Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Dinesh D’Souza’s Amoralism

Tibor R. Machan

As Andrew Sullivan makes so evident in his review of Dinesh D’Souza’s controversial book, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and its Responsibility for 9/11 (Doubleday, 2006), D’Souza thinks morality means being forced to follow God’s laws. In fact, of course, morality means voluntarily doing the right thing and refusing to do the wrong. Whatever moral or ethical system is involved, if one doesn’t follow it voluntarily, of one’s own free will, one isn’t being moral or ethical in the slightest. One then is an amoralist! Because of this gross mistake, D’Souza argues that there is a natural affinity between modern Christianity and radical Islam, so much so that despite some differences and excesses, the two are locked in a struggle with the real enemy of morality, namely, post-Enlightenment secularism.

For D’Souza, ethics "is based on the notion that there is a moral order in the universe, which establishes an enduring standard of right and wrong." So far so good, although D’Souza omits that crucial element, namely, that the order has to be embraced by a human being of his or her own free will. And that is so within the Western Christian ethical tradition, however much that might have been overlooked or perverted during the Holy Inquisition. Radical Islam, in contrast—especially its most dominant version today, the Wahhabi doctrine, as fashioned, mainly, by Sayyid Qutb—rejects the idea of free will. Instead Muslim ethics or morality involves coercing people to the will of Allah, along lines that ethics is understood vis-à-vis little children in the West. In Muslim ethics, at least as Qutb saw it, every human being is like a child; the state, which is God’s instrument, must make the "child" comply with the moral order.

Why Dinesh D’Souza, who used to have a good grasp of the meaning of American liberty, all of a sudden forgets this essential difference between Western religion and radical Wahhabi Islam is quite perplexing. But perhaps it is his desperation to shore up old fashioned, non-American conservatism that explains his current stance, a stance that he seems to see as the last hope for conservatives. The reason it seems to him to be the last hope is that he takes it to be the only alternative to the liberal moral position, which is concerned with "autonomy, individuality, and self-fulfillment as moral ideals." And, as Sullivan notes, for D’Souza this implies that "liberal morality … consists first of all in the right of the individual to choose for him- or herself what morality is."

Seeing things in this light lends D’Souza’s stance some credibility—it is no morality at all which an individual chooses for him- or herself. The point of morality (or ethics) is to provide a standard by which individuals are guided in their conduct, not something they invent for themselves. An uneducated person may be excused for confusing "choosing to do the right thing" with "choosing what the right thing is" but D’Souza isn’t uneducated. So why does he make this mistake?

As with many traditional conservatives, D’Souza seems unable to abide by the idea that individuals must choose to do the right thing, even though of course what the right thing is isn’t up to them in the slightest. Compare: in a free society people must choose to adhere to a diet or fitness program yet clearly what diet or fitness program they ought to follow could be something entirely independent of their wishes or choices—it is, rather, what the science of nutrition or medicine identify. The same with ethics—right and wrong are indeed "based on the notion that there is a moral order in the universe." That much D’Souza got right. But an adult human being must choose to obey that order and no moral credit comes from being coerced to follow it.

Yes, there is much talk in the West of moral skepticism and has always been, even back in the good old days conservatives claim to love. Socrates and Aristotle did battle with the moral skeptics. But the Left does not embrace moral skepticism. The Left considers the ethics of the Right wrong but it has its own it thinks is correct. What really distinguishes the conservative’s and the radical Islamists’s moral stance is the issue of freedom of choice, not skepticism. In the end Dinesh D’Souza is propounding life without ethics at all, a life of dehumanized regimentation, which is to say, a life of amoralism.

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