Sunday, June 25, 2006

What's my Nature again?

There's a conservative article of faith that goes something like this: Conservatives, unlike liberals, communists, and other utopians, recognize that there is a Human Nature that we cannot transgress; that human beings are not so completely malleable as to be made perfect subjects of a world-wide cosmopolis, socialist paradise, or what have you; that attempts to change drastically the established order of humankind will be more disastrous than beneficial.

I'd like to make a start at pulling this argument apart a bit. The important thing to note from the beginning is that this argument comes in different forms, sometimes lacking one or more of the key components I've listed above. One strand of the argument might rely simply on the Human Nature foundation: in such a case, Human Nature is usually radically ahistorical and founded upon the edicts of a god or, in a more sophisticated form, Lockean man or homo economicus. Another form might be a strict adherence to the status quo or to a mythical past which might never have existed. Thus William F. Buckley's famous pronouncement in the first issue of National Review that conservatives stand astride the world yelling "Stop!" In this case, conservatives admit that societies do change over time, but that conservatives are somehow smart to resist that change, always and everywhere. Finally, there can be a separate and independent argument strictly from history, which surveys the disastrous results of the 20th century and decides that de facto we ought to rely on conservatism lest we lead ourselves into nightmarish dystopias.

Of course, these arguments often blend together, resulting in the complete article of faith I listed above, or certain presuppositions from some may indirectly support arguments in others. But that is largely unimportant right now.

Right now I'd like to raise some points against all these arguments, however you decide to combine them. First, there is the ahistorical argument for Human Nature. Now, that description might be damning in itself, since we usually think it unwise to describe anything ahistorically, outside of its proper context. But even if we do not wish to use this reasoning as a prima facie dismissal of the view, we can pretty easily raise the questions it begs. Because right now the conservative view of Human Nature would probably run something like this: people desire private property and the traditional moral principles dictated by God, family, and country. But what "private property" means now and what exactly God, family, and country demand are incredibly complex and changing phenomena. So of course many hundreds of years ago another human being might casually be described as your private property, and God might dictate for you never to drink alcohol or to beat your wife for her insubordination. In more recent times Tradition has told us that women, blacks, and gays are not to be treated the same way. (We might bring up more mundane cases such as how much we will tolerate being taxed and how large we will allow the federal government to be.) In most of these cases (although certainly not completely and not in all of them), conservatives now disavow what Tradition used to tell us. They have a New and Better conception of what our supposed Human Nature is. But if our Nature has changed, then there is no reason to believe that it will not again; and until we have pegged down what exactly is Natural or Essential about ourselves it would be silly to stand blindly by one conception of that, especially if in the past such obstinance caused so much pain to so many people. So we have more or less successfully historicized Human Nature to the point where it is quite unwieldy.

Second, despite all I have just said, there is nothing inherent in the idea of Human Nature that would make it the bulwark for a decidedly conservative or status quo-abiding scheme. Marxists, of course, have a conception of human nature--that of human beings working in an unalienated fashion and distributing to each according to his/her needs. (This argument has the confusing attribute of also being historicist because historical materialism implies that this realization of human nature could not have happened at any previous stage of economic development. Human Nature proper begins with the unworking of capitalism.) I was struck by this similarity between Marxism and conservatism while reading Marcuse's One Dimensional Man. Marcuse makes the argument that modern, bureaucratized, technologically efficient life tries to warp human beings into something contrary to their nature, and that socialism is the answer to this "one-dimensionality." Thus Communists are not necessarily the enemies of conservatives strictly because they want to make human beings into something contrary to their Nature; they want to make them conform with their Nature, but the two sides have radically different views of what that Nature is. Liberals, on the other hand, might actually pose a risk to both groups because out of all of them liberals seem to have the murkiest conception of Human Nature; in fact, a liberal paradise would be one in which every single individual is free to exercise their radically different Natures to their fullest capabilities.

So there you have the conundra for the conservative argument enumerated above. If we have a purely ahistorical Nature, who's to say it isn't the one outlined by socialists, or any other group with a conception of Human Nature differing from that of conservatives? Might not the present state of affairs be the one that distorts our true Essence? And if there is a historical argument to be made for defending the status quo, isn't there also a very strong historical case for attacking it?

10 Comments:

Blogger Scantron said...

I should point out right away that the aforementioned article of faith is a matter of pride for conservatives but more or less practically useless when it is inserted into pragmatic, everyday political discourse. So no matter how proud a conservative might feel about his inherent opposition to fascism and communism, that has very little to do with the tax increase on the top 2% of wealth-earners that I might propose. My post therefore has mostly to do with a rhetorical stance, although if anyone has ever heard it used in everyday debate please let me know.

11:38 PM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

I think that your conclusion that Marxism posesses a concept of human nature is hasty; I'll note that I haven't read 1-Dimensional Man, but by looking elsewhere I think one can see that a great deal of Marxists and interpretations of Marxism (if not the bulk of them) end up against any notion of human nature. Much of the debate, and the anti-humanist course of Marxism comes from the Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach-

"Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual.

In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations. "

These two sentences alone, were they not supported by a good other bit of Marx's work, seem to provide a decent argument against a concept of human nature inherent in Marxism. Nonetheless, we do see that there are humanist strains of Marxism, with one of the biggest opponents of the anti-humanist tendencies being Norman Geras (Geras ends up, in a surprising turn or not, becoming quite conservative in his later years, as evidenced by his blog). Geras' arguments were however, almost exegetical or philological, attempting to refute Althusser's arguments based on the Sixth thesis through a rather roundabout discussion of the sense of certain words etc. In all, I think that to say Marxism employs a concept of human nature is broad-brushing to say the least, and downright wrong as I fall in whatever of a debate there is within the tradition.

1:42 AM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

Also, I think that the liberal notion of human nature is far from murky, although its epiphenomena seem to be. This is to say, the liberal conception of human nature seems to be a product of the enlightenment and the continuation of its project. Inherent to the liberal human nature seems to be, of course, human rights-concieved of as inalienable from the person's existence as such. Where these concepts come from (historical, a-historical, what have you) is another point, but I think that it is safe to say that Liberalism's idea of human nature is the rational being and bearer of rights. This would then make the liberal paradise not an expression of different natures, but an expression of different, largely aestheticized/anesthetized, practices all suboordinated to the true Nature of the human as bearer of rights. There is no radical difference here, as all 'natures' expressed in the liberal paradise would still need to conform to a particular set of 'natural' consraints.

2:07 AM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

I certainly agree with old man Sheriff about liberalism's conception of human nature. "[A] liberal paradise...in which every single individual is free to exercise their radically different Natures to their fullest capabilities" sounds more like something out of Marx or perhaps his predecessor Schiller's "real of pure appearance". Liberals, in the traditional sense, are all about restraining our capabilities and freedom at a certain boundary where others' rights begin.
This is where I part with you and Sheriff. We do not have a "purely ahistorical nature" in any meaningful sense. Non-utopians admit that our nature is constrained by our present, meaning that radical shifts in our definition of rights and the citizens who possess them can only occur with time and major changes in circumstances. Human nature may be malleable, but is not brittle--change comes from somewhere and radical breaks occur only rarely. The liberal concludes from this that government should be malleable as well, while a conservative tries to resist this change. Therefore every generation of conservatives must be a little more progressive than the last or will be entirely dissappointed.
The real difference between liberals and communists (utopians in general) is that a liberal sees that human nature changes and argues that it should be allowed to. Hence free speech, basic civil liberties, etc. If that's what you mean by a murky idea of human nature, I think you're right. But it certainly has boundaries: liberals believe human nature should only change because people change it on their own, that regardless of how much it changes, we shold continue providing certain rights, and that humans are competitive, grasping beings that who will take advantage of failures in a system to benefit themselves.
In contrast, communists see that human nature can change and believe that they know how it should be changed. So, as I doubt Sheriff will deny, everything becomes a question of how to get the revolution to begin.

7:53 AM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

(only time for a quick response now, sorry)
I think you're incorrect in your typification of communists (whatever the hell they are), austi. I was trying to say that the proper Marxist perspective takes the position that there is no human nature whatsoever; on the one hand this promotes a radical freedom (Balibar's egaliberte on the one hand) unconstrained by a doctrine of rights that many will ultimately say (among other things) are only alive because of strong police forces.
Also I'd like to note something about: "communists see that human nature can change and believe that they know how it should be changed...everything becomes a question of how to get the revolution to begin." On the one hand, there's the slippage here between communists, marxists, utopians. There is an asymmetry in all three of these terms, but I'm guessing your usage held a sort of benign contempt for the three equally, so we're fine there, right? (it is joke) Also, I think that in fact the marxist or whomever you want to use the term for does not think that people's nature "should be changed [in a particular way]" but that not only can people change their natures, but that they can do this in a radical sense and in fact liberalism is yet another system of constraint and perpetuation of an actual (If not formal) inequality under the guise of protection of rights. So people cannot be "changed" (by whom, even? for what reason? how?) because in any such situation the effect would be a paternalistic ideological indoctrination. I think that this is what we saw by the degeneration of many social revolutions (e.g. Stalin subverting all activity to one supposed 'Destiny' as rhetorical/politial gateway to totalitarianism), but I think that no coherent Marxism could accept it.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

Sheriff-
I can think of no recognizeably communistic proposal which does/has not demand significant, coercive change. Of course we run into induction issues, but come on now; radical breaks occur with radical force. Any gradual chance can surely be integrated into a scheme that can be called liberal.

5:05 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

On the one hand, whenever I see "Human Nature" arguments being made, it raises a red flag. "What human nature?" I think. "Such a concept has been proven time and time again to be either historically constructed, ahistorical, or merely historically malleable..." But then I realize that what the Sheriff and Austi are saying (when in agreement) about a certain progressive strain of liberals is basically true of myself: that with few exceptions ALL human beings possess the capacities for rational thought, intelligent decisions, and peaceful coexistence. (Most Marxists would believe the same things, of course). The important thing to note, it seems to me, is that this is not an uncontraversial position. Indeed, even today it is one that needs to be defended, though I personally believe the fight is more against fundamentalist dogmas than your small government conservatives (who would subscribe to the same basic beliefs in human nature, I think).

5:33 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Well, I'm pleased to read the conversation this has sparked. I have several things to respond to. The first is for Sheriff--I think that despite what many Communists have said against the concept of human nature (because they wished to be "scientific," "materialistic," see through bourgeois ideology, what have you), many of them definitely have one. But I say that because I think that despite Communism's rigidity the basic socialistic reflex is one of compassion, or a way to account in one's mind for the sheer amount of injustice in the world. To me, much of communism is as much as anything a moral stance (you have argued against this point, saying that anarchists and syndicalists often argue from moral grounds, which is defective, but to me everything has a moral grounding, which is usually just as wound up in our thinking with political and economic thinking). Of course, communism has attracted and continues to attract various ne'er-do-wells, but so does everything, and especially systems of thought that proclaim the secret truth behind the appearance of things.

But here I am raising an important point: I am making a distinction between what these different groups (conservatives, liberals, communists) putatively say about themselves and what we think they "really" are. Thus although liberalism usually gives itself a thin sheen of meaningful coating (human beings are autonomous, they possess basic rights), Communists sometimes notoriously counter that this is rhetorical agitprop for bourgeois capitalist ideology. Similarly, I might say that although conservatives fall back upon the rhetoric of tradition and human nature, what they *actually* are often doing is window-dressing their cultural fears, prejudices, and many times greed. So I think it does in fact matter quite a bit what we suppose these systems of thought to be "really," which usually entails a sociological or psychological analysis.

Next, I will say that when I described "[A] liberal paradise...in which every single individual is free to exercise their radically different Natures to their fullest capabilities," I meant this as a very liberal stance, but in the tradition of autonomous liberal/libertarianism. Most recently, Rawls/Habermas/Nozick/Appiah/whoever have abandoned all pretensions to defining what "the good life" is (well, maybe Habermas still has a bit of this) and insist upon individuals being more or less left alone to pursue their highly personal goals. This is the liberal dream so mercilessly attacked by Stanley Fish, and runs counter to traditional conservatism/communitarianism.

I am now having a hard time deciding, however, if Communists have a "hard" conception of what the good life is, or rather that, like liberals, the "good life" is simply living however you like in a socialist state, much as the "good life" for a liberal is living however you like within a liberal state of guaranteed rights. The "slippage" as Sheriff put it between these two systems (and of course the consideration that historically socialism grew out of liberalism) leads me personally to believe that there is a lot of leeway within the liberal system for enacting socialist-style changes, short of the "revolution" discussed above. It's a hope, anyway.

Finally, Robot is right--while this "human nature" bit we've been kicking around does need to be defended from religious fundamentalists (and, I should venture to say, some postmodernists), conservatives come to the table, so to speak, with many of the same assumptions. Here is what I see, however: conservatives as they practice their art in America concentrate on an extreme Liberal position economically (AKA enlightened individualism) while embracing a Conservative moral code (only a few wacky libertarians don't care about social issues like abortion and gay rights). But if I had to go into "what I really think" mode, I would say they effectively take resources from the poor and give them to the wealthy, who in turn support them. This leaves me with a rather one-sided view in which I can't say what progressive liberals in this country are "really" up to, but I suppose the usual argument runs that they make the federal government big and inefficient...so that they stay in power? I don't see a causal connection, though, and they don't tend to stay in power. Oh yeah, they hate America too.

6:14 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

Well put, Scantron. I feel satisfied with this conclusion. You and everyone else have raised some excellent questions. I hope we can return to this, however, at some point in the near futre--with greater wisdom and more effective prophesies.

Two additional things to note concerning film:
1) I saw "The Proposition" (rumor has it Scantron and Sheriff saw it) and thought is was awesome. The score alone makes it a worthy watch.
2)To Scantron, chiefly: I saw "The Devil and Daniel Johnston," and I'm just trying to get a pulse on how well known he is. Did Vintage Vinyl carry and of his albums? Had you heard of him before the movie? If so, how?

3:12 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

The Proposition does indeed kick ass. I thought it was excellent on all counts. But the score? You mean that weird poem thing Nick Cave sings? I thought it was original I guess. As for Daniel Johnston, I knew of him before the movie, primarily in the context of "look at this schizo guy who writes bad songs that all these hip musicians go for." Like a kinder, gentler Wesley Willis. We didn't really stock much of his stuff at Vintage, which I always thought was dumb, especially when the movie came out and people were asking for it every day.

5:13 PM  

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