First Cup of Coffee: The Ought and the Is…

I’m unemployed right now (I’ve got a post upcoming re: what it means to be unemployed during the Great Recession Era) so, while my joblessness lasts, a few mornings each week I’ll try and write a quick response to something I’ve read over my “first cup of coffee”.

Modernity started from the dissatisfaction with the gulf between the is and the ought, the actual and the ideal; the solution suggested in the first wave was: to bring the ought to the is by lowering the ought, by conceiving of the ought as not making too high demands on men or as being in agreement with man’s most common and most powerful passion…

The quote above belongs to Leo Strauss and can be read, in full context, in his paper regarding the Decline of the West (The Three Waves of Modernity, 1959).  Strauss finds his answer to the problem of the gulf between ought and is in Rousseau’s notion of the General Will — a republicanism that requires that each man vet his own requirements of society by calling his will in to law.  The idea that only generalized wishes will result in law convinces Rousseau that the general, and not particular, is the just pursuit.  This whole exercise is the forebear to the Kantian notion of the categorical imperative which draws some powerful parallels to the Constitutional Law models that define the legal institutions in the United States.

So, getting to my point here, the quote prompted the following questions: 1) Does the “dissatisfaction with the gulf between the is and the ought” still exist today?  2) If so, has it ebbed in intensity or has it grown more apparent in our contemporary setting? 3) What does the situation on the ground have to do with Rousseau’s notion of the General Will.

1) I think this one is easy.  That dissatisfaction is certainly still present and it’s ubiquitous, too (answering question #2).  In fact, I’d argue that that phenomenon is a pre-cursor for the post-modern condition — the acquiescence to nihilism and the intentional obliviousness that’s followed.  Here’s where interesting little character-bits (e.g. the hipster-emphasis on cleverness over intelligence — you’re cool if you know lots about obscure bands but you’re a downer if you discuss pursuit of the good) emerge, I think.  And, regarding #3?  Rousseau’s General Will requires two human factors: reason and shame.  I’d venture a guess that, when faced with a century-long bout with the weight of nihilism, the erosion of faith, and a crisis of the good, the human store of both reason and shame have been depleted.  Rousseau’s General Will requires a sense of community that we no longer possess.  I’d be interested in thoughts…

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