The Retortion of Social Construction

If the notion of the social construct is true, then the notion of the social construct is itself a social construct. It is without any basis in reality, so that there is no real reason we should notice it, or order our lives thereby.

The consequence is that when someone argues that, e.g., marriage is a social construct, so that we may change it if we like so that gays can marry, it can be argued with equivalent force that the notion that gays ought to be able to marry is likewise a social construct. We may therefore reject the notion of gay marriage, under the banner of social construction, and there will be no way that the moral nihilists can gainsay us. If there is no moral reality, so that no one has any basis in that reality for an argument against gay marriage, then by the same token no one has any basis in moral reality for an argument against the proscription of gay marriage – or anything else, whatsoever.

In general, it’s no good to argue from moral nominalism to any moral realism. You can’t get any ought from “there is no such thing really as an ought.” Thus to talk at all about what it is right or proper to do is implicitly to recognize the falsity of moral nominalism; if moral nominalism is true, then nothing is really right or wrong to do, and such talk is all just nonsense. Moral discourse of any sort at all implicitly agrees to the presupposition that moral discourse has something real to discuss.

42 thoughts on “The Retortion of Social Construction

  1. It’s time for change. Looking forward, I’d say things are looking bright. Just my personal opinion. I might be blinded by success.

  2. Your argument is logically air-tight. And it will work as often as logically air-tight arguments have ever worked when used against progressives.

    This is not a debate; this is a fight. Remember what Louis Veuillot said about these people. Show them that their arguments are false or invalid and “they will have none of it. _That_ is their ‘reason,’ and it is their strongest.”

    A true progressive will read your argument, roll his eyes, and say “bigots are so cute when they try to think.” He’ll then call you out for using outrageous fallacies and tell you to open your mind to other possibilities rather than giving blind trust to outmoded Authority and irrational superstitions from the Dark Ages. I almost fell asleep typing that.

    I know that the War Nerd is not a good man, but he sometimes makes good observations. The one he made in this article ( http://exiledonline.com/wn-day-26-lullsnlies/ ) is apropos. I’ve edited the passage for brevity.

    Begin Quote
    Morale and silence beat argument every time. The real line is “I am not having it,” and that’s how real empires deal with the stuff they can’t stomach or hide. They just ain’t having it.

    Probably when people are willing to deal with stuff, “face” stuff, they’re near the end. Logic is not healthy for empires and other spreading things.

    There’s this myth that people argue, discuss things, and the best argument wins. I never noticed that in my life. Maybe people argue about a few little things, things no one’s willing to kill or die for. Although even those boil over into firefights pretty damn often (“Tastes great!” “Less filling!” followed by burst of small-arms fire). But for the really serious stuff, there’s no rational argument. There’s our guys good, your guys bad, and that’s all anyone wants to hear.

    We walk around on our hind legs like circus poodles and pretty soon the poodles who teach in the colleges and write for the papers start believing it: “We are a hind-leg walking, rational species known for its reasonable nature.” And backstage all the poodles in the little spangly human vests and tied-on hats are trying to kill each other because Poodle A sniffed Poodle B’s butt the wrong way.

    In that way, and I hate to admit it: it really is a bad sign, a sign of decline, when people face facts. It’s not what we’re designed to do.
    End Quote

    • Thank you for pointing this out. Logic does not work on liberals, in fact I was talking about this with someone yesterday. Liberals use science not because they believe in it but to further their cause, so Darwin is fine when it comes to pissing of those “Jesus freaks” but when it comes down to making honest observations on race and immigration, to hell with Darwin! Same thing with Christianity, they could care less about God or Christ when it comes to abortion or homosexuality but when it comes to illegal aliens, they’re all of a sudden the biggest Jesus freaks out there.

      These are not people to be reasoned with, these are religious fanatics on par with that of Islam. And yes, I believe that they are religious fanatics, because if Belloc were around today, he would be writing essays about how liberalism is a Christian heresy.

      “Christian theology is the grandmother of Bolshevism” – Oswald Spengler.

  3. Pingback: The Retortion of Social Construction | Reaction Times

  4. While we’re talking about retortions (spell checker thinks that’s not a real word) I always thought the following was a good retortion to the “gays are born that way” argument:

    If homosexuality is innate & natural and, therefore, “good” then why shouldn’t I assume that finding homosexuality repellent (a near universal reaction across a variety of cultures) is innate & natural and therefore “good?” I was born a “homophobe.”

  5. Saying something is a social construct doesn’t mean it isn’t real, it means that it arises out of social conditions and if those conditions change it may disappear or become something quite different.

    The question of whether that covers the institution of marriage depends obviously on ones worldview, but it doesn’t discount the notion of social constructs itself. Also clearly marriage has had different forms under different social conditions (monogamous, polygamous, matrilineal, patrilineal, dissoluble, indissoluble etc) so it is at least partially malleable.

    The real question when it comes to homosexual “marriage” though is to ask what exactly we are talking about, because when I (and I would expect you) think of marriage I am thinking of a relation tightly associated with reproduction/procreation. I don’t think society has changed enough to discount the need for reproduction and I don’t think society has changed (or can change…) so much that reproduction can be disassociated from the relation of marriage. Obviously though there are people who do think that it has or even should and if it had most assumptions I would make about what a marriage ought to promote and constitute would not be valid.

  6. We hold it self-evident that all men are born equal and deserving of equal recognition. This is reality as recognized. Some social constructs derive their moral legitimacy from being founded on, and derived from, recognized reality. This is the principle that underlies the argument for the legitimacy of same-sex marriage based on equality of recognition. Whether one agrees with the argument is one thing; whether one accepts the principle on which it is advanced is another.

    • The notion that all men deserve equal recognition disagrees with reality. Everyone gets idiosyncratic treatment from the world, and from his fellows. No one is treated exactly the same. That’s why we all have different names. If we were all treated the same, there would be no point to our names.

      From this we may fairly conclude that the notion that all men deserve equal recognition is *nothing but* a social construct, that has no proper reference to reality.

      • We are all born as men. This is equally true of each of us who is born.
        What recognition is due to any man qua man is also, in equal measure, the recognition due to any other man qua man.

        First acknowledge or disavow the truth of this before I deal further with you.

      • Well, sure. That goes without saying. But it is much less sweeping than the assertion you started with. That we ought to treat all men as men ought properly to be treated does not entail that we should give each of them equal recognition.

    • you hold that self evident? you sure? i doubt it. you dont think everyone is equal, nor would you like to treat them as such, i bet. i really doubt it. prove me wrong. tell me there are no villains in your worldview. tell me we are all just animals doing what animals do. “oh? i ate your mother? no hard feelings, alright?” is it reality that humans are just animals? why can’t ‘we act like it then?

    • “We hold it self-evident that all men are born equal and deserving of equal recognition. This is reality as recognized.”

      What makes you think that equality is based in reality considering the advances in thought made by Darwin or Nietszche?

  7. The consequence is that when someone argues that, e.g., marriage is a social construct, so that we may change it if we like so that gays can marry, it can be argued with equivalent force that the notion that gays ought to be able to marry is likewise a social construct.

    This is obviously right. The point it illustrates, for me, is that nihilism favors the powerful. The guys selling social constructivism will admit Kristor’s point all day long. All they need is for the objective, natural law basis of marriage to go away. That real marriage and fake marriage are both social constructs is very congenial to them. Because, in the absence of that objective basis, there is no reason the powerful should not craft marriage in whatever way they like.

    Hollywood can make endless cultural products depicting real marriage as an intrinsically abusive sham and fake marriage as the beautiful fulfillment of human yearning. We can say “well, you *could* make the movies the other way ’round.” And we would be right. And so what? That doesn’t un-make the products which are actually made.

    • “..nihilism favors the powerful.” So true.

      The rich, the well-lawyered, and the well-connected see nothing to lose and everything to gain in the destruction of traditional family law. They believe they will prosper and conquer according to their own strength and genius, and that whatever they do should not be considered a crime. Women and children will be the first to suffer under such a regime, but ultimately the whole society will fail. In the interim, we may find ourselves living in an alien government filled with sterile sayings.

  8. If the notion of the social construct is true, then the notion of the social construct is itself a social construct.

    Congratulations on being the first person to notice that. (sarcasm, in case it isn’t obvious).

    It is without any basis in reality,

    How does that follow?

    You are subject to a fairly common confusion, but nothing about social constructionism suggests that the constructs aren’t real. On the contrary.

    • A.morphous, why do you so often *start* with sarcasm? Don’t you see that it makes you seem an unpleasant person, and your arguments the sort that only an unpleasant person would propose? That, i.e., it vitiates your arguments, however unfairly?

      I never suggested that social constructs are not real, or that they do not have effects. They are, and do, of course, or I nor anyone else could never have noticed them, one way or another. The question is not whether social constructs are real, but whether they are or can be true. If so, then they may not be gainsayed without real risk of real cost. If not, then we may disregard them, and reconstruct them at will, without worry.

      The question is whether our social constructs – or as we used to call them, our customs – are just stuff we make up, that don’t really have anything to do with reality or our prospects in relation thereto, or whether they bear some real relation to reality, so that they have some bearing on our chances of success. The moral nominalists among us argue the former, we of the orthosphere argue the latter.

      It seems obvious that of these two perspectives, the orthosphere has the more prudent, the more circumspect, the more careful argument.

      • “A.morphous, why do you so often *start* with sarcasm? Don’t you see that it makes you seem an unpleasant person, and your arguments the sort that only an unpleasant person would propose? That, i.e., it vitiates your arguments, however unfairly?”

        “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit” – Oscar Wilde

        To be fair, Kristor, great liberal intellectuals such as Jon Stewart use gratuitous sarcasm to give the illusion of great intelligence and of great wit. Maybe A.morphous is copying his heroes just like we all do.

      • Oh noes, sarcasm. Whoops, did it again. Sorry, don’t you know how this internet thing works?

        I never suggested that social constructs are not real,

        Um, I quoted you as saying just that.

        The question is not whether social constructs are real, but whether they are or can be true.

        I don’t know what that means. True to what? We can’t invent our own laws of physics, to be sure, but we seem to be able to invent our own laws of marriage just fine.

        The question is whether our social constructs – or as we used to call them, our customs – are just stuff we make up, that don’t really have anything to do with reality or our prospects in relation thereto,

        You did it again. In your mind, there are social constructs over here, and reality over there.

        I think what you are trying to say — or at least, a version of it that I might agree with — is that social constructs are not wholly arbitrary, that they need to conform in some way to the rest of reality to be successful.

        Religions are social constructs, obviously so in the case of recent inventions like Scientology and Mormonism, but just as true for older ones. I could invent a religion right now! But not all religions will work. If I suggest we all start worshipping office furniture, that probably won’t take off. The Shakers may have had a valid and appealing form of spirituality but their refusal to reproduce meant that in a different way they weren’t conformed to “reality”. So it goes.

        As free Americans we have the right and duty to figure out for ourselves how to live, both as individuals and as citizens. The more prudent thing to do might have been to freeze human development in the 15th century before modernism and the enlightenment, but it’s too late for that.

      • “Oh noes, sarcasm. Whoops, did it again. Sorry, don’t you know how this internet thing works?”

        Moar sarcasm plz. Everytime you start using sarcasm, I start to actually think that you might be intelligent or clever and it helps me take you somewhat seriously. Right now I am blown away by your highly developed wit and intellect.

      • You did it again. In your mind, there are social constructs over here, and reality over there.

        Nonsense. He is saying that reality and social constructs are distinct concepts, not orthogonal ones.

      • A.morphous, if it suits you to be nasty in public, and so besmirch the positions you generally advocate, knock yourself out, I guess. Makes my rhetorical job that much easier.

        I never suggested that social constructs are not real,

        Um, I quoted you as saying just that.

        Not so. You quoted me as saying that if the notion of social constructs is true, then it has no basis in reality. A notion can be real and have no basis in reality. The notion conveyed in the statement, “There are millions of unicorns in France,” is itself real, but has no basis in reality.

        I grant that my meaning would have been more explicit if I had written, “If the notion of moral nominalism that social constructs bear no true relation to reality is true, then that notion of the social construct is itself nothing more than just such a social construct, so that it cannot be true.” But I figured readers would understand me to mean just that, as everyone who has commented so far, including you, seems to have done. Writing would get awfully tedious if I had to spell out a whole doctrine every time I referred to it.

        Your version – “that social constructs are not wholly arbitrary, that they need to conform in some way to the rest of reality to be successful” – is not quite what I meant, but I find no fault with it, although I would want to purge it of any taint of consequentialism. A custom that doesn’t work out so well because it disagrees with reality is a bad custom, but I would not want to say that it is a bad custom because it doesn’t work out, but rather because it disagrees with reality (this being the reason it doesn’t work out). A good custom might not work out so well, from time to time, on account of the messiness and complexity of history. That a custom does not seem to be working too well should alert us to the possibility that it might be bad, as indeed it does; but this or that result, or set of results, from a given custom is not by itself a dispositive indication of its badness. E.g., the custom of diversifying a portfolio of investments didn’t work out so well from late 2007 to early 2009, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad custom, nor does it indicate that shorting equities, which worked out great during the same period, is a good standing policy. A bad policy can succeed for a time – or seem to – even though it disagrees with reality. Good decisions can have bad outcomes, and vice versa.

        In any case, your agreement with your version – which contradicts moral nihilism – means that you do not agree with the arguments of the moral nominalists at which the post takes aim; that, i.e., you are not yourself a moral nominalist. In practice, no one is (whatever they might say), because moral nominalism, being logically incoherent and thus self-refuting, is impossible to carry into practice. You can say that you are a moral nominalist, but you can’t actually be a moral nominalist; for, even saying that you are a moral nominalist is the act of a moral realist. To the extent that they are voluntary, our acts are all implicit assertions of our confidence that acts per se bear implicit meanings in respect to the world. This is why we say that they are intentional: really *about* something.

        Now, notwithstanding all that, there are indeed I suppose some customs that really are arbitrary. But they are very few. Take for example the way we count to five on our fingers. Some people start with the index finger, some with the thumb. Or, likewise, there are two seemingly equivalent ways to load toilet paper on the spindle. Prima facie, it does not seem that it could possibly make a difference to life as lived which method we used. We might suggest the same thing about the shapes of letters.

        But were we to consult with a philologist or a graphic designer, we might hear that the shapes of the letters we use is not the least bit arbitrary, and that the selection of a font is a matter of immense importance. Indeed, we have at my firm over the past two years spent a fair bit of time and energy deciding on fonts for our new website and deliverables.

        Likewise with respect to the method of counting on one’s fingers, or which way to load toilet paper on the spindle. There are subtle differences in the agreement of these customs to reality. It turns out that, upon examination, to count beginning with the thumb is the Way of the Righteous, while loading the toilet paper so that it rolls out from under the spindle is a step down the road to Perdition.

        Don’t get me started about shellfish and pork …

        As free Americans we have the right and duty to figure out for ourselves how to live, both as individuals and as citizens. The more prudent thing to do might have been to freeze human development in the 15th century before modernism and the enlightenment, but it’s too late for that.

        In fact it has always been impossible for any man at any time to recuse himself from the necessity of figuring out how to live. What changed with the revolutions of the 18th century was that men decided to try dispensing with a few traditional forms of social authority, replacing them with others. They had no alternative but to effect such a replacement, for there is no getting rid of authority. Nature abhors a vacuum of whatever sort, so that authority, like fairness, value, mass, and energy, is conserved. As Zippy rightly insists:

        Politics [is] essentially about discriminating between different notions of what ought to be done, exercising authority in favor of some choices while restricting others, and enforcing that authority with whatever formal or informal political apparatus is in place. (emphasis mine)

        As he then goes on to say:

        Ultimately, then, there is no such thing as a ‘free society’ in some general sense. There are only societies where what is permitted and forbidden is aligned with the good, and societies where what is permitted and forbidden is not aligned with the good. There are good and bad societies, but there is no such thing as free or unfree societies.

        Is it too late to reject the social forms we inherited from the Enlightenment? Of course not. If the libertarians are right – and in this, I think it is fairly obvious that they are – that rejection has already happened, and we are now already well on our way toward Peronism, or something much worse.

        That devolution from the vision of the Founding Fathers is regrettable, but (despite its accurate prediction by the traditional Right) it was not necessary. Man is free, so we have always the power, and thus the moral duty, to delete bad social constructs, and replace them with better ones, that are more congruent with reality. That’s why we care about moral discourse, and about whether a change to fundamental customs like marriage is right.

      • Have some sympathy for the aptly named a.morphous. He cannot deal with your arguments so he feels obliged to cut you down to his own size. These projections seem to work for him, but objectively, well…

      • @ DeGaulle

        I am actually pretty glad that the men here have A.morphous around. Whenever the writers or commentators take his “arguments” seriously and answer them, they show the reasoning behind our worldview; when they engage him intellectually which is far above his petty level, they are doing it for us not for him. Logic and reason is wasted on these types and personally I like to use him for rhetorical practice. Like Lanxantus said, this is not a debate but a fight. We need to learn how to break them psychologically because psychology is 99% of any battle.

        Appreciate A.morphous the same way a cat appreciates a mouse. Cats don’t reason with vermin. Neither should we.

      • a.morphous, although i might agree with you in your worldview, perhaps it would be helpful for me to explain the probable motive of the original essay. there are a great many people out and about who suddenly and repetitiously whine “social construct” whenever you mention something about an idea they dislike. their total dismissal of your philosophy as a “social construct” is rather annoying and as kristor has demonstrated incoherent by itself. perhaps you are some kind of elderly jew without friends or family, counting stacks of your slumlord money in your attic, but that is how it goes on the street with the commoners these days. don’t you know how this zeitgeist thing works?

  9. Jeeze you guys are delicate flowers. OK, no sarcasm.

    Not so. You quoted me as saying that if the notion of social constructs is true, then it has no basis in reality. A notion can be real and have no basis in reality. The notion conveyed in the statement, “There are millions of unicorns in France,” is itself real, but has no basis in reality.

    Yes, but the social constructs people actually use do have “a basis in reality”, whatever that is supposed to mean.

    A custom that doesn’t work out so well because it disagrees with reality is a bad custom, but I would not want to say that it is a bad custom because it doesn’t work out, but rather because it disagrees with reality (this being the reason it doesn’t work out).

    How can a custom “disagree with” reality? Statements (or people) can disagree with other statements (or people). Customs and reality are not propositions.

    In any case, your agreement with your version – which contradicts moral nihilism – means that you do not agree with the arguments of the moral nominalists at which the post takes aim; that, i.e., you are not yourself a moral nominalist.

    Good. I don’t like to apply stale philosophical categories to myself.

    We might suggest the same thing about the shapes of letters.

    But were we to consult with a philologist or a graphic designer, we might hear that the shapes of the letters we use is not the least bit arbitrary, and that the selection of a font is a matter of immense importance. Indeed, we have at my firm over the past two years spent a fair bit of time and energy deciding on fonts for our new website and deliverables.

    I’m not sure what point you think you are making. Dfferent cultures have different orthographies, making writing a great example of a social construct. They are not wholly arbitrary, and the shapes of letters can often be traced to early pictograms, for instance. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t social constructs, and a particularly variable one at that.

    Politics [is] essentially about discriminating between different notions of what ought to be done, exercising authority in favor of some choices while restricting others, and enforcing that authority with whatever formal or informal political apparatus is in place. (emphasis mine)

    Indeed. Politics is the process whereby morality is socially constructed (not the only one).

    Ultimately, then, there is no such thing as a ‘free society’ in some general sense. There are only societies where what is permitted and forbidden is aligned with the good, and societies where what is permitted and forbidden is not aligned with the good. There are good and bad societies, but there is no such thing as free or unfree societies.

    Oh give me a break. We all know what “a free society” means, it means one that maximizes the individual’s opportunity to seek their own notion of the good, as opposed to having it imposed from without. That doesn’t mean that murder must be legal, but it turns out to mean that if two dudes want to get married, then why the hell not? You may disagree, but please don’t pretend to not know what freedom means.

    Is it too late to reject the social forms we inherited from the Enlightenment? Of course not. If the libertarians are right – and in this, I think it is fairly obvious that they are – that rejection has already happened, and we are now already well on our way toward Peronism, or something much worse.

    Libertarians are rarely right about anything (although I guess they and I would both agree to my previous paragraph). All the political upheavals of the 20th century and today are responses to modernism. How could they not be? Even the neoreactionaries that seem to be multiplying like mayflies on the internet are wholly defined by the modernism they seek to reject.

    • “How can a custom “disagree with” reality? Statements (or people) can disagree with other statements (or people). Customs and reality are not propositions.”

      Arguing semantics is the sign of someone who basically performing the intellectual version of treading water. Great rhetorical strategy, I’ll give you that.

      • You know, I think Kristor can make his own points, and in fact we’ve managed to have some interesting exchanges in the past.

        In this case, it isn’t mere semantics, it’s the crux of the disagreement. He repeatedly hangs his argument on the notion of customs “disagreeing with reality”, but I have no idea what that is supposed to mean. A statement can disagree with reality, I don’t know what it means for a custom to do so, other than that it doesn’t work in a pragmatic sense and he already ruled out that interpretation.

      • “You know, I think Kristor can make his own points, and in fact we’ve managed to have some interesting exchanges in the past.”

        I don’t disagree with either one of those things. I don’t want to run you off, you’re actually one of my favorite parts of the site. I am not using sarcasm when I say that.

        But hey, you’ve got a point. While I can see what Kristor was saying in that point, I will leave it up to him to elaborate. I’ll stop heckling you, until next time.

    • “Oh give me a break. We all know what “a free society” means, it means one that maximizes the individual’s opportunity to seek their own notion of the good, as opposed to having it imposed from without. That doesn’t mean that murder must be legal, but it turns out to mean that if two dudes want to get married, then why the hell not? You may disagree, but please don’t pretend to not know what freedom means.”

      He didn’t say “freedom”, he said “free society”. You’re getting your terms mixed up and unlike in your other “point” where you argue semantics, this is a difference with a clear distinction. Freedom is an abstract concept and a “free society” is a society that is allegedly based upon that concept.

      On top of that and most importantly, your “counter-argument” didn’t even address let alone refute his point mainly because he never stated he didn’t know what either “freedom” or “a free society” meant. Debating someone’s points is really not that hard to do, this is 8th grade stuff.

      • He didn’t say “freedom”, he said “free society”. You’re getting your terms mixed up

        Now who’s quibbling over semantics?

      • “Now who’s quibbling over semantics?”

        I see you like to take quotes out of context. Typical.

        This is the rest of that quote: “and unlike in your other “point” where you argue semantics, this is a difference with a clear distinction. Freedom is an abstract concept and a “free society” is a society that is allegedly based upon that concept.”

        Try harder, this is too easy.

    • … the social constructs people actually use do have “a basis in reality”, whatever that is supposed to mean.

      I am confused about how you can assert that social constructs actually in use do have a basis in reality if you aren’t sure what “a basis in reality” means. I would note that we are not in dispute on this score: I agree with you that social constructs actually in use generally do have a basis in reality. But, on the other hand, people propose all sorts of social constructs that don’t have any such basis, such as Milly’s proposal that all men “deserve equal recognition.” They even enact and enforce laws prescribing universal fulfillment of such unreal policies. Sometimes such ukases are batted down before they pass (speaking as a proud Hoosier, I strongly recommend that all who read these words go and read the linked item about a famous incident in Indiana history, which is one of the more entertaining Wikipedia pages I have read, redolent of the lost world that Booth Tarkington limned in his hilarious books).

      How can a custom “disagree with” reality? Statements (or people) can disagree with other statements (or people). Customs and reality are not propositions.

      No, but customs can be couched as propositions – “it is good and proper to do x” – which can disagree with the reality that x is in fact not a good or proper thing to do. Simple.

      I’m not sure what point you think you are making. Different cultures have different orthographies, making writing a great example of a social construct. They are not wholly arbitrary …

      We are agreed on this (you should read more carefully; not everything is a battle). In that passage, I was engaged in an excursus on the question of whether even those customs that seem entirely arbitrary really are. I doubt it. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more it seems likely that the only sort of custom that can be entirely arbitrary is one that has no basis at all in reality.

      Politics is the process whereby morality is socially constructed …

      Here we come to the nub of it. The question is whether social constructs are created or discovered. If the latter, then they have some moral claim on us; they impose an ought, because they encode some feature of reality that it is wrong to contravene precisely because it is a feature of reality, that simply cannot be gainsayed without falling into error, and thus into peril. If the former, then we may contravene them without scruple, and do no wrong thereby, for they exert no more sway over our lives than an adventitious decision whether to add milk to our coffee for a change.

      Now, I’m not saying that you advocate the former position (apparently you don’t, quite), but lots of people strongly do. They insist that what we call “morality” is really just totally arbitrary convention created out of whole cloth; that, i.e., it isn’t really morality at all. They then often go on to say that, therefore, it is morally wrong for “moralists” to chide people for doing moral wrong. They can get extremely angry about this. I’ve seen it myself, a high and prickly dudgeon of self-righteous indignation that anyone would dare to impose their notions of right and wrong on anyone else. It’s hilarious.

      We all know what “a free society” means, it means one that maximizes the individual’s opportunity to seek their own notion of the good, as opposed to having it imposed from without.

      You’re missing Zippy’s point. In a society that has decided that gay marriage is permitted, anyone who thinks it wrong is no longer free to act on his beliefs. In the public square, he must submit to the law that forbids him to act so as to obstruct a gay marriage. Likewise, in a society that has decided that gay marriage is forbidden, men are not free to marry each other. They may not insist that others recognize their relationship as a marriage. Neither society is more free than the other.

      Whatever a society does not forbid – whether in law, or in custom – is permitted, by definition. Thus society cannot but rule one way or the other, permit or forbid, on every sort of act whatsoever.

      All the political upheavals of the 20th century and today are responses to modernism. How could they not be?

      Well, of course. You make my argument. You had said that it was too late to freeze human development at the stage of evolution it had reached prior to the Enlightenment. I responded that it is always human nature to be able to delete customs that are not good in favor of those that are, and pointed out that while the political ideas of the Enlightenment still get a lot of lip service these days, they have long been cheated of anything like a full embrace. As you say, the 20th century was full of backlash against the political philosophy of the Founding Fathers. And the same thing is happening now to the liberal Establishment of our own day, as a new counterculture, orthogonal both to modernism and postmodernism, begins here and there to simmer and boil.

      The liberal Establishment seems today like an impervious monolith. But no matter how powerful and immovable they seem, political orders can vanish in a fortnight, as we saw with the sudden evaporation of the Warsaw Pact, a mammoth juggernaut, in the last couple weeks of 1989.

      So long as we still have life, are free and potent, it is never too late to turn from wickedness and live.

      • I am confused about how you can assert that social constructs actually in use do have a basis in reality if you aren’t sure what “a basis in reality” means.

        Well, I don՚t know exactly what you mean by it, but I am fairly sure that actual social constructs: (1) are a part of reality (2) reflect other aspects of reality (3) have causal effects on reality. In contrast with your pink unicorns, people adopt them because they have utility.

        people propose all sorts of social constructs that don’t have any such basis, such as Milly’s proposal that all men “deserve equal recognition.”

        It՚s a moral principle, which reflects and emphasizes commonalities and universals among humans, which are quite real. It՚s aso a rather fundamental principle of American law. Of course there are absurd interpretations of it as well, since humans aren՚t identical and don՚t all deserve equal recognition for their strength or brilliance. Like with “freedom”, I suspect you know perfectly well what it means and what its “basis in reality” is. It՚s the same basis that religions run on, that all humans no matter how wretched are endowed with a soul, so I՚m surprised that it is unpopular here, but then I can never tell whether you folks are followers of Jesus or Nietzsche.

        “it is good and proper to do x” – which can disagree with the reality that x is in fact not a good or proper thing to do. Simple.

        Simple and of course begging the question under discussion (moral realism).

        The question is whether social constructs are created or discovered.

        Well, probably a mixture of both (or rather, it՚s a false dichotomy). Anyway, “social construction” certainly emphasizes the creation side.

        If the former, then we may contravene them without scruple, and do no wrong thereby, for they exert no more sway over our lives than an adventitious decision whether to add milk to our coffee for a change.

        I think you are confusing creativity with arbitrariness, which means you have a very poor theory of creativity.

        They insist that what we call “morality” is really just totally arbitrary convention; that, i.e., it isn’t really morality at all

        You know, I՚m sure such people exist but I don՚t know any, and they don՚t play a role in the kind of moral debates you are interested in. Advocates of gay marriage (eg) are not moral nihilists as a rule, they just have a different set of moral standards than the ones you are using.

        n a society that has decided that gay marriage is permitted, anyone who thinks it wrong is no longer free to act on his beliefs.

        Oh bollocks. If you don՚t like gay marriage, don՚t have one. If people think less of you because of your opinion, well, nobody said freedom of belief meant freedom from social consequences.

        In the public square, he must submit to the law that forbids him to act so as to obstruct a gay marriage.

        Uh yeah, that is liberal principles 101 – you are free to do as you like, but not to interfere with somebody else՚s ability to do what they like. What՚s your point?

        Neither society is more free than the other.

        That is not really worth dignifying with a reply.

        Whatever a society does not forbid – whether in law, or in custom – is permitted, by definition. Thus society cannot but rule one way or the other, permit or forbid, on every sort of act whatsoever.

        Yes, thank you for explaining that to me. And as I already said, a liberal society tries to maximize for permissiveness, in the absence of demonstrable harm to others.

      • I am fairly sure that actual social constructs: (1) are a part of reality (2) reflect other aspects of reality (3) have causal effects on reality. In contrast with your pink unicorns, people adopt them because they have utility.

        Ah, I see. You are confused about what I mean by “basis in reality,” but not by what you mean. You mean the above; so do I, except that I would add to your list above that a social construct that has a basis in reality is truly utile (as distinct from speciously utile (e.g., the policy of shorting equities all the time) because it agrees with facts, or put another way is properly fitted to reality.

        … people propose all sorts of social constructs that don’t have any such basis, such as Milly’s proposal that all men “deserve equal recognition.”

        It’s a moral principle, which reflects and emphasizes commonalities and universals among humans, which are quite real. It’s also a rather fundamental principle of American law.

        It is a far cry from “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” to “all men deserve equal recognition.” The latter is definitely not a fundamental principle of American law.

        “it is good and proper to do x” – which can disagree with the reality that x is in fact not a good or proper thing to do. Simple.

        Simple and of course begging the question under discussion (moral realism).

        Not at all. You asked how a custom could be said to disagree with reality, and I explained how.

        Perhaps you mean that I’m begging the question of moral realism in suggesting that there is indeed a fact of the matter about whether it is good or proper to do x. In the first place, I would point out that you rejected moral nominalism. That makes you a moral realist, no? Is there some intermediate position? Either there is a fact of the matter, or not. If not, then moral discourse per se is utterly stultified ab initio. So, not.

        In the second place, it is of course usually not too difficult to ascertain the fact of the matter about whether a policy is really good or proper. E.g., consider the moral proposition, “it is good and proper to go about winning friends and influencing people by consistently responding to them with snark and sarcasm.” The proposition is false, obviously; only a fool could believe it. So easy are most policies to evaluate in this way, that no one is bothered to think about or discuss them. The ones we need to talk about a lot are trickier, for one reason or another.

        … “social construction” certainly emphasizes the creation side.

        That it usually does. If you’re just making up a convention about what’s right, rather than discovering what really is right (whether you know about it or not), why then your convention is not really moral at all. It’s just a fashion, at most. It is not morally wrong to be unfashionable.

        I think you are confusing creativity with arbitrariness, which means you have a very poor theory of creativity.

        I think you are confusing creation with discovery. If you think of a novel custom that no one has ever thought of before, and that meets your criteria of having a basis in reality, then you have not created some aspect of objective reality, but discovered it. Think for example of the rules of proper driving on freeways. Before there were freeways, no one had bothered to investigate what those rules might be. But once people started driving at speed, the rules became both needful and quickly apparent. No one made up the policy that you should change lanes gradually when traveling at 70 mph. They discovered it.

        You know, I’m sure such people exist but I don’t know any, and they don’t play a role in the kind of moral debates you are interested in.

        Really? Lucky you. Maybe it’s just because I live in the Bay Area, but almost everyone I meet is a moral relativist, and many of them are extremely angry at those wicked moral realists. Have you really never run into any of those arguments that we ought not to judge the customs of other cultures? Like, say, clitoridectomy?

        Advocates of gay marriage (e.g.) are not moral nihilists as a rule, they just have a different set of moral standards than the ones you are using.

        Well, all I can say is that most such advocates I have encountered in real life are quite vociferous in their condemnations of the whole notion that there might be objective moral standards that oblige us willy nilly. They are, precisely, “creative social constructionists.” They never notice the incoherence of their outrage at the objective wrong of thinking there is such a thing as objective wrong.

        In a society that has decided that gay marriage is permitted, anyone who thinks it wrong is no longer free to act on his beliefs.

        Oh bollocks. If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t have one. If people think less of you because of your opinion, well, nobody said freedom of belief meant freedom from social consequences.

        You are simply wrong about this. Bakers, photographers and innkeepers are being sued and losing their livelihoods and their personal fortunes because for religious reasons they refused to sell their services in support of the celebration of a gay wedding. Likewise, European parents are losing the custody of their children because they don’t want to put them in public school.

        Freedom of belief is bootless if beliefs cannot be carried into action. You say that freedom of belief does not mean there is freedom from social consequences: this is Zippy’s argument.

        … that is liberal principles 101 – you are free to do as you like, but not to interfere with somebody else’s ability to do what they like. What’s your point?

        Again, you make Zippy’s argument.

        … a liberal society tries to maximize for permissiveness, in the absence of demonstrable harm to others.

        Are you sure you are not a libertarian?

        The greater the number of sorts of acts that are not forbidden, and that are therefore permitted, the fewer the ways we are permitted to constrain each other through custom, disapprobation, shunning, and so forth. A wedding photographer wants to avoid gay weddings: he may not. A corporate executive wants to donate funds to a political campaign: he may not. A college professor wants to publish an essay espousing illiberal ideas: he may not. Each of these men has suffered demonstrable harm, because society had determined to permit something, with which they did not agree.

        There is conservation of freedom. To permit x is implicitly to forbid its prevention. There is no rule that does not gore somebody’s ox.

  10. “all men deserve equal recognition.” The latter is definitely not a fundamental principle of American law.

    It՚s a rather ambiguous phrase, but I assume it means the kind of recognition as in law, not recognition as in Nobel prizes.

    , I would point out that you rejected moral nominalism. That makes you a moral realist, no? Is there some intermediate position?

    Like I said, I don՚t buy into stale philosophical categories. When people have been arguing and failing to make progress on a question in thousands of years, that is a pretty good sign that both sides are wrong and the question is ill-posed.

    This is in fact a great example. Your question covertly smuggles in the assumption that either moral principles are out there, part of the cosmos, independent of and prior to any human action OR they are purely a human invention. Neither of those seems like a very good picture of the real state of things to me.

    The actual state of affairs: morals are in part a human invention, but humans are a part of the cosmos and have their own constraints and desires and so don՚t create morals any which way at all. That doesn՚t seem like a particularly difficult sophisticated point of view to me, but it also seems light-years beyond the traditional classifications you are using.

    If you think of a novel custom that no one has ever thought of before, and that meets your criteria of having a basis in reality, then you have not created some aspect of objective reality, but discovered it.

    So nobody ever creates anything ever?

    Maybe it’s just because I live in the Bay Area, but almost everyone I meet is a moral relativist, and many of them are extremely angry at those wicked moral realists.

    I said that I didn՚t know many moral nihilists, not moral relativists, which is hardly the same thing.

    Well, all I can say is that most such advocates I have encountered in real life are quite vociferous in their condemnations of the whole notion that there might be objective moral standards that oblige us willy nilly.

    Are you sure they just aren՚t objecting to your claim to have the monopoly on these supposed objective moral standards?

    If the world is full of moral nihilists, you ought to be able to find some online text representing this point of view that we can use as a focus for discussion.

    Bakers, photographers and innkeepers are being sued and losing their livelihoods and their personal fortunes because for religious reasons they refused to sell their services in support of the celebration of a gay wedding

    Boo hoo. Yes, you are right, the civil rights laws encroach on the freedom of people providing services to the public to discriminate against protected classes. This is because the law has decided (rightly IMO, although it is an area where there is at least reasonable grounds to differ) that the right to discriminate is trumped by the right not to be discriminated against.

    Are you sure you are not a libertarian?

    Definitely not, although from your perspective I՚m probably pretty close. But, eg, a libertarian would be on your side in the question of whether a business owner can discriminate against classes protected by civil rights laws, and I am not.

    There is no rule that does not gore somebody’s ox.

    This is trivially true. If not, there would be no need for a rule. So what?

    • … “all men deserve equal recognition”… [is] a rather ambiguous phrase, but I assume it means the kind of recognition as in law, not recognition as in Nobel prizes.

      Well, as I already said to Milly, if she meant the former – that men are equal before the law – then I agree with her. But if that’s what she meant, that’s what she should have written.

      The actual state of affairs: morals are in part a human invention, but humans are a part of the cosmos and have their own constraints and desires and so don’t create morals any which way at all.

      a.morphous, if this is your position, then you are a moral realist. This is a pretty good summary of the basic proposal of Natural Law theory.

      So nobody ever creates anything ever?

      God does. Creatures discover, emphasize, select, and re-arrange what God has created. That does not make such creaturely acts ignoble.

      I said that I didn’t know many moral nihilists, not moral relativists, which is hardly the same thing.

      Strictly speaking, moral relativism is possible only to moral nihilists. Say that Joe thinks x is wicked, and Moe does not. A moral relativist cannot argue that neither Joe nor Moe is either right or wrong unless he himself believes that the matter cannot be decided. But if it cannot be decided whether x is right or wrong, even in principle, then x is in fact (so far as the facts of x pertain to us and our lives) neither right nor wrong. And that’s moral nihilism. Moral nominalism, moral relativism, and moral nihilism are all different ways of saying the same thing.

      There are of course lots of people who consider themselves moral relativists who think that while it is possible in principle to tell whether x is right or wrong, it’s just that for some values of x it is very difficult to tell, so that we ought not to leap to a conclusion about it, or be quick to condemn those who disagree with us about x. Such people are moral realists.

      Well, all I can say is that most such advocates I have encountered in real life are quite vociferous in their condemnations of the whole notion that there might be objective moral standards that oblige us willy nilly.

      Are you sure they just aren’t objecting to your claim to have the monopoly on these supposed objective moral standards?

      Yeah. They aren’t reacting to me at all. They talk this way to each other. I just overhear them. You would not believe the vitriol, the hatred they express.

      … the right to discriminate is trumped by the right not to be discriminated against.

      There is no rule that does not gore somebody’s ox.

      This is trivially true. If not, there would be no need for a rule. So what?

      You’re making Zippy’s argument again.

      • Moral nominalism, moral relativism, and moral nihilism are all different ways of saying the same thing.

        You’re perfectly free to collapse these clearly distinct concepts by means of what you obviously think is some kind of ironclad reasoning, but I fail to see why I should. I take it this means that you could not come up with an actual instance of moral nihilism, as requested.

      • You’re perfectly free to collapse these clearly distinct concepts by means of what you obviously think is some kind of ironclad reasoning, but I fail to see why I should.

        If you have no counterarguments to the argument I offered, then you have a reason to agree that moral relativism and moral nominalism both collapse to moral nihilism. Since you are yourself a moral realist (whether they realize it or not, all pragmatists are realists), nothing in your position depends on the distinctness of these concepts, so I can’t see what reason you might have for disagreeing.

        I take it this means that you could not come up with an actual instance of moral nihilism, as requested.

        By no means. I didn’t take the request as fully serious, I’m afraid; I figured you must be joking. Googling “there’s no such thing as right and wrong,” I got 121 million results. On the first page, I got this, and this, and this, and this, the last being a survey to which 57% of respondents answered no to the question “is there such a thing as right and wrong?” I haven’t read through all the linked items, of course. I’m sure there are lots of people who answered “no” to the question who, upon examination, would end up changing their answer. But there are a lot of people who *think* they are moral nihilists, at least.

  11. Like I said, I don՚t buy into stale philosophical categories. When people have been arguing and failing to make progress on a question in thousands of years, that is a pretty good sign that both sides are wrong and the question is ill-posed.

    So, guess this is the time to make some genuine progress?

    Collective progress happen when the individual sacrifice his own self-interest?

    Individual rationality is collective madness?

    (realize that we are using old school language here, I mean “rationality”)

  12. a.morphous – A while back I asked for a clear definition of social construct, and you came the closest anyone’s ever come to giving me one. So cheers for that.

    The problem with “social constructionism” or “constructivism” is that it, like your all too apt username, it is too vague and ambiguous to be argued for or against. The whole concept is a moving target! If it suits the “social constructionist” for constructs to be totally arbitrary and subject to re-definition by fiat, as was apparently the case with the institution of marriage, then so be it. On the other hand, if reactionary conservatives get in a huff about the implicit relativism of social constructs, then the constructionist will retort that there’s nothing arbitrary about them and that they are constrained by certain natural laws. As is the case with orthography or architecture, or something.

    Any thoughts?

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