That most persons derive their moral schema from the culture is one of those clichés it might 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 assumption 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”). Our universal operating system likely introduces its own distortions to the reality it observes. Not only will we be unaware of the preconscious sorting of sense data that gifts us with a simulacrum of reality, we will also likely not see the biases this sorting introduces into that picture. These are likely to be as widely shared as reason itself. These conceptual factors produce the kinds of cultural errors we are all so familiar with: that the earth is still and the sky moves around it, that those close to us have more value because they loom larger in our considerations, that something we believe must be natural and a different something others believe must therefore not be. All of these are products of the operation of human reasoning on experience, 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, we will struggle to find agreement even on the meaning of “moral,” which necessarily means also that no consensus on the nature of morality exists in the public sphere (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?”). This produces a second problem: in seeking “consensus,” whatever common value that does exist is likely not moral but based upon contextual utility. The third problem is a bit different. In seeking “culture,” we find not a deficiency, but an excess whose overlapping variability dooms any possibility of a true consensus. In this essay, I will explore each of these in turn. Once we sort out the relevant terms, we can investigate the concept of cultural consensus as a correspondence declaration 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. If we consider “morality” to mean “a systematic set of principles of preference targeted to some end,” we can begin to know what we are seeking. Where do we actually find it in the culture? Premodernists will respond immediately that “culture” spans centuries and that it is the battering of experience that produces morality as a set of practices tradition endorses. Adolescents will name a half dozen friends whose social media exchanges meet the definition equally well. Within a single society, we find constellations of cultures whose shapes depend upon the perspective of the viewer.. Cultures in other regions and at other times reflect other moral outlooks that we casually consider better or worse than our own. Believers go to their beliefs (see “Knowledge, Trust and Belief”), postmodernists to their virtual circles (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?“), and most of us tack seamlessly in search of confirmation and affirmation within our own circles of intimates, our shifting moral outlooks anything but principled and systematic and aimed at no particular end (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”). When we zoom out from the personal in search of a wider consensus, we certainly can find little agreement even on what qualifies as “moral” to be submitted to judgment, much less concurrence on what that judgment produces.
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 distractions that prick our momentary interest. 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 five-year old video of clothing or hair style, we 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 justify it (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). In the absence of societal consensus about these foundational assumptions, what can thrive but personalism and distraction?
Some 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 individual 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: jellyfish floating in a hot sea of media. These experiences can be materially valued or they can be demonstrated as generally useful and so may be embraced. But either their vapidity or their popularity in itself will be seen by some as reasons to reject them (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist“). It is less contentious for them to simply amuse us. The products of popular culture are smooth and shiny because they are designed to mean so little or entertain us for the moment. These media creations are the junk food of mass society. 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 the latest in music, arts, and “culture.” Alienism, once seen as the unveiling of grand falsities, makes us yawn and click through see “Three Portaits“). 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 “media influencers” has more to do with our taste than their truth. Diversion beats division.
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 preference that is morality, we face rabid disagreement too deep for 240 characters. Like peaks above a lowering sky, a few landmarks appear. For instance, private autonomy is sure to reject institutional authority. But “differences of opinion” fail to resolve themselves because we cannot nail down the value of opinion — or fact either, for that matter (see “Facts are Fluxy Things“). When you examine the meanings persons take even from the most innocuous conversation, you find so many of these epistemological land mines that normal conversation becomes either a play of monologues or a volley of one-liners (see “Lacking Definition“). Because we are all pretty oblivious to such causes, we are unlikely to resolve them. So we find a spectrum of positions rather than a polarity. Without consensus even on the means to a resolution, much less the form of what it produces, we ought not be surprised at the recurrence of the same disputes (see “What Counts as Justification?“). When talking morality, the present cultural consensus is that there is no use talking about it.
These entrenched positions spell trouble for anyone advancing culture as the arbiter of morality. But even if we accept that some cultural touchstone manages to break through the babble, 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 a multiplication of cultural identities. This is the antithesis the original argument of postmodernism, with its dread of an all-consuming and conformist behemoth that swallows us up and destroys our autonomy (see “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements”). We have acculturated the antihero, which was the consensual postmodern response to the fear of conformism (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist”). Today’s antihero is just one more corporate shill. The contemporary ideal admires the long-ignored minority cultures that postmodernists are now so eager to preserve against the appetite of institutional power.
But in seeking to idealize cultural identity, the postmodernist for once is far too modest in her ambitions, for every identity is actually a composite of too many cultures to calculate. Consider culture to be any aggregate of individuals seeking any common good. Think of what that definition includes. Count 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, gun collectors, anime editors, day traders, corporations, and the triplets down the block. They’re all cultures, all the raw clay of desires from which we mold identity. We all participate in various 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 on and on. They are all potentially influential, yet somehow we manage to negotiate their conflicting prescriptions. We neither absorb them all nor reject them all nor for that matter even notice them all. Something must arbitrate the effects of all their efforts to move 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 prior choices 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”). Every person’s experiences have happened in the context of a culture: family, friends, neighbors, activities, and inclinations, all of them distinctive and all of them tickling her moral agency, seeking assent and requiring that she arbitrate what they seek by the power of her autonomy. That means we interpret and order them to our own ends — if we have ends. Their cumulative impacts are literally incalculable, for achieving whatever goods any culture seeks must depend on the will of the rational agents who must negotiate them (see “Our Freedom Fetish“). Certainly, the most blatant and oppressive institutional orders will stimulate a common pushback, but this broad agreement is nearly always target-specific as one component of morality and is not a comprehensive goal that function comprehensively for the group. From the time of Marx 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 has permeated Western societies over the last two centuries. That charge is denied by every moment of our consciousness, yet it remains a persuasive force in all the ways that psychology, sociology, economics, 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. Because we lack consensus, we also lack the univocal culture to instill it.
And yet our society survives and in some aspects thrives. If we have no consensus, wouldn’t we 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 claims 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 is a morality of last resort: it not only establishes but mandates a set of principles of preference, one whose consistency is enforced by judicial review and legislative process. So we are justified in asking if positive law is coequal to the fundamental moral consensus. It could be if persons agreed about why they respect laws (see ” When is Civil Disobedience Justified?“). For many persons, power and coercion are the only reasons to obey laws, and I hardly have to add that too many persons do not. What law gives is the last resort barrier to chaos justified entirely by pragmatic concessions (see “Why Invent a Social Contract?“). Besides, even if there were consensus about the desirability of law in the abstract, it can never form more than an instrumental means to other ends citizens must set as their overarching civic goal (see “Natural and Political Rights“).
In light of these many deficiencies, we return to the question of why cultural consensus might be claimed to be a moral force at all. Two answers probably come to mind. Since conceptually any good that persons surrender their agency to must be as a form of authority that individuals trust, 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 (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge”). 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 in contemporary practice, 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 for granting culture that kind of trust. The fiction of a univocal and formative culture is at the heart of postmodernism. This was a consequence of an obsessive resistance to the coercive nature of all institutional power and therefore with its mode of operation. This resistance 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 our society. 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. For instance, it was the motive force for the public education movement of the nineteenth century. Because acculturation clearly cannot be automatic in an age of splintering cultures, it seems foolish to sever the family bonds that are children’s first and most vital source of morality. Even given the intrusion of popular media into their lives, no influence can come close to the power of family and friendships to build the values 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. Traditionalism is marked by a premodern deference to religious authority that sanctions it as well as by institutional authorities in civil life that have evolved to fit it (see “Premodern Authority“).
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, toxic masculinity, religious fanaticism, denial of alternative familial structures, 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 too 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. All other social issues eventually splinter along the same lines of a postmodernist use of social science to critique of authority’s exploitation of institutional power versus a 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 for some issues or for some persons is 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. The unifying factor in such values is the active agency of the individual in choosing which goods to value. Countering this autonomy is the kind of surrender of agency characteristic of all trust in institutions. Some mores rooted in premodern religious authority have so ingrained themselves in Western societies that they are seldom inspected until some competing authority challenges them. The cozy relationship between Christmas traditions and public life, 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. The outcome of this struggle between two institutional authorities, church and state, is uncertain. But what is certain is that it, like all challenges to trust, is sure to end in erosion of trust in institutional authority in general as persons are forced to reacquire the agency to favor one or the other (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”). The result is that all institutional trust has been eroded as it has faced the same degree of skeptical interrogation as one might direct at others’ 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 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 society.
They may still say they deserve the public’s trust, but it is rarely given. We have seen how institutional authority nowadays can continue to garner a counterfeit of trust by individuals who continually monitor their own agency as the source of their approval. That is achieved by holding the institution in a constant state of probation and inspection with its authority always balanced on a knife’s edge. The agent continually submits what passes for trust today to a fairly frequent rational and hypothetical inspection that is both corrosive of trust and a preparation for a resumption of moral agency. 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 continually renew it. 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 the glue of cultural consensus. It is just this tension that forms the most acidic of the corrosive forces now dissolving our social comity. We see almost a parody of real trust in the practice sociology calls “social capital,” the kind of informal nod we grant those in our intimate cultures to affect our own choices. The weaker institutional authority becomes, the more persons will lean into whatever sociable connections they have for their values, but this option is largely foreclosed by the multiplicity of connections persons form both in person and online, whose conflicting values require the very antithesis of a surrender of agency. It may be possible to find a cultural bubble small enough and strong enough to induce persons to surrender their autonomy in a true trust, but these aberrations can never dominate any Western society. Very few adults today can escape their own freedom. Autonomy means agency, which means responsibility.
Only two sources of possible consensus remain to offer some hope.
The first is natural science and the expertise that imitates its reasoning over a broader range of experiences (see “Expertise“). The strength of empiricism as a truth-finding methodology is widely appreciated. Science is the great arbiter, a judgment attested to not only by the length and rigor of its required academic preparation but also by its empirical focus. But in gauging public attitudes toward science as a source of moral value, we must always recognize its most crippling limit, one that deconstructs any hope that it might root public morality: its practice must seek truths about perceptual reality, not the goods such truths can offer. The only kind of goodness it can achieve is immediate utility. Science cannot address moral truth (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”). Expertise, with a much wider scope, is similarly hobbled. No one can be an expert in moral choosing because morality seeks ultimate goods in experience arbitrated by prudence. Nothing in that process is sufficiently limited or repetitive enough to permit expertise to develop. And because goodness is conceptual rather than perceptual, natural science simply cannot bring its methods to observe or test it.
That leaves a second hope for moral renewal: a revival of religious authority. But if we look for that revival, we search in vain (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”) It was the collapse of religious authority in the Reformation that first necessitated that cultures find some other source of value (see “Modernism’s Midwives“). That was half a millennium ago, and the intervening years have not been kind to religious authority and, as has been said, to institutional authority in general. Even government and legal systems, the last resort of social order, have been challenged by the defenders of individual liberty over the course of the twentieth century. And it is more than inconvenient that organized religion, the jealous guardian of moral goodness throughout most of human history, has repeatedly been humbled by natural science that has rolled back its prerogatives while proving unable to replace them.
That process has left a giant moral vacuum that postmodernism has rushed to fill over the course of the dismal twentieth century (see “Modernism and Its Discontents“). And it has been abetted in that effort by the dazzling power of the natural sciences to find truth and its abject failure to find moral goodness, clearing the way for the human sciences and pseudo-sciences to make the effort. For the first half of that miserable century, so-called efficiency experts and “social sciences” issued their prescriptions for societal perfection to the dazed survivors of world war, revolution, and economic collapse. The lab-coated professional seemed prophets of a more efficient 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 over that blasted 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 seek empiricism’s prestige. This odd overlap between religion and human science works both ways. We see longstanding religious influences affecting Jungian psychology and comparative anthropology. And we see a similar exchange in theology’s embrace of the terminology of aberrant psychology to sanitize 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 may seek its grounding in 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 (see “A Problem with Sacred Texts“). 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 even while allowing it to continue. 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.
Whether that failure is good or bad depends on whom you listen to. Postmodernist thinkers, who began with a plea by French existentialists to resist the conformist pressures of culture, have evolved from resisting popular culture to embracing it as the source of all value so long as it rejects institutions. So they are understandably even more bipolar on culture than they are in general . 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 micro-aggressions 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: more preferential freedom. How that latitude can be reconciled with a true moral consensus is a constant tension in a society 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 they may not know that. Their arguments show they are equally unclear about the axioms that shape what they claim to know.