The Operating Principles of the Contemporary Social Imaginary: 4. Criticism and a Free-Floating Moral Order

As might have been expected, Enlightenment thought promoted more than the innocent use of reason. It turned into an insistence, a demand, for the freedom to criticize. According to Peter Gay, the Enlightenment’s thinkers defined philosophy as the organized habit of criticism.

The philosophes’ glorification of criticism and their qualified repudiation of metaphysics make it obvious that the Enlightenment was not an Age of Reason but a Revolt against Rationalism. The claim for the Omni competence of criticism was in no way a claim for the omnipotence of reason. It was a political demand for the right to question everything, rather than the assertion that all could be known or mastered by rationality.[1]

Well, it may not have started out that way, but this Enlightenment characteristic has been so widely and uncritically accepted that it too is now taken to be a basic human right. This insistence on criticism has been incorporated into the modern social imaginaryin the form of argumentativeness and an elevated sense of the importance of individual opinion. This has resulted in a general decline in civility[2]and a questioning (usually followed by a rejection) of almost every metaphysical, religious, and moral principle.

The penchant for argument can be seen in the general loss of the art of conversation.[3]People used to get together for the express purpose of discussing different views on, let’s say, politics or religion. This kind of conversation could last for hours and get rather intense. But it rarely led to confrontation, anger, or violence. Today’s demand for the right to criticism is so intense that it often leads to confrontation and has made many wary of discussions in which their ideas might be criticized. It seems that we can no longer disagree without getting angry and resorting to verbal violence. The more closely an opinion is related to a person’s own identity, as is often the case with our largely privatized religious opinions, the more likely it is that a challenge will draw an angry, negative response.

As a corollary to the right to criticize others, there is the generally overstated importance of one’s own opinion. A somewhat humorous example are the many online news outlets that include a sidebar entitled “Have Your Say”where the viewer is provided an opportunity to give their opinion on the news events of the day. This amount to enabling anyone to have an opinion about anything (regardless of expertise). Indeed, if you read some of the comments that are made, you quickly realize that there are very few people who are knowledgeable enough to make useful contributions. So, the practice seems to be just another way to document the equi-validity of each and every opinion—of making everyone an expert. This is particularly evident in “less-than-scientific”domains, such as religion. In these cases, everyone is an expert and the truth and its validation gives way to the right of expression.

It has been, I believe, thisincessant, programmatic criticism of everything and anything that, at least functionally, establishes the individual as the primary locus of moral authority. This habit of criticism has challenged not only traditional values and institutions but has also altered the very context in which Western moral order operates. Referring to developments in the 1960’s Robert Bellah speaks of a “massive erosion of the legitimacy of American institutions—business, government, education, the churches, and the family.”[4]“This collective questioning of inherited values, beliefs and practices had long been devalued by the predominant culture began to receive widespread consideration”[5]undermining the prevailing moral order. What I am calling a moral order is a system of moral convictions and values organized around notions of authority and hierarchy, that is, “a hierarchy in society that expresses and corresponds to a hierarchy in the cosmos.”[6]As such, this is not just a set of norms, but rather notions of right and wrong embedded in an existing hierarchy. This is the “ontic”component that makes the norms realizable. Taylor suggests that premodern moral orders existed in various modes of hierarchical complementarity which include those that touch on human existence as well as God and the cosmos. In other words, society was made up of different orders arranged in a hierarchy of authorities. One example, was the context created by medieval division of society into those who pray, those who fight, and those who work. “However, the modern order gives no ontological status to hierarchy or any particular structure of differentiation.”[7]Now the only functioning norm/authority is that each individual serves the needs of others and thus helps himself. For that no hierarchy, cosmic or otherwise, and no particular social differentiation is needed. As Taylor puts it

In the premodern imaginary, the highest virtue; was the service that the whole order, as it were, renders to all its members. But in the modern ideal, mutual respect and service is directed toward serving our ordinary goals: life, liberty, sustenance of self and family.[8]

These two main ends, security and prosperity, are now the principal goals of organized society, which itself can come to be seen as something in the nature of a profitable exchange among its constituent members. The ideal social order is one in which our purposes mesh, and each in furthering himself helps others.[9]

The ongoing need to criticize all hierarchy, all differentiation, all authority has left us with a moral order floating free in an undefined context. It has now become almost impossible to know right from wrong or make the case for any such discrimination. The moral order now operates without the benefit of either a transcendent or an immanent hierarchy. As a result, our ability to make moral choices is limited to whatever serves our own interests or purposes. The social aspect is governed only by the concept of participation contingent on a return on our investment.



[1]Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, 141.

[2]Brooks Road to Character


[4]Lucas, The Odyssey of a New Religion. The Holy Order of Mans from New Age to Orthodoxy, 14.


[6]Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, 9.

[7]Ibid., 12.

[8]Ibid., 13.


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