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II.: THE LURE OF THE POSITIVE APPROACH - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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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.
[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.