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Human Nature, Morality and Progressivism: A Layman’s View

February 14, 2006

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.

Figure [Click image for larger view.]

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.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2006 3:26 PM

    Nicely done!

    I might classify the 3rd Tenet as a corollary of the 2nd–if we allow the dichotomous caveat. Which is to say, if a society isn’t furthering an agenda of empowerment (2nd Tenet) it must be furthering an agenda of power stratification, which by all liberal defintions would be unjust (3rd Tenet). Come to think of it, maybe they are two different tenets. Or not.

    Hey, I’m still trying to digest that graph. Cut me some slack. I’ll have to think about it some more.

    Again, nicely done!

  2. February 15, 2006 4:08 PM

    If I get your meaning, I don’t think we can allow a “dichotomous caveat.”

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to posit a societal structure that doesn’t further an agenda of empowerment, but doesn’t necessarily experience power stratification, and wouldn’t necessarily be considered liberal.

  3. February 15, 2006 4:59 PM

    I should have also said thanks, JR, for the kind words.

    And I might have also pointed out that this entry was selected for the carnival.

    We can now say, “Two time award winning blog, Stump Lane.”

  4. February 16, 2006 10:34 AM

    If I can summarize the three tenets as: (1) don’t mess with below-the-black-line; (2) above the black line, “excess power” should be used to empower, not dominate and (3) any society that fails to empower (perpetuates a power defecit) is not just, then I have two critiques aimed at instigating further thought (and not at all aimed at undermining your logic here). First: the third tenet suggests that a just society must subject personal sovereignty to some sort of coersion (in a broad sense), which appears to violate the first tenet; and second, also regarding the third tenet, what is an “ordinate” number of society’s members in a state of powerlessness?

  5. February 16, 2006 11:12 AM

    …the third tenet suggests that a just society must subject personal sovereignty to some sort of coersion (in a broad sense), which appears to violate the first tenet…

    No. My intention was to not include an individual striving for self-actualization by, say, climbing K2 and spending a great deal of power to do so. Because that falls in the “gray area,” the individual should not be forced to donate the money/resources/effort involved in climbing K2 to charity instead.

    It’s when that person decides to meet his actualization needs by committing the perfect murder— an act of power that falls in the “yellow area” —that society needs to step in. Or to use a less extreme example: if he raids his employees’ pension fund to pay for his mountaneering expedition.

    [W]hat is an “ordinate” number of society’s members in a state of powerlessness? [NMSP]

    I don’t know. That is for the society to answer. But to my mind, in order to be considered liberal/progressive, the policies of the society must have the effect of reducing or minimizing its NMSP.

  6. February 16, 2006 1:46 PM

    Actually, on that first point, what I meant to refer to was the area of the graph above the red curve and below the magenta curve that you name the power deficit area, “where the individual is not unable to meet their basic needs because they lack the power.” What I was thinking was that when a just society decides to not allow “an inordinate number of its members to remain in this state of powerlessness,” some sort of “coercive” action would need to be taken to bring power to the powerless. It is in this sense (not in the sense of forcing members of society to donate to charity) that I meant a “broad coercion.”

  7. February 16, 2006 9:01 PM

    First of all “the individual is not unable to meet their basic needs” should have read, “the individual is [not] unable to meet their basic needs.” I have fixed this in the original post.

    I think I see what you are saying, Fehlleistungen. That if a society as a general rule seeks to empower individuals to meet their needs, there will be coercion (in a broad sense not limited to a negative use of force) that intrudes below the horizontal black line, and could potentially violate the tenet respecting personal sovereignty.

    Example one: A person who needs health care and cannot afford it, but will accept help.

    Example two: “End-of-life” issues: A person who does not want to be revived when the time comes.

    Helping in the first example I would not consider “coercion,” since the person welcomes the help. A liberal society would try to help (empower) the person.

    In the second example, if a Doctor (who was aware of the persons wishes) decided to revive the person, (they may see it as empowering them to continue to survive,) I would consider that coercion, as it is done in violation of their personal sovereignty.

    Even so, I am not sure this paradox invalidates the third tenet; but perhaps indicates the need for a clarification that states: In cases in which the tenets conflict, personal sovereignty should be favored.

    Is that a cop out? Suggestions?

  8. February 18, 2006 7:00 PM

    I guess that what I was trying to get at, obliquely, is the tension between individual and community in the proposed moral system. You posit an individual who has the right to full autonomy, the right to determine one’s own ends (as opposed to being determined by external authority). With this idea of the individual in mind, my thoughts about sociality come from two directions: (1) how does the autonomous individual come to know others, to treat others in a way that respects their autonomy (“sovereignty”)? How do you know how to treat others right?; and (2) How can a cooperative society be formed from this collection of autonomous, inviolable individuals? I don’t mean these as questions-to-be-answered, but just as something to keep in mind as morality remains under discussion.


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