06 Oct 2016

Liberal Democracy’s Minimalist View of Humanity Leads Directly to Unlimited Entitlement

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Ryszard Lugutko, Professor of philosophy at the Jagellonian University in Cracow.

From The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Ryszard Legutko.

Liberal and democratic thought had been, from the very beginning –- with few exceptions -– minimalist when it came to its image of the human being. The triumph of liberalism and democracy was supposed to be emancipatory also in the sense that man was to become free from excessive demands imposed on him by unrealistic metaphysics invented by an aristocratic culture in antiquity and the Middle Ages. In other words, an important part of the message of modernity was to legitimize a lowering of human aspirations. Aspiring to great goals was not ruled out in particular cases, but greatness was no longer inscribed in the essence of humanity. The main principle behind the minimalist perspective was equality: from the point of view of a liberal order one cannot prioritize human objectives. Only the means can be prioritized in terms of efficiency, provided this does not jeopardize the rules of peaceful cooperation. …

There were, as I’ve said, exceptions to this view –- few, but worth noting. Among the eighteenth century authors, Kant, who defended liberalism, set up high standards for humanity; in the 19th century, John Stuart Mill and T.H. Green had similar intentions. The last two aptly perceived the danger of mediocrity that the democratic rule was inconspicuously imposing on modern societies. They both believed –- differences notwithstanding -– that some form of liberalism, or rather, a philosophy of liberty, was a possible remedy to the creeping disease of mediocrity. Mill remained under the partial, albeit indirect influence of German Romanticism, and thus attributed a particular role to great, creative individuals whose exceptionality or even eccentricity could –- in a free environment -– pull men out of a democratic slumber.

But these ideas did not find followers, and liberal democratic thought and practice increasingly fell into the logic of minimalism. Lowering the requirements is a process that has no end. Once people become used to disqualifying certain standards as too high, impractical, or unnecessary, it is only a matter of time before natural inertia takes its course and even the new lowered standards are deemed unacceptable. One can look at the history of liberal democracy as a gradual sliding down from the high to the low, from the refined to the coarse. Quite often a step down as been welcomed as refreshing, natural, and healthy, and indeed it sometimes was. But whatever the merits of this process of simplification, it too often brought vulgarity to language, behavior, education, and moral rules. The growing vulgarity of form was particularly striking, especially in the last decades, moving away from sophistication and decorum. A liberal-democratic man refused to learn these artificial and awkward arrangements, the usefulness of which seemed to him at first doubtful, and soon -– null. He felt he had no time for them, apparently believing that their absence would make life easier and more enjoyable. In their place he establish new criteria: use, practicality, usefulness, pleasure, convenience, and immediate gratification, the combination of which turned out to be a deadly weapon against the old social forms. The old customs crumbled, and so did rules of propriety, a sense of decorum, a respect for hierarchy.

These changes were often attributed to the deplorable influence of the bourgeoisie, the class that was said to embody the disappearance of forms and the vulgarity of the modern era. There was an immense output of creative works depicting the shallowness of the mercantile civilization. The antidote to commerce was –- as evidenced by Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga -– art as a pure disinterested expression of imagination in pursuit of the beautiful and sublime. But over time it became clear that commerce and capitalism had been blamed somewhat hastily, and that the causes lay deeper. More perceptive thinkers soon realized the very success of technology, productivity, and industry, that great achievement of the genius of modern man, was conducive, as José Ortega y Gasset persuasively argued, to the sterility of imagination and the triumph of self-satisfied pettiness. There was and still is something paradoxical in the fact that the historically unprecedented explosion of technology and industry which brought wealth and security to millions of people and which would not have been possible without a high degree of creativity, was a major factor in reducing people’s aspirations and, astonishingly, getting mediocrity a touch of respectability.

Man, feeling secure and enjoying the increasingly abundant benefits of modern civilization, was slowly releasing himself from the compelling pressure of strict and demanding roles derived from religion and classical ethics. He was no longer in the mood to embark on a painful and uncertain journey to higher goals, on which John Stuart Mill elaborated with such hope. And his hopes were high. In a famous passage of his Utilitarianism, he said that although man aspires to satisfy his drive for pleasure, he will always prefer to be an unsatisfied Socrates rather than a satisfied pig. Why? The argument was the following: matters cognizant of both states -– the Socratic and the swinish -– and there is no way that reason and conscience will allow him to opt for being a pig. The argument thus assumes in an unequivocal way that some ways of life are objectively better than others, that the Socratic model is clearly superior to that of a common man and that there is nothing in human nature that can make people oblivious to the fact.

This last assumption, however, has been challenged since the very beginning of modern times. In liberal democracy, especially in recent decades, a generally acknowledged moral directive forbids looking down on people’s moral priorities, because in present society equality is the norm, not the hierarchy. But equality, as always, has its limitations. Mediocrity has been generally, though tacitly acknowledged as a noncontroversial, if not preferred model, whereas the Socratic model, though nominally viewed as equal among others, has lost its appeal and support from the democratic mainstream as too aristocratic and elitist. In theory the Socratic way is as good as any other; in practice, it is hopelessly at odds with modern preferences. From a new perspective, the pig would seem, on reflection, a stronger competitor.

The gradual process in which the higher aspirations were being replaced by the lower tells us, no doubt, something about human nature: namely, that unless met with strong resistance or an attractive inspiration it shows a powerful tendency to be lured by the common and the mediocre. “Common,” indeed has ceased to be a word of disapproval in a liberal democratic rhetoric, or rather, has ceased to be used at all. When so much is common, nothing really is. This change is but a small signal of a corruption of basic categories by which for centuries people described and evaluated their conduct.

Especially striking is a change in the meaning of the word “dignity,” which since antiquity has been used as a term of obligation. If one was presumed to have dignity, one was expected to behave in a proper way as required by his elevated status. Dignity was something to be earned, deserved, and confirmed by acting in accordance with higher standards imposed by a community or religion -– for instance, by empowering a certain person with higher responsibilities or by claiming that man was created in God’s image. Dignity was an attribute which ennobled those who acquired it. As noblesse oblige, dignity was an obligation to seek some form of self-improvement, however vaguely understood, but certainly closer to the Socratic way and further away from its opposite. The attribute was not bestowed forever: one could lose it when acting in an undignified way.

At some point, the concept of dignity was given a different meaning, contrary to the original. This happened mainly through the intercession of the language of human rights, especially after the 1948 Universal Declaration. The idea of human beings having inalienable rights is counterintuitive and extremely difficult to justify. It may make some philosophical sense if derived from a strong theory of human nature such as one finds in classical metaphysics. However, when we accept a weak theory, attributing to human beings only elementary qualities, and deliberately disregarding strong metaphysical assumptions, then the idea of rights loses its plausibility. It may, of course, be sanctioned as a mere product of legislation through a Parliamentary or court ruling, which entitles people to make various claims called “rights,” but these claims will be no more than arbitrary decisions by particular groups of politicians or judges who choose to do this rather than that due to circumstances, ideology, or individual predilections or under pressure from interest groups. It would indeed be silly to call such claims “inalienable,” because an inalienability by definition cannot be legislated.

Thus, in order to strengthen the unjustified and, within the accepted conceptual framework, unjustifiable notion of human rights, the concept of dignity was involved, but in a peculiar way so as to make it seem to imply more than it actually did. This concept created an illusion of a strong view of human nature, and of endowing this nature with qualities nowhere explicitly specified but implying something noble, being an immortal soul, an innate desire for good, etc. But on the other hand, and using this concept, unaccompanied by other qualifications, framers of the human rights documents apparently felt exempted from any need to present an explicit and serious philosophical interpretation of human nature and to explain the grounds and the conditions on which one could conceive of its dignity. This operation –- or more precisely; sleight-of-hand, and not very fair to boot -– led to a sudden revival of the concept of human dignity, but with a radically different meaning.

Since the issue of the Universal Declaration dignity has no longer been about obligation, but about claims and entitlements. The new dignity did not oblige people to strive for any moral merits or desserts; it allowed them to submit whatever claims they wished and to justify these claims by referring to dignity that they possessed by the mere fact of being born without any moral achievement or effort. A person who desired to achieve the satisfaction of the pig was thus equally entitled to appeal to dignity to justify his goals as another who tried to follow the path of Socrates, and each time, for a pig and for a Socrates, this was the same dignity. A right to be a pig and a right to be a Socrates were, in fact, equal and stemmed from the same moral (or rather nonmoral, as the new dignity practically broke off with morality) source.

Having armed himself with rights, modern man found himself in a most comfortable situation with no precedent: he no longer had justify his claims and actions as long as he qualified them as rights. Regardless of what demands he would make on the basis of those rights and for what purpose he would use them, he did not and, in fact, could not lose his dignity, which it acquired for life simply by being born human. And since having this dignity carried no obligation to do anything particularly good or worthy, he could, while constantly invoking it, make claims that were increasingly more absurd and demand justification for ever more questionable activities. Sinking more and more into arrogant vulgarity, he could argue that this vulgarity not only did not contradict his inborn dignity, but it could even, by a stretch of the imagination, be treated as some sort of achievement. After all, can a dignity that his inborn and constitutes the essence of humanness, generate anything that would be essentially undignified and nonhuman? The dignity-based notion of human rights was thus both a powerful factor to legitimize a minimalist concept of human nature, and its legitimate child. Moreover, it equipped modern anthropological minimalism of the instruments of self-perpetuation, the most efficient instruments of this kind ever devised in the history of the Western societies.”


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