Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Deakin's strange contradiction

I'm still reading Judith Brett's biography of Alfred Deakin, a father of Australian federation. I've now reached the year 1901, but Deakin, maddeningly, is still holding a contradictory political outlook.

On the one hand, Deakin is willing to defend particular identities and loyalties, such as to family, nation and race. On the other hand, he is still pushing the idea of a spiritual progress of humanity away from the "selfish" and "parochial" and toward what he thought to be a more unselfish and universal outlook.

It's frustrating to read because the second position ultimately nullifies the first, even though he appears to have held to the first view sincerely.

From page 258:
To him the larger, more unified view was always superior, higher and more evolved, less selfish and closer to the divine purpose than the narrow and parochial...

Page 232:
Liberal nationalism has an inherent contradiction. It speaks of the universal values of liberty and brotherhood, but it applies them to particular populations. Deakin was well aware of the contradiction: his prayer would be "wide as they would embrace all living things", "were not this to render it pointless and featureless", and so he narrowed his focus "to my kind, to my race, to my nation, to my blood, and to myself, last and least". A couple of years later he prayed for blessings "for my wife and children, family, country, nation, race and universe".

It's as if Deakin wanted to embrace the universal, but stopped short because he pragmatically realised what this would mean in practice: that the world would become "pointless and featureless" - just a mass of individuals without any particular connection to each other or to any enduring collective tradition.

In the last prayer referred to above, Deakin gave voice to a healthy sense of outwardly radiating loyalties, beginning with his own immediate family, then his wider family, then to his nation, then his race and then to the universal, but in his larger philosophical outlook he doesn't seem to have found a way to defend these loyalties as a matter of principle.

I would point out, in opposition to Deakin's philosophical views, that it is not really a "narrow" outlook to be committed to one's own family, as this is such a core aspect of how the human soul expresses itself - it is as much a connection to the transcendent as is membership of a nation. A mind which is open to the significance of one should really be open to the significance of the other. The closer loyalty is no less large than the more distant one. Similarly, a heart that is open to love of a distant stranger should really also be open to the experience of love of one's own kin or people. Which is why there is an instinctive distrust of those who commit themselves to far away causes, whilst neglecting those around them, to whom they have real, rather than abstract, duties.

Similarly, I'm wary of Deakin's use of the terms selfish and unselfish. Let's say that I have a son and I put a lot of effort into raising him to successful adulthood. Is that me being immorally selfish? After all, I didn't put the same effort into my neighbour's son. To be "unselfish" in this sense is, first, not possible. I cannot put an equal effort into everybody's son. Second, I am not the father of everybody else's son - I would have to erase the meaning of fatherhood to be "unselfish" in this sense. I would have to abstract myself and, in doing so, suppress significant and meaningful aspects of my own personality. Third, paternal love is particular, it is directed toward my own offspring. Is it really a problem if I derive a commitment toward another person from the motive of love? Or, let's say that I am motivated by pride in my family's lineage, reputation and honour - that I want this continued by my own son and therefore do my best to raise him well. Again, here I am recognising something of value - a good - that I feel I am connected to and have a particular duty to defend. Am I being immorally selfish in acting this way?

I just cannot agree that it is somehow more evolved to have universal commitments. As I have tried to explain above, it is not possible to give meaningful commitments to everyone equally and in trying to do so we would have to give up particular loves and loyalties, significant aspects of our own personhood, as well as our motivation to defend what is good in the institutions that we ourselves identify with and belong to.

The problem seems to be that Deakin needed to believe that humanity was evolving to some higher plane of existence - he needed to believe in the progress of humanity to some ultimate end point, that he himself was contributing to. Perhaps this left him vulnerable to an abstract, intellectual, schematic theory about how humanity was evolving from lower to higher.


  1. Of the three "Western" religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Christianity most teaches the idea of "becoming like god" and devout Christians of a certain type are most likely to become like Deakins. I am surprised to find how many political figures that have this view were divinity students before getting into politics. They go on to do great harm, IMO.

  2. This may be useful:

    "If I call you my brother, and then turn around and call the whole world my "brothas", then the word brother - due to the absence of 'scarcity' in its usage - loses its meaning. If, that is, the very stranger right at the other side of the world is morally equivalent in value to my brother, then they pretty much become interchangeable. The trouble with this is, there's no discriminant left to oblige me to be morally committed towards one or the other.

    This is the universal moral conundrum that egalitarianism always falls into: when everybody is equally valuable, everybody is equally valueless.

    The very nature of economic scarcity and choice defies the notion of universal equivalence.

    He thinks he's pushing the Kantian "categorical imperative" but - like all who get dizzy with the nuances of the sage of Königsberg - he confuses two things here: categorical imperative in no way requires that all categories be equal in moral value. All mothers may more or less be valuable to their relative offspring, and we cannot treat the bond between a Bantu mother and her children as less valuable than our own - which, in fact, conservatives like you don't to at all - but that doesn't mean that every mother has an equal obligation to every child on earth. Such would be the total nullification of the categorical nature of the mother-child bond."

    1. Thanks, that takes the argument, usefully, one step further than I did.

      The argument being:

      1. If you universalise a moral relationship, such as one between a father and son, in the sense of claiming that fathers have an equal moral obligation to all young men, then you nullify the moral category itself, as the moral discriminant (fatherhood), on which the moral obligation was founded, is no longer meaningful or operative.

      2. What you can do instead is to retain the moral discriminant (i.e. that fathers have moral obligations to sons) and apply it in a universally principled way by asserting that fathers everywhere have moral obligations to sons, rather than just myself to my own son.

    2. Deakin, it would seem, based on your quotes, may have been anticipating or predicting a future that he seems to be suggesting that we should prepare for, as inevitable. Perhaps he is mentally preparing himself, rationalizing or justifying his ambivolence. Liberalism as progress. If he thinks and believes that humans won't, because they can't, remain as particular people in a rapidly populating and mobile transnational world, as it surely is, maybe he is torn between what he wishes and what he knows will happen. Perhaps a lament.

      All kinds of alien peoples desire to come and to enjoy the liberal West, and they are. No actual nations are extant in the West, and that was predictable in 1901. Perhaps he realized then that the concentric circles of his blood, his kind, his nation and his race were going to be broken and that there was nothing to be done to stop it.

      What would he say today? Would he be a modern liberal whose future generations include mixed marriages and a modern blend of great grandchildren? Odds are his circles would be pool of diversity. The West seems inexorably on such a course.

    3. I think in coming years we will get to the psychological origins of believing non-discriminate universalism to be Truth vs. more traditional understandings that have shaped us for millennia. Modern studies seem to indicate that a substantial part of the answer is genetically based.

      @Bruce B.: that is an excellent insight about equivalence and interchangeability. I've had related thoughts about globalism for years: money, markets, resources and people are all interchangeable by this view. But it goes to wider philosophies as well. The paradoxical idea of cherishing diversity but fearing substantive differences seems related.

      @Buck O: "...humans won't, because they can't, remain as particular people in a rapidly populating and mobile transnational world…" Another very good observation. It does seem to be the progressive strategy to change the systems and culture in order to make it difficult for its inhabitants to maintain antecedent ideas and practices, probably an intended effect and not a side-effect.

      I choose to believe that any progress that fights the natural order will not succeed in the long run.

  3. So basically he was a liberal Universalist by inclination but was enough of a realist to be a pragmatic nationalist in practice?

    Sounds about right really.