OUT IN THE GREAT WIDE OPEN, REBELS WITHOUT A CLUE: Brink Lindsey has been quoting from Moby-Dick. Besides being intriguing and super-cool, this is also disturbing, because of the sunny conclusions Lindsey draws.

Here, Lindsey quotes Ishmael on what Lindsey calls “life’s lack of final answers.” Ishmael writes of his belief in “that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore[.]” Lindsey earlier commented that the central theme of Moby-Dick is “the struggle of human beings to create their own meanings and purpose in a world where any higher meaning or purpose is absent or obscure.” He connects this theme to our war: “And what is it that sets liberal society apart? What gives rise to its phenomenal creativity and power, and inspires such fear and hatred among its adversaries? At the bottom of open society’s dynamism — in science, technology, economics, politics, and culture — is its recognition, pace Melville, of the elusiveness of any fixed and final truth, and of the consequent freedom of men and women to make their own way by their own lights.”

But this doesn’t follow at all. If a “fixed and final truth” is elusive (by which I assume Lindsey means something much stronger than the mere recognition that one might be wrong), what is left of reason? When objectivity can’t refer to anything–when it has no ground in an objective, fixed, final and find-able moral order–all we have left is the subjective. Reason, freedom, rights, the sanctity of individual human lives: these are objective values. Survival, pleasure, aesthetic preference, and empathy: these are subjective. They are the things we can still ascertain, grab hold of, and protect when we lose a belief in an attainable objective truth. That’s one major reason that our political debates today revolve around material goods (cigarette taxes to make you healthy, corporate welfare to make you rich) and “who do you empathize with more?” contests. A defense of liberty–pace Lindsey–requires belief in an objective moral order; otherwise, liberty is just another preference.

In short, Lindsey is like the atheists in Nietzsche’s parable of the madman: He does not yet see the consequences of his claim.

For more on this question, click here, then here and here.

About Eve Tushnet

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