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CHAPTER FOUR: Moral and Political Evasions - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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Moral and Political Evasions
THE DOCTRINE OF NEEDS
much of the strength of liberalism as an ideology results from the manner in which it takes over ordinary words and gently inflates them into metaphysical tenets. Sometimes these words go in pairs. “Improvement” for example is a very ordinary and untechnical word which can either be used in its own humble station, or can give support to its more ambitious brother, “progress,” and “happiness,” by this process of conceptual elephantiasis, can become the unique object of human striving. But the logic of this ideological operation can perhaps best be seen if we turn from “desire” (which we assumed to be the key term of liberalism in its earlier development) to its partner, “need.”
The ordinary uses of “need” are familiar enough. “I need brushes,” a painter might say (“otherwise I can’t finish my picture”). This is little different from saying “I want brushes,” except that “need” implies that the things wanted are for something, in other words, are means to some important end. Desire may be capricious; need always claims to be taken seriously. It is for this reason that “need” is a vehicle of pleading, often of sentimental pleading. “I need brushes,” the painter may say with desperation in his tone if he is talking to a patron, from whom he wishes to extract money. A need is imperative; it is something which, by definition, has a right to satisfaction.1
Such a term is likely to attract both propagandists and philosophers (and especially those political thinkers who combine both roles). Its emotional overtones are beautifully persuasive. Further, in a puritan environment, a need is free from even the most austere kinds of objection to human desires. Thus we find that the writers of advertisements are eager to show that the product they wish to puff is not a luxury; it is a necessity—something which everyone must have. (There are times when the implausibility of this is evident; and the intelligent advertiser takes the bull by the horns and insists that, once in a while, everyone needs a little luxury in his life.) On the other hand, “need” as a term of propaganda has one serious disadvantage compared with “desire”; it always refers to an end, and thus invites enquiry as to what the thing needed is for. It therefore conflicts with a general rule of sophisticated propaganda, by which the terms used must seem to be absolute; they must be purged of all embarrassing relationships.
Philosophers are attracted to the term “need” because it opens up interesting variations of utilitarianism. The needs doctrine may be stated as follows: If our needs have been satisfied, we shall be happy. This is not a particularly interesting statement, but it becomes rather more so if it is converted: If we are not happy, then one or more of our needs has not been satisfied. This too is vapid. It simply inserts the term “need” into the assertion that if we aren’t happy, there must be some reason for it. But the insertion of emotionally loaded terms into a rather empty doctrine, a favorite device of utilitarianism, is never a casual matter. In this case it suggests a program for social scientists: if we find unhappiness (and therefore a social problem), then search for the need which is being, or once was, frustrated.
At this point the requirements of liberal philosopher and social propagandist coalesce. Both wish to establish the term “need” as something whose relationships do not require serious examination. This can be achieved by first establishing “need” in contexts where its imperative character is unlikely to be denied. Here we find the bedrock case. Food and drink are “basic human needs.” What are they basic to? To survival. At the present time, one can get no more fundamental.
It is formulation, not fact, which is here at issue. No one denies that any particular man will starve to death after a certain number of weeks if he has no food. No one denies that he is likely to be miserable while it is happening. Although these statements are perfectly general propositions about human beings, there are very considerable variations. A well-fed bourgeois is likely to be hysterically hungry after a day or so without food, whereas an Asian peasant will go about his business for a considerable time on very little. Hunger is partly a matter of habit.
Now if the issue is life or death (or survival, as the liberal ideologist prefers to put it) then people will agree that death ought to be prevented where possible. One might parenthetically observe that there have been some cultures in which the imperative did not operate so strongly. But the important thing here is the belief that life—“life itself,” sundered from any activity at all—is the most important thing for every individual. The issue may actually arise in a number of ways. We may imagine an isolated and starving community whose only available food happens to be the subject of a religious taboo. Is life then more important than a religious injunction? The liberal would say yes. Here is one of the functions of his criterion of rationality; here is one of the reasons why liberals regard rites and taboos as mere prejudices and prefer the generalized deity of natural religion. Here is one of the points where talk about survival and “life itself” involves the suppression of vital facts in a situation.
The issue arises again where the inhabitants of a richer country are faced with a choice: should money be spent on organizing a new symphony orchestra, or sent to buy food for famine relief? In welfarist terms, there is no doubt of the answer. Life is more important than music. But to whom? And in what mood? The situation also arises today as a result of a popular argument: In order to “conquer world poverty,” the educational system of the richer countries must produce more technicians, and this involves withdrawing resources from the teaching of the classics. Assuming for a moment that all the welfarist assertions about the nature, extent, and means of eliminating world poverty are true, is the dedicated teacher of Latin and Greek exhibiting a cold indifference to the needs of others?
The formulation of such questions in terms of “basic human needs” is thus a device which serves to obscure the conflicts and social changes which will result from following a welfarist policy. Every social policy requires sacrifices—which is why all political movements include one clause on the beauties of sacrifice. And sacrifice is good because it is self-sacrifice, the conquest of self-indulgence. Even the classics teacher resisting the encroachments of science can be presented as self-interested. So can the painter who thinks of painting but not of how much white bread for Red China his Chinese white would buy. Not to accept a welfarist policy can come to seem a moral defect, a lack of compassion, pity, sympathy for one’s fellow creatures.
The logical fallacy of this way of thinking is not far to seek. It consists of jumping from:
x is a necessary condition of y.
x is more important than y.
Examples of this would be: food is a necessary condition of maintaining a symphony orchestra. Therefore food (and especially the provision of food) is more important than music. The form this often takes (as in Spencer, for example) is to suggest a list of priorities from the rational (or welfarist) point of view. First one must make sure that people are properly fed, clothed and housed. Then there will be time for us to be cultured. This was one of the assumptions of nineteenth-century socialism, which believed that it was only poverty which prevented the working class from entering into its cultural heritage. There are two related mistakes in this argument. The first is to assume that culture is what the bourgeoisie thinks it is, an assumption which exhibits the bourgeois presuppositions of virtually all socialist movements. Thinking in this way has led to the vice of negative definition. The proletariat was defined (even by Marx, who in some moods was perfectly aware of this trap) as the poor, the deprived, the suffering class—defined in other words in terms of non-possession. The bourgeois insistence on personal possession is so powerful as to create entire definitions which leave the subject a complete mystery. Who are the poor? They are those who do not possess what others have. This is rather like defining a horse and cart as a thing that lacks an engine. It is equally a matter of ideology to talk about the “underdeveloped countries” and it reveals the political direction of liberalism. The liberal has little interest in the way of life of the peoples who live in these countries; in so far as he has, it is usually the sentimental interest of pity and compassion. He is simply concerned with the fact that in the “underdeveloped countries” people do not live as he does. And they ought to.
The other point in the slogan of “first security and then culture” is a mistake of fact. It is the assumption that affluence and security are both necessary and sufficient conditions of a cultured existence. And this assuredly is not true. There may be some relation between the leisure and resources of the upper classes of Western Europe who have produced so much of what we now revere as culture. But it is certainly a very complex relationship, and it has little to do with security. To a large extent, people who become interested in affluence move on to pursue more affluence: bigger and better things to buy.
The bedrock case of survival establishes the emotional tone of the doctrine of needs, and this tone can be carried over into its many other uses. For the important point about a need is that it is a way of discriminating between conflicting desires. Each man, as Bentham insisted, must be his own expert upon what he desires; no one else can try to overrule him on that point. With needs, the case is different. People may need things without knowing that they need them, and their needs may even directly contradict their desires. There is an element of truth in this view. The desires that people express vary from day to day, and they are often contradictory. There are also cases where, for complicated reasons, people insist that they desire something very different from what they in fact want. Our judgment in such situations must always depend upon our knowledge of the people involved; but even with the best knowledge of those close to us, we may miscalculate. Now just as the doctrine of needs requires a validating case where no one seriously contests its absoluteness, so also it requires a validating class of people where the discriminatory use of needs, contradicting expressed desires, is most plausible. And the conspicuous class of people who satisfy this requirement is children.
Exactly to the extent that they are inarticulate, and their actual desires need not be taken seriously, children are an ideal field for the use of the doctrine of needs. Children need understanding, security, love, discipline, punishment, and so on; given the absence of these factors (and any others yet to be dreamed of), then the troubles of later life stand explained. The doctrine of needs in the hands of psychologists and social workers is somewhat modified: if we are unhappy (and especially if we constitute a social problem), then the cause must lie in the frustration of some need whilst we were children.
This kind of explanation—it is highly elastic and often inscrutable—is simultaneously moral, and also morally evasive. It evades ethics by ignoring the moral experience of the relevant human beings to be explained, and seeking a chain of inevitable causes in human affairs. But it is also moral (in the conventional sense) because it prescribes behavior for us. It tells us what we ought to do, and we may accept Hume’s advice to look carefully at such terms.
It is of course immediately evident that no statement involving the term “need” can claim to be scientific unless the relevant consequence is specified. The proposition “children need love” may be passed off as expert advice, but it is clearly elliptical. The expert can only supply us with a set of possible consequences. If a child is not loved, then x will happen; if it is loved, then y will happen. But no expert is in a position to recommend either x or y to us;2 nor indeed are many such actual relationships any more than highly tenuous connections.
The authority of the needs expert is buttressed in a number of oblique ways. Political writings, for example, contain large numbers of references to needs, basic needs, human needs, or social needs, where no particular need is involved. These statements appear to say something, and accustom us to the idea. Next there is the bedrock case, where the need is validated by the fact that death may follow frustration of the need. Here our preferences can usually be taken for granted, and any uneasiness about the actual concept of “need” looks like pedantry. Further, by formulating the question as “such and such a class of people need x” (to achieve y implied), the needs expert may persuade people to fight on the ground: Is x really a need? And on this question, shaky statistical correlations look more convincing than they do when the question is directly faced: does x lead to y, and if so, under what circumstances? For these reasons, the elliptical use of “need” is a virtual index of the propaganda content of social science.
The relation between the concept of need and the fact of inarticulateness reveals part of the political significance of needs. Classical liberalism concerned itself primarily with desires, and a need was simply an auxiliary component more or less clearly related to the policy of which it was a necessary condition. Modern liberalism has reversed this order, playing down desire to elevate need. The cause of this reversal would seem to be the successive and rapid enfranchisements of large and inarticulate masses of people with little experience of political life. In democratic theory, all government acts must emerge from the popular will; but if the popular will is confused, immoral, inconvenient or otherwise defective, then some oracular device must be found by which it can speak with clarity and decision. The political theory of modern times has been singularly fertile in such devices. The notion of the general will, and that of the class-consciousness of the proletariat, are examples of this kind of device; for in each case, a small set of people may establish themselves as experts in the pronouncements of these oracles. Actual popular support is unnecessary; it can be rigged up after the event, if necessary. The concept of need is a less dramatic example of the same kind of device. Like most liberal conceptions, it looks innocuous, and it has never been saddled with atrocities like the reign of terror or the dictatorship of the proletariat. Most of its practitioners are mild social scientists, or benevolent welfarists, rather than wild-eyed fanatics like Robespierre or Lenin. Yet the logical and political identity remains.
Just as the conception of necessities was, for the Puritans, a moral battering-ram against the aristocratic style of living, so the attraction of “needs” is that they appear to exclude anything frivolous, eccentric, subjective or capricious. A need is a demand which has passed into the world of absolute moral acceptance, a thing not to be denied. The furniture of a rich minority in the past satisfied no needs: it was part of a way of life, and its aesthetic and its “functional” attributes were held together within that way of life. The mode of mass production of furniture is strikingly different from individual craft production. The concept of need breaks up a way of life and inevitably changes it. Not indeed always for the worse. The eccentricities of aristocratic taste may be at times as disastrous as the fashions of a mass market. Restricted aristocratic education may become a dogma for dilettantes, the learning of a few tags in a classical language which will serve as marks of social distinction. This is merely to say that there are corrupt pressures invading the exercise of every skill.
The political advantage of “needs” is that, because of their lack of discrimination, they permit of substitutes. A human need does not discriminate: it is for food, not for chop suey or goulash. It is for shelter, not for a brick bungalow in Brighton with two garages and all mod. cons. People can be encouraged or taught to satisfy—indeed to develop—needs in a required manner. A certain quantity of calories or of vitamins is needed to satisfy the need for food, and calculations of floor space and the existence of facilities like bathrooms can serve as precise criteria marking off the slum area from the new town. The satisfaction of medical needs can be calculated in terms of a ratio of doctors to patients. All this is welfare and, in a world of statistics, is far more useful than attempting to enquire into the purity, fecundity, etc., of pleasures and pains as Bentham suggested. In the conception of needs, utilitarianism has at last succeeded in becoming more or less “scientific”—that is to say, measurable.
The final task in any criticism of propaganda is to remake the social connections which propaganda severs by making its terms absolute. If a social need is a necessary condition of something, the question we must next consider is what that something is. It is a question which admits of no easy answer. To satisfy the basic needs of a population presumably involves allowing them the conditions of an austere way of life. There was undoubtedly an element of this in early formulations of need thinking, because the upper classes considered that too much prosperity for the lower would lead to lazy self-indulgence. This element of vicarious puritanism also enters into liberal approval of Soviet communism where it is precisely the sacrifices, the austere way of life, which commands admiration.
Yet by now, the idea of welfare depends so completely upon the variable standards of a rising industrial society that any question of austerity falls into the background. The concept of need is validated by reference to malnutrition in the underdeveloped areas of the world; its imperativeness depends upon its association with suffering. But with that imperative tone guaranteed, needs doctrine may move in any direction.
For social needs are those conditions which must be satisfied if social life is to be organized in a certain way. The propaganda function of needs doctrine is to confuse the issues which would arise out of a direct confrontation of competing political policies. Consider the argument that we must accept a high degree of central planning if the need for full employment is to be satisfied. The need for full employment is an end, indeed an imperative, likely to appeal to all who deplore poverty and enforced idleness. Economic planning features as a means; whether we support it or not appears to depend only on the technical question: does it promote full employment?
But this subordinate role is deceptive, for central planning can lead to a life of its own. It appeals by its rationality to all who have a passion for order and tidiness in political life. Remembering our principle that in politics everything is both an end and a means, we may formulate the argument in a less familiar way. In order to get a centrally planned society, full employment must become a need. Or, to take a related example, in order to organize society for the satisfaction of human needs, the political influence of unfettered capitalism must be replaced by governmental control. And again, we may reverse this neat arrangement of means to ends: in order to destroy capitalism, needs doctrine must be developed into a moral imperative.
It is thus a mistake—and not merely a liberal mistake—to imagine that the ends of policies arise in a moral field, and that political policies have only the subordinate role of means. All of these policies—full employment, economic planning, developing a welfare state, and destroying capitalism—are simultaneously moral and political; each leads a life of its own. How they are connected—whether cast for the role of ends or means—depends entirely upon the persuasive climate of the time, and it is that which is crucially moral. Politics is strongly influenced by changes in moral sensibility, and advocacy of such changes is therefore a political act.
Misunderstanding on this issue is virtually inevitable. Needs conceptions have, for many people, a vise-like grip which nothing will shake. Each attack on the conception of needs will be met by a baffled reformulation: Surely it is obvious that people do have certain fundamental needs if they are to live. And each reformulation will miss the point. There is no factual issue at stake, but the semantic issue has large philosophical implications. “Need” belongs to a particular language of political and moral thought arising from the conception of generic men. Once we have entered into that language, we can only say individualist things. It is a language which has grown out of the liberal movement (and some associated movements) and it has, like all languages, its particular blind spots, the things which it cannot say. Once inside, no matter how much we thresh about, we shall be hard put to it to escape. A great mistake has been to imagine that an ideology consists of a set of answers to neutral questions; whereas in fact it consists in the questions.
THE LURE OF THE POSITIVE APPROACH
One way in which the liberal movement influences behavior is by suggesting that everyone has a duty to work for the improvement of human conditions. Now one might not think that such a duty would lie very heavily upon us. For in a very ordinary sense this is just what human beings, individually and collectively, spend much of their time doing. Each day they produce goods, construct buildings, work out new rules of behavior. But we have missed the point. For once improvement turns into a duty, preoccupations change. We become receptive to the liberal notion that we ought to be “improving” both society and ourselves. The effects of this harmless-looking doctrine have been so striking that it has acquired a name which, for want of a better, we shall adopt: Meliorism.
Meliorism is less a doctrine than an attitude which has fathered many doctrines. We have already encountered one of these doctrines in discussing moral experience, namely the view that the task of moral philosophy is to produce principles which may validly guide our conduct. “The reason why actions are in a peculiar way revelatory of moral principles,” writes Mr. Hare, “is that the function of moral principles is to guide conduct.”3The function? But as we have observed, everything can fit into many policies, that is, have many functions. And it is significant that this passage is almost immediately followed by: “Thus, in a world in which the problems of conduct become every day more complex and tormenting, there is a great need for an understanding of the language in which these problems are posed and answered.” Given the intrusion of this kind of salesmanship into moral philosophy, it is not surprising that moral enquiry has virtually passed into the hands of novelists and literary critics, people who are less subject to meliorist pressures.
Or, again, we may find meliorism in the doctrine of social commitment, which asserts both that we are and that we ought to be “in society.” The first proposition is supported by the unexceptionable statement that whatever we do or refrain from doing is likely to have social and political consequences. The second proposition suggests that if we (whoever is being appealed to; the doctrine is primarily aimed at artists and intellectuals) do not get in there and fight to improve society, then political leadership will pass by default to the less qualified, or the positively sinister. This is a fairly crude doctrine, an obvious hook for landing intellectual fish on the shore of some prefabricated cause. But it has had an interesting career in this century and, like most meliorist doctrines, its most important result has been to quieten scruples. The socially committed man will on occasions refrain from criticism in the higher interests of the cause.
The doctrine of social commitment has two typical meliorist characteristics. It incorporates as an imperative the duty of improvement, and it is hostile to criticism. It is this second feature which reveals that meliorism is more than a temporary folly of the present time, but has important roots in perennial western attitudes. For one of the commonest ways of evading criticism is to suggest that the criticism does not help in the solution of some cognate practical problem; and this fallacy is connected with our hostile attitudes to what is “merely critical” in contrast with what is “constructive,” or better still, “creative.” The popular version of this attitude would be: “It’s easy to criticize, but what we need are constructive proposals.” In other words, if something is bad, one ought not to say it is bad unless one can do better. Like most doctrines, this one has a sub-stratum of commonsense. There is such a thing as carping criticism, and we are often irritated by it. There are also, however, times when we simply do not wish to be criticized, and here meliorist attitudes are useful to push the criticism away. Literary criticism has suffered extensively from these attitudes, being often regarded as subordinate either to the artist or to the appreciation of the audience; it is allowed respectability only in performing some limited function, and is widely distrusted as parasitic and decadently self-conscious.
The loaded distinction between “positive” and “negative” is also used, especially in social theory, to make the same sort of point. Consider a discussion of the movement from Feudalism to Capitalism: “Where the former purpose had been the maintenance of an established order, and thus in these prescribed terms positive, the new purpose was at first negative: society existed to create conditions in which the free economic enterprise of individuals was not hampered.” But there is no distinction between a “positive purpose” and a negative one; in both cases something is being done, and the distinction can only arise by paying attention, in a complex situation, to what is not done, rather than to what is being done. And this direction of attention inserts into the argument an unexamined assumption that something ought to be done.4
Meliorism is, then, a way of discriminating between activities according to how effectively they produce results in which we happen to be interested. The various doctrines to which it gives rise are really tangential to meliorism itself; and at the center lies the metaphor of building. For if we are to build something, we must first prepare the ground, and only then can we begin to construct. But generally we are uninterested in preparing the ground; our dominating preoccupation is the construction of the building. Locke, in a celebrated passage, described his work (i.e. that of philosophy) as “removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge.”5 The metaphor allocates status to kinds of work. We have already seen criticism demoted by this kind of device; and other kinds of activity may suffer the same fate. Teaching suffers frequently from this device, in such sayings as “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” It is taken not as an independent but merely as an instrumental activity, something done in order to get the end-product—the skilled or cultivated man.
The construction of buildings is the melioristic metaphor par excellence. And clearly, our ranking of these various occupations depends upon our relation to what is being done. If we look forward to occupying the building then we shall regard clearing the rubble as a mere preliminary, but if we specialize in demolition, our interest will be different. Meliorism in this case takes what is indeed usually a majority point of view, and assumes that we all belong to that majority.
The conversion of a majority point of view into a monolithic one lies behind most versions of meliorism. But one man’s improvement is another man’s disaster. And again, what may be thought an improvement at one point of time may cease to be so as time passes. More commonly, we have mixed feelings when we contemplate some future change, and must work out whether “on balance” we prefer it, i.e. regard it as an improvement, or not. This preoccupation with comparison leads to the intrusion into social and political questions of the intellectually irrelevant question of whether we like the phenomenon in question or whether we don’t, combined with a singular obscurity about the basis of comparison.6
Meliorism is the assertion that political and social thinkers ought to concern themselves more with “practical affairs.” It is a special development of the utilitarian view that everything gains its value from its usefulness. The value of intellectual activities will therefore be determined by their conduciveness to reform or improvement. Intellectual criticism of politics can only be justified as a preparation for “doing something about it.” And the influence of meliorism is so strong that it will sometimes be explicitly disavowed and implicitly asserted in the same paragraph.7
Since meliorism is less an argument than an attitude, it is hardly something to be refuted. But we may at least state the objections which invalidate the doctrines it generates. First, we may point out that the activity of criticism and the activity of constructing political or ethical solutions are two different and clearly separable things. The same people may, of course, do both. But the one is philosophical and the other is at least part of the activity of being a politician. They demand different talents, and while, as I have said, these talents may be combined in one person, there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that such a combination is infrequent. Few politicians have had anything very interesting to say about political philosophy, and political philosophers have been undistinguished (where they have not been disastrous) in tasks of political responsibility. There is in fact no earthly reason why they should be yoked together in this way.
Secondly, in social life, the consequences of demolishing a situation (overthrowing a government, abolishing an institution, creating a new system, economic or political) do not become evident until after it has been done. This point has been widely explored in postwar criticisms of liberal ideology when it took the form of central economic planning. In other words, reform is always to some degree blind. It cannot accurately calculate and control the consequences of its work. The “constructive” political thinker is in fact faced by a dilemma. If he provides a detailed scheme, then his details will necessarily be out of date by the time his scheme is applied; further, the only kind of person sensitive enough to adjust the details is not the philosopher but the politician.8 On the other hand, if he confines himself to making clear the general principles on which change should take place, he quickly becomes virtually banal. In so far as the greatest happiness principle is intended as a practical guide for politicians, who can doubt but that it is completely useless? Statements of a generalized end or principle of government merely state the beginnings of political problems, or the conditions which may indicate that a solution has taken place. But they are no help to the politician.
Thirdly, political philosophy of the constructive sort falls into the idealists’ trap—the belief that everyone will love one’s ideals for the right reasons. A good example of this was the Prohibition Amendment in the United States. It will be remembered that repeal of the prohibition amendment was fought to the last ditch by a motley alliance of fervent moralists insisting that prohibition would work if only people gave it a chance, and on the other hand gangsters and bootleggers intent on making a fast buck. Society is in fact so complex that every proposal is likely to be welcomed in at least some circles that the liberal would regard as very sinister indeed. Marx recognized the force of the idealists’ trap in refusing to become a reformist—to make constructive suggestions. To do so, he pointed out quite correctly, would be to play into the hands of the bourgeoisie.
The logical issue here is one we have already met—that of causal discontinuity. A political proposal only makes sense upon determinist assumptions which alone will allow the proposer to predict its effects. The proposer, on the other hand, assumes that he acts in a causal vacuum. He slips outside causality and social pressure; sitting on a lonely and timeless eminence, communing with reason, he ponders the question: “What ought we to do?” Then, his principles nicely enunciated, he steps back into reality. Many philosophers appear to have had some idea very like this of what they were doing. But there is no magic in the question: “What ought we to do?” which conducts a human being to another plane of reality. Nor do the walls of a study insulate the thinker from social influences. If human beings do act in a more or less regular and predictable manner (social life, social enquiry and political actions all assume that they do), then the philosopher himself must also be placed within this causal nexus. The question: “What ought we to do?” may then appear as one of the steps by which social causes issue in social effects. But for purposes of persuasion, it is often useful to insinuate the individualist phantom, the chooser without a criterion of choice, into the process. For everything within the causal nexus is tarred with the brush of special interest and partiality. Prescriptions are far more likely to be convincing if they come from a causal nowhere, a transcendental realm of absolute values.
The first step in understanding this situation correctly is to realize that every social proposal or plan can be used in a different way from that intended. Gangsters can use prohibition, scoundrels can use national assistance, capitalists can use techniques of social therapy, and vested interests can use political proposals, all in a different manner and with very different consequences from those originally intended. All social movements and institutions are intensely inventive and capable of improvisation; they are all accustomed to conflict, and to changing their shape as new threats emerge. Some do it more successfully than others. This is not to say that society cannot change; it is merely to say that it cannot often change exclusively in a desired direction. Further, the innocent idealist is misguided in thinking that his proposals are as abstractly good as he imagines; the forces operating within him are things he cannot, in the nature of things, fully understand. Nor does conscious realism help very much; it merely frees the political activist from some of the grosser errors. A Lenin busily engaged in creating parallel hierarchies of Soviet administration turns out to have been preparing the soil in which a Stalin can grow. Political proposals are in a profound sense made to be distorted, just as theories are expressed to be misunderstood—or better understood.
The welfarist energetically creating sequences of political changes designed to improve the society we live in suffers a double-pronged hazard. The first prong results from the fact that, like all individuals, he is complicated. Often no one is more distressed than he at the growth of philistinism and anaesthetic popular culture—indeed, he often takes it far too seriously, distressed at a world in which literacy simply means being able to read advertising slogans. Yet he is often the last to realize what he is doing to weaken social institutions that might better combat this philistinism. His right hand hates what his left hand is doing. When all possible bases of independent social action in the community have been levelled in the name of democratic government control, our welfarist will be the first to start worrying about the stranglehold of bureaucracy. In other words, apart from the axiomatic long-term unpredictability of social action, the welfarist does not even examine the predictable difficulties of the social ends he has set himself—often because he is bewitched by a concept of “the people” as a set of counters in a political game.
The second prong of this hazard is that while the welfarist is concerned with vague general ends, it is in fact the means which are crucial in society—for the simple reason that the ends are never reached. Especially where the end is vague and utopian, the politician will be particularly liable to misunderstand the actual implications of his work. How many visionaries have unwittingly prepared a hell on earth because their gaze was stubbornly fixed on heaven? And when hell comes—well, there is always some ad hoc theory of sinister interests or Judas-like betrayal to extricate the theorist from his disaster. What his illusions have prevented him from understanding are the forces he in fact served; and good intentions are quite beside the point. Stupidity is a moral as well as an intellectual defect.9
In its encouragement of the view that we can ultimately control the world, meliorism promotes this kind of stupidity. The view that it is the peculiar duty of philosophers and scientists to help improve the world is untenable.
It has a further interesting side-effect in that when the illusoriness of the dream of control dawns upon people, a feeling of impotence grows on them. The current vehicle of this feeling of impotence is a belief in the size and complexity of the modern world. These are thought to dwarf people. The individual, it comes to be said, doesn’t matter today. All change is something for the big battalions. So we get what the French call je m’en foutisme. The hell with it! The political effect of this feeling is not hard to discover. It plays into the hands of experts and bureaucracies, of large organizations who are eager to arrange things for people. Yet the belief itself is a corrupt form of self-consciousness. The simple reply to the notion that people don’t matter is that, in a sense, people never did. As for the emphasis on the complexity of the modern age—that is largely the result of self-pity. There are many respects in which the modern world is less complex than many which preceded it.
A full account of meliorism would necessarily lead into that marshy intellectual upcountry where the study of “the values of western civilization” is carried on. Such an account would consider the prestige of action and will in western cultures. The mind has traditionally been divided into three kinds of activity—thinking, feeling and doing. In spite of the prestige which at times has gone to the thought of the philosopher, the sensitivity of the artist, the agony of the saint, or the contemplation of the monk, reality has always seemed to reside in doing rather than “in merely experiencing.” The western talent for technology arises from this passion for action, and in turn feeds it.
In modern thought, this characteristic operates to diminish the independence of feeling and thinking. The sensitivity of the artist may be admired, but ordinary men soon grow impatient if it does not issue in accessible works of beauty. Again, the function of thought is seen as a preparation for action. There are, of course, recognized niches in the universities for those unfortunate people whose profession of philosophy has marooned them in the upper reaches of thought; but meliorism (and the curiously muddled dislike of “ivory towers”) is always there to float them downstream into the center of European action and experience. Those who study classics, or devote themselves to philosophy, frequently feel impelled to defend the utility of their occupations by relating them to this fancied mainstream of activity: the study of Latin helps us to speak English better, and philosophy trains us to think more clearly. Both of these statements may be true; but they are irrelevant. Belief in action and control is so profound that intellectual argument barely touches it; all that we can do is plot its course and consider its consequences. A full explanation of the liberal movement would have to consider these characteristics of our civilization.
We have already remarked that liberalism, like all developed ideologies, has various devices for fending off criticism. In the case of needs, we found an obsessive feeling of obviousness which would simply go on reformulating the doctrine in the face of all criticism. Meliorism defends itself in a different manner—by regarding its critics as advocates of intellectual isolation, “ivory towers” and “art for art’s sake.” The critic of meliorism is faced by a false dilemma: Either you support social commitment, or you believe that philosophers and artists should retire to their own private worlds. But as the meliorist himself insists, there are no such private worlds. All thought belongs to the same social reality. And this reveals (what the meliorist formulation does not) that the question is not one of commitment or not, but of the way people commit themselves, and what they commit themselves to.
HOW TO MAKE TRENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE
One of the guiding slogans of modern liberalism states that “we live in a changing world.” It may be a cliché, but it has many uses in argument both offensive and defensive. Break it down, and it turns into a collection of trends, general descriptions of the way things are going.
Trends describe that unstable part of our environment which is likely to affect our hopes and fears. Simple prudence recommends that we should be alert to them. If we see a threat, then we are well advised to consider in advance how it may be averted. This alert posture is part of responsibility; and politicians in particular must always have a sharp nose for the way things are going. But, as we have noted, it is characteristic of liberalism to make politicians of us all; and in this case we find liberalism promoting alertness to trends among the population at large. Indeed, to be liberal is to accept an obligation to be concerned with matters beyond our direct responsibilities.
To every trend there must be a response. But this principle of a reforming liberalism runs into two important difficulties. The first is that people’s reactions vary. It is not merely that one man’s threat is another man’s hope; it is also that people become bored, or change their reactions, or get used to living with a threat. Progress and improvement require a monolithic attitude towards any interesting trend, combined with a steady and persistent attempt to turn it to what, from the monolithic point of view, is an advantage. Propaganda must therefore seek to establish an absolute interpretation of trends, irrespective of the hopes and fears of any particular group.
The second difficulty is provided by the ostrich class, the large and decisive collection of people with votes who yet can seldom be enticed to take an interest in anything beyond their particular and local circumstances. Typically enough, these people are described negatively, as the apathetic or the complacent; in fact, they are simply those not emotionally engaged by the things which engage liberals. And here the solution must be to infect the apathetic with the same set of anxieties which already affect liberals.
The matter cannot be solved by the simple use of command, for there is no authority now left in political life whose instructions will automatically carry weight. It has been one of the achievements of liberalism to force authority to justify itself. And the only kind of justification available has been a utilitarian one. We must have authority in order that . . . something which we independently desire can be achieved. The kind of persuasion by which people may be induced to take an interest in the major trends of the world situation must therefore be teleological, and the persuader must cast around for some pressing hopes or fears which can be technically connected with the trend in question.
A trend is simply a statement of any series of events forming a pattern amidst the flux of life. When projected into the future (an operation people will often do for themselves) the trend becomes a prediction. There is an unlimited number of possible trends, but for purposes of persuasion, only a few are suitable for liberal use. The persuader must offer us both fulfilment and salvation, and the technique of trend persuasion soon turns into the construction of a certain kind of future, which is both enticing and menacing.
Time is very important in the intellectual world that results. There are the mistakes of the past, from which we may learn; there is the crisis in the present, which forces us to act; and there is the question of survival and fulfilment in the future, which we must face. The persuader thus appears as someone more prudent and more longsighted than we are, and since he is purporting to describe an objective situation, his vested interest is not at all obvious. Indeed, there seldom is anything which might vulgarly be considered a vested interest. In the elevated sphere we are describing, vested interests are usually emotional rather than material or financial.
This kind of persuader is generally an idealist. And he may move further away from the embarrassing logic of persuasion by seeing himself as a protagonist in a drama. Rather than a man with a policy to recommend, he may see himself in the role of a man of active virtue battling against the vice of complacency or apathy. If the persuader does take up this role, he may begin to outline a moral psychology in which the conception of will-power plays an important part. The mistakes of the past, he is likely to say, resulted from no one “finding the will” to put them right; people preferred to drift. But now things have reached a crisis point, and therefore our survival is at stake.
The pronoun “we” is an outstanding feature of trend persuasion. By means of it, the reader or listener is beguiled into an implicit alliance with the persuader, and there are many general theories which can be called on to substantiate this alliance. The theory of the common good has the effect of showing that no individual can retreat from his community. Or, to take a more extravagant example, the theory that “society is really the criminal” opens up many possibilities for the persuader (especially the more moralistic one) by asserting that crime cannot be eliminated until we “reform” ourselves. The effect of all such theories is to bring the widest possible audience into the persuader’s net and infect them with a generalized sense of responsibility. The harassed citizen can no longer ward off these Ancient Mariners with an irritable: “It’s none of my business.” The eye of the persuader is not only hypnotic, it is righteous too.
Entrenched thus, the persuader can safely use his two key terms—“crisis” and “survival”—as absolutes affecting everybody. They are, so to speak, the ultimate persuaders. If one asks: “crisis for whom?” the instant reply is “for you.” If one demands: “Whose survival is at stake?” then the answer is always “yours.” Problems also acquire a spurious objectivity; they are presented as social problems, and they are everybody’s business. In this way, the persuader has a moral claim upon the attention of everyone, and inattention has become a sin. He can now present his trends—the increase of world population, the growth of delinquency, the incursions of communism, the new brazenness of homosexuals, etc.—in the confidence of having a receptive audience.
The emotion which the persuader first hopes to arouse is that of urgency in the face of his problems. The ideal situation, in a sense, is therefore war, when such questions as survival are more compelling than in peacetime. When not using a problem-solution type of logic, the persuader is happiest when employing military metaphors. It is thus that we find ourselves now waging the cold war against communism, the war against want, the battle against crime, and even the persuader’s battle par excellence, the fight against apathy. The contemporary importance of war has no doubt greatly affected the technique of trend-persuasion. War is habit-forming, and peace is confusing to many people who cannot deal with conflicting standards and feelings of guilt. Besides, war has demonstrated what immense things can be achieved “if we really set our minds to it.” Thus the trend-persuader, with an ambitious policy to recommend, is offering us something far better than war which, even with its incidental advantages, is a nasty and destructive business: he is offering us a war substitute, a despotic goal in terms of which life can be organized.
The trend in question here is voluntaristic; it contrasts a picture of what we can achieve with another picture of what will happen if we do not rouse ourselves. This kind of trend is now dominant. There was a time when the deterministic trend, which sees the future as a wave in which we either swim or drown, was more striking, and threw up such classic instances of the genre as the Communist Manifesto. But the determinist trend has been weakened at all levels. Intellectually, it crumbled along with its close relation, Historicism. And as a vehicle of popular support, generating fanaticism, it was most successful when it was virtually without rivals. When the market-place was full of persuaders, peddling equally inevitable but rather different trends, the populace became bored and sceptical, and the determinist trend disappeared from the scene. It may return, but not for some time.
The result has been to make the voluntarist trend the more convincing. If things are not inevitable, then we can be roused to do something about them. Persuaders using the voluntarist trend can co-operate in a way not open to those favoring determinism. They can join in attacking complacency. They can infiltrate the democratic conscience with a conception of the good citizen as a man who understands the Great Issues of Our Time, giving their own content to this promising slogan. This kind of thinking has lately become one of the main vehicles for the diffusion of liberalism. It draws people into the intellectual and emotional vortex of liberalism, whose symptoms are a feeling of guilt about complacency and strong moral feelings about the duty of responsibility to others. How do we explain this susceptibility?
The reader trained in the social sciences will already have observed that what has been outlined as a technique of persuasion is identical, if certain refinements are neglected, with the operative rules of much social science. It used to be thought desirable to create something called a “value-free social science” in which the trends would simply be identified, measured and related, whilst their “use” was left to “policy framers.” The social scientists thought they were concerned only with means whilst others decided the ends. One main difficulty of this position was the sheer psychological impossibility of the separation. Trends won’t lie down. They become predictions, or justifications, or refutations of something the moment they are detected. Great numbers of social scientists are, in any case, too confused to tell the difference between a practical problem and an intellectual one. Further, trend detection becomes as habit-forming as taking drugs. Just as the neurotic scrutinizes the faces of his associates for signs of hostility, so those who form the trend-habit cannot help scrutinizing everything they encounter for signs. The discovery of trends even grew into an art form: the sociological best-seller, in the tradition of Veblen, spread the habit. As Lionel Trilling has remarked, this form of social diagnosis has taken over some of the talent and much of the impetus which in other times has gone into the novel. This development flows along with an obsession with change and insecurity; such a world is paradise for anyone with an inclination towards the voluntarist trend (and most of us do have such an inclination).
All this might mean that we have all become alert, responsible, democratic citizens; or, alternatively, that we have all become rather hysterical babes in a wood, looking for a gleam of light. What it would certainly indicate is a connection between gullibility on the one hand and the orthodox theory of democracy on the other. Somewhere between those responsible for policy in a society, who live in a world of speculations about the future, and those who care for nothing except their immediate and local life, there is a large class whose interest in social and political problems lacks the anchorage of direct responsibility. They are eager to do the right thing, and have been taught that their duty is to take an interest in world affairs. Normally they lack experience of these matters, and often their education has not made them discriminating about the printed word. They are, indeed, a valuable section of the community and they are not the least effective of checks on government. Perhaps for this reason they often have an ingrained suspicion of politicians, yet their own political judgments are wildly erratic. They are decent, sympathetic and idealistic. They are at present the main bearers of liberalism.
Their main fault is that they are prey to intellectual fashions, and fashion is the main guide to the vicarious worries they take upon themselves. A decade ago, their primary worry was Communist aggression. More recently, it has been the prospect of total annihilation from Hydrogen Bomb warfare (with such allied worries as genetic effects). More recently still, the gap between arts and science, as related to perennial problems like food shortage and over-population, have come back into vogue. It may be true that each man’s death diminisheth me, but this doctrine can easily be taken to the verge of hysteria. No one would deny that these are important questions opening up explosive political and social possibilities; but for most of the inhabitants of western countries they are vicarious ones. Short of disrupting his normal life (which he is not usually prepared to do), the average man can do very little about them. But feeling a compulsion to act, he chooses substitute acts—passing resolutions, going to meetings, writing letters to papers—and imagines that he is “doing something about it.” This type of mind is found most prevalently, though by no means exclusively, in the political tradition of liberalism.
Trend-persuasion is, then, a modern and popularized version of the kind of calculations which politicians have always had to make, combined with an extraneous philanthropic moral theory. How should one estimate this development? One consequence is to keep democracies alert and flexible in a “changing world.” Yet trend-persuasion is also subject to fashion, and therefore likely to distort social and political policies according to the (often misguided) emotions of the moment. A vicious circle operates: the more trends we discover, the more insecure we feel; and the more insecure we feel, the more we go on looking for trends. If the anxiety grows too much for us, we may become easy victims of the charlatan who offers us a panacea. Logically speaking, this road leads on to totalitarianism, the attempt to find a total solution for a bogus problem. But this would be to take trend-persuasion as itself a trend.
We have already seen how ideologies work by imposing a single point of view upon us. Our principle of criticism in these cases has been one of reversal: we took the means to be ends, or the ends to be means. In the case of trend-persuasion, the point of view arises from the logic of problems and solutions. Yet the fact that the problems are always new, whilst the solutions are old, must make us suspicious of these constructions. We imagine that experience presents us with problems, and then we start to seek solutions. Whatever the weaknesses of this belief, it yet determines the way in which the persuader presents his case. Historically, however, the solutions always come first. Seldom in the twentieth century have we lacked prophets telling us about the need for competitive industry, the duties of international philanthropy, better distribution of world production, the need for more science in education and the value of the lash as a deterrent. Such policies are part of the air we breathe, and as such, rather too familiar to rouse us very much. They are much more striking if they can be presented not as possible policies we might follow, but as solutions to problems. The persuader is thus not a man who must find solutions for problems, but one who must construct problems to fit pre-existing solutions.
It remains to consider the possible distortions which trend-persuasion might have on social life. If society be considered as a complex of activities and institutions—religious, artistic, industrial, commercial, academic, etc.—then the character of the society will emerge out of their relations. But these institutions not only cooperate; they also compete (financially, morally, intellectually, for example) and each tries to carve out a larger future for itself. Now if into this context of struggle one introduces ideas of the “great issues of our time,” then it is clear that some institutions will be strengthened and some will be weakened. If the great issue of our time is how to prevent malnutrition among Asians and Africans, then the events of scholarship must seem very far from the battle. Who would elucidate a text of Chaucer when his duty lies out in the monsoon region? How futile experiments in painting technique must look when the survival of the species is in question! Artistic movements are implicitly reduced to the role of entertainment, and a Flaubert, torturing himself for a week over the structure of a sentence, can only seem absurd. Universities have traditionally followed the trail of truth; but truth is an irrelevance in a world crying out for “science in the service of man.” Here is a menace more insidious to religious institutions than any debate about evolution. Industrialization, wrote one recent prophet,10 is the only hope of the poor—words which have an evangelical ring, and seem to announce the discovery of a new religious truth.
This idealistic, persuasive movement might be compared to a wind sweeping across a landscape. Without the wind, the air grows fetid and stale. But if the wind blows too violently, and if the fixtures of the landscape lose their anchorage, then the wind becomes destructive. To talk of the “great issues of our time” as fashionable worries may sound cynical; yet it is exactly the element of fashion which reveals important facts about trend-persuasion.
The various supposedly scientific evasions of ethics and politics hold out a promise:
Treated as principles beyond the necessity for argument [rules of sexual morality] have been established as categorical imperatives to be imposed with the help of social sanctions, and the result has only too often been to divorce theoretic assertion from practical acceptance. Only when they are seen as rationally conceived guides to happiness, or as conditions of happiness empirically determined, is this divorce ended. Then, for instance, the nearly universal rule against incest ceases to appear as an unexplained decree, and is seen as arising out of the requirement for preserving the stability of family life. Similarly rules against adultery, which show much greater variety, instead of being rested on authoritative dogmas can claim rational acceptance as being grounded in the need and desire for permanent marital relationship and the demonstrably damaging effects of its breach upon this. And “thou shalt not commit adultery” is transformed from a commandment, rested on fear and aimed at restraining “natural” desire, into a commonsense guide to behaviour, grounded in demonstrable psychological facts in the field of the causation of attitude and habit, and which by rationally establishing the behavioural conditions of happiness tends to direct desires along channels leading to its achievement.11
Psychology, physiology and biology in close alliance are the props of this scientific moralism, and each is taken as a source of technical prescriptions: “the psychological is thus tending to replace the moral point of view, and there is little doubt that, in so far as the new approach proves effective, the process will continue.”12 These are statements appropriate to a liberal manifesto; what is the program they embody?
The program is clearly utilitarian: the maximization of happiness or satisfaction. It is a technology for getting the largest quantity of preferred things which the condition of the world will allow. Being a technology purportedly geared to our own desires and needs, it does not have to command or condemn; it is merely technical guidance. Indeed, the liberal objection to morality can be summed up in the formula: morality condemns, liberalism tries to understand. This is a scientific attitude which was powerfully codified in the operation of psychoanalysis, for no analysis could possibly overcome repressions if the analyst persistently interjected remarks like: “What a deplorable thing to think about your mother!” For condemnation separates people, whereas understanding brings them together.
This unobjectionable formula may with some justice be claimed as scientific; on its most obvious interpretation, we accept the world, including moral behavior, as evidence from which we may construct a theory of what the world is like. But the inroads of ideology here arise out of the ambiguity of the term “understanding.” For while understanding might be simply an intellectual development, the comprehension of what was previously obscure, it might also include varying quantities of sympathy, as in the phrase: “Yes, I do understand.” Given the intrusion of sympathy, much liberal understanding includes forgiveness, or, even, an implied renunciation of forgiveness on the grounds that forgiveness arrogantly assumes an unwarrantable superiority. Among liberals, understanding in this sympathetic manner became a duty, one of the stigmata of true tolerance. But understanding as a duty, like anything widely presented as a duty, undergoes considerable distortions. Given tout comprendre: c’est tout pardonner it is an easy step to tout pardonner: c’est tout comprendre. If the only proof of “understanding” is the emotion of sympathy, it is rather tempting to take the shortcut of automatic sympathy and omit the hard work of actual comprehension.
Yet while scientific moralism never strays very far from its protector Science, it can still claim continuity with earlier moral doctrines by pointing to the fact that it very largely incorporates the same rules—doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, restraining selfish desires, looking before one takes the indulgent leap. But—and here the program makes its claims to superiority—whereas the earlier grounds offered for these moral rules were confused, dogmatic and subject to endless dispute, the new grounds are irresistibly rational and must appeal to all men. There is nothing very novel about this belief. Hobbes shared it; so did Bentham, and neither could conceal an arrogant contempt for his bungling predecessors.
The most obvious criticism of scientific moralism is in terms of the naturalistic fallacy—even though most scientific moralists are aware of the danger. Both moralist and critic are here on the same ground, and they are even united in the suspicion that if we shut the door on values, they’ll come sneaking back through the window. Thus when the scientific moralist relates moral rules to terms like “health” or “adjustment,” his more rigorous critic will quickly point out that these terms are value-loaded and may go off. The rigorous critic is simply one who will not move from the position that the only thing which can constitute a value is actual demandedness. If people insist that they do not want health or adjustment, then the scientific expert must be silent. Values are created by personal choice and can be created in no other way.
The scientific moralist is not necessarily reduced to silence by this kind of criticism. For his studies have taught him to look deeper into the mind in search of the function of certain kinds of preference. And this has led him to the conclusion that a man who does not want to be healthy, for example, is sick in a peculiar kind of way. He is a hypochondriac, who uses his illnesses as an escape from personal responsibility. Therefore one must set out to cure this defect. For all rational men will agree that health is preferable to illness. To deny this position, concludes the argument of scientific moralism, would be merely irrationalist.13
Scientific moralism depends, then, upon placing every act in a policy context and studying its efficiency. The trick is simply to isolate a function, demonstrate the ineffciency with which it is currently being pursued, and proceed to recommendations for maximizing efficiency. The crucially loaded value in this system is therefore not “health” or “adjustment” or “satisfaction” or any of the many other variations of this kind of idea, but rather the conception of generic man as a system of functions.
It is the concept of generic man, or humanity, which makes plausible the idea of human progress. For if we begin with a single abstract hero called man, emerging in the springtide of his infancy from the caves and hovels of prehis-tory, and attribute to this hero all the swirling dramas of history up to the present time, and if we also consider those things which we now think most important, then it will be difficult for us to resist the conclusion that he has “improved himself.” He is cleaner, more knowledgeable, more comfortable, and each cell of the abstraction lives longer. If medical science, for example, is taken as the activity of discovering the character of human illnesses and the discovery of ways of removing them, then it makes very good sense to talk of progress in medicine. And if we invalidly take the utilitarian step of adding together into a single quantity all those things in which we detect progress, then the plausibility of attributing the progress-trend to “humanity” becomes nearly irresistible. All of this depends upon a theory of man as a purposive creature who will merely blunder ineffectually in the mire of his own ignorance and confusion unless he pursues goals clearly and rationally. In moods of complacency, for example, we find it easy to patronize rainmakers who were so palpably ineffcient at producing their declared end. “Magic, divination, sacrifice and prayer may relieve our feelings and reduce our fears when we are ignorant and impotent, but as our knowledge and our power increase we tend to abandon these practices in favour of others which we can see to lead more surely and directly to our goal.”14Our goal? But we have many, and some are incompatible with others. The great error of any doctrine of progress is to regard past behavior as incompetent and ineffcient; whereas, if we are to continue talking in these functional terms, all incompetence and ineffciency result from conflict about the nature of what we are doing.
We have, thus, the possibility of regarding the people of history either as radically different from us, not least in that they wanted different things and suffered different torments; or alternatively, we may regard them as failed replicas of ourselves. If we take this latter view, we will prefer to attribute those elements of history on which we have improved to a lack of reason or understanding—certainly a lack of something—in historical people. If, however, we take the former view, then we will attribute the different conditions and different achievements of times past as the product of quite different interests and preoccupations. And this latter view involves the abandonment of functionalism.
But it is difficult to abandon functionalism, because it is so tempting to go on inventing new functions to explain what was inexplicable before. We may, for example, assume that businessmen are rational pursuers of profit; and wherever we find ineffciency, we may diagnose deficiency. If this simple scheme appears to be inadequate, then we may simply go on adding functions: “. . . both politics and economics are as much competitive games as they are instrumentalities for meeting recognized needs or satisfying wants.”15 Again, since William James particularly, war has often been interpreted in functional terms as an outlet for various competitive or aggressive impulses in human nature, an interpretation leading to the search for moral substitutes—getting the kicks without spilling the blood. Both of these cases exemplify the intellectual device by which functionalism evades the moral character of the people engaged in these activities by splitting the situation up into generic man combined with some kind of policy.
Scientific moralism arises from the search for a single point of view which will ultimately harmonize human relations. The point of view requires the creation of a system in which everything can find a place. The meliorist concept of improvement means greater systematization, at the same time as meliorism demands active, improving behavior from people. The strategy of the system is determined by needs and similar functional concepts, and the tactics arise from a close attention to trends. In this system, everything finds a place, but only as a means to or function of some general abstract entity like happiness, satisfaction or equilibrium. Disinterested acts16 must be reduced for they cannot be systematized. A sculptor, for example, cannot simply do a piece of sculpture; he must have reasons for his act, that is, it must be a means to something else. It is only in this way that the system can preserve its flexibility. And it is only by being flexible, by being susceptible to continuous adjustment and revaluation, that the promise of ultimate harmony can be sustained. The system constructed out of generic man provides a point of view by which traditional moral rules can be judged and reinterpreted. It is in this way that they turn into “rationally conceived guides to happiness.”
But not all moral rules survive this transplantation to new grounds. Some must be discarded, and they are rejected because they are the functions of a corrupt human nature, in contrast to the fundamental human nature from which the moral principles of scientific moralism itself derive. On this principle, we encounter the interests argument.
The interests argument depends upon the assumption that everyone is maximizing happiness, and that for this reason people “promote their interests.” The promotion of interests involves, furthermore, the assertion of moral and political opinions. Such opinions, however, are merely epiphenomena, rationalizations of a pre-established interest. Why do white settlers in African territories believe that Africans will not be capable of governing themselves for centuries? Obviously, runs the interests argument, because they have an interest in remaining politically dominant. Why is it that rich people assert the sanctity of property? Obviously because they wish to safeguard political order in their possessions and privileges.
Logically speaking, the interests argument is a petitio principi if it is taken as a refutation of the moral and political opinions concerned. But the point of such a sophistical device is precisely to evade anything that might look like an invalid argument. The main successes of propaganda come not from invalid argument but from diversion of attention. Our concern is moved from the moral or political argument involved to items of economic or sociological information which “put the argument in perspective.”
Intellectually, the objection to the interests argument is its crudity. An interest is something assumed to explain the motives of human action and belief; but the only interests we can examine are the visible ones—the economic interests. The theory of human behavior involved is that which has generated the model of economic man; a calculator who mechanically responds to changes in his possibilities of consumption. It is much more difficult even to discover, much less to systematize, the psychological undercurrent—the passion to be proved right, the sudden moral intuitions, the fanatical convictions—which develop independently of any visible interests. It has been observed17 that one reason why Bentham preferred self-interest to sympathy among the moral concepts of the eighteenth century was the fact that self-interest is conceivably measurable; sympathy is not. The same consideration applies here. Visible or vested interests can be measured, and for that very reason they seem to be more real.
It is the theory of ideology which most elaborately justifies our acceptance of the interests argument. The difficulty is that the generalizations are false. It is not true that all industrialists are conservative, any more than it is true that all trade unionists are natural radicals. Both these beliefs are sound enough as political maxims in some circumstances; both have, on occasion, betrayed politicians. But when a cherished political maxim fails to fit the facts, it can be given a certain grandeur by the device of metaphysical elevation. The rich as such are conservative; or, in a sociological ideal model, conservatism is one of the attributes allocated to the rich, though the model may have to be modified if it is to be applied to reality. Our political maxim now leads an uneasy logical life, half-way between fact and definition, the kind of device by which the absurdities of Marxian or sociological class theory are propped up. The next move must be the construction of ad hoc hypotheses to explain to us why some rich are radical. Addenda of this kind might be a possible escape from this fantasy world, but even this escape is blocked off by the temptations of scientific moralism. For we might explain the fact that some rich are radical, or some white settlers espouse African majority governments, by the fact that these people are rational. They have seen a truth which their fellow members of the class have missed because of the distorting mists of interest. This kind of enlightenment solution is—as Marx pointed out—illogical if we are concerned with ideologies, and it leaves the interests argument with no higher status than that of a highly selective propaganda device. For the question remains: What are the interests which led to this espousal of Reason?
Paradoxically enough, the interests argument is a distant relation of a hallowed moral preoccupation—that of judging the disinterestedness of good acts. If certain political and moral policies, presented as the dictates of reason or experience, are seen as the product of economic or political interest, they are quite literally “demoralized.” The plausibility of the ensuing disparagement rests upon a generalized suspicion of motives where interests are involved. The criterion of interests is one which everyone uses in practical affairs to a greater or less extent.
Doctrines, then, are epiphenomena, outgrowths of passion and interest. So too are political organizations. Both are the functions of something deeper. These liberal beliefs may seem to arise from a somewhat eclectic borrowing from Marxism; and for particular liberals Marx may be the source of such beliefs. But liberalism has its own tradition of thought leading to the same conclusions. British empirical psychology can perfectly well tamper with the autonomy of thought by its use of the doctrine that “reason is the slave of the passions.” And liberal political thought has grown out of the social contract doctrine in its Lockian form, by which the State is an agency of something called Society. For in the monistic conception of society, modern liberalism has increasingly found its main criterion of political judgment. To this conception we must now turn.
[1. ]Compare one of the later dicta of Simone Weil: “Where there is a need, there is an obligation.” This is a good example of the analytic statement with the synthetic overtones.
[2. ]The overall coverage of the expert is sometimes upheld at this point by casting the moral philosopher in the role of ends expert. V. 1, p. 133.
[3. ]R. M. Hare, The Language of Morals, Oxford, 1952, p. 1.
[4. ]We have already noted the ideological device of negative definition. By a similar device, unwelcome situations can be tendentiously explained if we attribute what is unwelcome to the lack of some admired power or faculty. For example, a report in The Times, 9.4.62: “People in academic society seemed constitutionally incapable of grasping the fact that they were performing a kind of public service, said Mr. L. J. Barnes.” On the contrary, academics reject this view not out of a “constitutional defect,” but out of a well considered belief in the totalitarian implications of such “public service” ideology.
[5. ]In the Epistle to the Reader, which prefaces the Essay concerning Human Understanding.
[6. ]For example, “Is it as evil for a State to order the explosion of a bomb, whose fall-out will ultimately, over several generations, cause the death of, say, a thousand people from harmful gene mutations, as it is for another State to order its police to shoot a thousand people personally in the back of the head? I do not think the answer is altogether obvious.” C. H. Waddington, The Ethical Animal, London, 1960, p. 17. No, indeed, it’s not obvious. But the point is that “evil” here has been vulgarized by the use of the comparative into a matter of preference.
[7. ]“One does not demand, of course, that an ethical theory should propound solutions to all the problems of its day. . . . What is demanded of an ethical theory is primarily that it should be relevant, and applicable to a world in which the crucial actions of a thousand million people are predicated on the belief that scientific technology is good. The intellect will have failed to carry out the functions for which evolution designed it if it issues merely in the conclusion that it can suggest no criteria by which one could hope to decide whether this belief has either meaning or validity. We must cudgel our brains to be able to do better than that.” Waddington, op. cit., pp. 19–20.
[8. ]Cf. Hegel’s ironic remark in the preface to the Philosophy of Right and Law that “Fichte could have omitted perfecting the passport police to the point of suggesting that not only the description of suspects be entered in their passports, but a picture.”
[9. ]Freud long ago observed that the human race indulged in a polite conspiracy to accept forgetfulness and slips of the tongue as insignificant accidents. The widespread acceptance of good intentions as a full justification of foolish acts is interestingly parallel. The issues involved can be seen if compared with the question of intelligence testing—itself a good example of meliorist confusion. The strongest impulse towards the use of intelligence tests was “practical”—in particular, the demand by the United States Army for a test which would indicate those men who would make good officers. The tests produced around that time yielded a high correlation between success in the tests and success in the military (and later academic) fields. This kind of success was thought to be due to the presence of a mysterious faculty called intelligence. Some had it, some didn’t. Psychologists have until recently devoted much of their energy to trying to work out what this thing could possibly be. Was it one thing? Or a cluster of related talents? In any case, it was something you could have more or less of. Now, returning to the question of moral stupidity, we have a logically similar position: Is it due to the absence of a faculty (moral intelligence or perceptiveness, perhaps) or is it alternatively due to the presence of strong and perhaps mostly unconscious motives towards misunderstanding (which, when discovered and rejected, are called illusions)? Are not those who act from ideas of political necessity or strong ideals of brotherhood (many Fabians, for example) sometimes fascinated by the social possibilities of bureaucratic order? There is no doubt that acts often prove disastrous because of totally unforeseen circumstances, and here it is the intention of the act (or the direction of the policy) which is conventionally taken as the basis of the moral judgment. But this form of moral justification can be extended too far.
[10. ]Sir Charles Snow, whose Rede lecture, The two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959), has deservedly come to be recognized as a classic of the trend-persuasion genre.
[11. ]Greaves, op. cit., p. 124.
[12. ]J. C. Flugel, Man, Morals and Society, London, p. 21 (my italics).
[13. ]Flugel (op. cit., pp. 17, 18) has an ingenious argument in general support of this position: “the distinction between means and ends,” he remarks quaintly, “is nearly always relative. There exists a whole hierarchy of values, each of which is a means to the value that stands just above it in the hierarchy” (my italics). This line of thought might have led him to a total rejection of teleological ethics; but its uses are too attractive to permit that. “Indeed,” he goes on, “the distinction between means and ends, though often convenient for the consideration of some relatively narrow problem, is largely arbitrary. At best there can only be a few unquestionable intrinsic values at the top of the hierarchy, such as Truth, Goodness, Beauty; or, if we press the matter further (?), there should strictly speaking be one only, a summum bonum or supreme value, to which all the rest are means—and, as we know, moral philosophers are not yet in agreement as to what this supreme value is.” The last sentence is a memorable understatement. Flugel is in the unhappy position of seeing that this hierarchy of values is an imposture, yet he cannot bear to abandon it. The reason is soon evident: “When it is objected that psychology can have no concern with values, it is of course meant that it is not in a position to state what are intrinsic values. But in view of the relative and fluctuating position of intrinsic and instrumental values it is hardly possible to say exactly at what point in the hierarchy of values its (psychology’s) influence must cease.” The splendid vagueness of this position simultaneously exiles moral philosophers to the vapid and airless heights of the ultimate, and underwrites anything at all that scientific moralists choose to assert.
[14. ]Flugel, op. cit., p. 21.
[15. ]Frank H. Knight, Intelligence and Democratic Action, Cambridge (Mass.), 1960, p. 129.
[16. ]Disinterested acts are spontaneous; they are done for no purpose and have no function in a system. The fact that the very word “disinterested” is now commonly misused to mean “uninterested” may be a symptom of how thoroughly utilitarian assumptions are accepted where modern liberalism is strong. Gide’s theory of the acte gratuit and many varieties of modern irrationalism may be seen as baffled attempts to escape from the incessant pressure to calculate behavior, constructing systems and being guided by them.
[17. ]By Wilfrid Harrison, Introduction (p. lii) to the Blackwell Edition of Bentham’s A Fragment on Government, etc., 1948.