Sunday, December 24, 2006

Anti-Individualism, Conservative Style

Tibor R. Machan

Just to keep matters in balance, let me point out that although it is mostly the Left that hates individualism—remember, socialism means that we, humanity, are all just one organism—the Right’s hostility toward it is no less virulent. Just recall that both Hitler and Stalin hated individualism, in any of its varieties. American individualism, one that stresses the independent judgment of human beings—not their alleged and, not surprisingly, ridiculous, fictional independent or self-sufficient existence—does not suit either the Left or the Right, including some fairly powerful voices among American conservatives. Just consider the blurb peddling one currently rising conservative’s recent book, Peter Augustine Lawler’s Stuck With Virtue, The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future. “These insightful, provocative essays critique what the author sees as America’s ever-increasing individualistic habits and attitudes, centered on a view of the individual as self-sufficient and unencumbered.” As if that is what American individualism were about.

In fact, the caricature of individualism depicted in the above passage comes from just one, somewhat idiosyncratic, version of individualism that has an admittedly noticeable presence in the discipline of economics, both its neo-classical and Austrian varieties. But here this idea of the human individual functions as nothing more than a theoretical model that, as the late Milton Friedman made eminently clear, is self-consciously unrealistic. It is a bit like those artist depictions of a building about to be constructed in your neighborhood—nothing like what the building will actually be like, only an almost farcical version of it.

For Lawler and others on the Right to claim that this is the individualism that John Locke and the American founders left for us as our social-philosophical legacy is shameful. There are those on the Left, such as the communitarians—with their leaders such as Charles Taylor, Amitai Etzioni, and Thomas Spragens—who have hurled at us these distortions of American individualism and from them this is somewhat understandable. After all, the Left is philosophically committed to collectivism, the direct opposite of individualism. Here is one of their philosophical heroes, the French “father of sociology,” Auguste Comte about that topic: "Everything we have belongs then to Humanity…Positivism [the doctrine Comte developed] never admits anything but duties, of all to all. For its social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of right, constantly based on individualism. We are born loaded with obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries....”

In one premier conservative journal, ISI’s The Intercollegiate Review—essay after essay can be read attacking American individualism with the distorted depiction I reproduced above. Why would conservatives, who are supposed to be conserving, at least in America, the ideas and ideals of the American founders, make such a big deal of the alleged flaws in individualism?

It is the one-size-fits-all mentality, that’s what lies behind it. Individualism is notoriously eclectic in the sort of human lives it regards as perfectly legitimate, acceptable, capable of being lived properly, virtuously. But what do so many conservatives want? To get a clear view of this one need but read the non-fiction works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who would send us all back to live on the farms; or John Lukacs, who has become an environmentalist and is urging us all “to protect the landscape (and the cityscape) where [we] live.” A younger version of this is a former Reason magazine editor, Bill Kauffman, joining the reactionary chorus with his book, Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists. Each of these advocates embraces just one of thousands of ways of living a good human life, favoring it above all the rest but for no discernible, rational reason one can identify. Indeed, judging by the approach these writers take against the rationalism of the Enlightenment—what with its insidious championing of a society that makes scientific and technological progress (including Darwin) possible—arguing for their model of the perfect human being is just not cool. Traditionalism, and of a highly selective kind, is how they go about supporting their one-size-fits-all conception of how all of us ought to live our lives.

I have nothing against those who prefer the farm life, or the life in the woods, or even deep in the halls of ivy. Let a million and more flowers bloom. That's individualism, not the silliness its enemies paint it.
The “War” on Christmas

Tibor R. Machan

Some polemics are useful. They help emphasize certain points. I use them myself in my writing, as when I call government regulations “petty tyrannies.” Maybe that is to overstate my point but on the other hand it’s not at all far from the truth—when government imposes burdens on people who have not been convicted of any crime, that is a kind of tyranny.

A local church, however, has gone a bit far when it titled an upcoming sermon “The War on Christmas.” Nothing original in it, of course, given how a great many pundits have been claiming that such a war is being waged, as part of America’s “culture wars,” another bit of polemic that’s over the top. Why?

Well, I don’t know about my readers, but I have actually experienced war first hand, back when I was a kid in Central Europe. I remember very well when I was only about 6, Budapest was under siege and it didn’t consist of people talking in provocative ways as in the "war" on Christmas. No, the war involved heavy bombing, thousands of deaths and injured, near complete destruction of a once beautiful European city, and all the other horrible real ingredients of a war. The so called war on Christmas involves nothing remotely close to this. Instead it is an attempt, at its worst, to undermine the way people think about Christmas.

In a pluralistic society like America, where there are by the last count I am aware of 4200 different religions—with several major ones vying for the faithful “to come in”—one certainly should expect what is perhaps best regarded a competition among various religions. Most belief systems have adherents who would wish those systems to tower over the others. After all, the faithful and their leaders take these systems to be true, the correct faiths, so it is not surprising they would want to spread them, not only in one country but across the globe.

But this is no war. Or it certainly need not be one. If I urge someone to accept my religion, to convert, mostly I would do this by persuasion, not coercion, or at worst by means of some tricky polemics. Which is to say peacefully. The same, after all, goes on in politics. We urge our fellow citizens to switch to our side and so long as this is done through argumentation, even perhaps some intimidation—say when we threaten people with hell fire unless they come aboard—that is entirely civilized and no one has reason to object. If the atheists want to insist that the days Christians call Christmas are, in fact, old pagan celebrations, so there is no need to use the Christian term for them, that’s something people can consider and either accept or reject. There is nothing war like in it at all. If Jews try to spread the idea that Hanukkah is a more accurate term for the season, that, too, is perfectly civilized, unobjectionable as a matter of religious partisanship.

But by labeling these efforts on anyone’s part—Christians, Jews, atheists, agnostics, Moslems or whoever—something even remotely like a war, them’s fighting words, as one might put it. Why besmirch a peaceful effort to get people to adopt one’s point of view a war? I have to consider that this is a trick, a way to make one’s faith out to be some kind of victim of aggression by the dissidents and to solicit vigorous, even physical defense!

Back in the days of the Soviet Empire, when a dissident didn’t use the terminology approved of by the government of the USSR and its various puppet regimes, these dissidents were jailed, sent to labor camps, even murdered. For what? For what was on their minds, for what they believed, even though they did nothing war like at all about their dissent. Calling their views subversive, treasonous, or the like was a way to label them violent when, in fact, they were anything but.

Similarly, to label the efforts of members of competing belief systems to spread their ideas a war is deceitful. Some of the faithful may well accept the notion that if someone is attempting to covert us to their viewpoint, this amounts to aggression and should be met with forceful defense. This, yes, can even lead to church burnings, attacks on the dissidents even though they have done no violence to anyone.

It is interesting that those who are supposedly following the lead of the Prince of Peace would perpetrate such verbal slight of hand that can encourage violence.
Atheism’s Achilles’ Heel

Tibor R. Machan

I am referring to the prominent versions of atheism. There are different ones, actually. Strictly speaking there is no specific view that an atheist must accept. Instead, atheism is merely the rejection of theism. And nothing in particular follows from the absence of anything, including from the absence of belief in God.

But, of course, many associate atheism with one or another different belief about various matters, including morality. No, nothing about morality follows from atheism except that God couldn’t be the source of it. So what Sam Harris, author of two widely discussed recent books about atheism, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, claims about the relationship of atheism and morality is highly dubious. In The Los Angeles Times he wrote
"...We do not get our morality from religion. We decide what is good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands of years of thinking about the causes and possibilities of human happiness.
"We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn’t make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery—and yet every civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination. Whatever is good in Scripture—like the golden rule—can be valued for its ethical wisdom without our believing that it was handed down to us by the creator of the universe."
Of course simply because there are morally intolerable ideas in the Bible and the Koran, it doesn’t mean all atheists reject those ideas. Some may very well embrace them and also be atheists. What is especially important to realize, however, is that no theory of the origin or basis of morality follows from atheism, certainly not the one Harris mentions, namely, that ethics is innate—“(at some level) hard-wired”—in us. Certain atheists hold this view but many others do not.
It is quite implausible that human beings are hard-wired with ethics since so much rank unethical conduct abounds in the world and hard-wiring would amount to our being automatically or instinctively ethical—the way animals are hard-wired to behave as they do. Indeed, if to be an atheist one needs to believe that we are hard-wired with ethics, atheism couldn't be right from the start. That’s because if from a supposed fact something false follows, than it cannot be a fact. But, of course, from atheism nothing follows about ethics being hard-wired. There can be atheists who do think that but also ones who do not, who believe that ethics needs to be learned and people have the freedom of will to accept or reject even the correct moral system.
Why is Harris’ version of atheism, from which a hard-wired ethics is supposed to follow, the Achilles’ heel of his position? Because if there is anything nearly everyone knows about ethics is that whether one is ethical or not is a matter of choice, the very opposite of being hard-wired in us. It is a central feature of the morally significant life, one in which ethics counts for a great deal, that people are not hard-wired about how they conduct themselves. It is a matter of their choice whether they do or do not do what's right. Some act properly, some nearly so, some not at all. It is essential about morality that people are free to do the right thing and are it is not their being hard-wired that makes them morally responsible. If you need to make no choice to act right, if you are hard-wired, then you can gain no credit or blame for what you do. And that’s the end of ethics or morality. If atheism is tied to this notion, that pretty much undermines atheism. If it rules out ethics, well then since ethics is so evidently part of human life, it cannot be right.
Actually, of course, atheism does not imply that we are hard-wired ethically. So maybe if some version of atheism is compatible with moral choice, then such an atheism could be true. Certainly there have been famous atheists for whom people are morally responsible and free to chose an ethical life versus an unethical one. So it would seem that merely because some versions of atheism do have the Achilles’ heel of lacking room for morality, it doesn’t mean all of them do.