Friday, November 15, 2019

Liberalism is Augustinianism, or, Politics and Models of Human Nature

Modern politics as ancient theology, or, liberal philosopher John Rawls was an Augustinian:
Nelson opens his book by placing Rawls’s recently discovered Princeton University senior thesis, written in 1942, in the long Augustinian tradition of Christianity that denied that sinful humans could save themselves. For Augustine and his followers, Pelagianism—named after a late-antique theologian who was condemned as a heretic by the Catholic Church—overstated the extent to which human beings can earn their salvation. Such a belief verged on an ideology of self-redemption of individual sinners or of humanity itself that (as Rawls put it at age twenty) “rendered the Cross of Christ to no effect.” For Rawls, at the time a committed Christian who planned a career in the Episcopal priesthood before World War II service in the Pacific caused him to lose his faith, it followed that “no man can claim good deeds as his own.” To contend otherwise inflated human capacity and courted sacrilegious idolatry of humanity itself.

Nelson contends that this Augustinian response to Pelagianism lurked in Rawls’s defense of fair distributional justice long after he had moved on to secular philosophy. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls remarked that “no one deserves” their social ascendancy and the natural gifts—intelligence or industriousness—with which they achieved it. The fact that one person was endowed with them and another not was “morally arbitrary.” A theory of justice aiming at fairness rather than fortune would reject any sense that people deserved their class position. Some redistribution from the rich to the rest was therefore just.
In other words to Rawls the poor are not capable of making themselves rich without lots of help, just as sinful humans are not capable of reaching heaven on their own.

I find this fascinating, because in general belief in free will has been considered the "liberal" position, while predestination seems to us conservative. Obviously the ideologies of one age can never be mapped adequately onto those of another, but this does raise a question: what theory of human nature lies behind contemporary liberalism and conservatism, or any other ideology?

Many anarchists still subscribe to the old communist idea that the Revolution would change humanity; I have read several times that I only recoil from anarchist depictions of their utopia because I was raised under capitalism, and those growing up after all hierarchies have been abolished will feel differently. I say, no, everybody will always hate attending neighborhood meetings where consensus has to be reached over where to put sewers or power lines. I suppose this means I believe in a human nature that is not easily transformed by different conditions.

I share Rawls' view of natural gifts. If you ask me, some people work harder than others mostly because they were born hard workers. I accept that this is somewhat malleable and some people will work harder for the prospect of a great reward, or just because everyone around them is working hard. But like Rawls I consider differences of intellect and industriousness to be “morally arbitrary.” I do not think anyone deserves to be a billionaire no matter how much they achieve. And our system should, I think, work better for those who just show up and complete their tasks.

Against this I would set, not an argument that talent and effort should be rewarded, but a sense that attempts to level society all have prices, and any scheme that would lead to a truly equal world might have a cost completely not worth bearing.

As I see it modern conservatism is based on a skepticism that most people can build a good life on their own, without the guidance of tradition. This is a sentiment I share, I just think that the traditions we have inherited and the elites that want to maintain them are too bankrupt to be much use. (E.g., Catholic teaching on sexuality, or Trump-loving megachurch pastors denouncing corruption, or university professors against institutional hierarchies.) I therefore think what we need is new traditions, of which the best model so far is our much more equal practice of marriage.

What, I wonder, is the psychological model of the Woke? I am puzzled. It seems to me that the Progressive left is best explained theologically, by belief in Gnosticism. These folks seem to think that the mass of humanity suffers from a delusion that keeps them from understanding how grotesquely unfair our social, political, and economic arrangements are, and that once they have seen the light they will understand the tragic unfairness and – what, exactly? I'm not sure. Treat each other justly? And that, I suppose, implies that people's deep natures are tied to beliefs that we cling to, and that we can be transformed if we can be torn away from those beliefs and shown the truth. Hmm. I'm making this up as I go here, so help me out if you can.

Anyway the notion of John Rawls as a Puritan (they were big on predestination) has sent my brain in all sorts of directions.


David said...

Perhaps not surprisingly, I would argue that no coherent model of human nature underlies either contemporary American liberalism or conservatism. They both seem to me to be quite awkward alliances of folks with very different motives and views of human nature--including many people on both sides with no coherent, logical views of human nature at all, but mainly driven by what we are now calling tribal fears and resentments.

Rawls's Augustinian liberalism certainly makes sense to me, both as a form of liberalism and as part of the inspiration for my own liberalism. But many observers (especially conservative ones, in my experience) argue, on the other hand, that conservatives believe human nature is essentially bad--a very Augustinian position--and liberals believe humans are essentially good. This makes sense if you mean Anarchists (as you point out), Communists c. 1920, or maybe hippies c. 1965. But the old FDR coalition and a lot of contemporary liberalism seems me based on an idea that humans can't be trusted with unregulated wealth or power because, well, they're bad (an approach that certainly also inspires my own liberalism).

Similarly, a common idea is that liberals like change, and conservatives don't. But, as far as I can tell (and certainly in my own case), a lot of contemporary liberalism is about holding back change, especially capitalism's tendency to make employment precarious (and, in the view of liberals, capitalism does this less because some workers are bad workers, than because the owners' quants tell them when to hire and when to fire).

Consider that Andrew Yang, running as a democrat, tells workers that their jobs are precarious because of automation (and, whatever Yang means by it, many liberals hear that as, blame the old bosses and the new flash gits like Zuckerberg), while Trump tells them jobs are being lost because of foreigners (immigrants and Chinese). Does that mean something profound about liberalism and conservatism as such, or does it just show our different preferred tribal targets of blame?

And what does it mean that both the extreme Right and the extreme Left seem to share a dislike of Jews?

David said...

Let me add that I have no answers to those last two questions, among many others about contemporary political alignments. But the current situation has me deeply worried.

John said...

I think both the far right and the far left are prone to conspiracy theories as a way of explaining why so few people agree with them. Nefarious forces must be at work! Hence, anti-semitism.

Although I think right now the thing driving left-wing antisemitism in the US is Israel/Palestine, anti-Islamophobia, eliding Zionism with racism, etc.

David said...

All of those things are certainly true. But my question was more related to your original one about how we understand the difference between right and left.

One could say that extreme Right anti-semitism is about identifying with Nazi Germany, or with non-Jewish white people, while Left anti-semitism is about identifying with Arabs, or colonized peoples, or brown people, or some such. But again the question arises: is there some logical principle behind this, or is it just (more or less arbitrary) sectarian preferences about identity and hostility?

G. Verloren said...

There's no such thing as human nature.

Or more accurately - to paraphase Carl Sagan - there' not only one human nature.

David said...

Perhaps it's as simple as "Nothing makes sense except in light of inter-individual variation."

And perhaps that shows us (at the risk of beating a dead horse that keeps coming back to life) that those studies claiming to show there's no such thing as individual character belong in the dustbin.