Green Ink on the Mediocracy

A defence of Liberalism


David Goodhart wrote a few weeks ago about his conversion from an ‘anywhere’ liberal to a ‘post-liberal’, someone who sees the world from the point of view of the ‘somewhere’ people, by which he essentially means 'moderate' nationalists.

Goodhart cites Jonathan Haidt as one of his intellectual guides:

‘— contrary to the old claim that the right is the stupid party — conservatives can appreciate a wider range of political emotions than liberals: [Haidt:] “It’s as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning.”’

In his book ‘The righteous mind’, Haidt discusses the evolution of morals and the instincts that produce them. He argues that liberals have somehow suppressed three of the five moral instincts while conservatives feel the whole ensemble.

This begs a philosophical question though. Is morality simply a product of evolution? It seems to me that if morality is only a product of instincts that have developed because they convey some advantage in natural selection, then it would have to follow from that, that what is evolutionarily successful is also morally righteous. This I think is an extremely dangerous road to travel down, and one that has been travelled before with catastrophic consequences. That doesn’t make it false, but it does perhaps make it vulnerable to moral deductions premised on disastrously inadequate understandings of how evolution works. Even the notion that evolution ‘works’ at all is problematic, since it has no objective. Is success anything more than survival until now?

To try to fully define morality in the descriptive disciplines of evolutionary biology or anthropology or history seems to me to reduce it to nothing.

I would argue that morality is found in opposition to instincts. Morality can be seen as the application of reason. It is the challenge to resist and forgo the satisfaction of our instinctive urges so as to achieve some greater end, even if that is nothing more than increasing the opportunity to satisfy those urges in the future. Even by this reductive measure, and even if the satisfaction of any impulse was of equal value to the satisfaction of any other, some of our instincts are nevertheless intrinsically better than others. We have an instinct for empathy or love, and an instinct for aggression. But if we act on our aggressive impulses, we may kill or be killed, and therefore eliminate the possibility for future satisfaction.

Applying reason is not easy for us. As Haidt points out, our reasoning is extremely faulty, and mostly serves to justify and post-rationalise our instincts. But because we are not always good at it doesn't make it meaningless. On the contrary, it is the only hope of meaningfulness. Just because our reasoning faculty is laced with snake oil doesn't mean we can't strive to overcome its flaws. After all isn't that exactly what Haidt has done in writing his illuminating and disillusioning book?

Freud thought that civilisation was the suppression of the dangerous parts of our nature:

"The liberty of the individual is no gift of civilisation. It was greatest before there was any civilisation, though then, it is true, it had for the most part no value, since the individual was scarcely in a position to defend it. The development of civilisation imposes restrictions on it, and justice demands that no one shall escape those restrictions. What makes itself felt in a human community as a desire for freedom may be their revolt against some existing injustice, and so may prove favourable to a further development of civilisation; it may remain compatible with civilisation. But it may also spring from the remains of their original personality, which is still untamed by civilisation and may thus become the basis in them of hostility to civilisation. The urge for freedom, therefore, is directed against particular forms and demands of civilisation or against civilisation altogether."1

This might explain why we often find Libertarians uncomfortably allied with ultra conservatives and in opposition to Liberals. Ultra-libertarians (anarchists) and the far right are both ruled by their dangerous and primitive instincts. They are railing against civilisation. Libertarians don’t see that a lawless society has its own far more stringent constraints on individual liberty. They claim liberalism has lost its way and should return to JS Mill and its Victorian roots, but they forget that Victorian morals were far more oppressive.2 Communists and the hard left on the other hand see only the freedom of people to oppress them. They are blind to the fact that to take away that freedom entirely involves a far greater amount of oppression.

Liberals have reflected on the social consequences of being ruled by their urges, and try to find some balance that allows the maximum satisfaction while constraining some of those that are most dangerous. Liberals recognise that individual liberty without cooperation is worthless except to whoever is strongest for the fleeting moment that they reign. Liberals have a sense of which of their instincts are compatible with civilisation, and they successfully suppress those that are not. They are called Liberals because they value real liberty, which increases the scope and autonomy of the individual through cooperation, not the pointless liberalisation of constraints with no regard for the consequent reduction of choice for individuals. Liberals aim to maximise the opportunity to satisfy their instincts, and understand that this must often involve renouncing instinctual satisfaction.

How do Liberals suppress these instincts? When we see someone in the street, we make fifteen snap judgements about them, based on anything from what they are wearing to how they walk, and including their race and gender. Someone’s race, for a number of depressing reasons, carries statistical information about them. But we understand how unfair and damaging and ultimately self-fulfilling these generalisations are for them and for society, so we have trained ourselves, with limited and varying success, to ignore and discount them. And to help us do this, we have developed a social taboo that condemns racial profiling. Somehow we have succeeded in internalising these taboos, sometimes to the point that we are no longer aware of them. The suppression becomes ‘second nature’3.

Perhaps this works as follows: we feel some urge that wants to be satisfied, but we can imagine the painful unintended consequences of satisfying it. This confusion caused by the combination of these opposing feelings - the imagined pleasant satisfaction and the imagined painful consequence - is perhaps itself unpleasant. In social situations, the consequences of acting on impulses will depend on the culture we live in. For this reason our moral instincts - the instincts that tell us when not to act on impulse - need to be both flexible enough to train to anticipate different cultural consequences, and fast enough to allow us to respond to our primary impulses and decide whether to resist them before the opportunity has passed. The result is the feeling of conscience that warns us when certain impulses are likely to be dangerous. And sometimes we can even train ourselves to suppress the dangerous primary impulses such that we are not even aware of them.

Freud also saw civilisation as the process of group formation. He saw parallels between the formation of a group, whether a marriage or a nation, with the formation of the integrated personality, and even with the biological combination of cells in living organisms. He thought they are all vital processes, and as such had something in common, in that they must have both a force that binds them together, and a force that separates them from the rest of the world. The urge to bond must be somehow limited at the margin; limited by some hostile and aggressive urge.

The historian Ian Morris writes about human history from a perspective of millennia. He sees a process of the formation of ever larger groups, that are more and more peaceful, but that are formed by ever larger wars.

Our tribal or ‘groupish’ instincts both bind us together and divide us from other groups. The size of the groups we live in and identify with have been growing throughout human history. The more a group expands, the more porous its borders become, and people find benefits from crossing group boundaries, and exchanging information and goods with other groups. Sometimes these exchanges are destabilising and lead to confrontation and war. External threats strengthen the internal bonds of the group as solidarity becomes vital to individual survival. The outcome of war is usually the amalgamation of what is left of the opposing groups, retaining more of the (stronger) culture of the winning side. As the size of the group increases, so does the scale of the ensuing war. At present we are at the scale of the nation state. The small but technologically advanced nation states tried to move to the next scale through empire, but these could not deliver the strength of solidarity required to sustain themselves. Now the largest states, with continental scale, dominate the culture and make the rules that citizens of smaller nations are obliged to follow. The leaders of smaller nations tell their citizens that the rules made beyond their borders are the unalterable state of nature, and beyond their control, but in fact they are rules made by the governments of large nations.

Whether the formation of ever larger societies has made the world a better place is debatable. You don’t have to call it progress, but it is surely a process, and it is a process with a natural limit, the limit of a human society. It is not a hopeless endeavour, as John Gray would apparently have you think, to try to minimise violent conflict. Not every aggressive impulse has to lead inexorably to violence. There will surely be setbacks and unintended consequences, but humans are capable of understanding themselves and their societies better, in spite of the fact that this understanding itself changes them.

The mosaic shows Pan, the god of the wild, locked in a duel with Eros, the god of love. On Pan’s team are maenads and satyrs, from the cult of the wine god Dionysus, who is the figure two places behind Pan wearing a leopard cloak. Above them is a table of prizes for the victor including sacks of money. Pan is thought to represent impulse and lust, while Eros is a symbol of sacred, eternal love and of reason.

How do we bind ourselves together? To save themselves from the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, people who have made difficult decisions work tirelessly to justify them and reinforce their arguments. As Aronson and Tavris have explained, they do this to the point of self-deception, even creating false memories so as to give themselves a coherent narrative. Societies also have highly selective and even false memories, and like individuals, they use them to bind themselves into groups. English children are seemingly taught almost no history other than Henry VIII and Churchill, which helps them differentiate themselves from the rest of Europe. They are barely aware of Russia’s role in the Second World War.

Can we build coherent societies without using hostility to people outside the group? Our faculty for reason benefits from education, which is why on average people become more liberal as they become more educated. Educated people are often better at seeing and ingesting the indirect social consequences of satisfying our groupish impulses. Perhaps what children would most benefit from is some education on the fallibility of our own faculties of reason, our numerous cognitive biases, and how these can be used to manipulate us.

We can to some extent suppress the hostile side of our groupish instincts, but we don't seem able to escape it altogether. Liberals, in trying to escape, also form bonds with other liberals, and form the sort of tribes that Goodhart says he has left. Our faulty post-rationalising brains will selectively seek out evidence that supports our liberal bent, and we will build ourselves echo-chambers of like-minded people. All of this helps us to blind ourselves to conservative points of view, as well as to our own groupish instincts. So Goodhart is perhaps right to warn us of the danger of liberal overreach, that ignores the mounting resentment building among the portion of the population that feels fewer qualms about their jingoistic sentiments. We should also be more conscious and appreciative of the indispensable positive aspects of our 'hive' feelings. But it is silly to suggest that there can be a reasonable moral case for putting the group before the individuals that comprise it. A good society is one that serves the individuals within it. It is nonsensical to imagine a society that thrives while its constituent members suffer. Societies may be higher order organisms, but suffering is done by individuals.

Liberals believe that social progress is possible and that human suffering and cruelty can be reduced. Some conservatives apparently do not. Daniel Hannan recently tweeted a quote from John Howard: “A conservative is someone who doesn't consider himself morally superior to his grandfather”. Indeed, and does he feel the same about his grandfather’s grandfather, who condoned pogroms, slavery, institutional torture, the persecution of heretics, etc. etc.?

The Enlightenment is not a naive human vanity project. Reason is not as easily accessible as it might appear, and people all have to begin their education from scratch. But knowledge and culture and institutions are cumulative though also fragile, and we need to make sure people learn what they were originally built for. Experts are more right than wrong, and in the words of Walter Lippmann:

“ It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.”4

Humans can all suffer as much as each other, and this is the basis for equality and human rights. It does not follow that we are all equally wise, or that the will of the majority, expressed in some binary choice is inherently righteous.

Liberal Democracy only succeeds if it provides an incentive to rule makers to convince those that they rule over that they act in their interests, by educating them about the complicated consequences of the policies they propose. Democracy fails if the route to power is through promising that no compromises are necessary. Not all our impulses can be satisfied. A vote is only empowering if it is well informed.

While Goodhart is assuaging his Old Etonian guilt, and opposing his privileged and educated former comrades, perhaps he should also be more aware that it is not only liberals that post-rationalise. Where will his writing have the greater impact, among his native liberal elite? Or among those people who are keeping an eye out for anything that will help them to rationalise and justify their feelings of mistrust and hostility to outsiders? Perhaps he really has left his tribe, and converted to a credo of blood and soil.

Freud questioned whether in terms of human happiness the emotional cost of taming our instincts imposed by civilisation was worth paying. He was writing in 1929. One wonders whether he would have felt so ambivalent fifteen years later. And in 2017, one wonders whether the balance needs correcting towards chaos or cooperation. To proudly declare yourself 'post-liberal' seems to me a bit uncivilised. But some people are proud to be uncivilised, like the members of the Bullingdon Club.