Sunday, September 02, 2007

Grayling's progress is Lagonda's loss

Lagonda is a young Dutchwoman who loved the community she grew up in. She remembers tranquil Sunday mornings, marked by familiar sights and sounds:

That is how I remember the Sunday mornings of my childhood. Calm and beautiful, saturated in a slow light.

She remembers a well-knit community, decent and caring, in which people looked out for each other and respected basic social norms.

Sadly, she is now grieving for a lost community:

That was less than 20 years ago. But who still knows what is normal? When I walk into my town now, the inevitable conclusion forces itself on me: The Netherlands is gone and will never come back.

In the last 20 years cheap apartment blocks were built, a diverse population moved in, ethnic violence broke out, parts of the town became off limits to locals, drugs and crime increased, and the new suburbs became run down and poorly maintained.

As a result,

the town closed up definitively: the last remains of the old spirit have disappeared. People have become closed, cautious, frightened.

Lagonda directs her ire at a section of the Dutch political class:

There is a force active in the Netherlands, that lives on this fear, a force that savours tearing apart the textures of traditional society. It is the force of the progressives: it hates contentment, it hates the citizen that dares to be satisfied with his life, it hates the soap bubble of safety that the common man wishes for himself ...

I think Lagonda is right to blame the political progressives. Perhaps she's right too that some of these progressives are motivated by sheer animosity toward the comfortable middle-classes, by a desire to shock, upset and outrank the average citizen.

I doubt, though, that progressives are motivated chiefly by malice. It's best to look at the political beliefs of progressives to understand why they act as they do.

We have a prominent progressive visiting Melbourne this month, namely Professor A.C.Grayling. He's here to discuss his most recent book Toward the Light, in which he argues that Western history since the 1500s has been a progress toward ever greater amounts of liberty.

Grayling claims that as a progressive he is following a great ideal and bringing a blessing of "liberty" to ordinary citizens. But what does he mean by liberty?

As you might expect, he means individual autonomy. For Grayling, the measure of human progress is the advance toward ever greater levels of individual autonomy:

The most congenial moment in the moral progress of humanity for Grayling seems to be the Enlightenment. This is the age whose best minds affirm the fundamental good of personal and political autonomy.

But what does it mean to have more autonomy? First, the existence of social norms, which Lagonda valued as giving shape and purpose to community life, will be looked on negatively as restrictions. Grayling writes:

A living community has to tread this line, always; once a static moral orthodoxy is enforced, the effect on the community is a stifling one. Take the examples of divorce and homosexuality, both of which in living memory were regarded with distaste and opprobrium, and both of which have become acceptable and part of the mainstream, thereby liberating people to more generous possibilities for living flourishing lives.

Grayling has to take this view. If you believe that the fundamental good is individual autonomy, then the existence of a community standard will be thought of negatively as a "stifling" limitation on the self-determining individual.

Similarly, the mainstreaming of divorce will be described as part of the progress of society, as a step toward "liberating people" from a settled pattern of family life.

Grayling is enough of an intellectual to also take this logical step:

One measure of a good society is whether its individual members have the autonomy to do as they choose in respects that principally concern only them. The debate about heroin, cocaine and marijuana touches precisely on this. In my submission, a society in which such substances are legal and available is a good society not because drugs are in themselves good, but because the autonomy of those who wish to use them is respected ...

If a good society is one in which individual autonomy is paramount, then Grayling has a case. Restricting drugs like heroin and cocaine is "stifling" to some other individual's liberty to self-determine his own life and therefore impedes his opportunities to "flourish".

The problem, of course, is the gap between theory and reality. Lagonda didn't experience the trafficking of drugs and the breakdown of social norms in her town as a liberating progress, but rather as a demoralising erosion of community life.

In Professor Grayling's homeland, a wave of murders by teenage gangs has led even some of those on the left to decry the extent of family breakdown in England. People see the fatherless boys, the street gangs and the crime and they don't easily interpret it all as a further step toward liberation and human flourishing.

Then there's the issue of religion. If your aim is to be autonomous, you won't easily accept a higher authority. Consider the following online discussion between Grayling and some admirers:

tarav: Grayling discusses how the Christian story of Satan was based on a pagan myth. Grayling tells of "the fall of Satan, once an archangel high in the ranks of heaven, but whose pride - he desired autonomy, independence, self-determination - was the cause of his being cast from heaven"

tarav: if this is evil, then I am evil too!

MadArchitect: if God is merely a personality of authority, and heaven is merely a territory of the good, then there's much reason to sympathise with the fall of Satan

acgrayling: Tarav and Milton would agree "me too!" ...

Which brings us to a further question. Why should individual autonomy be cast by progressives as the overriding good?

In part, it's because of a tradition within Western thought which answers the question of what makes us human with the idea that it is our ability to determine for ourselves who we are that sets us apart from other (lesser) creatures. Therefore, to hold on to our human status we must assert our autonomy; if some are denied autonomy they are being treated as less human and the principle of human equality is being denied.

Perhaps another reason for the emphasis on autonomy is that modernists tend not to recognise goods existing objectively outside of our own selves. Therefore, the "good" for modernists often consists in the satisfaction of our own preferences or the achievement of our own goals.

Grayling has at least partly confirmed that this is his understanding by writing that:

"the good" is not exclusively a matter of human satisfactions and achievements, because there is the non-human world to be taken into account too.

So, with the proviso that we need to consider the welfare of animals and nature, Grayling seems to connect the "good" with what he terms "human satisfactions and achievements".

If preference satisfaction is the goal, then autonomy will be valued because what matters is that I am unimpeded in pursuing what I want.

If achievement is the aim, then the argument is usually that it is the individual who can best determine what life projects interest him and suit him and that autonomy will therefore best serve the pursuit of the good.

So liberal modernists have a theory of being (regarding what makes us human) and a theory of value (of what constitutes the good). These theories are supposed to lead to human flourishing: to a society in which we flourish as autonomous individuals, each of us pursuing our own career or lifestyle goals, within materially prosperous, differentiated, neutral/respectful, open societies.

That the theories are inadequate is suggested by the fact that the societies don't flourish as they are supposed to. This is not because the whole project is held back by an "irrational" opposition to extending full human equality (i.e. equal autonomy) to all people. Lagonda herself points out that the Dutch, more than any other nation, have tried to adapt to the demands of modernity and to accommodate to newcomers. Yet, the effect isn't a sense of flourishing, but rather a loss of moorings, confusion and a sense of powerlessness:

Nothing is natural or obvious anymore, everything has become guilt-ridden and corroded. Who knows what is normal anymore? Who knows anymore what behaviour may be expected, or even demanded, from fellow citizens? The average citizen, who time after time tried his or her hardest to adapt, is completely lost. All that he knew has been taken away, all the ways he could arm himself have become powerless. We are made to walk as if on eggs through our own society, yelled at by the propagandists of the progressive congregation, who tell us it is our own fault.

Even those presenting Grayling's views to us no longer truly believe that theory matches reality. One columnist declares himself to be sceptical about Grayling's account of progress because:

it seems to me that another delusion the success of science has fostered is that there might be no limits to human capabilities or knowledge. It is not just that technology has downsides as well as upsides ... It is that a scientific account of the world is not enough to live by, though meliorism would have us act as if it is.

When interviewed in the Melbourne Age, Grayling pressed the idea that religion is to blame for society's problems. The interviewer, James Button, wasn't persuaded:

Yet given the world's problems, I ask him, is this a top-order issue in countries like Britain and Australia? Surely a larger concern is the pervasive feeling that the consumer society is empty, devoid of value?

Many of the responses to Grayling run along such sceptical lines. The progressive theory is more difficult to accept now as it is difficult to read modern societies in terms of "onwards and upwards".

It is time to rethink modernist theory. We need a theory of being which is willing to consider as key human qualities our defining forms of identity and attachments, and our place as social beings within communities. This would allow us to recognise that there is a good in how we have been made and not just in the process of self-making.

We need too to rethink the theory of value, so that we recognise "transcendent" goods: higher goods embedded in institutions and traditions, in which individuals partake, but which are grasped as larger, encompassing entities. In doing so, we would open our eyes to the reasonable desire of most people who, just like Lagonda, wish to conserve what is good within the traditional texture of society.


  1. Your post is superb. Liberal overvaluation of personal autonomy is, as you say, rooted in moral individualism - the idea that it is only individual states of mind or feeling that have ultimate value, a notion that runs all through Rousseau who is its most influential modern source. However, if autonomy or choice is to have any meaning, the agent must be in a community which affords a rich array of options. Such options could not be limited to those determined by the narrow vision of progressive ideology which has itself turned into just another tradition, and a rather stifling one at that. If such is the case, value lies not in choice itself, but in social arrangements that provide the range of choices that afford the possibility of a rich and rewarding life - arrangements that are likely to be grievously damaged by policies rooted in overvaluation of choice or autonomy as shown by Lagonda's complaint.

  2. Hmm. . .I'm not convinced. How does this belief in "individual autonomy" square with the totalitarian, statist tactics the "progressives" use to enforce ideological and social conformity? Look how quickly the smoking ban spread all over the Western world. How can legalization of hard drugs (a "progressive" cause) be squared with smoking bans (also largely a "progressive" cause.) I once tried to ask a "progressive" who was pro marijuana legalization AND pro-smoking ban to explain the contradictions in their viewpoint. Didn't get much of a rational answer, other than that, "progressives" believe that tobacco smoking is bad and marijuana smoking is good.

    Me thinks this alleged belief in ever-increasing individual autonomy is a sham. It's a way to cause maximum social breakdown so that the "progressives" can take use the excuse ot take power and apply their totalitarian agenda. Look at England and the CCTV cameras everywhere -- would they be needed if England didn't invent every criminal known to mankind into its midst from open borders?

    The same seems to be true of a lot of issues that bedevil our society. I have actually seen a Guardian editorial advocating that the UK government forcibly jab nubile schoolgirls with birth control injections, no choice in the matter from the parents. Yet the same people advocating enforced temporary sterialization would howl like banshees if anyone suggested banning the widespread media promotion of sexual promiscuity to young children and teen-agers.

    In short, progressivism is a belief system with a lot of contradictions and a lot of articles taken on faith alone (i.e. "bad" tobacco smoking,"good" marijuana smoking.)In other words, it's a religion, and no surprise should be registered when its adherents act like fervent religious believers.

  3. Thucydides, thanks.

    Susan, you've hit upon one of the major contradictions within liberal modernism. An ideology which aims at individual autonomy ends up with an increasingly authoritarian statism.

    But there are reasons for this. Pope Pius XI noted long ago that:

    "On account of the evil of "individualism," as we called it, things have come to such a pass that the highly developed social life which once flourished in a variety of prosperous and interdependent institutions, has been damaged and all but ruined, leaving virtually only individuals and the State ..." (Quadragesimo Anno)

    Remember too that liberals believe in a contingent humanity: that we are made more or less human by our possession of autonomy.

    This means that liberals will see an intolerably unjust inequality surrounding them: they will see some people with less autonomy and therefore being treated as less human.

    So the use of the state to enforce "equality" will seem to them not a totalitarian intrusion but an enforcement of basic rights, social justice and human equality.

    Something else: if you want to be autonomous, then you will oppose the influence in society of what individuals inherit rather than choose for themselves.

    What we inherit though is often embedded within a tradition or as part of our received nature because it is so important to human life (e.g. our nature as men and women, the social roles following from this)

    Liberals are therefore faced with a massive task of reconstruction to achieve autonomy.

    In other words, it's not just leaving people alone which would achieve autonomy, as this would still leave unchosen, pre-determined qualities to influence our identity, social roles etc.

    So liberals turn to the power of the state to force through measures necessary to overturn the influence of unchosen qualities such as gender & ethnicity.

    There's a logic to them doing this, but yes it ends up turning liberalism towards statism and authoritarianism.

  4. Mark,

    Many good points.

    Where we seem to disagree though, is that I don't hink this slippage into totalitarianism is inadvertant -- I think it's planned. I think that large sections of the liberal-left deliberately WANT social destruction, chaos, social breakdown etc. They are using it as a weapon to destroy the civilization they hate so much.

  5. While there is clearly a degree of destructive nihilism on the far left (think of Lenin's "worse is better" because it tends to bring on violent revolution), most liberals are simply guilty of moral indolence or mental lethargy in that they adhere to a narrow range of values seen as liberal, such as moral autonomy, and seek to push them to extremes. They refuse to make the reasonable tradeoffs that are necessary in the real world of frequently conflicting and sometimes incommensurable goods - and evils.
    In the case of smoking, the individual is not seen as making a rational choice, but as the victim of addiction or of evil tobacco companies. (For liberals, there is never personal moral responsibility, since all people are naturally good, and evil only comes about through malign external influences). On the other hand, the drug user is seen as making a deliberate choice, and even better, a choice that is subversive of cultural or creedal constraints, and is therefore highly autonomous. In the case of forcible contraception, the girls are seen as incapable of making a rational choice (which for liberals would be to use contraception and enjoy sexual gratification regardless of their immaturity); therefore the state should make it for them. However, the destructive impact on society of such policies is the same, regardless of whether the motive is deliberate cultural destruction or it simply results from the moral simple-mindedness of pushing some favored value to an extreme. Although space does not permit the idea to be developed, I think the liberal commitment to certain values to the exclusion of others against which tradeoffs need to be made is rooted in the liberals' false human anthropology - the view of human beings as essentially good as they are, or in other words, the denial of the reality of human evil, that the front lines in the battle between good and evil run through every human heart, as Solzhenitsyn put it.