Thinking about the postmodern view of power got me thinking about the common logical fallacy captured by the phrase “Correlation is not causation” and about a similar mistake postmodernists make in observing what they view as the role of power in cases of disagreement (see “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements”).
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 preference. We obviously derive this pleasure when a choice benefits us. But, they claimed, we also feel it when doing for others, in acts we call altruistic. 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, it motivates us in altruistic acts as we seek the satisfaction that comes from doing for others. Therefore, they claimed 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 altruism was in mistaking the consequence for the intention. 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 a consequence for the intention that moves us to act. So pleasure, always a result of getting what we choose, is not always the motivation to choose.
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, its only means of detecting moral stain lies in revealing inconsistency in either party’s private moral schema (see “What Is the 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 private 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 its accomplishment. By this I mean power in the simple physics sense: the ability to do work, to accomplish something. In Aristotle’s words every action aims to achieve a good (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?“). You can be sure that every dispute involves the exertion of power simply because resolving conflict with another person must. Nothing necessarily nefarious comes of that, and if we wish to solve problems in the world, much good does come of it, and the end goal of all our intentions is one we will term a moral goal (“What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?“). So the use of power in postmodernists’ view eventually comes down to whether moral aims ought to be tolerated. They will surely agree to that goal in the abstract, so long as everyone is willing to employ a subjective or relativist standard, meaning that each person or culture gets to define desires independently and accept difference when they interact. But there’s the rub. The moral goal of infinite tolerance will produce a stalemate when our private aims conflict, which will happen almost as soon as we enter the public square, in which event they become public disputes. Even if we agree on ends in a cooperative endeavor, which is highly unlikely, we will disagree on how best to accomplish them. So how do postmodernists think conflicts are to be resolved? I hope the answer is clear. Since goods are privately chosen and pursued, none can be defended as better, so any resolution to dispute can only come when one party in the interaction — person, culture, institution, or nation — forces its will on the other or surrenders it. So postmodernists see any exercise of power as a violation of another’s autonomy, the sacred right of individual agency. Power must be inherently coercive.
Sometimes it is. Modernism struggled mightily to articulate why persons have the right to determine their own moral path in the wake of the spectacular collapse of authority in the Reformation (see Natural and Political Rights”“). A continuing struggle ensued over the proper role of institutional authority in directing, respecting, or imposing upon individual preferential freedom, one that continues today (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge”). This struggle remains a flash point for postmodernists’ resentment for two reasons. First, authority and particularly religious authority had been the formative moral arbiter of Western societies until the Reformation demonstrated its fatal weaknesses (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority“). But modernism could find no comparable replacement means to reconcile public conflict or provide consensus, so it relied on traditions that ill suited its founding axioms of individual agency, producing a lasting set of power struggles that postmodernists accurately identified and rightly condemned (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). It did not help that institutional authority was entirely unwilling to recognize or legitimize the moral limits modernism sought to impose on it (see “The Victorian Rift”). Nor was modernism successful in proposing its own resolution to the problem of private moral agency seeking consensual public goods. Its political innovations were based on fantasy (see “Why Invent a Social Contract?“). Its admiration for its greatest product, empirical science, obscured the limitations that empiricism faces when it seeks to warrant moral goods (see “The Limits of Empirical Science“). And throughout all of its imperfect efforts to found public goods on private agency, modernism attempted to accommodate traditional authority, in part because authority was still a remnant force for consensus despite its friction with the fundamental tenets of modern thought and in part because traditional authority simply refused to surrender the common field of play (see “Modernism and Its Discontents“). Postmodernism was born in the swirl of contradictions and hypocrisies that finally snubbed out premodern notions of authority at the beginning of the twentieth century. Given that background, we might be more forgiving of its own many errors; still they continually distort our perspective (see “One Postmodern Sentence“). Its champions attempted to reconcile private moral agency with public consensus while furiously stamping out any surviving sparks of institutional authority. But postmodernism’s axioms of commitment could only go so far as toleration for difference, which could suppress authority but could not replace it as a source of consensus. Tolerance necessarily diffuses power; it cannot justify its use. Given the incongruities of the axioms in contention in the public square and the continuing unmet need for public moral consensus, the postmodern obsession with concentrations of power still finds plenty of contradictions to condemn (see “Cultural Consensus”).
To postmodern eyes, their inability to suppress the impositions of power and authority’s remnant oppressions and continuing revivals reveal something more ominous than mere inconsistency. This allows them a more caustic critique than merely pointing out contradictions in our public life. The true sin of postmodernism is not intolerance. It is hypocrisy. One can be biased without awareness as the current campaign against privilege demonstrates. But hypocrisy is by definition both intentional and deceptive. It is subterranean, the lie that empowers. In power dynamics between individuals and between individuals and institutions, we see ample opportunity for veiled deception, and this secret quality perfectly matches the gnostic quality of postmodern thought. The arcane knowledge that postmodernists claim is difficult to achieve, which explains their love of irony and alienist aesthetics as tools of uncovering it (see “Three Portraits”). This effort is fueled by many of the charges of the human sciences: that the ordinary mind is simply unconscious of its true motives, that language hides what it pretends to clarify, that economics is necessarily war by other means, that identity is the impress of culture, and on and on (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”). All of these forces hinder the ordinary person from seeing the truths postmodernists continually try to reveal, all marked by the will to power (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents“). 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 institutional exploitation. Neither of us may be aware of the hidden, perhaps unconscious, motives that manipulate us as we contend. Every such interaction is really a zero-sum game of winner and loser, which explains at least some of the disconsolate quality of contemporary life in the midst of material abundance. I will concede that our dispute involves a power relationship and that mine is greater than hers because I have the competence to judge the quality of her work and to enter a score on her transcript. Power yes, but in this case neither egregious nor unwarranted. Merely the means to effect a good. But if she denies my authority, refuses to sanction my competence to judge, rejects the institutions that educated and accredited me, champions the particularity of her own experience and the opinions it inspired, and considers herself the product of a different culture with values and knowledge entirely equal to my own, how can I claim the power to judge her work without imposing on her will?
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” (See “Foundations of the Law: An Appetizer”). 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, why shouldn’t the strong always dominate the weak? What moral argument could be advanced to argue that they shouldn’t? Postmodernists seek to equalize power, to achieve an absolute parity of political opportunity and economic outcomes, to make the strong weaker and the weaker strong (see “The Riddle of Equality”). But their case rests on a moral contention their axioms cannot support. If the law is a kind of conventional arrangement like driving on the right side of the road or the left, by appeal to what objective criteria could equality be defended? And how could maximizing freedom in respect of individual autonomy fail to result in unequal distributions of power requiring yet more imposed power to achieve circumstantial equality, committing even more violations of liberty? In such an arrangement, why acknowledge the moral superiority of certain civil or human rights (See “Where Do Rights Originate?“)? From whence could “moral superiority” derive? On what grounds can anyone claim that the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 was a moral advance or that the Nuremberg Decrees of 1935 was not? 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” and “speak their own truth” and “create their own narrative.” 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 own value system? In postmodern theory a persecuted minority may commit atrocities against the persecuting majority without being accused of injustice 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 (see “Two Senses of the Common Good”)?
In moral choosing we derive pleasure from the satisfaction of our desires. That does not make us selfish, for selfishness is about intent rather than consequence. In all of our disputes, we seek resolution, and that 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 and in that darkness refuse to see that some moral goods are entirely worthy of individual subscription (see “Toward a Public Morality“).