Correlation, Causation, Motivation

Thinking about the postmodern view of power got me thinking about the perfectly understandable logical fallacy captured by the phrase “Correlation is not causation” and about a mistake postmodernists make in observing what they view as the role of power in cases of disagreement.

I doubt if I would have thought of the issue in quite this way if I hadn’t been primed by an earlier mistake made along similar lines that I often observed when teaching moral philosophy to my students. In studying ethical egoism (now enjoying a revival thanks to political conservatives’ attraction to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism), some students simply refused to admit of the possibility that our motivations for some acts might be altruistic. They pointed to the satisfaction, the pleasure, that we all derive from the fulfillment of any moral choice. We obviously derive this pleasure when a choice benefits us. But, they claimed, we also feel the same pleasure when satisfying a choice that we regard as exemplifying altruism. We get a sense of satisfaction from “doing the right thing” as we perceive it, even if that doing results in considerable harm to our own interests. And just as our desire for pleasure motivates us as we aim to get our own way, they claimed, that same desire motivates us in our altruistic acts as we seek the satisfaction that comes from doing for others. Therefore, they claim that no act can be truly altruistic. The soldier who throws himself on the grenade is motivated in their view by the desire to be appreciated as a hero by his comrades, and, we might assume, will have at least a moment to enjoy that thought before being blown to bits. Now that struck me as wrong for two reasons. First, I would think the pleasure in avoiding death would exceed by some orders of magnitude any joy in being posthumously honored. Secondly, even assuming that the sacrificial soldier might feel some satisfaction at his heroic sacrifice, can one make the argument that he was therefore intentioned by that satisfaction and not some more immediate calculation of defeating the enemy, sacrificing one versus saving many in that cause, or some notion of the value of Christian sacrifice? I came to think that the error these students were making in defending their notion of egoism was in mistaking the consequence for the motive. Certainly, we feel satisfaction at the fulfillment of any desire whatsoever, whether that desire is motivated by selfishness or altruism. But since correlation is not necessarily causation, is it true to say we are therefore motivated by a desire for that feeling in preference for all other motives? I don’t think so. Pleasure may be a motivator for some acts, but by no means all. It does follow from the successful completion of all acts though, and so the casual observer mistakes the consequence for the intention.

This correlation seems similar to the mistakes that postmodernism makes about the use and abuse of power, particularly its role in settling disputes. As in the case of pleasure as the motivator in ethical egoism and altruism, let us stipulate that power is indeed the goal of some of our actions. We have all been guilty of its gratuitous use on occasion—and therefore know the dark pleasure that confers—but setting that infrequent motivation aside, how do we then jump to the conclusion that the dominance of the superior party in any dispute motivates her actions in regard to the inferior party (note that I use the terms “superior” and “inferior” in the postmodern sense to apportion relative power relationships)?

The answer lies in postmodernism’s simple inability to provide any other means of settling disagreement. As individual and cultural values clash, the only means of detecting error lies in revealing logical inconsistency in either party’s virtual circle. But given the multitudinous ways in which experience can produce visions of truth and goodness, not to mention the degrees of logical stringency required to harmonize them, we are likely to clash all too frequently in situations in which no inconsistency can be discovered. Postmodernism would itself be open to the charge of inconsistency if it posited any means of preferring one set of coherent truth and goodness claims over another. But just as every case of moral choice produces pleasure at some successful attainment, every act of any kind whatsoever requires the exercise of power as the means of accomplishment. By this I mean power in the simple physics sense: the ability to do work, to accomplish something. You can be sure that every dispute involves the exertion of power simply because resolving any dispute requires action, perhaps to achieve some good, perhaps to simply change one’s mind to arrive at new truths. Nothing necessarily nefarious comes from resolving disputes, but outside of the postmodern arena such resolution involves appeal to a standard of truth or goodness simply unavailable to those within.

Other factors amplify the postmodernist’s charge that power is the only means of resolution of conflict. In earlier posts, I discussed the Gnostic quality of postmodern thought, the notion that the kind of knowing postmodernists claim is hidden or difficult to achieve or, conversely, that the ordinary mind is simply unconscious of the hidden obstacles to understanding that hinder her from arriving at the truths postmodernists have discovered. That subterranean quality suits the issue of power beautifully. A student and I disagree about her grade. To me, the dispute is about the standards I applied to arrive at her score. But the postmodernist sees that it is really about me asserting my power over her for the purpose of maintaining present structures of exploitation. Neither of us may be aware of the hidden, perhaps unconscious, will to power that motivates each of us as we contend. And so it goes. Now I will concede that we do have a power relationship and that mine is greater than hers because I have the expertise to enter a score on her transcript. Power yes, but in this case neither egregious nor unwarranted. Merely the means to effect an action.

In legal theory the justification for the law that embodies the postmodern view is called legal positivism. It merely states the innocuous truism that “the law derives its power from its codification and ability to punish.” Note the two postmodern pillars of logical consistency and power in that explanation. Indeed, the clearest application of power in a civil society is that claimed by law, but the postmodern explanatory model is in shoal waters here. For once issues of consistency and hegemony are resolved, why should law ever change? In cases of legal conflict between countries, wouldn’t the strong always dominate the weak? What moral argument could be advanced to argue that they shouldn’t? If the law is a kind of conventional arrangement like driving on the right side of the road or the left, wouldn’t any arrangement that provides for order, peace, and stability be just as good as any other? In such an arrangement, why acknowledge the moral superiority of civil or human rights? From whence could “moral superiority” derive?  Can we really claim that the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 was not a moral advance or that the Nuremberg Decrees of 1935 not a regression?  In their metering of power relationships, postmodernists always seem to side with the weak against the strong. The weak are required to “speak truth to power.” But why is the weaker person or culture’s position morally preferable and the stronger repugnant in the absence of some appeal outside each party’s virtual circle? In postmodern theory a persecuted minority may commit atrocities against the persecuting majority without being accused of wrongdoing simply because the weak have to resort to alternative kinds of power, but who stands outside the parties’ dispute to apportion levels of power to each and appropriate responses to dispute?

In moral choosing we derive pleasure from the satisfaction of our desires. That does not make us selfish, for selfishness is about motive rather than consequence. In all of our disputes, we seek to act to resolve them, and action requires the expenditure of power. That does not make the acquisition of power our motive any more than pleasure is. One must have a very dark view of what does motivate us to see all of our choosing by such dim lights.

If you are interested in a more thorough exploration of the roots of postmodernism, including the decisive influence of Victorianism in its birth, please see my book, What Makes Anything True, Good, Beautiful? Challenges to Justification, available on Amazon or Kindle.

Till next week,

S. Del

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