Sunday, April 25, 2004

Rethinking the left

Remember the recent Nescafe ad that had the jingle,

You can be mother when you are a man
Open your mind, you know that you can.

with images of men kissing each other and holding babies etc.

This is typical of traditional liberalism in that it assumes that we are free to act in any direction we like as long as we are "open-minded."

There is no recognition in this traditional liberalism that some human qualities are not quite so malleable: that, instead, we have a human nature which gives some sort of direction to our behaviour, so that, for instance, men are more likely to act in a masculine way as fathers, rather than a feminine way as mothers.

Peter Singer, a Monash Uni professor and a leading "left-liberal" intellectual has now done the unthinkable. He has called for the left to admit what conservatives have asserted all along: that human nature is not infinitely malleable and perfectible, and that to achieve worthwhile social change you have to have an understanding of human nature.

In an article for the Australian (17/7/98), Singer writes that, "Belief in the malleability of human nature has been important for the Left", because the left hoped that simply by changing the political system, human nature could be perfected, and a socialist utopia would result.

Singer notes that most attempts to achieve this utopia have misfired disastrously: Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, Pol Pot, etc.

Singer, to his credit, is willing to learn from history, and from science, and now says that,

those seeking to reshape society must understand the tendencies inherent in human beings and modify their abstract ideals in order to suit them.

This is exactly what conservatives have tried to explain over a number of centuries. The problem is not in having ideals, it is in having abstract ideals, derived from ideologies, and then trying to force people to fit into these ideals (which most usually occurs at the point of a gun.)

It is better to find our ideals in what is best within the reality of human nature, to structure the social system to complement the better traits (and to restrain the worst traits) in human nature, and to be a bit humble in accepting the imperfections within human nature, especially where these imperfections do no great harm.

Singer goes on to draw a further conclusion from the existence of human nature. He admits that social hierarchies seem to form in every human society and writes that,

to say that human beings under a wide range of conditions have a tendency to form hierarchies is to issue a warning that we should not expect to abolish hierarchy in our society by eliminating the particular hierarchy we live within.

He gives as an obvious example of this the Russian Revolution, in which the old monarchy was overthrown, only to give rise to a new hierarchy based around the communist party officials.

In fact, Singer could have taken this argument one step further. By making social change without any reference to human nature, not only are you likely to end up back where you started from, often you will end up worse off, because you will have destroyed the traditional restraints upon the worst of human nature, and the traditional encouragement to what is best.

This, to a considerable degree, is where we have been left today by liberal "reform." The older cultural restraints and social structures, built up over many generations, have been jettisoned for their imperfections, leading not to some kind of utopia, but to the unleashing of much that is unattractive within human nature.

Still, congratulations to Peter Singer for having the courage to recognise a failing within traditional liberal thought, and to draw conclusions which will probably not endear him to many of his colleagues.

(Originally published in University Review, February 1999)

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