Enlightenment liberalism

enlightenmentAs politics has continued its evolution across time, my position has slowly drifted from what used to be a liberal one to one that seems to have more in common with the #altright. This was somewhat curious to me, as my values and perspectives have not really changed on what I consider the major issues. This is why I decided to write up a post on what being an enlightenment liberal actually entails. I’ve written on the enlightenment before as a part of the social justice chronicles, to give a quick introduction, it was a period where philosophers defined and argued in favor of the values that are the foundation for our modern western nation states. From Hobbes, John Stuart Mill and Thomas Paine on Government, Adam Smith on Economics, Kant on Ethics, Hume, Voltaire and Rousseau on a range of topics.

This created a foundation on which the most successful states of the next 300 – 400 years (depending on what you regard as the start of the enlightenment) were built, and that have made them the most free, and well-functioning states in the world. However, over time the ideals of classical liberalism have become undermined by the group referred to as the “regressive left” and by the conservatives who by now should be seeking to conserve those values. While the literature from the classical liberals and those who followed them, is great and diverse the agreement on Universality and freedom of expression is strong.

Foremost, what serves as the foundation for the philosophy of the enlightenment are the values that came forth in the scientific revolution, namely empiricism and reason.

“To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.” Thomas Paine

Utilitarianism

“The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest-Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” John Stuart Mill

Utilitarianism has taken many forms and has been used to justify and rationalize many poor actions. One could argue that in a state where 51% agree on values and the other 49% disagree, perhaps there should be two states rather than one as this would tend to make happiness greater among the entire 100%. However, in the case where the 49% are the majority producers of happiness in the existing state, there is no doubt that the other 51% would suffer more pain and unhappiness, should those 49% elect to form their own civilization. This largely becomes a question of ethics, is it right for one part of a population to derive their happiness from the work of the other part of the population?

Without getting into the arguments of socialism vs capitalism, it is easy to argue in favor of both minority and majority dictatorships and this is frequently done in the public square. Naturally, it is easier to enslave 10% of your population under the guise of utilitarianism, and defend it on the basis that the happiness of the remaining 90% outweighs the misery of the 10%. In order to ensure a balance within the state, utilitarianism is balanced by universality.

Universality Equality and Rights

“Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.” Thomas Paine

The point in the quote above, is one of universality, the concept that we all share the same rights and also the same duties, and to unequally distribute them in a morally reprehensible act. Kant famously formulated this in his categorical imperative in that when acting, a man should ask himself of the consequences should his action in that context become a law of nature. For instance, if the reaction to someone stating something you disagree with, is to de-platform them, take away their means to make a living, slander them and physically assault them, and this would be the action of everyone every single time someone stated something they disagree with, would that create a better world or a worse world?

Universality of rights and duties are a central tenet of enlightenment liberalism, you and I share the same rights, and the same duty to be the guardian of those rights for others. To seek to take from others a right that you wish for yourself, or for others to be guardians of a right which you do not desire them to have, is not only a failure of ethics, but also a failure of understanding that in a state without universality is one of slavery. So how does one arrive at what rights a population has, and what duties a population should have? The enlightenment philosophers looked towards what man’s natural state would be. What rights arise from someone merely being human, this became the basis for natural law.

Natural law

The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.” John Locke

Natural law creates a distinction between man made laws and those that come from nature. It views the state as a guardian of the freedoms given to every man by nature upon his birth. A man in nature may speak his mind, defend his property, and his life. The view of the enlightenment philosophers was that human beings are born with rights that human laws can never take away. The right to defend himself and his family, after all, if you do not have a right to defend your life, that would mean that you have no right to live, so why did nature bring you into existence? A man in nature is an island that is free to speak his mind, and to defend his life by any means necessary should anyone attempt to take his life for his words.

Human laws, civilization and property

“As a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”  James Madison

From some perspectives, the privatization of property and income was one of the major enables of innovation and development in the Western World. Once people who made inventions were allowed to keep the bulk of income they generated, it created an incentive to be creative and innovative, as the risk of the King merely confiscating the majority of the income from your labour at a whim became much less. The right to property is balanced by the Lockian-proviso [2] that states that once property becomes a zero-sum game, then the right changes. Locke’s thoughts were related to land, in that an individuals right to homestead (privatizing property from nature) is conditional on there being enough property left for others. In our modern time where intellectual property and inventions have taken the place of land as the major commodity, this is covered by patents and intellectual property law.

The right to ownership is said to come from the combination of labour with natural resources. A man who comes across a tree with apples on it, may invest his labour in the tree, and as a result gets a right to ownership of what it produces. Another, stronger man may come across him and try to take his property from him, the other may may succeed. This forms the basis for a civilization, as men who have invested their labour in property, may decide that they are stronger if they all agree to defend the property of the others in exchange for aid to defend their own. This forms a human law that dictates that each man has a duty to defend the property of the other men covered by the law, in exchange for the right to aid should he so require. This is the beginning of the young civilization, a trade among free men for the betterment of all those involved. The risk of losing their investment is lower, and the risk to the life of each one is lower. This is an agreement entered by free men made of their own volition based on the self-interest of each individual to defend their property, in doing so they also defend the property of rights each has from nature.

Once our world changed from agricultural land being the primary source of income and prosperity, this game changed from zero-sum to a game wherein everyone given creativity and labour can create for themselves a piece of property on which to base their life. As a species we moved on step away from the subsistence existence, towards one that values intellect, creativity and rewards them well. However, this also changes the importance of the law. For while under the old world of agricultural land, taking land from a man was only to confiscate his labour and means of survival.  Whereas taking intellectual property from man is taking not only his labour and means of survival, it is also to take from him his creativity, his intelligence and his soul. Thus the protection of the products of imagination, intellect and creativity must today be viewed as the population of the agricultural world viewed taking land or cattle.

Liberty

“In fact, if law were restricted to protecting all persons, all liberties, and all properties; if law were nothing more than the organized combination of the individual’s right to self-defense; if law were the obstacle, the check, the punisher of all oppression and plunder — is it likely that we citizens would then argue much about the extent of the franchise?” Frédéric Bastiat

The core of liberty in enlightenment liberalism tends to be maximizing the natural rights the population can have, while minimizing the limitation of those duties put upon the population by the state. For instance, in the natural world we may all posses what weapons we desire or require. Limiting this to safeguard a society also means diminishing the right of each citizen to defend themselves and the ability to defend their own person and property. To demand the benefit generated by the labour of another without compensation, is likewise undermining the natural right to property and the right to defend that property.

To be as free as possible, accepting only duties of their own volition and demanding that the state only take away rights to the bare minimum is the core proposition of a state founded on enlightenment principles.

The role of the state is to maintain the rights of people as they are in nature in exchange for a suitable balance of duties that it imposes to serve its purpose. Should the state elect to impose a high balance of duties or take away rights, it is the duty of all citizens to oppose this encroachment and destruction of the social contract. Both the individual and the collective may propose changes or amendments to the social contract, however they must be mindful that it does not upset the gentle balance between democracy and tyranny. Understand that a social contract is fragile, and the loss of trust among the parties to the contract, is likely to end with a breach.

On Tyrants and Authoritarians

Usurpers always bring about or select troublous times to get passed, under cover of the public terror, destructive laws, which the people would never adopt in cold blood. The moment chosen is one of the surest means of distinguishing the work of the legislator from that of the tyrant.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau

As stated, be mindful of legislating or accepting others to legislate on your behalf when you are not of sound mind and body. Strangely enough, one may not enforce a will where the signatory was not of sound mind or body, yet politicians readily encourage and incite the population to act on a basis of anything but reason and empiricism. Should a legislator propose laws that would readily and massively restrict rights and increase duties, one should be mindful of their consequence and ones own states, remaining stoic and forcing oneself to utilize cold-blooded reason over warm-blooded emotions.

If one looks at those states that have devolved from democracy to tyranny, the road is most predictable. In a situation where the population is fearful, institute laws under the guise of making them safe.

“Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” Benjamin Franklin

Freedom of speech

“I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” Attributed to Voltaire

The role of freedom of speech, thought and expression is as a method to achieve and maintain a state, in which the population has as much freedom as possible. It allows for ideas to be presented in the marketplace of free ideas, and thus contributes intellectual property to the public discourse. In addition, the freedom to oppose and argue against ideas in the marketplace creates a counter-weight. The combination of both the apologist and the critic, allows both the refinement of ideas through various methods, but also permits bad ideas to be eliminated. A marketplace of ideas without the right and duty to oppose bad ideas is like a city without waste management, garbage ends up everywhere.

Many argue that the freedom of speech enshrined in many constitutions in the west, is merely the protection of the individual’s right to free speech from the state, rather than from other individuals. However, with the advent of hate speech laws, the states are already making their moves against free expression. There were already laws in place in many states to cover issues such as incitement to violence, and threats, adding a dimension based on what is being said, is a serious and severe infringement of freedom of expression. Secondly, to quote Bertrand Russell:

“It is clear that thought is not free if the profession of certain opinions makes it impossible to earn a living. It is clear also that thought is not free if all the arguments on one side of a controversy are perpetually presented as attractively as possible, while the arguments on the other side can only be discovered by diligent search.”

What Russell argues here is that by permitting the population to eliminate one’s way of earning a living as revenge or as a means to silence opposing speech, the State fails to protect the life and pursuit of happiness. In a small thought experiment, where you either work or starve to death, someone eliminating your ability to work is in fact a case of murder. Secondly, he also points out quite clearly, that the “driver dichotomy“* is a case of suppressing people’s right to hear arguments from both sides in an intellectually honest manner.

We must not forget that we both enjoy the right of free speech but also the duty to defend it against those tyrants who would take it away.

*The driver dichotomy is that everyone who drives faster than you is a maniac, while everyone who drives slower than you is an idiot.

What liberalism is not

The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end.” Leon Trotsky

The above quote is one that is very interesting from a utilitarian perspective. If the end is justified (or more likely rationalized) through the argument that it will promote maximum happiness and minimum pain, then it follows that the means justify the end. The logical conclusion of this argument is that minimum pleasure and maximum pain now, is justified if the rationalized end leads to a higher maximum happiness and a lower minimum pain than merely remaining in the status quo. Thus, if your vision is grand enough, and your justification appears sound enough, then by any means achieve your end.

A classic trait of authoritarian and tyrannical regimes is their willingness to accept a doctrine that the means justify the end, regardless of Kant’s proposition to treat people as ends in themselves, not merely means to an end as a cardinal principle of ethical behavior. This can only happen once both the means and the motive exists to violate the principles outlined above.

The core of the authoritarian SJW mindset is a rejection of the fundamental values of enlightenment liberalism. Adopting the mindset that the end justifies the means, they undermine universality in order to push their agenda further. Through their glorification of historically “oppressed groups“, at the cost of historically “privileged groups“, which further enables them to unequally distribute rights and duties. Rights to the previously “oppressed” groups and duties to the alleged “privileged” groups. Rather than trying to live up to the dream of Martin Luther King, they judge purely based on the color of skin, the sex, and the sexuality of a person. Once universality is eliminated one can start to chip away at the other enlightenment principles that are all built upon the concept.

One can suppress freedom of expression under the guise of “hate speech” and by labeling ideas, counter-arguments and speech that contradicts or opposes yours as “hate speech“. Ignoring the fact that the “hate speech” laws of today are merely the modern variant of a blasphemy law.  The major difference being that while the blasphemy law protected people’s strongly held religious beliefs, the “hate speech” laws protect people’s feelings. One may ask what the major difference is between anti-discrimination laws and hate speech laws, and it is quite simple. The former enforces the enlightenment principle of equal rights, the latter contradicts the same principle.

Once freedom of expression is removed, the authoritarians may proceed with more fervor than before, as their opposition has now been silenced. Under the guise of the prosperous end, they can take away natural rights, property and liberty with impunity. Once, rights, property and liberty are taken away the authoritarian can sit back and enjoy the dictatorship of their own making.

There is an old statement of “If you tolerate intolerance you are not a liberal” this is a flawed statement and a perfect example of circular reasoning. A statement in the enlightenment spirit would be “If you tolerate unequal distributions of rights and duties, then you are not a liberal” if you tolerate that others must carry more of the burden or have less rights, then you destroy the end of classical liberalism. If then free speech is destroyed, it means the destruction of the means of classical liberalism.

To take this to the battlefields of the #safespace and #triggerwarning authoritarians currently growing like a cancer. It is clear that universality would simply lead to a stand-still. If they are faced with demands for #safespaces, #triggerwarnings and cries of “hate speech” whenever they open their mouth in public, followed by attempts to have them dismissed from their place of employment, expulsion from their places of education, and loss of platforms to speak.

“I’m very depressed how in this country you can be told “That’s offensive” as though those two words constitute an argument.” Christopher Hitchens

To take offense at the words of another, is fair. If you seek to deny them the right to speak on the basis of you being offended, it follows that you put your sensibilities above their right to speak, and perhaps even worse over the right of everyone else to hear. Socrates was made to drink hemlock as a result of offending the sensibilities of popular opinion and discourse in Athens. Unfortunately, the people who seem to be attacked for speaking their mind and often suffer harsh consequences for doing so, are those who are at odds with popular opinion. Those who are outside of public opinion may be offensive, destructive or utterly wrong. However, they may also be the only ones who dare speak truth to the public and power, such as Zola against antisemitism in the French military and government, Niemoller against the Nazis (eventually) and numerous authors and intellectuals against the Soviet model.

“The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widely spread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.” Bertrand Russell

References:

[1] http://www.zerohedge.com/article/middle-class-really-carrying-tax-burden-contrarian-view-no-shared-sacrifice

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockean_proviso

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2 comments on “Enlightenment liberalism

  1. […] modern civilization owes much to the philosophers and natural scientists of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, as their rediscovery of Greek philosophy brought Europe out of the Dark Ages and towards the […]

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