'Soul, Self and Society': A Conversation With Edward Rubin

Dec 1, 2016

Vanderbilt University legal scholar Edward Rubin spoke at Texas A&M University-Commerce in November as part of the Sam Rayburn Speaker Series hosted by the Office of the President at A&M-Commerce. During his visit, Rubin stopped by KETR to discuss his new book, "Soul, Self and Society," with KETR News Director Mark Haslett.

Edward Rubin: My most recent book is a discussion of the way morality and government relate to each other over the course of western history. My focus is the recent development of a new morality, which I call a morality of self-fulfillment, replacing the prior morality, which I call morality of higher purposes. And my point is that a lot of people decry the modern world, and say that we are in a, period of moral decline -- that the old morality is collapsing, and that we're in a permissive, unstructured, modern world. But in fact, what I say is that there is a new morality that has replaced the old morality, and it's centered on a different principle, so to people who cling to the old morality it looks immoral, but to people who embrace the new morality it represents a real set of values and the old morality becomes something that looks immoral to them.

Mark Haslett: Something in those objections that you're referring to, a phrase that you hear a lot is "moral relativism." Could you compare and contrast this notion of moral relativism with the new morality that you're describing?

Rubin: "Moral relativism" is a condemnation from people who believe in this traditional morality, because the principle of traditional morality is that it's the only possible morality, and that it defines right and wrong in absolute terms. In the modern world, I think there's a recognition that different cultures have different moralities, and the acceptance of cultural diversity is one element of modern morality. But modern people, I think have just a different set of values about what's right and wrong.

Haslett: What are some of the most common objections that people have raised to your main thesis in this book, and how have you engaged those objections?

Rubin: There are several. One is that you can't possibly call the modern morality a morality. What goes along with that is people's belief that it's just self-indulgence. That it's just a way of doing whatever you want. That's what I resist most strongly. It is certainly not a way of doing whatever you want, it is a set of definitive beliefs. I'll give you an example. According to traditional morality, people are supposed to fill their role in society, serve the higher purpose of social stability. In the modern world, everybody is supposed to have their own life and fulfill themselves  as much as possible.

So, for example, according to modern morality, it is immoral, absolutely immoral, to deny every person, regardless of their race or their gender, the opportunity to have whatever career they choose and find fulfilling. This is something that would have been completely foreign to the traditional morality, where women were supposed to stay in the home, and there were various other expressions of hierarchy. People who were in the working class were supposed to remain in the working class. Now, very few modern people who claim to be traditionalists will own up to that set of beliefs anymore. That's an area where modern morality is completely dominant now. And so what you see is that people are sort of picking and choosing doctrines from the traditional morality that remain acceptable, such as opposition to abortion, or to same-sex marriage, but at the same time, we're all products of the modern world, and there are certain aspects of the modern world that just about everybody accepts these days.

Haslett: Something that you're describing about the modern morality -- it seems to have quite a large investment in the experience of the individual, and the rights of the individual. Something that could be a challenge for that are contemporary social and political realities and, as you yourself are very focused on, realities in the natural world, that would require us to put our personal privileges, preferences, in some cases what people would describe as rights, aside, for the collective good. So how do you balance this sensibility where there's this kind of this very European Enlightenment-based centeredness on the individual person with the necessity that many would argue -- and I'm sure that given your work on climate science you would agree -- that there are situations where we have to put our personal considerations to one side in order to engage in collective activity?

Rubin: So, there are two aspects of that. One is that modern morality, although it emphasizes self-fulfillment, doesn't mean that each individual is just selfish. It means that we're committed to enabling each individual to fulfill themselves, and that involves a number of collective enterprises. For example, it's becoming increasingly recognized as immoral -- this is true in western Europe and we're working on it in the United States -- to deny people basic education, health services, subsistence and housing. These are the basic human necessities. And the reason is that an individual can't have a fulfilling life if they're denied those basic necessities. And so creating a society, a social structure, that guarantees those basic necessities to every member of the society is an element of modern morality. It comes out of the sense that each individual has to fulfill themselves, but it represents a collective means of organization allowing them to do so.

The climate-change example is a very interesting one, because here, we're faced with a threat to ourselves as a collectivity and it's not immediately clear how each morality relates to it, but it's quite clear that there's a strong correlation. What seems to me to be the case is that people who subscribe to modern morality believe in government regulation, because they believe that the government must provide these basic necessities to people. And concomitant to that is a believe that the government must act in order to stop ourselves from destroying this planet, whereas it's been the people who cling to traditional morality who have been the climate change deniers, because they don't like the role of government, and the only way we're going to solve the climate problem is through collective government action and regulation.

Haslett: What is an overview of how you have chosen to engage those who oppose the consensus on climate science?

Rubin: Well, one thing I did, in addition to my academic work, is write a novel called, "The Heatstroke Line," and what I tried to do in this book is present a vision of the United States as it would be if we don't take any action to prevent the global warming process, and I particularly focused on the South, because it's an area where their climate change denial is very strong, and, ironically, it's the area that probably will be most seriously effected by what will inevitably occur if we don't intervene. Many parts of the American South will be literally uninhabitable if we get the kind of temperature spikes that scientists are projecting we will get if we don't take action relatively soon to stop this process from unfolding. And it will also be possible, that people will live under a constant threat of imminent death if there's a power failure, which is more likely to occur as more and more demands are made on the power grid as a result of rising temperatures. I think people in the United States think that if there are serious consequences, they'll occur somewhere else in the world, in remote tropical regions, and in fact it's going to affect us.

The other thing I would say is we can see the stress that one million Syrian refugees have placed on democratic systems in Western Europe. What will happen if we either have to deal with or repel tens of millions of climate refugees from, who are seeking entry to our own country, because theirs are becoming uninhabitable? Will we be able to maintain a democratic system? In my book, I envision that the United States will break apart under that kind of stress, because it is simply unimaginable that we could, with our current system, deal with that kind of influx of desperate people.

Haslett: Is there anything else that you think would be of interest that you'd like to include that we haven't touched on yet?

Rubin: Well, of course, everybody's thinking about the current election. People have asked me whether the election of Donald Trump represents a reversal of the trends that I'm observing, and what I would say is I don't think it does. First of all, the election was decided by very small margins. The coastal areas that tend to be in the lead in these trends voted very strongly for Hillary Clinton. But beyond that, it was interesting that Trump pretty much abandoned the social agenda. Ted Cruz was the candidate of the social agenda. But Trump pretty much abandoned that, and had a kind of populist appeal that drew on a general sense of anger, and I think he was drawing on the fact that there's been a lot of social change, and a lot of people aren't comfortable with that.

Young people, people under the age of 50, voted quite heavily for Hillary, and it was people over the age of 50 that gave Trump the victory. Ironically, Pennsylvania, which is one of the states that nobody predicted, is a state with a relatively older population, and it wasn't exactly surprising, that that would be the state that represented the balance. What I do think Trump represents is the end of the American century of dominance. I think it's clear that what his message is, is "We're not going to be a world leader any more. We're not going to be a moral leader, we're not going to be an economic leader." It's a sort of inward withdrawal, and whether that continues is something that I can't really predict.

Haslett: One last thing -- the saying goes "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes." Thinking about history, are there any analogies that you can think of, even if they don't correspond exactly, where you had an industrialized, or at least urbanized, society where one moral system was replaced by another, and there were tensions as that transition happened -- are there any historical analogies that come to mind that, even if they don't necessarily predict what's going to happen with us, could offer some lessons or insights?

Rubin: Well, history at the scale I was writing at doesn't offer a great many examples. I think when you mention industrialization -- it was industrialization that was one of the main factors contributing to the rise of modern morality. So, the analogy was that this process was a change that resulted from the advent of the modern world. The western world went through, in my view, an equivalent process at least once before, but that was in pre-modern times, that was in the shift from the early middle ages to the high middle ages, and the early modern period, when the development of strong centralizing monarchies lead to a real shift in personal morality, and the morality of higher purposes that I described in the book.

Haslett: Talking about industrialization and the time that came right before it, with the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason and all that, and people like Thomas Jefferson, the meliorists who thought that advances in technology and education would result in -- not a utopia, but a mostly just, mostly stable, mostly free society in which humans would continually be able to improve their lot -- you contrast that with now, when we have obviously existential threats with the climate situation -- politically, we have a kind of a collapse of the political center, where in these previously stable countries, you have a rise in political extremism that has entered the mainstream. Have all of those optimists from the Enlightenment -- have they been proven wrong, or is it a bit more nuanced than that?

Rubin: I think it's more nuanced than that. I mean, obviously, there was a kind of enthusiasm, and a kind of meliorism, as you pointed out, in the Enlightenment, where some people thought we would advance in an unbroken succession to a rational and prosperous world. If you think about the history since those people wrote -- we had the European reaction, then after that ended, we had fascism. Now I think there's a further retrenchment not only in the United States, but in European countries.

I think what I was concerned about and writing about were very long term trends, and if you look at where we are compared to 200 years ago, I think you do see enormous amounts of social progress, enormous amounts of increased prosperity, and a moral system that, at least from the perspective of ourselves, of the people who believe in that moral system, something where we would regard even the colonial period of our own country as an anathema  in terms of the way racial minorities were treated, in terms of the way women were treated, in terms of the way social hierarchies operated.

So those represent real social progress. It's not going to be uniform, it's not going to be unproblematic, it's not going to be easy, but I do think that if we look 100 years from now, assuming we haven't poisoned our environment to the point where we're all suffering the way I depicted in my novel, I think you will see a still better world, where people have more of an opportunity to live the kind of self-fulfilling lives that we now regard as valuable.

Ed Rubin specializes in administrative law, constitutional law and legal theory. Professor Rubin joined Vanderbilt Law School as Dean and the first John Wade-Kent Syverud Professor of Law in July 2005, serving a four-year term that ended in June 2009.  He has also served as Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California-Berkeley.

He received his law degree from Yale University in 1979. He served as a Law Clerk and then practiced law as an Associate in the Entertainment Law department of Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison in New York.  In addition, he has served as a consultant to the People's Republic of China on administrative law, and to the Russian Federation on payments law.

His studies have also included morality and governance.  His most recent publication, Soul, Self, & Society: The New Morality & the Modern State, delves deep into the connections between the two.