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What is the Problem with Liberalism?

What is the Problem with Liberalism?

Contra my own lofty ideals that led me to delete my Facebook account, I found myself in a debate on Twitter the other day. The original post went as follows:

Sargon elaborated over a few subsequent tweets, arguing that these three positions represent different attitudes toward the state. He says that while both communists and fascists get a few things right (the resentment that arises from inequality and the necessity of borders, respectively), both depend upon an excessively powerful state in order to achieve these ends.

Sargon is not wrong in his general analysis of the dangers of state power. He is wrong, however, in his labels. The idea of a limited government is not an exclusively liberal view. We know this with certainty because limitations on the power of the state existed in European countries long before the Enlightenment, from which the doctrine of “liberalism” emerged, and those nations which have most completely adopted the doctrine of liberalism have, tragically, deviated further from their own ideals of the good society than many of those countries who operated from a different base. For a recent example of this distinction, we can look at the expressly liberal revolution in France, compared to its surprisingly illiberal parent-revolution in the American colonies. More on the American Revolution shortly.

So what is liberalism, exactly?

In modern America, “liberal” has somehow morphed into a kind of strange synonym for Hegelian progressivism, those who believe in an inevitable march of history, and that “progress” down this path is inevitable, and so accelerating into the inescapable future is a good thing. If you’ve ever wondered where those “it’s the current year!” quips come from, which tacitly shame someone for doing something that is bad because it is anachronistic, that’s where.

But historically, and as Sargon uses the term, “liberal” refers to a different line of thought entirely. Liberals — including John Locke, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls — did not spend their energy talking about the mechanical cycles or progress of history. Rather, they became influential due to their arguments concerning justice, politics, freedom, and human identity. It is this last point — human identity — which is both the most important and the most ignored by contemporary classical liberal. Most important, because their theories of justice, freedom, and politics necessarily derive from one’s conception of identity; most ignored because classical liberals believe they don’t have to deal with identity, that it’s beside the point, or worse, ceding ground to the evil hydra of “collectivism.”

But classical liberals — or at least their founders — do have a theory of human identity, and as it has grown across time, it has laid the groundwork for the very socialism which they hoped to banish.

The liberal theory of identity doesn’t really begin with John Locke, but is sort of introduced by him. Locke argued that human identity is found in the continuity of human memory.

This by itself isn’t a bad start, but it isn’t exactly complete either. By my own reasoning, I hold experiential continuity to be only one of three aspects of human identity (the other two being physical continuity and continuity of purpose, or telos).

Despite trying to grant that consciousness can be transferred from one soul to another, Locke’s incomplete base for identity makes this true argument too heavy for its foundation, which is why subsequent liberals have become such strong individualists. If identity is composed solely of continuous memory, than there is little to no basis for more than one individual to share an identity. Nowadays, this individualism is always framed in the form of a separation between the mind/spirit/soul and the body. This explains why Locke was responsible for popularizing the idea of the tabula rasa. The body may be an inherited thing, but the soul stands alone, unaffected by the unpredictable machinations and mechanical causality of the world.

No one perfected this false notion more completely than Immanuel Kant, perhaps the greatest liberal thinker of the Enlightenment, and the most successful divorce attorney for the soul and the body since Plato. Kant was concerned with Hume’s argument of causality, which seemed to destroy the very possibility of human responsibility, and therefore, free will, and therefore, morality itself. In an attempt to preserve these things, Kant defined the will into a different plane of existence entirely from the world of objects. This is why his theory of categorical-imperative morality has — incredibly — nothing whatsoever to do with the effects of one’s actions.

There is a fair bit of diversity in the opinions of liberal thinkers. But if liberalism is nothing else, it is the belief in the sovereignty of the individual, the “divine individual,” as Dr. Jordan Peterson likes to put it. All liberals share in this belief, and their notions of justice, politics, and the good flow from this conception of human identity as divided between a separated soul and body.

The problem is that this theory is wrong. Human identity is intimately and inextricably bound up with the body and the rest of the material world. I have been fairly critical of Dr. Peterson, but if there is one thing he is absolutely correct about, it is the importance of controlling the space around you in order to control yourself (“if you don’t know where to start, clean up your room”). No argument illustrates this point better than Matthew Crawford’s book The World Beyond Your Head, which I have reviewed here, and which I cannot recommend highly enough. Crawford is, in my opinion, arguably the most underrated philosopher alive today.

Arguably the most influential modern liberal philosopher was John Rawls, who distilled this liberal individualism argument into a thought-experiment concerning justice, known as the “veil of ignorance.” I have comprehensively refuted  his theory in my own book, Letter to Anwei, but for the purpose of this post, I will include the relevant section at length:

…so far, I have described to you how this concept of the Anwei makes greater sense of the idea of human life, as well as how it improves the duration and experience of life. But I believe there is one more area in which the truth and importance of the Anwei can be demonstrated. That is the realm of morality and justice. Without the Anwei, and looking through the lens of the independent individual, the subject of justice presents a paradox that underlies a great deal of unnecessary political and social disagreement. I believe that remembering the Anwei can resolve this disagreement, and make better sense of human experience and political society as we see it.

Let me begin by introducing this paradox to you. Imagine that you are observing two rooms. Each room contains a button on the wall and a table in the middle. The button will dispense money when pressed, but it is sealed behind a sheet of glass, and the only way to slide back the glass and uncover the button is to solve a puzzle located on the table. The trouble is that puzzle is extremely difficult. Only the most intelligent and creative puzzle-solvers—say the top ten percent—will be capable of solving this puzzle and picking up the money dispensed by the button on the wall.

Now imagine that a pair of identical twins arrive, and one walks into each of the two rooms. The first twin has studied logic and done similar kinds of puzzles as a hobby for most of his life. As a result, he has become a highly capable puzzle-solver, and will be able to solve the puzzle in under ten minutes. The second twin, however, does not have the same skills. He may be attractive, fit, well-read, and talented in all variety of other ways, but he never took the time to learn puzzles the way that his brother did. As a result, he will not be able to push the button.

In terms of morality and justice, this situation seems rather unremarkable. The first twin “earned” his outcome through years of practice and effort, which the second twin did not. Because of this, the outcome seems fair. It feels just that the first twin gets all the money, while the second gets none.

But imagine we tweak the situation slightly. Suppose that instead of identical twins, the two individuals are unrelated to each other. Neither has chosen to spend any amount of time with puzzles, so all differences in puzzle-solving ability are inherited in some fashion, rather than earned by the individual through study. As in the first scenario, let us suppose that these two individuals achieve disparate outcomes: the occupant of room one is able to solve the puzzle relatively quickly, through some innate ability, while the occupant of room two simply cannot solve the puzzle. The occupant of room one walks away with his pockets overflowing with cash. The occupant of room two walks away empty-handed. The question is the following: is this outcome fair?

The situation appears to pose a moral conundrum. On the one hand, it might look as though the outcome is fair. After all, it is right for people to be rewarded for their virtues, and the relevant virtue in this scenario was puzzle-solving ability. The occupant of room one was rewarded for his competence, never mind its source, and the occupant of room two received the appropriate reward for lacking the relevant skill in this circumstance.

On the other hand, it can also be observed that neither of these individuals earned their skill. Neither individual studied puzzles, nor could they have known that they should have studied puzzles. Given these parameters, rewarding or punishing their skill (or lack thereof) seems arbitrary. Both individuals simply inherited their innate ability, so how can they be held responsible for their success or their failure? They could not choose how they were born, so it seems that the outcome is the result of genetic luck; an accident of birth. If this is the case, then the outcome is clearly unfair.

Which conclusion is correct? It is not yet clear. You probably have a feeling that it would be wrong not to reward the individual whose natural talents assisted him in completing the puzzle. After all, skill is skill, regardless of how it was acquired. But this feeling may be in competition with another intuition, that there is something unfair about the arbitrary nature of the outcome. This is because the source of the two individuals’ abilities cannot be accounted for by looking at their own decisions. Neither the competence of the winning individual, nor the incompetence of the losing individual, was in any meaningful sense earned. This puzzle room shows how, from the individual perspective, our desire to create a society with fair and predictable outcomes for valued skills can be at odds with our desire to acknowledge responsibility.

The question becomes even more complicated when we look at the differing results of accepting the incentives-based perspective and the responsibility-based perspective. If we give precedence to social incentives, then we are rewarding skill and punishing incompetence. Overall, this is good for society, but it appears to be committing an injustice. If we give priority to responsibility, we avert the injustice of arbitrary punishment and reward, but we will fail to reward many virtues that are important, and we may even fail to punish vices that are harmful to others, and society may suffer tremendously. After all, if an individual was a pedophile or a violent psychopath by mere accident of birth, how could it be fair to punish them for what they did not choose? No matter how harmful their behavior may be, it would be an injustice to punish them for how they were born.

From the perspective of any given individual, it is hard to see a definitive answer as to whether incentives or responsibility is more important. I believe that this subject is actually at the heart of the modern political debate—although the sides are not clearly “left” versus “right,” as we shall see. And far from being a matter of hypotheticals, the real-world stakes are quite high. To give you an idea of what I am talking about, consider a few modern examples of this kind of conflict.

The following essay was written for Slate in 2013, and given the straightforward title “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person[1]”:

 

…it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good. […]

Everyone needs to be invested in our public schools in order for them to get better. Not just lip-service investment, or property tax investment, but real flesh-and-blood offspring investment…

 

Benedikt argues that the present school system needs to be improved, but cannot be improved without flesh-and-blood investment. Her complaint is that rich families who can afford better schools are the source of political power in improving the schools, and by withdrawing their children from the broken system and putting them into private schools, they are also withdrawing all motivation to fix the public school system. She grants that a public education may not suit your child’s needs completely, but if you are the sort of parent who can afford to send your child to private school, then your love and attention will make up for their bad education, and they’ll be just fine. A poor public education for your child in the short run is worth it for the improvement for everyone later down the road.

Why would Benedikt care so much about the quality of public schools if being a good parent could more than make up for what was lost in a bad education? Because not everyone gets good parents. It was only by luck that you happened to have had good parents, while everyone gets access to public education. This is why she makes it a moral issue, rather than a mere calculation for maximizing the public good: if you act as if you deserve what you have inherited, you are not merely wrong—you are a bad person. By allowing for the unequal treatment of people based on their circumstances of birth, you are allowing for injustice.

Slate is a left-leaning publication, but identifying this conflict and criticizing personal loyalties is not just a left-wing issue. Reason published a short essay with a libertarian perspective called “The Hereditary Aristocracy of Citizenship[2],” in which Ilya Somin argued that, on principle, Americans strongly reject the legal privileges of aristocracy, but that we are not consistent in our principles. Citizenship, Somin argues, is a specially privileged legal class that is similar to the aristocracies of old:

 

Citizenship represents the most significant class lottery remaining in the modern world. The cover of your passport speaks volumes about your prospects for enjoying peace, prosperity, and happiness over the course of your life […] Citizenship, in short, is massively consequential, and there’s almost nothing meritorious about it. If you’ve spent your life as an American citizen, your fortunes have depended to a great extent upon inherited pedigree.” [Quote from Rachel Lu] […]

Both old-style aristocracy and the modern aristocracy of citizenship forced many people into poverty and oppression based largely on circumstances of birth. And, in their heyday, both systems commanded widespread support because they were seen as just a “natural” part of life that most people took for granted. But, in reality, both types of hereditary privilege were not naturally occurring facts of the world, but rather were (and are) enforced by large-scale government coercion. […]

Today, we are repulsed by our ancestors who thought that it was perfectly normal – and unavoidable – that lords enjoyed an array of privileges denied to commoners and serfs. But few question our own hereditary privileges.

 

Aristocracy is a legal inequality between two people within the same nation. Citizenship, on the other hand, is a legal inequality between people of two different nations. In spite of this legal difference, Somin is saying that at a moral level, aristocracy and citizenship are really pretty similar, perhaps even identical. In his view, it isn’t right to prefer one’s own countrymen to foreigners, because it was only an accident of birth that you were born as a citizen of this country, rather than a citizen of somewhere else. In his view, we ought to “broaden access to citizenship, or reduce the extent of privileges associated with citizenship status.” Or, he adds, some combination of the two.

As with Benedikt, Somin is making a moral argument, rather than appealing to our sense of rational self-interest or economic optimization. He is saying that citizenship, like aristocracy, is inherently unfair, and therefore unjust. You were only a citizen of a high-income, high-standard of living country by accident of birth. You did not earn it, and so you do not deserve the rewards of citizenship any more than anyone else.

Perhaps the most popular example of this kind of conflict, however, comes from an older essay. In 1989, Peggy McIntosh wrote “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack[3],” in which she laid out the influential argument which would shape academic culture for decades to come:

 

Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I realized that, since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there was most likely a phenomenon of white privilege that was similarly denied and protected. As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage. […]

We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work systematically to overempower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one’s race or sex.

I want, then, to distinguish between earned strength and unearned power conferred systemically. Power from unearned privilege can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to dominate. […]

Although systemic change takes many decades, there are pressing questions for me and I imagine for some others like me if we raise our daily consciousness on the perquisites of being light-skinned. What will we do with such knowledge? As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems of advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.

 

As in the previous two essays, McIntosh is saying that because your race is just a matter of luck, it is not right that people reap any rewards for being of a certain race. No harmful action needs to have been proven; the inequality is the injustice. If your own race has received benefits, for any reason, then she argues that you have a moral obligation to correct this difference. In this particular case, she is pointing the finger at whites, living as she does in a white society, but such a paper could just as plausibly be written in any other country that was built by, and for, a particular culture. If, for example, the paper had been written in Japan, then it may very well have been called “Japanese Privilege.” The moral justification for such an argument would be identical, after all.

All three of these essays see the puzzle-room outcome as unfair. Because the source of inequality was not earned, many people (including Benedikt, Somin, and McIntosh) believe that equality should be the default. In the name of equality, they would have you put the well-being of other people’s children over the well-being of your own children. They would have you abandon your nation and fellow citizens in favor of foreigners. They would even have you condemn your race as morally evil because the privileges and legacy that you would inherit from your race are not universal.

Having read about the Anwei, I hope you can see now that birth is no accident. It was not luck that brought your parents together: they each chose each other. Nor was it by luck that you happened to inherit the traits and culture of your parents. You could not have been anyone other than yourself, any more than you could now trade bodies with another person. Think of the puzzle-room: who these two individuals are is the result of the accumulated choices of their respective ancestors, who may have made tremendous sacrifices, or may have endured tremendous suffering and Darwinian selective pressures (i.e., painful deaths in the lineage, possibly on a large scale) to foster the skills and proclivities these two occupants now benefit from. Going back into the past, it is possible that the room-one individual’s grandfather carefully selected his wife based upon her intelligence and creativity, and their resultant son chose his spouse based upon a similar basis for selection. Or perhaps the room-one individual’s ancestors ten generations back were struck by some environmental calamity which killed all but the most resourceful and clever. It is hard to call such a scenario “good luck,” but when such a tragedy results in a descendant being marginally better at puzzle-solving, and that descendant is able to win some money as a result, we consider it to be exactly that.

Put in even more basic terms, the condemnation of equality applies even in the case of the twins, where we intuitively believe the outcome was just because the one twin “earned” his skill through long periods of training. It is the action of sacrifice that makes us think that the achievement of the preferred outcome is fair. Therefore, it is not his present self who is being rewarded, but his past self who made the sacrifice of time and energy. Yet in the case of the unrelated puzzlers, sacrifices of time and energy were still made! Even if they were not made by the individual in room one himself, they were nevertheless made for him. Denying the justice of the puzzle-room outcome, therefore, is not so much an injustice to the individual as it is an injustice to his ancestors who made the sacrifices and choices that gave him his skill. It is an injustice, in other words, to the Anwei. The seemingly absent responsibility for the inequality in the puzzle-room can be located.

The idea that birth is somehow accidental, that it is fundamentally a matter of luck, simply does not hold up. It does not hold up even in the context of a thought experiment. The premise that we could have been born in a different body misunderstands the very nature of what a human being is. By contrast, recognizing the inseparability of “you” from the circumstances of your birth resolves the confusion of the puzzle room, as well as its real-world iterations. These arguments that say that you must treat your children like anyone else, and condemn your nation and race, are all based on a lie.

You ought to be kind to others, and respectful of other nations and cultures. But this respect and kindness are owed to your own identity first and foremost. Even the respect and kindness you show to others outside of your own identity are obligations to the Anwei, because it is honorable to be hospitable and respectable, and your actions will reflect on your family and your nation. You should be polite and decent to others so as to set a respectable and admirable example for your descendants and for others. No appeal to fictional hypotheticals is required to justify the importance of hospitality and common decency.

But let me return to the idea of equality and its advocates. Where did such an idea come from, and why has it become so prevalent? The fact that its adherents span the political divide should make it clear that the problem does not stem from ordinary right-versus-left politics. It comes from philosophy, and from one philosopher in particular.

Like people, ideas have lineages, and all of these positions are ideological descendants of John Rawls.

 

§

 

John Rawls was one of the most influential philosophers of the late 20th century, and it is his most famous book, A Theory of Justice, that matters to us here.

Rawls begins his argument with the observation that we think of “justice” as something absolute. We tend to dislike the idea of suspending the rules of justice for utilitarian ends (“the greater good”), and this observation is critical to understanding what, exactly, justice is. So where does this uncompromising notion of justice come from? Is it from an idea? Perhaps from a part of our neurological wiring?

For Rawls, the source of the absolute quality of justice is a belief that individuals are “inviolable,” that all of us are, for all intents and purposes, sacred:

 

…Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason, justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many. Therefore in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests. The only thing that permits us to acquiesce in an erroneous theory is the lack of a better one; analogously, an injustice is tolerable only when it is necessary to avoid an even greater injustice. Being first virtues of human activities, truth and justice are uncompromising. [4]

 

In essence, Rawls says that the source of our sense of justice is the feeling that other individuals are special in some way. Because of this feeling, we should not harm people or deprive them of their freedom for simple utilitarian gains, even if many people would benefit. And because everyone possesses this “inviolability” in equal measure, we are all morally equal with each other. The absolute inviolability of an individual is the source of the intensity of our convictions about justice.

However, Rawls observed that most political systems designed to dispense justice just so happened to benefit those who advocated for them. The King would advocate for a political system with a single, all-powerful figurehead and ruler; the priest might prefer a political system in which religious piety was the predominant value, and political power was held by the teachers of religious doctrine; the laborer, for a political system that elevates the common man, where everything is decided by vote, and “experts” are regarded with suspicion. This tendency of personal bias makes it difficult to objectively judge whether a political system is fair or unfair, and a biased system of justice will not respect the inviolability of the individual. To get around this problem of motivated reasoning, Rawls introduced a thought experiment known as the veil of ignorance, also known as the “original position.” This thought-experiment invites you to imagine that you are looking down on Earth, as though from the moon or from another dimension, through the eyes of a disembodied spirit. Looking down at the cities and towns of the planet, you have the power to choose which society you would like to live in, but without knowledge of which body within that society you will inhabit. Without knowledge of who you will become, you can decide if a society is fair objectively, free from the problem of motivated reasoning:

 

This original position is not, of course, thought of as an actual historical state of affairs, much less as a primitive condition of culture. It is understood as a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice. Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.

This ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances. Since all are similarly situated and no one is able to design principles to favor his particular condition, the principles of justice are the result of a fair agreement or bargain. For given the circumstances of the original position, the symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other, this initial situation is fair between individuals as moral persons, that is, as rational beings with their own ends and capable, I shall assume, of a sense of justice. The original position is, one might say, the appropriate initial status quo, and thus the fundamental agreements reached in it are fair.[5]

 

Rawls believed that two conclusions followed from this perspective. The first conclusion is that a just society will maximize liberty for all of its members.  What does Rawls mean by “liberty?” The answer is not as obvious as it may sound, because “liberty” is as much a feeling as it is a legal concept. It can refer to either the ability of a group to act in its own interests, or it can mean the freedom of an individual from constraints, including constraints that may be imposed by the Anwei. I have included a relevant essay at the end of this letter specifically addressing the modern misuses of “liberty,” which often mistakenly claim to speak on behalf of the American founding fathers by confusing these two meanings[6]. From the context in this instance, I believe Rawls is referring to the freedom of the individual, rather than the freedom of the group. Based on what I have described to you so far about the Anwei, this may be a little troubling. It is fairly common in academic circles to hear family and tradition described as “oppressive” to the individual because of the obligations they impose. We usually believe that justice includes paying what we owe, and if our very existence was the result of other people’s choices and sacrifices, then freeing ourselves from any obligations we may have to those people is not particularly just. But this view is not uncommon among academics and intellectuals, and was not unique to Rawls.

The second conclusion is that the just society will only tolerate social and economic inequality to the degree that the worst off are made better off than they would have been under absolute equality. By this, Rawls means that sometimes, inequality drives advancement in progress and social welfare for all. If some degree of economic and social inequality coincides with improvements in the lives of the poorest and most socially isolated members of society, then in his view, this inequality—and only this inequality—is permissible. This idea that inequality should be rejected as unjust by default may sound familiar from the previous chapter. It is the primary contribution of Rawls to political philosophy, and the keystone of modern “social justice” movements that aim for equality.

As I have shown you, there are already good reasons to take issue with this conclusion. Neglecting the responsibility of others for the outcomes in our own lives is its own kind of injustice—namely, ungratefulness. To expect equality by default in our social, economic, and political strengths and weaknesses is to misunderstand what a human being is, and how we come to exist. But there are other consequences to this belief as well.

Think about a society that only tolerated inequality to the degree that it benefits the least well-off. Such a society has an established expectation of equality by default, rather than the more natural default of inequality. This is exactly the default you would expect if your starting point for seeking an objective theory of justice presumes equality, as the veil of ignorance does. But if his conclusion is accepted, it marks a change of legal importance. Up until the past few decades, those who demanded equality were required to prove some grievance or unlawful manipulation to justify a corrective redistribution. Under the moral and metaphysical presumption of equality, however, the burden of proof is lifted up from the resentful, and placed firmly on the shoulders of those who must now ask permission to be different. Beneath this standard, the alleged victim does not need to prove an act of injustice has been committed; he has only to assert that there is a difference, which implies—by default—a state of injustice. The beneficiaries of a unique legacy must prove a greater social good in order to justify their differentiation.

Under Rawls’ veil of ignorance, a father’s desire to leave an inheritance for his son is not admitted by default because inheritance often results in social and economic inequalities. This inheritance must be justified, and the justification cannot be grounded in the father’s love for his own son. Love by itself is not a valid motivation under the veil of ignorance. Rather, it must be grounded in the benefit that his preferences for his own child might have for those who are the least well-off in society. In this way, “justice” as implemented through the veil of ignorance makes us impersonal and inhuman to those closest to us.

We can see this effect at work in the examples from the previous chapter. If your child could have been any other child, then it is unfair—and unjust—to put the wellbeing of your own child’s education over the education system as a whole. As a platonic form of a person, you do not truly have any attachments to anyone else, so why should you care about your own child more than the child of a stranger? It is rational, even logical, to send your child to a public school, even at the risk of bullying and of hurting your child’s social and educational development. Never mind what effect that may have on your child’s thoughts about you as a parent, and their certainty about your love for them. They too—if they are being “fair”—will recognize that they could have been born into any family, and that there is no real reason to care more about you and your opinions than about any other adult. There is no reason to presume a commonality of likeness, interest, affection, inheritance, or destiny, because that has been defined off the table.

If it truly is an accident of birth that you happened to be an American citizen, rather than a citizen of Nicaragua, Algeria, or Japan, then it is morally indefensible to stand by the arbitrary privileges of citizenship, should citizens from those countries wish to come to the United States. The fact that the shared historical experiences, civic inheritances, languages, habits, traditions, infrastructural benefits, geographic interests, and genetics group certain populations together into natural nations is of no moral or legal significance if anyone could have been anyone else.

And if your race happens to have created an integrated system of law, culture, and language designed to make life better for you, then that system must be torn down, and your race condemned for the injustice inherent in such a project. Because it is only by arbitrary luck that you happened to be Anglo-American, and not some other race. As President Barack Obama once said, you didn’t build that.

Under the veil of ignorance, the Anwei is inconceivable. Suicide can only be imagined as a byproduct of mental disorder and depression. Death is a horrible demon lurking on the margins, to be exorcised with transhumanism, distractions, and anti-aging products. Happiness is a product of socio-economic status, bought with stuff, and achieved on a grand scale with proper macro-economic policy. We are all valuable as individuals, to all individuals, despite there being more than seven billion of us.

This destruction of intimacy is bad enough, but I don’t believe it is the only cost to accepting this dehumanizing perspective. People are willing to build legacies because they are personally motivated to do so. If the personal attachments which compel us to work for the future are categorized as morally invalid, then the engine of legacy itself is undermined. Pulling at the thread of equality unravels the long and beautiful tapestry that is civilization. In misunderstanding what a human being is, and designing a framework of objective justice for a sort of being that is not human, Rawls’ veil of ignorance has sown the seeds of inhuman and unjust ideas which violently oppose our most basic moral instincts.

 

§

 

I hope I have been successful in showing you not only that Rawls was wrong in his conclusion, but also why Rawls was wrong. This is usually sufficient to reject an idea. However, if you are to go anywhere in your own intellectual journey, it will serve you best to seek out how a claim was wrong—how was the idea arrived at? What circumstances and other ideas led to its formation? Only by understanding the how can you fully comprehend anything. Where ideas are concerned, understanding its history and origins will help you discern whether it is partially wrong, or fundamentally wrong. No idea that becomes popular is ever entirely wrong, and it is important to give credit where credit is due, so as to avoid becoming an ideologue and missing out on something valuable.

So let me start with the argument itself. There are two places that an argument can go wrong: its premises, and its logic. We have seen that the two conclusions of Rawls’ argument are actually unjust, especially his second conclusion in which he proposed that equality ought to be the social and economic default. Therefore, either his premises must be wrong, or somewhere on the line between his premises and his conclusion, there was a confusion or a mistake.

Rawls begins with the premise that justice and fairness are synonymous. I believe this seemingly obvious observation is actually a rather brilliant and accurate starting point, because we often think of justice as something lofty and abstract. Fairness, however, is no abstract philosophical construct. I have learned this in part from watching toddlers; one of their first and favorite phrases is “that’s not fair!” Even monkeys possess a sense of fairness, and will reject food if another monkey receives a better food reward for performing the same task[7]. What is fair in a certain context may be learned, but we seem to come with the concept of “fairness” built into us. If it were otherwise, monkeys would not be able to demonstrate the intuitive sense of fairness which they possess, since they lack abstract theories on the nature of justice.

Entire books have been written on the origins, nature, and essence of justice. They discuss natural law, social contracts, utilitarianism, categorical imperatives, and other abstract theories, but ultimately, these are all just expansions upon what people like you and me intuitively feel is just. To understand the basics of justice, all of these theories are unnecessary. Most people have a good understanding of what justice is intuitively, and do not need complicated moral and ethical philosophies to know that it is wrong to lie, cheat, steal, rape, or murder, that we ought to give people the benefit of the doubt, to reciprocate the behaviors of others, and to reject unwarranted double-standards. These core principles make up the foundation of “justice.” Most of the disagreements beyond that are about applications. This is not to say that these theories are worthless. They are established so that when dealing with problems where our intuitions give us no clear answers, the theory may show us a fair solution. In new or complicated situations, these theories can be quite useful. In most cases, however, the complicated theories are unnecessary to determine what is or is not just in a particular situation. Rawls’ starting premise is correct: justice is fairness. The error must be somewhere else.

After defining justice as fairness, Rawls observed that our sense of fairness has an absolute quality that does not allow for bartering or compromise. For instance, we tend to grimace at the idea of sacrificing someone’s life for a “general good,” or at sacrificing a little bit of justice in order to gain a lot of wealth. Rawls infers that this sense of absoluteness comes from a natural belief that individuals are special, or “inviolable.” If personal inviolability is the source of the absoluteness of our sense of justice, he argues that the best way to respect individual inviolability is to act as if we could have been anyone else—the veil of ignorance. And from the veil of ignorance, he believes that his two conclusions about liberty and equality are what everyone would choose.

We could summarize his argument in the following manner:

 

  1. Justice is fairness
  2. Justice is a universal, intuitive emotion
  3. Intuitive emotion says that justice is absolute
  4. The absolute quality of justice comes from individual inviolability
  5. Individual inviolability is maximized through veil of ignorance
  6. The just society is a society that people would choose to live in from the veil of ignorance
  7. The just society maximizes individual liberty and permits no inequality which does not benefit the least well off

 

If point (1) is correct, and point (7) is wrong, then the error must be somewhere in between. Point (2) is correct if point (1) is accepted, because fairness is a universal, intuitive emotion. Point (3) is slightly more contentious, but I believe to be correct.

Point (4) is where I believe the error rests—the idea that we believe individuals to be in some sense sacred or “inviolable.” Remember:

 

…Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.

 

This description does capture the absolute quality that most people have of the concept of justice. But the explanation Rawls posits—a sense of individual “inviolability”—does not hold up. If justice was derived from respect for the inviolability of the individual, then societies which did not respect individual rights would not be able to produce just societies, but this is not the case.

Most all of human history was dominated by “honor cultures.” In an honor-culture, individuals are not thought of as having intrinsic worth. They are seen as members of a group, and of having value based upon the value which they provide to the group. The modern Western world is a “dignity culture,” where individuals are assumed to have intrinsic worth, and it is easy to believe that this dignity culture is the basis of justice because it has become the popularly held foundation for justice, but honor can also serve as a foundation. The individualism beneath our dignity culture is the product of the Enlightenment, only a few centuries ago. Justice has been discussed by philosophers, poets, and statesmen since the days of Ancient Greece. In fact, one of the earliest allusions to a higher concept of justice was in Sophocles’ play Antigone, in which the female protagonist chooses to bury her dead brother, even though she knew that doing so was a crime punishable by death. When asked why she defied the king’s orders, she said that there was a higher law than that of the king, a natural order which obliged her to properly bury the dead. This assertion of a higher law, which forms part of the basis of the Western common law tradition, does not require any particular respect for individuality. The concept is never mentioned, and simply is not needed.

Philosopher Tamler Sommers even argues that honor cultures can be more just than dignity cultures because they respect the care we have for our own sense of honor, a value which is grounded in the same intuitions as justice itself.  Honor cultures can also allow conflicts to be resolved in a more personal and satisfying fashion, whereas dignity cultures will ultimately require a “Leviathan”—a powerful and impartial state—to intervene and resolve our conflicts on our behalf[8]. This intervention is not only less satisfying than a more personal resolution, but can even deprive us of the chance to make amends with those who have wronged us. I have included an elaborative essay I have written on the subject of conflict, resolution, and relationships at the end of this letter, which explains in more detail why third-party intervention can actually rob us of deeper relationships[9]. Suffice to say, the fact that just societies can exist which do not respect the concept of “individual inviolability” proves that Rawls’ foundation for justice is wrong.

I will go even further than this: it is strange to presume that our intuitions about justice come from a sense of individual inviolability when one of the oldest crimes against justice was that of hubris. Hubris is an old Greek word for the supreme kind of arrogance: pride in the face of the Gods. The arrogant, hubristic person does not believe he needs anyone else. He believes that he is better than everyone else. He believes that he is “inviolable.” He may even believe that he is God. He is, in a sense, the logical end point of individualistic idealism; a sort of mocking caricature of what one of the most famous and well-known intellectuals of my time, Dr. Jordan Peterson, has referred to as the “divine individual[10].” “Individual inviolability” is, in and of itself, an inherently arrogant presumption. It is entitled and ungrateful, and will inevitably bring about what always follows hubris: nemesis—divine retribution.

So let me return to the source of the absolute feeling of justice that Rawls described. The fact that most justice cultures were honor-based, rather than dignity-based, proves that this intuition of inviolability has its origins in ideology, not in primordial human nature itself. The fact that this sense of individual inviolability can cause problems, undermining our expectations of honor and humility, shows that the divine individual is not a particularly just idea in its own right. But most importantly, you can simply observe that individuals aren’t “divine” or “inviolable” in an objective fashion. Some of them will be intensely special to you, but most people simply don’t matter. Some people, by their nature, or because of something they’ve done, seem to deserve destruction and erasure—traitors and those who sexually abuse children, for instance. If this sense of inviolability can be lost, then in what sense was it there to begin with?

 

§

 

I believe that the feeling of primacy captured in Rawls’ description of justice is entirely explainable without appealing to individual inviolability. Our sense of justice comes from the human yearning for stability.

I am not saying that justice and stability are the same, but that stability is the experiential goal and measure of justice. I’m sure that you have experienced the suffering of disappointed expectations by now, or of feeling as though the world is outside of your control. Often times, this feeling of powerlessness is not caused by a deficiency of power per se, but by an inability to see what is going to happen. We need some semblance of stability in order to build anything complex, and to plan for the future. If the objects around us have no solidness to them, then nothing will stay the same as we attempt to adjust and adapt ourselves to improve our lives. Without the ability to plan for the future, we become anxious and uncertain. Our autonomic nervous system will dominate our prefrontal cortex, and we will become the slaves of adrenaline and cortisol, rather than agents of consciousness, problem-solving, and creation.

The elaborate edifice of civilization cannot stand without something stable to rest on, be it a myth, a nation, a religion, an idea, or merely a king. Life itself cannot last without its constituent parts remaining generally the same across time: if our bones, cells, and organs were constantly changing into something else entirely, or dissolving, then we could not be. Our body parts are constantly changing, as I described before, but their identity remains unchanged, in spite of their constant evolution. Like a river, they are stable, even in motion.

Human beings, however, are complicated and shifty creatures, the most versatile of all animals. Being around other people is an inherently unstable situation. How can we live when our surrounding family and friends, when our very self, may very well be members of the most chaotic and unpredictable entities in the universe?

“Justice” was the human solution to the problem of human chaos. Justice imposes predictability on others by establishing boundaries around what people are allowed to do, and punishing, expelling, or killing those who transgress those boundaries. It is good to be able to do what you want, but it more important to prevent other people from doing bad things to you, or things which you otherwise couldn’t predict that could harm you. After all, there are more of “them” than there are of you, and at least one of them is bound to be stronger, smarter, or more brutal than you are. So we came up with rules, enforced by the majority, which prohibited murder, theft, rape, and forms of harmful deception. By assenting to these rules, we gave up some of our freedom in exchange for some stability in the behavior of others. It was this exchange, and the effectiveness of its implementation, that made cities, civilization—perhaps all forms of socialization—possible.

Usually, justice is discussed in terms of distributing welfare, protecting freedom, and cultivating virtue. Still, in all three of these goals is the ideal of stability and predictability. We don’t just want a system that distributes welfare fairly; we want a system in which we know what we can expect, based upon what we do. We don’t just want freedom; we want to know which freedoms we possess and which we don’t. We don’t just want to be virtuous; we want to know which traits are held to be virtuous. If these things are unknown to us or are changing too quickly, then we will not feel like we are living in a fair society.

This understanding of justice—not only as fairness, but also as a yearning for stability—explains the sense of primacy which Rawls alludes to. Any exception made in a system of justice for a short-term gain will introduce by precedent the possibility of future exceptions. What might change tomorrow? How can we know that people will behave in a fashion that won’t destroy the plans laid out yesterday? Society cannot work without some constraint around the chaos of humanity. This is why justice—not based around a sense of “individual inviolability,” but coming from a desire for stability—holds it impermissible to hurt the few for the benefit of the many. If such an action undermined the law itself, then the benefit to the many would quickly disappear anyway. There is no mechanism available to maintain the fruits of injustice.

 

§

 

I have been belaboring the error of Rawls to you at some length now, which may seem particular, perhaps even personal. In truth, Rawls is not the source of this problem.  He is really just the latest iteration of an older idea. I told you that ideas have lineages, and that Rawls was in many ways the father of the arguments offered by Benedikt, Somin, and McIntosh in the previous chapter. In the same manner, Rawls’ thoughts on justice can trace his lineage back to older ideas.

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls cites Immanel Kant as one of his primary moral influences. In the philosophical world, it’s a respectable place to start: Kant was probably one of the most brilliant thinkers ever to live. A moral philosopher from Germany, Kant set about attempting to save free will from the mechanistic causality of David Hume[11]. In Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant defined the will outside of the body and separate from the material world itself, thereby freeing it from the reach of mechanistic causality. But this divorce from reality did not make us more free. American philosopher Matthew Crawford argues that Kant’s metaphysics of will resulted in a moral ethos which required people to take absolute responsibility for their behavior regardless of circumstances and environment[12]. Because who we are is largely determined by where we are, Kant’s separation of the will from the body morally permitted the commodification of our attention. If the will has no relation to the real world, then we have no moral claim over our environment—the “attentional commons” as Crawford calls it—which molds us and guides us into becoming who we would will ourselves to be. Advertisers, casinos, social media companies, and other distractions and diversions have other plans for how we should spend our time. If we complain about it, then we are simply not taking responsibility for ourselves as we ought to.

The characteristic separation of mind and matter in the philosophies of both Kant and Rawls can be taken back even further, through Christian theology and all the way to Plato. I believe that the concept of “individual inviolability,” for example, is actually Christian in origin. Christianity holds that all people are “image-bearers” of God, and, because God is sacred, all humans are sacred as well. Because we are all equal as image-bearers of God, and because God is the source and measure of all goodness, Christian theology holds that we are all equal to each other in Christ. Christianity holds that our bodies are not the same as our spirit, and while we can perfect our spirit and bring it closer to God through the use of the body, the body, in and of itself, is of little use or concern. The body and spirit are separate.

These ideas are very old and powerful, and cannot be dismissed quite as easily as Rawls and his veil of ignorance. There is much more to say about Christianity and Platonism—the ideological progenitor of Christianity—then I have described here, although I have included an essay on the subject of Christianity and identity at the end of this letter[13], should the subject interest you. Nevertheless, as a general rule, I would urge you to be wary and skeptical of those who claim that other worlds and dimensions supersede our own in importance, especially if they are absolutely certain in their own conviction. The subjects of “forms” and of heaven and hell are complicated and conceptually difficult, and those most adamantly assured of their truth are usually the least knowledgeable about the underlying reasons behind their own deeply held beliefs.

To bring this matter to a close, the ends of justice, good governance, and social harmony are not served by cutting human nature apart for the sake of simplicity. The body and soul are not separate, antagonistic entities, but components of a unified whole, just as human individuals can be component elements of a single lineage, or Anwei. There is certainly tension between the will and the world (including the body), just as there is often tension between individuals that are parts of the same family or tribe, or between the individuality of our experience with the individuality of our being—how we feel versus what we are. But observing these occasional tensions is not proof of their essential disunity. It only shows that we live in a complicated and changing world, and in this complicated world, we see different and sometimes competing strategies for navigating the challenges it imposes upon us. How can we find moral responsibility without free will? How can we create a stable society if our fellow citizens are susceptible to motivated reasoning? These are challenges that philosophers, statesmen, judges, and ordinary people have struggled with for thousands of years, and there are no easy answers. But we do ourselves no favors by simplifying the human animal into something it is not, and then acting as if our model was reality.

In the end, reality is its own best model.

§


[1] Benedikt, Allison. “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person.” Slate. 29 Aug, 2013. http://amp.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/08/private_school_vs_public_school_only_bad_people_send_their_kids_to_private.html

[2] Somin, Ilya. “The Hereditary Aristocracy of Citizenship.” Reason. 7 July, 2018. http://reason.com/volokh/2018/07/07/the-hereditary-aristocracy-of-citizenshi

[3] McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Peace and Freedom Magazine. Aug 1989. https://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack

[4] Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971. 3. Web. http://www.consiglio.regione.campania.it/cms/CM_PORTALE_CRC/servlet/Docs?dir=docs_biblio&file=BiblioContenuto_3641.pdf

[5] Ibid, 11.

[6] Appendix A

[7] Brosnan, Sarah and de Waal, Frans. “Monkeys reject unequal pay.” Nature, 18 Sept, 2003. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature01963.

[8] Sommers, Tamler. Why Honor Matters. New York, NY: Basic Books, May 2018. Print.

[9] Appendix B.

[10] Peterson, Jordan. “My New Year’s Letter to the World.” Jordan B. Peterson, 31 Dec, 2016. Web. https://jordanbpeterson.com/philosophy/new-years-letter/

[11] Hume believed that a proper understanding of the laws of cause and effect logically precluded any belief in “free will.” Because people believed that moral responsibility was grounded in choice, Hume’s argument appeared to threaten morality itself.

[12] Crawford, Matthew. The World Beyond Your Head: on Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. New York, NY. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016. Print.

[13] Appendix C.

As you can see, the problem of justice which Kant attempted to solve was not aided by his separation, but was in fact made worse. Individualism appears attractive because it is a quick and convenient way to reject certain kinds of tyrannies. But these tyrannies can be rejected in other ways (i.e., taking the time to differentiate between those who claim to speak for the group, and those whose interests are actually aligned with the group — all tyrants fall into the former category, and almost never fall into the latter), which do not sacrifice the context that makes individual self-actualization possible.

The problem with liberalism, in other words, is its rejection of identity. At its very root, it is a decontextualization of the self, and as a result, it has no substantive argument against either fascism or communism, since communism is the logical end-point of this decontextualization once the divine connection to God is removed, and fascism simply doesn’t accept the decontextualization in the first place (which is why they are so firm about borders). The fascist and the liberal are simply speaking different languages.

But one can speak to a fascist — and possibly even prove them wrong — from a more sturdy foundation regarding identity. If one accepts that some portion of one’s identity is inherited, and is not wholly and completely unique to the individual, then it becomes trivially easy to argue that the fascist notion that the state gives rise to the nation is historically and logically false. The nation gives rise to the state, often multiple different states over the course of hundreds or thousands of years.

Meanwhile, a “divine spark” is not necessary to refute communism, since the communist conception of individual equality (really, individual fungibility) is self-evidently false. Within an Afghan tribe, an Afghan and an American are not interchangeable, just as one’s child and a stranger are not interchangeable. We have different values, and value to each other, based upon our respective contexts. This is particularly important to me as I myself am not a Christian.

(As an aside, this makes arguments about the “superiority” of one group over another incoherent, “not even wrong,” as the very basis for judging superiority would be subjective).

So while fascism, communism, and liberalism are three prevalent modern political ideologies, they are not the only ones, nor are they the best ones. The American Republic (once “American republics”) is one such example. For instance, when the founding fathers spoke of “liberty,” they were not actually referring to freedom of the individual. Rather, they referred to the freedom of the group to make decisions based on their own collective self-interest. While the Declaration of Independence used some overtly liberal language, the actual law — the Constitution — did not reflect this (at the time) new philosophy, and instead reflected something much older.

So what was the American Revolution based on, if not fascist notions of the living state, communist ideas about the progress of history, or liberal reverence for the divinity of the individual?

One of the things which sparked the Enlightenment in the first place was the re-discovery and proliferation of a number of ancient Greek and Latin texts. Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Cicero, and others became available for reference among scholars and intellectuals. These pre-Christian philosophers and statesmen had a strong effect upon the foundation that was to become the United States of America, whose founders debated the relative merits of Sparta and Athens as models for their own future nation (they seemed to prefer Rome to both Greek city-states).

This early-Western, Greco-Roman tradition is not liberal, being collectivist, but neither is it fascistic, consciously wary of the state as it is. It is a kind of iterative tribalism, with concentric-circles-within-concentric-circles of identity, all striving for survival and success, and competing and compromising with one another in order to achieve that survival and success. The history of these conflicts and compromises have given us institutions which serve to mediate the interactions of these different levels of identity, from the individual to the family to the city to the nation to the race to the species, even to the class of mammals (we give “rights” of a kind and protections to dogs and cats which we do not give to fish).

In the spirit of properly limiting government, I believe it is wrong to order the state around a single, comprehensive philosophy, which even liberalism attempts to do. The spirit behind the American Republic, and its Roman rough-predecessor, is organic and non-comprehensive in its ideology. Rather, it represents a balance of several competing ideologies, each of which excludes variables which are not relevant to its paradigms, but may — in fact — be relevant in circumstances not accounted for within that ideology. The general cares little for the logistics of transportation to soccer practice, and the soccer mom cares little for air superiority in a contested region of strategic significance. Yet both are important to the nation as a whole. Our governmental institutions negotiate the needs of these two paradigms, and our nation flourishes. This institutionalized negotiation between these groups respects the contextual nature of the human spirit, as liberalism fails to do, and as communism rejects outright from the get-go. And yet it does not dictate what those identities must be from on high, and vainly attempt to immortalize them for all time, contra changing external environments and the needs that changing environments bring, as fascism does.

Perhaps we lack a word for this kind of iterative tribalism that underlies much of Western government — which used to underlie the American Republic in particular — but its tacit collectivism denies credit to Liberalism, and the nature of its government denies both Fascism and Communism any credit for its success. These three are not the only possible foundations for government in the modern West, and the best of all that we have yet seen — as represented by America in its youth — is none of these three.

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