Philosopher says we must create meaning and goodness

Martha Nussbaum, the liberal political philosopher at Brown University who likes to combine hip, countercultural attitudes with classical philosophy (or rather who uses the latter to help advance the former), seems to have a spiritual younger sister, Susan Neiman, the director of the Einstein Forum, a liberal think tank in Potsdam, Germany. Bill Moyers recently interviewed Neiman on his tv show (just as he interviewed Nussbaum a few years ago), and I sent her this e-mail about it:

Dear Miss Neiman:

When Bill Moyers asked you (I’m paraphrasing), “Does life morally make sense?”, you paused a long, long time, and then you said:

“Meaning is up to us. We have to create it. If the meaning were given from the beginning, we wouldn’t be free.”

Moyers said: “How do we create meaning?”

You said: “By doing little things to make the world more just … by trying to make the world a little more intelligible … by trying to make the world good.”

With all due respect, these statements strike me as incoherent. You say there is no inherent moral meaning in existence, and that we have to create the meaning by trying to create justice and goodness and intelligibility. But how would we know there is such a thing as justice or goodness unless these things already existed? How could we “make the world more just” unless there was objectively such a thing as justice? How could we make the world more intelligible unless existence was inherently intelligible?

First you deny an inherent and intelligible moral order, and then you turn around and assume it, as the very condition for human moral creativity. It’s as though you only want there to be enough inherent moral order to allow for human freedom and human creativity and for a pursuit of “justice” as each individual wants to define it; but you don’t want there to be so much inherent moral order that it might take away our total freedom in the modern, liberal sense.

You can’t have it both ways, Miss Neiman. And you can’t custom design the order of the universe to suit your own preferences. If there is an inherent moral order in existence, then philosophy has to recognize it and deal with it.

Sincerely yours,
Lawrence Auster

By the way, Neiman’s book, Evil in Modern Thought, has been positively reviewed in many conservative journals, including First Things. My superficial impression of the conservatives’ reaction is that they are so happy to see a modern academic philosopher taking the problem of evil seriously, that they fail to grasp Neiman’s existentialism and relativism. Neiman assumes a world without truth, a world in which human beings naively believe in the existence of truth and goodness, but when some disaster like 9/11 happens, that belief is shattered. Her treatment seems to be based on the false assumption that if goodness and truth objectively exist, they must be perfectly manifested in everything that exists; if they’re not perfectly manifested, that proves they don’t exist. This is like saying that the proof of God’s existence is that God’s will must be perfectly fulfilled on earth, that nothing bad must ever happen on earth. This misconception, which is very common today, is the result of conflating the secular and the transcendent. A truer understanding is shown in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” The petition implies that in the usual course of things, God’s will is not done on earth. It is up to us to turn toward God and ask that through his grace his will be done in and through our lives.

The key Gospel passage on the meaning of misfortunes is at Luke 13:4-5, where Jesus speaks of the fall of the tower of Siloam that had killed many people, and tells his disciples: “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” What this means, as I understand it, is that unless you change and live a new life in God, your own death with be as random and meaningless as the death of the people who were crushed by that tower. The will of God is not the complete cessation of earthly disasters. The will of God is that we live in God and in harmony with God, whatever our external circumstances may be. The occurrence of great disasters and evil acts does not disprove the objective existence of God and goodness.

This does not mean, of course, that prayer is not efficacious in delivering people from many earthly evils.

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Zachary Crockett writes (January 29, 2008):

Your statement that “The occurrence of great disasters and evil acts does not disprove the objective existence of God and goodness” is perfectly coherent and logical. Likewise is the point in your letter to Susan Neiman that justice must exist for us to be able to make the world more just.

Combining these two points, however, motivates a correction. The occurrence of injustice does not disprove the existence of justice. Just as you can “have it both ways” (God exists and bad things happen), so can she (moral order and disorder exist). You both touch a poignant subtlety that leads to human morality. Each of us sees both good and evil in the world and must distinguish between them constantly; sometimes it’s easy, sometimes not.

We make the world more just by “doing little things” to correct injustice where we can, by trying to make the world better, to fulfill God’s will on Earth. So I agree with Susan Neiman that we all have a moral imperative to improve the world by creating meaning—by standing up for goodness and justice.

I am a composer and take as my vocation and life’s work the creation and sharing of meaning. I believe that through music I can give people meaningful, beautiful, important, true, and memorable experiences. I believe that the chaotic aggregation of the meanings that all people create in the world defines human history. Through art I help guide the world to a more intelligible, morally ordered future.

LA replies:

I don’t think the analogy works. My position and Susan Neiman’s position are not analogous.

My position is that God exists, and that the existence of evil, of a world that falls short of God, does not disprove the existence of God.

Neiman’s position as I understand it is that there is there is no inherent moral meaning in existence, and that people must create moral meaning. To which my answer was that if there is not already inherent moral meaning, people could not create it. There would have to be a principle of good, in order for people to strive to be good.

For Neiman’s position to be analogous to mine, she would have to be saying something like, “There is inherent moral meaning in the universe, and the failure of people to create moral meaning in their lives does not disprove the existence of inherent moral meaning.”

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 09, 2004 05:24 PM | Send

Excellent short essay, Mr. Auster. It is disappointing to hear that many Conservatives have embraced this book. Their discernment has once again lapsed, it seems.

Posted by: Paul Cella on January 10, 2004 11:11 AM
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