Sunday, January 13, 2008

The ideological divide by AC Grayling

The existence, or otherwise, of human autonomy is far from a merely abstract point: it is the key debate of the modern age.
reposted from:
Chris Street comments are in bright green;
highlights in yellow blockquotes

January 2, 2008 11:30 AM | Printable version

When societies move beyond subsistence level, giving their members time to reflect and debate, questions of principle emerge, and with them ideological differences in politics and ethics. These are closely connected for the obvious reason that individual projects of building good lives do better in the context of good societies, those which at the least safeguard the margins of liberty required for personal autonomy and chosen relationships while, as a background condition for them, promoting justice and stability. Because "goodness", "liberty" and "justice" are essentially contestable concepts, they are inevitably the focus of ideological differences, the major forms of which are familiar staples of daily debate.

But underlying these familiar differences is a deeper opposition of thought, one that concerns this question:

are individual human beings capable of overcoming such limitations of circumstance as birth, class, culture, deficits of education, and even the distorting pressures of history itself, to achieve by will and endeavour what they identify as good, granting that there are as many kinds of good as there are talents for achieving them?
Or are people, or the vast majority of them, too weak, too fallible, too constrained by those circumstances, to be able to do this, meaning that they are essentially dependent, and need to be instructed and guided by the few who assume the role of leaders, teachers, those who know the right answers and possess the truth?

This great struggle of ideas is a modern one. It arises from the realisation, beginning in the 16th century, that the latter view, which had been dominant everywhere in history save for the enfranchised (adult male) communities of the Greek city states of classical antiquity and the educated strata of subsequent Hellenistic and Roman (especially republican) society, required challenge on the grounds that

it not merely premises but actually works to achieve the permanent intellectual infancy of humanity.
The monolithic ideologies require a dependent, submissive mass mind; in recovering the classical idea of individual potential for autonomy - the capacity of individuals to shape themselves according to their conception of such truly human goods as love, friendship, pleasure, kindness, knowledge and discovery, creativity and achievement - the modern western liberal and secular mind has fought to break itself free from that imposed dependency.

This is not a merely abstract point. This deep divide in opinion about what human beings are and what they can do is at work in concrete ways in the daily reality of our world, from the quarrels between outlooks that divide us on this website to the bitterness and violence of too much of the world beyond it. I assert this here with the brevity imposed by this medium, but have argued the different aspects and implications of it at length in two books (What is Good? 2002 and Towards the Light, 2007) - a bit of advertising more for the argument itself than the books stating it, because the matter is so fundamental that it merits far more than blog-bitesize examination. That examination might show why there can be

such passionate opposition to anything that requires the entrapment of the human mind in the cage of one big truth that demands submission, the yielding of the autonomy that is our central human potential
- think of the Christian tenet of "dying to the self" and
what is meant by the "sin of pride" (viz thinking one can get by without God)
, remember that
"Islam" means "submission"
, think of Stalinism: they are all about obedience, heteronomy, dependence, tutelage, amounting even to a
prohibition against thinking for oneself;
for the first sin in Eden was disobedience, and the disobedient act - all too significantly - was one of acquiring knowledge.
And what is this submission and heteronomy but the condition of slavery, the denial of the freedom to become and to be one's own master, and by responsible effort therefore to achieve one's own unique best, whatever form one's best might take so long as it harms no other?
For something even more sinister has added itself here to the heteronomist view: the idea that people are indeed capable of autonomy, but must not have it.

In turning on nothing less than the question of the nature of humankind, the significance of today's debates is ultimate. The shock of collision between outlooks has exposed the nerve of the issue, and that is why so many are taking sides, or announcing which side they are already on.

The polarisation is alas as dangerous as it is inevitable, which is why it is worth iterating the hope that rational debate, respect for evidence, and clarity, will sooner rather than later bring a peaceful conclusion to this phase in what could be, and certainly should be, humankind's progress.

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