Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Category: The New Left

Ideology and theories of Human Nature

There’s a good piece over at TNR discussing Obama’s move to embrace whats termed ‘Behavioral Economics’, rather than the more traditional models as a way to seek out his agenda. And whilst a good read of a growing field, this paragraph really stood out:

Barack Obama has the type of mind–orderly, analytical, well-read–that takes naturally to the study of ideas. But he’s always been uncomfortable describing himself in ideological terms. Is he a liberal? During the campaign, Obama would mock those who applied the label to him: “There’s nothing liberal about wanting to reduce money in politics,” he’d say. “There’s nothing liberal about wanting to make sure [our soldiers] are treated properly when they come home.”…

Rather than force markets to conform to his wishes, he shapes their calculus so they conclude (on their own) that their interests coincide with his wishes… In the mid-’70s, Charles Schultze, Jimmy Carter’s top White House economic adviser, sketched out a version of the conceit in a book called The Public Use of Private Interest. Schultze favored “harnessing the ‘base’ motive of material self-interest to promote the common good”–say, by taxing rather than outlawing harmful activities. A generation later, the behavioral theorists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, both informal advisers to the Obama campaign, hatched a descendant of this approach. In their own book, Thaler and Sunstein suggested that the government inculcate desirable habits like saving and philanthropy through a series of gentle “nudges.”

(Sunstein is now head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Obama)

But whats striking in this, is that this idea of harnessing the self-interest of the individual towards the common weal is precisely what makes a Liberal. Along with beliefs in freedom and the sanctity and primacy of the individual, Liberalism is distinct as a political theory for its inclusion of Self-Interest as the basic nature of humanity, and a force to be utilised for what public benefit that could be found, rather than turned inward or repressed. Unlike Conservatives and Social Democrats who see ills and flaws in human nature that need to be educated out and controlled by prohibition, Liberals seek to leave human nature, but seek outlets for it to flow in positive directions. This is why liberalism has always been the political ideology primarily tied to the market. Markets work to filter our private self-interest and desire for domination, into a form of profitable exchange that is peaceful, and prosperous. The more self-interested we are, almost the better in our engagement with the market (such as drive for competition that seeks out new markets, reduces prices, invents new products or services and drives out inefficiencies or failing businesses).

For me, it is this acceptance of human nature as neither good nor evil, but as a essentially constant that ought to be funneled for public and private good, that makes it at once the most pragmatic and sensible of political theories and worthy of being called by such a name. It does not seek to harness humanity towards some great goal, but merely identify common tools for interaction, instituted and maintained through good governance that enable the great and glorious seething mass of humanity, with all its contradictions, foibles, and beauty to make good on its promises to protect the poor, give freedom and dignity to the individual, and protect the society at large from the inevitable barbarians at the gates.

Obama doesn’t seem to like the word, his training is after all law not politics or philosophy, but in his endorsement of such schools of thought he is, however unconsciously more true to the ideal of a liberal than perhaps any number of his left wing colleagues who gather under such a banner. Human nature can’t always be shaped for positive purposes, but we have many benefits to be gained, many social ills spared, and many laws and restrictions that could be removed if we were to once more and forthrightly make such a principle at the heart of our understanding of how to govern humanity: Like a great carpenter, by going with the grain of humanity, not roughly against its form, no matter how great our final visions may be.

First do no harm

This is a welcome rebuff to the recent spouting’s of pure ignorance by the Pope, and echoed by Australia’s own Bishop Pell

The East-West Centre in Hawaii has estimated that if condom use had not been widely promoted and adopted, today 8 million Thais would be infected rather than the 550,000 now living with the virus. That’s more than 7 million lives saved. And have these condoms encouraged promiscuity? Five years into the campaign, in 1997, only 12 per cent of Thai military conscripts reported visiting a sex worker, down from 60 per cent five years earlier.

Similar success stories can be found in Cambodia, India, and Brazil where rates of HIV infection have steadily declined as a result of education about HIV, safer sex and the provision of condoms. In the West African nation of Senegal, the government began promoting condoms in the late 1980s and this has helped to keep HIV prevalence below 1 per cent to this day.

The rest of the story is filled with many more stats & examples.

I’m normally not one who buys the line that there’s a divide between religion and science. I think it’s too artificial, too simplistic and cuts out too many interesting discussions. Questions such as abortion can not be properly answered without both science and religion (or a deliberately secular ethics system in place of).
But given the influence that men such as Pope Benedict XVI and Bishop George Pell have, they ought to be vigorously engaged when they make claims that are simply false, and likely to encourage dangerous behavior.

Personally I don’t really understand the church’s objection to contraceptives. They arn’t mentioned in the holy texts (for obvious reasons), the knowledge & use of doesn’t change teenage promiscuity rates (if anything it makes it riskier), and most critically, contraceptives prevent the creation of a human life, which all major faiths hold starts at conception, and not possibly before hand. (Not to mention that 13% of female deaths during pregnancy are caused by abortions(67’000 women & 20 million abortions), with the legality and religion of the country having little effect)

In Uganda, where abortion is illegal and sex education programs focus only on abstinence, the estimated abortion rate was 54 per 1,000 women in 2003, more than twice the rate in the United States, 21 per 1,000 in that year. The lowest rate, 12 per 1,000, was in Western Europe, with legal abortion and widely available contraception.

So already living human beings will be safer, healthier, no morally worse, and alive, and far far less unborn humans will be brought into existence only to be later destroyed. If in any way your moral system has to do with the actual lives and well being of people as they are here and now then contraceptives are a no-brainer.
Anything less is not a moral system, but mere political doctrine for human behavior, dressed up as being ethically motivated.

It’s for reasons like this that I suggested a little while ago, that as a basis for a new left wing political philosophy, it had to begin with an acceptance of human nature as a constant. I deliberately didn’t link this to a utilitarian moral system, but anyone familiar with the philosophy would have seen it’s imprint on my words.

So let us talk religion and science, let us educate & inform children about religion and it’s possibilities and wonders, lets encourage those of faith to participate in the public debate and discussion, and let us then remind them of the responsibility they have to be honest and place a care for human well being ahead of their own prejudice and impulses. A hippocratic oath for religious leaders: First do no harm.

So good to see the papers running such a story, but it really should have appeared several days before. It’s no exaggeration to say lives depend upon it…

A Human Political Philosophy

Over a week ago, I posted a longish piece, wondering how to rebuild a left wing political philosophy, in light of the fall of socialism, and the adoption and subsequent bastardization of Liberalism (especially economically) by the right. Where was the left to turn to rebuild their political philosophy? I’ve been musing about this for a while, and I think i’ve come to at least a first point of reference. But before I reveal it, I want to quote and compare it to this post by the new wunder-kid of Conservatism Ross Douthat.

it’s my impression – created, in large part, by reading Helen Epstein’s The Invisible Cure (and if there’s a devastating rebuttal to her arguments, please send it my way) – that an awful lot of the money poured into condom-promotion over the years would have much been better spent promoting “partner reduction” in cultures inclined to promiscuity and de facto polygamy instead. This isn’t the same as promoting abstinence exclusively, and indeed, Epstein is witheringly critical of some of the abstinence-only programs that American dollars have funded in the Bush era. But “partner reduction” is a lot more consonant with the Catholic Church’s longstanding position – that it’s better to promote monogamy and fidelity than to take promiscuity as a given and make it as safe as possible – than you’d think from the overheated talk about how the Vatican’s flat-earth position on condoms has cost millions of lives.

Note the way in which the problem is to be addressed: Through the explicit effort to change human preferences. In this, as in many other issues, especially those related to sex (such as Homosexuality) Conservatives hold a political philosophy in which Humans are imperfect, flawed, and ought to be changed (or controlled at the very least). This is a approach that runs back through the history of western political thought. Thomas Hobbes famous claim that life pre/outside society is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, was used to justify giving the sovereign almost total control over the individual. So long as your security was assured, you could be shaped or changed in any way (Hobbes even re-defined freedom to mere mental desire, so as to help justify and claim labels such as “liberty” for his own totalitarian ideal). Plato’s Republic, perhaps the first piece of political science (at least that has survived) involves the designing of society entirely towards the aim of shaping and changing the next generation of citizens. People were to be classified as men of bronze, men of silver, and men of gold. Where you were born, so you died. But within, the state was to shape and make of you as it wanted and as most suited it’s aims. Change the word men for robot, and Plato’s republic would function identically. (And all this under the aim of seeking a “just” society.)

There is however an outlier within the Conservative Academy. One who is both the most endorsed and yet least understood figure in Conservative political Philosophy: Edmund Burke. Burke shares similar concerns about the imperfect, incapable human nature. Indeed these form the basis for his attack on the French Revolutionaries ideas about reshaping society towards an utopian idea. But instead of demanding his own chains on humanity to keep them from immoral or ignorant behaviour, Burke instead argues we already have a mechanism to deal with such concerns : Tradition. In tradition, and the wisdom of the past ages handed down, systems and institutions have been established which take into account these human excesses and account for them. In the market and (aristocratic) democracy we have the human need to compete (and defeat) given a peaceful, productive outlet. Titans of industry can prove their superiority via words and dollars, not spears or guns. And with a hereditary monarchy to stop anyone from thinking they could become the unrivaled leader, the passions and follies of humanity balance each other out.

Such a view still resonates today, especially within the neo-conservative revolution of the 1980’s & 1990’s. In their reaction to Socialism, they argued that it was entirely beyond the capability of man, any man, to control and sort the levers of the economy. No one could be that smart, that informed, that correct in their decision day after day, in industry after industry. Only the outcome of human desires & knowledge churned through competition in the market could appropriately provide the goods people want, and the price they are willing to pay. It is for this reason, that conservatives (and many others including myself) are understandably concerned about the Obama Administrations decision to involve itself in the way GM & Chrysler are run, including sacking the CEO and pushing for them to build energy efficient cars.

But such a conception is at stark odd’s with social conservative views (as held by the similarly free market, Obama disapproving) of Ross Douthat and his call for “partner reduction” schemes. This is a cognitive dissonance in conservatism that can not hold. And in here, there is an opportunity for the left

So Here is my first suggestion for rebuilding a Left wing political philosophy:

First Principle:That human nature can not be changed, only given outlets.
human-nature
What this means, is not that we endorse let alone allow every low, defiled or debased act, but instead that when problems arise, it is not what is inside the person that needs fixing, but the system that funnels those needs into unhelpful or harmful ways.

Take the issue of AIDs that Douthat was talking about. Whilst social conservatives may push abstinence or the disquietingly termed “partner reduction”, the left can begin by accepting that yes people like to have sex. And no government, no law, no cop, no punishment in the world will possibly stop such behaviour. Instead we need a system that takes this into account and can in some way deal with the harms that come.

So we need to educate people so they are aware of the risks (such as STD’s, unwanted pregnancy), provide them access to ways to mitigate that risk should they go ahead (the selling of contraceptives from condoms to the pill), and the creation of a social environment where problems can be discussed and raised in open and honest ways. With these three steps, human lust is given a safe outlet. The act is still there, but the harm to individuals who indulge is low. And thus, the cost for the larger society is mitigated.

Or Drug use: All human civilisation has had drug use as an explicit part of their culture, both privately and publicly. Yet today the United States locks up over 253’000 people for drug offences. In fact 20% of their inmate population are there because of issues related to drugs. The aim may have been to remove those who sold, but surely significant percentages of that population are there simply for their own use of illegal substances. And despite the sentences getting harsher, and the prison population rapidly expanding, people still use drugs. People still like drugs. The Conservative policy here is of course to get even tougher, to denounce even louder, to decry and denigrate anything to do with drugs in any way (such as medical marijuana, or harm prevention strategies).
The left wing response however, taking a cue from Burke -where conservatives wont-, is to realise that drug use is a traditional element of human life and society and hence we need to design a system that takes it into account. Just as we abandoned prohibition for Alcohol, so it must be for other drugs (though carefully done, and with appropriate caution in making such a significant change). A system where such drugs are legal would do wonders for society at large. Not only would it promote individual liberty (which is my second Left wing principle and to which I shall return in a later post), but it would instantly end the black market drug trade that funds everyone from the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Cartels in Columbia to the bikie gangs in your local capital city. Likewise the health of citizens would likely improve, -not that drug use is healthy- but because legalising it would ensure some quality protection to stop added substances being added to the product (as is responsible for most of the deaths for those who think they are taking heroin or ecstasy but in reality it’s something else); likewise with the stigma and ‘cool’ of illegal drug use removed, the rate of drug use will drop (Drug usage, including Marijuana is lower in the Netherlands in every category compared to the USA). Meanwhile the government & economy would make billions from the new industry, all finally taxed, instead of slipping into thugs & criminals back pockets.

Whilst he wasn’t speaking only about drugs, US Democratic Senator Jim Webb makes the same point well, as part of his push for Prison Reform:

Let’s start with a premise that I don’t think a lot of Americans are aware of. We have five percent of the world’s population; we have 25 percent of the world’s known prison population. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice,”

Each of these area’s ought to be acted on the context, circumstance and details of their own merits. But a clear philosophy can help guide us through the myriad of difficult policy choices. If we start by accepting that Human Nature is an irresistable force, then our attention shifts from trying to chain up or constrain what is harmful or distasteful, and instead giving it safe, even productive outlets. It’s part of the reason the market and democracy work so well, because they give a beneficial outlet to what is usually a harmful human desire: to compete and dominate. Political philosophy has no importance or relevance unless it places the human and the nature of humanity at the base of it’s understanding of the world. In this it is an alien cousin from philosophy with it’s otherworldly systems of logic or religion and it’s spiritual entities beyond the scope of this world.

So my First Principle of a new Left wing Political Philosophy: That human nature can not be changed, only given outlets.

Photo by Flickr user Pierre Stachurska, used under a Creative Commons license.