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Might Progressivism Be the Overcoming of Human Nature to Achieve Morality?

October 23, 2006

[Part two of a Series of Indeterminate Length in which Your Montag spells out my evolving political philosophy; and you, Dear Reader, tell me if it makes sense, and whether it may be considered “progressive” or “liberal,” as those are the terms I am wont to use in self-identification.]

Part one, Human Nature, Morality and Progressivism: A Layman’s View, began the series by looking at the subject in terms of — well — human nature and morality. It even had a bitchin’ explanatory graphic.

By way of a quick recap, I’d established three— whether they are the only three, or only the first three, I have no idea —tenets of “Montag’s Liberalism” and these were they:

  1. An individual’s personal sovereignty should not be subject to government coercion.
  2. Society should seek justice through empowerment.
  3. A society that perpetuates power deficits in a segment of its population is not just.

The post ended with a promise to examine 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. And the discussion in the comments ended with a concern raised by Your Own Fehlleistungen:

. . . 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. [Emphasis added.]

Thank goodness for that last bit about not having to actually answer the questions!

Not to try and answer them outright, but…

I think an answer to F’s direction (1) would lie in having a mutual respect for others’ needs and desires; by holding as an ideal, some sort of simple moral code. Something along these lines, perhaps:

Don’t do to others what they don’t want done to them.

As for F’s direction (2), well, I have been puzzling over this one for, what, eight months now since that initial post. It seems like the First Tenet of Montag’s Liberalism may be problematic. Take a look at that sweet graphic again, for this part.

He’ll correct me when I wrongly characterize his concerns, but I think F sees as unavoidable the necessity for incursions below the “black line” (you’ve reacquainted yourself with the graph, right?) to satisfy the three tenets. I agree — if you’re gonna get all up in my grill and apply that shit to the Real World, that is. But— and I may not have known this at the time I wrote that post —the three (so far) Tenets of Montag’s Liberalism are goals. They are what a society that calls itself “liberal” strives for. I’m not sure the tensions F sees in them are problematic in a perfect, idealized liberal society. Which is to say, if everyone was empowered all the way up to the red curve, and nobody used their excess power to dominate others; and since the “excess power” area of the graph is larger than the “power deficit” area of the graph; through empowerment… blah, blah, blah… etc.

Hey, you got to have goals, so why not shoot for Utopia?

Yes, it is now necessary to look at why we aren’t living in Utopia, and account for real-world problems.

You: Are you shitting me, Montag? All that jank above the fold, and nothing new yet?

Me: Um… yeah?

You: I don’t know man. The next line you type better be fucking out-of-this-world substantive or I’m outta here.

Me: OK.

There are those among us who have what Russell— I pilfered from him last time, and do so again here —termed “The Impulse to Power”: an insatiable drive to amass power (sometimes mistaken for “greed”; as money, after all, is nothing more than financial power.) They are the capital ‘P’, capital ‘S’ Power Seekers who strive for that ‘God-like’ state at the far right-hand side of Your Montag’s graph. And this pesky breed, Power Seekers, wreak havoc on society when they seek domination.

That said, here are two problems that a Non-Utopian Society (NUS) faces:

  • There are limited resources available to meet everyone’s needs.
  • There are additional invented needs which put added strain on resources, and serve as a barrier to cooperation in empowering everyone to meet their actual needs.

As a result, incompatibility and competition become a part of human relations.

Ok, the first problem is pretty straight forward, right? There is a finite amount of natural resources, energy resources, financial resources, etc. available. And when a society’s population reaches a certain point, individuals are forced to compete for the power that these resources afford. Are there any societies left today that haven’t reached this point yet? Well even if there are, there is also competition between societies for resources. I am reminded of a television program I saw once about an isolated tribe in the rainforest of a South American country that was displaced by an oil company that built a road through their land, wreaking havoc on the eco-system, contaminating the water supply and pretty much completely altering the group’s way of life.

The second problem, the invented needs, is not so simple. First an example—

You: How about a visual aid, Montag?

Me: Ok. Here:

This is what youth soccer looks like in the US. [Image:]

Indiana Soccer BoysWhat does a child “need” to play soccer?

  • League registration: $50
  • Soccer ball: $15
  • Shin guards: $12
  • Cleats: $25
  • Soccer socks: $6
  • Team & player photos: $20
  • 16 bottled waters (one for each game and practice): $32
  • Watching your daughter, the goalie, get totally 0wn3d because she was watching a passing monarch butterfly rather than the ball: PRICELESS.

That’s $160. And those are moderate prices! Best-that-money-can-buy prices can take the total easily into the several hundreds range. Note: my list mercifully doesn’t include gasoline to get to and from the field in your minivan, or that monstrosity you call an SUV.

This is what youth soccer looks like in Uganda:
Uganda Soccer Boys
Image: BBC

Invented needs.

Up to now, we’ve been discussing this stuff in terms of human nature, so I would like to continue along those lines just a bit further. So far we’ve guessed that human nature means we all have needs, and we (naturally) need power to satisfy those needs. The next logical conclusion, to my mind, is that we all have drives, or motivations, to satisfy our needs and to gather/maintain the power required to do so. Dread of suffocation compels us to breathe, hunger and thirst drive us to eat and drink, horniness drives us to reproduce, and so on. But there is something else that drives us in the pursuit of power.

I’m not sure that it is part of human nature like hardwired instinct, but as a result of the accumulation of human knowledge, is very close to a universal aspect of being human, in that we stand on the shoulders of the same giant: we know we’re going to die. As in, “OMG WE’RE ALL GOIN TO DIE!” We can see into the future to some extent. We have a pretty good sense of what will happen if we take a particular course of action. I know if I walk on thin ice, there’s a good chance I’ll fall through and get very wet and very cold, very quick, and will be in very real danger of hypothermia.

Might this foresight, combined with competition for limited resources lead individuals to seek power for themselves to the detriment of societal solidarity?

You: Maybe, Montag. Perhaps individuals with this type of foresight will understand that their chances are better working together as a group to share resources and responsibility for the group’s continuance.

Me: Indeed, maybe. But what happens when we add invented needs to the recipe?

You: Ok, Montag. Your little soccer pictures were cute and all, but WTF do you exactly mean by “invented needs”?

Me: Let me ramble on for a few more paragraphs, and I’ll lay it on ya for reals. I just got to work up to it. Bear with me!

You: [sigh]

When we are starving we seek food to survive. When we are hungry we seek food to be healthy and strong enough to do our work. Beyond that, we eat for pleasure, some people even to the point of illness.

We continue to be driven even after our basic needs have been met!

Bodybuilders, who are healthy and strong enough to do their work, are driven to become even bigger and stronger. Rich folks who have accumulated enough money to shelter and feed their family for many lifetimes over, continue to work and invest and amass more money. Bloggers with low-traffic political sites, whose every half-baked thought has been permanently archived in the internets for all to read, feel compelled to write exceedingly long screeds justifying their political philosophy under the guise of morality and human nature. (Ok, so maybe that last example isn’t exactly apropos, but hey.)

Consider two people who are in pretty good shape, whose needs for sustenance and shelter have been met quite comfortably; who find themselves at the top of society. The politician: who continues to strive to attain higher office, who wants to become the leader of the country or the world; and The Tenured Professor who remains driven to continue teaching, doing research and publishing. The Politician may use power to serve the people they represent, or may use their power to exploit and dominate; just as the Tenured Professor may use power to educate and empower, or may use their power to misinform and/or Indoctrinate their students.

A society’s use of power will reflect the tendencies of it’s most powerful members. Because they can direct a large amount of power to do their bidding. The masses are at a disadvantage because they must pool together individual small amounts of power in order to push society in any direction. Powerful people who seek to empower will help empower the masses they represent. Powerful people who seek to misinform, exploit, indoctrinate and dominate… well, you know…

So, this is where “invented needs” come in.

You: Holy shit! THANK GOODNESS.

What role might something called “invented needs” play in an NUS, sculpted over time by the actions of the capital ‘P’, capital ‘S’ Power Seekers mentioned earlier? That is, by Power Seekers who would exploit and dominate the masses, but who had perhaps figured out that outright enslavement, or naked oppression would not work for long before the masses would fight back.

At first I thought the invented needs were to coerce people to produce, to work for “the man,” to willingly put in that overtime so they can buy a big TV, or even more vile: so they can meet their sundry insurance and interest payments. But as I’ve thought about it more, I’ve realized that invented needs also serve a second— and perhaps, more important —purpose: to keep folks from exercising power in a meaningful way. And upper-middle classers, don’t think you’re above it, with your two comma income, multiple luxury homes and multiple luxury cars.

Your Montag would place interest, insurance and lottery tickets among the worst, most offensive, ‘invented needs’. Anything called “designer” or “gourmet” (TNG’s place excluded,) and most children’s toy’s might inhabit a mediumly offensive range of ‘invented needs’. While things that do actually meet needs, or provide comfort or enjoyment to people and their families, but also serve as status symbols might earn a low-grade ‘invented need’ offensiveness status (see ‘home improvement’ television, or the items in the soccer example above.)

You (hopefully): Oh, those invented needs!

So, what of that promise to examine 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? Well:

  • We have needs that must be tended to.
  • We are driven to do so.
  • It seems like a good idea to work together as a society to meet everyone’s needs.
  • Because of scarcity, there is also an element of competition.
  • Most individuals possess— in some form or another —an ‘impulse to power’.
  • There are those among us who have accumulated a lot of power.
  • There are those among them who Your Montag calls Power Seekers, who seek to exploit and dominate others.
  • Power Seekers have shaped our society over time.
  • There are mechanisms in the society they shaped that hinder ‘the masses’ ability/will to exercise power cooperatively.

All three tenets of Montag’s Liberalism are at stake here. If a society is to be considered Liberal or Progressive, in order to protect individual sovereignty, empower the needy, and reduce or eliminate power deficits— to work toward these ideals —it would have to check the impulse to power, or at least hold it accountable to The People; and perhaps attempt to reduce the influence of ‘invented needs.’ (I’m pretty sure a Liberal Utopian Society would be devoid of advertising.)

Fuck, this post has been a bastard to write. Hopefully it communicates meaningfully. Is not a coherent political philosophy emerging? Can it in fact be considered “Liberal” or “Progressive” as I would claim it to be if you were to ask?

The Series of Indeterminate Length will be continued. Though I’m not sure what to tackle next. Is it necessary to look at why it makes sense for individuals to come together as societies, and why it similarly makes sense for societies to work together in the world? Does Your Montag need to justify why I think a morality of mutual respect is preferable to some sort of social Darwinism? Might it be important to address the objections of Those Who Are Quite Comfortable In Their Way of Life as It Is, Thank You to moving toward this concept of a liberal society? Something else altogether?

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