Saturday, April 21, 2018

Jonah Goldberg on the Metaphysics of Liberal Democracy

That is small l "liberal," small d "democracy." Check it out here. A taste:
Let’s begin with some somewhat unusual assertions for these pages. Capitalism is unnatural. Democracy is unnatural. Human rights are unnatural. God didn’t give us these things, or anything else. We stumbled into modernity accidentally, not by any divine plan.  
When the Founders said “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, . . .” they cheated. It is not self-evident that our Creator endowed humans with unalienable rights. Something self-evident is, by definition, obvious, needing no demonstration. The existence of gravity is obvious. It is self-evident that fire burns. Yet it’s hardly obvious to everyone there’s even a Creator.  
And that brings me to another assertion: There is no God, at least not in this argument. I assert this not because I’m an atheist (I’m not), but because I don’t want God’s help for my case. “Because God says so” is the greatest appeal to authority, and the appeal to authority is a classic logical fallacy, effective only for those who are pre-committed to that authority. You can’t persuade an atheist that God’s on your side any more than you can persuade a Christian you’re right because Baal says so.  
Yet today’s political culture increasingly rejects persuasion, recognized as far back as Aristotle as the essence of politics. Everything noble about the Enlightenment assumes the possibility of persuasion, through reason, evidence, and argument. Our political system was designed to be deliberative. Deliberation is a waste of time if minds cannot be changed. But today, partisans left and right value purity and passion over persuasion. Opponents aren’t potential converts; they’re an abstract and unredeemable them, and their tears, we’re told, are delicious.  
William F. Buckley Jr. founded National Review to match the Left’s best arguments head-on with the Right’s best arguments. We didn’t win every battle (and some battles we didn’t deserve to win), but conservatism’s strength and success derived from a fearless desire to argue the merits. National Review has stayed loyal to that mission, but much of the conservative movement it helped create has resorted to assertion over argument, invective over reason. I want my argument to persuade those who don’t already agree with me — on the left and, increasingly, on the right.
This reminds me of a premise in Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History ...," shared by East Coast Straussians (and I would argue Leo Strauss, himself): Liberal democracy is laudable. But it's not because the Bible says so; it doesn't. Even though the Declaration of Independence is a theistic document, it is not a biblical one. The "unalienable rights" in the DOI are anchored to God to make them non-negotiable; but such are, as the doctrine goes, discovered by reason, not revealed directly by God and recorded in a holy book. A generic monotheistic God, though, seems to exist as a necessary given part of the equation.

But what then when philosophers discover that these supposed "essences" don't actually exist in nature, discovered by reason. (And that the generic monotheistic God of the DOI likewise doesn't necessarily exist.) Then we need some kind of alternative understanding for why we prefer the teachings of liberal democracy. Hence Goldberg's; hence Fukuyama's.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Hence Goldberg's; hence Fukuyama's.

Hence John Rawls's, and his exile of belief from the public square.

However, in the end, reason cannot tell us what is right or wrong, or even best. Political philosophy was replaced by political science--or shall we say political "science"--which in the end still ends up disguising what are plainly subjective values as "facts."

Jonah Goldberg's impotence is an example of what happens when conservatives pretend they are not discussing values, discussing right and wrong. Indeed, the left has no problem putting every controversy [say taxation or global warming] in moral terms.

This is why National Review is no longer relevant. It buys into the Rawlsian fiction that politics should be a "science," and thus value-free.

Philosopher Jürgen Habermas, a "functional atheist," understands, in what he calls "post-secularism."

""Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an auonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk." "

Art Deco said...

I suspect it's no longer relevant because the economy of American journalism is such that it only attracts vulgarians. His supervisor, Richard Lowry, has also been increasingly less able to attract academics to contribute in their off hours. They had a stable of them 15 years ago, with few left. The portside has these problems as well.

And I'd have to disagree with you. Neither Buckley nor any of his successors knew much or cared much about the sociological dimension of the study of political life. Also, while a value is incorporated into your selection of phenomena to study, it isn't necessarily incorporated into the tools you use to study that phenomenon. We can agree on the reality of a phenomenon even if we do not agree on its significance.

And the problem with normative discourse is that it's hard to find someone writing for general audiences who is any good at it (and you probably shouldn't trust academic philosophers farther than you can chuck a bathtub).