Recently, I wrote about postmodernism – sort of a super quick summary of a couple of its main points. As stated before, if you want a better introduction (albeit somewhat longer), you should look at the article by Helen Pluckrose, available at https://areomagazine.com/2017/03/27/how-french-intellectuals-ruined-the-west-postmodernism-and-its-impact-explained/.
The gist of postmodernism is the denial of the existence of objective facts, or at least the denial that it is ever possible for humans to even hazard a guess at what those facts are, and the claim that everything is merely a matter of opinion (and that all opinions are equally valid). Now, I disagree with this very strongly. Statements like ‘I am wearing a shirt with a wolf on it,’ are statements which correspond to an objective reality (at least, once we agree on the definitions of the terms involved. Statements like ‘this stick is longer than that one,’ likewise correspond to objective reality. And statements like ‘I am happy,’ or ‘she is happy,’ correspond to objective realities about some person’s emotional state. Of course, we can never be certain that our opinions about these facts are correct, but we can have a high degree of certainty by studying the evidence. In the case of the sticks, for example, we could compare the sticks to one another. We could have multiple people compare them. The essence of the scientific method is intended to find ways to determine which opinions are probably correct, and which are probably false.
However, there are two areas where many humans believe there are objective facts, where in fact there are none, and which are indeed . These are areas which are entirely matters of opinion. And I think that perhaps postmodernism in part appeals to people when they realize that humans, even very smart humans like Socrates and Plato, were wrong about the objective reality of these things, that they end up overcompensating and denying objective reality altogether. This is helped by existentialism (although I like a lot of existentialist thought) – more on this later.
The first area in which there is no objective reality is the area of intrinsic values, including morality. Now, to clarify, there are two different types of values: intrinsic and instrumental. Something is valuable instrumentally for a particular goal if it is helpful in achieving that goal. For example, eating lots of protein is instrumentally valuable for building muscle. Giving a garden the proper amount of water is instrumentally valuable for growing plants in the garden. Whether something is valuable (or harmful) for a particular goal is an objective fact (although sometimes it is not obvious how helpful or harmful something will be, if the goal in mind is complex).
Something is intrinsically valuable if it is valued for its own sake, or to put it another way, if it is simply valued. For example, people generally value being happy just to be happy, not because they think happiness will help them achieve some other goal.
Now, my point is that there are no objective intrinsic values. A thing can only be intrinsically valuable relative to some value system, or relative to a valuator. This applies to all intrinsic values, including moral ones. Nor would it help to appeal to a deity, whether that deity were personal (like the Abrahamic god) or impersonal (like karma); these are still valuators who then reward or punish others based on their (the deity’s) values, not in any sense objective facts. It is no different to say that morality is dictated by the deity because the deity will reward and punish than to say morality is dictated by the government because the government will reward and punish. As Sartre observed, the individual must still decide whether or not to accept the values which the deity holds, and there is no intrinsic value in accepting or rejecting them (though there can be instrumental value, if the person decides they intrinsically want to avoid punishment).
Of course, people interject at this point and say that by this argument, islamist values are no better or worse than my own western values. Which, I would agree, there is no sense in which one is objectively better or worse than the other on the intrinsic level. If we agree to certain pragmatic goals, however, then western values come out far ahead – especially if one of our goals is more exact knowledge of the world, which includes getting rid of false deities. But even if it were not for the pragmatic, instrumental problems with islamic values, I would still oppose them. The lack of an objective standard of a better or worse value system does not stop me from trying to stamp out value systems I do not like, nor does it stop me from trying to stop others from oppressing women, etc. The questions of morality are: what will you do, what will you not do, what will you discourage others from doing/encourage them to do (e.g. I will argue against religion, but I will not actively punish people for it), what will you actively reward or punish others for?
The second area which has often been considered objective, but which does not correspond to anything in reality (at least not exactly), is social power. To be the queen of England is to be treated as the queen of England. To be the owner of a house is to be treated as the owner of the house (this was discussed at length in a previous blog about ownership). Neither of these things are objective properties of the person or objects involved – yet many people think of them as objective facts. This is in stark contrast to male and female, which are biological properties. However, the way that males and females are treated is not a biological property. It is also in contrast to, say, ‘being a goth.’ A person is a goth by wearing certain clothing, etc., not simply by being identified as one.
This social power is an odd thing. There are types of power, like physical strength, which are objective properties. For instance, the statement ‘This person is strong enough to move a 90 kg rock,’ is objectively true or false. But with social power, whether a person has it depends upon how many other people think that they have it. Does the king have the power to kill anyone he wants in the kingdom? It depends upon whether his soldiers are willing to do it for him, and whether others are unwilling to prevent them. When studying guerilla bands, this is especially clear: the leader could stop being the leader at any moment, if several of the members refuse to acknowledge his or her leadership.
On the other hand, it is frequently the case that a power structure in society comes about because it is helpful in some manner to society. That does not always mean it is a good thing, or a pleasant thing, but it is generally true that natural selection applies to social issues and structures. In other words, when we look at, say, gender roles in a given society, these did not spring up arbitrarily; they developed because they were somehow effective in preserving that society. This is an important component of social analysis that many social ‘scientists’ ignore.
The other caveat is that social power is not itself even a thing, beyond being a statistical aggregate of many individual opinions on power. Thus, being the queen of England only requires that a large number of people be of the opinion that you are the queen of England and treat you accordingly; it does not require that everyone do so. In most cases, disagreements about social power are fairly quickly straightened out, so that the vast majority of people will be in agreement, but when this does not happen, it can lead to things such as war. But the fact that social structures are aggregates of individual structures is a complicated subject, which I wish to discuss at a future time (as well as to discuss the way in which all social concepts are aggregates of individual concepts, and why we must be very careful in applying social concepts to individual situations).
The oddity here is that human thought rarely takes into account the difference between assertions about objective facts (i.e. objective properties of objects) vs. matters of opinion. This is probably evolutionarily advantageous, because if people began to differentiate these things, it might create more disagreement. Just because a belief is wrong does not always mean it is not helpful to the preservation of a species or society.
To summarize, then, intrinsic values and social attributions of power are two things which, although frequently thought of even by quite smart individuals as objective properties of things, are in fact merely matters of opinion, and do not reflect any objective properties of reality. To this extent, the postmodernists do have a point. And influenced by the existentialist belief that no object can exist ‘for us’ except as some kind of a ‘thing-with-value’ or some such nonsense (when I say I like a lot of existentialist ideas, I am primarily referring to Nietzsche, not to Heidegger or Sartre or Kierkegaard, though I do like Sartre’s ‘existence precedes essence’ formula – although I think it is a questionable one), perhaps this explains why they made the leap to claiming that everything is merely a matter of opinion.