Saturday, August 20, 2011

Original Sin and the Socialist Project

(published with the permission of a guy I know, Don, who wrote it.)

In Adam's Fall
We Sinned All

Thus goes the old nursery rhyme with which many Christians were introduced to the Doctrine of Original Sin, the Christian doctrine that provides a rationale for the universal fact that, notwithstanding the good that is in us, humans, individually and in groups, are all too prone to evil-doing, sometimes of monstrous proportions. The Doctrine of Original Sin also explains to those who accept it why redemption from evil cannot come from the efforts of human agency, but only from something external.

All this was rejected by radical thinkers of the 18th century Enlightenment, including the great Kant, who nevertheless smuggled the Doctrine of Original Sin into the back door of his philosophy when he observed that nothing straight has ever been made with the crooked timber of humanity. It was thought that the DOS is just too primitive to be believed by educated modern men and women, and the subsequent successes of capitalism in removing, or mitigating, many of the ages-old evils that have afflicted mankind have reinforced the Enlightenment view. For the Doctrine of Original Sin, the Enlightenment and its heirs substituted an outlook that is best called Political Rationalism, the view that enlightened human beings can become, individually and collectively, Rational Maximizers of the Good, minimizing, if not eliminating altogether, social, moral and natural evil through the assiduous application of rational and scientific methods to the solution of human problems. This attitude is common to all forms of the modernist outlook, liberalism, social democracy, socialism and even most forms of conservatism. It is rarely ever questioned.

The behaviour that Rationalism enjoins, viz., always so act as Rationally to Maximize the Good (whatever content is given to “the Good"), may not even be possible in view of our deeply ingrained capacity for self-deception and the inherent impossibility of predicting with much accuracy the consequences of our individual and collective actions even in the short run, but even if Ratoinal Maximization of the Good were possible, Political Rationalism would still be a defective, one-dimensional, theory because of its intellectualistic bias. Political Rationalism makes value-defective behaviour out to be a matter of intellectual error, a failure to perceive the Good, or a failure to apply the correct rational techniques in maximizing it, or both. This view is simply false. Sometimes value-defective behaviour is a matter of error or ignorance, but for very many other cases, it is a matter of morally defective wills, not error or ignorance.

The history of the 20th-century has produced widespread disillusionment with the complacent, optimistic, faith of the Enlightenment project and its progeny, particularly socialism or social democracy, but also ‘free-market’ capitalist liberalism. Because disillusionment with modernity often takes the form of an obscurantist Fundamentalism invoking the Doctrine of Original Sin as an excuse for dismantling the welfare-state and doing nothing collectively to grapple with our many social problems, people on the Left have given insufficient attention to the possibility that the many manifest failures of the Left may be due to something intrinsic in the human condition and the possibility that insight into our failures may be had by a serious consideration of whatever truth there may be in the Doctrine of Original Sin, as Christian critics of socialism/social democracy maintain.

The Doctrine of Original Sin is a religious version of a truth about human nature that can be re-formulated in a way that is logically independent of its religious associations. Nothing in this article depends in any way upon a Christian world view, although it is consistent with Christianity, and Judaism as well.

If we accept, as I certainly do, the modern view that man is a risen ape, and not a fallen creature, we must accept an evolutionary view of human nature and reject a Platonic/Essentialist view of human nature as a once-and-for-all-time given. Ideological evolutionists argue that the idea of human nature has no empirical content simply because of the fact that we are evolved beings (although there is considerable scientific doubt that we are still evolving). The ideological evolutionist argues that human nature was something a half-million years ago, is something else today, and may be something else a half-million years hence, so that we cannot speak categorically about human nature; it is just too plastic and changeable.

This argument is acceptable if we mean by “human nature” some fixed essence. But the essentialist view is not the only possible construal of “human nature”. There is an empirical view that holds that while the facts of human nature are only contingent facts, and hence subject, in principle, to change, nevertheless changes in human nature occur only as a consequence of genetic changes, and these work very slowly, indeed so slowly that human nature has not changed a discernible whit since the dawn of recorded history, nor is it likely to in the foreseeable future unless, improbably, extremely powerful methods of genetic engineering are developed. Clearly neither religious conversion nor social engineering has ever done the trick. The contingent facts of human nature are hard contingencies, changeable in principle, but not by us. So even if we cannot speak categorically about human nature, where this means “metaphysically”, i.e. “unqualified by empirical considerations”, we can speak categorically about human nature where “categorically” means “without qualification by reference to soft contingencies such as highly variable, easily changeable, socio-historical factors”. Basic human nature is not a social construct.

It is a fact that there is a universal tendency among human beings to go around doing harm to each other, very often knowingly to prefer evil to good. That this tendency is a fact is self-evident to common sense observation and to honest introspection, and requires no proof. It does require an explanation, and any adequate explanation must be in terms of causal factors/conditions that are as universal as the phenomenon to be explained; no historically limited and particular social contingencies will do. This fact of human nature is the rock upon which all Utopian schemes for perfecting human beings in a perfected society crash. Offer mankind solidarity, peace, happiness and plenty and they will likely as not reject them in favour of crime and aggression, as they have done from time immemorial.

It would be much more realistic and rational to take as a basic principle of all one’s political thinking the clear truth that the hearts and minds of men are often dark and very often desperately wicked, and certainly no help in the form of one-size-fits-all theories of Racial Purity or the Classless Society or the Free Market or other secular salvational nostrums is forthcoming. This radical flaw in human nature will sink any scheme that does not have the essential truth in the Doctrine of Original Sin as an ingredient.

Nothing worthwhile can be done in society if the will is in a state of error or ignorance, or is malevolent. The correction and disciplining of the will, and the harmonization of good wills is the difficult and never-ending task of politics that the Political Rationalist fails to acknowledge. Socialists/social democrats must learn to recognize that evil is a pervasive and elemental force that can subvert the noblest schemes, but which can also be checked, but not eliminated, by insight into human nature together with the judicious use of rewards, coercive punishments, comprehensive regulations of the economy, and vigorous on-going reforms in other important sectors of society. A ‘Good Society’ is not an end-state, a goal to be achieved through political effort; it is always and forever a never finished work in progress.

Well, what are these constitutional facts of human nature that underlie the flawed and universal tendency to wrong doing that I have attributed to mankind? They are so banal and platitudinous that it embarrasses one to list them. But discussing them is necessary because every scheme for improving human nature in some large and permanent way involves some form of denial or negation of one or more of these elemental, unchangeable, facts:

F1 All human beings share a common comparable vulnerability to harm.

F2 All human beings have imperfectly informed and fallible intellects.

F3 All human beings have a limited capacity for benevolence and limited sympathetic imaginations.

F4 All human beings live in a world in which the resources necessary for human well-being are limited and usually difficult to develop and distribute, and to obtain which they must often compete, often violently.

Wordage limitations permit me to indicate only how three or four schemes involve some form of denial of these facts, but the knowledgeable reader can do this exercise for himself. Plato’s Republic requires denying F2 and F3 by positing, for the ruling Philosopher-Kings, total information and rationality and total unselfishness. Hobbes’ Leviathan state requires denying F3 by positing the total selfishness of everybody. Kant’s “society of holy wills” denies F2 by positing complete rationality and complete information. Heaven, the paradigm of all Utopias, requires negating all four facts by positing a total transcendence of the earthly limits of Natural Man. And so on.

Because these Four Facts are unchangeable (so, e.g., no matter how well educated and psychologically well-balanced we become, nobody will ever be perfectly rational and perfectly informed or perfectly benevolent, or even come close), we must reject any idea of the radical social engineering of human nature and society. Human nature is doomed to remain forever an arena of unending conflict, within every individual and every conceivable society, between good and evil, a struggle between our elemental natures as constrained by the original, i.e., constitutional, Four Facts and the higher demands and ideals of civilized moral and social life.

These eternal conflicts will always constitute a powerful tendency to subvert the integrity of our projects, confuse our efforts, limit our achievements, and to produce irresolvable conflicts both within the individual personality and in society. Apart from evil flowing from psychosis, e.g., serial murders, most bad behavior stems from one or more of the Four Facts in conjunction with particular circumstances. We can only stumble through life, as we always have had to, sometimes achieving amazing and wonderful successes, never transcending the basic facts of our nature. In the end, and even before the end, the jungle will always re-claim the clearing.

The views I have presented are logically independent of the religious form of the Doctrine of Original Sin, but they are historically linked with Christianity, and while there is no doubt that Christians have often been the perpetrators of bigotry, intolerance, narrow-mindedness and bloody cruelty, Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, has also cultivated and promoted the values we all need to try to live by, such values as generosity, kindness, patience, understanding, loyalty, self-control, conscientiousness, a perpetual awareness of one’s own imperfections and an effort to struggle against them, and humility in the face of one’s successes as well as one’s failures — the basic values that go to make up what we call common decency that have their historical locus for the West in the cultural-religious climate of our civilization.

Common decency is logically independent of Christianity or any religion, and is found in persons of all religions and none, but it is an open question whether it is psychologically independent of religion and can be maintained for long on a purely secular basis; it is still too early to tell. In any case it is important to point out that the secularized version of Doctrine of Original Sin that I have presented has an important anti-democratic, or anyway non-democratic, implication in that acceptance of it requires that severe restraints be imposed on what large democratic majorities may do, even enlightened socialist majorities. Such majorities will always be to some degree ignorant and sometimes will be imbued with morally defective wills, and therefore require constraining by constitutional and organic laws of society that express the better self of a people and that prevent the baser self of a nation from getting out of hand. A well-made constitution is a political form of self-discipline and is as necessary for a free society as individual self-discipline is for a free individual.

The implications of all this for socialists/social democrats are unwelcome but need to be faced, to wit: (1) Some very large although indeterminate probability of failure is endemic to the socialist project because of the scope and scale of its vaulting ambitions; (2) revolutionary Marxist socialism of the Leninist/Stalinist/Trotskyist types has always involved some form of denial or negation of one or more of the Four Facts, and will always fail for that reason; (3) evolutionary socialism, i.e., the modern democratic socialism of cumulative improvements, many of quite large scale, will inevitably be beset with failures and set-backs, but is the only project with any hope for the Left for at least modest, if always precarious, progress.

A strong dose of intellectual and moral humility — exceedingly rare qualities on the Left in my experience — is called for, both by the Doctrine of Original Sin in its religious form and by its secularized version.

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