Sunday, November 01, 2020

Leftism, human nature & the common good

In my last post I noted that leftists see themselves as being committed to a common good and view the right as being individualists.

I disagreed and argued that the leftist vision of a common good is built on top of an individualistic understanding of man (an individualistic anthropology). Leftists see man as an autonomous, self-defining individual, who makes his own meaning. The leftist common good consists of a commitment of these autonomous, self-creating individuals to an egalitarian welfare state. The end result is not community but extraordinary numbers of people living alone.

I'd like to extend this argument. It's easier to understand the leftist mindset if you consider the right liberal politics that leftism is reacting against. Right liberalism began with a view that politics should harness the "low" in human nature, e.g. man's selfishness and acquisitiveness, with people being left at liberty to pursue their own individual profit in the market. Does this mean that right liberals have no concept of the common good? Not entirely. Right liberals usually argue that their brand of individualism creates a spontaneous order in society; an economic and social progress; liberation from traditional "constraints"; and an uncoerced moral sphere. It's common for right liberals to point to data showing improvements in global living standards, health outcomes etc.

Again, this is not the way that traditionalists understand the common good, but you can see why leftists might feel it to be a point of difference with the "right". Left-liberals do not generally begin with the "low" as the basis of their politics. If anything, they swing too far the other way, toward the belief that human nature can be redeemed or regenerated through education or through the deconstructing of power structures in society. They have a "hopeful" (at times utopian) belief either in the innate goodness of man or in the technocratic manipulation of human nature to become whatever it needs to become.

What leftists miss is that this understanding of human nature, the assumption of perfectibility and malleability, undermines the achievement of a genuine common good, in a number of ways.

For example, if man is by nature good, but is made selfish by the existence of power structures in society, then leftists will set out to deconstruct those power structures. As we know, leftists assume that men are an oppressor group benefiting from systemic sexism in society ("patriarchy"); the same applies to white people and so on. To deconstruct these power relations, leftists claim that categories of class, race and sex are oppressive social constructs, without any legitimate basis in nature. 

From this two things follow, both of which harm the common good. First, aspects of our identity which tie us to others in distinct ways come under attack. It is difficult to uphold stable forms of family life or of national identity, if manhood and womanhood are oppressive categories to be overcome, or if our culture and ethny are defined negatively. We shift further toward the mass floating particle society, in which each particle is replaceable within the system.

Second, classes within society are set against each other. If the category "men" is an artificial oppressor class, benefiting from the exploitation of women, then what common good exists between men and women? The only thing men can do, in this understanding, is to relinquish their own good in favour of that of women, which is what you sometimes hear called for (the "be an ally but without imposing yourself" idea). There is a splintering effect on society, with an intersectional politics creating a hierarchy of whose "good" gets to be considered relative to others.

The leftist view of human nature also undermines the common good by placing man outside of nature and of natural limits. If we can change who we are as men, through education or social reform or through some other technocratic process, so that we are then free to choose for ourselves how we will live in harmonious relationships with others, then the virtues of self-knowledge, of prudence and of wisdom are no longer as significant as they once were held to be. We no longer exist within a given framework, with natural ends, purposes and roles that we ignore at our peril. The world can be made as we wish it to be, as we believe it ought to be, and it is only the perverse refusal of others to go along with what we want that prevents it from being so.

It is difficult to pursue a common good from within this mindset. If I can choose anything, at any time in life, without any ill-effect on my well-being, then how can a community be ordered toward securing a common good? What happens in practice is that people fail to secure the basic goods for their own long-term well-being (in the belief that life choices either are, or should be, entirely open), and when they become unhappy, they are counselled (or medicated). Some of the trends here are alarming:

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post, Mark. The only part I'm not clear on is when you say Leftists and Left Liberals don't accept the reality of race. They do, though, except for a few who recite as cant "There's only one race, the Human race." I would say they very much do accept the reality of race and just think that all races are the same except for superficial external differences, or, some see those real differences but think certain races are oppressors because of those differences. The Left as a whole seems to think oppression is a historical accident rather than understanding that all oppressor categories oppress because they are superior in some facet and so they *can* oppress.