish Enlightenment tradition. Thus, when a right-winger decries the “rationalism” of modern neoliberalism and defends his home against globalism for “romantic” or “poetic” reasons, he adopts the same rational framework as their avowed enemy. It’s no wonder then that romanticism and romantic nationalism arose during the nineteenth century, during the height of capitalism.

It is also from this Humean inheritance that one sees the invention of moral values as something distinct from facts about the world – Hume’s famous “is-ought gap.” Reason can discover the “is,” passion determines the “ought,” and never the twain shall meet. The attempt – and failure – to bridge this gap has haunted ethicists to this day.

In modern discourses, post-Enlightenment ethics takes two distinct forms, which I will call the “managerial” and “subjectivist.” The first states that some value-neutral science – whether it be economics, evolutionary psychology, or something else – has discovered the mechanisms of the human person. After stating that all agents pursue their self-interest, science tells us exactly what our self-interest is. Reason follows accordingly, ruling out any action that does not follow the “science” as irrational and therefore unjustified. This is the morality of the technocratic elite.

Neoliberalism is a good example of this mindset. It says: according to economic science, all agents seek to maximize utility. So, any action that efficiently maximizes utility is rational, and any action that doesn’t is irrational. From these assumptions, game theory and all its attendant moral abominations follow. We see the poverty of this view on full display in this discussion between neoliberal economist Milton Friedman and a young socialist on the inheritance tax.

Note here that Friedman finds the actions of parents who invest in their children’s futures to be “curious” and “irrational.” His framework has no explanation for basic parental instinct. It doesn’t fit the economic model. But on the face of it, any worldview that sees the investment parents make in their children as irrational violates common sense. But this is to be expected from a worldview built on Humean assumptions, which often violate common sense.

If science cannot determine what we want, then all that’s left is our subjective opinions. This is “subjectivism,” the second of the two post-Enlightenment moral formulations. The subjectivist holds that all morality is simply the expression of personal preference, but, contra technocratic morality, views the desires of the masses as so diverse that no theory can lump them under terms like “economic utility” or “selfish genes.” Here, we see echoes of the influential sociologist Max Weber, whose views can be described as follows: “Questions of ends are questions of values, and on values reason is silent; conflict between rival values cannot be rationally settled. Instead, one must simply choose-between parties, classes, nations, causes, ideals… Values… are created by human decisions… and… each man’s conscience is irrefutable.” The only kind of morality possible under this view, if at all, commands us to create neutral institutions that can fulfill the desires of the masses and maintain the unity of peace. These moral assumptions lay at the heart of the anti-SJW/GamerGate worldview, which I critiqued in a previous video.

In either case, the problem with the Enlightenment mode of reason is that it is interested only in determining the means to an end, without reasoning about ends in themselves. To avoid making morality seem absurd, they must appeal to the passions, to self-interest. But the obsession with self-interest, however defined, subverts both the sciences and political order. Any science based on Enlightenment reason must aim at controlling nature for our benefit. This is because Enlightenment reason is aimed not at truth, but at fulfilling our desires. But this form of science must exclude from its picture of reality the incalculable parts of nature since what is incalculable is uncontrollable. This subordinates science’s pursuit of truth to mere usefulness. And in the realm of politics, the obsession with self-interest fractures society into protective “rackets” that compete with each other. But such a fractured social order must detract from social welfare since individuals need a peaceful social order to pursue their desires. In both instances, Enlightenment reason leads to absurd consequences.

I’m not the first to point this out. Max Horkheimer, the leader of the Frankfurt School, noticed this problem starting in the late-1930s. Though he had previously criticized capitalism as being irrational – a typical Marxist critique – he later realized that the system’s rot went much, much deeper. In 1947, he wrote two books – Dialectic of Enlightenment (which he co-authored with Theodore Adorno) and Eclipse of Reason. These books laid out the beforementioned criticisms of Enlightenment reason and provided the groundwork for the Left’s solution to the problem – a way of judging ends as well as means. Given how influential he and his fellow critical theorists are on the modern Left, it’s no wonder that the modern Wokies seem to have an ethos that inspires and unites them, even if it is one based on falsehoods.

Yet the premodern worldview never had this problem. In it, humans had a purpose determined by their nature. Goodness consisted in fulfilling this purpose, and it was this teleology that justified and determined the content of the moral law. The Left rejects this view because it follows Horkheimer and his fellows in rejecting metaphysics, but there’s no reason for a right-winger to follow in their footsteps. An understanding of human nature grounded in the metaphysics of Aristotle, Plato, and their successors is the first step back to moral sanity. The classical form of reason that these types practiced has none of the problems Enlightenment reason has.

There’s no good reason for a right-winger to make arguments on the assumption that Enlightenment’s view of reason is true. The Frankfurt School whose successors dominate the culture refuted it decades ago, and the premodern worldview reactionaries are committed to must reject its premises. There’s no reason to talk about arbitrary and personal values. Let’s talk instead about the pursuit of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.