The Shakers were a 19th century American religious sect today mostly remembered for their minimalist furniture, but the most eccentric trait of the Shakers was that they practiced universal celibacy. You may be shocked to know that the Shakers are now extinct. The Shakers weren’t killed off by their enemies, eradicated by disease, wiped out by natural disaster, outcompeted for resources, or devoured by predators; they were destroyed by their own values. For maximum dramatic effect, I am going to call those values that ultimately result in the extinction of the group that practices them as “Deathwish Values.”
The birthrates of Western nations, actually modern liberal nations as a whole, are below replacement levels and will ultimately lead to the extinction of these peoples if they persist in their current direction. Modernist nations are not being killed by enemies, eradicated by disease, wiped out by natural disasters, or devoured by predators; they are being wiped out by their own deathwish values.
But what value is it specifically that is modernism’s deathwish? Birth control, hedonism, abortion, and the education of women are usually given as explanation for low birthrates, but these are all conclusions from deeper premises. The root deathwish of modernism from which the others derive is the Enlightenment’s foundational, most cherished value: autonomy.
Recall that on Kant’s original formulation an individual was self-ruled when they gave themselves the principles that they followed in their behavior. For Kant the only time this happened was when one was ruled by universal law. Autonomy was how Kant reconciled moral standards and free-will (and came up with a one-word way to jump Hume’s fact/value gap). For Kant it worked out perfectly that free will, universality, and morality coincided. Unfortunately, Kant, more than any other thinker, even Marx, is the source of our problems. I actually agree with Kant that the will is guided by norms, except that the principles that ought to guide one’s actions are a posteriori rather than a priori; are the result of the lessons of history, not pure reason; biological rather than rational (the rational being a subset of the biological). What is universal in morality is not that it is generated by pure reason, but that we are all of the same species living in a shared environment.
The existentialists saw that Kant had pulled a fast one. It was just a bit too convenient that the only time we were acting autonomously was when we were following bourgeois morality which they saw as contingent and inherited. Kant had laid the groundwork for this development by setting autonomy against inclination. The existentialists rightly saw conventional morality as another heteronomous determinant of the will. But instead of rejecting autonomy as they should have, they rejected inherited morality; they rejected any outside influence on the will as being inauthentic and demanded pure self-creation as the only true “radical autonomy.” For them, all culturally inherited norms are restrictions on the autonomous exercise of the will and ought to be discarded; one must create one’s own standards.
We reactionaries/traditionalists, reject the lie of autonomy and embrace heteronomy. In fact, I would put the litmus test for being a reactionary as whether you reject autonomy. We do not create our own standards. Our standards of beauty, truth, and virtue are not our own, but nature’s, or nature’s God. We do not see beauty standards as, ugh, “socially constructed.” They are natural and external. We do not see virtues such as intelligence, reason, strength, charm, masculinity, and femininity, as arbitrary. They are the excellences of our kind. We do not pretend these standards do not exist just because we come out poorly on them. We accept the roles nature has given us; we see the good life not as a project of self-creation, but as the extent to which you excellently fulfill the pre-ordained form of a human life and demonstrate human excellence: to learn as children, to work as adults, to bear and raise virtuous children as mothers and fathers, to share the wisdom of experience when old. We admire the intelligent, the beautiful, the virtuous, the excellent, to the extent that they embody the natural standards, the telos, the design, of humanity.
Actually, giving up autonomy is not all that hard since no one has ever actually been autonomous. We are all designed by nature to operate according to inherited biological principles. All existentialist or post-modern autonomy does is liberate us to be pushed around by our basest impulses (see my “Restoring a Virtue-Based Ethics For the 21-st Century” for details). Those groups who claim individuality and originality—the liberal fashion parade from beatniks to hippies to punks to hipsters—are all acting on their inherited drives for sex and status just the same as the mainstream culture they deride. They have just created standards where they can come out on top in their pursuit for these things. They are just as heteronomous as the most conservative Mormon; they just take on the autonomous pose to make their resentment go down easy.
Before autonomy became the goal of human life, people got along just fine without it. The pre-Enlightenment idea was to bring one’s will in accord with God’s intent. God’s intent was discernable in the item’s telos and going against God’s will was sin. In addition to biological organs and processes, psychological states such as beliefs and desires, possessed a telos. Furthermore, institutions such as marriage and the state, and the roles of those institutions such as father and husband, mother and wife, and citizen possessed a final cause. It was one’s duty to inculcate in oneself the virtues of that role so as to best realize the one’s telos. As a Darwinian I interpret the item’s telos as what it was selected for, and as a reactionary I accept the traditional teleofunctional view of the good society.
And of course, the thing about autonomy, the one great commandment of liberalism, is that autonomy must be respected at all times. Kant believed that there were duties to oneself, but all that has stuck in the popular culture, and become the entirety of modernist morality, is to respect others as an end-in-themselves, to respect their freedom of choice. With no autonomy there is no need to respect it. We reactionaries do not respect freedom of choice since the world can only be inhabited over time by those groups who make certain choices (which of course is different from allowing freedom of choice); the world will inevitably be inherited and inhabited by those who adhere to certain enduring values that have stood the test of time.
What should be our attitude to those who adhere to deathwish values? By all accounts the Shakers were decent people. They should be informed of the consequences of their actions, but if they insist upon them, they should be left alone to quietly go extinct. However, modern liberals mock those who don’t live by deathwish values, they demand their adoption and so ought to be fiercely resisted. They mock women who choose to put their family before their career. They demonize those who take efforts to preserve their kind. Non-discrimination is just another poisonous fruit of autonomy: any group stupid or gullible enough to adopt non-discrimination as a principle put themselves on the road to extinction. Those who advocate such deathwish values should be mercilessly mocked and shunned. And if deathwish values should appear in one’s own cultural, ethnic, religious, or national group, those who espouse them ought to be reasoned with, and if they persist, expelled and shunned.
I’ve been trying to come up with a nice derogatory term for those who adhere to deathwish values, but haven’t found one I like yet. The walking dead? Dead-enders? Neo-Shakers? Speedbumps? CHUDs? I’m open to suggestions.
Can secularists voluntarily subscribe to heteronomous values? Religion’s solution to the problem is ingenious from a Darwinian perspective. Traditionally, heteronomy was made palatable in that the commands one followed were ordained by God. One was God’s servant in living by these principles, and that made conformity to heteronomous rules desirable and praiseworthy. One was following God’s plan for us in getting married before sex, having children, and living without sin. Those groups who do show positive fertility–the Amish, Hasidic Jews, Muslims, Mormons–all see themselves as following divinely imposed standards of behavior in rejecting modernist autonomy. And those values that are divinely sanctioned by religion are always values that allow the kind to persist. In fact, the most advantageous trait for a group to possess these days is the ability to reduce exposure to contemporary Western culture. But maybe I’m wrong. I could perhaps see a group of secularists who accept the truth of evolutionary psychology, et al, and come to see traditional morality as “natural” and so subscribe to natural norms. But overall I see the enticements of the modern world–travel, career, materialism, consumerism, sexual promiscuity–as being too strong to resist unless you see enduring values as binding divine imperatives with divine sanctions. Without the divine sanction I don’t see any impetus to allow these commandments to be binding on the will. But again, maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps the instinct to preserve one’s kind is strong enough to motivate the adherence to endurance values and will see a revival, but we are up against a contemporary culture that relentlessly promotes the adoption of deathwish values. We shall see.
Or perhaps God created this universe with this set of laws of nature in order to reward the faithful who follow His laws, and to gently remove the sinners from the stage…