I love the 5Cs, but I think there is a profound flaw in our studies. The purpose of a liberal arts education is to foster a deep understanding of the issues that govern our lives and the world around us, not just to teach us a vocation. I sense, however, that 5C students have a disturbing lack of understanding of the fundamental differences between conservatives and liberals and the philosophical problem both ideologies have failed to overcome.
When squabbling about socialized health care, taxes, or abortion, politicians are debating aspects of one basic question: What is the nature of human freedom? Those on the left, influenced by the philosophies of Richard Rorty and John Rawls, hold the belief that the role of government is to create an egalitarian society in which all citizens have the ability to pursue their own ends free of suffering. Rorty writes in Contingency, irony, and solidarity that we must allow “citizens [to] be as privatistic, ‘irrationalist,’ and aestheticist as they please as long as they do it on their own time – causing no harm to others and using no resources needed by those less advantaged.” This goal manifests itself in progressive reforms like universal health care. Liberals argue that it is the government’s role to liberate us from basic needs so that we may pursue our private passions.
The conservative take on human freedom focuses on economic liberty and moral grounding. Free-market economists like Milton Friedman grew wary of big government after observing the devastating famines and lack of creativity present in Communist centrally-planned economies. Friedman wrote in Free to Choose, “[we should build] a society that relies primarily on voluntary cooperation to organize both economic and other activity, a society that preserves and expands human freedom, that keeps government in its place, keeping it our servant and not letting it become our master.” Conservatives also believe that social liberalism, fueled by moral relativism, has decayed institutions like churches that teach and preserve society’s lawfulness and morality.
While critics on the right declare that the left’s views lead to tyranny and hedonism, and critics on the left assert that the right’s views are cruel and oppressive to those in need, neither actually get to the root of the problem with their opponent’s philosophy. The pursuit of human freedom seems to be a noble goal, but it only provides man with a means to an end and not an actual end to pursue. For the last century, philosophers have worked to respond to Nietzsche’s attack on traditional values and purpose; presently, thinkers from both the left and the right have stared into the abyss, but none have found a new absolute set of ends for mankind to pursue.
Without the existence of objective meaning or intrinsic value to life, man becomes trapped in the perspectives of nihilism and relativism. Some philosophers find this more devastating than others. Existentialist Jean-Paul Satre thought that in the wake of relativism, “all human actions are equivalent and all are on principle doomed to failure.” Others accept relativism and pursue a life of what Nietzsche labeled the “last man:” a safe, complacent life fulfilling basic material desires.
Therein lies Allan Bloom’s criticism of America’s bourgeois culture in The Closing of the American Mind as “nihilism with a happy ending.” As a country, and as individuals, we have seemingly glossed over relativism’s destruction of any absolute value or purpose in life, replacing it with whatever we as individuals feel is right to pursue. The downside to accepting relativism is that it provides little reason to pursue knowledge, aesthetics, or any sort of common good beyond not physically hurting one another.
I fear that many 5C students accept this form of casual relativism because they are not properly educated to understand and critically evaluate their own political sentiments . If students do not attempt to grasp the basic philosophical issues behind their studies, and if the 5Cs do not do more to guide its students in this pursuit, I fear that the supposed leaders that we graduate will be rudderless in understanding and solving the most important problems facing our generation.