The right side of history: how reason and moral purpose made the West great

by Ben Shapiro

Posted on
politics history philosophy

The main text below is my summary of the points in the book, and I’ve put my commentary in sidenotes. If you want a Marxist, postmodern response to these ideas from the devil himself, check out Jordan Peterson & the meaning of life by Philosophy Tube.

Reason and moral purpose come from Athens and Jerusalem, and without those things the West would not be where it is today. Socialism means taking handouts from the nanny state, and while our society continues to function with capitalism bearing the weight of socialist programs, it’s in the process of crumbling. People on the left like to blame institutions and systems for current woes, when in reality this is the freest, most egalitarian society that has ever existed. That’s why we see the conflict over political divides strengthening in America. The West is losing its attachment to reason and moral purpose, instead shifting to intersectionality, hedonism, and scientific materialism. Happiness is built on a sense of moral purpose, and is achieved by maximizing individuals’ ability to pursue that happiness. Scientific materialism and atheism are problematic because they take away that moral purpose.

Moral purpose binds communities, and that’s provided by absolute truth, absolute morality, and religion. Social institutes allow us to take risk and help each other. Government is not that net. Government should be capable of mobilizing to stop external threats but be unable to enforce individual morality.

Judeo-Christianity was the first time individual members of society were told they mattered. This was the direct cause of the prosperity and power of the West. Getting away from that heritage will cause us to lose the benefits of those things. Polytheism is an easier way to see the world because it lets the world not make sense. Monotheism caused people to see the world as ordered (by one agent), maybe even with rules that God abides by as well. This is the idea of the moral universe. Judaism also brought a progressive sense of history, rather than circular or something else, and focused on the agentic nature of individuals and communities in their relationship to the universe and its God. These senses of regularity about the universe led to the Enlightenment. But in this framework, revelation is still prior to reason, and faith community is prior to the state.

We need to read more of the classics from Western civilization, rather than seeing them as exploitative or inherently problematic. Facts don’t determine oughts, so materialism means morals don’t exist. Virtue ethics means the purpose of humans is to reason and judge, because that is what makes us uniquely human. It’s much more all-encompassing than modern act-focused utilitarianism. The Greeks tied together morality, citizenship, and reason. Aristotle’s response to The Republic placed a balance between democracy and aristocracy, creating a system of checks and balances that’s a precursor to the American constitution.

Greek philosophy and Judaic religion have a lot of conflicts. Christianity combined the two, as is visible in early Christian thinkers like Tertullian and Augustin. The middle ages were characterized by political centralization under the Catholic Church, and this period brought a lot of innovation and success despite the brutal things that also happened.He cites one war with the Muslims as evidence that the West was all-around better than the Islamic golden age at that time. Reason was denigrated during this time, but scholasticism allowed it to take place again. The church protected universities. Aquinas reunites the two. Revelation covers for our imperfect reasoning. This scholasticism was a source of great technological progress even before the Enlightenment.

Secular atheists say that religion held back science for centuries, but actually science wouldn’t have been possible without Judeo-Christian fundamentals. Occam, Bacon, and Descartes started to get rid of the telos (final end) of science, by complicating the view that each bit of data immediately leads to a single necessary fact about the universe, and laid the groundwork for deism and the use of science as a tool for betterment of human life. Lutheranism reduced God’s relationship with man to His relationship to the individual. This led us to Hobbes, who gave up the interests of community entirely, and Locke added inalienable rights, which reflected corresponding duties. These philosophies were the root for the US Constitution, the “greatest economy in the history of mankind.” The Declaration enshrined the values of limited government in accordance with natural law, in order to foster the individual pursuit of happiness, which goes further than just the right of property. It is the best that humans have done, or will do, to establish a philosophical framework for human happiness.I’m surprised by how much I agree with Shapiro about the importance of community.

Today’s debates about the secular state hinge on whether the foundation of our nation was religious or secular. This debate is based on the Enlightenment idea that society should shed its history. But we can’t pick and choose what we keep from Athens and Jerusalem. Religious freedom after the Reformation allowed a bunch of religious philosophies to develop, including atheism and agnosticism. Hobbes rejected both revelation and Greek teleology, where there is no ultimate good. Moral relativism started with him. Spinoza was dismissive of them both as well. Hume attacked rational arguments for God and proposed the is/ought divide. These thinkers were based on Judeo-Christian fundamentals even though they actively destroyed them. Voltaire offered that religion might be good for less intelligent people to remain good, but unnecessary for him. Kant said we could find a universal morality not based on God, starting from the moral logic within us. Bentham too did not base his moral system (utilitarianism) on faith. Darwin really brought these philosophies out into public thought, because it inspired a complete disconnection from God as creator of humans. The only possible end of this move is complete hedonism and social breakdown. Dostoevsky predicted the horrors of the 20th century. The view of humans simply as rational, selfish functions of their environment inevitably leads to destruction.Isn’t this view of humanity baked into capitalist economics?

The American Enlightenment stuck to its roots, unlike the European Enlightenment. The cult of reason of the French Enlightenment directly led to the destruction of the 20th century. (I should read some Diderot.) In the French declaration of rights, individual rights are checked by the collective rights. Law is the expression of general will. The French Revolution was bloody and went wrong.Reflections on the Revolution in France shares some good critiques. Burke says God created both man and the state. The new French Republic created the idea of citizenship and total social war. Nationalism can be good (like in the US where it’s mostly about ideas) or bad (like when it becomes ethnic and tyrannical).Where was Shapiro when January 6 happened? That’s a nationalism that’s becoming ethnic and tyrannical, and it seems like Shapiro is not too concerned about that one. Paine predated Marx in his critique of private property. Marx pointed out the exploitative nature of capitalism, and argued that only in community would humans reach their full potential.

The carnage of the 20th century was a direct result of the philosophical ideas of Heidegger, Sartre, and even back to Kierkegaard, because they placed being as prior to morality. Even after the devastation in the early 20th century, the West has a big meaning gap that it has tried to fill with science. That post-WWII science fell for the naturalistic fallacy: humans would be better off if we could change our culture to fit what humans “naturally” did. Under this framework, morality is set by cultural evolution. This philosophy thinks itself free in a Nietzschean sense, but at the same time explains that humans have no agency but must follow the tracks laid by the environment. There is no ought, there is only what is, and that is can change.

Pinker’s Enlightenment Now ignores all the bad stuff (The French Revolution) and highlights the great parts, which actually come from Judeo-Christian roots (e.g. a mutual respect for other humans as equal to oneself). Man cannot live by quality of life indicators alone, and Pinker dances around this fact by disguising his value judgements as non-religious and obvious when they clearly stem from Judeo-Christian roots. Schurmer and Harris are moral realists without God, based on ideas about “human flourishing”, which is a vague and debatable concept. It’s this sort of thinking that justifies Hitler’s actions. Neo-Enlightenment thinkers like to blame religion for slavery and all the bad stuff, ignoring how the values they hold came straight from their religious history. The values can’t be taught or communicated to the world without their grounding in Jerusalem and Athens.

Now, postmodernism has people deconstructing reason itself, by painting reason as simply an excuse for some people to privilege their point of view over others. To Shapiro, this pattern is most salient with the increase in support for transgender individuals, which he says ignores biological facts.It’s amazing to me that he can see his own views as so fact-based and rational, when they lead to conclusions as silly as “a person can’t ask to be referred to with different pronouns than what their biological gender would specify”. He appears to believe strongly in the linguistic necessity of gendered pronouns for a successful society, but he doesn’t explain why he believes this. From Shapiro’s perspective, once reason alone was unable to provide meaning, we had to let go of reason too. Postmodernism sees reason and objectivism as a tool of oppression. In order to right this wrong, we have to tear down societal norms and rebuild them in the image of animalistic passions. The 50s were great because we solved a lot of sexism and racism, developed great american culture (symphonies, TV, books, etc.), took global hegemony, etc. Leftists criticized the materialism and class structures, but only offered change through an entire remake of the social system. Critical theory and the Frankfurt school explicitly reject ideas of " better," etc. under the current system. Frahm writes that our freedom is not true freedom, because we are submerged in capitalist, consumerist materialism, which can lead to fascism. But this is a misreading of American values. Eros and Civilization claims that sexual freedom would free people from the chains of the current system by getting rid of the specialization of body parts (and workers). This is what Shapiro calls the return to Paganism. The slogan “Marx, Mao, and Marcuse” traces the development of these ideas to their destructive end. Marcuse laid the foundation for modern political correctness and special toleration of minority voices. This meant that casting off the system and pursuing your truth was the ultimate human endeavor. This is where the self-esteem movement got its roots, which has destroyed values and standards in an effort to make every child feel special and successful. You see all this clearly displayed in Lady Gaga, Frozen, etc. Self-realization is directed against religion, Greek teleology, and capitalism. Intersectionality studies how women and minorities are unable to self-realize because of the system. It again claims that institutional racism/feminism can only be gotten rid of by these groups overcoming the current system. Intersectionality means white men have to admit their privilege, and the oppressed groups have to support the overthrow of the system. Science itself is in question because of its use as a tool by those in power. This has led to the suppression of important ideas like meritocracy, IQ differentials based on race, etc., and creates the university cancel culture we see today. Money is being wasted by the NSF and others in the quest for diversity, at the expense of the meritocracy and reasoned discourse. This will make our individuals and societies weaker. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) precisely teaches people to reason through cognitive distortions, and this is the opposite of pointing out micro-agressions and institutional injustices. Pointing this out increases division and fosters violence as a reaction to perceived aggressions and inequities. Attempts at fixing these things through technology (transhumanism) or tribalism (the racist alt-right) will either not create real meaning or result in the destruction of Western civilization.

We used to be a community of individuals who saw each other through a shared narrative and set of values. We have to return to those roots; it will be impossible to construct a solid foundation with different roots or new post-narrative structure. We have to teach our kids to connect with the roots of Western civilization (democracy, God, individualism, reason), the “only civilization worth fighting for”.Here we go again with the God’s chosen people thing. What is a non-Western person to teach their kids? the values and narratives of someone else’s cultural root system? You argue for the preservation of cultural values and dismiss postmodernism as ahistorical, but you would see other cultures destroyed so we can finally teach those uncivilized heathens correct values?

conclusion permalink

  1. Life has purpose and there is moral reason. Defend the rights of individuals.
  2. You can do it, you have agency. You were born in the freest civilization in history. Don’t blame society for your problems. If society is damaging you, work to change it.
  3. Your civilization is unique. Most people have experienced more poverty, oppression, and pain than you ever will. Your civilization produced Aristotle, the Bible, Bach, Shakespeare.
  4. We are all brothers and sisters. Our common cause is a civilization that celebrates both individual and communal progress. But we have to share the same definitions of progress and purpose in order for communal progress to be peaceful. We have to defend our existing structures to our kids and others, and follow GK Chesterton’s rules for breaking down any existing structures.

Again if you want a Marxist, postmodern response to these ideas from the devil himself, check out Jordan Peterson & the meaning of life by Philosophy Tube.