Ha! I know, right? In under 3,000 words? Not bloody likely. Part 1, maybe?
This is a continuation of a series attempting to distill several years of thinking into important background to understand me better when I take issue with the whole vocabulary of ‘left’ and ‘right’ but also to follow me when I explain my thoughts on the prospect of an American civil war, something I’ve heard many on both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ talk about. This post ultimately should be read in the context of the rest of the series.
I feel that we need to digest some of what I’ve discussed in the last couple of months because there is a strange irony afoot: if you were to take me and plunk me down in, say, 1810, I would be considered a liberal. Today, this reality is captured by describing my position as ‘classical liberalism.’ Why is it that my advocacy for maximum human freedom and a limited, highly constrained government operated on republican (small ‘r’) principles, now makes me a ‘conservative’? When I compare my views as a lad of 24 years, when I defaulted to the Democrats and was a de facto ‘liberal’ with ‘classical liberalism’ I have to laugh, because almost the only thing the two ideas of ‘liberalism’ have in common is that the ideas are maintained by humans.
So, what happened to liberalism?
It is almost better to say, “what is happening to liberalism?”
What we are witnessing today are trends that logically flow from certain big ‘events’ of the past two centuries. In some ways, the ‘logic’ is patently obvious to anyone who surveys the situation. That is, any reasonably informed person could look at those ‘events’ and say, “well, duh. What did you expect?” It’s as obvious as expecting a rock thrown through a window to shatter the window into a thousand pieces. At the same time, while it can be predicted with high certainty that a thrown rock will shatter a window into a thousand pieces, we cannot predict nearly so well how all of those pieces will fall and scatter in each instance. Moreover, there are many kinds of rocks and many kinds of windows.
You could replay the unfolding of liberalism again through history and our present moment could look very well look very different. The only thing we can be sure of is that there will have been shards of glass at our feet. Certain shards cause us pain today, but it could have been other shards. But there would have been shards.
As much as I hate to summarize topics that require entire books to evaluate, here is how it went down.
1. Liberals began abandoning God.
The Enlightenment helped facilitate this, but how it helped facilitate this is important. It engendered a latent snobbery that remains with us today, in which the ‘smart’ people are quite certain that the rest of humanity are rubes. As thinkers turned away from religion, they turned towards, as they saw it, reason. Some, like Thomas Paine (eg, The Age of Reason) saw reason as incompatible with religious belief. But Paine paid for his hubris with diminished influence. Many of his fellow liberals at the time–fellow American revolutionaries–believed the two were perfectly compatible; granted, lots of folks thought some tweaks were needed.
What the two groups generally agreed upon, at least in the American context–slavery notwithstanding–is the intrinsic value of individual humans. But, here we see the first crack in the window pane: the Declaration of Independence boldly grounds that intrinsic value on a higher authority, namely, God. But where does one ground that sentiment if a higher authority is dispensed with?
That is a question that today’s leftists still have no good answer for, and you can tell. If human dignity is assigned by a higher power, then you infringe upon it at your peril. If human dignity is simply a human artifact, an illusion which we accept as part of a ‘societal contract’ resting on self-interest, well, let’s just say this viewpoint does not present much of a ‘check and balance’ on those who think perhaps in some cases, “for the greater good,” they can nibble around the edges. The same people who assert that the US Constitution is a ‘living document’ also believe that the ‘social contract’ is a ‘living document.’
Still, the issue was very much in limbo. The question of ‘God’ could not be decisively settled one way or the other on ‘reason’ alone. David Hume might be able to make his philosophical points, but such things have little coercive power. You can’t say, “Well, empiricism is true. So, we must re-write the Declaration of Independence and rethink everything we’ve done to this point.”
Among the liberals who were abandoning God in the late 1700s and early 1800s, there was a distinct hesitancy in their proposals, despite their confidence that logic and ‘science’ was on their side.
That changed with:
Richard Dawkins has said that Darwin is what made it possible to be a intellectually satisfied atheist. At the same moment that atheists were enveloped in the warm fuzzy feeling of relief that they finally had the REAL answers, based on SCIENCE, their hesitancy began to dissipate. Now, when they made their proposals, it wasn’t just their philosophical opinion. It was SCIENCE. IT WAS FACT. And what kind of ignorant reactionary must you be if you didn’t accept SCIENCE?
Now, any ol’ discovery could have led liberals to become an ‘intellectually satisfied atheist,’ and things would probably have unfolded differently. But it was Darwinism, and Darwinism had some fairly straight forward logical implications that went along with the absolute confidence that one’s proposals were SCIENCE.
Ok, so there are going to be people who are conditioned–yes, like Pavlov’s dog–to immediately say at this point, “No! No! Darwinism does not logically imply those things!” Dude, listen. That is besides the point. Whether or not it does or does not logically imply those things does not change the fact that at that time, it was widely agreed by almost all thinkers that Darwinism did logically imply those things.
I literally did my doctoral dissertation on that actual point. So, unless you’ve effectively written a 200 page book evaluating the viewpoints and proposals of men like Francis Galton, Herbert Spencer, and Ernst Haeckel which then compared Darwin’s own assessments of Galton, Spencer, and Haeckel’s viewpoints, perhaps you should proceed with caution.
Darwin’s son, Francis, said Galton:
had the support of Charles Darwin who never wavered in his admiration of Galton’s purpose, though he had doubts about the practicality of reform. [….] In the first edition of the Descent of Man, 1874, he distinctly gives his adherence to the eugenic idea by his assertion that man might by selection do something for the moral and physical qualities of the race. [emphasis added]
Darwin himself, in a letter, said about Spencer:
It has also pleased me to see how thoroughly you appreciate (and I do not think that this is in general true with men of science) H. Spencer; I suspect that hereafter he will be looked at as by far the greatest living philosopher in England; perhaps equal to any that have lived.
In a letter, Darwin told Haeckel:
I am delighted that so distinguished a Naturalist should confirm & expound my views, and I can clearly see that you are one of the few who clearly understand Natural Selection. […] Many men in this country & elsewhere really go nearly or quite as far as I do on the modification of Species, but are afraid openly to express such views. [emphasis added]
In the course of my research I turned up a huge amount of primary source material. I have been slowly posting it at a website I manage: www.eugenics.us. If someone had about $100,000 to spare, I might be able to get it all up. Any takers?
At any rate, before you start running your mouth about what the first Darwinists themselves actually believed about Darwinism and its implications, you should spend a little time reading them in their own words.
Ok, ok, ok, so what were some of those perceived ‘logical implications’? Well, in the first place, that humans were just animals; that is, they do not have any more intrinsic worth than a cockroach or a dog. Where do you think Peter Singer, PETA, and those complaining about ‘specieism’ get their ideas? SCIENCE, that’s where. In the second place, since ‘survival of the fittest’ is SCIENCE, then the preservation of the weakest (via charity, out of sentiment, etc) represents an existential threat to the human species, and the Smart People have the duty to take immediate and decisive action.
The writings of liberals from 1859 to 1930 (or so) are chock full of related arguments. But Madison Grant (admittedly, someone that is today ironically considered a ‘conservative’) put it most directly:
Mistaken regard for what are believed to be divine laws and a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life tend to prevent both the elimination of defective infants and the sterilization of such adults as are themselves of no value to the community. The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race.
There you have all the pieces in a single paragraph. Not content to merely dismiss ‘human dignity’ the intrinsic right for a human to live at all is regarded as a ‘sentimental belief.’ The appeal to ‘the laws of nature’ is explicit. The value of a human, such as it is, is only in relation to “the community or race.”
Gee, what could go wrong?
Today, liberals pretty much figure that any and all of that ‘eugenics’ stuff were advocated by racist right-wingers, with no real basis for their viewpoint except, “I’m a nice guy, and I’m a liberal. Liberals would never go for any of that, because, as I said, I’m a nice guy.” Certainly, people considered at the time and even perhaps justly so today as ‘conservatives’ shared the same viewpoints. Of course; but what they held in common was their rejection of God and their embracing of SCIENCE!
Certainly, you did not find libertarian minded small government proponents advocating for compulsory sterilization, the extinguishing of ‘defectives,’ etc, etc.
But I’m not trying to write another 200 page book, here.
In the 1930s, the application of Darwinism to society was dwindling in popularity, even among liberals. Along with men like Boas (a liberal, to be sure, and one who probably did not believe in God, but one nonetheless who A., had an explicit respect for the so-called ‘superstitious’ and B., explicitly rejected applying Darwinism to society), the dynamics of World War 2 as a serious, serious blow to the morale of those who believed we ‘ought’ to apply SCIENCE! to society. On the one hand, they were astonished that their viewpoints could ever had resulted in something like the ovens of Auschwitz, and on the other hand, to the extent that they still thought their viewpoints were on solid ground, they knew very well that you could no longer openly advocate for them.
I have some good material which has yet to be organized and posted of these folks wondering how it could have all come to that. I do have some material posted documenting their strategy for how to go forward: crypto-eugenics; that is, getting people to apply eugenics principles on their own and think it was their own idea. You can thank the efforts of folks like that for why so many people diagnosed in the womb with birth defects such as spina bifida and Down syndrome ‘voluntarily’ abort their children. Abortion rates of such children in the US are 70-90%. In places like Australia, its virtually 100%.
Even the liberals who acknowledge this dark era believe that the corner has been turned–among liberals, at least. When it re-surfaces, their knee-jerk reaction is that it must be ‘conservatives’ talking, because, again, liberals are nice people, by definition, and conservatives are not. And yet, while Nazism was a major blow to the Darwin-applied-to-society movement, there is something that hasn’t changed: the 100% conviction that Darwinism is true.
And that means, every year, people who become convinced that Darwinism is true immediately begin thinking about the implications of Darwinism, especially in light of the belief that Darwinism logically entails atheism. That means, every year, another new wave of people wrestle with the idea that ‘defectives’ should be eliminated, and that differences–race, intelligence, etc–between humans are not only real, but the result of SCIENTIFIC processes which a well-managed society ought to be employing.
Contemporary liberalism spits out the most overt of these people, and since liberals evaluate everyone else by their own intentions… they are nice people, and they are on the ‘left’… they conclude that since they don’t like what these people are saying, those people must not be on the ‘left’ at all, no sir, those folks are the ‘right’!
Sure, the people we’re talking about are as godless as most liberals are, and they embrace Darwin as true as most liberals do, and they think the government should be highly involved in the lives of the nation and individuals the way liberals believe… but in the main, the real rub has to do with whether or not the State ought to be ‘obliterating the unfit.’ When comparing their views it turns out that the only real difference between them is that these ‘alt-right’ folks wouldn’t be too squeamish about ‘obliterating the unfit’ after they’ve been born, while the liberals prefer to obliterate the ‘unfit’ before they are born.
This is far too disgusting of a sentiment to hear them say directly, but it is the net effect of their view, thanks to the work of the crypto-eugenicists. But, you still have your folks who are unquestionably ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ who are not so shy.
Richard Dawkins got himself into hot water a few years back by advocating explicitly for the aborting of children diagnosed in the womb with a birth defect. LOL, leave it to Dawkins to say what all the rest of them were thinking. But what should we have expected from a man who says:
The spectre of Hitler has led some scientists to stray from “ought” to “is” and deny that breeding for human qualities is even possible. But if you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed, and dogs for herding skill, why on Earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability? Objections such as “these are not one-dimensional abilities” apply equally to cows, horses and dogs and never stopped anybody in practice.
I wonder whether, some 60 years after Hitler’s death, we might at least venture to ask what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or why it is acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers but not to breed them. I can think of some answers, and they are good ones, which would probably end up persuading me. But hasn’t the time come when we should stop being frightened even to put the question?
So long as Darwinism is considered to be rock solid SCIENTIFIC FACT, people who abandon God will find themselves returning again and again to the same noxious elements which were accepted as mainstream by sophisticated elites (‘right’ and ‘left’) 1910-1930. It will never go away. It will surface again and again, within ‘liberalism’ and without.
But, if the explicit warrant to apply Darwinism in explicit terms regularly rises and regularly falls in ‘polite society,’ there is yet a third catalyst to add to the mix, which likewise has its roots in the 1800s. To return to good ol’ Dawkins and his faux pas regarding the abortion of Down Syndrome children (“Abort it and try again!”), its interesting to look at how he makes his public case.
From the quote above, you can see he has no objection whatsoever about ‘breeding humans.’ Eliminating the ‘unfit’ by selective breeding is obviously something he would support and probably does support, but by golly you can’t say that out loud and remain in the good graces of the Left! lol, no sir! Instead, he turns to the third catalyst, utilitarianism. He says:
The question is not “is it ‘human’?” but “can it SUFFER?”
That’s Dawkins succinctly re-stating the argument made by the utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, although Bentham put it in terms that also fuels rejection of ‘speciesm.’ Ie, human? animal? who cares? same-same! What matters is whether or not the thing can suffer!
At the same time that Darwinism was making its mark on the intellectual history of the West, the utilitarian arguments of Bentham and Mill were ascending right along side it.
The rise of atheism, combined with the (putative?) implications of Darwinism, automatically created a serious problem for these folks. Taking each view alone, on their own merits, there is no basis whatsoever for an ‘objective’ morality. Indeed, on each view alone, on their own merits, what we perceive as ‘morality’ is no more than an illusion. Problem: humans, almost every single one of them, are moral creatures. Almost every single one of them does not believes his morality is an illusion. And yet, in the worldview of most liberals, these two items are not taken in isolation. No, they are both considered to be very true. That makes ‘morality’ doubly an ‘illusion,’ with the disturbing addition of the fact that bringing the Darwinian plank to the table means that SCIENCE tells us that morality is an illusion. How is this to be reconciled with almost everyone’s actual experience that morality is very real indeed?
If you plan on keeping your morality to yourself, perhaps it doesn’t matter very much how you answer this question. But, if you are a liberal, it is almost certainly the case that your whole outlook is based on the desire to inflict your morality on everyone else, whether they like it or not. But how is that to be justified? It can’t be one’s own mere opinion. that will never fly. You need something that seems objective enough that you feel you can justly carry your moral judgements into political contests.
The only answer that anyone has come up that will do the trick is utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism has two aspects to it that directly bear on the topic of this post. In the first place, utilitarianism says, “what is ‘good’ is what generates the most happiness for the most people.” It logically follows then, in the second place, that what is ‘bad’ is unhappiness; ie, suffering.
Hello, we’ve got something objective to work with now, haven’t we?
Let’s say you have 100 people. Killing 1 of them would make the other 99 very happy. Mathematically speaking, then, logically speaking, 99% of the population will be happier without the other 1%, so obviously then, objectively speaking, it is moral to kill the one dude, provided he does not suffer as he is killed.
Oh, that doesn’t sound moral to you?
It’s perfectly consistent with utilitarian thinking. The fact that people who embrace utilitarianism as their way to obtain moral weight don’t turn to such calculations is only testimony to the poverty of utilitarianism itself. I suppose we can be happy that more people don’t take their utilitarian philosophy and deploy it in this fashion, just as we’re glad that people don’t go out of their way to eliminate the unfit by way of ovens. Nonetheless, just as the nasty aspects of Darwinism continue to raise their heads periodically and will do so until finally Darwinism itself is rejected, macabre utilitarian arguments will continue to surface, as it remains the only viable path for a person who does not believe in God to put their morality on ‘objective’ grounds, and, they desperately hope, find a path towards justifiably believing that humans have worth and dignity (even as this flies in the face of their Darwinism.)
Now, you will not find anyone, and certainly not someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, making the utilitarian argument above. Not because the argument is unsound, but because it is self-evidently wicked–by God, if only we could find out the source of our self-evidential assessments! But you will find folks like AoC making this argument:
Let’s say you have 100 people. Taking the money from 1 of them would make the other 99 very happy. Mathematically speaking, then, logically speaking, 99% of the population will be happier with the wealth of the 1%, so obviously then, objectively speaking, it is moral to take money from the one dude, provided taking his money won’t cause him to suffer… too much.
That paragraph is almost the exact viewpoint that forms the foundation of any person who has ‘leftist’ viewpoints.
Obvious to the rest of us are questions such as… who decides how much happiness is need to justify the suffering imposed? how is it to be decided? Just because doing X would bring more pleasure to more people, is that alone enough to justify inflicting harm and/or suffering on others?
Here is what liberals hear: “Blah blah blah…”
Unfortunately, the utilitarian principle, as basis for justifying our political actions, entails some serious, serious, risks. In the name of reducing suffering, you could potentially create a whole hell of a lot of it. We know from recent history that this has happened quite a bit. Indeed, it is still happening.
Utilitarianism does not actually denounce suffering, nor is it above inflicting suffering. Instead, rationalizes it. It takes the existence of suffering, of some group, at least, for granted. Someone has got to suffer, but that’s ok, because more people will benefit. If by torturing one person for his entire life, spreading out his entrails and then shoving them back into his body to heal, and then doing it over again, periodically subjecting him to electro-shock, etcs, if by doing all this you could secure the euphoric bliss of a billion people, why, the utilitarian would have to conclude this is not just morally permitted, it is morally obligatory.
While thankfully not as extreme as that, this is structurally what every utilitarian-as-political ideology argument consists of.
What is happening to liberalism?
The core premise of liberalism is that they know that some people are going to suffer in order that some other people are going to have happiness, and they don’t have the slightest problem being the ones to decide who will be the ones to suffer and who will be the ones to benefit. They have appointed themselves as the sole arbiters on the matter.
Gee, what could go wrong?
Now, it isn’t that there aren’t liberals who are aware of this problem. Even if they can’t put it into words, they sense that raw utilitarianism cannot provide them with the sure footing they desired for their moral actions. Their primary response to this reality at this point is to invoke ’empathy.’ But, of course, its still subject to all the same problems as all that has come before in this post. It is great, for example, that you empathize with [insert person X who suffers Y]. How interesting, though, that you don’t empathize with [person Z], whom you inflict suffering on in order to alleviate the suffering of [person X].
And its always so interesting that here again, the sole arbiters on who deserves our empathy are the liberals themselves. Only they can speak to the matter. Moreover, if you haven’t gone through X yourself, why, you can just shut the hell up.
On analysis, the appeal to ’empathy’ runs aground on the same problems that were discussed above. If you’ve dispensed with God, the only arbiter left is your Gut. And why should we defer to your Gut and not mine? What if my Gut says that I would feel great if I murdered you in your sleep (since you’re unconscious, you cannot suffer!)? You can’t really say, objectively, that I am wrong. In sum, the Gut-Worshiper, is like the dog who returns to his vomit. The utilitarianism is spewed onto the ground with corn kernels and potato chunks; this dish is given the fancy name of “Empathy” and eaten with a spoon.
One does not have to look very far to see that this is exactly what is unfolding in contemporary society, and you can easily see how the people deemed fit for suffering are not going to take kindly to this choice being made upon them. Moreover, being told they can just ‘shut up’ cannot go over well. This will all come to a head. Either the liberals are going to have to start shooting people in order to enforce their decisions, or else a more civilized approach will need to be adopted. Don’t hold your breath.
I do want to say that I do not necessarily believe utilitarianism is intrinsically diabolical. Hey, I’ll even allow that Darwinism doesn’t have to entail proactively weeding out the unfit. And I’m a real big fan of empathy–the book of Hebrews is one of my favorite expressions of it. The root problem that threads through it all is the rejection of God and the logically required corollary that Man himself is the final authority.
It almost doesn’t matter what you believe, if you believe in God, the extent of your wickedness, especially applied systemically, will be bounded. If you don’t believe in God, the only boundary to wickedness is your Gut.
Yea, so in light of all the horrors of human history, not to mention the nightmare that was the 20th century, forgive me if I don’t think your Gut is a robust defense against those things repeating.
So, it turns out its 4,000 words and I’m not done. So I guess this is “Part 1” after all. I’ll have to get around to Part 2 at a later time.