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.)
The early liberals and the modern ones seem to have in common a commitment to individualism to the point of complete social disintegration.ReplyDelete
Yes, but I'm not sure that they saw it that way. The Godwinians often sounded high-minded in claiming to be selflessly benevolent in serving progress and humanity. In doing so they thought of themselves as being noble-minded, enlightened, and unprejudiced - not a class elite, but a kind of moral elite.Delete
And yet, you are still right - they were radically individualistic and, as I'll point out in the next few posts - their philosophy justified them acting in ways that were destructive toward others.
I think we have to reject the way that enlightenment thought tried to stitch together the radically autonomous individual and the common good. Even though they continued to use high-minded moral language, the project fails.
It fails for "classical liberals" because there is too narrow a focus on economic man, on man's pursuit of profit in the market, and the common good is too narrowly a materialistic one of economic growth. We can see the end product today in the thinking of people like Charlie Kirk who think of politics and society in high-minded terms ("freedom" & "a city on a hill") but who conceive of success in life mostly in terms of the pursuit of economic dreams and entrepreneurship, with "society" really being a market that is as open as possible, and the "common good" really being the growth of the national market and the power that this brings in the world.
The project fails for "left liberals" (of all stripes, radical or otherwise) because it begins with a denatured, self-creating individual, who has no particular group affinities, and who sees such affinities as sources of limitation and oppression, and who therefore can only conceive of the common good in vaster and more abstract terms, such as the progress of humanity. It is assumed that there is a constant progress to some more advanced form of society, and with it a more advanced consciousness, so that the individual is creating himself to be morally ever superior - and hence the belief that a common good is being served.
We can see from our vantage point how delusional this was - this belief that the individual, freed from traditional moral constraints, would advance to a higher form of moral consciousness and choose to act with selfless benevolence.
The traditional idea of a fallen human nature - one mixed with aspects of the divine, but also struggling not to fall into vice - has proven to be a more accurate description of the human individual.
Thank you for sketching this out. 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.Delete
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.
It is interesting that the extreme interpretations of both the individual and of universal values are unnatural and contentious to the extent they are artificial. In contrast, the "in between" relationships are very natural. This gives me some hope.
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.Delete
That's very well put. They are obstacles to the use of "pure reason" by liberal intellectuals in remaking man and society. It's a thought worth developing.
With enough brainwashing, the individual can be convinced he is master of himself, and liberal elites (the brainwashers) can dictate universal values.Delete
It's worth pointing out the the push to dictate universal values is not coming exclusively from idealistic adherents of noble if dangerously misguided liberal principles. Much of it is coming from corporate and bureaucratic interests whose sole concern is to use liberalism as a weapon for their own ends.
Which means that on any of these issues it should never be assumed that liberal elites are arguing in good faith.
Agreed on those points. Still, the liberal elites are the main promoters and originators of these ideas and memes, which the government and corporations borrow from to serve their own ends. The latter do not generate these things.Delete
I never assume liberal elites are arguing in good faith because they do not sincerely consider opposing viewpoints.