Stephen R.C. Hicks, Ph.D. is a Professor of Philosophy at Rockford University and the executive director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship. He received his honours B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Guelph, Canada, and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Indiana University, Bloomington. Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy, 2004; expanded edition 2011), the documentary Nietzsche and the Nazis (Ockham's Razor, 2010), and the co-editor of The Art of Reasoning: Readings for Logical Analysis (W. W. Norton & Co., 1998). He's also the author of numerous essays and articles, including: "Ayn Rand and Contemporary Business Ethics," "Defending Shylock," and "Business Ethics."
To IOS [now known as The Atlas Society] members, Hicks is perhaps best known as a popular and insightful speaker at institute events, most recently speaking at the 2015 Atlas Summit on "The Three Best Arguments against Liberal Capitalism." Hicks also spoke at the 1998 IOS Summer Seminar at which he discussed the phenomenon of postmodernism.
[Editor's note: the above biography has been updated from the original article printed in 2000.]
Navigator: Why are you interested in postmodernism? Why is it important?
Hicks: I'm interested in it for a number of reasons, one of which is the intellectual puzzle. I'm interested in the epistemology, I'm interested in politics, I'm interested in views of human nature, and postmodernism is a total philosophical package that puts together views on all of these things. I'm interested in intellectual history, and to understand postmodernism—where it came from—means that you have to know intellectual history. I like teasing out all of the lines of development that weave together to form different kinds of movements.
I'm interested in it as part of trying to do something about where the humanities are right now. In the academic world, we have a major split between two cultures, there is the science and technology culture, which is by and large healthy; and there is the humanities culture, which has many serious problems. A lot of the problems have to do with postmodernism being the leading philosophical outlook with its skepticism, its relativism, its antagonistic views about the relations between the sexes and the classes and the races. And so cleaning up what's going on in the academic world means understanding postmodernism, understanding what motivates it, what drives it, what its key arguments are so that one is in a position to argue against them.
It's also relevant to Objectivism and TOC's mission. Part of our strategy right now, or at least our public intellectual strategy, is to push a "three cultures" line. Most of the cultural war debates that are going on right now are couched in terms of an alternative: basically you can either be a religious conservative, where you uphold tradition, you uphold the family and all of those sorts of things; or, you can be a postmodernist, or someone on the cultural far Left, in which case you're a multiculturalist, or New-Agey, etc. That's how the religious conservatives tend to put it. They say, "Look, you either go with those nihilists on the left, or you come back to the family and God." And the people on the counter-cultural Left say pretty much the same thing—they are always setting up the religious right as their opposite. So, if—and this is something that will come out of my book—if we can say, "Those are not the only two alternatives, in many ways those are two sides of the same coin. There is a third principle or alternative: the Enlightenment outlook, or the modernist outlook, and that outlook can be clearly delineated and distinguished from both the religious right and the postmodernist Left." Making that distinction will help leverage Objectivism into the culture.
One of our problems is always how we're packaged. To the extent people look at our metaphysics and epistemology, they'll say, "Oh, you're atheists," or "You reject faith" and so to them that necessarily then means you will end up in nihilism. The clearest example of nihilism now is on the Left. On the other side, we are billed as advocating free markets and politics, and those ideas get lumped with conservatism. Conservatism, with all of its pathologies, is then associated with us. so if we can distance ourselves from both parts of the duality that we usually get lumped in with, then we will clear up misconceptions and be better able to state our case.
Navigator: How does the analogy of the Attila and the Witch Doctor intersect with your two examples?
Hicks: The conservatives are the Witch Doctors; they are the religious approach. They are more likely to say they stand for higher spiritual values, to denigrate the things physical, materialistic, and so on. And the Attilas are definitely the postmodernists. They are the ones who will be more crass, more cynical, more likely to see human interactions as dominated by conflict and thus more willing themselves to enter into that Machiavellian fray where anything goes, in order to win the debate. They're both against the mind—the postmodernists are clearly anti-reason, anti-intellectual. The religious conservatives today are not so extreme about that, but when you push them they always say that faith will trump reason, and reason is at best a secondary virtue in their epistemology.
Navigator: How can you stand postmodernism, period?
Hicks: Well, I think of it like I'm a medical researcher studying some horrible disease, or a surgeon—you know that the patient lying on the table is a human being who wants to live, wants to be happy, cares about people, has all kinds of people who care about him, but he's got some disfigured and diseased organ. You get in there, it's icky, but you do your job. And, it is icky, but the way you deal with it psychologically and motivationally is that you keep the bigger picture in mind, the larger value framework, and why this matters. Postmodernism is one of the diseased organs in our culture, and it needs to be cut out.
Navigator: Why should postmodernism matter to non-philosophers?
Hicks: It should matter to a non-philosopher because you send your kids to school and they will be taught by teachers who are taught by postmodernists. You send your kids to college, they will be taught by the same people. What's going on in the humanities, in the English departments, in how history is taught, in law schools, has thousands of implications for what kind of cultural atmosphere your kids are raised in, and what kind of culture you're living in.
Postmodernism affects how the news is reported to you, both in television and in print. In journalism schools it leads to the notion that objective reporting is a myth, that the job of the journalist is to be an advocate for a certain position. It influences, especially through the law schools, what the next generation lawyers are going to think, how they're going to argue, what kind of precedents (if any) they'll respect. It affects whether they look at the Constitution as a document that they are trying to uphold, whether they agree with its principles, or whether they see the Constitution as expressing the class and race interests of a bunch of dead white males. So, in a hundred different ways it matters.
Navigator: Turning to your talks on business ethics: How would your take on business ethics help a small business owner?
Hicks: One of the things it does is it makes him feel virtuous about what he's doing, and that's something that most people in business don't get very much of. They feel virtuous knowing that they're supporting their families and things like that, and they enjoy their jobs. But mostly what they hear in the prevailing culture is that being in business is a bit of a social black mark. Making profits and doing the kinds of things you need to do to make money are not especially honorable. So it's uplifting to give the sense that business can be a calling, that doing one's job well and being successful is a noble thing. There is spiritual value to having the right kind of ethics on your side.
The local guy in business thinks about the ethics questions all the time. "I have an opportunity to cheat someone; should I have higher or lower standards of quality in my product? When a regulatory issue comes up that affects me, should I say anything about it? If I'm going to say anything, what should I say? If I'm going to hire someone, what should my standards be?"
Navigator: What kinds of questions do you answer in your talks on medical ethics?
Hicks: I'm interested in the kinds of things that we as a culture argue about every time there is a new major medical innovation. Cloning is the most recent example. The human genome is an ongoing example. All of these raise questions: what's good? What's bad? What is the purpose of knowledge? How far should we go, what is it to be a human being? Those are fascinating issues.
Navigator: How far we should go with what?
Hicks: With pursuing knowledge about ourselves, with developing technologies to improve the quality and the longevity of our lives. All those things are enormously attractive to most people, but most people also have misgivings about them. Medical ethics has something to say about those ideas, and Objectivists, because we have a unique take on ethics, we have something unique to say about them.
Navigator: What do you have to say that's unique concerning those ideas?
Hicks: We're optimistic about human beings, about what they can achieve, about how competent they are. My sense is that most of the misgivings people have are based on a sense that humans are not competent. People believe either that there is an evil streak in us such that the more knowledge and the more tools that we have at our disposal, the more destructive we're going to be with each other; or they believe that we are not especially competent, that nature is too mysterious, too complicated for us, and that if we start tinkering with things, we'll open Pandora's box and end up killing ourselves.
So I think the optimism that Objectivism has about human potential and human competence is something that the medical ethics debates need more of. And to back up the optimism we have in the view of human nature and epistemology, we have the efficacy of reason. So we can make inroads.
That's also an issue that the Center should move higher on the list because it's going to have a higher cultural profile in the next decade. Biology is huge and all the fruits of biology are going to be entering the culture at an accelerated pace for the next two decades, much as computer technology entered the culture in the last two decades. And biological products hit closer to home, and have greater implications, so there's going to be a lot more cultural debate about it. It's something we need to get on top of.
Navigator: What's next? What will be your next topic of study?
Hicks: This fall when I'm teaching again, I'll have two manuscripts: the business ethics manuscript and postmodernism manuscript, and I'll look for publishers for them. I have a couple of ideas for projects I want to work on next.
One has to do with the Philosophy of History. It's a fascinating field. Why has the human world gone the way it has? If you take the point that Alan Kors has made, for example the history of, say, the wildebeest, it's pretty much the same for the last 1,000 years, last 10,000 years, last 30,000 years. But if you take the history of human beings, by contrast, it's all over the map. What is it about human beings that makes their history so different and distinctive? And more specifically, the great civilizations are perennially fascinating. Why did they rise? Why did they fall? What moves history? That's the set of issues that interests me, so I may work on that.
The other project idea is to do something in ethical theory. Now that we have the Objectivist ethics out there (which is a naturalistic approach to ethics), and now that biology and psychology are becoming more advanced and naturalistic in their orientation, there's a lot of literature out there being written by biologists who are interested in evolutionary biology, and by psychologists and social psychologists who are interested in the ethical implications of looking at human beings as a naturalistic organism that functions in a social environment. I think Objectivism has something to add to the literature those psychologists and biologists are writing. I think also that as we are developing and extending the Objectivist ethics that there are things we can learn there as well.