Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Hobbes’

Democracy Versus Authoritarianism:  Political Philosophy in a Time of COVID

May 13, 2021

Democracy Versus Authoritarianism:  Political Philosophy in a Time of COVID

 For since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which everyone designs secure by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making, whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any further obedience…

John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government

Since the first shots of the American Revolution, this nation has been devoted to the notion that only representative government is just and morally legitimate.  With somewhat less unanimous affirmation, we have also held that representative government was the best.  As one of our former overlords, now believers in democracy, put it:  “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time..”  By contrast, others have argued that democracy might be “just” but that it was just too inefficient to survive; and still others have declared that democracy itself is not only inefficient, but also in some sense immoral and corrupting of its citizens.  Fascists, for example, complain that democracy makes a nation “soft” and “effeminate,” too peace-loving, coddling children and putting families ahead of the national economy.  Theocrats claim democracy is too “secular” and turns people away from God, specifically the theocrat’s own religious dogma and organization.  The rich complain that democracy allows the rabble too much power, failing to protect the powerful from victimization by the poor.

When the Berlin Wall fell, it was heralded as the final victory of democracy over authoritarianism and oppression.  The contest was settled; freedom had won.  Some called it “the end of history.”[1]  But with the rise of Islamist dictatorships and insurgencies, and Christian Dominionist and nationalist populist movements in the West, the longed-for golden age of prosperity and peace vanished before our eyes.  Instead, 2016 saw Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro and many other retreats from the free politics and free markets that were supposedly triumphant, and a worldwide rise of isolationism, xenophobia, protectionism, racism and authoritarianism.  Nowhere was this more visible, or more catastrophic than in the United States, where a shallow, decadent, close-minded, deeply ignorant, deeply fearful egotist backed by oodles of inherited wealth took over first one of the major political parties, then the presidency, despite multiple scandals, ties to hostile foreign governments and losing the popular vote.  Despite the obvious lack of a serious mandate, he and his fellow business cronies threw themselves into reversing decades-long national priorities, undermining allies around the world while appeasing generational foes, and rewriting policies in ways that enriched themselves and their business interests.  Other nations looked on, our traditional democratic allies in dismay, dictators and strongmen in triumph.  In a few years the political conversation in the popular culture went from “Is history solved for all time?” to, “Is democracy dead?  Has the age of the authoritarian finally arrived?”

In 2019, the author of the notion of “the end of history” expressed disappointment about the rise in religious and populist authoritarianism, which seemed to refute his optimistic claims.  In the meantime, authoritarian governments had grown steadily bolder and more boastful over the supposed failure and imminent collapse of democracy.  Even the U.S. government chose people for important posts who said things like, “I’m not a big fan of democracy.”[2]  However, this year which supposedly showed the failure of democracy actually showed the ultimate weakness of authoritarianism.  If the authoritarians win, 2019 has shown us that the ultimate end of civilization, and possibly humanity itself could result.

As 2019 drew to a close, a doctor in China noticed a SARS-like virus in some of his patients.[3]  He sought to warn his fellow doctors, in an online conference, to take extra precautions to avoid infection.  The government of China, an authoritarian regime which prides itself particularly on its superior efficiency compared to the chaotic, individualist West, responded by immediately threatening him with prison for spreading seditious rumors.  By the time they finally admitted he was right, and that his efforts were heroic and patriotic, it was too late; the doctor himself had become infected and died of COVID-19, one of the first of what soon would be millions.  Donald Trump, who had earlier disbanded the NSA group formed to fight pandemics because it was an Obama initiative, declared that concern over the coronavirus was “the Democrats’ new hoax.”  While he initially seemed to be saying the the disease was real but the worry was politically motivated, his followers heard “hoax” and insisted (and still do) that the disease was fake.  Trump supporter Rush Limbaugh said COVID-19 was just the common cold.  FOX News called it a “hoax.”[4]  All echoed Trump’s claim that the virus would never become a problem in the United States; we had 15 cases and soon it would be zero.[5]  Anyone who said otherwise, Trump, the Republican Party and the right-wing media proclaimed, was just trying to stir up trouble for political gain—pretty much what the Chinese government had said to silence the doctor who tried to warn others about the new virus.  By the end of his presidency, Trump’s non-response to the epidemic ravaging the nation had wrecked the growing economy left him by Obama, killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, sickened millions, left many thousands with long-term or permanent disabilities, turned states against each other to compete for resources to fight to save their citizens without direction from the federal government, polarized the nation and left most of his base still convinced that the whole thing is just  hoax, and anyone who says otherwise or seeks treatment or a vaccine is a traitor.

Brazil is still a young democracy, having rid itself of a military junta in 1985. In 2019, right-wing populist and former military officer Jair Bolsonaro was elected President, and in 2020 he, too, faced the threat of the oncoming pandemic.  His response has been no different than the other authoritarians:  deny, suppress, scapegoat, and fail.  Brazil was on track to surpass the United States for the worst response to COVID-19; then along came India.  India, the world’s most populous democracy, initially seemed to fair pretty well against the pandemic, and its leader boasted about his nation’s superior response and mocked the nations who had warned of India’s vulnerabilities.  Instead, the authoritarian leader of the right-wing HIndu nationalist BJP, like his political ally Donald Trump, continued to hold massive political rallies, push for huge public gatherings, while failing to consistently advocate for masks, social distancing and other measures that are proven to provide cost-effective protection for the people.  As I write this, the Indian health care system is collapsing under the strain of literally countless multitudes of sick and dying patients; the dead pile up faster than they can be cremated, and bodies are being thrown into the Ganges river rather than being left to rot on land.[6]

None of this should be particularly surprising, and it points to the fundamental, often fatal flaw in authoritarian politics.  This nation is a 200+-year old philosophical experiment, attempting to prove that the theories of representative government laid out by such thinkers as Rousseau and John Locke are workable, despite all that was said against them at the time and since.  The guiding principle of Locke, and the revolutionaries inspired by him, is that legitimate government authority derives from the people themselves, and it is the task of the government to enact the collective will of the people.  Locke’s “social contract” style of thought has dominated American political thinking from the time we were arrogant colonials casting off the ties God had forged binding subject to king.  But Locke’s thought is itself partly founded on the previous Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes, an apologist for absolute monarchy.  Hobbes argued that the government was based on a tacit agreement or “covenant” between the people and their government; they would give up certain rights such as the right to personal revenge against anyone they felt had wronged them, and agree to obey the laws of the government and trust in its justice; in exchange, the government (or “sovereign”) would protect the people’s fundamental, “inalienable rights.”[7]  Outside of such a commonwealth, every individual had a right to do or act as he pleased;[8] but since everyone had such a right, no one had any duty to respect the rights of others.  Without a strong outside force to bludgeon the rest of us into line, there would be unending conflict, war of each against all, and life would be nasty, brutish and above all, short.  The sovereign creates the laws of the commonwealth, imposes them upon the rest of us, and crushes opposition; we accept this because the alternative is miserable anarchy.  And since the sovereign creates the laws, it is not itself subject to them; it is above the law. 

Hobbes acknowledged that “the sovereign” could be a group as easily as an individual, but favored an absolute and unitary monarchy over a divided and hence weaker government.[9]  One reason he gives is that a king will be more attentive to the welfare of the kingdom.  Every person is most concerned with his personal wellbeing; if the national interests conflict with the personal interests of a leader, the personal will win out.  In a oligarchy or democracy, multiple leaders compete against each other and their interests will thus often be at odds with those of the nation as a whole; but a king’s personal interests are identical with those of the nation since it is his nation.  His ego is tied up with its success; its glory is his glory, its wealth his wealth.  Thus an absolute monarch will, Hobbes says, strive for the welfare of the people, not because he must or owes it to them, but because it is more glorious to rule over a rich, enlightened, peaceful, literate and artistic nation than over a vulgar, dirty, impoverished rabble.  The pride of the authoritarian leader is the motivation for national policy and guarantor of the national welfare.

This doesn’t work, but it does make one valid point:  authoritarians are motivated by their own egos, not some slavish devotion to “the common good.”  That is why Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, and so many others held super-spreader rallies during a pandemic, where they could stand before thousands of adoring worshippers willing to risk their lives, and the lives of their families and neighbors, to stroke the Dear Leader’s ego.  It’s also why showing any concern for public health is denounced as disloyalty; it implies that something matters more than the leader’s glory.  As Amartya Sen argued in his Nobel-winning research in economics, fully-functional democracies (ones with a free and independent press, rule of law, free and fair markets and easy access to a meaningful vote) don’t have famines, and generally have longer life expectancies, because they must; if the people have power, the government must see to the people’s welfare or be voted out.  Where there is a compliant propaganda press, leaders who ignore the law without consequences, markets dominated by a few powerful monopolies controlled by oligarchs, and elections rendered meaningless by manipulation or flat-out fraud—-as we increasingly have under Republican policies, particularly during the Trump years——the government feels free to tell people they should be proud to die to keep the economy humming and to support the president.[10] 

In fact, as Aristotle pointed out long ago, the authoritarian cares about holding power; this might mean seeking to be loved by the people, but often means instead weakening, depriving, harassing, oppressing, and essentially warring on one’s own people.[11]  Kim Jung-Un is only one extreme example of this sort of tyrant; for every one “benevolent despot,” there are scores of Amins or Kims.  If the people are terrified, or simply too hungry to muster the energy to rebel and too ignorant to imagine any other possibility or figure out how to resist their oppression, the tyrant is safe.  And above all, the authoritarian wants to feel safe. 

The paradox is that the more power the authoritarian can seize, the closer he or she comes to being a full-blown tyrant, the less secure the authoritarian is.  The true patriot, who cares about the nation, its laws and traditions, can feel the most secure precisely because the true patriot considers power something to be used for some worthy goal, not something to be grasped for its own sake.  There is likely no one who fully meets that ideal, but some come closer than others; those are the ones who can lose magnanimously, win humbly and gratefully, lead or follow as required, and rejoice when the nation prospers regardless.  Plato’s ideal leader was one who didn’t wish to lead at all, but who recognized that the price of good persons refusing power is to have bad ones in charge over them.  Aristotle defined a “citizen” as one who both had a hand in making the laws, and was bound to obey them, capable both of leading and following as required.  But anyone who starts to love the power and the status will start to fear losing it.  Saddam Hussein, after becoming undisputed master of Iraq, predicted that if he ever lost power they wouldn’t find even the tip of his fingers intact; his enemies would cut him to pieces.  He had near godlike control over his subjects, with fifty-foot tall idols of himself and multiple palace complexes, but he lived in fear every day.  Aristotle observed that a stable country is one where as many people as possible feel they have a stake in its stability[12]  Locke said that the ultimate foundation of a true civil society is the will of the majority of the people.  Both are making much the same point:  that the state, and thus also the leaders, are actually stronger when power is shared.  The authoritarian fears their own people; that is why, Aristotle says, tyrants recruit foreigners as bodyguards, while in democracies the leaders are guarded by their own citizens.  The tyrant, and any authoritarian to the extent that they approach maximum personal power, is at war with their own people. 

Trump’s followers like to claim that he was a very successful president until he wasn’t, and that he can’t be held responsible for that because his wildly successful presidency was derailed by an unpredictable and unavoidable catastrophe.  The principle facts of this claim are disputable; Trump’s success through 2019 was not as stellar as he boasted, and many warned his administration of the dangers of a possible pandemic and even left a “playbook” for fighting one, which he threw away.  But these disputed facts aside, the real lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is that authoritarian governments will fail to protect their people in the event of a catastrophe.  They do not feel themselves answerable to the people, so they look first to their own preservation and enhancement of power; the first instinct of the authoritarian is to regard warnings of disaster to be attacks on the leader’s image and power.  First, they will seek to silence the prophets of doom; next, they will seek to cover up the crisis when it occurs; then they will deny they were warned and/or deny that they refused to act; and at last they will grow impatient with the cries of the victims who make the leader look ineffective and too weak to fix the problem.  Whether it was a pandemic in 2019, or a war, or recession, there was always going to be some crisis.  And in a crisis, while a democracy might stumble as various groups try to wrap their collected heads around the problem and find a response based on multiple perspectives and interests, an authoritarian can be trusted to act swiftly and decisively—-for the protection of the leader, and against the needs of the people. 

I would like to believe that the failure of Trumpism to handle even a predicted crisis for which our government had spent years preparing and which we had months to see coming would lead to a world-wide recognition of the weakness of authoritarianism, and a return to the pro-democracy trends we saw towards the end of the 20th century.  However, the eagerness of Republicans to first act surprised at an attempted coup despite many warnings, then to ignore it and ask everyone to forget it and “move on,” and finally to justify it with false claims about the election, does not give me much confidence that they’ve seen any fault in the authoritarian model.  In 1980 Paul Weyrich argued before the National Republican Convention in Dallas that Republicans do better when people don’t vote, and therefore it was in the party’s interest to work against the democratic principles this country claims to champion.  Since then, the Republican party has worked vigorously to make voting as difficult and as pointless as possible, to undermine people’s confidence in the democratic process, to discourage civic interest or participation by the majority of citizens, and to convince their base that any fact that didn’t fit their preconceived notions, whims or prejudices was simply politically motivated “fake news” from “liberals” and should be ignored.  The culmination of this forty-year project has been to create a conservative electorate that lives in its own alternate reality, rejects science and history and any other expertise while blindly obeying any party mouthpiece, denies that it is even possible for them to lose an election, and is willing to resort to violence when counting the ballots tells them otherwise.  Republicans are so far from the principles of representative government that they openly work for minority rule, and embrace a failed coup leader as their best chance for victory—-victory for their party and the oligarchs who back it, regardless of the fate of the nation. 

I don’t know if the authoritarians will ultimately succeed, or if freedom-loving patriots will put aside previous partisan divides to defeat them.  What I do know is that there will continue to be crises that threaten this nation, and even this world.  And I know that authoritarian governments will not meet these crises.  It is in their interests, and in their nature to ignore bad news, cover it up, blame others for their failures, make bad things much worse and corresponding good fortune less beneficial for any but the ruling elite.  Eventually the people lose all faith in their government, which suits the authoritarian fine when things are going well since an apathetic and dispirited populace is more easily ruled.  However, when the government finally realizes that it must act, it will find that not only is it too late to avoid disaster, but the people will likely refuse to cooperate.  I cite as example the experience of Liberia during the Ebola crisis; the people had been lied to so often that when the government really needed them to undertake basic safety measures, they refused, and turned a crisis into a catastrophe.  As J.S. Mill wrote in his essay “On Representative Government,” even the most “benign” despotism tends to infantilize its subjects.  People under an authoritarian regime become passive, detached, and thoughtless.  And I would argue, authoritarianism also infantilizes the leaders.  We mature by encountering others with whom we must reckon and negotiate; but the authoritarian will not tolerate equals and thus never encounters an “other.”  Instead, as Aristotle said, the authoritarian surrounds himself with flatterers and sycophants.  A functioning democracy is a society of adults, who argue in good faith, who accept reality, who strive to be rational and just.  A despotism is a nation led by an overgrown toddler, who seeks to bully the other children on the playground.  In a high-tech, fast-changing world such as ours, with an unending stream of crises small, large and existential, we will not long survive as a race of toddlers.


[1] Tamer Fakahany, “‘The End of History’?  30 Years on, Does That Idea Still Hold Up?” Associated Press Nov. 7, 2019)

[2] Peter Wade, “Trump’s Fed Nominee Isn’t a ‘Big Believer in Democracy;’” Rolling Stone April 14, 2019 (https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/stephen-moore-democracy-comments-822153/)

[3] Stephanie Hegarty, “The Chinese Doctor Who Tried to Warn Others about Coronavirus;” BBC 6 Feb 2020 (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-51364382)

[4] JM Rieger, “Sean Hannity denied calling coronavirus a hoax nine days after he called coronavirus a hoax;” Washington Post March 19, 2020 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/03/19/sean-hannity-denied-calling-coronavirus-hoax-nine-days-after-he-called-coronavirus-hoax/)

[5] Mary Papenfuss, “It’s Been 1 Year Since Trump Boasted 15 COVID-19 Cases Would Soon Be ‘Close To Zero’” Huffington Post Feb. 26, 2021 (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/donald-trump-15-covid-19-cases-anniversary_n_6039a526c5b601179ebd8ccc)

[6] “Amid India’s COVID-19 Surge, Dozens of Dead Bodies Found Floating in Ganges River;” CBS News May 11, 2021 (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/india-covid-ganges-river-bodies/)

[7] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, part II, chapter 17

[8] I say “he” because Hobbes meant “he;” he treats women not as citizens themselves but as one of those things men fight over.

[9] Leviathan chapter 19

[10] Bess Levin, “Texas Lt. Governor: Old People Should Volunteer to Die to Save the Economy;” Vanity Fair March 24, 2020

[11] Aristotle, The Politics, Book V, chapter xi

[12] Politics Book II, chapter ix

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: First

April 8, 2021

First Thesis:  The state exists to serve the people, to encourage human flourishing, and any aspect that fails to do that is unjustified

It follows that the state belongs to the class of objects which exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, book I, chapter ii, 1253a1

            The Founding Fathers of our American Revolution were deeply influenced by social contract political theory, particularly as described by John Locke.  The essence of Enlightenment-era social contract theory is:  Imagine humans living in a “state of Nature,” an existence without government or laws.  In such a situation, every individual is completely free.  When humans join together in a society, they give up some of those freedoms and rights they had in the state of Nature, ceding that power to the State or Commonwealth to control through laws, magistrates and so on.  However, each individual retains their “inalienable rights:”  those rights which, by their very nature and the nature of the social contract, cannot be logically said to have been given up.  The most obvious is the right to life.  Even Thomas Hobbes, who had the lowest opinion of human nature and thus believed the State needed the most power to control its citizens, still conceded that no one gives up the right to life.  If your government demands your death, you can flee, or resist in any way you can.  The reason you agree to live under the sovereignty of your king and country is to protect your life; if the government can’t or won’t protect your life, the only rational thing to do is try to protect it yourself by any means available.  A State that doesn’t protect the lives of its citizens has broken its side of the social contract, and thus is no government at all. 

            Locke, Rousseau and other social contract philosophers were more influential on the Founding Fathers than was the monarchist Hobbes.  They believed that humans are basically good or at least decent and rational, and therefore include not only life but also personal liberty among the inalienable rights.  Even agreeing to be governed is not so much a surrender of one’s basic freedom, as it is a modification of how it will be expressed:  through voting, and forming a government that reflects the will of the people.  But one point these democratic thinkers shared with Hobbes was their starting point:  the atomistic individual who, though perhaps only an intellectual construct, was the theoretical starting point and thus also the aim of the State.  There was little chance you ever actually made a decision to leave a state of Nature; you were born a citizen.  But still, the social contract thinker takes this idea of the pure individual in the state of pure anarchy as a given, and then proceeds with the thought-experiment of asking why and how a number of such individuals might join together to form a community.  In answering these questions, the social contract philosopher seeks to define the role and the limits of the State, and the rights and responsibilities of the citizen.

            Social contract theory is often based not just on individualism, but on egoism.  Glaucon’s argument in Book II of Plato’s Republic is the classic example.  Glaucon proposes that any individual, if able, will strive to fulfill their ambitions and desires regardless of concerns for morality or justice; but since this results in chaos, the majority band together like sheep seeking the protection of numbers and the shepherd to save them from the wolves.  Humanity is thus divided between the majority of sheep, who make up the State, and the few supremely ambitious and powerful ones, who seek to live as wolves as far as they are able.  In this view, the State is a constraint on the “superior” ones, the cleverest and strongest and most politically adept, which everyone tolerates because the majority prefer its safety but which everyone, if able, would live without.  Hobbes’ argument in Leviathan is similar, and even goes so far as to describe the State as an “artificial person” created by the agreement of a large group of individuals to be welded into one will, that of the sovereign.[1] 

            Aristotle, by contrast, does not see the state as “artificial” or an unwelcome concession to the demands of the mob for protection from their more rapacious neighbors.  He describes the state as entirely natural, the culmination of the needs and desires of the individual and the only way the individual can be truly happy.  In Book I of his Politics he discusses how the individual’s natural desire and need to reproduce requires another and, from this union of male and female, the family is created.  The individual family can’t attain all the goods and security it needs alone, so families come together to form villages.  The village can provide its members with their survival needs, but Aristotle says that more than survival is necessary for happiness/eudaimonia; for the individuals to have what they need to not merely live but to live well, they require a polis, a state, which will have sufficient division of labor, markets, and cultural institutions such as law courts, education, the arts, and so on to allow its citizens to fulfill their human nature as not only living animals, but as rational beings who seek to learn and discuss and guide their lives philosophically.  Thus the natural needs of the individual lead inevitably to the city-state, which finally has the population and the sophistication to be fully self-sufficient.  Aristotle writes:

For all practical purposes the process is now complete; self-sufficiency has been reached, and while the state came about as a means of securing life itself, it continues in being to secure the good life.  Therefore every state exists by nature, as the earlier associations too were natural.  This association is the end of those others, and nature is itself an end; for whatever is the end product of the coming into existence of any object, that is what we cal its nature…

            It follows that the state belongs to the class of objects which exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.[2]

This idea has many possible implications, which will only be fully shown later.  One might guess that if the state exists to secure the good life for the citizen, that the state will tend naturally to some sort of democratic or libertarian structure so as to better achieve its goal of the fulfillment of the individual’s true happiness.  Contrariwise, one might speculate that if the state is the telos of the individual, that something more like the anthill or the Borg collective might be its final structure, with the individual finding fulfillment in losing all sense of individuality.  While both of these guesses will prove wrong, the early indications in the Politics are for the second.  Aristotle accepts as given the existence of both slavery and patriarchy.  He quotes the poet Euripides as authority for the proposition that it is fitting that Greeks should rule all other people, and asserts that non-Greeks are naturally irrational and slavish and thus can only find their fulfillment as slaves to Greeks.  He further claims that women too are not fully rational, and thus are incapable of the sort of happiness which the citizen expects; a woman’s nature is to be guided by her husband.  While the state may exist to enable the citizens to achieve happiness, Aristotle denies that women and non-Greeks are capable of happiness since they lack the rationality essential to it; so they are not in fact citizens.  This, I would say, is the dark side of Aristotle’s way of thinking.  He has a view of human nature, which is largely based on his own nature as an individual and a member of a certain culture; he judges every deviation from that “ideal” as a failure to be fully human.  Social contract theory, by contrast, assumes everyone is essentially equal, whatever political inequalities may arise later.  It is much easier to sacrifice some individuals to the state if the state exists only for the sake of some of its inhabitants, who are deemed “citizens,” while seeing the others only as helpers, tools, adversaries or raw material for the citizens.  Even a Hobbesian social contract has a notion of “inalienable rights” to which all individuals are entitled; if the state denies them these minimal rights, they in turn owe the state no loyalty either. 

            On the other hand, the inherent egoism of much social contract thinking can undermine the community and even destroy it.  This can be seen most clearly in the extreme egoism which underlies much of American conservatism:  the philosophy of Ayn Rand.[3]   Despite the admiration she expresses for Aristotle in books such as The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand utterly rejects his claim that humans are naturally social.  In a journal entry, Rand writes:

For instance, when discussing the social instinct — does it matter whether it had existed in the early savages? Supposing men were born social (and even that is a question) — does it mean that they have to remain so? If man started as a social animal — isn’t all progress and civilization directed toward making him an individual? Isn’t that the only possible progress? If men are the highest of animals, isn’t man the next step?

Rand claims that the human individual is innately selfish, and should be; only the life of rationally-pursued selfishness fulfills our human nature as a rational animal.  She strongly doubts the claim put forth by Hume in the 18th Century and by other philosophers and psychologists to this day that humans have any natural social or cooperative sense; she believes this is imposed on us by our upbringing, and the sooner we shake it off, the better.  But even if this is wrong and the social instinct is natural, she still believes it should be rejected.  Only egoism gives proper due to the rational nature and the supreme value of the individual.  Thus, when she discusses the ideal state, it is only the barest of Lockean social contract:  the state as neutral party mediating between neighbors, with even large portions of the legal and penal systems handed off to the private sector.  Aside from maintaining an army for border security and maybe some police to prevent violent crimes, supported by voluntary taxation and service-type fees, everything is to be left to the unfettered capitalist.  In practice, however, attempts to actualize this philosophical libertarian utopia have universally failed.  So far, it hasn’t been as bad as the national attempts to actualize Marxism, but perhaps this is just because it hasn’t been tried on that scale.  Certainly, the attempts to manage Sears according to Rand’s Objectivist philosophy were a disaster leading ultimately to the destruction of one of our nation’s longest-lived retailers; and Honduras, a country largely run on Objectivist-style conservatism since the 2009 coup, has spiraled into poverty, crime and dysfunction where even basic road repair is beyond the government’s capacity, and necessary infrastructure like an airport can’t be built because no individual is willing to shoulder the expense alone.  But despite the failure of these and other attempts to run human affairs according to Rand’s egoistic political philosophy, American conservatives continue to push her views as something more reliable than Gospel. 

            While Rand would say that the progression from men (social animals) to man (the free, independent egoist) is “the only possible progress,” Aristotle would say this would be a disaster.  Gods and brutes may be self-sufficient individuals, but that is not a life for humans; gods can live independently and be happy because they are not animals and have no physical needs, while beasts and brutes like Polyphemus are incapable of happiness because they are uncivilized.  Human nature is only fulfilled, he says, when humans use their human reason and human language to work out how to live together in justice and cooperation. 

            A political philosophy that sees politics as an unfortunate and unwelcome necessity, a yoke laid on the shoulder of the citizen to bridle their natural vitality, is bound to encourage the anarchic egoism we see in American conservatism today.  When “freedom” is described as the individual’s escape from all obligations or regard for neighbors, for laws or for cultural achievements, even democracy can be seen as oppression.[4]  To such a mindset, only anarchy would be truly natural and truly free, fulfilling the individual’s true nature as an independent free-floating atom of humanity.  And in such a state, as the social-contractarian says, life is nasty, poor, brutish and short.  If we are looking for a political philosophy, instead of an anti-political ideology, we need to find one that can guide social cooperation and help determine wise social goals.  Aristotle’s philosophy is one of the earliest attempts to analyze the nature of citizenship and the state, and still offers some advantages over today’s ultra-libertarianism.  At the same time, Aristotle accepts many aspects of his own culture without question which we today would regard as either quixotic (he declares money-lending “unnatural”) or abhorrent (his easy acceptance of racism, sexism, and slavery, among other things).  What we need to consider is if we can learn from Aristotle and find valuable insights which can be separated from the historical dross and repurposed to help create a more functional society today. 

            The state exists to allow the citizens to live their best lives possible.  So, who are these “citizens” who should benefit?  Can we expand citizenship, and the benefits of citizenship, beyond the limits Aristotle imagined?  If we can, and refuse to do so in order to protect the interests of some elite minority, does that represent a failure of our politics, and our justice? 

To be continued….


[1] Hobbes, Leviathan, Book I, chapters 14-16

[2] Aristotle, Politics, book I, 1252b27-1253a1

[3] Denise Cummins, “This is What Happens When You Take Ayn Rand Seriously;” PBS Newshour February 16, 2016 (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/column-this-is-what-happens-when-you-take-ayn-rand-seriously)

[4] Andrew Kaczynski and Paul LeBlanc, “Trump’s Fed Pick Stephen Moore is a Self-Described ‘Radical’ who said he’s not a “Big Believer in Democracy’” CNN April 13, 2019 (https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/12/politics/stephen-moore-kfile/index.html)

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 2)

February 18, 2020

 

At this crucial point Locke and Rand differ, and from this division a vast gulf opens between Locke’s vision for “civil government” which was absolutely crucial for our Founding Fathers and the so-called “conservatism” dominant in American politics today. On the origin and nature of civil society, John Locke writes:

 

 

For when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority: for that which acts any community, being only the consent of the individuals of it, and it being necessary to that which is one body to move one way; it is necessary the body should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority: or else it is impossible it should act or continue one body, one community, which the consent of every individual that united into it, agreed that it should; and so every one is bound by that consent to be concluded by the majority.[1]

 

 

 

Locke’s view is a classic presentation of “social contract theory.” He asks us to imagine a group of individuals living in a “state of nature;” that is, without any politics or government. Locke believes that even without government, we would still be bound by “the laws of Reason,” which he treats as synonymous with “Nature” and “God” since God created Nature and it is human nature to be rational. Thus, unlike Thomas Hobbes, who supposed the natural inclination of humans was towards endless violence, Locke asserts that even in the hypothetical “state of nature” people would live guided by basic principles of reason and justice. Even so, without anyone to mediate between neighbors there would be disputes which would likely devolve into violence. Thus, in order to live together in larger groups in an orderly and peaceful fashion, humans create governments which in turn create laws to define acceptable behavior, magistrates to arbitrate between citizens, and to regulate the use of force if necessary to preserve justice and social order while avoiding the excesses likely with private vengeance. Essentially, each individual gives up some of that complete freedom he or she would have had to regulate their own private affairs and define relations to others, agreeing to live under the governance of a society ruled by the will of the majority. The core of this new society is the legislative body, which represents the collective will of the people. Locke believes this body should be chosen by and from among the people themselves, and that its members act as delegates to represent the wills of those who elected them. The laws made by this body would thus be the expression of the will of the people themselves. Hobbes in his Leviathan had pictured the State as an “artificial person” made up of the collection of all its members, ruled by the absolute will of its government; Locke retains something of this treatment of the commonwealth as a single being created by its members, but sees it as animated not by the will of one totalitarian king but rather by the collective will of the people themselves. Since this body is the expression of the people, and of each individual member, it has limits which Hobbes would not recognize, but also rightful powers which Rand (and other current conservative thinkers such as Robert Nozick) would reject. On the one hand, even in this democratic body animated by the will of the majority, the government must respect the essential value of each individual.[2] This puts limits on the possible “tyranny of the majority;” since in the state of nature one person would not have absolutely power over a neighbor, neither can the commonwealth claim absolute power over the lives and properties of citizens even if acting in the name of the majority. On the other hand, it can impose taxes to pay for such joint projects as the legislature has deemed necessary for the welfare of the people. Locke writes:

 

 

It is true, governments cannot be supported without great charge, and it is fit every one who enjoys his share of the protection, should pay out of his estate his proportion for the maintenance of it. But still it must be with his own consent, i.e. the consent of the majority, giving it either by themselves, or their representatives chosen by them: for if any one shall claim a power to lay and levy taxes on the people, by his own authority, and without such consent of the people, he thereby invades the fundamental law of property, and subverts the end of government: for what property have I in that, which another may by right take, when he pleases, to himself?[3]

 

 

 

Thomas Hobbes assumed that all humans were irrational, greedy, violent and fearful, and could live together peacefully only if beaten into submission; therefore he imagined a “social contract” whereby a group of people, rejecting the “war of each against all” of anarchy, chose to select one individual despot or a small group to bludgeon everyone else. Locke has a much more optimistic view of human nature, seeing it as ruled not only by emotions, but by feelings guided by reason; so the commonwealth he envisions neither needs to be so brutal nor should it be. But he is not so giddy with the power of Reason as Rand is; Locke knows that people are often ruled by their passions and desires, and that the “rational” interests of the individual citizens often do clash, so that in the end we need a mechanism to determine the will of the majority while we all agree to accept and live by the majority’s choice.

[1] John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690) chapter VIII, sect. 96

[2] Locke, chapter XI, sect. 135

[3] Locke, sect. 140

Of Gospel and Heresies: American Idol (pt. 1)

May 29, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: American Idol

 

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”  But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord,  and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.  Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 

1 Samuel 8:4-9

 

The 17th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes was largely responsible for much of our political language today. He said that all men (he was pretty sexist, so I’ll suspect the language wasn’t an oversight) were created equal, and that they have certain inalienable rights. These ideas got picked up later by John Locke, then passed through him to Jefferson and other Founding Fathers (and mothers) of our Revolution, and thence into common use today. HOWEVER, Hobbes differs from some of these others in that he does not think this “equality” is all that good a thing. In fact, this equality of people primarily means that we are all equally selfish, fearful, irrational, and absolutely dangerous to one another. When everyone is equal, everyone has equal rights to have his desires satisfied, no matter how harmful to anyone else. He says this equality breeds conflict, and that without a strong force to keep us all in line, our lives would be war of each against all, and life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” All this equality is so terrible, Hobbes said, that the only sensible thing to do is to join together in societies. In a society, or “commonwealth” to use his word, we all tacitly choose one person, or a small group, to be better than the rest of us, to be above the law, and to be the law for the rest. He preferred a single king, but a small group like the Roman senate would be okay too, so long as there was some person or persons in charge. In his view, the State is thus an “artificial person,” created when a group of us actual people agree to give up most of our rights in exchange for protection of our lives, freedom from torture and imprisonment, and some other minimal rights. Hobbes calls this ruling power the “sovereign,” and states that the sovereign is not bound by the law; it creates the law, designates what will count as “good” or “evil,” hands out rewards and punishments, and does whatever is required to establish order. Without a strong hand with a big stick, Hobbes said, none of us could sleep peacefully; but since we all know our neighbors fear the government, we can at least trust our neighbors not to murder us in our beds. Because this sovereign must be above the law, be the lawgiver for the nation, providing for the security and prosperity of the rest of us, Hobbes refers to it as “that earthly god, or Leviathan,” which the Creator put in place to manage human affairs. He thought God was not going to rule over us directly, so we need to select someone or some group among us to take over the role of deity pro tempore.

Hobbes and Samuel don’t seem to agree on much, but they do seem to agree that the strong worldly leader is an alternative to trusting in God alone. Hobbes would probably point us toward the book of Judges, and its mournful refrain: There was no king in Israel in those days, and every man did what was right in his own eyes. The lack of a king, Hobbes would say, had led Israel to anarchy and brutality; only a strong government would impose order. But this thing displeased Samuel. He seems to have taken it personally; he was, after all, one of those judges, those leaders appointed directly by God as prophet and leader. Samuel would probably have said that when Israel lived faithfully with God, they had peace and prosperity; but when the judge died and the people ceased following the LORD, that was when they ran into trouble. The period of the judges was chaotic, but it also is depicted as somewhat democratic for its day. The judge was called by God, but then had to go out and convince the people. Gideon, Deborah, and less famous judges ruled only with the consent of the people; they had to rally the people to follow and obey them. When they died, their successors were appointed by God and accepted by the people for their leadership, not because they were of royal blood. When Samuel became old, the people wanted a strong, stable, authoritarian government like the nations around them; since Samuel’s sons were not up to the job of succeeding their father, the people wanted an official monarchy with a clear, perpetual line of succession, like all the other nations had. God said, don’t take it personally, Samuel. They aren’t rejecting you. They are rejecting me, their God. They want visible power, a royal family that will hold authority over them, rather than the uncertainty of relying on the invisible power of the LORD to choose their leaders from among them. They are idolaters at heart, whether they are seeking a golden calf or a king. So explain to them carefully and honestly what it is they are choosing; and then, if that is what they want, let them have their king.

To be continued…

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 3

February 2, 2017

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 3

 

Whensoever therefore the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society; and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people; by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative, (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society.

 

—– John Locke

 

 

We can see at least three points where Locke provides us with an answer to the question of whether stupid people should be allowed to vote. The first is the description of the state of Nature, and the common point he shares with the totalitarian Hobbes: equality. The wise and the foolish, the sage and the ignoramus are all essentially equal. For Hobbes, this contention was based on his utter pessimism; believing all people are basically irrational and nasty, he thought the clever no better than the brute. In the war of each against all, the differences between the smart and the stupid matter little; each can kill the other in the right circumstances. Thus each has as much to gain by belonging to a commonwealth, and as much to give up by accepting its restrictions. For Locke, his belief in equality rests on more optimistic grounds: a faith in the rule of reason even in the state of nature. Locke believed all people were essentially free to choose good or evil, and free to choose to employ their reason to determine the right course of action. All may not be identically capable or informed, but all are essentially educable and reasonable. Therefore, no one would enter a social contract that sacrificed that inalienable equality; each gives up only those rights that all the others give up as well.

Second, each has an inalienable right to the property that is the fruit of one’s labors. Whether one is a renowned philosopher or a simple farmer, whoever does the work has joined his or her efforts to the world and made that part of it to be private property. The government I choose to live under must agree to protect my property, regardless of how informed I am about world affairs or how inclined I am to reason passionately rather than logically. That is one of the functions of civil government: to protect private property.

Third, all proper civil government is by the will of the majority. A supporter once called out, “Governor Stevenson, all thinking people are for you!” And Adlai Stevenson answered, “That’s not enough. I need a majority.”[1] That story is often treated as an indictment of democracy, but it needn’t be. Every person has a right to have his or her needs addressed and concerns heard. Maybe I don’t know all the economics of free trade; but I do know if I am losing my job because the factory is relocating overseas. I have a right to demand that society do something to help me. My fundamental equality is expressed in each person being equal before the law. My right to my own work is guaranteed in society’s protection of my property. The inalienable right to liberty is lived out in the principle of government by the will of the majority: of the people, by the people and for the people. When we can all have our say, all make our case, and all freely agree to take a vote and work together on whatever we jointly decide, my fundamental freedom is actualized through the action of the government, which is responding not to the whims of a king or even an elite, but to the total pressure of each one of us pushing upon the levers of power.

It seems then that there are ample reasons for civil government to arise and maintain itself. It fulfills the needs of the individual members better than living in a governmentless state of nature could, and it coordinates group actions so that we can live together in peace and together achieve goals we could not on our own. Why, then, would any government ever collapse into tyranny? Plato pointed to the corrupting power of wealth, but Locke’s view of political power particularly rules this out; since civil government exists largely to protect the private property of every citizen, it can hardly be that owning property in itself should disqualify anyone from participation in government. Nor can Locke agree with Plato’s contention that only a small group should be allowed any political power; for Locke, political power flows up from the people, who explicitly or implicitly choose a government which is then obligated to act according to their collective will. Instead, Locke points to the weakness of human nature, and the tendency of some individuals to violate the laws of reason and to grasp for more than they ought. He writes:

 

 

… tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which no body can have a right to. And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage. When the governor, however intitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.[2]

 

 

So tyranny is not only the assumption of power by someone who is not entitled; the tyrant might be an elected official. The tyrant might not be particularly oppressive, if it suits him or her not to be. The tyrant might not even be a single person, but could in fact be a group.[3] But the tyrant is motivated not by the will and good of the people, but by personal interests and whim. The tyrant is, after all, only human, and subject to ambition, covetousness, and all the other common “irregular” passions. The tyrant may see the job of government as a chance for personal advancement, or simply believe that he/she/they know better than the majority what is “good” and thus refuse to act according to their will or needs.

Locke had a stark warning of what can happen if these inalienable rights are ignored. He writes:

 

 

The reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property; and the end why they chuse and authorize a legislative, is, that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society, to limit the power, and moderate the dominion, of every part and member of the society: for since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society, that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which every one designs to secure, by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making; whenever the legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge, which God hath provided for all men, against force and violence.[4]

 

 

In case that last line isn’t clear to today’s readers, the “common refuge” is to fight back. If the government ceases to represent the majority, and instead caters only to the ruler or to a small group of supporters, it puts itself at war with its own citizens, and they in turn have the right to rise up and defend themselves and ultimately to overthrow their tyrannical masters, if necessary and possible. This is literally revolutionary stuff, both when it was published and 315 years later. This is what the Founding Fathers relied on when they explained, to themselves and to the ages, why they were declaring independence from their sovereign lord and king in England. The reasons Jefferson gives in the Declaration of Independence matches exactly the behavior of a tyrant as described by John Locke eighty-five years before: “(King George III) …has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people….He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices,…For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent: For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury…” Denying the right of elected officials to meet, or depriving them of their independence, or refusing to enforce the laws they passed, are all things Locke singles out as reasons for the dissolution of government. Add to that the seizure of property without consent, and without due process of law as passed by representatives elected by the people themselves, and the actual acts of violent repression cited by the Declaration, and this matches Locke’s description of a government that has declared war on its own people. And in that case, Locke says, the people have every right to band together, grab whatever weapons they can find, and fight for their freedom. The government that overreaches and turns oppressor does not just risk angering the people; it loses its entire justification for being considered a “government” at all, and becomes nothing more than an alien, enemy occupation. In this circumstance, rebellion is not just possible; it is the only just and reasonable option. It is not even really a “rebellion” at all, but rather self-defense against the tyrannical power that has declared war on the citizens.

It may seem like this is a prescription for anarchy. If anyone may decide at any time to rebel, what is to stop rebellions from breaking out at any time? What stops anyone who doesn’t want to pay taxes or follow the laws the majority follow from declaring their own personal independence, gathering up an armed mob or paid militia, and going to war against society? Locke is aware of this criticism and has responses. In his discussion of this, we see him trying to walk a path between two extremes. On the one hand, he says it is clearly absurd to say that one must wait until all hope is lost before one can begin to resist tyranny.[5] On the other hand, there must be limits, and there are. First, there this the simple fact of human nature: “People are not so easily got out of their old forms, as some are apt to suggest.”[6] By and large, people will put up with a lot before they resort to the risky and uncertain path of violence. “Better the devil you know,” as they say. It is only when the government has been seriously mismanaged, or the authorities have so trampled upon the inalienable rights of the people that they have already declared war upon them, that people are likely to resort to force to defend themselves.[7] Locke is not saying that anyone has the right to take up arms simply because he (or she) happens to not like the current government’s policy on some matter. By joining together in a community, we all agreed to live by the community’s rules and to respect the will of the majority.[8] As long as there are functioning mechanisms for the people to voice their opinions and elect representatives who will make the laws all will live by, there is no need or justification for rebellion. But when the government ceases to respect those mechanisms, and the people are left with no peaceful way to resolve their grievances and the will of the majority is not the guiding principle of the state, then the people may take up arms, overthrow the tyranny and establish a new and free government.

So, should stupid people be allowed to vote? We are all created equal, whether one is a bit smarter or stronger or better-looking. We all have the same inalienable rights. Those rights are only protected and expressed in a civil society, which means a society with the rule of law and where the will of the people is the ultimate foundation of that law. Each individual’s inalienable liberty is enacted when he or she is votes for the representatives to the legislative body. To deny someone the right to vote because he or she might vote “wrong” is to deny that person’s personhood. It is tyranny and slavery. And one always has the right, by the laws of God and reason, to resist with force anyone who tries to oppress another.

[1] “Music Cues: Adlai Stevenson,” http://www.npr.org/programs/wesat/000205.stevenson.html Feb. 5, 2000

[2] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, chapter XVIII, sect. 199

[3] Second Treatise sect. 201

[4] Second Treatise of Government, chapter XIX, sec. 222

[5] Second Treatise, Chapter XIX, sec. 230-33

[6] Second Treatise, Chapter XIX, sec. 223

[7] sec. 224-230

[8] sec. 243

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 2

December 16, 2016

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 2

 

For when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority

 

—– John Locke

 

 

How does “protecting the inalienable right to liberty” translate to obeying the laws of the government, or even paying taxes?   This is what is perhaps the most radical and transformative part of Locke’s political philosophy. Locke follows the same basic formula as Hobbes and many other social contract theorists: we imagine starting in a “state of Nature” prior to all government, and then ask why any individual would move from the perfect freedom of anarchy into an ordered (and ordering) society. How we interpret the natural state of humanity tells us about what sort of debt we owe the State, and by implication what the State owes us citizens. It assumes a quasi-historical moment when the individual voluntarily joined the society, recognizing that this was more implicit and theoretical than actual. In Locke’s view, a free and basically reasonable individual chooses to belong to a civil society because that society preserves his or her basic freedom and rationality better than simply going it alone in a state of natural anarchy.[1] However, to be a functioning society, the group has to be able to act as a coherent unit; so some sort of government must exist. Thus, we all have to agree to give up our right to just do whatever pops into our heads, and instead must cooperate. That means we need some sort of process whereby everyone can be heard, everyone’s interests can be considered, and then the group can decide to act as determined by the will of the majority. Each of us must agree to accept the will of the majority, since otherwise agreeing to live in a society was a hollow promise; either we’re all in this together, or there is no “we” and anarchy prevails. So you may have a “king” but even his policies must be expressions of the collective will of his “subjects.”[2] As part of this society, there may be some property set aside for common use; Locke assumes that every village will have a village green, where anyone may come and harvest turf as needed, for example. And if the group decides on some joint project, as Athens did when Themistocles persuaded them to build a national fleet, they may agree to pay into a common fund to do so, and all citizens are obligated to pay this tax even if the minority didn’t vote for it since it is an expression of the will of the society as a whole, of which they are a part. In exchange, the minority has the right to fight for its voice to be heard and its concerns to be addressed, and to try to persuade some portion of the others to join and support its views as policies for the group.

This really was a revolutionary thought. Most societies in Europe were governed by monarchies that ruled by a presumed divine right. When Thomas Hobbes wrote his Leviathan to propose a secular basis for government, that was already a radical notion. Hobbes acknowledged as much when he wrote that, “This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god, to which we owe under the immortal God, our peace and defence.”[3] We are not, he is saying, ruled by God; we are ruled by Leviathan, The Beast. God has left us to be ruled by this earthly master, this god that we ourselves have made by forming a social compact or commonwealth. But Hobbes still offered his philosophy as a defense of the privileges of the absolute monarch. Short of randomly torturing or murdering subjects, or failing to actually control and defend the realm, Hobbes put no limits on the sovereign’s power. Locke writes to defend not absolute monarchy, but a republic and limited monarchy. The force that is to determine national policy is not the whim of one powerful king backed by the brute force of an army; instead it is the collective will of the citizens that is to dictate to the government what it should do.

Just how revolutionary this theory is becomes clear when Locke considers the dissolution of the commonwealth.[4] There he argues that when any government attempts to usurp absolute power over its citizens, either by arbitrarily seizing their property, by enslaving them or killing them, then they are freed from their tacit agreement to abide by its laws. The government has broken the social contract, so now the citizens are back in a state of nature. And as free persons in a state of nature, they are once again free to join together for mutual defense, and to form a new government. Locke offers the intellectual and moral justification for political revolution. The government that denies its citizens their inalienable rights has violated the laws of Nature, Reason and God (which are largely equivalent terms for Locke), and thus has lost all legitimacy. It rules only by force, and thus there is no crime in resisting it and overthrowing it by force, either. Only the government that acts as directed by the will of the majority has any binding, legitimate claim to the obedience of the people.
The philosophical foundation for the American Revolution was this very notion. People felt that they were being “enslaved” by the distant crown and parliament, which imposed taxes on them without their consent or even voice. (Yes, it is a tragic irony that they knew what enslavement was so well, owning slaves themselves.) They had come to this frontier land and tamed it, raised crops, built homes and churches and whole cities, and now they felt that this was theirs. They had put their own sweat into this land; as Locke said, they had put part of themselves into it, and thus it was as much theirs as their own flesh. And now a distant government was imposing laws and taxes on them. From the English point of view, they were simply asking the colonies to pay for their own defense; but the fact remained that there were no colonial representatives in Parliament. From a Lockean point of view, they were outside the social contract, since they were denied the fundamental right of any citizen of the commonwealth to be heard. And following Locke, they felt that this gave them the right to revolt. They produced a Declaration of Independence, which detailed their justifications for their break from England, and established the beginnings of their social contract to form a new commonwealth together. This was not like Plato’s failed attempt to bring his ideal republic to life in ancient Syracuse, where conceptual perfection crashed against human realities. Nor was it like the more recent attempt to establish a divine theocracy in Münster, which fell into disorder and was destroyed by its enemies. This philosophical experiment, which we now know as the United States of America, was not based on Biblical or philosophical idealism, but on human reason, on philosophy rooted in observation, experience and reflection. Unlike Plato’s Republic or his later Laws, the empiricist philosophy of Locke did not assume that there was an ideal state which could only change by degenerating. The founders of the United States assumed that their nation would have to change and grow, and they included mechanisms for amending the social contract. They hoped that it would grow and become better as its people chose the best among them to debate and discover new solutions to unanticipated problems. And while Plato’s republic sought to eliminate social conflict, the very notion of Locke’s commonwealth assumes disagreement and conflict. Any nation based on Locke’s principles has to allow for all stakeholders to have a voice, and to resolve their competing claims in a peaceful manner. It hasn’t always worked, as we know, but the trend for over two hundred years has been to channel dissent and conflict, expanding the rights of citizens and the chorus of voices in the marketplace of ideas.

To be continued…

[1] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, chapter II, sections 4-11

[2] Locke, chapter VIII, sect. 95-99

[3] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, chapter 17

[4] Locke, chapter XIX, sect. 222

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? (introduction)

October 10, 2016

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? (introduction)

 

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

—–Winston Churchill

 

 

In philosophy, it is generally considered a good and worthy strategy to start with a thesis to which everyone can agree, and see what can be learned from closely examining that notion. One thing everyone seems to agree on is that everyone in the other political tribe is a f—ing moron. Since the parties are pretty evenly divided (Democrats supposedly have more numbers, but Republicans have the Presidency, Congress, most state legislators and governors, and are currently cementing control of the Supreme Court for the next twenty or thirty years), that means that, if we provisionally accept this judgment as true, half the country are idiots, whose votes count just as much as the smart, moral, caring and good people who agree with you.

Why should this be? Or perhaps better, should this be? One news report quotes a professor of political science as saying:

 

We go in assuming a baseline among students, which is that they are uncritically, unreflectively fans of democracy, right? America is a democracy, we all love America. Democracy is good. This election season, that baseline—-my experience has been—-can no longer be assumed…[1]

 

 

Half the country, according to polls, believes that colleges are actively trying to subvert American democracy, and have been doing so for years. In fact, this professor and others report that until this year they’ve just been able to assume that their students had such immediate faith in democracy that there was no need to sell it. Now, a generation is coming into our colleges who are looking at the nastiness, the accusations of vote-rigging and vote-suppression and political intimidation and even violence, and those young people are basically ready to say, “Well, democracy had a good run; but I guess it’s time to find something that works.” And why shouldn’t they? Half our government—-the party that runs the Congress and most of the states and half the Supreme Court—-has been telling them for years that democracy has failed and is failing. Now, they feel they see the proof with their own eyes.

Philosophers have discussed the merits and demerits of democracy almost as long as “philosophy” has existed. The first sustained political treatise, Plato’s Republic, was written as Athenian democracy was collapsing. Later Greek and Roman philosophers wrote extensively about the relationship between citizen and State, rulers and ruled, and whether self-rule was desirable or even possible. As the Roman Empire transitioned from pagan to Christian, an entirely new tradition of political thought entered the conversation, and political thought in Europe became an ongoing synthesis of Greek, Roman, Hebraic, and pagan traditions. Some of these traditions allowed for far more individual autonomy and social mobility than did others, but none were what we would really call “democratic.” Still, the notion of democracy did not vanish completely, returning in religious communities such as the Quakers that rejected human authority over others. After the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Enlightenment began the project of looking for human-based political theories to replace Christian theocracy. British Empricism gave us the totalitarian monarchism of Thomas Hobbes, the representative democracy of John Locke and the utilitarianism of David Hume, among others. As the nineteenth century rolled into the twentieth we saw the rise of Marxism and fascism. The Twentieth Century has been called “The People’s Century” because it saw the rise of democracy and the collapse of colonialism, and growing millions gained the freedom to exercise political power in their own countries; yet for much of that century it was openly debated whether democracy or totalitarianism would ultimately triumph. By the end, it seemed that democracy had won and the popular press tossed around terms like “the end of history;” the thinking was that humanity had resolved the tension between the State and the individual, and that the rights of the individual had been admitted to be fundamental. Even as the 21st Century began with religiously-inspired terrorism, no one seriously thought that they posed a serious threat. As Christopher Hitchens put it, terrorists could unleash events, but the progress of civilization would not be stopped. And the religious zealots themselves admit that the task of overthrowing democracy to establish theocracy is humanly impossible; they rely on a faith that God will miraculously intervene to slaughter all their foes and give them the ultimate victory and domination over others.

And then came the presidential election of 2016. Republicans routinely claim that the election of Hillary Clinton will mean the end of democracy and the end of the United States. Since this is the same group that claimed the same thing about Obama, that claim lacks credibility to most people; but to the 40% or so of Republicans who believe Obama is a secret Muslim sleeper agent waiting for his chance to destroy America, the vow by Clinton to “continue the progress made by Obama” sounds like a death threat.[2] On the other hand, Republicans have been talking about taking up arms to kill liberals since the beginning of the Tea Party Movement, including various threats by GOP candidates to use “Second Amendment” remedies to get rid of Harry Reid or Obama or Hillary Clinton, threats by Republican governors to call up the National Guard to fight off “federal overreach,” and a multitude of militias and Sovereign Citizens threatening or even committing violence and terrorism. Now, they have a candidate for President who openly talks about removing constitutional protections for free speech, who urges his supporters to attack protestors and promises to pay their legal bills, who regularly retweets posts from a variety of white supremacist militants. Almost overnight, then, we went from believing democracy was the ultimate culmination of the forces of history, which was opposed only by lunatics bent on some sort of magical return the Middle Ages, to a situation where millions of Americans believe that democracy is in fact under attack and could be destroyed in a few months. And even elected officials, such as the governor of Kentucky, talk about the possible need to resort to violence and force if the election turns out the wrong way and conservatives don’t win.[3]

Philosophers need to contribute to this discussion. It is clear that many millions of Americans have in fact lost faith in democracy. Hillary Clinton caught a lot of flak for labeling half of Donald Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables,” but in fact polls indicate she is mathematically correct: on a variety of issues, about half of Donald Trump’s supporters express racist, homophobic, and otherwise intolerant views and delusions.[4] And as Clinton admits, about half of is supporters don’t. Perhaps, like Mike Pence, you don’t think racism or intolerance or contempt for America’s heritage as a nation of immigrants and nonconformists merits the word “deplorable.”[5] Or given that half of the conservative candidate’s base falls into this “basket of deplorables,” perhaps you don’t want to offend them. What cannot be denied, however, is that roughly half of Republicans think democracy is destroying America, because the majority is voting to weaken “traditional values” of white patriarchy. That’s millions of people. Add to that the millions more who think democracy is failing because it led us to the Trump candidacy and the empowerment of the deplorables, and that’s almost a landslide. In these circumstances, philosophy is needed. Political science tends to ask, “How is power gained and used?” in a value-neutral way. Philosophers need to step in ask, “SHOULD power be gained and used in this way?” Philosophers can ask the questions about value, whether and why democracy is “good” even if you don’t like the results of the last or next election. And they have a history of analyzing and debating these concepts that goes back thousands of years, which can inform and guide today’s debates.

To be continued….

[1] Sam Sanders, “How Do You Teach Politics during an Election that Defies Convention?” Morning Edition (NPR) Oct. 6, 2016 (http://www.npr.org/2016/10/06/496826307/how-do-you-teach-politics-during-an-election-that-defies-convention)

[2] Louis Jacobson, “Do 59 Percent of Americans Believe Obama is a Muslim?” Punditfact Nov. 23, 2015 (http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2015/nov/23/arsalan-iftikhar/do-59-percent-americans-believe-barack-obama-musli/)

[3] David A. Graham, “Matt Bevin’s Apocalyptic Warnings of Bloodshed;” The Atlantic Sept. 13, 2016 (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/matt-bevin-clinton-blood/499754/)

[4] Charles M. Blow, “About the Basket of Deplorables,” New York Times Sept. 12, 2016 (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/12/opinion/about-the-basket-of-deplorables.html?_r=0)

[5] Matthew Nussbaum, “Pence Declines to Call David Duke ‘Deplorable’”; Politico Sept. 12, 2016 (http://www.politico.com/story/2016/09/mike-pence-david-duke-deplorable-228049)

Notes on “Modern Liberalism and Pride: An Augustinian Perspective.”

January 24, 2016

Krom, Michael P. “Modern Liberalism and Pride: An Augustinian Perspective.Journal of Religious Ethics, 35.3:458-77.

 

This essay examines the argument by Paul Weithman in “Toward an Augustinian Liberalism” that modern liberal political theory, with its beginnings in Thomas Hobbes, should see itself as a development of Augustinian political thought. For Hobbes, pride is the source of social chaos, in that individuals compete for superiority and domination. The only peace is found when every citizen admits that he is equal to every other, and that all owe obedience to the sovereign/State that protects them all and enforces peace. Augustine, too, regards pride as the original sin, and humility is the cardinal virtue; therefore, we should be able to construct an Augustinian liberalism that can balance the need for humility with the need for legitimate exercise of control by society. Krom analyzes Aristotle’s “magnanimous man” as the epitome of virtue in contrast to Augustine’s notion of humility. The magnanimous one has justified pride, being neither vain nor self-effacing; he knows he is morally superior and superior in other ways, and in fact only acts in ways that will support and increase the honor he is due. Likewise, he is ashamed to accept favors or ask for help, since his superiority implies independence and the ability to sustain himself. However, Aristotle also acknowledges that the magnanimous person, if he is to be truly happy, most have some degree of good fortune; in fact, there are many things that he cannot control. This is part of why he shuns accepting help: to do so is to admit that he cannot control all, and is in fact weak in some way.

Augustine says that this pride, which Aristotle calls a virtue, is in fact a vice. The “magnanimous” person is not in fact independent; he is a creature of God as is every other person and thing, with whatever gifts and needs that God has given. By seeking to be independent, the pagan rebels against God and is also self-deceived.

The Hobbesian understanding of “pride” is the tendency of each individual to strive for superiority against every other. Augustine sees this not as the original pride, but as an outgrowth; first the creature declares independence from the Creator, and then begins to assert control over the rest of humanity. Thus, the pride that liberalism is concerned about is not the same sort of pride as that which most bothers Augustine. We can see this further when we look at Aquinas’ attempts to rehabilitate magnanimity and reintroduce it into Augustinian ethics. St. Thomas does this by insisting that the properly magnanimous person recognizes that his (or her) gifts all come from God, and thus is proud of those gifts only as a way to give glory to the giver. To hide his or her gifts would be to hide God’s gracious power, and thus to deny neighbors the opportunity to appreciate those gifts and praise God. The magnanimous person thus can take proper pride in the gifts, but must also be humble enough not to take credit as the author of his or her own virtue.

This would again oppose the liberalism that flows from Hobbes, and sees all claims to superiority as dangerous. To liberalism, each person can claim no superiority at all, whether from God or his or her own nature; each is perfectly equal. The magnanimous person is claiming a superiority, and even at least implicitly asserting that the rest of us should honor his or her virtue; in the Hobbesian scheme this threatens the peace since social peace is based on the notion that all must bow equally to the will of the Sovereign. Krom concludes by arguing that while this shows that liberalism is not especially consistent with Augustinianism, the Augustinian tradition can coexist with any political structure that will accept the independence of the City of God. This is in contrast to Augustinians such as Reinhold Niebuhr   and Paul Ramsey, who argue that democratic liberalism is the best or perhaps only political structure that takes account of human sin and thus the only one that admits the Augustinian demand for humility.

MY PROJECT: I am looking at pride and humility in Kierkegaard and Augustine, to help explore Kierkegaard’s relationship to the Augustinian tradition, to see what this reveals or clarifies in Kierkegaard’s thought, and whether this offers any resources for us today.

Kierkegaard’s discussion of envy as a social force could relate to this analysis of pride in liberalism. The “age of reflection” denies all distinction except sheer numbers (Two Ages). What Krom presents as simply a description or fact of liberalism, Kierkegaard presents as a sickness; what Krom presents as a striving for equality, Kierkegaard calls “envy.” Although Kierkegaard was not a student of Aquinas, he did know his Aristotle; and while I am not aware of precise words to this effect, it is clear that he would have been drawn to this description of the “magnanimous” one who combines a realistic appraisal of his (or her) own gifts with the humility before God who is the giver of all, and also the one who judges all as equally sinful and equally loved. He repeatedly says, for example, that the simple man and the simple wise man get equally far, but the simple man knows, and the simple wise man knows that he knows or knows that he does not know (I think this is from the Postscript; these are notes so I’m working from memory). But in the Present Age, the simple wise man who admitted to being wise, even if he allowed that his wisdom did not amount to anything essential, would be set upon by the forces of envy. By contrast, a thousand arrogant fools would represent authority from numbers, while the one humble wise man is despised because he is not in the majority and therefore is wrong (and if he is distinguishing himself by admitting his is wise, he is seen as attacking the herd and set upon).   For this reason, the magnanimous person cannot openly admit or display his gifts; he must behave as the “secret agent” and teach only indirectly.

My primary interest, however, is not political, but epistemic, psychological and soteriological. How does pride distort our perception of reality? How does this lead to anxiety and the bondage of the will? How does faith restore us to something resembling our original state, so that we can again approach reality in humility and freedom?

Krom cites Hobbes as saying that it is pride that leads us to each strive to control others. Kierkegaard, in his upbuilding discourse discussing Adam, describes how before eating the fruit of knowledge Adam perceived God immediately—God was not separate or hidden, but completely present and immanent all around. In disobeying, Adam establishes himself as separate, and begins to understand how dangerous and unpredictable the world can be; so Adam seeks to control the world. Thus for Hobbes, we might say, pride leads to a desire to control others; but for Kierkegaard, pride goes further, and is the reason for the desire to control the world, including others. For Hobbes, the danger of this is that all the other people are trying to control each other, so you too could be killed or enslaved. For Kierkegaard, the danger is more immediate; you can’t control, and the more you try the more you realize the impossibility and thus the more anxiety. In the end, this attempt to assert freedom before God becomes completely unfree, as everything one does is dictated by one’s anxiety, and everything becomes self-defense. Kierkegaard further develops this notion pseudonymously in Concept of Anxiety, published the day after this discourse. There, the fear of the world becomes anxiety about possibility in general, since every possibility is the possibility to go wrong; and the more the individual tries to fight his or her way out of anxiety, the deeper he or she becomes ensnared. The only way out is outlined pseudonymously in the Fragments.

 

Review: The Avengers (2012)

May 14, 2012

The Avengers

Zak Penn and Joss Whedon; film, directed by Joss Whedon (Manhattan Beach, CA:  Marvel Studios, 2012)

            “It’s the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”   Loki of Asgard

If, as Hamann thought, there is more joy in hearing five words of truth from a blasphemer than in a chorus sung by legions of angels, then there is little more delightful than finding philosophy in a Summer Smash’em Up Blockbuster Film.  That was the joy I found from this movie.  It makes the whole Ph.D. student debt thing totally worth it.

The movie revolves around a super-secret organization , S.H.I.E.L.D.  (for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) attempting to exploit an alien artifact of immeasurable power, and the trouble caused when beings who understand and can control that power far better arrive on Earth to claim it.  Thus put, the premise doesn’t sound much more exciting than the motivating force of the aliens in Plan Nine from Outer Space.  Human hubris leads to tinkering in Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, which in turn attracts the attention of powerful beings who feel they were meant to know, and then the wackiness ensues.  The philosophy, however, is deeper than that, and involves the very essence of human nature:  freedom.  Freedom is the ultimate question.  Are we mere organic mechanisms seeking nutrition and procreation, material complexes with no more freedom than a rock finding its way down the hill?  Or are we beings that create ourselves at least as much as we are created, choosing our own goals and values?

Given that the movie is largely driven by the sibling rivalry of two Aesir, it is fitting to analyze it through the eyes of Teutonic philosophers.  Loki seems to be the most philosophically inclined character, or at least the most philosophically verbose; so I shall start with him.  Loki presents himself not as a tyrant, but as a savior.  He has come, he says, to bring peace and joy to all humanity.  And he will do that, he says, by taking away human freedom.  Freedom is a burden, an oppressive responsibility; surrendering freedom allows one to enjoy the pleasures of life while allowing others to make the big decisions.  In essence, Loki seems to have put his finger on the problem of anxiety.  As discussed by Vigilius Haufniensis, anxiety is “the dizziness of freedom.”[1]  When confronted with a real, significant choice, good/or evil, life/or death, salvation/or damnation, the individual is overwhelmed by his or her own sense of power—-the power to go wrong.  The individual may know what choice he or she ought to make, as Adam knew not to eat the apple; but all the individual concretely knows is that a possibility exists.  There is no rational reason why the individual would choose evil; there is only the vertigo of freedom, the anxiety of possibility, and the individual swoons.  When the individual realizes he or she has chosen wrong, it becomes all the more difficult to deal with the continued burden of freedom, compounded now by the actual knowledge of good and evil (as opposed to the mere possibility of freedom with no first-hand knowledge of the alternatives).  Most individuals, Haufniensis says, find the burden of freedom intolerable, and seek to give up their individuality.  Freedom becomes the very thing they flee; conformism, philistinism, determinism become salvation. Haufniensis calls this attitude “the demonic.”[2]

Loki is the very personification of the Kierkegaardian demonic.  Your pain, Loki says, comes from the unending, wearisome task of constantly making oneself, the burden of freedom.  I will take that burden from you, and I will tell you what you are and what you may become; then you will have peace.  Haufniensis would say that whether we know it or not, most of us take Loki’s offer.

And in the scene where Loki makes this offer to a crowd of terrified Germans, who is the one individual who stands up and chooses to die rather than live as a slave?  It is the one who has first-hand experience with a previous offer of this sort.  This too fits the philosophy:  Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, among others, drew on Kierkegaard’s explanation of anxiety and the demonic to explain the appeal of Hitler and Stalin in their own day.  It is perhaps unfortunate that the man did not die; his being saved by Captain America could seem to symbolize the idea that individual freedom is protected by the United States, and I don’t think that was the intention.  From the Kierkegaardian perspective, expecting any human agency to safeguard your personhood would be to surrender your personhood.  On the other hand, of course, Captain America doesn’t make the man free; he did that for himself.  All Captain America can do is show up later and try to shield the individual from the physical risks of having declared himself to be an individual.

But before I try to discuss the superheroes, I want to look at Loki himself.  He says of himself, “I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose….  I come with glad tidings, of a world made free (from) freedom.  Freedom is life’s great lie.  Once you accept that, in your heart… you will know peace.”  This is from the opening scene of the movie, and it is the most Nietzschean thing he says.  In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche writes that freedom is a lie, invented to make men responsible for their actions—to make them guilty.  By telling them they were free and hence guilty, they could in fact be bound by their sense of guilt.  By contrast, the immoralists proclaim the psychological theory that there is no freedom, that all human action is determined by the instincts, and hence there is no guilt.[3]  Loki has come to free humanity from the burden of freedom, and thus to give them peace.  And in fact, he himself is not free, either.  He says of himself that he is “burdened.”  Banner says of Loki, “That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats, you could smell crazy on him.”  He is not free; he is driven by forces beyond his control—-by the bargains he made to get an army, by his ambition, by his hubris, his envy, and in short, by his instincts and his will-to-power.  If he has come to free humanity from freedom, he has started by liberating himself from its burden; now he is in thrall to his “glorious purpose.”

This very lack of freedom is what gives Loki his strength, and what initially weakens his opponents.  As he describes them, “You were made to be ruled.  In the end, it will be every man for himself.”  Hobbes comes to mind here; the only escape from war of each against all, says Hobbes, is when all surrender their freedom to a greater power that will enforce peace between the rest.[4]  Without an absolute monarch or other overwhelming leader, there is anarchy; no one can trust another so none can cooperate.  Initially, that seems to be the truth of the so-called Avengers:  “we’re not a team, we’re a time bomb.”  As free men, they struggle against each other, each determined to be the High Alpha of all Alpha Males.   As Hobbes would put it,  “All men (are) by nature equal… From equality proceeds diffidence…. From diffidence (proceeds) war.”[5]

The turning point in this story of superheroes is the death of a perfectly ordinary person, Phil Coulson.  In fact, it could well be said that he is the one who saves Earth.  Everything up to that point has shown Loki pulling everyone else’s strings, either literally turning them into puppets through his mind control “spell” or metaphorically by playing them off against each other.  The superheroes have spent more time bashing each other, or spying on S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, than they have fighting their supposed enemy.  Loki’s plans come to fruition when he finally traps Thor, turn the Hulk loose to fight the others, and cripples S.H.I.E.L.D. ‘s command ship.  He seems to have won.  At the moment of his victory, he is confronted by a perfectly ordinary S.H.I.E.L.D.  agent with a more-than-ordinary gun.  He’s still no match for a god, though, and Loki mortally wounds him.  The scene continues:

[after dropping Thor to earth, Loki turns to leave but Coulson stops him]
Agent Phil Coulson: You’re gonna lose.
Loki: Am I?
Agent Phil Coulson: It’s in your nature.
Loki: Your heroes are scattered, your floating fortress falls from the sky. Where is my disadvantage?
Agent Phil Coulson: You lack conviction.
Loki: I don’t think I…
[suddenly shoots Loki through the wall with the Phase 2 weapon which blasts out fire]
Agent Phil Coulson: So that’s what it does.

Minutes later Coulson dies, but not before expressing his belief that his death would be the catalyst that would bind the superheroes together as a group.  And in fact, that is precisely what happens.  With his self-sacrificial death, the heroes gain a sense of unity.  They become a team, “The Avengers,” their proclaimed goal to protect the Earth but their more pressing motive to avenge Coulson.  His sacrifice, his willingness to do his duty even when all logic said it was hopeless, moves them to put aside their rivalries and to work together for a higher purpose.  They gain conviction.  Loki lacks conviction.  He has no cause, no “idea for which I may live and die.”[6]  It is not his nature to put anyone or anything first, to “get behind” a cause.  And ultimately, that means he will abandon any cause that seems to be failing in order to try to save himself.  It is thus in his nature to lose, rather than to take the risks or make the sacrifices necessary to win.  By contrast, the superheroes sacrifice their safety, and what is more important to them than safety; each sacrifices his own personal sense of his superiority and independence.  Each must sacrifice a little pride, a little sense of self-sufficiency, to become part of a team.  When each subordinates his pride to the higher cause, they are able to win as a group.

Ultimately, The Avengers is about two conflicting paths to unity.  Loki’s path is the abandonment of freedom.  In this conception, “freedom” is an intolerable burden for the individual and fatally divisive for the group; the only way to attain personal peace or group success is to recognize freedom as “the great lie,” and to instead subordinate the people to the unifying will of a leader who is himself only a pawn for forces he barely recognizes and cannot control.  The other path accepts the individual differences and disagreements, rivalries and conflicts, personalities and freedom; but these are subordinated to a conviction.  When individuals freely accept a cause for which each can live and die, they have a unity without slavery.  They can accept authority for the purpose of achieving a task, and the one with authority can accept the individuality of the other and join it to the group rather than treating others as threats to his (or her) own status.[7]

It’s not my purpose to write a review that will tell people whether to go or not go to this particular movie.  My guess is that whether or not one enjoys a film has more to do with individual taste; and in any case, enjoying a movie because it got a good review is like laughing at a joke because someone else told you it was funny.  And I don’t suppose it even makes much sense to tell you that if you do go to see this movie, you should enjoy it for the philosophy rather than for the special effects or clever dialogue.  But there is joy in finding truth where one did not expect it, and that is a joy that anyone may experience who is open to it.  When one finds that joy oneself, one wants to share the news of one’s good fortune; that is what I have done here.  And if reading this helps anyone to be more open to reflecting on the moral and philosophical values of his or her own experiences and entertainments, so much the better.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety:  a simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin; edited and translated, with an introduction and notes by Reider Thomte in collaboration with Albert B. Nelson (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1980) p. 61

[2] Concept of Anxiety, pp. 118-54

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York:  Penguin Books, 1978) pp. 499-500

[4] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan:  or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, edited by Michael Oakeshott, with an introduction by Richard S Peters (New York:  Simon and Schuster Inc.  1997) pp. 98-141

[5] Leviathan pp. 98-99

[6] as Kierkegaard writes of seeking for himself; it was this sort of conviction that Kierkegaard said led him ultimately to turn from egoism to the ethical-religious life.

[7] Even the Hulk can be a team player, when Captain America gives the proper order:  “Hulk:  smash.” I can think of no better example of a leader who recognized the individual strengths and needs of each team member, and who gave “orders” that allowed each to apply his or her uniqueness most appropriately.