Friday, October 3, 2008

How we all became a part of the State--philosophically speaking

I'm actually sitting on my ass near the only available outlet in O'Hare, waiting for a connecting flight to Indianapolis, cursing the shitty internet service, and hoping that babyviti gets born OK into a rather shitty world.

Since I can't surf really well, I thought I'd wax philosophic, or at least copy philosophic.

I have been reading (or trying to, it's heavy sledding) Tal Scriven's Wrongness, Wisdom, and Wilderness, Toward a Libertarian Theory of Ethics and the Environment, and while I'm not sure that either (a) I am smart enough to understand his major argument, or that (b) he's a good enough writer to make it intelligible, something in his first two pages struck me.

Scriven argues that the Enlightenment was built on three basic ideas, the first two of which (briefly) are these:

First was the faith that only reason and common sensibility could be appealed to in the solution of practical problems. This was held to be true both for technological problems and moral ones....

The second faith of the Enlightenment was that nature, as a whole, is devoid of any teleological ends; it is brute mechanism, holding no good clues about what we ought to value, and furthermore, it is generally hostile to our legitimate goals as individuals and societies.


It's the third observation that really interested me (even if it gets a bit ... deep):

The third faith of the Enlightenment was specifically political. It was an explicit premise in the political writings of almost all of the major moralists of the time that, although the establishment of the state is necessary in order for humans to have many real freedoms, once we collectively remove ourselves from the state of nature we will, as individuals, constantly find ourselves at odds with governments that seem to have a tendency to require much more of us than is legitimated by the need to maintain a civil society. The aim of this tenet was to deny a principle about the relationship between the individual and the state that appears to have its origin in Plato's Republic.

Its [referring to Plato's argument] effect is evident in most classical and medieval thought, in modern conservatism and monarchism, and in twentieth-century fascism. That principle was the one that claimed an "organic unity" of citizen and state. Just as the value of the individual organs belonging to an organism consists in their contributions to the welfare of the organism, so too does the value of the citizens in the state consist in their contribution to the welfare of the state itself. Of course, the state could not exist without citizens any more than any organisms could exist without organs. But, just as organs are useless and without value outside of their functional roles in the organism, so too are citizens who step outside of their functional roles in the state. Moreover, just as a cancerous organ may be sacrificed in order to improve the well-being of the organism, so too a dysfunctional individual's rights must be expendable on behalf of the state.


Scriven lists Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and John Stuart Mill as examples of Enlightenment thinkers who rejected the idea of the citizen as primarily an organic part of the State, adopting instead a stance of political atomism which valued the individual for his or her own sake, not as a component of the larger artificial organism.

The point? Most of the time the Enlightenment is presented as a re-connection with classical values, the rediscovery of the Greeks and the Romans by late medieval western Europe, and in many cases this is true.

But Libertarian political theory appears to derive from an Enlightenment rejection of a key philosophical premise of classical antiquity, at the very moment that the Framers of our government were confusing the matter by adopting many of the forms for the US Constitution and our state governments.

Why is any of this important? Because we have to locate our intellectual legitimacy as carefully as possible if we are eventually to convince more people of the validity of our beliefs.

2 comments:

Jim Fryar said...

although the establishment of the state is necessary in order for humans to have many real freedoms, once we collectively remove ourselves from the state of nature we will, as individuals, constantly find ourselves at odds with governments that seem to have a tendency to require much more of us than is legitimated by the need to maintain a civil society.

This is really well put,having the sheriff to hunt down the violators of legitimate rights allows us to get on with our 'pursuit of happiness', without the need to be constantly on guard and ready to fight them off ourselves.

Unfortunately it seems to be the case that we then need to be constantly on guard and ready to fight the sheriff off ourselves.

Delaware Watch said...

Plato's philosophy of the state is a consequence of his theory of forms, the bizarre idea that spiritual: viz., invisible universals have more reality and incorruptibility than the tangible particulars that instantiate them. Therefore, Plato's fascistic state is a consequence of his other-worldly metaphysics and not a love of the state or civil society per se. Interestingly, the Catholic church via Augustine effectively adopted Plato's theory of the state, especially as it is stated in The City of God.