Thursday, October 02, 2008

Is human passion too dangerous?

I've written a few posts now reviewing Liberalism & Community by American academic Steven Kautz.

I hope readers will be patient with my efforts. Kautz sets out to defend the classical liberalism of Locke (seventeenth century), and he is very direct in spelling out the key features of this liberalism. Later, he admits that there are important weaknesses in the classical liberalism he supports.

I'll continue, though, with Kautz's description of the classical liberal worldview:

The natural condition of human beings ... is one of suspicion and hostility, an incipient war of all against all. (p.32)

This is too pessimistic a starting point. There is a natural fellow feeling existing between groups of people which is ignored here. Is there not at least some loyalty and cooperation between members of the same family? Or between members of the same ethny or nation?

Classical liberals are starting with a radically individualistic view of the human condition: that a natural state of affairs involves just me as an individual fighting against everyone else as an enemy.

But this is an unstable situation, one that almost inevitably leads to the establishment of tumultuous and illiberal political communities that do not make peace their overriding objective, where petty warfare is soon replaced by partisan warfare - often between rich and poor, sometimes among religious sects or other parties animated by one or another of the bizzare opinions contrived by the imaginations of men. (p.32)

This is what the faulty starting point leads to. If the state of nature is solitary individuals at war with each other, then what is required are artificial political communities which "make peace their overriding objective".

This won't be easy to achieve. After all, men will still by nature be inclined to a state of war against everyone else. There is a danger, in the Lockean liberal view, that the political community will be used not to secure peace between warring individuals, but as a weapon in the war of one faction of the community against another (partisan warfare).

Therefore, it is terribly wrong, in the Lockean liberal view, to be partisan about anything, including religion or politics. Not surprisingly, we are then told that it doesn't matter if we aren't partisan about such matters, as they have no basis in reality but only represent "bizzare opinions contrived by the imaginations of men".

This fear that any kind of group loyalties will unleash "the incipient war of all against all" has very damaging repurcussions:

Liberal theorists and politicians fear partisan (class, religious, ethnic, ideological) warfare above all, not simply the relatively petty quarrels of individuals. There is, indeed, a kind of communitarian logic about war: human beings at war seek allies because they have enemies. And alliances, sects, and parties will soon conceive the ideologies or dogmas that are necessary to justify oppressing the others, thus arming the warlike passions by civilizing them. (p.32)

Given the assumption that it is wrong to be partisan about anything, even ethnic loyalties are ruled out of bounds. We are to live, in the Lockean view, as solitary individuals restrained from war against all others by membership of a liberal political community.

Note too the Lockean liberal view of how partisan loyalties emerge. If we are by nature solitary individuals at war against everyone else, then partisan loyalties are driven simply by the need to seek alliances in war so that we may dominate and oppress others. Therefore, ethnic loyalties or religious beliefs don't represent anything real in themselves, but are simply a cover, a justification, for the getting of power over someone else.

... the most likely or natural path to political community is not a social contract, but a partisan struggle, because the passions (which suggest war) are more powerful than reason (which suggests peace), in the beginning. (pp.32-33)

A new element is added here. If an "incipient war of all against all" is natural, then the natural passions are bad - very bad. So these passions must be replaced by reason and by moderation.

Kautz sums up as follows:

It follows, say liberals, that there is no natural political community, but only this choice: we may endure life in one of those unhappy communities that transform the natural war of all against all into the more sanguinary and civilized wars of party against party or sect against sect; or we may construct a rational and peaceful political community on the basis of a social contract among free individuals who promise mutual self-restraint, or moderation.

... And so, in establishing liberal community, we must understand that the only truly common goods are peace and the means to peace (above all, private liberty and prosperity, as well as habits of public moderation), since peace is the necessary condition of security in the possession of all private goods.

All other speeches about so-called "common goods" are merely the (foolish or fraudulent) ideologies or dogmas of this or that party or sect. (p.33)

So the only common good that can be recognised is peace (although we may also seek material prosperity and a culture of public moderation).

So let's run through some of the problems associated with Lockean liberalism as outlined by Kautz:

a) there are no natural forms of human community, only an artifical political community

b) ethnic or religious loyalties are ruled out of bounds as being "partisan"; they are assumed to be made up for the purposes of conducting a more civilised form of the individual "war of all against all", so that one group in society may dominate and oppress another

c) the natural passions are considered bad and dangerous and are held to be opposed to reason

d) a community may have no common goods except the basic, initial aim of securing a rational, artificial peace between naturally warring individuals

Should conservatives accept such a world view? I don't think so. Moderns seem to swing between overly negative and optimistic views of human nature. The Lockean view is too negative and too individualistic. It is a view which radically limits the goods that humans may pursue: human passions are rejected as dangerous and irrational; religion and ethnicity are rejected as dangerously partisan and as imaginary constructs for the waging of war against others; and there can be no communal goods apart from the acquisitive pursuit of wealth and the maintenance of peace.

It is a cold and shallow account of human society. Nor is it likely to succeed in its one basic aim of keeping the peace, as it doesn't recognise, and so cannot preserve, the natural sources of loyalty, cooperation and unity in society.


  1. I agree that Kautz's views are depressing, but I'm not sure that they are unrealistic.

    The basis for community, like love, is the dependence of the individual. In a materially advanced, egalitarian society, the material dependence of the individual on the group, whether at the level of the family or at that of the community, vanishes. In such a situation, "love" and "community" become mere sentimental catchphrases, fit only for use by salesmen (as Oscar Wilde put it, "sentimentality is the bank holiday of the cynic").

    Of course no one, least of all a conservative, will want to hear this. And in this connection I think it is interesting to notice that conservatives, in defence of a vanishing (let's be honest, 90% vanished)experience of belonging, depart from their traditional emphasis on original sin and the essential corruption of human nature, to a rather more comforting view.

    On the left, the privatisation of the political ("the personal is political")signalled the obsolescence of the political sphere proper, that is, of the public sphere. It is, I think, significant that even the most vociferous opponents of the status quo now focus entirely on an agenda of "human rights," on issues surrounding sexuality and reproduction--with a sideline in anti-racism. All of these campaigns, indistinguishable from the agenda of the liberal left, tend in precisely the opposite direction to their professed objective of promoting mass "working class" solidarity, by eroding the last vestiges of community: i.e. what remains of the family and the nation.

    The ethical is similarly an obsolete concept, now that its whole content has become negative--that is to say, lost. The only remaining "ethical" concern is that for personal autonomy, or, in other words, privacy: the right to sequester oneself from society and to live one's life beyond the scope of judgment.

    The core of my contention is this. The very concept of politics has grown obsolete, now that the forces of human aggression and narcissism, following millenia of partially successful repression and sublimation within the now defunct public realm, have again found their natural expression in the realm of sexuality. What has occurred in advanced capitalist societies is a form of cultural atavism brought about by technological mastery. Now that economic scarcity is no longer a problem, there exists no impetus to redirect man's instinctual nature away from its natural object, and sexuality resumes its status as the alpha and omega of human human existence.

  2. Interesting idea. I would say though that a lot of sexual focus in the Western world is "hyped" up. Rather than returning to sex maybe the western world is pushing sex hard as a universal solvent?

  3. Jal, Kautz is describing a set of beliefs which arose in the mid to late 1600s - well before the arrival of an advanced technological society. Kautz isn't fitting himself to modern circumstances, but is following a centuries old political orthodoxy.

    What would happen if we recognised this orthodoxy to be flawed and allowed something else in its place?

    Would most people still be satisfied with an unrestrained sexuality? Personally, I doubt it. People do want sex, but most people also want love, marriage, fatherhood and motherhood.

    I doubt too that modernity is creating a sexual utopia (F Roger Devlin has written an interesting paper on this topic titled Sexual Utopia in Power).

    If I recall Devlin's argument correctly, sexual liberation tends to liberate women's tendency toward hypergamy - toward an instinct to be with the socially dominant alpha male.

    Therefore, the average non-alpha male will tend to be worse off, as he will no longer register with hypergamous women as being a potentially suitable sexual or romantic partner.

    The average woman will be worse off too, as there will be tremendous competition between a large number of women for a very small number of men.

    Women will be less inclined to 'settle' for the average, decent male.

    It's a recipe for resentment between the sexes - and I do believe that there is a lot of resentment amongst young single men and women in the 25 - 35 age bracket.

  4. It is interesting that the Soviet Union did not collapse under the pressure of millions of atomist individuals demanding "rights," but rather as a consequence of peoples asserting their historic ethnic, religious, and linguistic identities. People are born to their identities; these identities are not casual or temporary Rawlsian lifestyle choices, but constitutive of the individual. The person as a neutral cipher, stripped of all such constitutive features, is a chimaera of the liberal imagination. The problem is establishing a structure in which the different identities can get along, a modus vivendi. This does not mean driving all difference from public expression, but finding ways of allowing it within some limits. This problem has been more or less solved by many cultures in the past. Why do liberals give up on any possibility of this?

  5. Jal, one other point.

    It's true that people have been rendered more independent now than in the past.

    However, some of this is entirely artificial. For instance, the Rudd Government is determined to introduce a paid maternity leave scheme, by which women will be supported financially by the state rather than by their husbands to stay at home to raise their child.

    Nor should we underestimate the considerable amount of interdependence which still exists.

    Even in terms of finances, it is as difficult as ever for someone to prosper alone. The single women I work alongside often gripe about their inability to afford a house.

    Modern women often rely too on family support (especially grandparents) to lighten the burden of raising children - it is a much easier task if you live close to your extended family.

    Nor is ethnic interdependence entirely absent in modern societies. Consider the phenomenon of what is sometimes called "churn" or "ethnic flight" in which people choose to live in neighbourhoods populated mostly by their own ethnic group - for reasons of familiarity or security or cultural identity.

    Jal, your comment is exceptionally well-written, but I do think your conclusions are too pessimistic - our society is shaped not just by material conditions but also by a "political culture" and by the government policies which follow this political culture.

    If we could change the politics, then some of the social trends would change too.

  6. Just one further point.

    The Lockean view, as put by Kautz, is persuasive in one respect. There are occasions when we need to use our reason to moderate our passions.

    What concerns me about the Lockean view, though, is the way it reads human nature.

    The passions are seen to be negative overall - they are considered warlike and dangerous.

    This is a recipe to justify the "denaturing" of men, in which it's seen as a good thing to be alienated and rootless.

    I've argued with liberals who were very proud of the fact that they didn't feel any love of country or that they were unresponsive to nature. They treated this absence of feeling as if it were a badge of honour.

    The alternative, more conservative view is that it's good to be fully natured in the sense of having a passionate connection to things - but that we use our reason to regulate these passions, so that we keep to what is best in our nature and to what is best for our community.

    But reason isn't better than the passions. To be responsive to nature; to the beauty of women; to art and culture; to family and nation; and to our masculinity or femininity - this is important to a full human life.

    Unless we remain fully natured, what is there for our reason to work with? How would we know what to value and what to make of life? How could we understand what motivated past generations of men and women?

    So reason and the passions ideally should work together - with the passions giving us the quality of experience which reason may then seek to understand, to judge or to regulate.

  7. Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
    Who never to himself hath said,
    This is my own, my native land!
    Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd,
    As home his footsteps he hath turn'd
    From wandering on a foreign strand!
    If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
    For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
    High though his titles, proud his name,
    Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
    Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
    The wretch, concentred all in self,
    Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
    And, doubly dying, shall go down
    To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
    Unwept, unhonored, and unsung.

    --Walter Scott