Catholic Philosopher Challenges Modern Spiritual Wasteland

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In his new book Moral Matters, Irish Catholic philosopher Mark Dooley presents a lucid appraisal of the ongoing calamity of liberal modernity, and a passionate and often moving account of the world of meaning that liberalism has so extensively eroded and threatens to completely destroy.

At the heart of Moral Matters is the idea of home; homebuilding and homecoming are Dooley’s chief motifs. Against the traditional homestead and the pastoral outlook that sustains it Dooley contrast the spiritual wasteland of “Cyberia” and its ethic of instant gratification. Cyberia, the virtual world of video games and “social networking” websites, of fast food and online shopping, is a realm of immediacy and isolation, a place where lasting attachments are shunned in favor of fleeting exchanges and superficial allegiances. Where the customs of our homeland foster enduring fellowship and allow us to live in harmony with our neighbors and with nature, in Cyberia all those customs are rejected or perverted. Inhabiting Cyberia means submitting to a state of amnesia, forgetting how to see the world as home and thereby forgetting the demands of responsibility and reverence. “When you no longer regard somewhere as home,” Dooley warns, “when you no longer perceive it as a source of selfhood, it very soon becomes derelict.”

A defense of patrimony and a call to reverently submit to the demands of absent generations runs throughout Moral Matters. As Dooley puts it early on, “we are products of the past…, individuals whose identity is not of our own making but forged from the sacrifices of others. Repudiating the past, therefore, is nothing less than a repudiation of oneself.” This attitude is a fundamentally conservative one, for “when conservatives look at the world, they see an omnipresence of ghosts. For them, all objects bear witness to their creators.” Where the liberal is “blind to the reality that he is a product of those he now endeavors to erase from memory” and “[ceases] to identify existing things as a bequest from the dead, one to be cherished and maintained for absent others,” the conservative, by contrast, understands that “it is only by recognizing the dead and by honoring their sacrifices that we can establish who we are and where we came from… It is only by giving new life to our ghosts, by following their direction and continuing their work, that we can find our way back home.” Rarely has Burke’s vision of society, as a trust between the living, the unborn, and the dead, been so ardently or so powerfully affirmed.

Moral MattersMoral Matters also offers an extended response to postmodern philosophy. Dooley ably disposes of the arguments of a variety of postmodern thinkers. Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction, Richard Rorty’s Pragmatism, and John D. Caputo’s “weak theology” are all judiciously dispensed with. Dooley has the benefit of having written on all of these philosophers from a position sympathetic to their broad postmodernist project, and his responses are not careless denunciations but subtle and penetrating critiques. Michel Foucault is met with a particularly devastating criticism.

What is missing from Dooley’s account is any sort of rigorous rebuttal to the libertarian thesis. It is easy to imagine someone like, for instance, Matt Ridley (author most recently of The Rational Optimist) arguing that Dooley altogether fails to register the bounteous material benefits that technological advancement has delivered. To do so would be to miss the point of Dooley’s book, but it would be helpful if the book contained a clearer exposition of why this is the case. For any seasoned defenders of globalization reading Moral Matters, a litany of “But what about…?” questions are likely to spring to mind. Everything from imported marmalade to artificial hearts could be cited in favor of our networked world. It could be said that anyone who thinks of imported marmalade as a substitute for a thriving and dignified culture is failing to think seriously about the issues at stake. But not all fruits of globalization are so trivial and some of the better ones would probably strike most liberals as serious challenges to Dooley’s thesis.

It seems to me that the libertarian argument is more readily available to “Cyberians,” or at least has greater currency within popular culture, than the abstruse philosophies of postmodernists (though for many it is probably an unacknowledged feature of their thought). As such I think it would be only prudent to devote some attention to discrediting the seemingly sensible claims of libertarianism. To be sure, much of Moral Matters does this obliquely in vividly rendering the brutal desolation that is contemporary society. A committed libertarian couldn’t be expected to properly understand Moral Matters as long as his libertarianism remained intact. But Dooley could have done more, by way of philosophical argument, to open a space for the libertarian to realize why his ideology falls desperately short of the truth in conservatism.

Dooley does acknowledge the influence among ostensible conservatives of “libertarians, and ‘anarcho-capitalists’ such as Murray Rothbard” who “regard the free market as a panacea to all social ills,” and points out that “such ideas are more the exception than the norm among the founding fathers of philosophical conservatism.” He is keen to dispel the misconception that conservatism is “an enemy of the State, or an ally of big business,” and argues that conservatism is rather “that which endeavors to sustain the State against its opponents, against those who would undermine the historical and political identity of its people and their common homeland.” So there is no mistaking Dooley for a libertarian sympathizer. But his approach takes for granted that the primary objection to be parried is that of radical anti-capitalism, that it is enough simply to declare your opposition to a system of thought as nakedly hostile to traditional virtues, and admiring of traditional vices, as libertarianism.

Rationalistic accounts of morality and human nature of the kind that undergird libertarianism have been around long enough and have had enough influential spokesmen to pervade the Western mindset far more extensively than the radical philosophies that fueled the soixant-huitards and have since transformed our universities into bastions of the far-Left. Your average Cyberian, on the rare occasions that he actually seeks to articulate a defense of his lifestyle and his politics, is more likely to speak in terms resembling those of the utilitarian than to invoke the theories of Derrida and Foucault. I don’t mean to suggest that Dooley only makes use of Derrida and Rorty and Foucault and Caputo in order to repudiate them; it’s clear that Dooley considers each of these philosophers to have useful insights buried amongst their errors and misconstructions. But the emphasis on these thinkers as the most intelligent opponents of the conservatism Dooley describes comes at the neglect of a philosophical tradition which, though further from the explicit political postures of many liberals, is closer to their implicit motivations.

The journey that you make in coming to accept your responsibilities to absent generations and adopting the reverence for life that this demands is not one that can be made in a single decisive leap. Living a life that does justice to that attitude is often complicated by the circumstances in which you find yourself, the atmosphere of hostility and seductive denial that can descend upon you and stifle you. The cultural dominance of liberalism makes it hard to be a conservative. Moral Matters does not offer much in the way of reassurance for those refugees from liberalism who wholeheartedly embrace Dooley’s message but for whom many facets of the way of life he paints remain beyond the realm of possibility. This does nothing to undermine Dooley’s claims about our indebtedness to our forebears and the necessity of being prepared to sacrifice for the sake of posterity, but it does seem to ask a great deal of the convert to conservatism who has to retrieve from out of pervasive amnesia and desecrating neglect the resources to begin again properly mourning and celebrating the dead, and at the same time to try and make the world hospitable for the unborn. Reclaiming the world for love is no easy task. If it doesn’t explicitly acknowledge this difficultly, Moral Matters is undoubtedly a model of the sincere and dedicated pursuit of that task.

For conservatives, Moral Matters offers a stirring affirmation of the values we cherish and an eloquent exposition of the challenges we face. I am particularly receptive to its message as someone who, like Dooley himself, was won over to conservatism through encountering the writings of Roger Scruton (and Dooley makes no secret of his debt to Scruton). No Scrutonian could fail to find affinity with Dooley’s vision of culture and the sacred. Nor could any Burkean, for that matter. It’s doubtful, however, that those deeply entrenched in the culture of Cyberia and acquainted with the myriad justifications contrived for it would be convinced by Dooley’s philosophy of homecoming. Perhaps this is too pessimistic, but the alienating conditions of Cyberia seem so insidious as to eradicate the very idea of home from the hearts of many Cyberians, those willing exiles. As such Moral Matters is probably of limited use to the proselytizing conservative. But as a work that unashamedly celebrates traditional values and unflinchingly faces the reality of a world where those values are everywhere imperiled, you will not find better.

Sean Haylock

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Sean Haylock is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia.

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