Sunday, September 19, 2010

Greed is good? No, guilt is says the liberal

If you are a liberal you shouldn't feel guilty for feeling guilty. So runs the argument of Guardian columnist Theo Hobson:

A basic British political division is not between left and right, or liberal and conservative, but between Schlegel and Wilcox. What separates the two families of EM Forster's novel Howards End is that the Schlegels worry about how to make the world fairer, with occasionally embarrassing consequences, while the Wilcoxes worry about their stocks and shares. In other words, the Schlegels are afflicted by the complaint we sneeringly call liberal guilt.

Sneer ye not. Liberal guilt is nothing to be ashamed of. It's really just the political expression of that rather old-fashioned thing, conscience.

And why should our conscientious liberals feel guilty?

To "suffer" from liberal guilt means that you are somewhat uneasy about all sorts of awkward things that it is tempting to harden your heart against, like global injustice, global warming, racism. It means that you are troubled by the stubborn persistence of our class system, though you personally have done fine by it. It means you sometimes worry that you might be prejudiced against all sorts of people. It means that your vague patriotism is laced with uncertainty about whether our ancient constitution is able to be truly inclusive. It means, for goodness sake, that you fail to be completely fatly smugly relaxed about this problematic world we inhabit. Is that really so shameful and wet, so laughably mentally effeminate?

It strikes me that this kind of thinking makes sense if you accept the underlying premises of liberalism. Liberalism is highly reductionist when it comes to thinking about the good in life. What matters is equal autonomy. A lack of equal autonomy is explained in terms of privileged groups (white males) enjoying an unfair advantage at the expense of others.

If you train yourself to think in this way, then you probably will think guilt is the appropriate default setting. After all, if you are a white male you will think yourself to blame existentially for the one evil you recognise as existing in the world, a lack of equal autonomy.

To make the point clearer, think of what the non-liberal alternative might be. Imagine you recognise a whole series of goods: a stable and loving family life, an ongoing communal tradition, a morally virtuous life, a productive working life, a responsiveness to nature and to the arts, a masculine and a feminine ideal and so on.

If you did this, then there would be two significant consequences. First, the ability of "the other" to lead a good life would not be seen to rest so completely on having equal autonomy. You would not have to be a white English middle-class male to have a good life. You could do it living as a farmer in Vietnam or as a woman in Fiji. In fact, people in less liberal countries might even have certain advantages in enjoying communal traditions or family life or an enjoyment of nature.

Second, whether you were a good person would depend not on how much guilt you felt for being a middle-class white male, but how good a father you were, how loyal you were to your tradition, how morally virtuous a life you led, how much you contributed to society in your working life, what your character as a man was, your connectedness to nature or to the arts and so on.

Being wisely charitable to those less fortunate than yourself could still be part of the definition of a good man. But the default setting would not be guilt for existing as a white male, nor would this guilt be redeeming proof of your goodness compared to others.

To answer Theo's question, it really is "wet" to go through life feeling guilty for being a white male. What he really needs to do is to re-examine the first principles that he's working off, in particular the impoverished concept of the good that he's picked up as part of his liberalism.


  1. Liberal "guilt" is the means by which liberals display benevolence. Rousseau in his Confessions acknowledged he was not a man of virtue, but claimed he was the most benevolent fellow in the world. This, notwithstanding he abandoned his five newbord children to foundling homes, effectively a death sentence in those days.
    Liberal benevolence is the ostentatious display of concern over suffering, which is caused by the shortcomings of others. Thus instead of the hard work of attending to one's own moral character, there is the easy satisfaction of indignation over the failings of others.
    Liberal guilt is in effect vanity.

  2. Maybe another way to look at it is this. If society says we all are given an equal opportunity to succeed, and if you don't you are inferior, then lurking at the back of your mind is the fear that you weren't actually all given an equal opportunity to succeed. Some parents are better than others, some people are given better chances, some people are born into better cultures. It's false to say that there are unconquerable barriers to progress but its also folly to say that we all have an equal chance or that it all comes down to innate intelligence.

    So a liberal will say, ok we don't all have an equal chance to be superior, but I am aware of that fact, ie I have liberal guilt, and my awareness of that makes me "actually" superior.

  3. A very common liberal view is that everything outside of the western world is a hell hole. Of course this isn't the case, but the concern or horror, as anonymous says, reinforces liberal vanity or superiority.

  4. The liberal guilt culture seems to be strongly related to the secularisation of Protestant theology.

    Its interesting how the countries at the vanguard of implementing egalitarianism and political correctness are Protestant nations (Canada, Sweden, New Zealand etc) and the nations that bend the rules a little (like Italy and Switzerland) have a strong Catholic or Eastern Orthodox tradition.

    My view is that the internalisation of guilt that is characteristic of Protestant theology has now been transformed into secular political correctness.

    This is why traits that characterised Protestant nations in the 1950s, like low crime and corruption, have started to erode, while the public display of political correctness has intensified.

    Three of the reasons why this transformation has occured:

    1. society has become more secular

    2. egalitarian ideology has been pushed by academia and the media

    3. society has become more extroverted.

    A more extroverted society aids the transmission of left liberal thinking and works against conservatism. Left liberal intellectuals and activists tend to be quite extroverted while rank and file liberals are introverts with a low profile, so liberalism is seen by the public as serious, middle class and intellectual.

    Conversely, educated conservatives tend to have introverted 'scientific' temperaments and are less visible to the general public, while rank and file conservatives tend to be anti-intellectual extroverts. Thus conservatism has an unserious anti-intellectual image, and the public face of conservatism tends to be people like Glenn Beck.

  5. The basic idea behind the modern left wing viewpoint is that if a person is rich in the west, and another is poor in the east, then the westerner must have "stolen" that wealth from the easterner.

    The idea that wealth grows unequally in societies based on their capacity to create it seems an alien notion to them.

    If there is only a limited amount of "wealth" in the world, and that "wealth" is all that truly matters, and all humans are born with a blank slate, and all cultures have the same relative good, and all ethnic groups are merely social constructs, then any inequality in the world is a crime on a massive scale.

    But if any of these assumptions are false then it is natural and nothing to feel guilt about.

  6. Re Rousseau, it has been maintained (notably by Harold Nicolson in his study The Age of Reason) that Rousseau fathered no children at all. Certainly at some stages of his life he was sexually impotent, as a Venetian prostitute unkindly pointed out to him (she told him, on his own account, to "leave the women and stick to mathematics"). So one may legitimately take the widespread "five abandoned babies" allegation with a grain of salt.

    As to the liberal death-wish / Protestantism connection, Paul Gottfried's books, notably Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt, acknowledge this and explain it in great detail. I recommend them to any reader of this website who hasn't already discovered them.

  7. I only feel pangs of conscience about things I actually did. I feel no guilt whatsoever about the supposed crimes of the white race from ancient time to the present day. That's nuts. I haven't enslaved anybody or colonized anybody, so I feel no personal remorse for those actions at all.

  8. V. Walter: To take the idea of Rousseau's abandonment of his children "with a grain of salt," one has to ignore Rousseau's specific description of his doing this in the Confessions. So, on the one hand, we have Rousseau himself's testimony as to what he did, and on the other the speculation of a third party that he did not. This is "legitimate?"

  9. If enslaving and colonising helped my society to succeed then I don't feel guilty about it, rather I'm proud. This view can be made in the the knowledge that we were the most reasonable and beneficial enslavers and colonisers around. Additionally that as human life proceeds materially and socially (largely thanks to us) enslaving and colonising no longer become necessary.

    On the point about guilt, if guilt is a mechanism of group and social cohesion, then people in their individual state will always feel prey to it.

  10. Should we feel guilt for specific events that our forebears committed in the past?

    That's a somewhat different issue, I think, than feeling "existential guilt" as a default setting for the fact of unequal autonomy.

    If I identify closely enough with my communal group to feel pride in its historic achievements, then I don't think I can simply say "well I wasn't there to do it" when it comes to historic failures.

    I can certainly feel regret that certain events took place.

    If the overall aim is to carry forward or even improve the tradition, then I think it's OK to recognise where things might have gone wrong (as a means toward improvement) but not to dwell in a crippling, guilt-ridden way on such events (which works against carrying forward the tradition).

    Let's say you're a young Japanese man today. The Japanese committed some cruel war crimes in WWII. It's better to recognise that these took place, to express regret for them, and to think about why they happened (what was wrong with the mentality of the times?)

    But this shouldn't be dwelt on in a demoralising way - there is much within Japanese culture and history to generate pride and a positive identity and that has to remain at the forefront of consciousness.

    The problem white males have is that we are the target of a political campaign which portrays us as the "cosmic enemy" of humanity - the group which has held back the march to "equal freedom" through our racism, our sexism etc etc.

    At the school I teach at every book presented to the students and every film presents white males as evil oppressors. It is remorseless.

    It would be naive to respond to this with feelings of guilt. What is required is a political criticism of the liberalism which presents us as a cosmic enemy.

  11. Re Anonymous's remark at 4:47:00 AM AEST: it would be naive in the extreme, I should have thought, to give much evidentiary weight to otherwise unsupported statements in the Confessions. Santayana's remark on Rousseau's level of veracity is devastating:

    "If Rousseau, for instance, after writing those Confessions in which candour and ignorance of self are equally conspicuous, had heard some intelligent friend, like Hume, draw up in a few words an account of their author's true and contemptible character, he would have been loud in protestations that no such ignoble characteristics existed in his eloquent consciousness; and they might not have existed there, because his consciousness was a histrionic thing, and as imperfect an expression of his own nature as of man's. When the mind is irrational no practical purpose is served by stopping to understand it, because such a mind is irrelevant to practice, and the principles that guide the man's practice can be as well understood by eliminating his mind altogether."

    And Orwell's remark about Salvador Dali's autobiography is pertinent to Rousseau:

    "Some of the incidents in it are flatly incredible, others have been rearranged and romanticised, and not merely the humiliation but the persistent ordinariness of everyday life has been cut out. Dali is even by his own diagnosis narcissistic, and his autobiography is simply a strip-tease act conducted in pink limelight."