Saturday, October 29, 2016

287. The crisis of liberalism

There are various forms of liberalism. Loosely, it means liberty of choice for the individual.  But what kind of liberty? Choice of what? What does it mean for an individual? The cardinal, present form of liberalism consists, I think, of the following principles.

First, autonomy of the individual (as opposed to its social constitution).

Second, a focus on negative freedom; lack of interference with the individual. This stands in contrast with positive freedom, to pursue one’s view of the good life, on the basis of corresponding values, virtues, and competencies. In liberalism that is left up to the individual, free from public meddling.

That has indeed been liberating, with its contribution to momentous achievements such as human rights, legality, ownership rights, police monopoly of violence, equality under the law, being innocent until proven guilty, independent judiciary, and different forms of emancipation.

Third, the assumption and ideal of rationality driving human action and public policy.

Fourth, a reduction of human nature to the drive of self-interest, even at the expense of others. Other human features that might keep this back, oriented at relationships rather than autonomous agents, such as benevolence, care, trust, empathy, and altruism, are not regarded as being part of human nature, and are felt to be ‘wishy-washy’, intangible, not satisfying rational requirements of objectivity, logical rigour, and measurability.

And then there are markets. Their miracle is that through self-interest they promote maximum material welfare. Without that, liberal self-interest would not have been palatable.   

As noted by Milbank and Pabst[i], while values and virtues, as instruments for positive freedom, are seen as up to individuals, beyond the pale of politics, the potential for vice, in excessive self-interest at the cost of others, is a public matter, since it limits negative freedom. Containing the hazards of self-interest then becomes the only moral task of government. No appeal can be made to virtues since those are outside public discourse, and are too vague, various and ‘irrational’ to have any bite. Only imposition of control is left.

This idea goes back to Hobbes’ idea of the need for a ‘Leviathan’ to contain the ‘war of all against al’.

To be rational and without regard to individual values, motives, talents, experience and conditions, control has to be bureaucratic, uniform and impersonal (one thinks of Weber here), imposed by the state (or in name of the state[ii]). As a result, conduct is increasingly regimented and strangled by an accumulation of control.[iii]

Efficiency is objective and measurable, as minimum monetary cost, while value is subjective and hence unwieldy, if it goes beyond mere exchange value, expressed in price. This reduction of value to exchange goes by the name of ‘commodification’.

As a result, in the realm of rational policy efficiency always wins. If quality is to play a role, it is to be fixed in objectified, quantifiable, standards of skill, process or outcome, which contributes to the accumulation of stifling control.

As noted by Milbank and Pabst, taken together, this explains the puzzling phenomenon, in present society, of an alliance between market ideology, demanding maximum negative freedom for self-interested conduct, with centralized control of such conduct, to limit threats to negative freedom. Socialist ideals of a strong state can thus ally with liberal ideals of negative freedom. A requirement for this was only that socialism drop its old ideals of upholding social justice beyond the decrees of laws, in humane conduct, protecting the weak, and guiding and ‘uplifting’ the populace with education and culture.

This results not only in a reduced scope for positive freedom, for the pursuit of a flourishing life, but, ironically, even of negative freedom, in that limitation of scope. And so liberalism swallows its own tail.

[i] John Milbank & Adrian Pabst, ‘The politics of virtue’, London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
[ii] As in the case of the control of hospitals, in terms of detailed protocols for work, delegated to health insurance companies, after the change of the system in 2008, in the Netherlands
[iii] That has led me to explore a lighter form of control that leaves more room for trust, called ‘horizontal control’, discussed elsewhere in this blog.

Monday, October 24, 2016

286. Creative conflict and criticism

Present culture wars in Western societies, with shouting matches between nationalists and cosmopolitans, ‘elites’ and ‘commoners’ or ‘grass roots’, highly and low-educated, free traders and protectionists, are due, in large part, I think, to an unwillingness and inability to engage in uttering and absorbing constructive criticism. At the same time there is an urge towards expression and self-assertion. Together, they have disastrous effects of polarization, with mutual indifference, or intolerance and escalation of negative conflict.

Conflict can be creative but that demands the effort and ability to engage in giving and accepting, appreciating, constructive criticism, based on openness and curiosity, aimed at mutual understanding. Those may be based on Christian virtues of faith in the positive potential of people, hope of its realization, and love for the give and take of relationships. It may also be based on traditional, cardinal values of reflection, courage, moderation and justice. We seem to have lost all of those, somehow.

What is happening?

First, young generations, not having suffered the horrors of war, racism and nationalism, have grown up in a safe, protective environment, robbing themselves of the need to deal with hardship that builds strength and resilience.

This has fed risk avoidance, in an obsession with safety and control. That has produced excessive control mechanisms in many realms of work, which stifle professional initiative, kill intrinsic motivation of work, and narrow room for improvisation and for catering to variety of taste and circumstance.

Second, postmodern philosophy has generated, mostly as a result of misunderstanding, an excessive, perverse relativism, according to which any view is as good as any other. Opinions are as good as arguments, and everyone has a right to his or her own. There is no common ground for debate, and criticism is seen as intolerant, offensive, power play.

The misunderstanding is this. I accept relativism in the form of renouncing absolute objectivity and truth, accepting that one’s views, and even observations, are biased by forms of thought, based on one’s biological and cultural inheritance, and formed along one’s individual path of life.  However, the resulting difference in ideas and views, in what earlier in the blog I called ‘cognitive distance’, form a reason not for abandoning debate, but, on the contrary, for engaging in it. Precisely because our views are biased, the only chance we have at correcting them lies in looking at other, conflicting views. As I argued at several places in this blog, one needs opposition from others to achieve freedom from one’s prejudices and errors.

In contrast with this, an ethic has arisen where respect is seen as avoiding criticism, rather than valuing opposition. People congregate with whom they agree, cuddling their conformity.

Third, there is a romantic urge for individual self-expression, authenticity. In combination with unwillingness and inability to voice and absorb criticism constructively, this becomes a noisy celebration of narcissism.   

At some schools, students are bedded in safety, in a pact of mutual non-aggression. Trust is seen as softness, conflict avoidance. Instead, students should be educated to voice and absorb constructive criticism. It is precisely because there is trust that one can tell each other ‘the truth’. Returning to the cardinal virtues: one should learn to listen and reflect on what is said, what to say, and how to say it. Have the courage to take the risk of giving and evoking criticism. To be moderate and modest in one’s claims, and just in judgement.

This issue is connected with the notion of cognitive distance. To recall: cognition here is a wide notion, including knowledge as well as moral views concerning the conduct of relationships. Distance is bothersome, makes collaboration difficult, but also yields the potential for learning. Ability to cross cognitive distance enhances learning by interaction. It is good for society as well as the individual.

One can make a distinction between distance in substantive knowledge and moral/ relational distance. The latter is more difficult to cross than the former. Constructive conflict is best served by reducing moral distance, in order to better cross distance in knowledge. Dealing with each other while disagreeing.    

Saturday, October 15, 2016

285. Nietzsche and Aristotle

Nietzsche did not and Aristotle would not have adopted Christian ethics, utility ethics, and duty ethics. Notoriously, Nietzsche demolished Christian morality as a mask for the exercise of a universal will to power. Morals of humility, pity, modesty and self-sacrifice have arisen as the revenge or pre-emption on the strong by the weak, their victims. Being pre-empted in the exercise of their will to power on others, the strong then turn against themselves in guilt and self-sacrifice.

Here, Nietzsche went back not to Aristotelian virtues of the citizen in society, the polis, but to the Homeric virtues of the single hero, the man of action who wins and dominates.   

But then Nietzsche ended up in a phantasy of the strong-willed, autonomous Overman, beyond good and evil, who creates his own values, independently from others, in what Alasdair MacIntyre called ‘moral solipsism’.

Earlier in this blog, in item 60, I called this ‘Nietzsche’s mistake’. My argument was as follows. Will to power becomes acceptable, even a virtue, in a joy of overcoming obstacles, when it is not aimed at suppressing or dominating others, but is sublimated in overcoming obstacles in oneself in the effort to transcend oneself, in an Aristotelian striving after the good life. Nietzschean solipsism is self-defeating because one needs openness to the opposition from others to escape from one’s own prejudices and blindness, which is the highest degree of freedom.

On the other hand, according to Alasdair MacIntyre, Aristotle, here in agreement with Plato, thought that in spite of the multiplicity and apparent conflict between multiple virtues harmony between them existed, and conflict between them was evil.[i]

There seems to be some tension between this and the acknowledgment, by Aristotle, of the difficulty of phronesis, practical wisdom, in finding a good balance between rival virtues, depending on the specific conditions at hand. What if in the exercise of his genius someone neglected his duties as a father? Or betraying a friend to save a country? Aristotle acknowledged that there are no universal rules for this, and that proficiency in phronesis is rare.

Nietzsche, by contrast, relished conflict as a source of renewal, in ‘creative destruction’ (a term from the economist Schumpeter, not Nietzsche). Pain is part of transformation and transcendence of a limited self. Here I side with Nietzsche.

Here there is a problem with Aristotle’s view of virtues as needed to perform well in socially established and accepted ‘practices’, or language games, as discussed in preceding items in this blog. What if the practice is evil, or unduly constrains liberty?

Consider, for example, the present difficulty of getting away from the socially perverse practices of bankers and leaders of businesses more widely, in maximising their personal gain rather than the interest of society, indeed in damaging that interest, in avoiding taxes, destroying the environment, fooling customers, dodging rules, hiving risks off onto citizens. Some of them relish the virtue of being excellent in playing the game well, cleverly tricking customers to buy harmful financial products, and thereby violating the virtue of serving customers. 

How to transform such practices, or escape from them? What are the implications for virtue? What are the virtues of rebellion? Where lies the boundary between having to accept and respect the rigours and virtues of how to perform a practice well, and the virtue of resisting and changing any perverse practice? That has been a major theme in this blog (see items 266 and 267). I still value that transformative, rebellious feature of Nietzsche.              

[i] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Notre Dame University Press, 2015 (first published in 1981).

Saturday, October 8, 2016

284. Which virtues?

In this blog I pleaded for a virtue ethics in the tradition of Aristotle, rather than the utility ethics that dominates economics, or a Kantian duty ethics. But there are so many virtues flapping around, with much variation in which virtues take precedence. Are they all relevant? Is there some coherence or unity between them? To answer this question I make use of the work After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre.

For Aristotle, a central virtue is justice, since that yields the conditions for exercising other virtues. Another key virtue for him is the use of reason, in particular practical reason (phronesis), needed to balance virtues in action. That includes the virtue of truthfulness. Further, there are the virtues of moderation, empathy, prudence, courage, and commitment/perseverance. These virtues converge in the so-called classical ‘cardinal’ (i.e. pivotal) virtues of reflection, courage, moderation, and justice.

Central Christian, biblical virtues are faith, hope and love. And also humility, modesty, and forgiveness. Aristotle would hardly include those, but to people who grew up in a culture of Christian heritage, even when not being practising Christians, such virtues do seem to have their self-evident place.

So, what virtues when, and in what order?

From Aristotle, Alasdair MacIntyre picked up two things that I want to mention here.

First, the idea that virtues are character traits needed to strive for the good life. They arise in relation to practices, as required to excel in them. Since there is a large variety of practices, it is no surprise that there is a variety of virtues and their constellations. Being a good soccer player requires other virtues than being a good surgeon. They may, however, share some virtues, such as perseverance to achieve excellence. 

It is important to note that this notion of virtues as required for good performance presupposes a notion of what a good practice is, and this notion needs to be shared. The practice entails certain types of actions, and rules of the game. Aristotle was oriented towards the human being as a ‘political’ (i.e. social) animal, and his ethics is oriented towards shared, social practice, a common good. Friendship is having a shared project, a shared interest, with no separate, individual ownership. It is not up to the individual to decide what a good play is. He/she needs to submit to its rigours in order to be a legitimate player. I would compare it to Wittgenstein’s notion of a ‘language game’ that I used in preceding items in this blog. 

Now, is there one universal good life for Man? Or is it determined by the community, as Aristotle suggests. As I discussed in preceding items in this blog, that would be fundamentally opposed to liberal individualism. There, choice of the good life is to be left to supposedly autonomous individuals. There should be freedom based on individual preference. How freedom and virtue may be reconciled is discussed in the preceding items in this blog. However that may be, one needs to conform to rules of language games, and a tension with authentic, individual choice remains. 

The second idea that MacIntyre adopted from Aristotle is that virtue is oriented to a life that is good as a whole, oriented to some overarching good, with projects connected in the totality of a life. He then arrives at the following characterization: ‘The good life of Man is the life spent in seeking the good life of Man’[i].

One might then add as a virtue the ability to select projects that contribute to the good life envisaged. There, one needs to find a way between on the one hand coherence and concentration of virtues and skills in a limited range of projects, not to spread one’s talents too thin, and on the other hand variety to explore novel opportunities.

Aristotle does not postulate that one knows beforehand what the good life is, and allows for trial, error, and learning in seeking it. That sits well with the pragmatist approach that I take in this blog. Action forms knowing.

My choice of a good life, which I stated several times in this blog, is as follows. Make the best use of your talents to contribute to what you leave behind after death, which is the only hereafter there is. That gives a meaning to life that transcends one’s own life, but developing and utilizing one’s talents is also gratifying, joyful. This gives a guideline to what projects to choose in the development of one’s life.

What about radical innovation of practice, in ‘creative destruction’? What are the virtues for that? The virtues of rebellion? I mentioned the tension between conformity to rules and developing an authentic self (see items 266 and 268). I will return to that issue in the following item in this blog, in a discussion of Nietzsche an

[i] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, 2015 (first published 1981), p. 219.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

283. What answer to populism?

There is a pressing need to give an answer to the rising populist revolt, in Western countries. There are legitimate grievances behind it, and when left unanswered, they make society vulnerable to a takeover by demagogues that destroys justice and democracy, and is beginning to reek of a new brew of fascism. So, what can we learn from populism?

In my view, this revolt has the following grounds.

First, the lower paid and educated classes feel that they have suffered more setbacks than benefits from globalized trade, in large contrast to the increase of income, wealth and power of higher paid and educated classes. This injustice is not addressed, and seems to be excused as the inevitable side-effects of the blessings of free trade.

Second, people are angry that multinational firms successfully press national governments for extending advantages (in taxes, exceptions to regulation, e.g. for protection of the environment, energy subsidies, premiums for locating businesses, etc.), on the threat of locating activities elsewhere. In particular, the EU is seen as being there for the sake of markets rather than for justice for the people. This also contributes to distrust of  markets and free trade.

Third, people feel that they have no grip, no influence on what is going on, and consequently lose their faith in democracy. They also feel a loss of social coherence and shared cultural identity. This provides a breeding ground for renewed nationalism.

To address these grievances, I have three proposals.

First, concerning the inequality of benefits from global trade between the lower and the higher paid and educated, the lesson is not, in my view, to abolish international trade, but to compensate for the inequality of its effects.  

Second, build countervailing power regarding multinationals who take nations hostage. There are also other issues that require bundling in supranational integration, as in the EU: concerning foreign policy, defence, refugees, the environment, security (anti-terrorism), and international crime.

Here also lies an opportunity for the EU to regain acceptance and allegiance by proving it is there not only for the market but for the people. The going of this will be tough, against present ill feeling against the EU, partly as a result of its one-sided focus on facilitating markets. The EU is already making moves in this direction, in its policies concerning banking and taxes.

Third, as I proposed in the preceding item in this blog, utilize present opportunities from technology and higher levels of education to decentralize many decisions and designs in policy and projects to the local level of communities, in towns or city quarters, for local debate on ethics and morality, in closer, more personal contacts for building trust and mutual understanding and tolerance in collaboration.

These proposals entail that the grasp of nations becomes less, in a surrender of competencies to on the one hand supranational collaboration, as in the EU, and on the other hand decentralization of initiatives within nations to localities.

A complication is that release to local initiatives will not only profit from local variety but will also generate inequality of outcomes. Maintaining a demand of strict equality everywhere will kill variety and space for local initiative. A second complication is that release to local initiative may generate local clientism and corruption, with power concentrating in local bobo’s and their entourage.

Here, there remain tasks on the national level, not only for issues and projects that transcend localities (jurisdiction, security, transportation, ….), but for preventing excessive inequalities and local clientism.     

All this is needed as an answer to the present populist revolt in Western countries.