Human Nature, Morality and Progressivism: A Layman’s View
Progressive politics? What do we mean?
That is the question posed by the host of this week’s edition of Carnival of the Liberals (#6), and one I am interested in looking at and sharing some thoughts with you, Dear Reader. However, there is no way in hell Your Montag can pull together all of my thoughts on this before the 10pm Tuesday deadline. So, here is Part One of a series of unpredictable length.
I’m a liberal. Just ask me, and I’ll tell you that’s what I am. But come to think of it, I haven’t really spent enough time hashing out what that really means. Repeated consultations of the Political Compass invariably confirm that my beliefs/attitudes place me well into the “Left Libertarian” quadrant, which seems like a fair assessment to me. Much of the material I read that is called “liberal” or “progressive,” more often than not, seems to jibe with my personal worldview and beliefs. But am I really a “liberal”/”progressive”? Are these terms as interchangeable as they seem to my mind? Perhaps I’ll lay my worldview on the table and let smarter people than me figure out what I should be calling it.
The only place I can imagine starting from to speak about my political leanings is with some thoughts on human nature and morality. Bear with me as I redefine words for my own purpose despite the words having perfectly workable definitions already. I’ll let it be known when I am doing this so you, Snickering Reader can both scoff at my ineptitude, but also decipher what it is I really mean to say. Hopefully.
Morality is a tough nut to crack. I’ll tell you I’ve tried, right here in this space, though I ask you not to read too much of it, because after the first page or so the whole adventure turned into an embarrassingly incoherent muddle, and has since stagnated out of my own shame and reluctance to go back and read the latest installment that I know to be a complete mess.
But enough of the self-deprecation and pity! I do feel like I have a good handle on human nature— How’s that for a hubristic statement? —so let’s begin with…
Montag’s Humble Theory of Human Nature: a graphical approach.
Human nature is what? Common traits, or characteristics among human beings? Something like that, right? And the most basic commonality among human beings is that we all have needs. Another basic commonality is that we must have power in order to fulfill those needs.
So it is time to lay some homemade and likely imperfect and imprecise definitions on you.
- When Your Montag says “free will”, and sometimes “freedom,” I mean that we are free to make decisions and choices and set courses of action, regardless of any law, force, rule, or moral code as to how we will go about satisfying our needs.
- When Your Montag says “liberty,” I mean the extent to which we have the power to act on the decisions and choices we make, and to follow the courses of action we set for ourselves in order to satisfy our needs.
- When Your Montag says “power” I am talking, first of all, about physical health and strength. Beyond that I am really just plagiarizing Bertrand Russell’s definition, which includes wealth, armaments, civil authority and influence on opinion.
You: Hey, Montag, you said this was going to be “a graphical approach.” What gives with the rambling on with all the words and shit?
Me: Bear with me. I’m about to bust out a graph on your impatient ass. In fact, without further ado, here it is. Eat it.
You: Ok… What the fuck am I supposed to get out of that?
Me: I’ll explain. Can I go back to using words, though?
You: [Sigh] Whatever, dude.
Thanks. Needs are illustrated by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, though I’ve knocked it over on it’s side. Now, perhaps Maslow didn’t have it all perfectly nailed down, but I’m basing my model of human nature on ‘needs;’ and I acknowledge that certain needs are more urgent than others, and that is what I use Maslow to illustrate. (My intuition, informed only by one semester of 100-level Psychology, allows me to accept the Hierarchy of Needs as at least a good starting point.)
Now the lines and curves are pretty much arbitrary. That is, they are not based on any hard data of any kind, but instead are based on, again, my personal intuition.
The magenta curved line represents the amount of power (vertical axis) that one would be justified in using in the pursuit of the particular corresponding needs (horizontal axis.) At zero on the needs axis, the power curve goes to infinity. This is meant to represent a kill-or-be-killed situation where there is no limit to the power one would be morally justified in using to survive. This would apply, I suppose on the battlefield, or in clear-cut cases of self-defense. From there, moving to the right as the needs become less “urgent” in a practical life-or-death sense, the amount of power that can be justified decreases.
The red curved line represents the amount of power (vertical axis) that— in my estimation —one usually actually has when they have reached a particular zone on the needs (horizontal axis.) This curve starts out pretty low on the power scale at the point where our base physiological needs are threatened. For instance, if five attackers stuffed you in a sleeping bag and are sitting on your chest, you are pretty powerless. From that point the curve climbs rapidly, because once you are not under attack and inside a sleeping bag and you are in an environment where there is food and water available for the taking, you are in a more tenable position of power. After the sharp increase, the curve levels off for not much more reason than intuition told me it should cross the other curve at a specific point. After that, when the urgent needs are all met, power can increase exponentially for those able consolidate and amass it in all of its forms (see definition above.) At the far right of the figure, when the magenta curve goes to zero, and the red curve goes to infinity, (i.e. no needs, unlimited power,) that’s God-like, baby!
I should, I suppose, emphasize that this is only an “expected” power curve, and that there are many situations where one is empowered beyond, or below, what their position on the needs continuum may imply. A soldier on the battlefield has his machine gun and body armor, after all. And a self-actualized CEO may suddenly find himself out of a job and subject to a criminal investigation with his assets frozen.
The black horizontal line, is just as arbitrary as the rest, but I think it’s in a reasonable place. This is the level below which the power one exercises affects only the self, and above which the power one exercises transcends oneself (affects others.)
Ok, so where does morality fit into this model of human nature? I’ve already said that exercise of power that falls below the magenta curve is morally justified. But that doesn’t mean that any exercise of power above that curve is immoral. It just means that once you are operating above that line there are other considerations to account for outside your own personal needs. Above that curve concerns of morality become a factor.
As I said earlier, I haven’t got a firm handle on the nature of morality, but I do have some ideas about how to apply my own sense of morality. First of all let’s look at the grey area: above the magenta curve, but still below the black line. This might be the first element of what liberalism/progressivism means to me —to the extent that your actions affect only yourself, I don’t give a shit what you do. Who am I to say you can’t read pornographic books? Or scar your arms with razor blades? Or engage in sexual intercourse with your frozen chicken before you cook it up?
The same thing applies to actions of groups of consenting participants. If the actions of the group affect only the members of the group, then I don’t give a fuck what you do together. Immerse yourselves in the fantasy world of a role playing game? Have fun. Sodomy? Do it! Beat each other with whips and chains? Go for it.
It’s not that Your Montag’s libertarian tendencies stop at the horizontal black line, but that below that line the determination is a no-brainer, and we should defer to personal liberty. Not that the things I mentioned must be considered moral by everybody, but that coercion, especially through force of government should not be applied in these circumstances.
Let’s call this the First Tenet of Montag’s Liberalism: An individual’s personal sovereignty should not be subject to government coercion. (I’ll allow that workable policy would likely require caveats such as “mentally competent” and “adult,” but even so we should err on the side of liberty as much as possible.)
Next, let’s address the yellow area of the graph above the horizontal black line and beneath the red curve. I’d sure like to call this area “excess power;” and since I wield the keyboard, that is what I shall call it. This is an exercise of power outside the justified use of power to satisfy human needs, and also which transcends the self (it affects others.) This is the domain of domination, violence, exploitation and coercion. This is also the domain of altruism, generosity, teaching, and empowerment. (By no means complete lists.) It is the domain of the morality that society should confer upon in the pursuit of equal justice.
How would a liberal/progressive define ‘moral use of excess power’? Now, this is where my weakness of mind comes into play, so help me out on this. It is my current sense that a dichotomy lies along the lines of empowerment vs. domination, where the liberal views empowerment as the key to justice, or some shit like that. (Again, help me on this.)
In the meantime, here is a tentative Second Tenet of Montag’s Liberalism: Society should seek justice through empowerment.
Empowerment of whom? The answer is at the other end of the graph. In the area above the red curve and below the magenta curve. This is the power “deficit” area where the individual is unable to meet their basic needs because they lack the power. A society that would allow and/or cause an inordinate number of its members to remain in this state of powerlessness is an immoral society.
There it is! Third Tenet of Montag’s Liberalism: A society that perpetuates power deficits in a segment of its population is not just. (Or is this only a corollary to the second tenet?)
I will leave that question hanging and end here for now; but, that was a good start, no? Upon continuing I’ll delve into the drives and motivations that push us to fulfill our needs, and look at motivations that a liberal/progressive society would need to guard against; namely, the motivation that drives power seekers to dominate others.