Perfectionism and Liberalism

Adam Gopnik has become one of the most astute theorists/apologists for liberalism, even though his thoughts on that subject simply come as asides in the occasional pieces he writes for the New Yorker.  In the July 30, 2018 edition, in a review of a book about the utopian fictions of the 1890 to 1910 period, he has this to say: “Liberalism is a perpetual program of reform, intended to alleviate the cruelty we see around us.  The result will not be a utopia but merely another society, with its own unanticipated defects to correct, though with some of the worst injustices—tearing limbs from people or keeping them as perpetual chattel or depriving half the population of the right to speak to their own future—gone, we hope for good.  That is as close as liberalism gets to utopia: a future society that is flawed, like our own, but less cruel as time goes on.”

The complaint of non-liberals is that liberals aim too low, that they timidly rule out as impossible things they should be fighting to accomplish.  And surely there is much to be said for the view that liberals are particularly ineffective if they are not constantly pushed by a more radical “left.”  On the other hand, liberal timidity, what Judith Shklar memorably called “the liberalism of fear,” is a commitment to minimizing concentrations of power and maximizing the distribution of power in order to prevent tyranny.  Power deployed for economic gain or power deployed to bring about a utopian vision of solidarity/common effort are equally to be feared.  Pluralism is the by-word, also known as liberal “permissiveness.”  As much as possible, keep to an absolute minimum the power of any entity (be it state, business, church, or another person) to dictate to me the terms of my life.

Another common critique of liberalism comes from a different direction.  The issue here is not that liberals don’t fight hard enough for the justice they claim to cherish, but that the individualism that liberal permissiveness establishes is unsatisfying.  Left to their own devices, individuals will either (this is the elitist, right-wing critique of liberal individualism) choose “low,” materialist desires that are undignified and recognizably bestial or (the left-wing, “communitarian” critique) be left adrift, exiled from all the kinds of intersubjective associations/relationships that actually make life meaningful.

In short, a straight-forward “materialism,” which accepts that our primary motives are for bodily comforts and other basic pleasures—what I called “hedonism” a few posts back—is deemed insufficient for a “full” (now the term is Charles Taylor’s) human life.  There must be more, Taylor keeps saying.

Here’s my dilemma—and kudos to Taylor for bringing it home so forcefully.  A certain version of materialism, with its notion that personal interest in securing material goods plus the psychological satisfactions of familial love and social respect are primary and “enough”, reigns among the aggressive right-wing in the US today.  The old line conservative, elitist critics of the Alan Bloom and Harold Bloom sort are just about total dinosaurs now.  The current right wing scorns elites and their fancy views of human dignity and attachment to “higher” things.  “Freedom” for Samuel Alioto is complete liberal permissiveness in economic matters, tied to a lingering moralistic attempt to suppress non-economically motivated “vices.”

So I certainly want to combat what Taylor insists is the “reductionism” of a materialist utilitarianism—the notion that all value resides in the extent to which something contributes to well-being, with “well-being” defined in very restrictive, mostly economic, terms.  The humanities, as a whole, have understood this as the battleground: the effort to get the public and the body politic to accept (and act on that acceptance) the value of non-economically motivated or remunerated activities. (In a future post, I will return to this topic aand try to think through what the “more” is that a secularist humanities would offer.)

What path should one take in this effort to combat economistic utilitarianism?  Taylor writes that “the question [that] arises here [is] what ontology can underpin our moral commitments” (607).  Now, of course, Richard Rorty (of whom more in a moment) would argue that we needn’t have any ontology to underwrite our commitments, that the whole (traditional) philosophical game of thinking that “foundations” somehow explain and/or secure our commitments is a misunderstanding of how human psychology works.  (Basically, Rorty is accepting William James’s insistence that we have our commitments first and then invent fancy justifications for them after the fact.)  The critics reply (inevitably) that Rorty thus shows that he has an ontology—basically, the ontological description of “human nature” that is James’s psychology.  If, like Rorty, you are committed to the liberal ideal (as expressed by Gopnik, who is consciously or not, channeling Rorty on this point) of reducing cruelty, then you are going to undertake that work in relation to how you understand human psychology.  In Rorty’s case, that means working on “sensibility” and believing that affective tales of cruelty that will awaken our disgust at such behavior will be more effective than Kantian arguments about the way cruelty violates the categorical imperative.

The Humean (and Rorty, like Dewey, is a complete Humean when it comes to morality/ethics) gambit is that humans have everything they need in their normal, ordinary equipment to move toward less cruel societies.  We don’t need “grace” or some other kind of leg up to be better than we have been in the past.  Our politics, we might say in this Humean vein, consist of the rhetorical, legal, and extra-legal battles waged between those who would “liberate” the drives toward economic and other sorts of power and accumulation versus those who would engage the “sympathetic” emotions that highlight cooperation and affective ties to our fellow human beings.  The Humean liberal, therefore, will endorse political arrangements that do not stifle ordinary human desires (for sex, companionship, fellowship, material comforts, recognition, the pleasures of work and play) while working against all accumulations of power that would allow someone to interfere in the pursuit of those ordinary desires.

What Taylor argues is that this liberal approach is not enough.  And it is “not enough” in two quite different ways.  First, it is not enough because it still leaves us with a deep deficit of “meaning.”  It is a “shallow” conception of human life, one that does not answer to a felt—and everywhere demonstrated need—for a “fuller” sense of what life is for and about.  Humans want their lives to connect up to something greater than just their own self-generated desires. (I have already, in a prior post, expressed my skepticism that this hankering for a “deeper meaning” is as widespread, even universal, as Taylor presumes.  To put it bluntly, I believe many more people today–July 28, 2018–are suffering from physical hunger than from spiritual hunger.) People, in Taylor’s view, want to experience the connection of their desires to some “higher” or “larger” purpose in things.  So the ontology in question is not just a description of “human Nature” but also of the non-human—and a description of how the human “connects” to that non-human.  You can, of course, claim (like the existentialists) that there is no connection, that we are mistaken when we project one and would be better off getting rid of our longing for one, but that is still an ontological claim about the nature of the non-human and about its relation to the human.  In that existential case, you are then going to locate “meaning” (a la Camus) in the heroic, if futile, human effort to create meaning within a meaningless universe.

Taylor’s second objection to Humean naturalism is more interesting to me because I find it much more troubling, much more difficult to think through given my own predilections.  Put most bluntly, Taylor says (I paraphrase): “OK, your naturalistic account posits a basic ‘sympathy” for others within the human self.  But, by the same token, your naturalistic account is going to have to acknowledge the aggressive and violent impulses within the self.  Your liberal polity is going to have to have some strategy for handling or transforming or suppressing those violent tendencies.  In short, there are desires embedded in selves that are not conducive to ‘less cruel’ futures, so what are you going to do about them?”

Taylor’s own position is clear.  He doesn’t use the term “perfectionist” (that, instead, is a recurrent feature of Stanley Cavell’s objections to Deweyean pragmatism), but he is clearly (at least in my view) in perfectionist territory.  Taylor is certainly insistent that what non-religious views (those that adhere to a strictly “immanent frame”—his term) miss is a drive toward “transformation” that is often motivated or underwritten by the desire to connect to some “transcendent.”  Liberal “permissiveness” doesn’t recognize, or provide any space for, this urge to transformation—or for the fact that those who pursue this goal most fervently are often the humans we most admire.  Self-overcoming, we might say, is view more favorably than simply “care of the self.”  Taylor is very, very good on how the arguments about all this go—with the liberal proponents of care of the self seeing the self-overcomers as dangerous, with their heroic visions that tend toward utopian-seeking tyranny or a religious denigration of the ordinary, the here and now; and the proponents of transformative striving seeing the liberals as selfish, limited in vision, stuck in the most mundane and least noble/dignified of the possible human ways to live a life, to pursue and achieve meaning.

I am clearly of the non-heroic camp, but the challenge Taylor poses is most difficult to me when he says that even the liberal aims at a transformation of human nature, of built in human desires, insofar as the liberal seeks to minimize violence and even to banish it entirely.  The conundrum: how do you either transform or (where necessary) suppress desire without being tyrannical?  The easy way out is to say it is not tyrannical to suppress the rapist.  But that just gets us into the business of what desires are so beyond the pale that their suppression is justified as contrasted to the desires we should let express themselves.  The prevailing liberal answer to that problem remains Mill’s harm principle—which is, admittedly, imperfect but the best we’ve got on hand.

Meanwhile, it would seem that liberals would also be working on another front to transform those violent desires so that the need for suppression wouldn’t arise as often.  Liberals, it would seem, can’t completely sidestep a “perfectionist” ethics, one that seeks to re-form some basic attributes of human nature–as it has so far manifested itself in history. To put it in the starkest terms: every human society and every moment in human history has manifested some version of war.  Yet the liberal is committed to (in utopian fashion) the idea that war is not inevitable, that we can create a world in which wars would not occur.  But the path to that war-free world must involve a “perfectionist” transformation of what humanity has shown itself to be up to our current point in time.  The issue then becomes: “What is the perfectionist strategy to that end?”  How does the Humean liberal propose to get from here (war) to there (perpetual peace)?

Taylor is not denying that the liberal has possible strategies.  But he thinks those strategies are “excarnated”—divorced from the body and emotion, the opposite of “incarnated.” This is Taylor’s version of the familiar critique that liberalism is “bloodless,” that it disconnects the body from the mind in its celebration of the disengaged, objective spectator view of knowledge at the same time that it extracts individuals (in the name of autonomy) from their embedding in social practices and social communities.  The ideal liberal self stands apart, capable of putting to the question everything, including the most basic constituents of his life (his own desires and his own relations to others.)  This is Rorty’s liberal ironist, cultivating a certain distance from everything, even his own beliefs.  The liberal, then, only has “reasons”—the consequentialist argument that life would be more pleasant, less “nasty, brutish, and short”—if we managed to stop war, stop being violent and cruel to one another.  Or, if we go the Humean/Rorty route, the liberal can work to enhance the inbuilt “sympathy” that makes us find cruelty appalling—and mobilize that sentiment against the other sentiments that lead to finding violence thrilling, pleasurable, or ecstatic.

Taylor, instead, favors a non-liberal route that avoids “excarnation.”  Instead, it recognizes that “in archaic, pre-Axial forms, ritual in war or sacrifice consecrates violence; it relates violence to the sacred, and gives a numinous depth to killing and the excitement and inebriation of killing; just as it does through the rituals mentioned above for sexual desire and union” (611-612).  The Christian experience/virtue of agape, Taylor insists, is fully bodily and emotional—and affords a sense of connection to non-human, transcendent powers and purposes.  And there can be a similar sense of connection in expressions/experiences of violence.

Of course, Taylor relies here on the “containment” that ritual performs.  A safe space, we might say, is created for the expression of violence—a space that highlights the connection to the transcendent that violence can afford but which also keeps that violence from getting out of hand.  (I continue to be very interested in all the ways violence is “contained.”  Why don’t all wars become “total”?  Why do states, in dealing with criminals, or other authority figures, like parents, stop short of total violence, of killing?  Think of spanking; how it is ritualized, how it stops short of doing real physical harm—or how, in other instances, it pushes right through that boundary and does lead to real physical harm.  What keeps the limits intact in one case and not in the other?)

But the ritual is not only “containment” for Taylor; it is also a path toward “transformation.”  Think of how the ritual of marriage transforms the love relation between the two partners.  Do we really want to argue that marriage is meaningless, that it does not change anything between the couple?  The marriage ritual is not, as we all well know, magically efficacious—but that hardly seems to justify claiming it has no effect at all.  What Taylor is pointing toward is some kind of similar ritual(s) to deal with aggressive desires (a complement to marriage’s relation to potentially anarchistic and violent sexual desires).

So what Taylor thinks we lose if we are a-religious secularists is this way (habit?) of thinking about the connection between desires found in selves and some kind of larger forces out there in the universe.  And losing that sense of connection means losing any taste (or search) for rituals that take individual desire and place it in relation to those larger, non-human forces.  As a result, we lose an effective strategy for the transformation of those desires into something more “perfect,” more in accord with our (utopian?) visions of what human life could be—where that utopian vision in Taylor’s case includes both a more meaningful life on the personal level (since connected to powers and purposes beyond the isolated self) and a more just, less cruel society because rituals contain the destructive potential of sex and violence.

Rorty’s alternative is instructive if we consider the modesty, the anti-utopianism, of liberalism.  Rorty doesn’t rule out perfectionism (that would violate liberal permissiveness), but he relegates it to the “private” sphere.  Self-overcoming is all well and good—from training for marathons to trying to overcome one’s tendencies to anger—but is a “project” undertaken by a self—not a path mandated by any other power.  The “public” sphere is devoted (for Rorty) to overcoming cruelty and to something like a minimal social justice (making sure everyone has the means to sustain life).  But any public mandate to “transformation” is opening the path to tyranny.  What this Rorty formula leaves unanswered is whether the public (think of the French Revolutionaries and their festivals) should strive to create rituals for the expression/transformation of basic desires.  These rituals need not be mandatory, but could still be useful in the effort to curb cruelty and heighten (emotional and moral) commitment to social justice.  That is, even a minimalist public sphere (in terms of what it hopes to achieve and in terms of how much its leaves to the discretion of individuals when it comes to where they find meaning and how they spend their time) might still benefit from not being so minimalist in terms of the occasions for public gatherings and rituals that it provides.

Let me end here by saying that I am one of those anti-clerical, anti-religious people (so well described by Taylor) who worries that religion’s focus on the transcendent implies a neglect of, even a contempt for, the ordinary.  I am always troubled by a search for salvation—whether that search take a religious or a Utopian form.  I think we are better off if, as Gopnik puts it, we accept the imperfections of the human condition, and work on improving that condition, without thinking that some kind of “transformation” will change our lot very dramatically or, once and for all, insure that peace and justice will reign undisturbed from now on.

In my most extreme moments, I want to say not only can’t we be “saved” from the human condition as we now experience it, but that we don’t need to be “saved.”  What we need is to take up the work at hand, work that is fairly obvious to anyone who looks around and sees the rising temperatures and the homeless people on our streets and the people going bankrupt trying to pay medical bills.  There isn’t a “transformation” of a political or religious/ethical reality that is going to address such issues.  It’s doing the gritty down-to-earth work of attending to those issues that will lead to some desirable changes, although not to the end of all our cares and worries.  In short, I am secularist insofar as I don’t think help is coming from elsewhere.  I have no faith that there are non-human powers to which we can connect—and that those powers will enable some kind of “transformation” that will solve our (humanly created) problems.

“Perfectionism” is a fully permissible add-on, but please do that on your own time (i.e. I accept the Rortyean notion that it is “private”), while the “public” of legal politics will demand that you act decently toward your fellows.  Still—with all that—I acknowledge that Taylor poses a significant challenge when he says that even the liberal (whether a Humean or a Kantian liberal) will look to “transform” certain human desires in the name of a more just and less violent society.

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