Thursday, July 13, 2006

Fatuous thinking about Canada and national identity.

In the July 1 edition of the Toronto Star, there were a couple of rather fatuous essays that attracted my attention. One was by Andrew Cohen (now behind a paid subscription firewall on the Star's website), complaining that in 2020, Canadians might lack sufficient national "unity" and "identity" to have much to celebrate on Canada Day. The other was by Ian Urquhart (likewise behind the wall), who complained that kids these days just don't know enough about Canadian history. (Actually, in fairness, Urquhart isn't being fatuous, he's being disingenuous. The reason Canadian history is suffering is because of the thousand and one other things our high school students are supposed to be learning about.)

So, here's the problem with these essays. The arguments they advance run something like this:
  1. Canada had a unified national identity at some time in the past.
  2. This identity was valuable.
  3. Something that is valuable is worth preserving.
  4. Therefore, this identity is worth preserving.
  5. Canada's current direction will not preserve this identity.
  6. Anything that does not preserve something worth preserving is itself bad.
  7. Therefore, Canada's current direction is bad.
(1) and (5) are non-normative factual premises. (2), (3) and (6) are normative premises, putatively factual. And (4) and (7) are derived claims -- (4) from (1), (2) and (3), (7) from (1) through (6).

I'm not going to seriously question the non-normative factual premises, even though I think they're probably wrong -- or at least hopelessly naive. Canada has likely never had a unified national identity, and I am hard-pressed to think of a country that did. Furthermore, the claim that Canada's current "direction" won't preserve this valuable identity, even if there were such an identity, is likely unprovable. I have no idea how one would go about supporting that level and depth of insight into the future. Prediction beyond the immediate mechanical consequences of events is, after all, often a mug's game.

(4) and (7) do actually follow, by pretty basic syllogistic moves.

That leaves (2), (3) and (6) as the things I'm finding fatuous.

I can't fathom an argument for (2). One might try to argue that there's something intrinsically valuable in unity, but one could just as easily argue that there is intrinsic value in diversity and difference. As to there being something instrumentally valuable to unity, I wonder what goal unity is supposed to be serving.

So, (2) is unsupported, and probably unsupportable, but it's not in itself stupid. Let me turn know to (3). (3) looks like a conceptual truth disguised by an overstatement. That is, it should read: something valuable is usually worth preserving. Things that are valuable may not be worth preserving if their preservation would destroy or impede greater value. (This goes back to the point about whether diversity is intrinsically valuable; if diversity is, and is more valuable than unity, then we should, prima facie, give up unity for diversity.)

So, (3) is overstated, but it's not actually dumb. This, then, leaves (6). If something is worth preserving, then it should be preserved, prima facie. However, things that are not done to preserve that value may themselves be morally neutral. For example, my eating ice cream rather than feeding the poor likely does not do anything to preserve value in the world. But it's very hard to argue that it is a bad thing for me to do -- it just isn't a particularly good thing.

On the face of it, then, (6) is pretty dumb. However, I tend to think it's the combination of simplistic moral thinking contained in all three that's getting on my nerves. (2) is unsupportable, (3) is horribly overstated, and (6) overlooks the fact that some things we do just aren't bad or good. Therefore, the fatuousness of the argument lies in its childish understanding of value. Hence, worrying about whether Canada's identity is being "lost" is really a disreputable form of moral myopia, which insists that its own limited perspective defines moral reality. To the contrary, the future described, where history is lost but diversity increased and variegated cultural mores embraced, looks like, on balance, an improvement in value over society as it is now.

Edit: Found the Urquhart article here.

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