Tuesday, October 29, 2019

A comment on Godwin

Before I resume telling the ill-fated story of the free love advocates of the British enlightenment, I want to do something I don't often do and highlight a comment to my original post.

My first post sketched out the philosophy of William Godwin (1756-1836). I noted that Godwin's philososophy established a gulf between man's being in the world and the pursuit of a common good that was only uneasily bridged.

For Godwin, it was "natural" for man to follow the dictates of his own mind. In doing so, he would extend the sphere of knowledge and this would then improve moral standards - autonomous man would, via pure reason, choose to act selflessly and benevolently for the benefit of mankind as a whole.

This philosophy led Godwin to denounce marriage and the family as these placed controls over who we chose to establish relationships with. By the logic of Godwin's philosophy, to marry was to engage in an artificial, selfish and prejudiced act in which we treated others as property.

Godwin had not given up on a common good. He connected a radically individualistic mode of being (we act according to the dictates of our own mind without constraint) to a highly abstract common good (by acting so we come to choose, via pure reason, to act selflessly and benevolently for the good of our fellow man - i.e. for humankind).

A reader observed:
I am convinced that the "valid" realms of human pursuits are for liberals relegated to the individual or the global abstract, while the stations in between are dismissed or denounced.

With enough brainwashing, the individual can be convinced he is master of himself, and liberal elites (the brainwashers) can dictate universal values. It is family, community, church, ethnicity, etc., that represent a threat to this binary. They give people some measure of influence in managing their particular interests and connecting with others in meaningful ways. Liberals seem to believe, therefore, that those venues, in which their revolutionary ideas have little control or influence, must be made irrelevant or destroyed.

I have bolded the two thoughts that I think are particularly well put. I would only add to the first that the conceit of being a "master of oneself" might contribute to the liberals of today believing that they are anti-establishment free thinkers when in fact they are conforming to a state ideology that has been entrenched for generations.

As for the second observation, it rings true when you consider the rationalism of Enlightenment thinkers like Godwin. By rationalism I mean the belief that a society could be refounded (literally "re-formed") on the basis of rational principles formulated by intellectuals like Godwin himself.

If you have this mindset, you will instinctively dislike the "measure of influence" that institutions like the family give to ordinary people in "managing their particular interests and connecting with others in meaningful ways" because this then limits the "ground zero" approach to re-forming society along the "rational" and "unprejudiced" principles favoured by intellectuals.

In stark contrast, traditionalists instinctively admire the "little kingdom" aspect of family life, i.e. the way that family allows us to perform offices that express and fulfil our natures (even if they involve burdens) and, in so doing, create unique human communities based on very personal ties, loves and loyalties. Our instinct is that this is a better foundation on which to build the wider expressions of human community than any philosopher's abstract formula.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Love gone wrong

One of the more extraordinary stories in English political history was the failure of the free love movement across two generations.

The story begins with William Godwin, who published an influential book, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, in 1793. In this work he attacks marriage on the following grounds:
So long as two human beings are forbidden, by positive institution, to follow the dictates of their own mind, prejudice will be alive and vigorous. So long as I seek, by despotic and artificial means, to maintain my possession of a woman, I am guilty of the most odious selfishness.

There is a political philosophy underpinning this argument. Godwin believed that we start out as blank slates and that it is therefore possible to improve human nature via the gradual extension of knowledge. Knowledge would advance only to the extent that people could follow their own individual judgement - the "dictates of their own mind".

I find it interesting that this is similar to the approach of what we now call classical liberals. They had attempted to resolve the problem of how to fit together the liberated individual and the common good by asserting that if individuals acted freely for their own profit that the hidden hand of the market would deliver a benefit to society as a whole.

Godwin resolves the same problem by claiming that if individuals act freely according to the dictates of their own mind, without the influence of social institutions, traditions or conventions, that knowledge would increase, and therefore there would be a progress in moral virtue, with people choosing to act selflessly and benevolently to maximise the happiness of the community.

The problem is that in both cases there is now a deep divide between the understanding of man and the common good that has to be bridged. In the older understanding, it was essential to our nature as men that we were fathers, sons, brothers, husbands and Englishmen. Our commitment to the common good was written into our natures. Yes, there could be a tension between the duties to family, community and nation springing from this aspect of our inborn natures and our more purely individual existence. But in general we expressed our own natures via our participation in stable forms of community.

In the newer Godwinian view, we do not have a given nature. And the emphasis is on ourselves as wholly independent minds, developing without the corrupting influence of "artificial" communal entities such as family. What is "natural" is to develop alone as a thinking, rational mind. Our "being" therefore is highly individualistic and atomised, so the leap to a common good is a difficult one. It relies on the assumption that as knowledge and education progressively develop, we will reason our way to a belief that the moral purpose in life is to maximise the happiness of the general population, leading individuals via "pure reason" to act selflessly and benevolently.

Note that this new common good is an abstract one. We are not acting selflessly to uphold particular forms of community, such as our own family, but a "general happiness of mankind".

For Godwin, the important thing was that we were free to follow the "dictates" of our own mind; it was therefore an irrational, selfish and despotic act to hold someone to a marriage vow. If we allowed individuals to follow their minds freely, the result would ultimately be an extension of knowledge, of moral virtue and of human happiness.

But things did not turn out happily for those who followed Godwin's philosophy of free love.

(In the next post I'll look at the story of Mary Wollstonecraft, a feminist of the era, who became Godwin's wife.)

Monday, October 21, 2019

Conference 2019 a great success!

The Melbourne Traditionalists Conference took place on the weekend, organised by Mark Moncrieff of the Upon Hope blog. It was another very enjoyable event with about 30 in attendance.

The conference once again gave things a good push along. There were plenty of new faces, lots of new friendships made and interesting talks on a range of subjects. The conference has given our movement a welcome boost - many thanks to all those who took part.

If any local readers are interested in getting involved, we do hold regular catch ups. More information at the Melbourne Traditionalists website.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Is Charlie Kirk a conservative?

There is an organisation in America called Turning Point USA (TPUSA). It's active on campuses and it promotes itself as a conservative organisation, even selling T-shirts with the slogan "Keep it conservative".

As good as this might sound, the reality is different. To give you a sense of what TPUSA really stands for take a look at the exchange between its leader, Charlie Kirk, and an audience member at a recent campus talk. I'll provide a summary below, but you can watch it live from 40:40 onwards:


The gist of the exchange is as follows:

Audience member: I'm against mass immigration. I'm from California and things have declined there since mass immigration began in 1965. Its changed the voting trends. It's made cities like Los Angeles culturally divided.

Charlie Kirk: I think the growing anti-immigration part of the Republican movement is dangerous. There's a difference between coming here legally and border jumping. However, I do believe that what makes America different and what will continue to make America exceptional is that the best, the brightest and most aspirational from all over the planet earth should be able to get a shot to come here legally...this country was built by immigrants, this country is a shining city on a hill for immigrants.

Audience member: But is a million a year a sustainable number? Before I die more than 60 million foreigners will come in who will bring their culture with them. 80% of immigrants vote Democrat. And the trend holds through the generations.

Charlie Kirk: I don't think you can design immigration policy based on politics. I think that's very dangerous. If someone graduates from a US university and we send them back to Korea or to Japan that doesn't make any sense. They should be given a green card or a visa upon graduation...What makes this country so different is the embracing of coming from somewhere else to be able to achieve your dreams here. When an immigrant entrepreneur comes here with an idea and comes here to take a risk basic economics will tell you it's a net benefit for everybody. I want the best, smartest people here in America.

Kirk is obviously misguided in thinking that America is exceptional in having a large scale immigration programme - most Western countries do. The more significant thing to note, though, is that Kirk has a typically right liberal attitude to what matters in life. For him, what matters is success in the market, and he therefore idealises America on the basis that it offers people from around the world the opportunity to pursue such success.

This, however, is anything but a genuinely conservative world view. What, after all, does it end up conserving? If the aim is to have the fewest constraints to participation in the market, then you will end up radically dissolving the core, traditional aspects of a society rather than conserving them.

Think, for instance, of the family. If success in life is measured by material success in a free market, and if the core value of society is a "freedom" of having the least constraints on participation in the market, then why would people devote themselves to family? On what basis would women forego participation in the market to devote themselves to home and children? Why would people forego a consumerist lifestyle to direct their energies and resources instead to the raising of children? And why would people not begin to treat relationships themselves as a kind of commodity, i.e. as a lifestyle choice based on personal preference - rather than as a sacramental union, or as a commitment to an ongoing familial legacy spanning the generations.

It's the same when it comes to traditional national ties. If what matters is the absence of constraints on participation in the market, then it will be thought a positive development for people to arrive from around the world to join the national economy (the "shining city on a hill"). It will be thought wrong to limit who might come in order to conserve an existing identity. In some ways, the "aspirational immigrant" will be seen to be a better representative of the nation's values than the stay-put native born resident. And so the end result is an outlook that dissolves the existing identity and tradition, and replaces it not with anything new and stable, but with continual change as new waves of immigration roll onto the country's shores.

It is therefore misleading to associate right liberalism with the term conservatism. Right liberalism does not conserve, it dissolves. Nor does right liberalism succeed on its own terms. For instance, the slogan of right liberalism is usually something like "free markets, individual freedom and limited government". However, in the longer term the inner contradictions of right liberalism fail to secure these things. Government tends to grow larger and more intrusive under the philosophy of right liberalism, despite the call to limit its influence.

One reason for this is that it is the state that is used to break up the traditional structures of society that once placed limits on the market. If, for instance, you want women to participate in the market to an equal degree to men, then you have to use the power of the state to create affordable childcare; to enforce anti-discrimination laws; and to replace the social welfare functions once associated with the family. Similarly, if there are mass waves of immigration that gradually undermine social cohesion, there will be less social engagement and potentially issues of crime or social decay that then require state intervention (e.g. government agencies to undertake welfare work once managed by volunteer organisations, a greater presence of law enforcement etc.).

The other reason why right liberalism fails was pointed out to Charlie Kirk by the man in the audience. By having such a glowing account of immigration, and refusing to think in practical political terms about the consequences of this immigration, right liberals are handing political power to the left. California is a very clear example of this: in 1988 52% of Californians voted for the Republican candidate for President, but by 2016, after large-scale demographic change, that percentage had fallen to 31%. California is now a stronghold of the left.

Those right-liberals who are willing to confront this issue often have a change of heart and rethink many of their political positions. But for the Charlie Kirks, who still centre their politics on the "shining city" philosophy, this isn't possible. They will hold fast to their philosophy, even as evidence mounts that the philosophy will ultimately hand power to those who stand openly for big government and government regulation of the economy.

Finally, we need to call out right liberals for having too "thin" an account of what matters in life. It's true that success in the marketplace can bring a sense of achievement, as it requires self-discipline, self-sacrifice, industry, judgement, perseverance and boldness. Material success can also give access to other goods in life, including success in relationships, financial freedom and so on.

The reality, though, is that participation in the market is not very glamorous for most people. It consumes time and energy, it separates us from our family, it prevents a more rounded development of our talents, it places us often in stressful conditions in which we are subject to a boss, and it leaves most people in a merely modest financial position.

Many people, therefore, do not live to work. They make the rational decision to base their life values elsewhere, often in family commitments, but also in friendships, in a church community, in sporting or artistic endeavours, or through identifying with the larger ethnic or civilisational tradition they belong to.

Most people won't succeed in any notable way as entrepreneurs in the market. In right liberal terms, they will be failures. And so right liberalism is, at best, an "apex" philosophy for a relatively small number of people - it cannot genuinely represent the values of the greater part of the population. If anything it undermines the sense of meaning, identity and belonging that most people once found in society.

It is therefore a pity that the opposition to the left still comes primarily from right liberals rather than from a more genuinely socially conservative political movement.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

The skirmish line

The focus in liberalism is on freely determining for ourselves our identity, our purposes, our values and so on. Therefore, a liberal society cheers on those who reject received identities. It's considered a great thing for a young woman to play rugby and not so good for her to be oriented to motherhood.

On what basis do traditionalists reject this liberal focus? One serious way to do so is to emphasise that we should, as individuals, be focused on ordering ourselves to the good. In this view, our impulses are wayward and need to be directed, through the cultivation of virtue, and with the support of culture, toward higher ends.

How would a liberal react to this claim? Well, I don't think a liberal would easily think along these lines, but at the same time a liberal might attempt to incorporate it into the liberal view. A liberal might respond that, yes, an individual might order themselves toward the good, but that nobody else but the individual has the right to determine what that good is. We would then have a society in which each individual orients themselves toward the good that they have chosen, whilst respecting the right of everyone else to do the same.

So the idea of being oriented toward the good is only, at best, a skirmish line separating liberals and traditionalists - it is not the war line.

The liberal view can work if people choose a good that can be pursued at the individual level. For instance, if it is my chosen good to be successful in the career, status and money sense, then I can pursue this within the liberal framework. Similarly, if I choose to pursue personal pleasure, such as through travel, entertainment or dining out.

So what is the war line?

We get to the war line if we insist that the good that we orient ourselves to is given to us within the natural order rather than being subjectively chosen. The liberal view is that we can choose anything, and that as long as it does not limit the choice of anyone else, it is equally valid. The traditional view is that there is an objective good for us to order ourselves toward and that there are ends given to us that we properly seek to fulfil in life.

Professor Patrick Deneen, in his book Why Liberalism Failed, explains the distinction this way:
Premodern political thought...understood the human creature as part of a comprehensive natural order. Humans were understood to have a telos, a fixed end, given by nature and unalterable. Human nature was continuous with the order of the natural world, and thus humanity was required to conform both to its own nature and, in a broader sense, to the natural order of which it was a part. Human beings could freely act against their own nature and the natural order, but such actions deformed them and harmed the good of human beings and the world. (p.35)

A secondary war line is when we see the individual good and the common good as being intertwined. For instance, let's say that I see my individual good as being tied in with the good of family life. I might take seriously a goal of marrying well, having a large family, playing a distinct sex role as a husband and father, expressing both marital and paternal love within the family, socialising my children into a familial, communal and civilisational heritage and so on.

I cannot easily do this within the liberal framework because I cannot do it alone through my own choices. It requires that I live within a culture that supports such a concept of the good. Imagine, for instance, that the women I live amongst have been socialised to be independent career women, who see family life as limiting their autonomy, and who see an unrestrained sexuality as empowering. Imagine, too, that it is assumed that family life is secondary to careerism and that I should spend all my time and energy at work. Or that I should not be paid a living wage, given the default assumption that there will be two full-time wage earners.

In other words, the assumptions that liberalism makes about the good - that it is based on the subjective preferences of autonomous individuals - limits the realm of what goods are practically available to us, in particular by undermining the possibility of a common good. And if you hold that the individual good rests upon the existence of a common good, then liberalism does clearly fail.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

UK judge: Christian belief incompatible with human dignity

The UK was once a very Christian nation. I've been reading a biography of the radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Shelley: The Pursuit), who, unusually for his time, was an atheist. In 1811 he met his future wife Harriet Westbrook. This is how she described her initial reaction to his beliefs:
You may conceive with what horror I first heard that Percy was an Atheist...at first I did not comprehend the meaning of the word; therefore when it was explained I was truly petrified. (p.67)

But how things have changed. A UK judge has recently declared Christian belief to be incompatible with human dignity. In a way, this is not surprising, as Christianity does not fit in with the ruling state ideology in the UK, namely liberalism.

The story runs as follows. Dr David Mackereth was employed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) as a disability assessor. He was queried by a supervisor about whether he would, hypothetically, refer to a 6ft tall bearded man by female pronouns. He answered that he couldn't in conscience do this given his Christian belief that we are created male or female by God (Genesis 1:27) and that we cannot change our sex according to our own will.

There is some dispute about whether or not Dr Mackereth was then directly dismissed from his position or not, but regardless the case ended up at an employment tribunal hearing. Judge Perry found in favour of the DWP and it is the reasons he gave for his decision which are the most significant part of the story.

Judge Perry began by noting that according to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion

So what's the catch? Well, another judge, J Burton, (in the case of Grainger v Nicholson) defined what constituted an acceptable "philosophical belief" or religion. And one of his criteria was the following:
(v) It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others

Judge Perry then ruled that:
belief in Genesis 1:27, lack of belief in transgenderism and conscientious objection to transgenderism in our judgment are incompatible with human dignity and conflict with the fundamental rights of others, specifically here, transgender individuals.

And this:
We accept Dr Mackereth’s account that his beliefs are inherent to his wider faith. In so far as those beliefs form part of his wider faith, his wider faith also does not satisfy Grainger.

According to Judge Perry, the orthodox Christian view "does not satisfy" the criteria for acceptable belief in a society because it is incompatible with human dignity and conflicts with the fundamental rights of others. Therefore, orthodox Christianity is not protected under the convention of human rights.

The underlying problem is not that Christianity is incompatible with human dignity but that it is incompatible with liberalism. A Christian might argue that the belief that our male and female natures are God-given and a part of God's plan for us enhances the dignity of our persons. But for a liberal human dignity comes from the act of autonomous choice in which we self-determine our own personhood.

For a Christian, the moral thing is to fully develop our given natures as men and women, i.e. to order ourselves toward ideals or standards of masculine and feminine virtue. We discern what is best within our masculine and feminine natures and attempt to fully develop these qualities, as a way of completing ourselves and meeting one of our missions in life (our telos).

For a liberal, the moral thing is not only to author our own identity but to respect the right of others to do the same. Because liberals do not like the idea of a given nature, it will be held to be particularly moral to act against "stereotypes" when it comes to masculinity or femininity (hence the banning in the UK earlier this year of a car ad which briefly portrayed a mother sitting next to a pram, the image being ruled to be a harmful and offensive stereotype).

Given the logic of the situation, it seems naive to me to expect that orthodox Christianity will be well tolerated within a liberal system. Either it will change to fit in better with liberalism (which usually means becoming irrelevant, as it then loses its animating principles) or else it will have to more self-consciously recognise the difficulty of the situation and use whatever power it has to defend its own place in society.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.