Living Dangerously: Morality and Survival

John Haber
in New York City

Tim Cooney: Connections and Disconnections

One still hears about the death of God, but there are days I would like to kill him. "It is difficult to live with people," Nietzsche wrote, "because it is so difficult to be silent," and his outrage may lie at the heart of morality. But what happens when someone challenges me to justify how I treat others? For much of this century, the best philosophy in America avoided the question. It sought elsewhere for truth, in theories of science and the human mind. Tim Cooney's Connections and Disconnections

In less melodramatic terms, the old line about the death of God means something quite prosaic. It describes a separation between religion and everyday decisions, and one consequence has been the professionalization of philosophy. These days one pays a stiff price for skipping all that academic stuff: one is likely to produce self-help books. Conversely, it is rare today that a philosopher reasons in plain but rigorous terms about how one can and should live.

At the same time, the world shoves the tough questions right in one's face. Middle-class Americans have to work hard to forget how others live. It is easier to remind them of their moral responsibility. Worse, the global environment, natural resources, wealth, and poverty have linked my future to humanity's very survival. On all counts, it is as if life has become too complex to be left to the living.

So it is a delight to come upon a philosopher who writes carefully and speaks directly to human conduct, mutual tolerance, and the fate of humanity. In Connections and Disconnections: Between Linguistics, Morality, Religion, and Democracy, written with Beth Preddy, Tim Cooney reasserts the importance of these concerns for morality. Cooney, whose heart finally gave in on a hot July day in 1999, left the book he most wanted to complete. Without pretending to play the religious or leader, he reopens an entire field of philosophy—the logical and empirical foundations of ethics.

Truth, opinion, and the masquerade

At least a decade ago, in The Difference Between Truth and Opinion, Cooney already argued that certain acts, such as murder, endanger the survival of humanity. For that reason, they always count as immoral and are prohibited. Other acts, however, such as an attack on a senator's voting record, have no such consequences, and so their goodness is a matter of opinion. A just society cannot outlaw them.

I distrust any simple thesis, but I love the clarity and brevity of this one, and I have to like Cooney's quick, incisive reasoning along the way. His thesis also combines a spirit of tolerance with a concern for humanity's future, not a bad thing in a generation that has managed to offer a virtual neo-Nazi as a presidential contender, the usual terrorist activity, and the continued threats to this planet from pollution and nuclear weapons.

Cooney also breeds a healthy skepticism. He likes to call opinions weighing in as truths masqueraders, and one starts to spot them everywhere. Just yesterday I read the Starr testimony, which the special prosecutor explained had no pressure for impeachment, only a requisite report on his work. I hit a Web site presenting "just the facts" about global warming—meaning biased assurances that I have nothing to worry about.

Moreover, Cooney's argument points to how much old distinctions between is and ought hide. Morality does not transcend the facts or follow mathematically from arbitrary definitions. Rather, it is soundest when it can reflect the best judgment of humankind in light of facts open to all and a fate all must share.

Now, another consequence of professionalization is that a discipline gets to decide what is worth reading. Cooney long ago chose to divide his life between politics, the university, and bars. That means his works are not widely known either inside or outside the university. That is not just his loss, nor just the loss of academia either.

All this may change. With his new book and, for a time, a Web site, Cooney makes his case for the computer age. The book takes the form of an imagined dialogue with a close friend, Beth Preddy, much as Plato re-imagined Athens in his work. (He gives Preddy a fake biography, though, just in case she were offended by the words placed in her mouth as co-author.) There Cooney reargues his point as vital to democracy, and he asks readers to join an online discussion to nurture democracy every day.

Democracy via philosophy

Cooney's latest book develops the reasoning behind his principles. First, he reexamines the very grounds of truth, placing his ban on murder in context of a theme that all but obsesses philosophy today, the nature of language. Desires, he reasons, commit people to their consequences, just as much as the facts commit tobacco companies to a few billion dollars in settlement. If I wish to get to work without wasting all day about it, I have to bite the bullet: there is a right and a wrong subway line.

Cooney calls statements like these desire declaratives, and he believes that they can give matters of value every bit the serious foundations of a science. The ban on murder, called the primary code, merely states a desire declarative that all humanity shares. Cooney calls matters of mere opinion the secondary code, and each society can have its own. Why waste time arguing about them? No one ever went to war under the banner, "In my humble opinion."

The new book bolsters his defense of tolerance as well. He argues that the primary code requires not just a distinction in content, but also fair procedures for reasoning and debate. That includes knowing when to leave opinion alone, a knowledge Cooney eloquently calls the rule of the innocent. If a society cannot recognize the secondary code as opinion, it risks messing with the primary code as well.

This also challenges philosophy's reigning attempt at an appeal to consequences, utilitarianism. It refuses to think there is an optimal outcome to every decision, based on an imagined weighing and summing of the happiness of all. It does not even try to define happiness in a way that applies without distinction to every person and every act, much less do the math for all of humanity. It gives logic more of its old philosophical weight, so that philosophy is not just a loose empirical discipline akin to sociology, while simultaneously encouraging humility and tolerance.

If the book challenges philosophy to engage ordinary people, Cooney's Web site did, too. For more than half a year after the book's own publication, Democracy Via the Web took seriously the role of his philosophy in building democracy globally. It contained the entire text of the new book, such documents as the constitutions of many nations, links to other resources, and chat rooms on philosophy and breaking issues. When online, Cooney went right for the chat, because he took seriously (or perhaps frivolously) philosophy's job of entering the conversation. One found him online more than most teenagers. Speaking as a Web author and contributor to an online community and exhibition space myself, I confess that my admiration goes out first for the book!

I shall put my admiration aside, however, long enough to join the chatter. I want to show why Cooney's thesis will not hold, because I think that it will not. (See, a desire declarative set in action.) I shall argue that the status of neither moral truths nor opinions makes sense.

First I shall show why the primary code aspires to a certainty no one is his right mind actually feels: it leaves out everyone's real desires. Next I shall question whether acknowledging secondary codes can indeed create tolerance. Even more important, Cooney's flaws suggest what goes wrong whenever philosophy tries too hard for foundations. I shall argue that sheer opinion matters, for morality begins only when people are prepared to justify their actions.

Reaching for the universal

It may be surprising to hear that the status of moral truths in Cooney's work permits of more than one interpretation. First, it might mean that, for example, if everyone were allowed to commit murder, then the species would die. In this view moral truths are ultimately empirical statements. Philosophy obtains them by projecting the consequences of doing without them, much as I weigh the likely outcome of putting off jury duty or another beer, at least when I am up to it. Cooney in fact has this first interpretation in mind.

Second, it may mean that if everyone really began to commit murder, that would be that. In this interpretation, moral truths are logical truths, obtained by pursuing an immoral world to its bitter, consistent end. This approach has the spirit of Kant, who asked that one hold oneself to standards that one could wish applied to everyone. (He called this rule the categorical imperative—categorical in that it universalizes individual desires, imperative in that it is binding.)

Now, this second version of moral truth has the advantage of being weaker and easier to prove than the first. In it, I judge the harm not of unchecked murder but of everyone's becoming a murderer. If this interpretation departs from Cooney's, I want to allow him the weaker claim. His firm distinction between opinion (what I want) and moral truth (what everyone should want) demands something like it.

Third, he may mean something weaker still: if one allows murder, than anyone might die. Here one generalizes in a different way, not from me to everyone, but from me to anyone. The fate of humanity is just a shorthand for the fate of people in the abstract. This too has a vaguely Kantian feel, since it worries about each person equally as a part of humanity. Maybe it is closer still to "Do unto others."

Besides being easier yet to prove, this last interpretation finds support in at least one of Cooney's arguments. He notes that those intending suicide do not wish to be murdered. Maybe or maybe not, but a suicide's reluctance to play victim cannot derive from its consequences for humanity: if I murder only potential suicides, the population is unchanged. Instead, it points to that common feeling that people are responsible for their own survival—and like it that way.

What bothers me is not just the potential for ambiguity in the primary code, but also the inadequacy of all three versions. Indeed, I include them all so that, progressively weakening his thesis, I give it every possible chance. I begin in the next section with objections that hold for all versions. Then I shall take their separate failings in turn.

Killing time

One problem in every case is that, as Cooney himself says, murder is not the same as killing. For example, the legitimacy of a death penalty is a matter of opinion. It is not strictly determined by the immorality of murder by agents of the government. Similarly, the punishment for bad driving leading to a fatal accident may well differ from the punishment for murder.

Or recall Cooney's observation that those intending suicide do not wish to be murdered. Psychologists know how hard it can be to classify a suicide, because people may put themselves at risk, consciously or not. Suicide rates may look low among blacks and adult white Southern males, but how should one count ghetto warfare and risky driving?

The dependence of immorality on the definition of a behavior is a thorny issue with real consequences. Just for starters, it affects how society punishes or counsels individuals. Cooney, unfortunately, falls back on "linguistic analysis." Murder is how we describe unlawful killing.

Immediately, I become suspicious. If I accept Chomsky's view of language, that at best passes the problem of moral necessity onto a supposedly given human essence. If I do not, it means that morality is no more necessary than the practice—call it linguistic or political—of any particular people. In either case, Cooney mistakes syntax for meaning and the impersonality of a language for some sort of permanence. And in either case, he is like those he fears the most: like extreme conservatives, he is touting the dominant power, in the guise of supposed universal values, as the solution to moral choice. He must base morality on existing forms and abuses.

He also bases morality on a circular argument. Since I am talking about murder, I might call it a vicious circle. Society must outlaw murder to avoid catastrophe, but murder is whatever form of killing leads to extinction. Worse, a suitably arbitrary definition can stack the case so as to permit anything. What about one that just happens to let Cooney kill me but otherwise is the ordinary legal definition? I see no great danger to humanity from it, although I hardly question traditions that require criminal laws not specify the person, as in the Constitution's prohibition of bills of attainder.

A second problem depends on the character not of a crime, such as murder or arson, but of individual human action itself. Suppose government allows murder but at the same time takes measures to increase the racial stock—say, forced insemination, prohibition of birth control, and polygamy. Now the moral balancing act lumps together separate acts, killing and population control. Once it no longer judges each act for itself, the dream of a logically firm primary code vanishes. Yet I see no plausible way to define the separateness of an action.

Desire without desires

The primary code has another problem, by definition: it appeals to a universal desire declarative. It demands that I want humankind to endure. Why should I be interested, however, in anyone's survival but my own? Must I be a Kantian or a good follower of the Golden Rule beforehand, aching to treat others as I would treat myself?

Once again, an argument that at first appears logical has to rest on ethical presuppositions that it cannot supply. It grounds morality, including mutual respect and equal treatment under the laws governing murder or rape, on the survival of the species. Apparently, however, the species must enter the debate with just those moral assumptions.

In a typically gracious private communication, Cooney has dismissed contract theories, including such inheritors of Locke and Hobbes as John Rawls. This is not about abstractions but about real desires and real claims on humanity's future.

Or is it? I may agree in hating murder, but I may want to kill, too. Maybe God told me so. Maybe I just want some dinner. Whether I want to ban murder thus depends on how I weigh conflicting desires and prior commitments.

When Cooney moves from shared desires to the primary code, his reasoning slips. He confuses universality with temporal or logical priority. Worse, he asks one to create a political philosophy by setting oneself and one's interest in the world aside. He ends up with a contract theory after all. Even Rawls might object.

Each of the three versions of the argument has flaws of its own as well. Let me take up each one, starting with the first, or strictly empirical version.

Truth or consequences

Philosophers would call my first version a consequentialist morality—that is, one based entirely on outcome. And they have been hard on any purely consequentialist morality, too. The reason is that people lack perfect foresight into the long-term effects of their decisions. In fact, Cooney gives no evidence that isolated murders must lead to human disaster, and plenty of observations point the other way.

First, only the human species has the structure of human law, but it is a busy planet. Most species are cooperative, like E. O. Wilson's ants, but occasionally nature does offer a cannibal. Then there is war, which not even Woodrow Wilson successfully outlawed. Somehow the all but continual death struggle between nations has not yet destroyed nationhood, so why would death struggles between individuals destroy personhood?

Then, too, just use common sense about what might happen. I would surely have a world I dislike, in which everyone lives in fear, power constantly shifts, and populations die. Alliances would form, perhaps giving way in time to human community and morality "as we know it." But one thing is clear, even in Hobbes's famously cynical sketch of human nature: the destruction of the species is only one future among many, and a remote one at that. Relying on it to base moral truths would be like outlawing gang wars solely to protect the future of the Mafia.

The second version of Cooney's argument demands to be evaluated on logical grounds. I simply imagine everyone committing murder, omit any additional consequences, and ask where that leaves me. If Cooney means that each person is to commit exactly one murder (that is, each person who is not killed first), that leaves a hypothetical world with about half as many people. He has not yet reached total death.

Let me therefore strengthen the logical generalization. I now decry murder because if there were enough of it, humankind would cease to exist. Now, however, Cooney has quite the opposite problem: the generalization is too strong. If any act went on long enough, I would fear the outcome. If people spent all day brushing their teeth, the end would be near.

Does that seem like hair-splitting? Then try a logical generalization on something more directly related to life and death, such as abortion, homosexuality, or birth control. One does not have to carry any of these terribly far before they reduce the surplus population. Cooney's spirit of tolerance vanishes if one pursues too hard the principles on which it hopes to rest. Perhaps the principles and not the tolerance are at fault.

Predicting moral futures

My third and final version of the primary code should be the easiest to prove. It says only that I should respect the fate of each person as if it were my own. I need not worry about any alleged empirical truth about everyone at once. If I do so, then I must oppose murder. Here the potential consequences do at last seem very real. I can now well imagine that someone will die, perhaps even me. But is that enough?

In this third interpretation, Cooney's circularity grows particularly apparent, because now the actual threat of human extinction is removed. Once that dire penalty becomes fancy rhetoric for mutual regard, it cannot provide a sufficient reason why I must respect others.

I have said that Cooney is clear but not quite perfectly consistent about favoring the first of my interpretations of moral truth. I also see two interpretations of opinion, and here his books offer fewer sure clues to deciding between them.

First, Cooney may be saying that only certain actions will lead to the end of humanity, so others are entirely outside the bounds of morality. Opinions about their moral validity are mere empty claims. No wonder the debate about abortion goes on and on. It could just as well cease altogether for all it matters.

Or Cooney may be saying that only certain actions clearly lead to the end of humanity, while the consequences for humanity of other actions are still open to question. Every opinion is then an implied claim that something else could be a moral truth, but the evidence is still mixed. So given the small potential for agreement, debate should continue.

I am again not comfortable with the ambiguity here or with either version, but I shall offer criticism of a whole conception of opinion that they share. Of course, some objections will relate better to one version than to the other, if only barely. In effect, I shall find myself forced to adopt the second position, that opinions are potential truths, and then have to abandon it as well.

An innocent assumption

Cooney's idea of a realm of opinion has one huge problem: it needs an auxiliary principle if it is to take hold.

It is perfectly true that if people all wore their underwear outside their clothes, one could project no special harm to the species. On the other hand, the fate of the Earth does not exactly prevent governments from prohibiting silly behavior either. Anyone objecting to raw abuses of power thus appears to state an opinion, not a moral truth.

But am I willing to abide rigorously by a survival standard, even to the point of going along with pernicious authority? Evidently Cooney is not, nor should he be. He therefore adds the principle that what I do is my business, provided that it does not violate the real moral truths. He calls it the rule of the innocent.

After such painstaking work to establish morality, Cooney promulgates this added rule in a few pages, quite by fiat. He considers it a procedural rule, so that debate over the primary code can properly begin. One can hardly recognize masqueraders without keeping them from taking over the party.

The rule of the innocent does not derive from the framework of morality, however. It is more general than a survival-based morality. After all, if I have to be left alone by others, they cannot murder me or burn my house down. It seems that to make moral truths plausible, Cooney has to assume a stronger truth. A framework of moral certainty looks less watertight than ever.

If I said that the rule of the innocent is too strong, it also offers too little help with life. To see why, consider another ambiguity in Cooney's thought. The difference between truth and opinion might lead to tolerance by logical necessity or as a fact of human nature. I start with the first.

Losing one's innocence

By logic alone, I cannot define just what I must tolerate. Think of the controversy over abortion. If I argue that people cannot kill in support of their opinions, I have obtained nothing. Cooney's moral truths already prohibit killing, without any recourse to the nature of opinion. I hope that fervent opponents of a woman's right to abortion will distance themselves from killing doctors or bombing clinics. If not, at least the attorney general who refused to prosecute those cases just lost an election as I write.

At the other extreme, if I argue only that people should be free to describe their beliefs in public, I again ask for too little. Not even the worst enemies of Roe v. Wade cry out against the other side's publishing its views—and they could not do much about it if they tried.

Yet if something in the middle is meant, what could that middle ground be? Once again, opinion cannot be separated from its implications for actions, which is exactly why it remains a concern of morality. If I am opposed to abortion, I can surely go on trying to prevent its spread in any number of ways, from holding politicians responsible to joining hands outside clinics. And if I am pro-choice, respect for another's opinion cannot keep me from crossing a picket line, even forcibly, to obtain an abortion. The idea of opinion proves nothing about what I should tolerate.

Since logic fails, that leaves trusting to human nature. In this version of Cooney's ideas, recognizing opinions will make people tolerant on psychological grounds alone. I hope it does not sound harsh if I call this laughable.

The presumption that the world would become a better place to live if humanity became rational has probably been part of politics forever. The French revolution rationalized society, and in reply Edmund Burke begged humanity to improve before changing governments. Both approaches bombed. Over and over again, people have beseeched each other to recognize in their hearts that they might be wrong. And yet over and over the threat of violence frames moral decision. No wonder even moral philosophers commit crimes, and no wonder art can seem so helpless at mirroring evil.

One reason is that those one fears the most cannot conceivably stick to reason outside of Plato's dialogues. Bomb-throwing fundamentalists have turned off their minds to far more than philosophy before they act. Anger persists because of, not despite, some basis in opinion. Once Cooney points out that my beliefs are hardly truths, I may well get all the more angry. After all, I then have nothing aside from outrage to sustain me. The abortion conflict heated up precisely when it threw each side back upon irreconcilable opinions.

The persistence of belief

I have to confess: I like the rule of the innocent. I want its protection. I want to go further still, to involve everyone in the debates over politics and the future. My problem is that the notion of opinion will not permit it.

Cooney has a misguided view of the status of opinion in any discourse, much less moral discourse. I agree that sometimes people use the word opinion to acknowledge, even reluctantly, their human limitations. "Well, that's your opinion." However, the word has many contexts, and most often they oblige a speaker to treat opinions as claims upon others. In almost every context, "I believe that the earth is round" conveys that "the earth is round," and vice versa. No wonder Galileo got into trouble.

It is rare that one accepts a statement of belief as merely a clue to the psychological state or emotional need of the believer. Sometimes one has to reject it as a clue because of the implied truth claim. Suppose I tell Cooney that the earth is flat. He would say, "You don't really believe that, do you?" One tests beliefs under the assumption that they are truth claims.

If I have described correctly how language works, then Cooney's interpretation of moral opinion fails. At least some opinions make risky claims. At worst they assert tentative or invalid claims. If I am right, Cooney is logically committed to something rather strong: I must evaluate a position on abortion for its affect on survival or exclude it from ethical discussion. In neither case should I tolerate an opponent's view. It cannot just be allowed as opinion.

Morality claims a larger territory than survival, however eager Cooney may be to limit it to utter certainties. My next objection makes this expansion explicit. If Cooney means opinion as immaterial to moral discourse, he removes too much from the domain of ethics. Conversely, suppose he takes opinion as a screen for beliefs about survival that have not achieved consensus, perhaps to be resolved by further debate. Now he attributes more to people than is plausible.

In the first case, it is irrelevant to morality whether the government breaks down my door and takes my possessions, so long as it leaves me some chance of survival. In the second case, when a nation prohibits theft, it is making an implied claim that infractions will endanger human survival. Personally I suspect that the loss of some of my diversions, such as this darn computer, might actually be good for the species. I would listen to the outside world less passively, but the State of New York should still outlaw theft. Or if Cooney forces me at gunpoint to stand on my head and sing my least favorite pop song, I could claim assault. I would have a moral right, but survival is something else entirely.

The force of opinion

Let me make clear the distinction between the last two objections, although their implications are much the same. Before I said that Cooney wants opinion to be less binding than it really is. Now I add that he wants opinion to be less intrinsic to morality than it is.

No doubt he does not want it to be pointless to consider who the next president might be. He may chose to call the issue something other than moral, but he is playing with words. Moral issues, I have to conclude, have a wider, more persistent force. Morality arises whenever people make conflicting choices about how they want to live.

Moreover, moral opinions are claims upon everyone, even when they do not bear directly upon everybody's conduct. It is rare that choices can be broken down into a tidy syllogism with one premise that is obviously subjective. Human desires reflect shifting arguments that draw on foolishly inconsistent logic, but also on deeply held and widely shared conceptions. Each desire of another involves a host of claims about my own thinking, and to criticize other opinions I must highlight the importance of those claims. Subjective elements can rarely be isolated and casually set aside.

If I argue with another's moral opinion, I do so by pointing not to its triviality, but to the importance of its arguments. By examining its bad reasoning and lies, I hope to dispel them. By looking for shared structures of belief, I hope to extend them. In both cases, I try to resolve the dispute, not by dismissing it as subjective, but by opening fresh routes to agreement.

Since that sounds rather abstract, take an example. Let me look at three claims that the American military has used to exclude acknowledged gays. First, the military argued that gays would upset discipline. Second, it argued that gays would bring AIDS. Third, it argued that the law and its protections could carry on under a code of silence. "Don't ask, don't tell."

I want to ask more and to tell more—to describe why the claims angered me. Although I myself neither am gay nor will ever wish to join the military, each of these three claims cut to beliefs and reasoning that sustain my own personal conduct.

I shall argue, then, that each claim from the military makes a claim on me. Masqueraders always do. That is why Cooney's discovery of them is so powerful, and that is why they play so much havoc with his moral foundations. Morality means seeing the masquerade, but never the naked truth. In this life, the show must go on.

A gay military science

The military's first claim amounts to circular reasoning. We do not like you, and so you would disturb us, and so we do not want you. I heard the offensive logic of racism, a logic that could easily turn against me.

Since those opposing gays are unlikely to have sex with them, the military's second claim amounts to a lie about how AIDS spreads and its relation to individual power. I took offense that lies can attack individuals.

In its third claim, the military had to set aside a gay man's right to due process of law, a process that requires public standards. That denial eliminates equal treatment by an arm of my own government. But once equal treatment under the law breaks down, so do realms of private choice, including sexual conduct and careers.

At each step of the way, then, I could not dismiss talk of rights as mere opinion. At each step, I found their fiction a valuable part of the American constitutional structure and of my own American dream.

Others need not agree with my reasoning here to see its implications for moral opinion. Moral debate rarely addresses simple differences in opinion, and that is as it should be. That is why people are so tempted to call each other's claims immoral. People in this debate hope that their commitments to logic, truth, and such fictions as rights will be others' as well. The shared commitments allow debate to continue, and yet they may also help it terminate in consensus.

Moral opinions as Cooney defines them are therefore fully as central as moral truths. If survival fails, as I have argued, to provide a basis for morality, they are actually more central. Indeed, they are all people have.

The rediscovery of moral philosophy

Once an argument is shot full of holes, it becomes all the more imperative to look clearly through the holes. To take any argument seriously, one has to assess it from the standpoint of its logical strengths and emotional appeal. An assault can make it impossible for me, at least momentarily, to understand my subject's principles. If I am right about taking opinion seriously, however, I have to ask how someone's principles came to be. In Cooney's case, it is well worth it.

A generation ago, ethics had little place in American or British philosophy. One spoke of logical truths and empirical truths, and ethics had no claim to either. One spoke about matters of fact and matters of value, and no serious philosopher wasted time debating values. Philosophy undertook to break down complex truths to plain and simple facts of experience.

Cooney developed his ideas at that crucial moment when the old distinctions were falling apart of their own weight. John Rawls was developing his Theory of Justice, which legitimized political philosophy. W. V. O. Quine and others were picking apart the "dogmas of empiricism," arguing that language can never be reduced to a handful of empirical truths. Fact, language, and logic can never be extricated: one brings them to bear on every claim to experience. Meantime over in Europe, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and others were simultaneously showing the slippery metaphors and dangerous political commitments underlying supposedly plain speech.

Cooney came first, however. In fact, his new book still sometimes sounds caught in the past. When he founds values on the fact of desires, he imagines he makes a first blow against the monolith of logical positivism. It is as if nothing had changed from a time when A. J. Ayer ruled the roost. He takes Ludwig Wittgenstein as the enemy, as if his Philosophical Investigations had not undermined the credibility of logical positivism nearly fifty years ago. That book still makes Wittgenstein the most important voice in philosophy of this century.

Cooney's anachronisms, even at their most embarrassing, serve only as a reminder of his prescience. When he first published, he faced an entirely different climate of opinion. Kept out of print again and again by the rules of the game, he challenged the rules, and his challenge went beyond the content of his moral code. It also included making up an endorsement from Robert Nozick, the best-selling political philosopher.

The endorsement won him a book contract, but Random House dropped him in supposed horror once the word got out. (Rawls had congratulated Nozick on discovering a terrific writer, and hey, was Nozick surprised.) Cooney was stuck with a small publisher, and so the book sold poorly despite a huge review in The New York Times Book Review. Ironically, the review asked if a man capable of evil deeds, a Hitler, could state moral truths. Today reviewers congratulate hoaxes for showing up the vested interests of academia and publishing. Even with his hoax, Cooney foretold the state of philosophy now.

Murdering the individual

Publishing trends change, but crises in philosophy do not go away half so easily. Cooney's moral truths responded to a crisis in belief. They reflected a loss of God and moral foundations that to many people deprived life of meaning and threatened civilization's future. By discerning a realm of opinion, Cooney also defended himself against a contrary threat, from fundamentalists and dictators. He deserves to be remembered among the others who changed philosophy's rules.

Cooney locates a division within moral experience in order to provide morality with the foundations it had seemingly lost. He finds moral truths that also respect the virtue of tolerance. I should therefore ask whether that division between truth and tolerance itself holds water, aside from my attack on either side of the divide. Let me put aside the status of either particular truths or opinions now. Consider what the division between them has meant historically—and what it portends now.

It can be hard today to understand the felt need to justify even the most obvious societal norms. As humankind rather than God or caste became the measure of all things, the specter of relativism became scary to many thoughtful individuals. Existentialism tried to domesticate the specter, by elevating the psychological dimensions of existence. It took mental and moral events as matters of personal experience and free choice. Suddenly, it was as if Dostoevski's heroes were brought to life: if God is dead, what is to stop anyone from murder?

The question finally dissolved because the individual that asked it did, too. If everyone is thrown into existence without foundations, nothing can exempt individuals from the beliefs of the multitude. Moral relativism has remained a problem, but the problem has shifted to the very maintenance of free choice and a critical intellect.

Ironically, relativism has therefore come to revive a much older moral tradition, one in which moral choices are in question only so long as the human social essence is as well. That essence will be defined by others—but also by the ability to criticize itself and others. Moral choice will increasingly involve reflection upon the society that makes it possible.

Without this background, Cooney's defense of moral foundations may seem quaint. Still, what comfort am I to take from alleged foundations that solve only those matters of conduct that I take for granted? If morality remains a dilemma, it is because people want to know how to live. In Cooney's system, that broad question bears on the realm of opinion—which to me means that relativism presents as much of a challenge as ever. The emotional sustenance of a philosopher's ban on murder cannot feed a starving planet.

Replacing foundations with passions

Relativism attacks not only upon moral truth, but itself as well. If beliefs lack foundations, how can one uphold even relativism? In answer, one must distinguish a kind of relativism that makes no claims to judge moral systems from the outside.

If relativism presumes to assume an Archimedean point from which to move the Earth, it is self-refuting. However, if all it does is to deny the existence of such a point, then relativism happily throws individuals back to their particular moral context. In this looser moral relativism, now widespread in philosophy, one must criticize one's assumptions and one's social order from within. Along with Richard Rorty, the American philosopher who calls himself a pragmatist, one can only compare facts to visions of the future. Along with women, blacks, or Jews one can only start with promises and hatred, with the puzzle of oneself.

When I said earlier that Cooney's defense of toleration requires strong assumptions that it cannot sustain, I in effect accused him of adopting an Archimedean relativism. I was saying that he cannot consistently leap from the subjectivity of opinion to the necessity of tolerating opinion. For this reason alone, the second benefit that he hopes to gain from a division between truth and opinion, a diminution of intolerance, is illusory. Cooney fails to find foundations for morality because no one can.

A relativist faces up to necessity: opinion commits the believer to action. When yuppies talk about compromising ideals as they age, they know that the compromise has made them too tolerant not only of others, but of themselves as well. When people argue strenuously with each other's choices, they do not simply fail to recognize how tenuous moral choices are. Rather, they know that strong arguments are essential if people are to reach agreement.

Society pays a price for arguments, but it is the cost of people's listening to one another. For example, in search of agreement about how to handle poverty, both sides can appeal, as they should, to a shared value—treating blacks and white, rich and poor, equally. But then people will mistakenly think they are being called racist, and the debate intensifies.

Anger is by no means always a sin. A deeply felt hatred of injustice is part and parcel of opinion, but it has remade the world. Terrorists do not make good revolutionary leaders, much less reformers, but neither do those who relish their intellectual limitations too dearly. Tolerance and respect for divergent opinions are related but by no means identical—or even absolutes.

Beyond survival

Cooney postulates a single moral good, survival. I believe that moral discourse reflects distinct, even conflicting desires for many different goods and many different kinds of good. Morality is broad enough to take them all into account, along with the stories people tell to justify each good. There is no one or ultimate foundation, not survival or anything else. One has to go beyond survival. Call it living dangerously!

Just think of all the things pertinent to morality. Parents make decisions every day about themselves, their children, and their country's future. At odd moments, such as when I have marched against a war or polluters, I have had human survival at stake and in mind. Most of the time, however, people just go about finding their fate.

When America came into being, no one's survival was not at issue, for Canada got along just fine. What happened was that a people came together with a breathtaking, partly shared vision. In time this vision would be capacious enough to let Cooney or me develop outrageous opinions in peace, if not prosperity. Not irrelevantly, the vision would also be flawed enough to make us want to insist on our opinions.

Cooney wants it both ways. He wants enough shared understanding to sustain universal moral truths and enough lack of interdependence to protect mere opinion. Moral discourse is less contradictory but far stranger. People's shared past and flaws in the present both point toward a better future.

In sum, Cooney offers a constricted view of morality. He then rests it on the shakiest of foundations and on circular reasoning. His support for a separate realm of opinion rests on some unyielding oppositions—between language and value, government and society, the individual's choice and universal desires. It ricochets back and forth between the false hopes of logic and an unchanging human nature.

Morality needs to acknowledge many desires and many goods. It has to point at once to common interests and the painful contradictions in the present. By criticizing the old-fashioned distinctions between hard facts and human values, Cooney will have daringly led the way.

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Connections and Disconnections: Between Linguistics, Morality, Religion, and Democracy (1999), by Tim Cooney with Beth Preddy, is published by CrossRoads Books, an imprint of Cross Cultural Publications. I must admit to having delivered his eulogy. I hope you will read it and learn a little more about his life.


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