Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Paris Freedom Fest talk

Here is a transcript of the talk I gave at the Paris Freedom Fest on september 11th. In honor of the date, I ad-libbed at the beginning, requesting that since the subject of my talk was the American Revolution, I'd like everyone to hold a moment of silence in honor of those who died in 9/11.

And then the talk - please note that this is the actual script I used, so there may be shorthand and formatting inconsistencies in places.

Enlightened England, Optimistic America

The title of this talk is Enlightened England, Optimistic America, and although it encompasses the most important aspects of what I want to talk about, there is one significant part that it does not encompass, in favor of alliteration. The gist of my talk is essentially that during the Age of Enlightenment in the 18thC, there were certain ideas that were invented only in England and Scotland that were in fact some of the most important moral ideas that we know of to date. And that as a direct result of those ideas, the United States of America was created; in fact, that the whole of the US is founded specifically on those ideas. That what America /is/, is those moral ideas made into something real, something tangible. That is roughly covered by the title of my talk, but what is not covered is another set of moral and epistemological ideas, which I consider best exemplified by the work of the 20thC philosopher Karl Popper. So, I will begin with a brief introduction to the parts of Popper's philosophy that are relevant to what I want to talk about today.

Firstly: Popper proposed that the question of "who should rule" is the wrong one to ask. This was the question that most people asked; who should be making decisions? Whose ideas have the most justification? Who has the most justified claim to authority? This question has been asked constantly throughout history and people have offered up various answers to it, like God, or society, or the dictator. Popper, however, said that what we should be asking is, "how do we get rid of errors"? If you follow "who should rule" to its logical conclusion, you must conclude that ideally what we want is one group or one person-- the one that should rule-- whose decisions cannot be opposed. In other words, this question, taken seriously, leads inevitably to facism.

The reason for this, however, is another idea that Popper endorsed, namely that man is a fallible animal. Were it possible for humans to know things infallibly-- with no possibility of error-- then "who should rule" would be a valid question, because having found the answer, there would be no need to oppose their decisions, because their decisions would be objectively right. But human knowledge is uncertain; we can never be perfectly sure that we have not made a mistake. The idea that man is fallible is not a new one by any means;
the pre-socratic philosopher Xenophanes made this observation when he said that
The gods did not reveal, form the beginning,
All things to us; but in the course of time,
Through seeking we may learn, and know things better...
These things are, we conjecture, like the truth.

But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
Nor will he know it; neither of the gods,
Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.
And even if by chance he were to utter
The final truth, he would not himself know it:
For all is but a woven web of guesses.

What is significant about Popper's ideas about fallibilism is not so much that he accepted that man was fallible, but that he, like Xenophanes, proposed that there was also a "final truth", or, an objective standard of morality. Philosophers of the 20th century-- and most philosophers before them-- seemed to be able to accept one or the other of those ideas, but not both. Those who proposed an objective standard of morality were also infallibilists, justificationists and the like, or else there were those who proposed that man was fallible but concluded that morality was subjective, relative to the individual or the culture or the epoch. There is only a tiny handful of philosophers who proposed that man may be mistaken, but that there is something for him to be mistaken about. So, the other central idea of Popper's that I wish to draw your attention to is this: there is an objective standard of morality, which man, although he cannot ever be certain of the truth of his ideas, may discover piecemeal through making conjectures and then criticizing them in order to get closer to this truth. Popper advocates the value of traditions, which contain a massive amount of knowledge both explicit and inexplicit, and only to change them when one has criticized them and found, tentatively, what seems to be a better way, a more true way, if you like, of living. He also says, and this is crucial, that the way to truth is through criticism, through disagreement.

Popper was writing in the late Twentieth Century; of course by that time many extremely dubious things had occurred with dubious philosophies to go with them. The 1900s are not renowned for their creation of solid moral philosophical thought. But two hundred years previously, an extremely significant event took place in Western Europe; the Age of Enlightenment. The main characteristic of the Enlightenment is said to be the triumph of reason over authority, namely the authority of the church and of the aristocracy. However, I propose that this is a serious misrepresentation; this Enlightenment took place only in England and Scotland, while the rest of Europe underwent what might be termed the Anti-Enlightenment. Whereas in England and Scotland, a more Xenophanian-- even Popperian-- approach was adopted, on the continent a utopian, infallibilist, and therefore, irrational approach was adopted. There was an atmosphere of casting out the chains and cobwebs of tradition, and only using reason-- failing to take into account that one may be mistaken over what is rational and what is not. It is, incidentally, essentially this combination of utopianism and infallibilism that led to the mass murders of the French Revolution. A philosopher so often cited as one of the representatives of the Age of Enlightenment, Jean Jacques Rousseau, proposed in his Social Contract that a government can only be legitimate if it has been sanctioned by the people in the role of the sovereign. However, he then says more explicitly what he means by this:

The heart of the idea of the social contract may be stated simply: Each of us places his person and authority under the supreme direction of the general will, and the group receives each individual as an indivisible part of the whole...

In other words, Rousseau has answered the question of "who should rule" with "the people", and consequently proposes Communism.

In stark contrast, I would like to introduce a little-known English philosopher, and a contemporary of Rousseau, named William Godwin. He wrote, amongst other things, "An Enquiry concerning Political Justice", and "The Enquirer". Evidently he was of a very inquisitive spirit. He is particularly notable to me for applying his ideas not only to governments and adults, but to education and to children; he opposed coercion not as and when it suited him, but as a moral tenet. He demonstrates this when he says,

"Let us consider the effect that coercion produces upon the mind of him against whom it is employed. It cannot begin with convincing; it is no argument. It begins with producing the sensation of pain, and the sentiment of distaste. It begins with violently alienating the mind from the truth with which we wish it to be impressed. It includes in it a tacit confession of imbecility. If he who employs coercion against me could mould me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would. He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because his argument is weak."

He also said of Rousseau on reading Emile, that one wished at one moment to fall at the author's feet and worship him, and at the next paragraph to get up again and strangle him.

Godwin's approach to coercion seems entirely compatible with Popper's criticism of the "who should rule" question. It also ought to be pointed out that Godwin is another of that small handful of philosophers that propose objective morality and fallibilism simultaneously.

It was, broadly speaking, this atmosphere of fallibilism and piecemeal improvement that dominated the philosophical climate in England and Scotland, uniquely amongst the countries of the Enlightenment, during this time. And it is precisely because of this that America, an English-speaking, English-colonized country, underwent the incredibly transformation that it did. There were lots of factors that I imagine helped; it was a young country, populated largely by those who wanted a new start, so it was easier for entrenched ideas to be shaken loose. It was also very far away from England, and as a result, from the King who at that time ruled it, so there was already less direct involvement with the ruler himself, and less of a sense of belonging under his jurisdiction, than there would have been in England itself.

Whatever the precise reasons that helped to make it possible, the fact of the matter is that the American Revolution was an ideological one, and the ideology on which it was predicated arose from the tolerant, fallibilist English/Scottish Enlightenment. As a demonstration of this, and in light of all the ideas I've introduced so far, I'd like to turn to James Madison, and Federalist No. 51, entitled: "The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments"

The first paragraph contains the line, "Without presuming to undertake a full development of this important idea, I will hazard a few general observations, which may perhaps place it in a clearer light, and enable us to form a more correct judgment of the principles and structure of the government planned by the convention." Considering that Madison is inventing the US government, this is fallibilism and modesty of Popperian proportions. Later on, he continues: "But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." He explicitly states that man is fallible, and essentially that either utopian view of civilization with no government at all, or of truly infallible rulers, are false.

It is interesting to note that a little earlier on, he also says "But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place." This is particularly reminiscent of Buchanan and choice theory, although I do not wish to focus on that. It is also another recognition of the undesirability of coercion; rather than proposing rules which can be forced upon the government, he advocates creating a system where the checks and balances are performed voluntarily and without coercion.

He continues, "This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. [...]that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights." This part, I think, is reminiscent of Ayn Rand; private interest ought not to be subordinated to public rights, but in fact is the very thing which creates them. And he directly opposes Rousseau's Social Contract and favors instead the rule of Law when he says that "In Republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates", and then again a little later on when he says that "Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure," and criticizes the rule of Man.

As he goes on, he is always mindful of the possibility that his own knowledge is mistaken; he takes care to say "If the principles on which these observations are founded be just, as I persuade myself they are,[...]" He does not even assume his principles to be right for the purposes of the paper; he evidently values fallibilism that much.

And again in contrast to Rousseau, he goes on to say that although the only legitimate rule is that which is sanctioned by the people, that this does not preclude the rule of Law, and that quite the opposite of the Rousseauian belief that what that means is for each individual to subjugate himself to the whole, that the way America will best avoid majority rule is by each individual acting in his own self-interest; that "Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority."

In the last part of the paper, he says: "Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit. In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger; and as, in the latter state, even the stronger individuals are prompted, by the uncertainty of their condition, to submit to a government which may protect the weak as well as themselves; so, in the former state, will the more powerful factions or parties be gradnally induced, by a like motive, to wish for a government which will protect all parties, the weaker as well as the more powerful." This observation of the value of individualism-- the value of disagreement-- to me is absolutely representative of the ideals upon which the nation of America was set in motion. These Enlightened ideals permeate the creation of America. In his book "Empire, Liberty and Reform", the philosopher Edmund Burke said "All I recommend is, that whenever the sacrifice of any subordinate point of morality, or of honour, or even of common liberal sentiment and feeling is called for, one ought to be tolerably sure that the object is worth it. Nothing is good, but in proportion and with reference." We see this throughout the development of America; no sacrifice for the sake of practicality is made without the moral principles being appealed to and born in mind. Americans were not utopianists, but they were not pragmatists either.

I have called England Enlightened; the reason for this is obvious, as I have demonstrated to the best of my current understanding that England, including Scotland, was the only enlightened country of the Age of Enlightenment. But I have not said explicitly why America is optimistic.

The Americans believed that problems could be solved; evidently so, as they were solving many of them. They had fought for their freedom on the basis of moral principle and ideology, and having won it, they set to using it to the best of their ability and understanding. To take this attitude is inherently optimistic; the opposite, pragmatism, is inherently pessimistic. It proposes that since there is no moral standard, and all courses of action must be the result of compromise and bipartisanship, that in fact man cannot solve any problems. But this is not the case; man solves problems constantly, as can be seen if no other way, by our steadily improving quality of life over the centuries. So to truly demonstrate why America can be characterized as optimistic, I will close with a quote of Popper's, from the introduction to his book "The Myth of the Framework", which I believe every one of the Founding Fathers would have agreed with, and the spirit of which prompted them to take the course of action they did, and to create the magnificent nation they did:

"But at least we need not accept that there is here - or elsewhere - a historical tendency for things to become worse. The future depends upon ourselves. It is we who bear the responsibility. For this reason, an important principle holds: It is our duty to remain optimists. The future is open. It is not pre-determined and thus cannot be predicted—except by accident. The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say "It is our duty to remain optimists", this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do: we are all responsible for what the future holds in store. Thus it is our duty, not to prophesy evil but, rather, to fight for a better world."

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