“The crucial premise of radical, original liberalism is that we often do not know ourselves very well at all, and that the ideas that constitute our desires are often unworthy even of ourselves. We do however have a power of understanding that will seek reasons and evidence just as surely as rocks fall and planets rotate, and to the extent that we make way for this power we realize ourselves. ”
Matthew Stewart, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic
Our time is perhaps best characterized by a growing lack of faith in our liberal institutions. Everywhere the calm, evidence based voice of reason as the proper means of guiding our societies is giving way to arbitrary shows of force and power. On one side there is the growing set of true believes in religious fundamentalism ranging from ISIS to evangelicals, all of which are sure they are interpreting the “signs of the times” correctly due to some supernatural revelation or another. On the other side the growing set of true believers in economic fundamentalism continue to insist to the rest of the world that the ‘American lifestyle is non-negotiable’, as Ronald Reagan once stated. These people insist that the needs of globalized capital must come before the needs of nations, peoples or the earth itself due to fundamentalist faith in some neoliberal economic theory or another.
Liberalism wants to protect the freedom of the mind to pursue reasoning. This involves critical questioning of anything and everything as needed to follow the trail of evidence in the pursuit of what is real and true. This is in stark contrast to the positions and premises of the true believers who replace reason with a sacred authority above reason and wall off areas of discourse from criticism, insisting instead on faith and unquestioning obedience.
Why has the trust in liberal institutions waned?
By the common view reason is on one side of the human experience and the passions on the other. Reason should be able to whip those passions into shape and order them to pursue rational, if rather soulless, aims and goals. The problem, in this view, is that reason is a rather weak taskmaster which is easily overcome in the face of temptation or co-opted to provide little more than rationalizations. By this view our minds and moral life are all easily understood, in fact, they are what we know best. For the self in the center of the head running the show, mind and morality are transparent and the only problem we have is a lack of will power for doing good, one that is capable of stoically resisting any and all temptations.
Basically this is a picture of a world of milk-toast virtue. Billy Joel once captured the common understanding really well when he sang;
“I’d rather laugh with the sinners
Than cry with the saints,
The sinners are much more fun.”
This picture of mankind as embodying a fundamental split between reason and passion is just the same old dualism of mind and body presented now in a psychological guise. As we saw when we reviewed the work of Damasio, Pinker and neuroscience generally, there is no such fundamental distinction between reasoning and emotions. What we find instead is that passions can be set one against the other. Some passions are much more likely to lead us to real happiness than others and we have the capacity to understand this for ourselves. As our understanding grows we become more skilled at choosing which passions we will give priority to and which ones we will learn to be wary of.
This is why we are not all heroin addicts. We recognize happiness involves more than just an absence of pain. The benefit involved in such means is far outweighed by the costs in ruined relationships, self-esteem and the future health of the body. At the end of the day the heroin addict shows us that the pursuit of happiness in that fashion leads to a lack of liberty; the un-freedom of addiction.
Freedom of the mind is the ability to pursue its understanding, to not believe in arbitrary ideas. What about freedom of the body?
Freedom is not the ability to have your every arbitrary desire immediately fulfilled, even though this is the common conception of freedom held up as consumerism’s ideal. Isn’t this what the charmed circle of the really rich supposedly enjoy which separates them from all the rest of us? We assume that since they can travel to any country at the drop of a hat, buy anything (and anyone) they desire, and generally live the life of the gods, that they are the happiest beings on earth. Yet when we look closer we see that such a life would be defined less by the actions such individuals actively choose and more by their passive reactions to each and every whim that comes to them from their bodies or the messages of their culture.
As a bit of a caricature here’s a quick word sketch of such lives, these pinnacles of globalized capital. The brands of clothes they wear are as determined as which brand of yacht they will purchase. Where they will be seen on said yacht at any given time of year is already determined by the habits of the jet-setting beautiful people, “one simply must be in Monte Carlo for the spring dear…” Schools attended and subjects studied are fixed, often from kindergarten, regardless of individual inclination or talent. That little guy in the center of our heads knows exactly what he or she wants and goes directly for it. The super rich just have fewer obstacles to contend with in their pursuit of happiness.
Against all this there is the idea of freedom as it was understood by the men who penned famously that each of us equally share the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By this view we do not know our minds very well, not very well at all. Often what turns out to have been best for us are not events we would have chose. Often we are not at all sure what we should be pursuing, particularly as times of crisis visit our lives. Our minds are driven by hopes and fears around all those aspects of life each of us inevitably encounter yet cannot control. In attempting to control that which is larger than ourselves we are prone to superstitions.
The nihilism haunting our scientific view sees the universe as an unthinking machine and our feelings as nothing more than a meaningless side effect of cold calculations of classical and quantum mechanics. Those who subscribe to this belief hope that by learning how the machine works we can make the universe deliver Bon Bons more often than cancer and plague.
The eternalist rejects the arbitrariness by which cause and effect play out with seemingly no regard for our sense of morality and fairness and insists there must be someone behind it all. The nihilist concluded that there is some ‘thing’ at the root of existence – an unfeeling machine fooling us with suffering. In contrast the eternalist insists feelings reflect something real and important baked into the very structure of the cosmos but then is stuck with explaining why the cosmos seems to give so little consideration to them. Postulating not a ‘something’ but a ‘someone’ opens an avenue to controlling the uncontrollable. Life and death might fail to answer to our desires but surely, this thinking goes, they answer to their creator. By groveling and sacrifice, piety and propitiation such supernatural power(s) can be made to deliver Bon Bons more often than it delivers cancer and plagues.
The Middle Way between the nihilist and the eternalist insists we are organic sentient beings capable of pursuing rational self-determination. In this view the universe is not a cold calculation machine demonically providing a simulacrum of feelings in sentient beings, nor is it sentient beings’ destiny to be little more than puppets in a supernatural morality play where all the important issues are hidden behind a curtain of revelation. They asked the Buddha, what are you? To which he replied, “I am human.” But, they insisted again thinking of gods and prophets, what are you? “I am awake,” he replied.
It is in our rational self interest to pursue the most enlightened society we are capable of. This in turn depends on the degree of wisdom we are able to bring to bear as we reflect on the lessons of yesterday, the practical potentials of today, and the most probable events of tomorrow. How the liberal institutions we have come to take for granted, even as we lose faith in them, were designed to support this work is what we will be taking up next week.