Friday, April 10, 2020

Relying on the low?

I came across a speech by Boris Johnson that he gave back in 2013. It was on the topic of equality. The gist of it was that IQ is real and that people with an IQ under 85 are unlikely to succeed to the same extent as those with an IQ over 135. He also said:
I don't believe that economic equality is possible; indeed some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.

This reminded me of something Patrick Deneen wrote in his book Why Liberalism Failed. Deneen argues that in the early modern period there was a revolution in the understanding of politics:
First, politics would be based upon reliability of "the low" rather than aspiration to "the high." The classical and Christian effort to foster virtue was rejected...Machiavelli proposed grounding a political philosophy upon readily observable human behaviours of pride, selfishness, greed, and the quest for glory. He argued further that liberty and political security were better achieved by pitting different domestic classes against one another, encouraging each to limit the others through "ferocious conflict" in the protection of their particular interests rather than by lofty appeals to a "common good" and political concord. By acknowledging ineradicable human selfishness and the desire for material goods, one might conceive of ways to harness those motivations rather than seeking to moderate or limit those desires. (pp.24-25)

This view of politics was carried into classical liberal philosophy. This means that classical liberals accepted the existence of human nature but focused on qualities such as self-interest and greed:
Early-modern liberalism held the view that human nature was unchangeable - human beings were, by nature, self-interested creatures whose base impulses could be harnessed but not fundamentally altered. (p.36)

Progressive (or "left") liberals came to hold a different view. They felt that human nature itself could be conquered in the same way that classical liberals thought external nature could be. They emphasised the idea that human nature was perfectible, for instance, through education or through changes to social institutions.

You can see from this that Boris Johnson's outlook is more like the classical liberal one than that of left-liberalism. He accepts certain fixed aspects of human nature, including IQ, but is focused on "the low" - on harnessing greed and envy to spur economic activity.

And what of the traditionalist view of human nature? I've read a little bit about the "Tory" view on this (i.e. of the more traditionalist members of the UK Conservative Party). Kevin Hickson has written a book surveying the views of these members of the "conservative right" and states:
...traditional conservatism held to a much more pessimistic view of human nature. As John Hayes put it "we appreciate that man is fallen, frail and faulted".

That view has been vindicated by what has happened to Western culture in recent decades. When human nature is allowed free rein, unimpeded by social norms, you do not get a more elevated level of culture but a more degraded one. Even so, I think there were faults in the "Tory right" view of human nature. If you leave your understanding of human nature at the idea that we are fallen, then you can lose idealism and with it the strength of motivation to lead and direct society.

For example, the Prime Minister of the UK in the late 1800s was the Marquess of Salisbury. He was part of the "Tory right" but his mindset seems to me to have been defeatist. Here is how Kevin Hickson puts it:
Although he believed that certain forces at work at the time he was alive would lead to social disintegration there was nothing one could ultimately do to stop them. The wise statesman would delay. Government would need to be ever vigilant but ultimately was bound to fail. The frailties of human nature would ensure that all that was good in society would decay. (Britain's Conservative Right Since 1945, p.8)

If the leftist radicals were promising an idealistic utopia and the best that traditionalists could come up with was "we are holding the fort but will ultimately lose" then the initiative was going to be with the radicals.

So although traditionalists should continue to insist on a fallible human nature, we shouldn't slide into this kind of pessimism. Nor do we need to. After all, unlike the classical liberals we do not wish to base politics on the "low" - we are not seeking to harness greed and self-interest. We wish to uphold the higher goods in life that men will ordinarily seek to live within and to defend. This ought to draw forth the strongest and deepest political commitments, much more so than those motivating the utopians, because they involve issues of identity, of meaning and of the good.

If traditionalism is done right then it ought to attract those willing to serve, i.e. those who wish to be connected to and to place themselves at the service of the transcendent good in life (rather than the individual pursuit of happiness or the selfish pursuit of profit). The leftist mindset, in contrast, is often of the "non serviam" variety - a prideful desire to not submit to a higher good, to have no reverence and to remain bound up in self. Although that gives leftists an oppositional energy, and although leftists can also be motivated by utopian dreams, it does not draw on the same loyalties and loves that motivate traditionalists toward political commitments.

I'd like to illustrate some of this by discussing two issues. The first is family. It's possible for a traditionalist to understand the stresses placed on family life by fallible human nature but to still recognise the traditional family as a significant good to be defended. The modernist approach is to claim that people can be left to their own individual reason to pursue their own wants and ends and that whatever results is equally family and equally good. This hasn't worked out well in practice. If men and women are not oriented to serving the common good of the family unit, it becomes difficult to find a point of harmony in relationships between men and women. Nor do all people act presciently for their own longer term good (e.g. women who want children but who leave things too late). Nor is the capacity to lay down stable emotional attachments likely to survive the churn of relationships that the modernist approach enables.

But even if the modernist principles weren't so influential, there would still be a gap between the ideal of family life and the reality. There exist, for instance, relatively fixed personality traits and some of these do not make for loving or faithful spouses. And so some families will be unhappy. It's possible to recognise the reality of this whilst still seeing a larger truth about the family as a model of human community, as something that is rightly striven for but, given human nature, cannot be taken for granted.

The second issue is that of moral community. Liberals claim that they are neutral in respect to this, but that isn't really so. Even right-liberals, who look to the individual pursuit of profit or pleasure, are still led, by their ideological preference for a limited state, to envision a moral community of self-helping, free-standing, law-abiding, hard-working, self-reliant, responsible, adult individuals. In general, given the liberal preference for "doing as thou wilt as long as it doesn't interfere with others doing the same", the liberal vision of moral community is one that is open, non-judgemental, non-discriminatory, tolerant, respectful of diversity etc.

Traditionalists should not be shy, therefore, in having their own vision of moral community. In part, this means a return to a pre-liberal understanding of the core ordering moral concepts, such as freedom, justice, equality and dignity. It means as well a return to a moral vision that was centred on the ideal of living within and serving the higher good in life. For our forebears, this meant a moral language centred around the praise of the nobler qualities of character and an avoidance of the baser ones, and of the cultivation of virtue.

Which brings me to one final matter. Much of what I have been discussing is properly an aspect of polis life. It is part of the masculine role of upholding the vertical dimension, of a hierarchical ordering of things, of looking upward toward the higher good.

There is a crossover here with the role of the church, but the focus of polis life and of the church are not exactly the same. The church focus must be, at least in part, also horizontally planed, i.e. on the sideways relationships between people, so that there is an emphasis on qualities such as love, neighbourliness, forgiveness, acceptance and hospitality. The church should hold to this as well as to the vertical dimension, in which there is an emphasis on reverence, worship, obedience and virtue.

It would be a mistake for a church to focus on the horizontal dimension alone (as a wholly feminised church might do). After all, it is in looking upward to serve the higher good that we are often brought to the service of God. Through the vertical structure we create the protected, cultivated, social spaces in which people can best unfold their "telos" - their God given purposes. It is through the vertical structure that moral community is formed and safeguarded. It is through the vertical structure that we maintain the continuity and stability of our communities (country, people, family) which fosters our capacity for love (in contrast to social anomie).

St Paul made this connection, this link between the aims of the church and the upholding of the vertical dimension (the aspiration to the high), in writing the following to the Philippians:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things and the God of peace will be with you.

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Richardson

    Great Post!

    "Traditionalists should not be shy, therefore, in having their own vision of moral community."

    I hope that this will be the theme of your next article. I really think we need to highlight our positive vision of the future.

    Mark Moncrieff