Thursday, January 1, 2009

Progressivism, Morality and Power

What is called "liberalism" in American popular parlance is better termed "social democracy", although even that term fails to fairly characterize it. I nevertheless use the term "liberalism". Liberalism is in part a moral system. Liberals believe that state action can improve moral outcomes. For example, liberals believe that it is more moral to have less income inequality than more, and therefore that it is moral for the state to force wealthier people to give their wealth to less wealthy people.

There are a number of interesting corollaries to liberal morality. For example, there is a shamanistic belief in the power of the state to bestow morality. If an individual with less wealth were to simply take the wealthier person's assets, then that would be termed theft. But the liberal believes that morality is conferred upon the theft if the state takes it.

Part of the liberal's claim is that democracy bestows morality. A group of people decides that a given income distribution is fair, and then morality is bestowed on the theft by the fact that the group made the decision. Hence, liberalism is a system of fetishization of some construct, be it the state, democracy or power itself, by which the liberal believes that morality or right is conferred.

In the eighteenth century Hume showed that there is no intellectual basis for ethics, but rather right and wrong are emotions hence cannot be proven. However, the intellectual content of the emotion, right and wrong, can be conferred by a wide range of constructs. Aristotle believed that virtue derived from a socially inculcated set of habits and that a virtuous individual has integrated virtue into their decision making capacity, their right reason or ortho logos. Descartes, an Enlightment rationalist writing in the Christian tradition, believed that God verifies the authenticity of perception and that as a result logical (and moral) choice is possible. Locke argued that labor confers ownership and therefore it is morally right for a free individual to lay claim to property and estate. None of these beliefs suggests the need to curtail or control human nature. Control is not normally considered part of ethics.

In contrast, John Dewey, the proto-typical liberal, father of progressive education and arguably founder of modern liberalism says this in the introduction of his book "Human Nature and Conduct":

"Morality is largely concerned with controlling human nature. When we are attempting to control anything we are acutely aware of what resists us. So moralists were led, perhaps, to think of human nature as evil because of its reluctance to yield to control, its rebelliousness under the yoke."

It is true that the inculcation of habits involves a degree of control, but none of the great philosophers, particularly Aristotle, saw good habits as in themselves representative of morality. Rather, morality involves freedom and choice between good and evil.

Dewey, however, claims that the Sunday School teacher's mission represents all morality, that all morality involves control. More likely, Dewey fetishizes control and power, and therefore defines morality as control. How far Dewey would go with that definition was and is uncertain. In the real world, Dewey never did protest Stalin's crimes.

Thus, Dewey defines morality as control. This is characteristic of liberalism, which idealizes control or power used in conjunction with democratic processes or for social democratic ends. Is liberalism's goal democracy, equality or power for the liberal? In fact, the liberal regime has yielded less equality and less democracy than existed in the nineteenth century. What has changed is the allocation of power.

1 comment:

bvw said...

Governments are meant to provide moral outcomes -- the judiciary, to bias and encourage a society towards a moral outcome -- the legislative, and to lead and execute according to a moral code -- the executive.

Reference the Preamble to the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

The rights of men, and the duty to form a government are BOTH so as to bring us close to G-d, our Creator. That is the source of morality, in truth.