Classical Liberalism (Part Two)

The second of my two-part conversation with our own David Ottlinger on Classical Liberalism and its fortunes in the US.  Originally aired on January 23, 2017, on the Sophia program on MeaningofLife.TV, part of the BloggingHeads.TV network

14 Comments »

  1. Not surprised that David Ottlinger isn’t a Hobbes fan, but I must say I *was* surprised at the obvious strength of his (negative) feelings. It’s rather amusing really, given that I mentioned Hobbes favorably in my comment on part one. (I realize that part two had probably already been recorded.)

    For fear of repeating things I’ve already said I won’t try to spell out the significance of these likes/dislikes except to say that we come to political discussion loaded up feelings and ideas, many of them quite subjective. This is something I would like to see openly acknowledged and discussed more than it usually is in (philosophical and academic) political discourse.

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  2. Mark, this is becoming a rather regular refrain of yours, in an effort to discredit the validity of what people say, by vaguely waving your hand at the notion that people come to political discussion “loaded up with feelings and ideas, many of them quite subjective.”

    If you have an actual argument, make it. Otherwise, there’s nothing to respond to. The discussion is about classical liberalism in the US. To that discussion, Hobbes is barely relevant. Locke and Mill are central. You may have no interest in classical liberalism in the US, but that, of course, is your issue and has nothing to do with whether Locke and Mill are properly chosen as the main philosophers about whom to talk in such a context.

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  3. Hi guys, so I am glad I watched this before finishing any of my pieces on liberalism (note to Dan, should be done with gun-rights piece by tomorrow).

    1) I somewhat want to tentatively agree with David’s take on the influence of classical liberalism on the US gov’t. Of course, I do think it serves as the major influence and is critical to its existence. That said, I don’t think there is ever an absence of what seems to be getting argued as a “classical” or “ancient” view of humans or the common good.

    I started getting at this in my reply to the last video. The classical liberal v ancient view to me are two sides of the same coin. I suppose I could appeal to Dawkins’ metaphor of the Necker Cube. When looking at society, one can emphasize the way the individual is shaped by and part of a whole (which has its own forces, needs, and even wants), or pop it inside out to see how the individuals work together create societies they are a part of (with individuals having their own forces, needs, and wants).

    These contrasting views could be called the reductionist v the holistic, or the autonomous v the collective?

    In discussing politics, government, society there will always be a tension between which view to take or emphasize. One might wonder how much the “ancients” were limited to the “holistic” view, never considering the individual as we do today, when much of their writing was filtered through centuries of societies that wanted to repress that very viewpoint. There may have been many Lockes that we just have no idea existed, or works of known authors espousing such views.

    Anyway, once a gov’t is active those in executive positions often end up popping to the collective or holistic view. Perhaps that is just natural as you tend to think of your whole person, rather than each cell of your body. Certainly Machiavelli talks to the person on top as having a totally separate set of concerns.

    I see the decline of classical liberalism, as stemming from loss of societal interest in the autonomous or reductionist view of society, popping the Necker Cube to only see a “common good” a “best for all” which must be sought at cost to individuals (amazingly not their group), and so placing themselves as little tyrants over others.

    2) I guess my view from point 1 somewhat dovetails with David’s view of what drives the PC people. It is interesting to consider whether the holistic view of society in some way requires or invites a reductionist view of the individual (we are run by our components), while the reductionist view of society requires a holistic view of the individual.

    However, I am not convinced that trends in psychology or neuroscience are driving this or necessarily prop the PC narrative. There are scientists who argue against both trends, and even scientists that support reductionist views of the individual (you mention Haidt) who are against PC.

    What I would argue is that just like views of society, people can take reductionist v holistic views of the individual (compared to their components), and like Necker Cubes pop them in and out. Neither is wrong, but neither is complete.

    And to me it seems most people are choosing what view points are needed to make whatever argument they want to make. That is they start with their desire and construct the rationale backward. And given this is often done on a case by case basis there are a multitude of hypocrisies and inconsistencies. Look at the PC person who thinks (according to David’s idea) that people are products of society and so society must be changed, and yet claim to be completely self-made or champion being total individuals free from the cultural restraints they are born into.

    And this inconsistency means I am much less interested in that level of explanation, rather than watching what they are doing (what is consistent). And this moves entirely into Dan’s concerns. The growing equivocation between “momentary discomfort” and “harm”, the switch from “debate” to “confrontation and coercion”.

    I think this predates recent psych and neuro trends, and grew out of the growing adoption by factions on the left of far right narratives and mechanics. Second wave feminism really refocused attention of those on the left from strength and success, to victimhood (in the past and constant vigilance of victimhood in the present). As discussed in another thread, an increase in hypersensitivity to some subjects while deadening the nerves on many other fronts.

    Of course I am not only blaming them. Others on the left and right have used the same thing. It is just the 2nd wave feminists seem to have had the greatest traction and combined with right wingers against human sexuality (yucky and damaging) which really helped drive the “momentary discomfort” is “harm” equation.

    These moves give such individuals an excuse to exercise power over others (who are now aggressors and so deserve it), or to actively enlist state power to act against those others on their behalf. Debate and experiment has ended. It is a contest of wills.

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  4. Dwayne: There is a lot of wisdom in what you say here, and I agree with an awful lot of it. One thing I would push back on, however, is that i believe that *philosophically* the modern conception of the individual is not only absent from ancient thought, but inconsistent with it. The Lockean definition of personhood in the Essay is philosophically inconsistent/incompatible with Aristotle’s conception of a person or indeed, any ancient Greek thinker’s conception.

    You may be right to say that the American conception has always been a mishmash of the two, but to the extent that it is, it is at least, philosophically incoherent. How big a problem that is, of course, is highly debatable.

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  5. “Mark, this is becoming a rather regular refrain of yours in an effort to discredit the validity of what people say by vaguely waving your hand at the notion that people come to political discussion “loaded up with feelings and ideas, many of them quite subjective.” ”

    But they do, don’t they? And this does indeed have implications for how political discussion such as this should be seen. (I would not use the word “discredit”.)

    “If you have an actual argument, make it. Otherwise, there’s nothing to respond to.”

    As I indicated, I have made the argument before. I don’t want to bore people or hijack the discussion. You seem to be be saying, don’t comment (however briefly) unless you want to play the game our way.

    “The discussion is about classical liberalism in the US. To that discussion, Hobbes is barely relevant.”

    But David mentioned Hobbes in scathing terms. I was responding to that.

    “Locke and Mill are central. You may have no interest in classical liberalism in the US, but that, of course, is your issue and has nothing to do with whether Locke and Mill are properly chosen as the main philosophers about whom to talk in such a context.”

    I know about Locke’s close links with your founding documents. I am not casting aspersions on your historical knowledge or the philosophical subtlety of the discussion.

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  6. Hi Dan, thanks. You may very well be right, and I assume certainly right about the body of received knowledge from ancient Greeks, and specifics like Aristotle.

    My point is speculative and limited. It is that I am hesitant to accept a move from “absent from the writings we have from that time period” (which can be proven) to “absent from thoughts of the people in that time period” (which is near impossible).

    I want to give an analogy to help make this point. I have known people that say “there are no gays in X” (I’ll leave the country out). They are adamant about this and say no one there thinks about having sex with others of the same gender. And it is true in any media source you can find from that country… there is no record or discussion of gays existing or having any culture there. Then you find actual gays from that country, who say yeah, you can’t discuss this at all in that country. But they do exist there and have an underground culture that is simply not recorded. There are of course other examples, of suppressions, purges, and genocides which have happened against other peoples and ways of thinking. People and ways of thought are made to disappear.

    With this in mind (happening in modern existing countries), I simply have no way of knowing what the people back in ancient times actually thought. Perhaps no one ever had such a “modern” conception of the individual during that time. Perhaps some did but it was never very popular and so not written down or not preserved well by them. Perhaps such works and ideas existed and popular in an underground fashion but were successfully suppressed at that time. Or finally, maybe they existed (in some degree smaller or larger) and were subsequently suppressed and eliminated over the centuries (passively or actively) by following cultures where such thoughts were definitely counter to political interests.

    I hope this explains my skepticism better, though obviously you may still disagree and think we have enough works and references from that time to understand the full body of thought.

    Of course, that still means it is valid to talk about an “ancient” vs “modern” concept of the individual (related to the representative works we have). And especially with regard to the emergence of classical liberalism/foundation of the US gov’t. If there was a “modern” concept of the individual back in ancient times, the point is (according the skeptical theory itself) it didn’t make it out of there and so could not have influenced Locke and then the authors of the US constitution… Unless I was going to invoke some Free Masonic style conspiracy theory. 🙂

    “You may be right to say that the American conception has always been a mishmash of the two, but to the extent that it is, it is at least, philosophically incoherent.”

    I completely grant and believe these are largely incompatible and so an attempt to run both is philosophically incoherent. Perhaps you would agree that the idea was to run classical liberal with a view toward the individual, except when overreaching concerns force a pragmatic use of a holistic concept.

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  7. Mark, I by no means intend to restrict or prohibit any sort of discussion other than the completely abusive or utterly irrelevant. My comment was not intended in that light.

    I don’t know that David is “scathing” on Hobbes. I certainly am not. He is incredibly important in a number of ways. It’s just that with regard to *this* topic — i.e. classical liberalism — his importance is minimal.

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  8. I watched good parts of both discussions – Thanks Dan and David !

    I had very similar impressions to those expressed by DB although I doubt I could have expressed them as nicely as he has in his first comment. It seems to me that this wholism/reductionism two sided way of looking at the same thing relates to so many others philosophical issues that come up here. It so easy to fall into the trap of framing things one way and negating or forgetting what is left out of view due to the framing device.

    One of the things I like about the Taoism of Zhaungzi and also Tian Tai Buddism that I have recently been reading is that it puts an emphasis on recognizing and trying to resolve (temporarily) this ‘something left out’.

    thanks again.

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  9. Dan, David,
    I haven’t commented previously, and most likely won’t, in any depth. First, I am politically exhausted; but also, I feel that classical liberalism, which is the basis of American political thought (until recently) is itself basically exhausted; I am afraid the facts on the ground (and over the past forty years), have finally led me to abandon the hope of any kind of democracy or representative democracy. Bluntly, I think it’s a noble but failed experiment. It required an informed and reasoning electorate – and there is no such thing.

    I just wanted to add that while I agree that Mark misunderstood the issue specifically concerning Hobbes, I do agree with him that Hobbes’ understanding of the ‘social contract’ happens to be closer to reality than Locke’s. We are not the ‘social animal’ in the way that liberal political theory would like us to be.

    I should point out that I listened on and off to the discussion, so if this remark has already been addressed, I’m sorry for raising an issue already discussed. Again, I just couldn’t deal with politics as discussed for the past decades… the past century… the past three or four hundred years. The failure is palpable, and I don’t know how we’re going to move forward with a political philosophy that acknowledges the social realities that 1) there are people who probably should not have a vote, and 2) because they were allowed to vote, we now have the wrong elite in power.

    I’m not going to discuss that further here, because that’s obviously a protracted discussion; I only wanted to mention it because this is where my thought is now tending and that’s why I haven’t previously commented on what (given what I have heard of it) is an excellent discussion of the foundations of liberalism and its difficulties in the present era.

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  10. Hi Seth, thanks for the compliment! I don’t know much about Tian Tai Buddhism, but it probably won’t surprise you that I have studied Taoism.

    ………………..

    Hi EJ,

    “I am afraid the facts on the ground (and over the past forty years), have finally led me to abandon the hope of any kind of democracy or representative democracy. Bluntly, I think it’s a noble but failed experiment. It required an informed and reasoning electorate – and there is no such thing.”

    That seems a bit unfair and near-sighted. That there (arguably) might not be informed and reasonable voters at the moment, due to various cultural influences, does not undercut the entire concept or enterprise.

    “The failure is palpable, and I don’t know how we’re going to move forward with a political philosophy that acknowledges the social realities that 1) there are people who probably should not have a vote, and 2) because they were allowed to vote, we now have the wrong elite in power.”

    Bah on both those points. Well… I don’t like who is in power either, but the idea their supporters shouldn’t have been allowed to vote, and this is the sort of thing we get if they are, is a bit overdramatic. Indeed, that is what many on that side feel about their opposite numbers on “our” side. How’d you like no chance to elect them out?

    The result of this election (and much of the past) has been due to a terrible electoral system which fails to measure common interest. And unfortunately it got wedded (more recently) to a news industry that is profit driven.

    Both can change. And in fact Trump is against the current electoral system. It would be great if he could be empowered to get that changed, toward popular representation, and (even better) ranked voting.

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  11. Courts are already putting a stop to some of the things Trump is trying to do, and we can expect more of this in the days to come. And once the Republicans figure out that they cannot use Trump without being destroyed themselves, they will turn on him.

    The system is working as it should. Trump is starting to self-destruct. Let’s not get in the way.

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  12. Well, I admit to feeling depressed over current events, undoubtedly coloring my opinions with a good deal of pessimism and even cynicism. Nonetheless, I think there’s a real possibility that a post-democratic political philosophy is needed moving forward. However, again that would need further discussion which would unnecessarily complicate the current comment thread. Again, I just wanted to note why I’m having a hard time discussing the main topic here. It’s just frankly painful; Although, as noted, more a Hobbesean than a Lockean, I do recognize how important Locke’s ideas were to the founding of this country, and believe they furthered the cause of human liberation and aspiration. I’ve always thought this; so for me, the remarks I made do not come easily.

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  13. Excellent, informative, comments too, I haven’t finished listening yet, just wanted to say I’m enjoying it before the comments close.

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