That most persons derive their moral schema from the culture is one of those clichés it would never occur to us to doubt. The rationale seems solid: if one person finds an experience true, good, or beautiful, two persons make it more likely, and a million affirmations make it bulletproof. Only two problems with that. First, every one of those conclusions derives from a single bit of undistilled experience, the least reliable proof of correspondence truth. As any injury lawyer will tell you, everyone experiences reality differently and so must quash any notion of common experience. One of the bitter lessons of modernism was that the perceptual wall filters experience in ways unique to the individual, which is the foundation of phenomenalism and the postmodernism that it produced (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). Secondly, even if modernism is correct in its axiom that reasoning is a universal corrective to that uniqueness — something postmodernism ardently denies— that axiom introduces its own obstacle to the truth of cultural consensus (see “The Tyranny of Rationality”). That common operating system likely introduces its own distortions to the conclusions it derives, and that distortion is likely to be common as well, leading to precisely the kinds of cultural errors we are all so familiar with: that the earth is still and the sky moves around it, that those near us have more value because they loom larger in our calculations of value, that something we believe is natural and a different something others believe must therefore not be: all of these are the operations of human reasoning, all common because of it, and all purely wrong. The most germane of those operations is my topic here: that what everyone thinks to be true must be true by the perfectly circular logic that everyone thinks so.
When we search for anomaly in the operations of moral cultural consensus, we will surely find it, and it reveals three separate spurs to our doubt. First, in seeking the “moral,” no consensus of the nature of morality exists in the public sphere (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?”). This produces a second problem: in seeking “consensus,” what does exist is assuredly not moral but is instead purely based on utility. The third is a bit different. In seeking “culture,” we find not a deficiency, but a surfeit and that dooms any possibility of a true consensus.
Once we sort out the relevant terms, we can investigate the result as a truth and goodness claim like all others and find the warrants that might justify it to public approval (see “What Counts as Justification?”). That won’t be pretty either.
So let us begin with the first term. When we consider “moral” as definitional, indicating a systematic set of principles of preference, we seek that set in consensus. Where do we actually find it in the culture? Pre-modernists will respond immediately that “culture” spans centuries and that it is the battering of experience that produces morality. Adolescents will name a half dozen friends whose social media exchanges do the same. Cultures in other regions reflect other moral outlooks, in other times better or worse depending on the observer. Believers go to their beliefs, pragmatists to their virtual circles, and most of us tack thoughtlessly in search of confirmation and affirmation within our own circles of intimates, our shifting moral outlooks anything but principled and systematic. When we zoom out from the personal, we certainly can find little consensus even on what qualifies as “moral” to be submitted to judgment, much less concurrence on what that judgment produces as a product of its deliberations.
A superficial appraisal might produce just the opposite conclusion. After all, when the latest Thai dance craze or Chilean chile recipe can whip around the planet at the speed of the internet, when a blockbuster film can shape perspectives and change parlance, it seems that a worldwide culture is just around the corner. Haven’t rapid air travel, worldwide capitalism, and omnipresent media made us all more alike, caused us to share more values?
Perhaps. There’s one problem, though. These shared values are not moral. Cultural trends are hardly systematic and are certainly not principled. They do not specify final ends of choosing that are good for their own sake. They more resemble fads or entertainments or interests. They enter the culture for reasons no one can explain, become subjects of casual conversation or manic indulgence for a time, and then evaporate, leaving behind a feeling almost akin to regret on the part of former enthusiasts. Looking at some two-year old video of some clothing or hair style, they wonder why we took all that old stuff so seriously even as we are now taking some new stuff equally so. Perhaps these cultural trends do portend some future moral unity, but it is hard to see how because the engagement of moral agency such a consensus would require relies on fundamental agreement about the axioms that govern the warrant that might produce such a consensus. That requires a common commitment that persons of good will seem unwilling to mobilize in their popular cultures.
And at its core, most persons think that is as it should be. Opinions, tastes, beliefs, desires: these private preferences all expand to fill the freedom Western culture has created as a sacrosanct space in which to exercise the rational agency that is its greatest contribution. These personal preferences are available, pleasurable, and easy, requiring only the broadest permissibility to conform to the millions of virtual circles that choose to indulge in them or refrain. When we examine the kinds of preferences that actually do achieve general approval, we should not be surprised to find them composed of only the experiences that are available, pleasurable, and easy: a blob of popular interests without a moral spine. These experiences can be materially valued, or they can be demonstrated as generally useful and so are embraced. Or they can amuse. They are the easy agreements of popular culture because they mean so little or entertain us for the moment. They do not foster strong dispute because they do no harm. They do little good too, but the gates of popular approval swing wide to let such empty preferences in. Nothing to object to in such fluffy obsessions as popular music, arts, and “culture” despite its alienist obsession with the new. We congratulate ourselves for being so open to diversity in such preferences, but honesty should compel us to admit that our adoption or rejection of these kinds of things matters very little to society writ large.
Everything else, and I do mean everything, causes trouble and in doing so casts doubt upon the possibility of a public moral consensus. For when it comes to a system of principles of behavior, morality, we face rabid disagreement centered on the sanctity of human freedom versus the demands of human responsibility. Autonomy disputes authority. Because even the nature of these disputes is disputed, we find a spectrum of positions rather than a polarity. And the kicker is that no means to a resolution of these disputes is accepted either.
These entrenched positions spell trouble for anyone advancing culture as the arbiter of morality, but even if they were more conciliatory, we face a final and equally damning handicap: cultures themselves are in constant tension. This is not a matter of an absent moral consensus. It concerns an absence of cultural identity. I do not refer to the postmodernist’s irony of an all-consuming and conformist behemoth that swallows up or in later iterations imparts identity to individuals, nor to the oppressed minority cultures that postmodernists seem so eager to preserve against the appetite of institutional power. I refer to them all: the bourgeois and the proletarian, the country club crowd and the union hall, the gangs and the police who pursue them, feminists and choir members and the triplets down the block. They’re all cultures, defined as shapers of identity. We all participate in varied cultures, each exerting its subtle or blatant expectations, growing louder and fainter with the level of our attention and approval. We join some willingly and belong to others by virtue of our language, gender, skin color, place of birth, and so on. They are all potentially influential, yet somehow we manage to negotiate among their conflicting moral prescriptions. We neither absorb them all nor reject them all nor for that matter even notice them all. Something must arbitrate the effects of manifold cultures on us, and whatever we call it must allow for a variance in effect that must challenge a simplistic linear causal relationship. What does it mean to be an X in the year Y in the place Z? No one can truly say because every X has been formed by an entire alphabet of experiences that precludes any constrictive definitional perspective. To be clear, we can speak with some accuracy about categorical concepts but not about the individuals who make them up without risking stereotyping (see “Stereotypes and Categories”). And most of persons’ experiences have happened in the context of a culture: family, friends, neighbors, activities, and interests, all of them distinctive and all of them tickling their moral agency. Their impacts are literally incalculable, for they depend on the will of the rational agent who navigates them. From the time of Marx, certainly, and even from the earliest epistemological thinking of Locke, we have absorbed the mistaken notion that persons are empty vessels into which experience pours its plaster, hardening into the cultural mold of environment . The postmodern assumption that reasoning is a product of that process rather than the arbiter of the manifold cultures that it negotiates is the result of human science’s need to eliminate free will as a variable in its theorizing as it permeated the culture over the last two centuries. It is denied by every moment of our consciousness, yet it remains a persuasive force in all the ways that psychology, sociology, and educational theory resonate. This is in no way meant to deny that cultures influence persons nor that we can broadly categorize that influence. What we can’t say is what it means to the individual participant for the simple reason that she participates in so many others. We not only lack consensus. We also lack the univocal culture to instill it.
That seems like such an insuperable obstacle to social welfare that it must be doubted. After all, civilization survives and in some aspects thrives. If the situation were this impossible, we’d see anarchy, crime, riots in the streets, raving prophets of doom. What prevents chaos is not a general moral consensus but the power of positive law, the only universalist moral order that must claim the allegiance of all adults under its jurisdiction. Every law is a moral imperative enforced by an entire system of educational, juridicial, punitive, and participatory institutions designed to assist its success. It meets the requirements of morality: it not only establishes but mandates a set of principles of preference, one whose consistency is enforced by judicial review and legislative process. Is positive law coequal to the fundamental moral consensus? That is a big enough question to demand a thorough answer (see “Natural Law and the Legality of Human Rights”). But for present purposes, let’s isolate common wisdom, with its implications of custom and mores, from the very clear statutes of legal obligation and examine its warrant as we would any claim to truth or goodness. For the moment, let us omit the positive law.
But if that search takes us to a dead end, why is culture continually advanced as a moral force to be reckoned with? Two answers probably come to mind. Since conceptually any cultural value warranted in this way must be as a form of authority to which persons surrender their agency, we might seek enlightenment on the nature of such a thing by considering culture purely as authority, treating it as we treat other institutional authorities. That hasn’t worked out so well for the last century, so if we find force in culture-as-authority, we must face the barrage of suspicion persons now fire at all similar sources. In that case, cultural consensus might seem as fatally compromised as other institutional authority has become. Yet that seems not to be the case, for not only do cultural authorities, those whom we trust to pronounce yea or nay on the preoccupations of Western culture, take themselves seriously, so do the rest of us. And that seems odd, for those who avidly follow cultural trends seem often dismissive of other sources of institutional authority. We might ask why culture writ large gets a pass from persons who dismiss tradition, customs, or religion as grand narratives and impositions on their freedom. That introduces a second possible source of power that culture may wield in molding our outlook, for the fiction of a univocal and formative culture is at the heart of postmodernism. This was a consequence of its obsessive concerns with the coercive nature of culture and therefore with its mode of operation. This became the focus of the human science of sociology and of the psychoanalytic interest in familial power relationships. Structuralists were particularly interested in the modes of social discourse, so semiotics became a near-obsession for the psychologists and ethnologists who studied the implementation of language as a power tool. Persons who embrace this outlook are likely to regard consensus as something to be resisted in favor of individuality and diversity.
This view conflicts with older moral traditions that argue acculturation is natural and inevitable: we should absorb the norms valued by those in our environment. Since cultural evolution is so necessary to human flourishing, a neutral observer is likely to think this is a very good thing in its broad outlines and much to be encouraged. This was the motive force for the public education movement of the nineteenth century. Because acculturation should not be assumed as automatic, it seems foolish to underestimate the family bonds that are children’s first and most vital source of morality. Even in an era of their permeation by the larger culture, no influence can come close to the power of family and friendships to build the moral framework that guides adult life. That primacy has implications for public morality in terms of both duties and privileges, for any system that fails to acknowledge these most instinctive of tribal bonds is sure to fail regardless of how admirable its theory might be, as Marxists discovered to their dismay. The principle of subsidiarity, which argues for deference to these natural familial units, is therefore worthy of the most serious consideration in formulating public moral principles. That its influence is debated today is a sign of how elastic our notion of moral inculcation has become, so perhaps Marxists will have the last laugh yet. At the very least, any valuation of cultural continuity argues for a nurturing of some foundational moral framework, and this is what conservatives place at the center of their ethical universe. Of course, this traditionalism is strongly supported by a pre-modern deference to religious authority that sanctions it as well as by institutional authorities in civil life that have evolved to fit it.
Which explains only part of why postmodernists question it. When they think of the nuclear family, which traditionalists define as man/woman/children, they find plenty to dislike. Foremost is the cultural continuity conservatives value, for it is in this manner that all the crimes of tradition are passed down: abuse of women, machismo, religious devotion, denial of alternative familial organization, and a generalized opposition to a progressive agenda. Add to that the dark repressions of Freudian theories of childhood development and the complacency of bourgeois life in gated escapism from the grittier realities of class and racial struggle and you have quite an indictment.
Feminism has found itself particularly challenged by this bipolar outlook on family identity. It cannot deny the tug of maternal instincts instilled by evolution, but it also stands at the forefront of the effort to secure equal rights for women, including the right to control their own bodies in matters sexual and reproductive. What feminists face explicitly in their struggle the larger society faces as well as it confronts controversies over whether its structure should support family life or turn a blind eye to it , an issue that political libertarians have failed to clarify for themselves.
As we zoom out to the larger culture and its influence upon public values, we face a tiresome ideological war reflecting this core debate over the family’s desired role. Depending on one’s position on that issue, all others splinter along the same lines of a postmodernist use of social science to advance its theories of social exploitation and the subterranean applications of power versus a traditionalist and often religiously-based defense of tradition struggling against further erosion. Social media, movies and video games, music, the corporate news: it is all colored as being either a net positive or a net negative on values, but the assumptions of proponents on either side are never laid bare. So let’s examine their nature as we would any putative claim to truth and goodness.
Cultural consensus is a diffuse sort of authority that in the current moral disarray is based at times on belief and at times on trust, meaning its warrant is for some issues or for some persons coherentist and for others correspondentist (see “Pure, Poor Knowledge Systems”). When we slice it along this fault line, we expect that persons will defend some cultural imperatives as beliefs, even matters of taste or opinion, and others as the kind of surrender of agency characteristic of all trust in institutions. Some mores rooted in pre-modern religious authority have so ingrained themselves in the culture that they are seldom inspected until some competing religious authority challenges them. The cozy relationship between Christmas traditions and the larger culture, for instance, was absorbed so thoroughly that it has been difficult to untangle and in some cases was even enshrined in the strongest of all cultural values: positive law. This kind of valuation has been found wanting, and has faced the same degree of skeptical interrogation as one might direct at belief in general and religious beliefs in particular. The unavoidable conclusion might disappoint traditionalists who consider their ancestors’ ways sufficient justification for their perpetual adoption by all of society, but since religious authorities have been pushed back down that road for several centuries, it should be a familiar disappointment to conservatives who refuse to see it as a dead end in a multi-vocal culture.
They may still fall back upon trust. We have seen how institutional authority nowadays can continue to garner the trust of persons even as they monitor their own agency as the source of their approval. That is achieved by holding the institution in a constant state of probation, its authority always balanced on a knife’s edge, the agent subjecting it to a fairly frequent rational and hypothetical inspection that is both corrosive of trust and a preparation for a resumption of moral agency (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge”). That’s a good thing, for this kind of provisional trust is all contemporary institutions can count on for general approbation, meaning they cannot assume the consensus that holds the public’s trust but must always renew it by their actions. But this also places authorities on shaky ground, leading to an atmosphere of doubt and discontinuity in the wider culture. Certainly, the postmodern suspicion of institutional authority in general has directly challenged the “grand narratives” that conservatives put forward as cultural consensus. It is just this tension that forms the most acidic of the corrosive forces now dissolving our social comity.
Only one source of consensus has escaped this purgatory: general cultural values based upon expertise or some empirical utility.
The strength of natural science is powerfully apparent to its practitioners. Its professionalization has elevated its experts to the pinnacle of that mode of justification. Scientists are the most reliable of experts, a judgment attested to not only by the length and rigor of their academic preparation but also by its empirical focus. Non-professionals are led by the abstruse nature of those requirements to trust the abilities of scientists to a greater degree than other experts. But that trust is always verifiable by reasoned confidence just as all trust in expertise must be. With enough thought and effort, any scientific conclusion can be confirmed or disproved by a competent rational agent. The abstracts of juried scientific journals lay out the conditions of the empirical exercise the article recounts. Perhaps such a precis will detail the size of the experiment, the number of clinical trials, the standard deviation of the observed results, and so on. All of these reduce the necessity for trust and submit the testimony of this kind of expertise to the agent’s reason in a manner that increases or decreases rational confidence. That is actually one of the reasons we find it so easy to extend trust to experts: we can retain our rational and moral agency and have confidence, knowing that experts’ judgments are open to our own inspection should we choose. In essence, we can retain our rational agency because of that confidence. This is necessarily different from the trust we extend to, say, religious authority, for when we drill down upon the truth and goodness claims that it warrants, we find another’s belief as its basis (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”). Does it matter if that belief is original to the televangelist who speaks it or to a doctrine a hundred generations have passed down? Imagine a belief lovingly transmitted from mother to daughter for so many generations we have forgotten its source. Has it gained verification from its longevity? Can you think of a single religious doctrine that has evolved so as to earn the confidence of adherents rather than appeal to their continued belief? Isn’t this continuity a point of pride for believers? Isn’t the existence of creeds the exact opposite of an evolutionary improvement? Believers will claim that the absolutist and categorical nature of their beliefs precludes the need for improvement. Contrast this public trust rooted in belief to the scientific theory whose explanations are challenged by every experiment and calculation and application undertaken by the experts who must employ it? And wouldn’t that traditional notion be first challenged by alternative theories and ultimately either defeated by one of them or fall into general suspicion if it failed to solve practical problems in its discipline over time? But in gauging public attitudes toward science, we must always recognize its most crippling limit, one that deconstructs any hope that it might root public morality: its methodology cannot address moral truth (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”).
All of this leads to doubt about the supportive power of tradition on belief but also about the power of expertise and empiricism to shape values, leaving us only the option of saying that trust depends on utility rather than morality as usually understood. But these two contrary axioms have been poorly understood. Confusing the two forms of goodness has produced a series of undulations of trust over the course of the twentieth century. For the first half of that dismal era, efficiency experts and human scientists issued their prescriptions for societal perfection to the dazed victims of the many catastrophes that so called for it, and the lab-coated professional seemed a prophet of a hopeful future built on values sociology would uncover and psychology would correct. Foremost among those was the confidence in scientific progress as a social good. That confidence smashed upon the rocks of doubt in the last third of the century, so much so that citizens now openly challenge medical science on its own turf on questions like the safety of vaccines and the genetic basis of gender identity. We’ve learned the limits of experts’ competence through a century of error. Their failure has predictably resulted in the emulsification of religious belief with a sprinkling of human science theories of motivation and reward, which are themselves only pale imitations of natural science but which share empiricism’s prestige. This odd overlap between religion and human science works both ways. We see longstanding religious influences in Jungian psychology and comparative anthropology and a similar exchange in theology’s embrace of the terminology of aberrant psychology to scientize sin, but the ease with which religious authority incorporates what is sold as science and with which human science blurs its standards to embrace belief should alert us to the foggy nature of whatever consensus that odd marriage can reveal (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”).
It is possible to argue that religious authority is grounded upon the same practical rule of utility that has so empowered natural science. A whole subset of psychological study concerns the earthly benefits of religious practice. But religious authority finds itself uncomfortable with a purely pragmatic appeal because of the categorical nature of its moral theory. It explicitly rejects the hypothetical nature of morality in favor of moral truths that authority sanctions as absolute and certain. To carry this idea further, it is just this categorical and intimately linked nature of religious truth and goodness claims that lend them the certainty that believers uphold as religion’s great power. To reduce religious authority to pragmatic or utilitarian or hypothetical moral principles would in the eyes of its adherents reduce its right to command obedience by subjecting it to the moral agency of the believer, putting it on the same level as other psychological rules of conduct or other cultural authority, thereby opening it to the skeptical interrogation of rational agents who seek always to confirm its truth by their own reasoning. This is something doctrinal authority explicitly warns believers against (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”). The cooption of religion by human science and vice versa indicates that we have reached a strange stage in religious morality in which belief must conflict with authority not in its claims of divine existence or power but in the means by which we know these things. That challenge began with Martin Luther and continues to drag down religious consensus as well as challenge the uniform adoption of religious beliefs into the larger culture.
But that depends on whom you listen to. Postmodernists, their moral outlook conditioned first by the heartfelt pleadings of the French existentialists to resist the conformist pressures of culture and then by a later generation of post-Structuralists to find the source of their identity in it, are even more bipolar on culture than they are in general (see “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements”). Some of their antagonism is left over from their tiresome Gnostic smugness, the nudge-and-wink superciliousness toward middle class cultural values that descend from Shaw and Wilde, though each generation seems to thrill anew with the secret knowledge of their parents’ imperfections. It seems this level of consensus — the broadly shared bourgeois values of thrift, modesty, religious faith, and respect for tradition — is just too widely shared to be true. Patriotism, religious belief, and all such grand narratives are suspicious precisely because they are so generally accepted, but the postmodernists’ secret knowledge of class, ethnicity, or gender is claimed to be not only more true but somehow more constructive of identity, though why that should be so is evidently also a secret. What postmodernists are eager to share is the authenticity of their version of identity, a mini-consensus from uncounted mini-narratives, in defiance of the bad faith of the larger culture that an unbiased observer might take to be even more formative. Given that they also can find no means of resolving conflicts among all these personal values other than the imposition of power, we can predict that the academics who perpetuate these notions will always find an audience for their critique.
It describes the aggression and displacements of colonialism and imperialism well, but in today’s marketplace of ideas, the force of culture is found less in the scabbard than in the purse. The might that now makes right has splintered into the micro-aggressions so finely tweezered out of personal interactions as persons take their hard-won moral agency to heart and jostle for the holy grail of contemporary life: the freedom to choose. How that latitude can be reconciled with a true moral consensus is a constant tension in a culture that also claims to value progress and social order. The stalemate has led to a recourse to positive law as the only arbiter available, and this dawning realization has produced our current obsessions with political power (see “The Foundations of the Law: An Appetizer”). The polarized electorate we see in Western democracies are arguing for a moral consensus, though that may not be clear to them. Their arguments show they are equally unclear about the axioms that shape the arguments they make (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”).