Monthly Archives: September 2017

Is it Freedom or Ego that is the Problem?

There has been much discussion on various anti-liberal blogs that freedom (i.e., the idea behind liberalism) is the cause of all society’s ills. There is the notion that if only liberalism could be abolished then something better would take its place and all the social problems of modernity would be solved. I suppose the thinking is that anything is better than liberalism therefore there is no need to come up with a replacement for it. Or perhaps the reluctance to come up with a replacement reflects the subconscious knowledge that liberalism really is not the problem and that the same issues will come to exist under any type of regime.

One theory I see over and over again is that liberalism leads to evil and specifically mass murder because it is “incoherent.” The theory that liberalism is “incoherent” is based upon the premise that a government action is by its nature restrictive. Even if a government acts to promote the rights of one person or group of people it will necessarily restrict the rights of another person or group of people. Therefore, it is “incoherent” to say that a priority of government should be to protect the freedom of its citizens (as Western governments typically do) because in actuality a government cannot protect the freedom of one group of people without assaulting the freedom of another group of people. For example (the argument goes) if the government protects the right of one group to speak freely it will necessarily assault the right of another group to not have to listen to what the first group has to say.

Let us assume this analysis actually proves the incoherence of liberalism (and not the balancing of competing priorities). Does this incoherence really lead to mass murder as is claimed by the anti-liberals? The anti-liberal’s “go to” example of modern day mass murder is abortion. They argue that because liberalism is incoherent it can be used to justify abortion just as it was used (they argue) to justify the killing of Jews by the Nazis in World War II, the nuking of Hiroshima and the execution of opponents to Communist reform in the Soviet Union under Stalin. This justification arises under the “principle of explosion” apparently because under a contradictory logical construct such as is (supposedly) liberalism anything can be logically inferred to be true.

There are a few problems with this line of thinking. First of all, understanding the “principle of explosion” requires more than a bit of formal logic theory under one’s belt. It is not a theory that is readily grasped by the general public without this education. Therefore, to say that this principle is somehow used by liberals to justify their actions seems to be a bit of a stretch on its face. However, the argument might be that although expressing the principle of explosion in formal logic requires an education in logic that most people do not have, the principle itself is sound because most people on some intuitive level appreciate it to be true and use it to justify their beliefs psychologically. This too I think is a stretch because the intuitive level is governed more by emotion and ego than obscure rules of formal logic. But let us also assume this to be correct.

So then, we are now assuming it is correct that the belief in incoherent doctrines can lead to mass murder. It seems to me that from the perspective of the orthodox Christians who believe this this theory there is an obvious flaw they are ignoring. That is, the belief that incoherent doctrines lead to mass murder not only condemns liberalism (assuming liberalism is actually incoherent) but it would also condemn Christianity itself. There are many tenets in Christianity that are incoherent on their face (arguably). For example, the doctrine of the Trinity is logically incoherent. The belief that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man is logically incoherent. The belief that the Eucharist is actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ during the Roman Catholic mass is logically incoherent. The theodicy question suggests an incoherence to Christianity as well. These are but a few examples of arguments that could be made to demonstrate the incoherence of Christianity that are far more convincing (in my mind) than the argument that supposedly demonstrates the incoherence of liberalism.

All that being said, I do not consider either liberalism or Christianity to be incoherent. Nor do I believe that an incoherence of a doctrine logically leads to mass murder. So then the question arises what does give rise to these incidences of mass murder than take place in modern times? I think a far more logical explanation for the existence of mass murder in modern times is the modern technology that makes it possible.

The anti-liberals will argue that these acts of mass murder have only occurred under liberal regimes. But the fact that these events have (arguably) occurred only under liberal regimes does not prove that only liberal regimes are capable of committing acts of mass murder. Indeed the same people who argue only liberal regimes can commit mass murder are the same people who argue there are only liberal regimes in modern times. I think it is clear that this line of thinking easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy because if there are only liberal regimes in the world then any crime committed in the world can be blamed on liberalism. Moreover, examples of illiberal regimes committing acts of mass murder (albeit on a smaller scale) can be pointed to in the Inquisition and the Crusades. It is easy to conceive that these acts of cruelty could have been much more extensive had the perpetrators had access to modern technology.

I use these examples not to attack Christianity. I am a Christian. I use them to demonstrate that any political philosophy or belief system is capable of mass murder given the right circumstances and therefore to believe that the supposed incoherence of liberalism is responsible for these acts is a fallacy.

But modern technology is not the whole explanation. So what then is the discriminating authority that causes one person or group of people to commit an act of violence on another person or group of people? Might I suggest that it is ego. It is the voice within the self that says I am right and he is wrong. It is the voice within the self that says I am different than him (or her). It is the voice in the self that says I am better than him or her. It is the voice within the self that says if you disagree with me you must lack the capacity to understand me. It is the voice in the self that says you are my enemy. In my mind (and I would think most reasonable people would agree) this is the real problem.

 

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Essentialism and Egotism

ESSENTIALISM AND NOMINALISM

From what I gather reading the Orthosphere and other related anti-liberal blogs, anti-liberals believe essentialism and anti-liberalism go hand in hand. To aid my loyal readers who may not be familiar with this term, Essentialism is a philosophy holding everything has a set of characteristics that define it and that this essence has an existence logically prior to the existence of the thing itself. For example, a dog has a set of characteristics that make it a dog and not a cat. In other words, there exists an essence of “dogness” that all things we call dogs possess which is why we refer to them by the same name. Put another way, the label “dog” is indicative of a pre-existing truth.

Essentialism is typically contrasted (by anti-liberals) with nominalism which is a philosophy holding that these essences are only labels or intellectual concepts without any actual corresponding reality and that only things (not the essence of things) exist prior to the labels man applies to them. For example, a dog is a thing man calls a dog because it makes it easier for man to conceptualize a grouping of similar things. In other words, the things man calls dogs exist but this label “dog” is a just a creation of man. Moreover, man could just as easily contrived some other labeling system that did not segregate dogs into a discrete category the way man is used to thinking of dogs.

I can see different appealing aspects to both philosophies. The appeal of essentialism is that it presumes a reality and truth that exists independent of the mind of man. The universe has an order to it and it becomes man’s job (if he chooses) to seek after this pre-existing truth of reality. By contrast, the appeal of nominalism is the presumption of a universe in which man is free (to a certain extent) to define and shape as he sees fit. Whether a person identifies as an essentialist or a nominalist depends upon their view of the world which is in turn determined by their culture, religion, education and psychology. I imagine most people do not consciously identify as either. Interestingly enough, I have observed that anti-liberals tend to use nominalism as a pejorative term.

THE GOOD

There also seems to be a link between what anti-liberals consider to be orthodox (small “o”) Christianity and essentialism. This link has to do with there being one true definition (i.e., the essence) of the good which is reflective of God’s will and exists independent of man’s speculation or opinion of the good. Among essentialists there does exist some degree of agreement on at least part of the definition of the good. One can certainly look to the Bible and to the magisterium of the Catholic church (if one happens to be Roman Catholic) for guidance on this subject. Of course, not everyone happens to be a Roman Catholic or even Christian and so in this general sense there does not exist a universal agreement as to the definition of the good. Essentialists believe this definition exists none the less despite the fact that even they do not possess one hundred percent clarity as to what is in fact the definition of the good.

Even Saint Paul laments, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33). Based on this passage it seems to me to be extremely arrogant for a person to presume to know the mind of God which is the vault in which resides the exact definition of the good. I accept, certain aspects of the good can be discerned from various secondary sources but the entire picture remains (as Saint Paul accurately points out) inscrutable in part.

THE ESSENTIALISM / NOMINALISM DICHITOMY

I am not convinced that liberalism (defined as the political philosophy espousing that the freedom and equal rights of citizens should be a nonexclusive priority of government) has a special relationship with nominalism. Perhaps one could argue that the very notion of freedom implies a rejection of the tyranny of labels. But one could also conceive of a person being “free” within a specific set of rules or parameters. It has been my experience that most educated and reasonable people understand the notion of freedom as used in political discourse to refer to Western political structures which are relatively more free than dictatorships, police states and authoritarian polities and not the non existent, straw man society where every citizen is absolutely free. As such, the “freedom” liberalism espouses is not a total rejection of authority and labels by any means and is therefore not incompatible with essentialism as far as I can see.

I am also not convinced that the essentialism / nominalism dichotomy is an accurate reflection of how people generally look at the world. Essentialism holds that a definition of the good exists independent of man’s conception of the good. Nominalism rejects this pre-existence of the definition of the good and thus leaves it up to man to make this determination. But I can certainly conceive of a person believing in freedom and a pre-existing definition of the good at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive. I can also think of a third category where there is a pre-existing definition of the good that man does not have one hundred percent clarity as to the exact nature of the good so therefore there is room for speculation. I can even think of a fourth category where essentialism is true for some things but not others. I suspect, however, that the rejection of this dichotomy would be seen by an essentialist to be a symptom of nominalism.

EGOTISM AND ESSENTIALISM

Based on my admittedly limited experience the impression I get from many essentialists is that they have convinced themselves that they have clarity as to the exact nature of the good. The process of convincing themselves may have been augmented by their tendency not to converse with or take seriously anyone who might hold a different perspective or challenge them in any way. One can see how easy it would be for a person believing himself to have clarity as to the exact nature of the good to judge and criticize those with a different perspective.

It would make sense that an essentialist who truly believed his own dogma to be true would also have to believe that anyone who disagreed with him was either dishonest or lacked the capacity to understand his particular position. He might very well view the ability to see things from different points of view as smacking of the heresy of nominalism.

It seems to me that a true essentialist would be humble because he would know there are truths greater than the self and the mind’s ability to conceptualize. As Saint Paul reminds us, God’s ways are inscrutable. But for a man to have convinced himself of his own hold on truth and goodness seems to me to be closer to nominalism than essentialism. If given temporal power who knows what cruelties he might inflict on those he would condemn from his lofty perch. This (it seems to me) is the true danger of arrogant egotism combined with essentialism.

 

 

 

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