Friday, June 24, 2011

I'm not sure what it means....

I have a burning desire to introduce Stephen Metcalf to Reinhold Niebuhr:

Another way to put it—and here lies the legacy of Keynes—is that a free society is an interplay between a more-or-less permanent framework of social commitments, and the oasis of economic liberty that lies within it. The nontrivial question is: What risks (to health, loss of employment, etc.) must be removed from the oasis and placed in the framework (in the form of universal health care, employment insurance, etc.) in order to keep liberty a substantive reality, and not a vacuous formality? When Hayek insists welfare is the road is to serfdom, when Nozick insists that progressive taxation is coercion, they take liberty hostage in order to prevent a reasoned discussion about public goods from ever taking place. "According to them, any intervention of the state in economic life," a prominent conservative economist once observed of the early neoliberals, "would be likely to lead, and even lead inevitably to a completely collectivist Society, Gestapo and gas chamber included." Thus we are hectored into silence, and by the very people who purport to leave us most alone.
Never mind the implicit invocation of Godwin's Law there (which always brings an end to every argument, or at least is meant to); Digby tells me this article is heating up the intertubes. I wouldn't know; my internet neighborhood is so far out in the sticks it's off the map. But it's an interesting article, if a bit facile (then again, it's Slate, not a philosopher's forum). And I have to admit I'm not familiar with Robert Nozick's work (a book-length response to Rawl's Theory of Justice? *Yawn!*) There are a universe of responses to any position, but I would simply respond to Nozick's position with this:
John Adams in his warnings to Thomas Jefferson would seem to have had a premonition of this kind of politics. "Power," he wrote, "always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party." Adams's understanding of the power of the self's passions and ambitions to corrupt the self's reason is a simple recognition of the facts of life which refute all theories, whether liberal or Marxist, about the possibility of a completely disinterested self. Adams, as every Christian understanding of man has done, nicely anticipated the Marxist theory of an "ideological taint" in reason when men reason about each other's affairs and arrive at conclusions about each other's virtues, interests and motives. The crowning irony of the Marxist theory of ideology is that it foolishly and self-righteously confined the source of this taint to economic interest and to a particular class. It was, therefore, incapable of recognizing all the corruptions of ambition and power which would creep inevitably into its paradise of innocency.
The Irony of American History, by Reinhold Niebuhr. Charles Scribners' Sons, New York, 1952.

"Every thinking person," writes Metcalfe, "is to some degree a libertarian." Yes, but in Christianity, we call that original sin, not an original insight. The problem with libertarianism is not that it leads to false conclusions of the type even Nozick finally rejected, but that it makes a virtue of selfishness. Niebuhr (a much better choice for examining this problem than Kant, I'd say) recognizes this limitation, and also recognizes we must act to overcome it, or at least to keep it in check. The evil of losing my personal liberty is not outweighed by the evil of keeping my liberty as unchecked as possible: both ends employ the same means to reach the false conclusion of perfection (or, at least, of perfectability). In a passage that might well have been written in response to Nozick (and to Metcalfe), Niebuhr writes:

The liberal world which opposes this monstrous evil is filled ironically with milder forms of the same pretension. Fortunately they have not resulted in the same evils, partly because they are not as consistently held; and partly because we have not invested our ostensible "innocents" with inordinate power. Though a tremendous amount of illusion about human nature expresses itself in American culture, our political institutions contain many of the safeguards against the selfish abuse of power which our Calvinist fathers insisted upon. According to the accepted theory, our democracy owes everything to the believers in the innocency and perfectibility of man and little to the reservations about human nature which emanated from the Christianity of New England. But fortunately there are quite a few accents in our constitution which spell out the warning of John Cotton: "Let all the world give mortall man no greater power than they are content they shall use, for use it they will. . . . And they that have the liberty to speak great things you will find that they will speak: great blasphemies."
And Niebuhr neither limited, nor excused, the Church or the religious believers from this error:

In any event we have to deal with a vast religious-political movement which generates more extravagant forms of political injustice and cruelty out of the pretensions of innocency than we have ever known in human history.
I should note, again, he wrote those words in 1952. 59 years later, they still describe the situation America finds itself in. Good to know there's been some progress.....

Just consider that quote from Adams, against Nozick's idea of "liberty:"

Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party.
Nozick is, of course, asking for power; the power to preserve his liberty against all perceived challenges. And isn't that standard precisely the one that convinces us we are doing God's service when we are actually violating all of God's laws? Or at least tearing up precisely what we mean to preserve, if you prefer non-religious language? According to Metcalf, Nozick finally repudiated this position.

"The libertarian position I once propounded," Nozick wrote in an essay published in the late '80s, "now seems to me seriously inadequate." In Anarchy democracy was nowhere to be found; Nozick now believed that democratic institutions "express and symbolize … our equal human dignity, our autonomy and powers of self-direction." In Anarchy, the best government was the least government, a value-neutral enforcer of contracts; now, Nozick concluded, "There are some things we choose to do together through government in solemn marking of our human solidarity, served by the fact that we do them together in this official fashion ..."
(which, ironically, is not a great deal stronger, more persuasive, or all that different, from John Rawl's theory of justice.)

In other words, he came back to the conclusions of Adams and Jefferson. My only question is: what took him so long?

Oh....I think I know. And I dare to say religion had something to do with it; the absence, in this case; but clearly the presence, in Adams' case. Which is not to say this is a Christian nation after all; but the determined efforts to expunge all religious influence from all public discourse, efforts that began with the Enlightenment and reached their peak in 19th century Europe, especially in Anglo-American philosophy, is failing still to bear the fruit it promised.

Which is, more and more, very interesting....


  1. Anonymous4:37 PM

    Just consider that quote from Adama - BSG-Filter? ;-)

    I think the Admiral would actually have a few pertinent things to say here, actually. And I don't doubt that if he were a real person and not a science fiction character, and somehow came in contact with our culture, might also find Niebuhr an interesting read.

    Cheers -

  2. Robert, I was much struck by the quote from Adams on power and the quote by Niebuhr on the "vast religious-political movement" which results in harm rather than good.

    What would be left of public discourse if all religious influence were expunged? It's simply an impossibility. That would be like saying, lets expunge the influence of the Reformation from all religious discourse. It's pie in the sky that can't get past the imagination. We're back with Alice and the Queen, who says, "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

  3. A huge amount of Anglo-American intellectual life has been the promotion of atheism in the guise of promoting science and rationality. I've been testing what happens when you use scientific epistemology to undermine the intellectual basis of that and to expose the real motivation of it. The reaction couldn't be less rational, less scientific or more obviously ideological.

    I'm convinced that even among those whose basic inclination is towards the better side of liberalism inevitably undermine that through their ideological holding that people are just more complex organic chemistry. Reductionism and scientism inevitably support that ideology that prefers separating people from their inherent rights, as having a status other than and higher than inert matter. I've been curious about the X-Club which had Spenser and Thomas Huxley as members and the ideological activities they were engaged in even as they explicitly tried to push the elimination of religion in public life.

    One of the ironic things I saw pointed out was that even as Francis Galton was promoting the view that the "priestly mindset" was incapable of science and as he and his cousin puzzled over the mechanism of inheritance, Fr. Gregor Mendel was doing the basic research to find what would elude both of those eminent Brits.

    I would like to mention this in a post this week.

    Anthony McCarthy

  4. Anthony--Interesting discussion on an NPR (?) program this morning (my local NPR has split to two stations, one of which runs all talk all the time; I'm still figuring out the schedule), one about belief in which prominent scientists and, one hopes, theologians and other religious are interviewed.

    Anyway, the "guest" was a neurologist who started studying compassion as an emotion at the behest of the Dalai Lama (seems the classic emotions Western psychology recognized were only 6, of which the only positive was "happiness." Things have changed a bit since then (less than 20 years), but Eastern thinkers were amazed, he said, at the limits of Western thought in the realm.

    Anyway, he's done a lot of work with the Dalai Lama since then, and he said the Dalai Lama has said if any thing science has proven contradicts Buddhist thought, he (the Lama) would renounce it as contrary to science. The guest pointed out this meant there was a wide distinction between science fact and science assumption (his terms).

    There's a lot of blinkered nonsense out there, and then there are a few thoughtful people.