O.P. Recommends: Patrick Deneen and Ezra Klein Discuss the Failures (and Successes?) of Liberalism

‘The Liberal Deviseth Liberal Things,’ memorial at St Bernard’s Well on the Water of Leith

I have not yet read the book and it may be some time before I get the opportunity, but as is the case so often these days as I work towards my doctorate degree, I rely on discussions with authors to keep up with what’s happening out there in the world of ideas. This little review is, therefore, of the ideas expressed in the context of this discussion only, not of those discussed in the context of the book.

Yesterday morning, as I walked to a class, I listened to this particularly fascinating discussion on Ezra Klein’s podcast: Patrick Deneen says liberalism has failed. Is he right?

Klein and Deneen base their discussion, in part, around the origins of classical liberal thinking, which include John Locke’s thought experiment regarding humankind ‘in the state of nature.’ This is the state of being prior to or outside civil government, and is a way to puzzle out which rights, if any, human beings have according to nature rather than according to civil law. Deneen points out, rightly I think, that this thought experiment is so artificial, so divorced from the actual reality of human nature, that it might lead to misleading results. Human nature, in fact, is bound up in ties to family, friends, society, the political sphere, and so on. To derive rights from the nature of the rootless individual is to derive them from a nature that is, well, not fully human. Liberalism, as Deneen defines it, is the prioritization of the rights and interests of the individual above all else, and points out that this is the central project of both the liberal and conservative parties of the United States. For the former, the personal and expressive life of the individual should suffer little interference from the state, and for the latter, the economic choices of the individual should suffer little such interference. Of course, this is a very rough characterization of the left-and-right political divide, and I suspect that Deneen would agree with my own observation that many on both sides of the political divide no longer seem to adhere very closely to these general principles.

As Klein points out, though there’s much to critique in Deneen’s views, his discussion of why so many people in liberal societies suffer loneliness, depression, alienation, addiction, suicide, and other ills, is often insightful and timely throughout. Deneen sees these as inevitable results of societal values that promote the rights and interests of the individual without sufficient, healthy checks on the single-minded pursuit of individual satisfaction and fulfillment. Human beings intimate ties to others to be happy and healthy, and it appears that without the corrective of social and spiritual concerns, the thoroughly liberal person (again, as Deneen defines it) may very well end up enslaved to the whims and vagaries of appetites, often unhealthy ones, unmoored from personal values or love and loyalty to others.

I consider myself more of a political liberal in many respects, and I felt myself recognizing that some of my reasons echo Deneen’s sentiments. For one, I believe that inherent to the ethos of personal responsibility, often cited as a core value of western conservatism, is taking individual responsibility for behaviors that contribute to larger problems. Further, if individuals continue to behave in a way that significantly erodes the healthy functioning of individuals, families, and societies, then people might have the right to demand that others change their behavior. For example, the degradation of ecosystems that sustain life, health, and happiness through thoughtless over-consumption is, then, it seems to me as it does to Deneen, at least as important a social issue as it is a moral and spiritual one. This is only one of the many matters on which Deneen, in this discussion, offers a timely and well-considered critique of many of the mores and practices the western world takes for granted.

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O.P. Recommends: Richard Wilkinson on How Inequality is Bad

Justice et Inégalité – Les Plateaux de la Balance, by Frachet, 2010, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Dear readers,

I’m still hard at work on my master’s dissertation and therefore still have little time to write or read much of anything outside of its scope. One way I can readily catch up on what’s going on in the world, though, is by listening to podcasts while I take my daily breaks, usually consisting of a good brisk hill walk up Arthur’s Seat and around the hills and crags of Holyrood Park. So let me share another one with you that especially struck me.

In this podcast episode, social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson discusses the evidence he and his partner Kate Pickett gleaned from thirty years of research, with host David Edmonds. Their research reveals a wide range of ill effects from very high levels of income inequality: higher rates of imprisonment, obesity, drug abuse, mental illness, and homicide to name a few, as well as lack of social cohesion and trust in other people, lower life expectancy, and so on. The poor and wealthy alike suffer these effects, but the poorer are hit hardest. Since we humans have a strong instinct to compare our status with others’, we tend to resent those who do much better. We’re therefore driven to signal that we, too, have worth. For example, we buy expensive things whether or not we can afford them, especially in a place where wealth and its trappings are considered markers of proper work ethic, intelligence, ability, and good character while having less is considered evidence of laziness and general lack of intelligence, ability, and good character. These stereotypes hold true whether the wealthy or the less wealthy work or not.

Recognize this situation anywhere?

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O.P. Recommends: The Many Deaths of Liberalism, by Daniel Cole and Aurelian Craiutu

‘The Liberal Deviseth Liberal Things,’ memorial at St Bernard’s Well on the Water of Leith

I read an excellent essay this morning on the nature, history, and purported death struggles of liberalism. It clarified many things for me, reminded me of others, and provided a renewed sense of hope and strength in what I believe is a treacherous political period, especially in my home country.

Here are a few excerpts to pique your interest:

“…[T]he meaning of ‘liberalism’ has always been ambiguous. As Montesquieu noted nearly 300 years ago: ‘No word has received more different significations and has struck minds in so many ways as has liberty.’ The same might be said about its close relation, liberalism. According to the legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron writing in 1987, ‘liberalism’ does not describe a unified, coherent political theory but serves as an umbrella for a large family of theories created over the course of several centuries by diverse authors with disparate notions of its meaning, and harbouring no intentions of creating a fully fledged system of governance.

The name ‘liberalism’ has been used to describe systems of governance as distinctive as the French physiocrats’ laissez-faire, the libertarians’ ‘night watchman state’, Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, the law-ordered state of German Ordoliberals, including Walter Eucken and Wilhelm Röpke, and Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’. Today, ‘new’ liberals criticise ‘neoliberalism’ as a cause of increasing inequality and declining social mobility. At the same time, ‘classical’ liberals denounce the excesses of the social welfare state for its encroachments on individual liberty and the state-dependency it creates.”

– and –

“…[L]iberalism creates a big tent for many different conceptions of the ‘good life’, in accordance with its commitment to individual choice. Some have seen this feature as a weakness of liberalism. The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset could not have disagreed more. Writing at a moment when liberalism’s death was being widely proclaimed in the Western world, he argued in The Revolt of the Masses (1930) that liberalism should best be defined as ‘the supreme form of generosity’. In liberal regimes, he argued, the majority, which has power on its side, concedes to weaker minorities the right to live on their own terms, thus announcing the determination to share existence with – and respect those – who have a different view of the good society.

That such ‘generosity’ can be a source of real strength is attested by liberalism’s real successes. Late in his life, Popper, a self-described liberal ‘optimist’, named several liberal achievements as undeniable facts. At no other time, and nowhere else, he pointed out in 1986, have human beings been more valued, as individuals, than in liberal societies: ‘Never before have their human rights, and their human dignity, been so respected, and never before have so many been ready to bring great sacrifices for others, especially for those less fortunate than themselves.’

Popper was no Dr Pangloss. He did not believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Nor did he overlook social problems that persist in liberal societies. But he appreciated that modern liberal societies are the best political systems we fallible humans have managed to create. He believed that such societies create the best conditions for individual development and social improvement”

– and –

“Success itself is a highly ambiguous and contingent concept. It would be inappropriate for the members of a liberal society ever to expect more than a partial success. Given what Immanuel Kant in 1784 called the ‘crooked timber of humanity’, liberalism’s ambitions and hopes will always exceed its actual achievements. Moreover, liberal democratic societies remain congenitally unstable and imperfect, in part because of liberalism’s conflicting demands for both more individual autonomy and greater equality. Because of that inherent tension, liberalism carries the seeds of its own destruction.

At the same time, it might be short-sighted to see liberalism’s alleged failures as anything more than partial and temporary ones. Even if liberalism does not provide a telos or supreme good toward which we should strive, it helps us avoid greater evils, the most salient being cruelty and the fear it inspires. As Ortega y Gasset reminds us, it was no mean accomplishment ‘that the human species should have arrived at so noble an attitude, so paradoxical, so refined’ in the course of a long history marked by bloodshed, intolerance and violence.”

– and –

“For all its progress, liberalism is inseparable from the doubts we feel about it. Those doubts should cause us to heed, even celebrate, liberalism’s critics for pointing out its real flaws. Less attention should be paid, however, to the loud prophets of liberalism’s demise, who declare the entire liberal project dead or fatally flawed. To the extent that liberalism is about solving problems, if only incrementally, we must continue to conjecture, experiment and refute hypotheses about the best means of maintaining and improving our coexistence on Earth.blockquote

Declaring the ‘death of liberalism’ might trigger alarm bells in the media and help to sell books. But it will not solve any of the real problems that modern liberal societies confront, including the real threats to liberal values about which nearly everyone cares and agrees.”

I hope you enjoy and are as enlightened by this essay as I am!

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O.P. Recommends, and Reflects On: Fugitive Slaves and the Politics of Slavery with Richard Blackett

As I go on one of my regular hill walks, I listen to Daniel N. Gullotta interview historian Richard Blackett for the Age of Jackson podcast. They discuss Blackett’s work on the history of slaves’ fleeing oppression from their native states in the antebellum United States of America. My recent dissertation work had led me to Blackett and I’m so glad it has, what an accomplished scholar! I’m so excited to delve further into his work in the coming weeks.

As I listen to this podcast discussion, I can’t help but be reminded of today’s migrants fleeing to American shores to escape danger and the lack of opportunity in their native countries. Though it was illegal to run away from slavery and for free people to assist them in doing so, I think most of us would now say these self-liberated people did no wrong even as they broke the law. What will we say looking back (perhaps decades from now, perhaps less) on harsh treatment of families and individuals fleeing death, destruction, and systemic robbery of cartels and gangs today? And how do we square a ‘zero-tolerance policy’ and the claim that all of these migrants entering without papers and outside official ports of entry are ‘illegal immigrants,’ when we have laws and practices that protect people seeking asylum? After all, asylum seekers are those fleeing dangers that are too immediate to wait in legal limbo, or can’t afford the cost of going through the process, or who have experienced nothing from government officials besides oppression or neglect. And how will we weigh the fact that these cartels and gangs exist in significant measure because of the black markets that inevitably spring up from U.S. drug prohibitions? After all, as history has revealed this happens with prohibitions of desirable commodities without any exceptions (that I know of). And to this, we add the fact that the U.S. citizenry provides such a vast and eager customer base? 

Does the moral duty of parents to protect and provide for their children, and of individuals to preserve their own lives, take precedence over the laws of their own and others’ countries? Are we justified in prosecuting, fining, and otherwise harshly treating people who make this moral choice to come here for the reasons described above? After all, our country is founded on the idea that the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is sacrosanct. If we let that go, we are no longer the United States of America as derived from the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and embodied in the Constitution of 1787. We’ll have become something else.

It’s certainly true that from the outset, our government and the American people have often betrayed the higher principles contained in those founding documents (slavery, Jim Crow, turning away Jewish asylum seekers fleeing the Nazis, the internment of Japanese Americans, protection of business interests at the expense of working people), but I believe we remain that country, and a great one, only so long as we wrangle within and amidst ourselves to do better. And it can be argued that it’s up to these migrants to stay in their own countries and reform them, starting a revolution if necessary. But how many of us would require it of ourselves when we know this may very well mean sacrificing the lives of our children, let alone ourselves, in the meantime?

Perhaps we should make our borders open to ‘willing workers,’ as Ronald Reagan liked to call migrants such as these, thereby forcing their governments to have to do better by their people if they’d like them to stay. After all, the people with the drive and energy to get themselves here, who vote for freedom and opportunity with their feet since they’ve been handed nothing on a silver platter, are the very people who embody those values that working Americans, immigrants and pioneers, runaways from slavery and oppression and the descendants of all of these, pride ourselves on.

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O.P. Recommends: Malcolm Gladwell on Brian Williams, the Fungibility of Memory, and Journalistic Integrity

Brian Williams in 2011 by David Shankbone, free to use under Creative Commons license CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Brian Williams in 2011 by David Shankbone, free to use under Creative Commons license CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, I listened to a recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast about a subject I’ve been interested in for a long time: how memory actually works and how that understanding relates to our relationship with the truth.

A few years ago, I wrote a short opinion piece that was, in part, about news anchorman Brian Williams’ disproven claims to be on a helicopter that was shot down over Iraq in 2003. In that piece, I favorably compared how Williams behaved in the wake of that scandal to the behavior of other media personalities who made similarly false or distorted claims. Unlike the other figures I criticized in that piece, I believe that Williams’ ready admission of his mistakes and his willingness to heap recriminations on himself reveal that he is, in fact, a person of integrity with a real respect for the truth.

While listening to the podcast yesterday, I found that Gladwell agrees with my assessment and for many good reasons. In ‘Free Brian Williams’, Gladwell summarizes what we now know about the fungibility and therefore unreliability of memory, and applies this to a very good discussion of how we all should be careful about the claims we make, especially when we’re in a position to inform and influence the public. A very interesting listen…

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Happy Birthday, Niccolò Machiavelli!

Niccolò Machiavelli statue at the Uffizi

Cary Nederman introduces us to his piece on Niccolò Machiavelli for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy thusly:

Why an entry on Machiavelli? That question might naturally and legitimately occur to anyone encountering an entry about him in an encyclopedia of philosophy. Certainly, Machiavelli [May 3, 1469 – June 21, 1527] contributed to a large number of important discourses in Western thought—political theory most notably, but also history and historiography, Italian literature, the principles of warfare, and diplomacy. But Machiavelli never seems to have considered himself a philosopher—indeed, he often overtly rejected philosophical inquiry as beside the point—nor do his credentials suggest that he fits comfortably into standard models of academic philosophy. His writings are maddeningly and notoriously unsystematic, inconsistent and sometimes self-contradictory. He tends to appeal to experience and example in the place of rigorous logical analysis. Yet succeeding thinkers who more easily qualify as philosophers of the first rank did (and do) feel compelled to engage with his ideas, either to dispute them or to incorporate his insights into their own teachings. Machiavelli may have grazed at the fringes of philosophy, but the impact of his musings has been widespread and lasting. The terms “Machiavellian” or “Machiavellism” find regular purchase among philosophers concerned with a range of ethical, political, and psychological phenomena, even if Machiavelli did not invent “Machiavellism” and may not even have been a “Machiavellian” in the sense often ascribed to him. Moreover, in Machiavelli’s critique of “grand” philosophical schemes, we find a challenge to the enterprise of philosophy that commands attention and demands consideration and response. Thus, Machiavelli deserves a place at the table in any comprehensive survey of philosophy…’

Learn more about the often contradictory, ever controversial, always fascinating and relevant Niccolò Machiavelli:

The Inverted Advice of Niccolò Machiavelli – by William J. Connell for the Times Literary Supplement

Machiavelli and the Italian City States – Melvin Bragg in conversation with his guests Quentin Skinner, Evelyn Welch, and Lisa Jardine

Niccolò Machiavelli – by Cary Nederman for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Niccolò Machiavelli: Italian Statesman and Writer – by Harvey Mansfield for Encyclopædia Britannica

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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O.P. Recommends: M.M. Owen on Martin Buber’s I and Thou

‘A Father and Child’ by Andrei Osipovich Karelin, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In this excellent essay, M. M. Owen explores Martin Buber‘s idea that ‘when we encounter another individual truly as a person, not as an object for use, we become fully human.’:

I and Thou argues that within this elementally networked reality there are two basic modes of existence: the I-It, and the I-Thou. These two stances make up our basic ‘twofold attitude’. In the I-It mode, an ‘Ego’ approaches another as an object separate from itself. This type of engagement is driven by a sort of instrumentalism; the object is engaged primarily as something to be known or used, and its nature is always mediated through the subject’s own self-regard. From the I-It stance, we don’t engage with things in their entirety. Instead, we engage with a web of distinct and isolated qualities notable for how they are useful to us. Buber regarded this kind of self-centred outlook – typified, in his view, by proto-existentialists such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – as a grave error.

By contrast, in the I-Thou relationship, rather than simply experiencing another, we encounter them. A subject encounters a fellow subject’s whole being, and that being is not filtered through our mediated consciousness, with its litter of preconceptions and projections. ‘No purpose intervenes,’ as Buber put it. The I-Thou stance has a purity and an intimacy, and is inherently reciprocal. In relation to others, he argued, we can step into an intersubjective space where two people coexist in (and co-contribute to) what he called the Between. In this Between lurks the vital, nourishing experience of human life, the real sacred stuff of existence. As he put it: ‘All real living is meeting.’

Read the full essay here

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