The analyses on this website begin with a transcendental argument: a declaration that every reader will find indisputable. It is this: every functional human being possesses a felt preferential freedom. Put simply, we live to choose. Begin here, and other truths will necessarily follow from this one, each extending the initial point in small logical steps that you will be asked to interrogate and confirm. At some point in the chain of corollaries, subsequent assertions will prove more contentious as they knit together six seemingly diverse topics — truth, goodness, beauty, history, politics, and religion — into a single overarching contention that I intend for you to think is true. The first corollary of that felt freedom to choose is that we all think we can use it successfully to get what we desire, that the thousands of choices we make each day from getting out of bed to getting back into it are made in pursuit of what we think good. If we didn’t, we’d stay in bed. Accept that we seek the good, and we find two branching truth claims hiding there. One leads to the additional contention that we all seek to exercise that pursuit using some modicum of consistency and reasoning, else we will frustrate our own interests. The other contention leads to a rather curious conclusion: that what we think true in any single experience is intimately related to the possible good that experience might offer. And this realization opens a whole new field of thought, for there seems to be a necessary relationship between truth and goodness, between what we know and what we desire, between experience and utility.
How do we express that relationship? How do we take advantage of it so as to have the greatest chance of getting what will satisfy us?
Answering these questions is the meat of this project. I was puzzled that it seemed so difficult to navigate, that the italicized words in the first paragraph of this piece seemed so hard to pin down, that other terms I might use to frame an answer seemed equally difficult to define. These are hardly technical terms but words we use in our declarations of truth and goodness dozens of times a day. Common words like fact, knowledge, opinion, belief, and trust — the very words we use to mine experiences for their truth and to satisfy our desires — seemed as spineless as jellyfish, as variable as weather, in evaluating experience. How can we mine it for the goods it might offer if we can’t consistently and rationally express the degree of confidence we have in understanding it? And if these fail to communicate adequately the truths we find, how can they be useful to finding the goods we seek? That question led to a second realm of ambiguity: terms associated with goodness. What do we mean by good? Or useful, moral, ethical, beautiful? What are we saying about goodness when we say we value justice, freedom, and equality? Are these terms of quality or merely of approbation? What difference, if any, exists between fairness and justice or between motivation and preference or between privilege and prejudice?
What we want for these words to convey to our listener is some sort of distillation. We want to do more than memorialize experience. We want to evaluate it, to know what it means, to use it for our own good. But the very terms we use to accomplish that task seem to lack any clear meaning, to be used almost arbitrarily. To call some percept a fact is to convey a high degree of confidence in its truth. To say it is an opinion indicates we are less sure. To say it is a belief implies some personal commitment different from fact and opinion, but what is the difference? You have heard persons say, “Evolution is a fact” or “The Supreme Court has issued an opinion” or “I am certain of my belief in God.” But you have also heard these terms used differently. “Evolution is a theory, not a fact.” “It is my opinion that sushi is delicious.” “I believe I locked the car, but I am not sure.” So what does it mean to say some declaration is a fact, an opinion, or a belief? Every declaration aims to say something true, good, or beautiful, but why are the very terms we use to establish that connection so poorly communicative?
I contend that our search for truth and goodness cannot succeed unless we better define the quite ordinary terms we use in that search. In contemporary life, they lack a necessary element, a slight extension, a small bit of clarification. What is missing in the expression of these evaluative terms can be captured by a single word: because.
Put because after any declaration and you fundamentally change it. You now are not only offering a claim of its truth but also the reason you think so. This is the realm of justification, of warrant. Our willingness to provide it seems implicit in making any declaration at all. Why claim something is true or good or beautiful if we aren’t willing to say why we think so? But as I began to investigate the way we use warrant now, as I searched for some kind of consistency and harmony in its use, some clarity on the because of all those truth claims we all make every day, I discovered only chaos. I was looking for a hierarchy of warrant, a path to the summit of total confidence we might add to our declarations from conjecture to certainty, from ignorance to conviction. Instead, I found a swamp that I think forms the headwaters of the bitter dissension that characterizes contemporary life. The commentariat issue their dire warnings: we are suffering from truth decay. But when we scrape off the surface rot that erodes our declarations, we find a deeper rot: the erosion of warrants. Even the most basic terms we all use to find truth, goodness, and beauty in experience have been weaponized and politicized. Their contemporary meanings now rely on the preconceptions that persons bring to their unspoken justifications, and these are seldom explicitly examined and for a very good reason: we can refuse to take responsibility for them. This is convenient for both speaker and listener: both can avoid the chore of thinking about what might justify whatever declaration is on the table. We can assert yet still avert. While this may save energy, it wastes opportunity, for it is only by inspecting what we claim to know that we can get what we really need as individuals and societies.
This looks bad, and it is, but it is not entirely our fault. History has dealt us a bum hand. Contemporary life has inherited a set of assumptions about warrants that are fundamentally in conflict and almost never inspected because their causes are lost to time and their extent is too broad to be investigated by experts. Their effects are all too apparent in our public discourse and private preoccupations, though. To more fully understand them, I recommend beginning to test my argument with a perusal of the first entries under the “Truth” tab. As they unfold, the transcendental arguments grow more contentious culminating in those entries exploring religion, which I acknowledge to be highly speculative. Save those entries until after you read the entries under the “History” tab. There you will find an analysis of three sets of assumptions that persons have brought to their consideration of truth, goodness and beauty. These axioms of commitment were the turnstiles that allowed some kinds of warrants to be allowed in and others to be turned away. Why three? Because each one has failed, has collapsed catastrophically, overthrowing public order and producing a generalized crisis of warrant, requiring difficult arbitration as whole societies scrambled to find justifications for their most fundamental understandings. What happens when persons lose all confidence in an entire social order they had previously subscribed to, and worse, what happens when entire societies do? As you might expect, chaos ensues until constituent cultures articulate a new set of assumptions underwriting a new set of warrants that members can subscribe to. These “epistemological epochs” have warped our history. They continue to.
The first, the premodern era, ultimately arbitrated all appraisals by means of a generalized trust in authority so all-consuming that the era itself seems distinctly foreign to contemporary understanding. The missing ingredient for contemporary inspection is trust. It is in the nature of premodern trust that rational and moral agency, the capacity of the individual to steer her life by her own judgment, was surrendered in a forfeiture so complete that most of us must use memories of early childhood to recall it. Medieval corporate society was always hierarchical and patriarchal, with all strands of power ultimately flowing from divine authority as interpreted by theocrats and their subordinates in an unbroken chain of trust. Most of human history has been lived under this assumption, which offers tremendous but brittle power to all who lived under it. It was initially resistant to doubt, for its means of warranting truth and finding goodness were fused into a single composite guaranteed by a deity who was the final arbiter of both. Doubt itself required a reacquisition of the reasoning agency required to quell it, which trust necessarily suppressed. Though initially strong, trust as an axiom of commitment warranting authority was easily challenged by novelty and appeals for trust by competing authority. Once this appeal induced doubt, extant authority faced certain challenge because doubt is definitionally a revocation of trust. During the thousands of years of authority’s dominance, trust was often transferred but always under a divine aegis that retied the loose strings of sundered trust into comparable strength. This model began to fail in 1517, when Martin Luther elevated his own reasoning over Catholic authority, if ever so briefly, and championed a priesthood of all believers in which every Christian might be a pope. The failures of trust he inspired over the next miserable century and a half began to fracture the most powerful source of societal cohesion that civilization has ever known. Every social norm and personal relationship had to be renegotiated in the midst of an extended and vicious conflict that cost twenty million lives. Private conviction confronted religious dogma and competing belief. Trust was repeatedly reallocated and then withdrawn over generations. Innumerable competing religious revelations vied for public subscription, but when equal authorities offer conflicting truths and formulae for salvation, what could trust do but fail, renew, and fail yet again? The worst of it was that no consensual public order could maintain public trust and no replacement for that trust was available.
Eventually, Europe hammered out new axioms of commitment favoring individual experience and universal reasoning, in the process changing persons from subjects to citizens and submitting truth claims to each person’s rational and moral agency. History calls this process the Enlightenment. Institutional authority of every stripe now had to offer persons good reasons for acceptance, but these good reasons first had to be invented and substantiated. From the seventeenth century to the dawn of the twentieth, this new modernism continued to evolve even as its limitations emerged, producing a slow erosion of institutional authority over the span of three centuries. The crowning glory of this process eventually matured into the natural sciences. For all its success in discovery, modernism could never discover a consensual moral process that linked truth and goodness as religious authority had done. And despite modernism’s guiding axiom favoring individual agency, institutional authority continued to demand its surrender, though with diminishing force, proving to congregants and kingdoms that public consensus is difficult to maintain when individuals are asked to reason together. And as empirical science pressed its case, human science laid its claim as public moral arbiter. But the ever-shifting theories of these soft sciences were dismal failures, as unsuccessful in forging moral consensus as the same era’s popes and potentates. By the turn of the twentieth century, modernism’s failures became too obvious to ignore. As institutional authorities finally faced the full forfeiture of popular trust at the turn of the twentieth century, religious morality began its final surrender to popular taste. Meanwhile, modernism’s own champions were happy to apply their universal reasoning to critique modernist values in a kind of epistemological cannibalism. Their efforts constituted a devastating self-critique of inconsistencies and hypocrisies. Popular culture distributed this critique to a mass audience both enraptured and unbalanced by scientific progress and moral vacuity.
World War I (1914-1918) seems the proper symbol for a second round of axiomatic chaos that imperializing Western nations spread throughout the world. The Reformation had shattered unanimity of warrants in Europe, and now a second era of chaos upended the Reformation’s replacement axioms, rocked them to their foundations, and broke them. Again, societies struggled with a failure of consensual foundations as modernism’s abuses and failures clarified over the last half of the twentieth century. A third set of axioms of commitment began to emerge over the course of that dismal era. What the Reformation did to premodern authority, the moral chaos of the 1900’s did to modernism. What finally began to emerge by the last third of that miserable century was a third axiomatic position marshaling new warrants for truth and goodness claims, postmodern ones. If the hallmark of premodernism was a submission of trust to authority and the seal of modernism the elevation of private experience and universal truth, the postmodern revolt gradually hammered out its own essential assumption: that private experience necessarily must produce only private truth by means of idiosyncratic reasoning. More importantly, this private agency must create a private morality in tension not only with institutions but also with persons of differing experience. Universal reason succumbed to cultural relativism in all determinations of value. Other than dominance, no accommodation to consensual public morality could grow from this radically new individualism.
Even in this quick sketch, a few patterns begin to emerge.
First, crises seem to be accelerating. Authority dominated for three thousand years, modernism for only three hundred, and postmodernism even now is failing after only a century. One reason for this more rapid failure is that old axioms do not simply fade away but continue to exert some force for some persons. Premodern nostalgists still seek a return of trust to religious authority and modernists a return of universal reasoning in defense of institutionalism even as postmodernists skewer all authority and the “grand narratives” of modernism. The chaos and intransigence that once characterized intervals of epistemic dislocation are now the societal norm as disjunctive axioms contend in the public square.
A second trendline concerns the number of persons invited into that public square. Premodern corporatism was necessarily inclusive since trust could not tolerate competing authority, especially when it came from similar kinds of institutions. That limitation required everyone to have a place in the corporate hierarchy. Modernists appealed to majority rule, meaning that minorities might be safely excluded, posing an ongoing problem for cultural consensus. Postmodern individualism atomizes majorities into competing interest groups jostling for room in public spaces. In terms of moral inclusiveness, a devolution has occurred as power has shifted from corporate order to democratic majority to libertarian individual.
Thirdly, these three axioms of commitment impacted persons’ relations with their societal institutions. For premodernists, institutions were formative of individuals’ identity, making for a highly conservative orientation. When modernist axioms relocated agency to individuals, they still could appeal to common reasoning, so modernists considered institutions informative. They valued interactions based on common reasoning that might improve both institutions and their members. Institutional authority might be respected if it demonstrated its utility, or it might be modified if sufficient numbers of its members found ways to improve it. Postmodernists vociferously reject institutions as impositions of power and tradition on individual autonomy, so they seek performative opportunities to demonstrate their independence.
So here we are, navigating our own preferential freedom as best as we can, steering our tentative declarations by inconstant intuition or ambiguously-sourced reasoning. We cannot know whether other persons’ truth claims are underwritten by premodern trust, modern universality, or postmodern private schema. What is worse, we may not know what warrants our own declarations at any moment as we pursue our own version of the good as individuals, in cultures, and as citizens.
No repair is possible unless cultures can consensually and explicitly lay out the public axioms they subscribe to and order the warrants those axioms permit. That task calls for a clear demarcation between public and private life. Private goods are matters of private taste, but the public square requires a working public morality that individuals can endorse to further their interests. Since individual agency is the bedrock of contemporary life, no surrender to trust in religious authority is now possible, despite the pleas of religious nostalgists. Nor can complex societies survive a radical individualism that regards institutions as impositions of embedded power. The challenge is to combine a radical respect for individual agency with a consensual public morality.
Though the analyses that follow intend collectively to answer that challenge, they are structured to be largely self-explanatory. I summarize the major contentions at the beginning of each piece and link relevant passages throughout. Because they are intended to stand alone as essays, some repetition is unavoidable. A straightforward, cumulative analysis may be found in The Deep Simple: The Terms of Public Morality, available on Amazon.