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II.: THE ILLUSION OF ULTIMATE AGREEMENT - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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THE ILLUSION OF ULTIMATE AGREEMENT
We may either attend to those forms of moral life like loyalty, treachery, avarice, cruelty, saintliness, etc., which have long been observed and, in a haphazard way, documented; or concern ourselves with the intellectual justifications and exhortations which in one way or another emerge out of them. There is no form of moral life which is incapable of some sort of justification, but each justification necessarily distorts what it tries to justify. For justification is a support-gathering device, which assimilates all moral acts as closely as possible to contemporary moral beliefs. The situation is analogous to those political situations in which political parties are driven towards the “center” where the mass of public support lies. But what is in politics a “center” is in ethics a kind of logical elevation; it lies upwards, in the clouds of generality, at whose top are to be found those ultimate values which concern philosophers, or the most basic rules of any system of natural law. Here we all conspire in a meaningless agreement upon what are incorrectly thought to be fundamentals. Here also are to be found the generalized justifications (“Anyone would have done it,” “I mean well,” etc.) which turn up in ordinary life, slowly changing with each generation. And also residing here is the fantasy of an omnipotent and merciful judge, who will understand that only the good in people is real, and the bad merely the result of things they couldn’t help.
Now while it is clear that between Protestant and Catholic, Arab and Jew, Monarchist and Republican, there is at certain times nothing but unyielding and irreducible hostility, it is also clear that if we look not at their behavior but at their justifications, we begin to move upwards towards this moral center. And we begin to participate in a philosopher’s dream; the dream that the dispute is really over intellectual questions, and that, as in deductive argument, or in the formulation of policies, once the major questions have been agreed, the minor questions are matters of detail which will yield to technical skill and goodwill.
We may perhaps illustrate some of the issues arising here by considering the workings of a typical moral criterion. “In times such as this,” remarked Richard Nixon recently, “I say it is wrong and dangerous for any American to keep silent about our future if he is not satisfied with what is being done to preserve that future. . . . The test in each instance is whether criticism is going to help or hurt America. We certainly do not help America by running her down in the eyes of the world.” The patriotic policy, which Nixon advocates, supplies the criterion of “helping or hurting America.” The journalistic policy finds its most extreme formulation in the slogan “publish and be damned.” Some compromise is possible between the two policies: politicians admit a qualified right of press freedom, whilst journalists allow a qualified right to States of withholding strategic information. Somewhere on the borderlines, these formulae break down. Is scathing criticism of the blunders of politicians within the area of press freedom or State security? Assuming that a journalist accepts both policies (the patriotic and the journalistic), then the question of whether he ought or ought not to publish critical material depends on the factual question of how that material is related to agreed definitions of the rights of each institution.
Assuming that the government insists that the journalist’s material endangers the State, but that he goes ahead and publishes, how does he defend his act?
“I agree,” he may choose to say, “that the test is whether we help or hurt America. But America can only be helped by free and open criticism, which will prevent the multiplication of political blunders. The government’s disapproval is misdirected; if it understood its own policy (or best interests) properly, then it would have no objection to my criticism.” This places the act within the policy from which the attack derives, but reinterprets the criterion. If successful, it cuts the ground away from under the feet of the attacker. In any actual controversy, of course, the debate is endless, and expires from exhaustion rather than illumination. In historical discussion, subsequent fashions often give a tendentious answer to the question. Did the Dreyfusards weaken or strengthen “France”? Later liberal opinion, if forced to pronounce on the question as formulated in this way, would probably answer that they strengthened France. The opposite conclusion could also be argued. Both arguments would take the form of selecting later events and attributing them to the Dreyfus scandal.
In this kind of justification, our journalist refuses to enter into a “conflict of values.” He insists on placing his act within the same “value-system” as that of his opponents. But alternatively, he might choose to take a more aggressive line.
“My allegiance,” he might say, “is to Truth, not to the details of national conflicts. Because I am a journalist, I have a duty to speak out as my allegiance to truth directs. If I accept political direction as to what I say, then I am betraying myself.” Here the policy of journalistic freedom has been converted into an impregnable metaphysic. Our journalist, in this mood, has become what is popularly known as an idealist. He will still be beating out his copy as the last trumpet sounds. If he attacks an unsympathetic government, he will either be shot or exiled. His political opponents can only, in fact, use the same tactic we have already observed. They can start by agreeing that Truth is indeed an ultimate value, and then argue that the maintenance of democratic government is a necessary condition of the continuance of devotion to truth. Small compromises must be made for the main object. This kind of argument, in the twentieth century, has a sophistical ring; but there is no other.
Now this “conflict of values”—National Security versus Truth—must not be seen as a matter of irreducible personal preferences. Those who do see it in this way proceed to conclude that there is an unbridgeable gulf between “facts and values.” In that case, our journalist is commonly supposed to be making up his mind “what he ought to do,” “what is the right thing to do,” “where his duty lies,” “what values he adheres to.” These formulations pose the question for generic man, a neutral calculator outside a social context. If, however, we see his choice in the context of possible policies to be followed, then it is clear that the question is not: “What ought I to do?” nor even “what policy ought I to follow?” but simply: “What am I?” Our journalist is in fact deciding on the question of whether he is more a “patriotic American” or a “fearless journalist.”
The actual situation is clearly far more complicated than that—and not merely because I have used crude stereotypes to identify adherence to these two policies. The journalist’s act in publishing his critical copy is the result of a whole range of policies arising out of his past, his social and personal relations, his intellectual background, and his physical composition. The events which happen from moment to moment ceaselessly strengthen some policies and weaken or submerge others. There is no explicable “he” who rationally takes a decision on this question; that “he” is simply a mysterious substance, the phantom of individualism. As far as he can be studied, he is constituted by these policies, and they “choose” him just as much as he chooses them.
“Conflict of values” is not a matter of conflict between the preferences of individuals; it is a matter of conflict between irreducibly different things which exist, as a matter of fact, in the world. Nor can social conflict be explained away as a matter of ignorance and confusion about which means lead to which ends. It is a fact of life, resulting from the existence of a social thing like a journalist (or some kind of truth seeker) and another kind of social thing (in our example, a patriotic politician); and the conflict between them is not a conflict of “opinions” or “beliefs” but one between different characters, complicated by the fact that this conflict goes on within individuals, as well as between them. Social characters in this sense are no doubt highly unstable, just as States are often unstable. Nonetheless, advocacy, persuasion, propaganda, are political activities concerned to change not merely people’s opinions, but people.
Changing people and dominating their behavior does not depend upon prescribing courses of action to them. It often depends only in purveying information, true or false. The man who shouts “Fire!” in a crowded theater has no need to add any prescription. The audience is way ahead of him. On such occasions, they know exactly how to “maximize their goal values.”
The effects on behavior of social and political doctrines—that politics is an outcome of pressures, that capitalists live off surplus value, that a person’s character is formed by childhood experiences—are less dramatic but equally clear. Each proposition is like a stone dropped into a pool; it sends ripples across the moral face of the community. The values do not have to be supplied, the prescriptions spelled out; they are built into the character of those who acquire the information.
Intellectually, we seem to have the alternative of either concentrating upon the policies, aims, justifications, exhortations and prescriptions—the legal tender of moral characteristics—or upon those characteristics as they appear in people, complexes of thought and feeling by which people react upon each other. If we choose the former possibility, we will create something like modern moral philosophy, formalistic and concerned with logic and language. Working in this isolated field, we shall signalize the separation by distinguishing values from facts. Thus Professor Popper: “Perhaps the simplest and most important point about ethics is purely logical. I mean the impossibility to derive non-tautological ethical rules . . . from statements of facts.” And having separated the two spheres, we are immediately faced by the difficulties of reuniting them. Professor Popper continues: “As one of the most central problems of the theory of ethics, I consider the following: If ethical rules (aims, principles of policy, etc.) cannot be derived from facts—then how can we explain that we can learn about these matters from experience?”13
We can explain the matter simply enough if we refuse to make the separation in the first place, and recognize that moral knowledge is knowledge of facts; not of aims, ends, policies or values, but of what in social and political situations sustains them: ambition, enthusiasm, ignorance, avarice, loyalty, and so on. It is, of course, true that no statement of non-moral facts can generate a decision; the decision depends on us. In particular, it depends upon what we are, what moral constitution we have at the time. And if there is conflict within us, the problem which we have to work out in making the decision is exactly the problem of what we are. Nor is any particular decision final; we go on changing, and may begin to regret the choice we made from the very moment we made it. All of these are features of moral experience, and they may be studied politically, socially, psychologically, morally, logically, or indeed linguistically. The intellectual difficulty is that each way of studying human behavior tends to expand in an attempt to explain everything in its own terms.
Moral discussion (like, indeed, any other kind of discussion) has to begin with agreement somewhere. Now since I have argued that moral disagreement is conflict between different social characters, there can in fact be no significant change of values which is not also a change of character. Those people whose dominating concern is to search for what unites rather than divides us nonetheless search for some kind of agreement. Their quest is as relentless as that of the alchemist, and it is for moral principles which are so devastatingly obvious that no individual can rationally reject them. Nor, indeed, do they search in vain. They have produced a string of abstractions and tautologies upon which most men will agree. Happiness, satisfaction, truth, beauty and goodness—these things are generally agreed to be “intrinsic goods.”
The real strength of the illusion of ultimate agreement, the emotion which reconstitutes it intact after every critical onslaught, is to be found in its more down-to-earth formulations. Assuming that people are “basically” rational, can they not be taught that violence and selfishness are self-defeating? Happiness, which we all by definition seek, is not to be found in injuring and destroying the happiness of others. Is not the cause of racialism and fascism to be found in fear and neurosis, which can be cured by education, understanding and therapy? Are not the other evils of the world caused by poverty and illness, which modern technology is in the process of conquering? Have we not here the prescription for a better world on which we can all agree?
We met this program before when we considered the ethic of rationality. And the simple answer to its feasibility would be to say that men are not rational; or, more exactly, that they are only intermittently rational. A rational world is only possible assuming flexibility in most people most of the time. In economic terms, the demand for everything must be elastic. If one cannot have what one wants, one must be prepared to accept substitutes. Now this kind of flexibility does not depend upon intellectual agreement; it depends on social character. And given that all societies result from the interlocking of varied ways of life, it is strictly impossible that everyone can be consistently flexible. To put the matter another way, men are prolific generators of absolute principles. Manifest Destiny, Algérie Française, There is no God but God, Britons never will be slaves, Nemo me impune lacessit, Publish and be damned, A woman’s place is in the home—principles of this sort, in all fields, constitute rocks upon which the rational ship will be constantly bruising its side. And the difficulty does not reside in the principles; intellectually speaking, argument might in some cases lead to their being qualified. It resides in the ways of life, the social characters, which generate the principles, and which are not amenable to argument. And these ways of life result from different environments, from religions, from languages and the obscure dreams which constantly flicker about the lives of men and which are occasionally capable of seizing direction of whole societies. Liberalism itself partly floats along on a dream of warmth and harmony of this very kind.
In any case, the things which are most valued in any society are not the result of rational flexibility. They result from the quite irrational attachment of men to the ways of life in which they are involved. What could be more irrational than Socrates preferring death to silence? Science, philosophy, art, capitalism, nations—all have been built up by men passionately and inflexibly attached to what they were doing. So indeed has liberalism itself, proud, like any movement, to lay claim to its martyrs. Compromise, flexibility, rationality in this sense, are important political virtues. They are indispensable to the maintenance of some peace and security. But it would hardly be a high civilization which would result from their unquestioned dominance. And it would certainly be an authoritarian one.
Nonetheless, liberalism pursues a political policy of chipping away at all pretexts for conflict. For, if conflict disappears, then so does the main business of politics. In the past, men have fought ferociously over religious creeds. The liberal responds to this by preaching the virtue of toleration and asserting the privacy of self-regarding actions. Intellectually, the liberal response is an attempt to deny the importance of differences. All the creeds, it has been argued, contain a common core of reverence, worship and sociability: that is what is most important in religion. The rest is merely local variation. Why come to blows about transubstantiation or the immaculate conception? Doctrines of the Trinity are matters for theologians, not for ordinary men. In the seventeenth century, Spinoza argued that the essence of religion was in good works and good behavior. Teaching a man religion was thus teaching him good behavior: in other words, no more than a way of manipulating him.
Men have fought over issues of honor. That too is irrational—dangerous to the welfare and happiness of the people who get involved. Men have fought in social riots because they were hungry, or feared to be hungry. This political problem can be solved by feeding them. Races have fought each other. The liberal teaches that racialism is evil, that all races are equal and should be free and respected; beliefs about the inferiority of some races can be shown to conflict with scientific investigations. Scientific findings are real; they indicate that “potentially” all races are “fundamentally” (i.e. in the respects which interest liberals) the same.14
Men have fought each other in nations. Liberals look to international organizations and, more distantly, forwards to the prospect of world government, a super-society in which their ideals will find fulfillment free from any earthy threat. There has been economic competition between workers and between firms. The economy must become more co-operative. If economic failure cannot be rendered impossible, then its consequences must be circumscribed by welfare services. Men have envied each other wealth and the advantages of birth; these must also be eliminated, by progressive taxation and a uniform system of school education. Private schools, in Britain public schools, are a threat to this program, and therefore ought to be abolished. And, of course, men have simply disliked each other and fallen out. The original liberal ethic therefore made social accommodation one of its major virtues. More modern doctrine scientifically sees friction between individuals as the result of neurosis, aggression, and frustration. In the form of adjustment, it has found a cure for those, too.
The politics of modern liberalism is thus centered on the attempt at a permanent removal of all pretexts for conflict. It seeks agreement not merely by argument, but (quite sensibly) by undermining the economic circumstances and ways of life which sustain disagreement. The end result is a utopia, an association of individuals living according to the same principles and in the same manner. The only test of discrimination is the test of ability.
It might be objected that this is a caricature of liberalism, which has of all doctrines been far the most hospitable to variety and eccentricity. And this objection is perfectly correct. Liberalism has, in particular, never ceased to maintain a distinction between the private and the public spheres, a distinction which is the doctrinal ground of any kind of individuality. The distinction is formulated both in natural rights theories, and in John Stuart Mill’s often derided distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding actions. Liberals have also attacked the notion of adjustment. They have worried about the dull uniformity and the limited range of obsessions found in what they themselves call mass culture. They have never ceased to attack authoritarian attempts to impose uniformity in the name of pure doctrine or the national interest.
All this is true, but it states only a part of the liberal position. For, as we have already argued, liberalism is like all ideologies in that it attempts to hold together in one single viewpoint elements which are hostile to each other. The hatred of suffering and the love of freedom are equally characteristic of liberalism, and each is indispensable to it. If we seek, rather pointlessly, for some essential liberal position, then we might find it in the belief that happiness and individual freedom are always in harmony. Just as liberals believe that the good of the people may always be identified with what the people want, so they also believe that we can have variety without suffering. There is little historical evidence to support this view, and much to contradict it. Harmony obviously does not exist. It may, however, be imagined in some future; and the test by which we shall know when that future is nearly upon us is a world-wide moral agreement upon fundamentals.
It is also a clear mark of ideological thinking that certain things are viewed in a fixed policy context. This device is sometimes called functionalism; it attributes an essential role or function to things. (In more expansive versions of the doctrine, everything has a single function.) This doctrine yields us such propositions as that sex is essentially for procreation, full employment is a means not an end, books are for reading, and so on. This device is the basis of what we shall later discuss as scientific moralism. It is relevant here because it also implies that an ideal is essentially an ideal, and this happens to be false. To put it another way, the same program may fit into a number of policies, and an act which is a means in one policy is an end in another. Social harmony, for example, features in liberalism as an ideal; it is desirable for its own sake. But for the people who exercise authority over the great corporations of the modern world, social harmony is also a means. Such people are often fascinated by the possibilities of social manipulation turned up by liberal social scientists. Like liberals, they dislike wasteful and threatening social phenomena like strikes, crime, delinquency, and irresponsibility. They are kindly people who only want everyone to be happy—but on their own terms. They constitute a rally of conservative forces, entrenched in powerful and rich institutions, who are ever ready to promote the cry: “Our society is now perfect and just; only the second task, the rationalizing of the individual, remains to us.” These people have no powerful attachment to such things as rigid patriarchal sexual codes, already a casualty of liberalism. Nor do they have any love for such institutions as inheritance by birth. Quite the contrary, for the independently wealthy and the aristocratically privileged are far more difficult to break into the corporation system than eager young men with nothing to sell but their “ability,” and no standards with which to criticize except those they have picked up in the course of vocational training.
The notion that ideals and values are essentially ideals and values is so prevalent a version of functionalism that we might call it the idealists’ trap. It is often found in propaganda, but it may also arise in intellectually respectable fields like social and political philosophy. Thus the notion that political philosophy is concerned with the study of political ideals is an instance of the idealists’ trap, for it isolates ideals in the fantasy world of the desirable. One cannot effectively study liberalism, for example, by concerning oneself only with its ideals—liberty, equality, democracy, social justice, harmony, peace, rights and so on—for this would be to treat these things as essentially ends. It has the effect of turning political analysis into the higher justification.
To guard against the idealists’ trap, we would be well advised to establish as a guiding principle the view that everything in social and political life is both a means and an end, depending upon the policy context in which it appears. Indeed the policy characterization of social events is an important clue to the policy which is at work. We must remember that ideals need not be loved because they are ideals. If we wish to study a political movement, we must observe the social changes which it promotes, not those ideals to which it purports to be dedicated. The most naïve and dangerous individual in politics is the idealist who imagines that he is using others and moving towards his ideals and values. The first step to political wisdom is to realize that one is not only using others, but being used by them, and to try to understand how one is being used, and by what.
[13. ]K. R. Popper, What Can Logic Do for Philosophy? Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume XXII, 1948, p. 154.
[14. ]This view is nicer than the opposing view that some races are “fundamentally” superior to others. Intellectually speaking, both views are meaningless. But both have a political point.