The Last Stagthena

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.

Alex Heiney, the Editor-in-Chief of the Claremont Port Side, is a junior Government major and ROTC cadet at Claremont McKenna College.

3 Responses to “The Last Stagthena”

  1. Tyler Lamon says:

    “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”?

    Help me out here: are you implying that your classmates only believe as they do because they are “uneducated” and that, with proper teaching, they will come to see the rightness of your (presumably different) position?

    Just out of curiosity.

  2. Ryan Shaffer says:

    Two things. First, I don’t think that we’re ever going to overcome relativism. Modern culture is too diffuse to produce the same kind of common value that Nietzsche watched die in European Christianity. I’m all for teaching students philosophy, but it seems like the student is going to leave, and his neighbors, co-workers, and probably friends will be last men.

    Second, I don’t think that the impossibility of some ethic returning prevents the individual from pursuing truth, knowledge, aesthetic beauty, or morality. The aesthetic is still the aesthetic; philosophers are still philosophers even if they aren’t being read. If we can’t break modern society from its relativist haze, then we ought to instill in our students a desire to produce this good, rather than hope for it; more specifically, to produce this good in spite of the fact that it’s piss into the abyss.

    Though maybe that was your point? I just think you give up on the individual contra society far too easily.

  3. Alex Heiney says:

    @ Lamon: I do imply my classmates are uneducated in this matter because of how casually they approach relativism. I do not suggest an alternative; I simply think that they should either attempt to make their political leanings coherent with their personal philosophies, or at the least identify the dangers of a relativistic outlook on the world.

    @ Shaffer: On your first point: My goal here wasn’t to overcome relativism. Like you, I am skeptical about that ever happening.

    As far as relativism goes, I agree that it does not prevent the pursuit of what you seem to agree to be “higher” things. But it provides no justification for it. If some cult opens a series of successful schools teaching a dogmatic asceticism opposed to these “higher” things, for instance, the relativist cannot claim that such a teaching is any better or worse than an education that attempts to foster enjoyment and pursuit of the “higher” things in students on any absolute ground. A relativist can only claim things like wisdom or morality are good because as an individual he likes them, not for any sort principled reason, because man, and thus society, has no ultimate good or end it should pursue.

    It seems you actually think we need society more than I suggest. If we indeed live in a relativistic paradigm, and you and I agree that a certain group of things are higher and should be pursued, it would appear we need to use institutions to instill that end in others. If relativism is the perspective we view the world from, unless you think mankind is initially geared towards a pursuit of knowledge and morality (and it doesn’t sound like you do), we must use society to socialize man to agree with our individual perspectives concerning what is “higher.”

    But I try my damndest not to be a relativist, so I will leave you to that pursuit.


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