The Confused Case of Universalism

In my last post, of July 25, 2014, and the one before that, of July 3, I discussed among other things the difficulty of arriving at universal moral principles.

The idea of universalism comes in two main guises, which are mutually exclusive: The first is what is most commonly understood as universalism in philosophical circles, namely that a particular set of moral principles should be applicable everywhere, universally; the second, that no principles should be applicable everywhere, that is, that all sets of principles are equal. The adherents of the first group claim universalism since they believe their set should, as it were, conquer the universe; the adherents of the second viewpoint, even though it is something more akin to moral relativism, in their vulgar manifestations consider themselves the true universalists because by rejecting the supremacy of any one set, they believe that they accept the whole moral universe as is. In short, universalism in one manifestation is absolutist, while in the other it is the exact opposite, relativist. Both groups lay claim to a certain cosmopolitan internationalism, and so one may speak of internationalism as absolutism and of internationalism as postmodern relativism.

There are certain difficulties with absolutist universalism (a too positivistic self-reliance and so on), even though it is far preferable to the other kind, since it recognizes the existence of higher truths, an existence which can and as a practical matter indeed must be recognized, as I have previously discussed. But to anyone with even the slightest notion of the pulse of contemporary Western culture it should be perfectly clear that it is the second type of universalism that holds sway in intellectual and pseudo-intellectual circles today. We have all heard statements to the effect that cultures are different but equal, and that we may not criticize a particular behavior if it forms part of a culture. This universalism has translated itself into a postmodern internationalism where all sides are to be given their due.

There is no intellectual rigor in such universalist thinking, and one might do well to look a bit at its genealogy. Its main cause is the penchant for superiority that every single human being, in varying degrees, has. When superiority over others has been historically exhausted, one turns to superiority over oneself: our set of principles is beneath me, one will say, and therefore others are just as good, if not better. Related to this is the desire for superiority over cultural and political conflicts in general. By saying that all sets are essentially equal, one aggrandizes oneself as just, magnanimous, and above petty conflict. Today’s cognoscenti who in moral, political, and military conflicts want to have it both ways are particularly prone to this error, which is a great motor for vanity. They will often not realize that, in many cases, admitting the error of one way makes it logically impossible to fault the other, because, depending on the particular constellation, only two options exist. These universalists are easy to recognize, because they are the ones who will instinctively react against any distinction of superiority or nobility between different sets or different entities. Theirs is a watered-down attempt at moral democracy, and the ironic thing is that their rejection of the superiority of any one set comes precisely out of a desire for their own, personal superiority. This is, in a certain sense, a more nefarious kind of superiority than that posed by the first type of universalism, because whereas the recognition of one set above others only claims the superiority of a particular idea, the rejection of all sets as being merely equal or relative seeks the superiority of the person himself. It is indeed indicative of this type of universalists that their desire for superiority is oftentimes greater than those who freely admit the superiority of one moral set over another (which is a simple stroke of human psychology; so too those who insist that there is such a thing as a perfectly selfless act are invariably the most selfish). They seek to be above “ideology”, which has become a dirty word precisely because of the universalist desire for personal superiority, even though those who make this claim do not understand the meaning of the word and thus do not realize that a non-ideological philosophical statement is impossible. The non-ideological are generally the most ideological, even if it be merely the ideology of the self-satisfied bourgeois with no inkling of the foundations upon which rest his own beliefs, or of their logical consequences.

A fitting image of the universalist ideal, which is intellectually lazy and detrimental to human creativity

When it comes to the specific merits of this latter universalism in and of themselves, as opposed to its mere genealogy, these are also easily rejected, and I have already emphasized elsewhere the danger and indeed impossible impracticality of such thinking. Those who refuse to recognize certain sets above others need not give themselves the trouble of defending them, which is always more intellectually demanding than claiming equality. These universalists have forgotten the Greek concept of agon, literally “contest”, which in its philosophical guise means the weighing of everything – truly everything – in the balance, the determining of greater and equal and lesser value of all concrete and abstract things that interact in the universe. We say today that it is arrogant to judge, not realizing that we all judge, all the time, as part of our daily lives, both great things and small. The Greeks, at the very least, were more honest with themselves than we are. Understanding the agon and assigning value not only makes greater demands of the human intellect, but also leads to a human desire to create more and live more of the great, rather than to fall back on a limp, lazy, and anemic equality of sets and conflicting sides. I say anemic, because a belief in the equality of sets will ultimately kill the passion of which humans are capable, and this is perfectly observable on a daily basis (I have noticed, to mention one example among many, that the people who claim the equality of moral sets are also those who will say “I love you” to just about anyone, a sentence which in due time will be completely bloodless, although I think that this is also a particularly American affliction). It is a very rare person today who loves an idea so much that he or she would be willing to die for it.

(And if I seem to be harping a lot on a series of interrelated issues, it is because a new book, an analysis of Western oikophobia through the ages, has started willy-nilly to brew in my mind, so these are the things to which I am devoting a certain amount of thought these days.)