Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash
Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash
No, this is not about ‘Perennialism’. ‘Perrenial’ is an adjective with its own independent meaning. Though I am using the word ‘perrenial’ here, I am not advocating the transcendent unity of religions. Thus, if your interest in reading this was only peaked by the polemic opportunity represented by that possibility, you might find the rest of this a waste of time.
Rather, I want to talk about an aspect of Muslim life in the modern world, which, in spite of how it may appear to we Muslims who experience it, is not, I would argue, entirely exclusive to our experience, but is only our experience of a moral challenge perennially faced by humanity at large.
In the history of philosophy, this challenge informs the context of the Platonic dialogues. He wrote at a time when increased commercial and political activity between various Greek city-states forced them to confront the fact of their diverse and often incompatible moral, religious, and social values, raising the question: Are any set of values universally valid, and if so, on what basis?
One possible answer is that my values, or those of my city, are universally valid, simply because they are ours, as represented by the moral chauvinism of Euthyphro. Another possible answer is that there are no universally valid values, only the good in a city, which differs from the good in another city, depending only on what that people deem good, or have been convinced to deem good by the strongest or most eloquent among them. This position is represented by the likes of the Sophists, Gorgias, and Thrasymachus.
Whenever diverse people mix, it presents this dilemma between moral chauvinism and moral relativism. But both alternatives, as Socrates leads us to discover, are ultimately incoherent conceptions of value that, since the incoherent cannot be real, amount to moral nihilism. The Socratic challenge, explicitly in The Republic, as described by Plato, is to resist moral nihilism by showing that the problematic dilemma is a false one. This is the perennial challenge that I have in mind.
We find it in Al-Ghazali’s al-Munqidh min al-Dalal (The Deliverance from Error). His childhood break from taqlid (blind imitation), in search of the universal fitra (the original, primordial state), eventually led him to the brink of skepticism. He also had to chart a path of intellectual and spiritual resistance to both the ‘blind sectarianism’ that is simply an assertion of an arbitrary identity grounded in the lower self, and extreme rationalism, the pretense of epistemological self-sufficiency that leads ultimately to skepticism. The former, even if accidently ‘true’, is a myopic truth. The latter, though it promises a universal truth, does so falsely.
In al-Mustasfa min Ilm al-Usul, for example, Ghazali considers the argument that, since all rational beings assent to certain ethical propositions, it follows that those propositions are universal, necessary truths. On the contrary, he responds, mankind might fall into agreement on a falsehood. He was right. An effective advertising campaign may convince everyone that Big Macs are good for your health, but that would not make it necessarily true. The elite among a group of former colonies may all agree to sign a document agreeing that a list of human rights drawn by their colonizers are exclusively ‘universal’. But it would not follow that no further discussion is due on that question.
The challenge, which I am calling ‘perennial’, is perhaps really a constant fixture of human experience. But it is one that confronts us more forcefully whenever technological expansion brings people with various civilizational and moral viewpoints into closer interaction. And this is happening at an unprecedented rate with the current phenomenon we call globalization.
It manifests itself today in the form of a topic that is very popular for use in introductory philosophy and ethics courses and textbooks, sometimes called the ‘diversity argument’ for cultural relativism. It goes:
This argument is easily understood by the layman, which explains its popularity in introductory courses and among so-called barstool philosophers. For the individual whose ethical thought has not risen above the level of taqlid, it often represents the first step into critical moral reasoning. Today’s communications technology appears to strengthen the force of this argument’s premises. It reaches into every province and confronts everyone with the specificity and peculiarity of their own values, the radical diversity of values in the world, the apparent intractability of conflict between them, and the ultimate, arbitrary, irrationality of it all.
But global communications technology does not facilitate any deeper philosophical reflection on this problem. YouTube is not serving as a forum for Socratic dialogue. What we are seeing expressed on the internet with respect to moral conflict can largely be classified into one of three categories. First, there are slogans, jingoism, and arbitrary assertions, accompanied by slander and vicious attacks against opponents. Second, there are ‘new atheist’ style attacks against religion generally. The nature of their complaints shows that by ‘religion’ they really mean any ultimately arbitrary moral paradigm, which they take religion to be, by definition. Their habit is to bemoan what they see as a human historical pattern of conflict over arbitrary, irrational moral claims that will only end with the cessation of all such claims in favor of a universal secular worldview. Third, we find a flippant, careless response to moral conflict that seems to reflect a deeper moral nihilism. And this is really the logical conclusion of the conviction that all moral claims are ultimately arbitrary (including the ‘new atheist’ moral claims against ultimately arbitrary moral claims).
It has been interesting to witness the recent tension unfolding between the ideological atheists and a general outlook that might once have been understood as their own secular alternative to what they see as the welter of arbitrary moral claims. I refer to it here as liberal utilitarianism. This is the moral paradigm of the political and economic system that now enjoys global dominance, and it informs the discourse of the new global media. On the surface, it promises to save us from intractable conflict by providing a non-arbitrary, ‘universal’ standard by which to adjudicate between competing moral claims.
Liberalism and utilitarianism are both broad categories that cover a wide range of theoretical variations on a theme in the academic literature. But the broad cultural phenomenon I’m concerned with reflects mainly those versions advanced by John Stuart Mill. Their influence on American society is deep enough to be described as cultural instinct.
Liberalism is the principle that coercion and, by extension, violence is justified only to prevent harm to others. But what is ‘harm’? This depends on what is ‘good’. And incompatible moral paradigms have incompatible conceptions of the good. Therefore, the liberal principle cannot resolve conflict non-arbitrarily without a non-arbitrary conception of the good. This is where the element of utilitarianism steps in.
Utilitarianism is, first, the principle that the right act (or policy) is that which delivers the greatest good for the greatest number of people, coupled with a second principle, that the only intrinsic good is pleasure. This second principle, known as hedonism, is the element that promises to deliver a non-arbitrary conception of the good, which would, in turn, render the principle of liberalism definite and non-arbitrary. But what is the argument for hedonism? The one that seems to have had the deepest influence on Anglo-American culture, and by extension, on the developing global culture, is found in the chapter of Mill’s Utilitarianism, entitled, “Of what sort of proof the principle of utility is susceptible.” It goes as follows:
But what is the argument that the only thing anyone ever desires for its own sake is pleasure? It is simply to define ‘pleasure’ (a term Mill uses interchangeably with ‘happiness’) as whatever one desires for its own sake. Mill’s strategy, in responding to the objection that some people desire, for instance, virtue, for its own sake, is simply to say that, in that case, virtue is their pleasure. It turns out to be impossible to give any definition of pleasure that is both objective and substantive: it is just whatever happens to please. So the only thing we can really say about the intrinsic good is that it is desire satisfaction. Therefore, there is no rational, non-arbitrary way to determine what it is good to desire. And, since what one desires is ultimately arbitrary, there is no non-arbitrary conception of the good. But, if there is no non-arbitrary conception of the good, then it follows that there are no objective moral facts, and we are left with moral nihilism.
This critique of utilitarianism is not original. But I think it is valid, and it is worth revisiting here because the argument in question—much like the diversity argument for cultural relativism—has had, insofar as philosophical arguments go, a disproportionally deep impact on Anglo-American culture, which is broadening, by extension, with globalization. And this bothers me because I believe, for reasons I just gave, that, though it holds out the promise of providing a non-arbitrary conception of the good, by means of which moral conflicts can be resolved, liberal utilitarianism is really just a sophistic sleight of hand. It leads us, first unconsciously and then consciously, to moral nihilism.
To resist that slide into moral nihilism I have found it necessary, first, to deny that there is no non-arbitrary way to determine what it is good to desire. And that means I must deny that the only intrinsic good is desire satisfaction. I have to reject Mill’s obfuscation in using the terms ‘pleasure’ and ‘happiness’ interchangeably. My happiness is not just whatever I desire, but an objective condition independent of what I may actually want, or think that I want. So while we may all desire happiness for its own sake, we may not know what it actually is, which is equivalent to saying that we all desire the good, without necessarily having a clear conception of it. And this is the real moral question, which utilitarianism actually evades while pretending to answer. It is the path of self-discovery represented by Socrates and Ghazali, among others, and which the utilitarian logic precludes.
The fatal pivot of this evasion is the premise that ‘the only evidence for something’s being desirable is that people actually desire it’. In economic terms, this translates to the notion that there is no logical distinction between a thing’s market value and its real value; that real value just is market value. And this, I would argue, is really the fundamental premise of capitalism. It makes possible the liberal notion of ‘the market place of ideas’, where the validity of an idea is measured simply by its ability to sell. Indeed, if the only proof of the value of something is that people desire it, then whoever commands the desires of the people, commands the moral reality. So the endgame of this idea is not to resolve moral conflict in a non-arbitrary manner, but to grant a monopoly on our moral discourse to a global advertising industry that spends hundreds of billions annually to, as they say, ‘create value.’
If the only conception of the good we can have is that it is the satisfaction of our desires, then the only substantive measure we can have of it is in terms of our relative ability to satisfy them; that is power, the availability of means for achieving our ends. The prospect of considering the relative value of various ends themselves, substantively construed, is cut off, since desire is arbitrary. And, amid the irreconcilable diversity of the latter, the one thing that remains as a universal value is just the availability of the means of satisfying those desires. As far as meaningful discourse is concerned, expanding the means of satisfying desires becomes the only end—effectively the end in itself. So as capitalism monopolizes the form of our moral discourse, technology—the logic of means—monopolizes its content. We are creating a world in which we can do anything we want, except to deliberate, in any ultimately meaningful way, over what we want and should want, a world in which such a process of self-discovery cannot even be admitted as a meaningful possibility. I do not think it is inappropriate to describe that as a nihilistic world.
Global communications technology expands our means of accessing and broadcasting information. The discursive habit, under the technological paradigm, is to use the term ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’ interchangeably. But the difference is that false information is still information, while ‘false knowledge’ is an oxymoron. Truth is not an essential part of the concept of information as it is of knowledge. The contemporary habit of treating the two terms as synonymous indicates that information, rather than knowledge, is the real commodity under the current paradigm. And this is because, under this paradigm, usefulness is the only measure of value.
Apparently, graphic violent information is useful, because more and more of the information being produced and broadcast is of this nature. It is not only about, but part and parcel of, the allegedly intractable conflicts from which liberal utilitarianism, as the official religion, or ultimately arbitrary moral paradigm, of global capitalism promises to deliver us. Such conflicts, according to a prevalent narrative mentioned earlier, are a result of people still clinging to culturally specific, arbitrary values, and trying to impose them on others as if they were universal, and will only be resolved when the parties embrace liberal utilitarianism, and so refrain from attempting to impose on each other in the name of any value other than what, according to that paradigm, is truly universal.
But what if the opposite is the case? What if these conflicts are not between factions fighting over irreconcilably diverse values, but are instead between people fighting over the same things? How can we describe a fight between a Sunni who cannot account for why he is Sunni beyond the fact that he was ‘born’ into it, and a Shia who likewise cannot account for why he is Shia beyond the fact that he was born into it—when both either never considered the question, or simply dismiss the necessity or even the possibility of asking it. How should we describe a fight between parties like this, if the primary concern of both is which group is going to control positions in government, and therefore access to global investment capital? Is this really a fight over irreconcilably divergent and arbitrary basic values, or is it actually a fight over shared arbitrary basic values—the same basic values imposed arbitrarily by the logic of liberal utilitarianism as exclusively objective and universal?
Should we describe the government-condoned anti-Muslim riots in Burma and Sri Lanka as a manifestation of the irreconcilable opposition between the supposedly arbitrary, irrational basic values of Islam and Buddhism? When the propaganda of the perpetrators there sounds nothing like the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path, but sounds identical to European neo-fascist fear mongering about Muslim birth rates and threats to national identity, I think we have prima facie evidence that the roots of these conflicts are more universal than they are specific to religion or culture, though no less arbitrary for all that. We should note that this wave of state-sponsored violence against the Rohingya began just after the Burmese government was welcomed with much fanfare into the global capitalist fold. Have they learned how profitable a ‘war on terror’ can be for the power elite of a fledgling capitalist country, and so have decided to plant the seeds for one of their own?
If the rationale behind most of this conflict fits snugly into the logic of liberal utilitarianism, as I believe it does, then it does not represent a religion of backwardness that has yet to assimilate to the global capitalist order, but the natural outcome of that order. It is not the “bloody borders” of Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism that we are witnessing here, but the bloody frontiers of an expanding Empire of Desire, under whose ideology, religion and culture are only some of the many arbitrary identities in the guise of which desire delivers its inscrutable demands. The ‘fundamentalists’ of any religion—today’s Euthyphros who permit no reflective inquiry into the basis of their treasured identities, reveling in arbitrary demands they call ‘piety’—turn out to be the guardians and enforcers of this empire’s official cult. Is there any other explanation of why the governments of the United States and Saudi Arabia are such close allies?
In this way, the Empire of Desire distracts and cut us off from our historical resources for resistance. Many conflicts fought for its sake, are portrayed as having been fought for someone else’s god. Ideological secularists are in denial when they depict these thoroughly twenty first century wars as if they were medieval ‘jihads’ and ‘crusades’. And the depression that seems to afflict them over their view that the world is slipping ‘back’ into what they see as ‘primitive superstition’ is really the effect of the moral nihilism that their world is slipping into, on the basis of its own premises.
I don’t intend this as a thoroughgoing indictment against technology. Technology as such is a tool that can serve human interests, so long as it remains a means to independently conceived ends, and is thereby prohibited from monopolizing the content of moral discourse. Communications technology specifically, having historically provided the medium for the conditions under which this perennial moral challenge has emerged, has also served to broadcast the moral insights for which those conditions functioned as the catalyst. If today’s communications technology can be harnessed in such a way as to facilitate, and make accessible to the general public, the kind of moral discourse that can chart a path beyond the horns of moral chauvinism and moral relativism, and thus beyond the moral nihilism in which they both meet, then there is hope.
And the believers never lose hope.