Saturday, April 16, 2005

A less destructive humanity

This is from a report on American soldiers wounded in Iraq:

Oreskovic is very articulate and very up on the war mission: “The enemy just want to kill us, they’ll kill your wives, your children, they just want to kill us, not for anything we’ve done, but for what we are, that we give people the choice to decide how to live, and that’s what makes us human, and the enemy wants to take that away from us”.

Corporal Oreskovic is justifying the war on liberal grounds. It is liberals who believe that we are made human by our capacity to choose who we are and what we do through our own will and reason.

Note the radical consequences of this principle. If our very humanity depends on “the choice to decide how to live” then anything which impedes or limits this choice immediately loses its legitimacy. You can’t accept things which take away a person’s humanity.

Yet there are a lot of very important things which do impede our “choice to decide how to live”. Here are just a few:

1) Gender. There used to be an ideal of masculinity and femininity for individuals to live up to. But we didn’t get to choose which one to follow. It depended on an accident of birth of being born male or female. Therefore, for liberals it is more truly human if we act against gender norms, as this shows that we are deciding for ourselves how to live, rather than accepting what liberals call a “biological destiny”.

2) Traditional nationalism. Nationalism used to be based on a shared ethnicity. We were united to our conationals by a common ancestry, culture, language, religion, history and so on. But membership of an ethnic tradition is not something we get to choose for ourselves, but is something we inherit. So again, a liberal will think it more truly human to commit to the ethnic “other” as this is asserting our own choice.

3) Family. The idea that there is one basic type of family, and that our commitments to family need to be stable, will appear to liberals to impede our “choice to decide how to live”. There is more choice if we accept a “diversity” of family types and if we are easily able to break our family commitments.

4) Morality. The idea that there is an “objective” morality (that some things are inherently right or wrong) won’t appeal to liberals as this limits our own “choice to decide how to live”. Thus the liberal morality which says everything is OK as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.

It is, in fact, very difficult to assert any positive standards or ideals if our humanity depends on a purely personal choice to decide how to live.

We need therefore to challenge the basic liberal principle. To do this doesn’t require us to reject the idea of individual choice. Conservatives have no problem with individuals having a wide sphere of personal choice.

It’s important, though, that we reject the idea that it is a choice of who we are and how we live which makes us human. So what does make us human? One answer might be that God has invested us with a soul which gives us our special status as humans. Or the answer might be that there is a complex totality of a human nature, which includes our capacity for emotion and feeling and instinct as much as our capacity for rational choice.

In any event, we need to challenge the destructive liberal idea of what makes us human – an idea which is usually asserted arbitrarily without any stated justification.

Addendum: This is an important point, so let me try to clarify it. If all that liberals said was that "the choice to decide how to live" is a good thing, then the problems facing the west would be less profound. It would be possible to take this kind of individual choice as a "good" as well as accepting the existence of many other kinds of "goods" and to find a balance between them.

However, once liberals say that "the choice to decide how to live" is what actually makes us human, we are left with just one superior organising principle, which cannot be limited or restrained as this would deny our own humanity. Politics then becomes morally charged with removing any impediments to an individual freedom to choose how to live, even though this destroys many goods which might have enriched individual life and made human life more meaningful.

The tragic thing is that there is no compelling reason why we should ever have accepted the liberal view of what makes us human. It's a coarse and simplistic view, with no compelling logical justification.

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