Saturday, August 29, 2009

Socialism and Immorality

I've mused before on the question of why it seems that socialists are always on the wrong side of the culture wars. Why do people who profess the highest sort of moral concerns for the poor always seem to be in favor of sexual promiscuity, abortion and eugenics? Why is there a necessary connection between the economic left and the cultural left? Why is the anti-poverty activist, that great champion of the downtrodden, so willing to support the murder of the poorest and youngest and most vulnerable among us?

I certainly don't agree with everything in F. A. Hayek's, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism. He is a classical political liberal and has much more faith in the "invisible hand" of the free market to be moral than I have. While I don't doubt the role of the "invisible hand" in generating wealth and spreading it around, I do think some government regulation of the economy is necessary to prevent monopoly, ensure standards, etc. To be fair, I think he is quite open on such issues too - it's just that sometimes he waxes so poetical about the laws of the market that he makes it sound like it is self-sufficient and in need of no human guidance. He can sound very much like a Stoic advocate of the world-soul making itself manifest in history in an almost Hegelian manner. I would like to question him about his understanding of providence.

But on one point, Hayek provides a convincing explanation for the connection between personal immorality and social justice. He speaks of "constructivist rationalism," by which he means the tendancy to take over the process of evolution and direct it by human reason:

"Thus I confess that I always have to smile when books on evolution, even ones written by great scientests, end, as they often do, with exhortations which, while conceding that everything has hitherto developed by a process of spontaneous order, call on human reason - now that things have become so complex - to sieze the reins and control future development. Such wishful thinking is encouraged by what I have elsewhere called the 'constructivist rationalism' . . . that affects much scientific thinking, and which was made quite explicit in the title of a highly successful book by a well-known socialist anthropologist, Man Makes Himself . . . a title that was adopted by many socialists as sort of a watchword." (p. 22)

For Hayek, evolution produces a series of rules or laws that rise to the top by natural selection and these constitute the traditional legacy of mankind. Wisdom is necessary to discern the valid from the mistaken interpretations of these laws, which are similar in some ways to traditional natural laws except that they arise is an evolutionary worldview, rather than a static one. The point is, for him, that we can modify these rules and constantly in fact do so. But we cannot ignore them totally.

The great Canadian philosopher, George Grant, often spoke of this tendancy of humans to want to take over the future direction of evolution as the science of cybernetics - the same hubris C. S. Lewis talked about in The Abolition of Man. Books like Lee Silver's Remaking Eden advocate this sort of human control of future evolution and are frightening because the technological mastery necessary for this is so close to being real.

Socialism proposes that we ignore the collective wisdom of the human race in the name of constructivist rationalism. Socialism is based on the assumption that nature, including human nature, is malleable and can be refashioned by human rationality. Of course, there are always Marx's iron laws of history, but these laws reduce everything to economics, which suggests that everything else - except for the inevitable rise and fall of capitalism - is within our control to shape and mold as we choose. So if we wake up tomorrow and decide to construct a new society in which monogamy, (to take the example discussed in the last post), is redefined nearly out of existence, we can successfully undertake to do so. Nothing stands in our way that we cannot overcome by the application of human reason to the problem. Our will is supreme.

This being so, it becomes immediately clear why traditional sexual morality, the traditional family, the sanctity of human life and other elements of traditional morality are so quickly and readily suspected, criticized and often rejected by socialists. The person who aborbs socialist ideology with regard to economics and politics is thereby primed to become an immoralist and to dismiss traditional moral teaching - the accumulated wisdom of humanity - as merely "bourgeois morality" and all laments over its passing as merely "nostalgia."

The irony is that this "supreme will" by which we attempt to remake the world resembles nothing so much as the absolute will of the terrifying God of Nominalism - the unconstrained and totally arbitrary will of the God in whom Modernity finds it so necessary to disbelieve. Socialism turns out to be one more bitter fruit of the nominalist revolution of the 14th century.


David said...

All that may be true, but the link between an all-consuming concern for the poor and a total disregard of traditional morality is still not clear to me. Why should that one virtue be privileged when none of the others can survive a rationalist critique?

Craig Carter said...

The connection between concern for social justice (socialism) and immorality is that both positions are the result of constructivist rationalism. Neither rely on traditional morality. If we can construct a classless society, we can reconstruct the family while we are at it.

The rationalism does not so much critique Christian values (although that does happen too); rather it is the tool by which new values are constructed. The construction of new values will necessarily be a product of the contemporary world - where else would one derive them? So it is no surprise that liberal Protestant churches that embrace constructivist rationalism end up supporting abortion and socialism. They are drifting in the sea of the world without an anchor in Scripture and Tradition.

This combination of moral values simply "seems right" to modern people - it is "conventional wisdom." The truth is that reason cannot govern our passions; so if we abandon traditional moral convictions we will end up embracing what appears right to late modern people in our society.

If your point is why does modernity not simply lead to out and out Nietzscheanism, my answer is that MacIntryre is right that eventually that is inevitable unless we return to traditional moral philosophy.

mark E roberts said...

Another author and book you may wish to admit to the dialogue: Thomas Sowell's Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. It traces today's N. American left and right divide to conflicting views of human nature that emerged sharply from the Enlightenment: the constrained view, which sees human nature as enduring and self-centered, that gives rise to contemporary conservatism and the unconstrained view, which sees human nature as malleable and perfectible, that fuels (incessantly utopian)liberalism.