Its Historical Roots and Educational Implications
Dr. I.H. Horn
Die gees van ons tyd is die postmodernisme. Die wese van die postmodernisme is die ontkenning van absolute waarheid. In hierdie artikel word daar beweer dat die ontkenning van absolute morele waarheid voortspruit uit die ondermyning van Bybelse gesag en die gepaardgaande verandering in Westerse filosowe se siening van die aard van menswees en die doel van die lewe. Hierdie artikel behels _ oorsig van enkele Westerse filosofieë wat instrumenteel was in die ondermyning van bybelse gesag en die uiteindelike verval in morele relativisme. Alhoewel Postmoderniste die bestaan van absolute waarheid ontken, is daar tog sekere waardes, naamlik nie-veroordelende verdraagsaamheid, gelykheid en sosiale geregtigheid, wat hulle aanhang en selfs aan ander mense voorskryf. In hierdie artikel word daar aangevoer dat die strewe na sosiale geregtigheid prysenswaardig is, maar dat die implikasies van die ontkenning van absolute waarheid sodanig is dat postmodernisme 'n wesenlike bedreiging van morele nihilisme inhou.
We are living today in what scholars call the postmodern age. Postmodernism as a mindset, a particular way of thinking and viewing the world, is based on the belief that there is no objective truth, no overarching absolutes that transcend individuals and societies. With regard to religion and morality this belief - 'there is no absolute truth' - has become a commonplace, something taken for granted by many people (MacIntyre, 1981: 38; Veith, 1987: 113, 1993: 16). The aim of this article is to show that this belief issued forth from the erosion of biblical authority and the concomitant change in Western philosophers' view of human nature and the telos (purpose) of human life. These changes were slow processes which involved many ideas and philosophies. Of the many this article reviews only those philosophies which were instrumental in initiating the following in Western thought:
* the division between natural knowledge (philosophy and science) and biblical revelation;
* the supremacy of reason and the transition from objective to subjective moral truth; and
* the supremacy of subjective feelings and intuition in the moral stance
Despite the widespread moral subjectivism of the contemporary world, contemporary Postmodernists do have strongly held values and may, perhaps unconsciously, view, or even profess, such values as moral principles that all people ought to obey. What contemporary postmodern values are as well as the social and educational implications of the postmodern moral stance are also scrutinised in this article.
2 The historical roots of postmodern moralality: from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century
2.1 The division between natural and revealed knowledge
A distinctive and unique feature of Western thought is the fact that various philosophical systems developed that weakened Biblical authority and ultimately stood in opposition to biblical teachings. In Eastern (and African) thought no philosophical systems came to the fore which stood over and against religious texts. Although different interpretations of the religious texts did evolve, the point of departure was always within the religious texts and the distinctions were within the religion itself (Copleston, 1974: 22 - 24).
In contrast to Eastern (and African) thought, the Christian religion was from its inception subjected to fully developed philosophical systems, namely those of the ancient Greeks. The early Christian theologians inherited philosophy from the ancient Greeks, and because they regarded philosophy as the instrument which had prepared the minds of the Gentiles for the Gospel, the early and medieval Christian theologians tried to reconcile such ideas with Christian ecclesiastical teachings (Copleston, 1974: 25 - 26; Veith, 1994: 29 - 31).
First, Christianity was harmonised with Platonism and then, during the middle of the thirteenth century, Aristotelianism came to the fore, notably in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (Burkill, 1971: 164; Veith, 1994: 31). Using Aristotelian concepts such as matter and form, actuality and potentiality, Aquinas (1972) divided knowledge into two levels; a 'lower' level of nature and a 'higher' level of grace. The 'lower' level referred to 'natural' knowledge, that is knowledge attained via the natural senses and the reasoning intellect, whilst the 'higher' level was regarded as the legitimate place for biblical revelation. Aquinas (1972: 118 - 119, 409) taught that the question of God's existence belonged to the 'lower' level of nature in the form of philosophical, natural theology whilst doctrinal teachings belonged to the 'higher' level of biblical revelation. He regarded philosophy (natural knowledge) and theology as partners and equals, but each had its own place and its own authoritative base - human reasoning and the Bible, respectively. Aquinas believed that philosophy could answer the question about God's existence, but he did not think that philosophy could establish the nature and attributes of God: "Certainly we cannot by any reasoning process come to the knowledge of what God is" (Aquinas, 1972: 117).
It was not Aquinas's intention to undermine biblical authority (Copleston, 1974: 27). Nevertheless, his nature-grace motif divided knowledge into two distinct domains, and in one domain, the 'lower' domain, biblical revelation was unnecessary. Thereby Aquinas prepared the way for Descartes' declaration of epistemological self-sufficiency four centuries later.
2.2 The supremacy of reason
2.2.1 Descartes' rational philosophy
In November 1619 while shut up alone in an over-heated room, René Descartes (1596 - 1650) had three mystical visions which left him with the impression that he had met the Spirit of Truth who had "bade him trust his intuition that the world is fundamentally mathematical in structure, that the laws of mathematics are indeed the key to the mysteries of nature" (Randall, 1962: 374). After Descartes had these mystical visions he dedicated his life to the construction of a rational, mathematical philosophy, the rules of which he believed should be the basis of all the sciences.
Inspired by his visions and seeking to discover a true principle on which to base his philosophy, Descartes resolved to reject everything that could be doubted. The indubitable that he came up with was his famous Cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am). (Descartes, 1952a: 51.) Judovitz (1988: 118) points out that Descartes's "definition of the cogito [the thinking mind] . . . announces a new order . . . [which] will free man from his obligation to the Divinity, and thus emancipating him for a new form of obligation - to himself as a rational being". In other words, in epistemology Descartes established "the existence of the self as a first principle" (Curley, 1978: 193 - 194, see also 77 - 78). For Descartes, the self (the rational mind) was the absolute condition and starting point for the discovery of knowledge and truth (Joachim, 1979: 19 - 20), including knowledge of God's existence and even of God's nature. Descartes (1952b: 69) claimed that "all that which can be known of God may be made manifest by means which are not derived from anywhere but from ourselves, and from the simple consideration of the nature of our minds."
Aquinas had not claimed that the Bible was unnecessary in order to know God. He had, however, declared subjection to Biblical authority unnecessary in the 'lower' epistemological domain Descartes declared it also unnecessary in the 'higher' domain. Descartes' self-confident rational philosophy, that posited the autonomous human mind as the source of all knowledge, ushered in the Enlightenment and Deism, the religion of reason.
2.2.2 The Enlightenment
220.127.116.11 The character of the Enlightenment
The Enlightenment's decisive strain was faith in Reason. In the name of free, rational thought the Enlightenment philosophers (for example, David Hume (1711 - 1776), Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804) and Voltaire (1694 - 1778)) preached an optimistic and self-confident doctrine of humanity's coming of age. Both thinking and action, they believed, could be made independent of external, that is biblical, authority if humans were to use their rational intellect to discover the universal laws not only of nature but also of religion and morality.
The Enlightenment philosophers were Deists. Deism is "the position that reason alone, without revelation, is sufficient to bring us to a right understanding of religion and morality" (Stromberg, 1966: 116). The Deists rejected the unique incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and advocated a natural religion of reason; a primordial and universal religion that underlies all religions and that can be discovered by the unaided exercise of reason (Burkill, 1971: 304; Stromberg, 1966: 120).
The god of the Deists was an abstract, remote and impersonal being, the maker of the cosmic machine who did not interfere in the affairs of the world, but asked only human perfection and happiness (Snyder, 1955: 36). Religion was therefore purely utilitarian; the agency through which morality was promoted (Burkill, 1971: 306; Snyder, 1955: 36; Stromberg, 1966: 114).
Together with their obsession with reason, the Deists glorified human freedom. Gone was the Medieval and Reformational image of humans as fallen and corrupt sinners. Humanity's problem, the rational Enlightenment philosophers said, was not sin but ignorance. "And ignorance, unlike sinfulness, can be overcome by man's own efforts" (Raschke, Kirk & Taylor, 1977: 187). Averse to the doctrine of original sin (Burkill, 1971: 304), these philosophers maintained that moral rules were rooted in nature and could be discovered and followed without the difficulties that the supernatural issues in the Bible imposed on the rational mind (Stromberg, 1966: 117).
Deism and the prominence that the Deists had assigned to the place of reason in religion and morality did not endure in Western philosophical thought. What did endure, however, was the attack on the supernatural events described in the Bible, which are "discarded as myth, falsehood or pious fabrication" (Brown, 1990: 213).
The Enlightenment philosophers rejected the Bible as the revealed Word of God and, instead, they accepted Descartes' idea of epistemological self-sufficiency as well as Aquinas' two domains of knowledge. Their division was between concrete scientific knowledge (acquired through the senses and reasoning based thereon) and abstract metaphysics (religious and moral philosophising based on purportedly self-evident truths). Thereby Aquinas' 'nature and grace' motif was transformed into a 'nature and freedom' motif with science in the realm of nature where human reasoning was limited by tangible, sensory evidence and freedom and autonomy for the human mind in the realm of abstract, non-sensory metaphysical and moral philosophising (Ouweneel, 1978: 39).
The philosopher Immanuel Kant distinguished between the type of reasoning employed in each domain, and he followed a philosophical course which allowed moral subjectivism, which equates what is right with what is thought to be right, to become embodied as self-evident truth in thought.
18.104.22.168 Kant and morality as a categorical imperative
The critical philosophy of Kant examined the scope and limitations of human reason. He distinguished between two uses of reason. The first he called theoretical or speculative use of reason, that is the faculty through which scientific knowledge is obtained, and the second he called practical use of reason, that is the faculty through which moral knowledge is obtained. This is explained below by first elucidating what is meant by theoretical (speculative) reason since an understanding thereof is necessary to understand what is meant by practical reason and why Kant set the two apart.
With regard to the theoretical (speculative) use of reason, Kant (1970a: 361) said it was "concerned with objects of the cognitive faculty only." It belongs therefore only to the world of appearances, the phenomenal world, by which Kant meant the physical world which we perceive through the senses. When any attempt is made to extend reason beyond the physical world of sense experience to the noumenal, nonmaterial metaphysical world, reason passes its own limits and is "lost among unattainable objects, or even contradictory notions" (Kant, 1970a: 361).
According to Kant, scientific knowledge is the mind's impressions of the phenomenal world received via the senses and ordered in the mind by innate a priori categories or laws of thought which exist in the mind absolutely independent of all experience (Kant, 1970b: 43 - 44). Kant also posited that these a priori categories or laws of thought were restricted to the phenomenal world. The nonmaterial noumenal world lay beyond the laws of rational thought. According to Kant (1970b: 193) the noumenal world can never be intellectually known:
If, therefore, we attempted to apply the categories to objects which are not considered as phenomena, we shall have to admit an intuition other than the sensuous … As, however, such an intuition, namely, an intellectual one, is entirely beyond our faculty of knowledge, the use of the categories also can never reach beyond the limits of the objects of experience.
As a supporter of Deist tenets Kant never referred to the idea of Biblical, divinely revealed knowledge.
In effect Kant proclaimed that it was impossible to know anything beyond sense experience, which meant that moral principles were also beyond intellectual knowledge. However, to avoid such a conclusion, which could possibly lead to immoral behaviour, Kant posited another form of reasoning which he called practical reasoning and was "concerned with the grounds of determination of the will" (Kant, 1970a: 361). Practical reasoning in Kantian terms refers therefore to moral reasoning; the rational faculty whereby one determines what one ought to do.
For Kant (1970c: 295) ethics was a moral science in which moral laws "according to which everything ought to happen" are discovered through (practical) reasoning. The rational discovery of the supreme principle of morality was the motif of his book Fundamental principles: "The present treatise is, however, nothing more than the investigation and establishment of the supreme principle of morality" (Kant, 1970c: 299). Kant (1970c: 324) formulated the 'supreme' moral law, the categorical imperative, in two ways:
Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
Act as if the maxim of thy action were to be by thy will a universal law of nature.
There are many weaknesses in Kant's categorical imperative. First, one can as easily as moral maxims also vindicate immoral and trivial, nonmoral maxims as universal laws (MacIntyre, 1981: 44). Second, Kant's imperative does not cater for all contingencies. For example, "[b]oth supporters and opponents of abortion and euthanasia could justifiably appeal to Kant's principles to legitimize their case. For both could claim that what they deem proper for themselves would be proper for others" (Brown, 1990: 324). Third, Kant's imperative does not appeal to an authority outside the individual and therefore no reason can be given why one should act in accordance with its demands (Brown, 1990: 325; MacIntyre, 1981: 45). Without a good reason for holding the imperative, the individual, as the free agent that Kant proclaimed him to be, can "without any inconsistency whatsoever flout it" (MacIntyre, 1981: 45).
Kant did not want to appeal to an external authority. True to the spirit of the Enlightenment, he challenged humans to free themselves from their "self-incurred tutelage" and to use their own reasoning powers "without direction from another" (Kant quoted in Brown, 1990: 285 - 286; Raschke, Kirk & Taylor, 1977: 187; Snyder, 1955: 14). Kant was, however, not a relativitist or subjectivist (Devitt, 1991: 157, 325 - 326). He believed that the same moral ideals and his imperative exist a priori in all humans (Kant, 1970c: 315, 323), and therefore that reasoning would lead all people to bind themselves to the same laws of moral, humanly decent behaviour. Kant's vision was that "of man as a free agent who, just because he is free, binds himself through his reason to unconditioned laws … [and] stands in need neither of the idea of another Being over him, for him to apprehend his duty, nor of an incentive other than the law itself, for him to do his duty" (Kant quoted in Brown, 1990: 323). History has, however, proved Kant wrong. The era of modernism with its absolute trust in human reason and its concomitant secularism was an era of some of the worst social atrocities the world has seen.
Kant, in effect, severed the connection between morality and an outer authority and thereby made room for the theory of subjective personal ethics which "has been absorbed in the bloodstream of modern [and postmodern] humanism" (Brown 1990: 323). MacIntyre (1981: 50ff) explains that prior to Kant the human telos (end or purpose) was regarded as knowable and of objective and universal validity. This allowed moral injunctions and judgments to be treated as factual statements which expressed and evaluated the type of conduct teleologically appropriate or inappropriate for all human beings. The correctness of various moral injunctions could therefore be debated in terms of the objective telos. Kant posited that the noumenal realm, which includes the human telos, was unknowable. Abandoning at one and the same time the knowability of the teleological realm (which Descartes had not done) and the orthodox Christian view of moral precepts as divinely ordained laws left Kant and those that were to follow with moral precepts that had lost their objective meaning and status. This meant that no reason could be given why moral precepts, including Kant's categorical imperative, should be followed and not flouted by an autonomously free moral agent as the individual was henceforth conceived to be. There was no objective way of determining the truth or falsity of moral judgments.
Subjectivism which replaced objective reasoning and biblical authority in the noumenal, teleological realm with a route of subjective defence was expressed in both the two main philosophical streams of the modern era, namely existentialism and positivism.
2.3 The supremacy of subjectivism in the Western moral stance
Although existentialism runs in two streams, theistic and atheistic, both streams conceive of life's ultimate meaning and purpose, the human telos, as rationally unintelligible. In existentialist thought religious and moral commitment are choices for which no rational justification can be given. The individual can only be guided by his own inner, non-rational, subjective feelings, and his choice constitutes his truth (Taylor, 1978: 615). The existentialist premise is that truth is subjective and beliefs and conduct are therefore criterionless choices. This assumption became commonplace in modern moral discourse (MacIntyre, 1981: 38; Veith 1987: 113).
The father of existentialism was the Christian philosopher Sren Kierkegaard (1813 - 1855). Referring to the teleological or existential issues of religious beliefs and moral values, Kierkegaard (1974: 182) defined truth as: "An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual." In other words, Kierkegaard thought that all moral and religious issues are beyond the scope of objectivity (Diamond, 1974: 148). Kierkegaard (1974) repeatedly enjoined his readers to believe that truth was subjectivity. All that mattered to Kierkegaard (1974: 178) was the inward, emotional appropriation of beliefs for then "the individual is in the truth even if he should happen to be thus related to what is not true."
It never occurred to Kierkegaard to make a figure other than Christ the focus of his passionate subjectivity. He was addressing Christians who he thought took their Christianity for granted. "Kierkegaard tried to shake them up … he challenged them to decide what kind of Christian they were going to be" (Diamond, 1974: 167). Kierkegaard, however, regarded the very cornerstone of the Christian faith, namely the historical testimony of Christ's incarnation and resurrection, as a hindrance to true Christian faith (Evans, 1978: 183). For Kierkegaard, religious commitment and inwardness are intensified the greater the absurdity of the claim towards which they are directed (Diamond, 1974: 166). Thus after Nietzsche's proclamation that God was dead, Kierkegaard's strategy made it far easier for persons oriented to science to dismiss Christian claims than to take them seriously (Diamond, 1974: 167).
If one pursues Kierkegaard's argument that beliefs are objective uncertainties and that truth only lies in the subjective appropriation of beliefs and in view of the fact that the beliefs of one individual may contradict those of another individual, it must follow that the truth is not an objective uncertainty but an objective impossibility. There can then be no objective, transcendent and absolute Truth, neither religious nor moral, which can be affirmed independently of the believer's subjectivity. The individual has achieved the ultimate freedom. He/she can create his/her own 'truth' which serves as his/her own value system.
The subjective creation of religious and moral 'truth' was also the moral stance engendered by the West's exaltation of reason as it manifested itself in positivism.
Positivism has two meanings. The first meaning refers to the doctrine taught by Auguste Comte (1798 - 1857) and denominated by him as Positive Philosophy. The second meaning, included in Comte's philosophy, denotes a purely scientific approach to knowledge and truth (Bowen, [sa]: 264).
Comte theorised that humanity passed through three historical epochs or stages, those of fictitious theology, abstract metaphysics and finally the third stage of positive science which he believed nineteenth century Europe had entered. To construct a civilisation based purely on science, Comte developed his theory into a religion of Humanity which admitted to no God and instead hero-worshipped great scientists and scholars (Bowen, [sa]: 264 - 265; Brown, 1968: 141 - 142; Stromberg, 1966: 266ff). Comte's religion did not survive and its details are not relevant to this article. What is relevant is the second meaning of positivism, namely Comte's central conception that the dominant attitude or mode of thinking in the modern epoch in the West was scientific or positive as he called it.
In the sense of a mode of thought or approach to reality positivism, or scientism, renounces the search for absolute and normative ideas. It concentrates only on the discovery and description of scientific laws and refrains from drawing any conclusion about the meaning and purpose of the universe and life. Positivist thought is therefore not congenial to metaphysical ideas; ideas that are not verifiable by scientific experimentation or demonstration (Bowen, [sa]: 266ff; Stromberg, 1966: 267).
The rise of positivism in the West is ascribable to the advancement of science which gained increased momentum during the nineteenth century. The discoveries in all fields of the natural sciences appeared to testify to the ability of science to disclose the principles of the universe. There arose thus a widespread confidence in science which "rested on the belief that it was unfolding an accurate picture of reality, that it was solidly based and could not err, that other modes of knowledge such as metaphysics and religion were obsolete" (Stromberg, 1966: 344).
At the end of the nineteenth century the bedrock of certainty on which science had rested received its first major jolt with the discovery and development of non-Euclidian geometries. These geometries raised doubts about the absolute validity of the theory of Euclidian space and about the theory being absolutely indispensable for doing physics (Gadol, 1982: 13). The second major jolt came at the turn of the century when the precision of Newtonian physics was discovered to break down at the levels of very small and very large masses. Einstein's Special and General Theories of Relativity appeared to constitute a refutation of the precision of Newtonian mechanics (Gadol, 1982: 14).
As a bulwark against the scepticism that now threatened science and the very process of knowing, a group of mathematicians and physicists, the so-called Vienna Circle founded in 1924 and headed by Moritz Schlick, developed a philosophy of science, logical positivism, that was to dispense with any sceptical doubt by clarifying the nature of knowledge (Popkin, 1982: 195). Since the logical positivists regarded the natural world as the only world, the knowledge of which the sciences wholly covered, philosophy, they believed, should exclude metaphysics and function only as a logic of science (Ayer, 1982: 49). Philosophy was to abdicate its search for absolute answers. In its new role, philosophy's sole task was linguistic and logical analysis; to define and clarify the propositions of the sciences which were regarded as the only source of real knowledge, that is, knowledge which can be scientifically verified (Feigl, 1982: 63 - 64).
The principle of verifiability was the positivists' adaptation of scientific experimentation to philosophical purposes (Diamond, 1974: 23). The test for verification that the Vienna Circle devised depended on a statement's factual meaningfulness or logical validity or on a theory's ability to specify empirical tests that would verify it. The theories in quantum physics although they contained paradoxical elements (for example, light and electrons have both wave and particle properties) could be accepted as true because the observations conformed with the anticipated results. However, theological and moral statements such as 'God exists' or 'Teenage sex is wrong' cannot be empirically verified and are therefore regarded as factually and logically meaningless. According to positivism, such statements have only emotive meaning, a meaning which is neither true nor false. They are regarded as mere expressions of belief or personal preference which have no place in genuine knowledge. (Diamond, 1974: 22; Stromberg, 1966: 385 - 386).
Stromberg (1966: 386) sets forth the moral agenda that presents itself in logical positivism:
Applied to morality, Logical Positivism might be extremely subversive … the frank equation of moral tastes with other kinds of personal taste might be construed as issuing an invitation to moral libertinism. Assumably I should choose my conduct in the same sort of way I choose my neckties - all a matter of personal taste. And if I try to defend one sort of conduct against another by any sort of rational argument, I am talking nonsense.
Such irrational, criterionless moral choice is what the existentialist dictum 'truth is subjectivity' also comes down to. This dictum and its logical upshot, namely the belief that individuals are free to live their personal lives as they please, have in fact become truisms in the contemporary world. This does not mean that the contemporary world is without moral zeal. The moral ardour is, however, directed to social issues rather than personal beliefs and lifestyles. This is discussed in the next section.
3 The social and educational implications of postmodern morality
As the above historical survey revealed, the course of modern Western thought led Postmodernists to the conclusion that meaning, moral principles and truth do not exist objectively, but are constructions of the human mind. Postmodernism's proclamation that there are no absolutes is, however, not simply the moral subjectivism of existentialism and positivism. Postmodern morality endorses personal choice in the realms of religion and sexual lifestyle, but it emphasises the social dimension of meaning-creation (Veith, 1993: 128). It emphasises group identity and group thinking (Veith, 1994: 48). Its aim is to make individuals aware of power structures in society and to thereby empower and liberate marginalised groups (non-Western and/or minority ethnic groups, women, homosexuals and lesbians) who were previously excluded from power (Veith, 1993: 130 - 131, 1994: 57). Postmodern morality is therefore directed towards social transformation and entails values such as equity, tolerance (in particular with regard to religion and sexual lifestyle), social justice, global peace as well as concern for the environment.
The sincere desire of Postmodernists for a better, more just world is laudable. Postmodernists have the best of motives. They attack individualism in order to restore a sense of social responsibility and they uncover hidden workings of power in order to expose oppression based on race, class and gender (Veith,1993: 22). The problem is the denial of absolutes which has some disturbing implications:
First, postmodern morality is primarily directed at eliminating social oppression. Consistently applied, however, the belief that there are no absolutes means that there is no real right and wrong, no objective standards applicable to every individual and every culture. There is therefore no supracultural standard against which we can evaluate social evils such as Nazism, the Holocaust, communism, Soviet slave-labour camps, apartheid and all other forms of oppression (Wynne & Ryan, 1997: 131). The denial of absolutes demolishes the conceptual base for social criticism (Veith, 1993: 23). Standards and criteria for criticism are reduced to politically correct values, which means that such values are effectively placed beyond criticism. In contrast thereto, absolute and socially transcendent moral principles make social criticism meaningful and also provide for criticism of one's own culture. The books of the prophets are filled with condemnations against the evils of their own society and they demanded social justice in accordance with God's Law (Veith, 1987: 80, 1993: 47).
Second, postmodern social analysis seeks to uncover the power structures that are believed to conceal themselves beneath all cultural expressions. In postmodern terminology cultural expressions are referred to as texts. They embody meaning and can therefore, like literary texts, be read, decoded and subjected to critical analysis (Veith, 1993: 128). Postmodernists speak of "interrogating" a text in order "to divulge its politically incorrect secrets" (Veith, 1993: 129). Political correctness is the measure, which renders students prisoners of prevalent politically correct ideas - abject conformists who merely reflect prevalent ideas, unable to make a critical and balanced assessment of the valuable and less valuable aspects of such ideas.
Third, postmodern social criticism focuses on exposing oppression, which when applied in the classroom means that students are exposed almost entirely to social injustices or perceived injustices in the form of 'oppressive inequalities'. Such a concentrated focus on real or perceived injustices could "turn schools into training camps of hate" - hate against those who are consistently portrayed as the perpetrators of oppression (Van Oostrum, 2001: 7). It could also legitimize new forms of oppression. There is, for example, mounting evidence that contemporary education discriminates against boys. This warning is given by a feminist, the novelist Doris Lessing (quoted in Van Oostrum, 2001: 7) who decries the diminishment of boys as follows: "I was in a class of nine- and ten-year-olds, girls and boys, and this young woman [the teacher] was telling these kids that the reason for wars was the innately violent nature of men. You could see the little girls, fat with complacency and conceit while the little boys sat there crumpled, apologizing for their existence . . ."
Fourth, postmodern morality combines concern with social morality with indifference to personal morality which shifts the focus of morality away from personal behaviour and relationships and on to abstract social issues. In this way morality is pushed to the periphery of life (Veith, 1987: 74). When one's conscience is preoccupied with abstract social issues, it is easy to follow one's own selfish desires in one's personal life and to justify such desires (Veith,1987: 82). For example, promiscuous sex can be justified as sexual freedom; parental neglect can be justified as personal growth. In fact, when one justifies one's vices in terms of self-fulfilment and makes them sound like virtues, one begins "to cultivate the sin that is more damning than all the rest, the evil that is worse than any sexual perversion … self-righteousness" (Veith, 1987: 83).
Fifth, in the absence of absolutes personal behaviour is beyond criticism, a purely private matter with affective and pragmatic criteria - 'Does one like it?' and 'Does it work?' This makes non-judgmental tolerance of personal lifestyles the cardinal value and, since social harmony and justice begin at a personal level (Veith, 1987: 82), it also makes non-judgmental tolerance the pillar which must support social harmony and justice. Social harmony and justice are, however, rooted in "people who treat each other fairly, who act wisely, who have the courage to do what is right and who practise restraint and self-control" (Gaede, 1993: 48). The cornerstone of such behaviour is not non-judgmental tolerance but the basic virtues of altruism, namely honesty, responsibility, kindness, respect, a sense of fair play, and so forth. The denial of absolutes places postmodernists in the dilemma of reducing the basic virtues (the objective standards of human decency) to arbitrary values that need not necessarily be accepted. This, of course, removes the very seat of social harmony and justice. In fact, as Gaede (1993: 48) asks: "How can I treat others fairly if there is no [objective] standard - why would I want to? Why not treat them merely as a means to an end, the end being my own good pleasure?"
Sixth, the only way out of the dilemma of reducing the basic virtues to arbitrary values is to assume, as did Kant, that the basic virtues exist a priori in all humans. Like Kant, the contemporary world prizes individual moral autonomy (Kilpatrick, 1992: 110) and Postmodernists will defend with great zeal their 'right' to do what they want (Veith, 1994: 195). Kant took recourse to an absolute trust in human reasoning, but since this has proved a failure and been abandoned by Postmodernists they have no other option than to take recourse to a belief in inner intuitive wisdom that will develop naturally in a non-prescriptive, non-judgmental educational environment. The idea that learning the basic virtues (and other learning) develops naturally in an appropriate learning environment is the backbone of contemporary non-interventionist, child-centred education (Hirsch, 1996: 72ff). The existence of inner intuitive wisdom is, however, debatable in the light of the atrocities recorded in the media and the annals of history, and it is not what the Bible teaches. It is, in fact, far more likely that natural, non-prescriptive 'moral' development would beget a life of greed, selfishness and crime (Hirsch, 1996: 73).
Seventh, non-judgmental 'moral' education does not teach children to think for themselves but forces them to patch together crude codes of behaviour based on media and peer group values (Kilpatrick, 1992: 122). It leaves them with the impression that there is nothing more profound than their own view of things seen through the lens of media values. This is disturbing, especially in sexual matters. Sol Gordon (Paplia & Wendkos Olds, 1993: 485) whose work focuses on helping adolescents stay healthy by avoiding drugs and sexual activity, warns that: "Sex for teenagers is a health hazard. Teenagers are too young, too vulnerable, too available for exploitation." Yet in an omnipresent sexual culture which fills television and film screens with sleaze and has well-nigh engulfed society in an AIDS epidemic, the denial of absolutes makes promiscuity, and other immoral behaviour, the individual's choice and nobody has the right to criticize the choices another person makes (cf Veith, 1994: 195). South Africa not only has an AIDS problem, it also has a drug problem, a crime problem and a violence problem. None of these problems will go away until schools make it their job to teach good character, based on the basic virtues, through appropriate curricular content and through ethos and example (Kilpatrick, 1992: 244).
Eighth, even if it is generally accepted that all values are relative, social acquiescence on some matters must still be attained by some means, and only the State is in a position to enforce such acquiescence (Bierly, 1995: xiv). Thus, with regard to social matters, right and wrong become state-defined matters (especially in view of the fact that Postmodernists ascribe meaning-creation to the social group). The end result is therefore statism - the absolute state - where state-defined values are absolutised and criticism thereof is constituted as the failure to conform and therefore "failure in a trust as a member of society and thus is treason" (Bierly, 1995: xiv; cf Rushdoony, 1995: 317ff). Social criticism of one's own society can only be catered for if the existence of absolute and socially transcendent moral principles to which the State is also subject is acknowledged.
Ninth, the emphasis that postmodernism places on group identity and group thinking means that a willingness to comply with group opinion may be projected as a positive rather than a negative character trait. The author is not denying that children should learn to work cooperatively with others, but it is as important that they be formed into true critical thinkers, that is people who seek truth rather than group approval. As Neil Postman (Veith, 1987: 139; 1994: 231) points out: "the authentic radical role of education is to challenge popular views and trends in order to maintain a balanced and healthy culture. In other words, students must be led to a combination of openness and scepticism; openness towards truth and scepticicism towards popular ideas and values."
In the past Western philosophers eroded Western humanity's trust in the absoluteness of the Bible. The end result was the contemporary postmodern culture which believes that there are no absolutes, a belief which destroys the very foundations for building morality, be it personal or social. True morality, personal and social, can only have meaning in the context of absolutes. The Bible enjoins Christians not to conform to the pattern of this world (Romans 12:2) and also to prevent social decay (Matthew 5:13). Therefore in these postmodern times, as was ever the case, it is the task of Christians to refute arguments and theories that set themselves up against truth and deny Christ the full extent of His reign (2 Corinthians 10:5).
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