Category Archive 'Liberal Democracy'

06 Oct 2016

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

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legutko
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.

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