So this post–like some others–is meant to be diagnostic. It’s a postmodern and conservative observation on who sophisticated Americans think they are these days. As an attempt to be an account of what I can see with my own eyes, it’s an attempt to be nonjudgmental (for now).
1. We free persons refuse to be “species fodder” or “country fodder” or “History fodder” or even, these days, “family fodder.” Philosophy today is about make the person–or securing personal being in a hostile environment–the bottom line. The point of the work of America’s most influential political philosopher–John Rawls–is to explain that we’re neither more nor less than persons. The job of Rawls is not to be critical but just to articulate the consensus we’ve already reached about who we are.
2. Each person is to be regarded as having a free, equal, unique, and irreplaceable existence. And no person exists merely to serve another. Each person is free to choose how to live his or her life. Each person, as a rational agent, is free from nature and so can’t be used as a mere resource by other persons. Amazingly enough, our scientists tend to defer to our “humanistic” philosophers on these claims, although they don’t believe they’re really true.
3. It’s a mistake to call our personal orientation “nonfoundationalism.” The free person is the foundation–the bottom line. What’s wrong with other foundations is that they get persons killed; they turn personal being into nonbeing. Persons are sacrificed for God, country, or noble principle. No foundations, no wars, no cruelty is our thought today. That means what John Lennon imagined in his sappy song becoming real is what’s best for personal being.
4. “Nothing to kill or fight for, and no religion too” sounds like nihilism, but it’s not. It’s the view that–combined with the highest possible technology–that allows each person to be a person for as long as possible. Someone might call nihilistic the view that there’s nothing higher than ME. But the free persons responds–I’M NOT NOTHING. I’m irreplaceable, and, from my view, being itself is extinguished when I am. Of course the downside of “no religion too” is that each person is on his own in securing who he or she. And that means life is really hard in many ways for free persons.
5. Still, free persons know better than to whine like existentialists today. The big-time existentialists, after all, were dangerous fanatics–Heidegger a Nazi and Sartre a Stalinist. Telling people they should seem absurdly miserable without God or whatever leads them to strike out wildly against persons, beginning with themselves. Today’s sensible persons see nothing noble in suicidal or self-destructive behavior. Senseless personal destruction–that’s what’s nihilistic!
6. Sophisticated persons these days criticize existentialists, fundamentalists, and other Christians for believing that there’s more to life than is reasonable, and so for being unable to appreciate that they live in the best times for persons ever. Rawls, of course, has become the philosopher of personal justice. And Nietzsche has become the philosopher of personal autonomy, the philosopher who shows us how to celebrate the equal or incommensurable creativity of every human person.
7. Rawls explains that each person’s choice of a lifeplan can be called reasonable if it has a high probability of personal success. And so Nietzsche, in that light, can guide us as nonself-destructive (unlike Jim Morrison) and non-nauseous bourgeois bohemians. We don’t actually want to go over to the dark side, but we want to be loose enough to appreciate those crazy persons–like Pascal or the real or scary Nietzsche–who did.