John Stuart Mill, philosopher and economist.

In my previous post, The Illiberal Conception of Freedom, I attempted to describe a conception of human freedom that has become distant and alien to us, but which was familiar to everyone for the greater part of human history. Much more familiar to us, living after the Enlightenment, is the liberal conception of freedom, which had among its greatest exponents John Stuart Mill. Here is one of his classic statements of the liberal conception of freedom:

“…the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, I

We can understand the work of John Stuart Mill as part of the Victorian achievement, embodying some of the most trenchant social and political thought of the 19th century, and doing so in admirable Victorian prose that is difficult to quote because Mill’s sentences are long and his paragraphs very long indeed. The passage above is the shortest quote I could tear from context that still carries what I take to be its essential meaning.

It is in Mill that we find some of the most eloquent expressions of human freedom and of the sovereignty, autonomy, and dignity of the individual. These are ideals not only of a conception of freedom peculiar to the Enlightenment, but also perennial ideals of the human spirit, and would probably be recognizable in any age. If we could have transported John Stuart Mill back in time and place him in an earlier social milieu, I suspect he would have had much the same to say, even if in a different idiom.

Even though we can recognize the perennial character of the liberal conception of freedom no less than the perennial conception of the illiberal conception of freedom, the former conception, given eloquent expression by Mill, only fully comes into its own in the modern period, in the context of a social and political milieu that is distinctive to the modern period. And this observation points to an inadequacy in my previous exposition of the illiberal conception of freedom: I failed to place this latter conception in the context of the social milieu and political institutions in which it can best be realized.

That the liberal conception of freedom can only be fully realized in the context of liberal democracy is implied by the fact that both liberal freedom and liberal democracy were ideals expressed by Mill. He was the author not only of On Liberty, but also of On Representative Government. These parallel ideas of the liberal freedom of the individual realized within liberal democracy society are part of the core of the Enlightenment ideal, which is the implicit (and imperfectly realized) central project of contemporary civilization, which could be called Enlightenment civilization.

The illiberal conception of freedom is no less perennial, and could well be realized in the milieu of liberal democratic society, but it would be best realized in the context of a society that understands the meaning of and values the ideals that lie at the center of the illiberal conception of freedom; a society in which the spiritual discipline to attain freedom from the flesh and its appetites is valued above other purposes that an individual might pursue. The ideals of feudalism — as imperfectly realized in actual feudal societies as the Enlightenment is imperfectly realized in our society — constitute the optimal context in which the illiberal conception of freedom could be realized. The chivalric ideal of the knight as an individual who has achieved perfect martial and spiritual discipline (as expressed, for example, in In Praise of the New Knighthood by St. Bernard of Clairvaux) exemplifies the illiberal conception of freedom in a Christian social context.

Both traditional feudal societies and modern Enlightenment societies fall short of their ideals, and the individuals who jointly comprise these societies fall short of the ideals of freedom embodied in each respective social order. That both ideals are imperfectly realized means that there are perversions and corruptions of the illiberal conception of freedom no less than perversions and corruptions of the liberal conception of freedom. We need to say this because it is the nature of an ideal to contrast the ideal to its complement, that is to say, to everything that is not the ideal. This idealistic perspective tends to throw together into one basket everything that deviates from the most pure and perfect exemplification of the one or the other. It would be relatively easy, then, to conflate a perversion or a corruption of the liberal conception of freedom with the illiberal conception of freedom itself, or with a perversion or a corruption of the illiberal conception of freedom. Principled distinctions are important, and must be observed if we are not to lose ourselves in confusion.

Minding the distinctions among varieties of freedom and their corruptions is important because there are substantive differences as well as commonalities. As different as the liberal and illiberal conceptions of freedom are, both are conceptions of freedom realized within a social and political context that optimally actualizes them. There are other varieties of freedom of which this is not the case.

Both the liberal and the illiberal conception of freedom are equally opposed to the anarchic conception of freedom, which could also be called the Hobbesian conception of freedom, which is the freedom that obtains in the state of nature, which is, “…a perpetuall warre of every man against his neighbour…” Or, in more detail:

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”


In the state of nature, there is perfect freedom, but this perfect freedom entails the possibility of being deprived of our freedom at any moment by the equally perfect freedom of another, who has the freedom to murder us, as we have the freedom to murder him. This Hobbesian conception of freedom — so terrifying to Hobbes that he thought everyone must give away their rights to a sovereign Leviathan that could enforce limits to this perfect freedom in a state of nature — holds only outside social and political milieux. The liberal and illiberal conceptions of freedom hold only within social miliuex, and each is best realized in a social milieu that reflects the ideals implicit in the respective conception of freedom.

The liberal and illiberal conceptions of freedom, then, have some properties in common, and so are not entirely disjoint. There remains the possibility that an extraordinary individual might exemplify the ideals both of liberal and illiberal freedom, asserting in action the sovereignty, autonomy, and dignity of the individual in both the liberal and illiberal spheres. Mill wrote that, “…over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” The theorist of illiberal freedom would assert that the individual could never be sovereign over his own body and mind until he had achieved the discipline over body and mind that is the ideal of the illiberal conception of freedom. Realization of the ideal of the liberal conception of freedom, then, may be predicated upon a prior realization of the illiberal conception of freedom.

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Thales hired olive oil presses out of season to demonstrate that disinterested scientific curiosity can be practical if one wants to bother about money.

Thales hired olive oil presses out of season to demonstrate that disinterested scientific curiosity can be practical if one wants to bother about money.

Curiosity does not have an especially good reputation, and one often finds the word coupled with “mere” so that “mere curiosity” can be elegantly dismissed as though beneath the dignity of the speaker, who can then go about his much more grand and august pursuits without the distraction of the petty, grubbing motivation of mere curiosity. There may be some connection between this disdainful attitude toward curiosity and the prevalent anti-intellectualism of western civilization, notwithstanding the fact that most of what is unique in this tradition is derived from the scientific spirit; it is no surprise that any driving force in human affairs eventually provokes an equal and opposite reaction.

Many civilizations that publicly value intellectuals do not value the contributions of intellectuals, so that this social prestige is indistinguishable from a kind of feudal regard for special classes of persons. This is not what happened in western civilization, in which scientific knowledge bestowed real wealth and power — in our own day no less than in the past — and so provoked a reaction. One of the most famous stories from classical antiquity was how Thales, predicting an especially good olive harvest, hired all the olive presses at a low rate out of season, and then let them out at inflated rates during the peak season, proving that philosophers could earn money if they wanted to do so.

There are a great many interesting quotes that invoke curiosity, for better or worse — Thomas Hobbes: “…this hope and expectation of future knowledge from anything that happeneth new and strange, is that passion which we commonly call ADMIRATION; and the same considered as appetite, is called CURIOSITY, which is appetite of knowledge.” Edmund Burke: “The first and simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind, is curiosity.” Albert Einstein: “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” — which highlight both the admirable and the disreputable side of curiosity. That curiosity has both admirable and disreputable aspects suggests that one might be admirably curious or disreputably curious, and certainly all of us know individuals who are curious in the best sense of the term and others who are curious in the worst sense of the term.

Human beings are adventurers of the spirit. We must count among the attributes of human nature some basal drive toward questioning. This drive could be given an exposition in purely intellectual terms or in purely emotional terms; I think that the intellectual and emotional manifestations of human curiosity are two sides of the same coin, and that is why I suggest positing some basal drive that lies at the root of both. And it isn’t quite right to reduce this drive to curiosity, as we can formulate it in terms of curiosity or in terms of need.

Curiosity is often contrasted to a presumably more esteemed mode of interrogating the cosmos, that we may call existential need. Jacob Needleman often addressed the contrast between “mere” curiosity (which he sometimes called “low curiosity”) and present need. Here is an example:

“It has been said that any question can lead to truth if it is an aching question. For one person it may be the question of life after death, for another the problem of suffering, the causes of war and injustice. Or it may be something more personal and immediate — a profound ethical dilemma, a problem involving the whole direction of one’s life. An aching question, a question that it not just a curiosity or a fleeting burst of emotion, cannot be answered with old thought. Possessed by such a question, one is hungry for ideas of a very different order than the familiar categories that usually accompany us throughout our lives. One is both hungry and, at the same time, more discriminating, less susceptible to credulity and suggestibility. The intelligence of the heart begins to call to us in our sleep.”

Jacob Needleman, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, pp. 3-4

I disagree with this on so many levels that it is difficult to know where to start, so instead I will simply say that the kind of existential need Needleman wants to describe is highly credulous and suggestible, and what answers to this need are almost always in the form of an old and painfully familiar form of cognitive bias. However, to try to do justice to Needleman, I will allow that, for an individual immersed in the ordinary business of life who, through some traumatic experience, suddenly comes face to face with profound and difficult questions never before posed in that individual’s experience, then, yes, ideas of a very different order are needed to address such questions.

While I do not think that aching questions are likely to lead to truth — I think it much more likely that they will lead to self-deception — I do not deny that many are gnawed by aching questions, and some few spend their lives trying to answer them. The question, then, is the best method by which an aching question might be given a clear, coherent, and satisfying (in so far as that is possible) answer. Here I am reminded of a passage from Walter Kaufmann:

“Nowhere is the disproportion between effort and result more aggravating than in the pursuit of truth: you may plow through documents or make untold experiments or think and think and think, forgo food, comfort, and distractions, lie awake nights and eat out your heart — and in the end you know what can be memorized by any idiot.”

Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, section 24

However aching our question, presumably we would want to spare ourselves the wasted effort of an inquiry that deprives us of the satisfactions of life while giving an answer that could be memorized by any idiot. Kaufmann did not go far enough here: sometimes individuals who make just such an heroic effort to get at the truth and only arrive at an idiot’s portion convince themselves that the idiot’s portion is in fact a great and profound truth.

Whether or not existential need can be satisfied, how are we to undertand it? Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and one of the founders of existential analysis, identified a condition that he called the existential vacuum, which he defined as, “the frustration of the will to meaning.” Frankl knew that of which he spoke, having lost most of his family to Nazi death camps and himself having been interned at Auschwitz and liberated only at the end of the war. Here, in a longer passage, is his exposition of existential need:

“Ever more patients complain of what they call an ‘inner void,’ and that is the reason why I have termed this condition the ‘existential vacuum.’ In contradistinction to the peak-experience so aptly described by Maslow, one could conceive of the existential vacuum in terms of an ‘abyss-experience’.”

Viktor Frankl, The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy, New York: Plume, 2014 (originally published in the US in 1969), Part Two, “The Existential Vacuum: A Challenge to Psychiatry”

One could readily suppose that existential need is occasioned by the existential vacuum; that the former is the condition and cause of the latter. Another and more recent approach to existential need is to be found in the work of James Giles:

“…existential needs are not the product of social construction. For in contrast to socially constructed phenomena, existential needs are an inherent and universal feature of the human condition.”

James Giles, The Nature of Sexual Desire, p. 181

This is not necessarily distinct from existential need occasioned by Frankl’s existential vacuum; one could formulate the existential vacuum so that it is either “an inherent and universal feature of the human condition” or not. And there may well be more than one form of existential need. In fact, I think it is clear that there is a plurality of existential needs, and some of these can be sublimated through scientific inquiry and can be satisfied, while some play out in the fruitless manner described in the passage above from Kaufmann.

How one approaches the mystery that is the world, by way of scientific curiosity or by way of existential need, which we might call the scientific approach and the existential approach, each reflect a valid human response to the individual’s relationship to the cosmos. Most of us, at some point in life, poignantly feel the mysteriousness of the world and the desire to give an account of our existence in relation to this mystery. Consider this from John Stuart Mill:

“Human existence is girt round with mystery: the narrow region of our experience is a small island in the midst of a boundless sea, which at once awes our feelings and stimulates our imagination by its vastness and its obscurity. To add to the mystery, the domain of our earthly existence is not only an island in infinite space, but also in infinite time. The past and the future are alike shrouded from us: we neither know the origin of anything which is, nor its final destination. If we feel deeply interested in knowing that there are myriads of worlds at an immeasurable, and to our faculties inconceivable, distance from us in space; if we are eager to discover what little we can about these worlds, and when we cannot know what they are, can never satiate ourselves with speculating on what they may be…”

Now, John Stuart Mill was an almost preternaturally rational man; he was not given to flights of fancy, though the high-flown rhetoric of this passage might suggest this. The scientific approach to mystery is a rationalistic response to the riddle of the world; answers are to be had, but the world is boundless, so that any one answered question still leaves countless other unanswered questions. The growth of knowledge is attended by a parallel growth in the unknown, as our increasing knowledge makes it possible for us to formulate previously unsuspected questions. One might find this to be invigorating or disappointing: there are real answers, but we will never have a final understanding of the world. The existential approach to mystery acknowledges that the human mind may not be capable of comprehending the mystery that is the world, but this is coupled with a fervent belief that there is a final and transcendent answer out there somewhere, even if it always remains tantalizingly out of reach. These are subtle but important differences in the conception of “ultimate” truth as it relates human beings to their world.

A distinction might be made between scientific mystery and absolute mystery, with scientific mystery being a mystery that admits of an answer, but which also admits of a further mystery. An absolute mystery admits of no answer, nor of any further mystery. The world might take on the character of scientific mystery or of absolute mystery depending on whether we approach the world from the perspective of scientific curiosity or existential need. In other words, the kind of mystery that the world is — even if we all agree that the world is girt round in mystery, as Mill says — corresponds to our attitude to the world.

One could argue that scientific curiosity is a sublimation of existential need. If this is true, there is no reason to be ashamed of this, or to attempt a return to the original existential need. The passage from existential need to scientific curiosity may be a stage in the development of intellectual maturity, as irreversible as the passage from childhood to adulthood.

One might go a step further and call scientific curiosity the secularization of existential need (or, rather, the secularization of religious mystery, which then invites a treatment in terms of the Max Scheler/Paul Tillich claim that all human beings are engaged in worship, it is only a question of whether the object of this worship is worthy or idolatrous), recalling Karl Löwith’s theory of secularization, which made much of modernity into a bastardized form of Christian eschatology. This presupposes not only that existential need precedes scientific curiosity, but that it is the only authentic form of human questioning, and that any attempt to introduce new forms of questioning the human condition is illegitimate.

We are today faced with questions that our ancestors, who first felt the disconcerting stirrings of existential need, could not have imagined. I touched on one of these questions in my post on Centauri Dreams, Cosmic Loneliness and Interstellar Travel, which drew more responses than other of my other posts to that forum. Our cosmic loneliness can now be expressed in scientific terms, and we can offer a scientific response to our attempts so far to answer the question, “Are we alone?” This is one of the great scientific questions of our time, and at the same time it speaks to a modern existential need that has been expressed in Clark’s tertium non datur.

The growth of human knowledge and the civilization created by human knowledge may have its origins in the questioning that naturally emerges from an experience of existential need. Perhaps this feeling never fully dissipates, but in so far as the dissatisfaction and discontent of existential need can be redirected into scientific curiosity, human beings can experience at least a limited satisfaction derived from definite scientific answers to questions formulated with increasing clarity and rigor. Beyond this, we may have to wait for the next stage in human evolution, when we may acquire mental faculties that take us beyond both existential need and scientific curiosity into a frame of mind incomprehensible to us in our present iteration.

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From time to time we need to be reminded (that is to say, we need to remind both ourselves and others) what it means to live in a free and open society, as the discipline of liberty is a stern one, and it is easy to go slack and to find oneself becoming tolerant of all kinds of compromises to one’s freedom, not to mention the freedom of others, which is relatively easy to sacrifice. Every day a thousand details compete for our attention, and these practical exigencies of life are often sufficient to distract us from our true interests in the long term, and in the big picture.

History does not stand still. Those in possession of the apparatus of state power are always seeking new ways to get the public to go along with the fashionable governmental programs of the moment, while citizens are always seeking ways around the controls that government attempts to impose upon them. It is a cat-and-mouse game — à bon chat, bon rat. Descartes, who lived during the period of the consolidation of the nation-state (and who fought as a solider in the Thirty Years’ War, the settlement of which was part of this process) adopted a motto from Ovid, bene qui latuit, bene vixit: He who hid well, lived well. This is a prudent maxim for any who are subject to state power.

The continual flux of one’s individual perspective, and the continual movement of history, together tend to obscure rather than to clarify where our true interests lie, and so we would do well to recur to classic formulations of liberal democracy (in the sense in which Fukuyama uses that term), and there is no more classic formulation of individual liberty in liberal democracy than is to be found in John Stuart Mill:

“…the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection… the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter I, “Introductory”

Mill’s uncompromising assertion of individual sovereignty is one of the high points of specifically western civilization, with its emphasis upon the individual and individualism. Uncompromising though it may be, it is not, however, absolute: the prevention of harm to others is not defined, and therefore subject to interpretation. An individual or a group that is bound and determined to exercise control over some other individual or group will twist their interpretation of the world until they they proved to their own satisfaction that the actions of the other individual or group are invidious to the public good, and therefore, under classic principles of political liberalism, they are justified in bringing coercion to bear in forcing the individual or group to conform to social expectations.

Mill’s assertion of individual sovereignty is also, in a sense, unexpected. For Mill in this passage, how we exercise state power matters. This way of thinking about Mill’s conception of liberty is really quite remarkable in view of the fact that Mill is probably also the most famous utilitarian, and therefore as a utilitarian is committed to a teleological (or consequentialist) ethic. But this passage is much more in the spirit of deontology than teleology. In my last post, Teleological and Deontological Conceptions of Civilization, I sought to show that teleological and deontological systems of ethical thought that have been applied to the individual also can be applied to social wholes, and here Mill, among the greatest of the representatives of utilitarian teleology, presents a case for a thoroughly deontological conception of the state and its power (i.e., mankind taken collectively).

What are we to make of individual sovereignty in an age of choice architecture? I can imagine the advocates of choice architecture making the argument that “nudging” rather than forcing citizens to adopted preferred behaviors in order to arrived at preferred outcomes is ultimately to recognize the sovereignty of the individual, and not to infringe upon that sovereignty any more than is necessary. But what is this necessity? What is the necessity of state power in industrial-technological civilization? State power in our time is primarily technical, so that its necessity is also understood as a technical requirement.

I have noted in several recent posts (Religious Experience in Industrial-Technological Civilization among them) that in industrial-technological civilization the organizing principle is technical; it is procedural rationality in its many forms that is the basis of social organization. (The term “procedural rationality” originates in the work of economist Herbert A. Simon — also known for his work on bounded rationality — though I am using the term in a wider signification than that employed by Simon, intended to include all decision making undertaken in complex contexts employing available empirical evidence in a theoretical framework that recognizes bounded rationality.)

Rationality is more constrained for some than for others; the technocrat of procedural rationality imagines that those in possession of state power have more and better information available to them than the subjects of state power, who suffer from a more tightly bounded rationality than their leaders. Therefore those with less bounded rationality and possessing greater horizons have a political responsibility to transfer their greater knowledge to the population at large through the power of the state. Choice architecture seems to be the least coercive way of doing so. (Choice architecture is not limited to state power: one could argue that the private enterprises that make it very easy to sign up to receive a good or service, but make it almost impossible to stop the delivery of said good or service, are practicing a kind of choice architecture, but these unsavory business practices are occasionally reviewed by the courts, and when found to be sufficiently coercive the courts may provide legal redress to aggrieved customers.)

The publication of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness in 2009 by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, was an event of some significance in Anglophone political circles, as it was immediately seized upon by policymakers as a legitimation and justification of their “expertise” in social organization — precisely the expertise in procedural rationality that is central to industrial-technological civilization. This was unintended intellectual flattery of the first order. The great unwashed require experts to shape the finer aspects of their lives, rough-hew them though the ignorant masses may. Delivered from their miserable choices to preferred outcomes to which they are nudged, the people should be grateful to their leaders for their enlightened intervention.

In the context of social organization through procedural rationality, the inevitable rise of expertise in technical matters comes to dominate society at large. The process begins with the mere details of how life is organized, but the nature of state power is to grow without bounds (see below on the slippery slope, here applied to state power), and as procedural rationality steadily expands its scope, the state approximates what Erving Goffman called a total institution:

“The common characteristics of total institutions derive from the coercion of inmates to conform to an internal regime. They are stripped of their former identities and obliged to accept an alternative selfhood, designed to fit the expectations of staff. This transformation is effected by procedures and practices including the breakdown of the divisions separating work, sleep and play. All activities are tightly scheduled and geared to serve institutionally set tasks. These can be carried out only by obeying rules and regulations that are sanctioned by privileges and punishments administered by staff whose authority is sustained through the maintenance of a distance from inmates.”

The Social Science Encyclopedia, Third edition, Edited by Adam Kuper and Jessica Kuper, VOLUME II L-Z, LONDON AND NEW YORK: Routledge, 2004, “Total Institutions,” pp. 1031-1032

The state as a total institution could be employed as a definition of totalitarianism. “Nudge” politics is very long way from being totalitarianism, or even the thin edge of the wedge of totalitarianism, but there are dangers nevertheless of which we should be aware.

At what point does choice architecture become coercive? How narrow may an individual’s options be made before we are willing to acknowledge that that individual’s life has been compromised by the institutions with the power to shape the choices available to the individual? How much can the life of the individual be compromised before we recognize this as a form of coercion? If coercion is held below the threshold of violence, is it more morally acceptable that coercion that is openly violent?

Ultimately, state power is about violence; it is not always or inevitably manifested as violence, but as violence is the ultimate guarantor of state power, any politicized question is ultimately about violence. Everyone is familiar with Max Weber’s definition of sovereignty: “The state is the human community that, within a defined territory — and the key word here is ‘territory’ — (successfully) claims the monopoly of legitimate force for itself.” While such a state does not always employ force, it can employ force if necessary, and here the only necessity is political necessity, as defined by the sovereign state. As noted above, today this is a technical necessity governed by technical requirements, and in so far as the human condition is made rigorous, technical necessity leaves no aspect of life untouched.

A common but commonly unstated theme in such discussions is the doctrine of tacit consent. Everyone today, in virtue of being born on some particular scrap of geography, is the subject of some territorially-defined nation-state that seeks to enforce the territorial principle in law. Thus every human being alive today has been judged to have given their tacit consent to the state power of some nation-state or other. What is the basis for this claim? Along with John Stuart Mill, one of the godfathers of political liberalism is John Locke, whose Second Treatise of Government was an important influence on the American founding fathers, but Locke was willing to assert a sweeping doctrine of tacit consent that I find problematic at best, an invitation of inter-generational tyranny at worst:

“Nobody doubts but an express consent of any man entering into any society makes him a perfect member of that society, a subject of that government. The difficulty is, what ought to be looked upon as a tacit consent, and how far it binds — i. e., how far any one shall be looked upon to have consented and thereby submitted to any government, where he has made no expressions of it at all. And to this I say that every man that has any possessions or enjoyment of any part of the dominions of any government does thereby give his tacit consent and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as anyone under it; whether this his possession be of land to him and his heirs for ever, or a lodging only for a week, or whether it be barely traveling freely on the highway; and, in effect, it reaches as far as the very being of anyone within the territories of that government.”

John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, section 119

Here Locke appears unambiguously as a theorist of the territorial principle in law (also assumed by Weber in the quote above), as no one who came from interpenetrating ethnic communities, each ruled by their own law (i.e., the personal principle in law), would ever assert that lodging for a week in some territory subjects the individual to the law of the government that claims sovereignty over that territory. In this way, we can see Locke as one of many political philosophers who contributed to the formulation of the theory of the nation-state at a time when the nation-state remained yet inchoate.

The slippery slope of political obligation in the context of tacit consent would imply that every citizen of a nation-state that engages in genocidal persecution and warfare is at least an accessory, if not a willing and active participant, in such moral outrages (cf. Genocide and the Nation-State). Throughout the twentieth century, in fact, this was the conclusion that was derived in fact, if not in theory. Thus the destruction of a wartime enemy’s population was justified because that population facilitated the prosecution of the war, even if their employment had not changed since the war in question began (i.e., even if they are not employed in war industries). They have, after all, given their tacit consent to the nation-state in which they reside. This kind of political reasoning brought humanity face-to-face with annihilation in the twentieth century, and we can be glad that, whatever the horrendous depredations of that century, it did not ultimately follow through to the bitter end the political logic of its time.

For a logician, a slippery slope is a fallacy, and the logician is right: there is no logical way to derive a transition from the thin edge of the wedge to the thick edge — but if there is a sledgehammer pounding down on the wedge, the likelihood of the thin edge leading to the thick edge is quite high. Life is not logical. Psychologically a slippery slope is very real, very treacherous, and every consummate manipulator (if you live long enough, you will meet many of them) knows how to exploit human frailty with a slippery slope. (This is why we say, “in for a penny, in for a pound.”) Indeed, any logical explication of the slippery slope fallacy ought to be presented with an explication of the cognitive biases of availability cascade, bandwagon effect, illusory correlation, and irrational escalation. We could, in fact, name a new cognitive bias — say, the slippery slope effect — which is the likelihood of individuals to allow themselves to be led down a slippery slope despite this slope being a logical fallacy.

While logicians recognize the appeal to a slippery slope as a fallacy, the logicians have no answer to the paradoxes of the heap, also called sorites paradoxes, which consider the problems inherent in vagueness. Well, it would not exactly be right to say that logicians have “no answer” to sorites paradoxes, only that there are many logical theories for dealing with sorites paradoxes, but none of these theories are universally accepted, and the paradox appears so frequently in human experience that its paradoxicality cannot be wished away. Where exactly the transition from choice architecture to coercion occurs admits of no easy answers.

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Geocentric cosmology by Orance Fine (1494-1555)

Geocentric cosmology by Orance Fine (1494-1555)

Once upon a time it was believed that the world was eternal and unchanging. The inconvenient truth of life and death of Earth was accommodated by a distinction between the sublunary and the superlunary: in Ptolemaic astronomy, the “sublunary” was everything in the cosmos below the sphere of the moon, and this was subject to time and change and suffering; the superlunary was everything in the cosmos beyond the sphere of the moon, which was eternal, perfect, unchanging, and permanent. Thus it was a major problem when Galileo turned his telescope on the moon and saw craters, and when he looked at the sun he saw spots. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

As a result of Galileo and the scientific revolution, we are still re-thinking the world, and each time we think that we have the world caught in a net of concepts, it escapes once again. Up until 1999 it was widely believed that the universe was expanding at a decreasing rate, and the only question was whether there was enough mass for this expansion to eventually grind to a halt, and then perhaps the universe would contract again, or if the universe would just keep coasting along in its expansion. Now it seems that the expansion of the universe is speeding up, and it is widely thought that, in a very early stage of the universe’s existence, it underwent an extremely rapid phase of expansion (called inflation).

When the scientific revolution at long last came to biology, Darwin and evolution and natural selection exploded in the scientific imagination, and suddenly a human history that had seemed neat and compact and easily circumscribed became very old, large, and messy. We recognize today that all life on the planet evolved, and that in the short interval of human life, the human mind has evolved, language has evolved, social institutions have evolved, civilization has evolved, and technology has evolved perhaps more rapidly than anything else.

The evolution of human social institutions has meant the evolution of human meanings, values, and purposes: precisely those aspects of human life that were once invested with permanency and unchangeableness in an earlier paradigm of human knowledge. Human knowledge evolves also. Science as the systematic pursuit of knowledge (since the scientific revolution, and especially since the advent of industrial-technological civilization, which is driven forward by science) has pushed the evolution of human knowledge beyond all precedent and expectation. As I recently noted in The Moral Truth of Science, science is a method and not a body and knowledge, and even the method itself changes as it is refined over time and adapted to different fields of study.

Slowly, painfully slowly, we are becoming accustomed to an evolving world in which all things are subject to change. The process does not necessarily get easier, though one might easily suppose we get numbed by change. In fact, when all our previous assumptions are forced to huddle down in a single relict of archaic thought, it can be extraordinarily difficult to get past this last stubborn knot of human thought that has attached itself passionately to the past.

I think that it will be like this with our moral ideas, which are likely to be sheltered for some time to come, and in so far as they are sheltered, they will conceal more prejudices that we would like to admit. Even those among us who are considered progressive, if not radical, can take a position that essentially protects our moral prejudices of the past. John Stuart Mill was among the most reasonable of men, and it is difficult to disagree with his claims. While in his day utilitarianism was considered radical by some, now Mill is understood to be an early proponent of the political liberalism that is taken for granted today. But the quasi-logical form that Mill gave to his ultimate moral assumptions is entirely consistent with the fideism of radical Ockhamists or Kierkegaard.

Here is a classic passage from a classic work by Mill:

Questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof. Whatever can be proved to be good, must be so by being shown to be a means to something admitted to be good without proof. The medical art is proved to be good by its conducing to health; but how is it possible to prove that health is good? The art of music is good, for the reason, among others, that it produces pleasure; but what proof is it possible to give that pleasure is good? If, then, it is asserted that there is a comprehensive formula, including all things which are in themselves good, and that whatever else is good, is not so as an end, but as a mean, the formula may be accepted or rejected, but is not a subject of what is commonly understood by proof. We are not, however, to infer that its acceptance or rejection must depend on blind impulse, or arbitrary choice. There is a larger meaning of the word proof, in which this question is as amenable to it as any other of the disputed questions of philosophy. The subject is within the cognisance of the rational faculty; and neither does that faculty deal with it solely in the way of intuition. Considerations may be presented capable of determining the intellect either to give or withhold its assent to the doctrine; and this is equivalent to proof.

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter 1

Formulating his moral thought in the context of proof, Mill appeals to the logical tradition of western philosophy, going back to Aristotle. We can already find this dilemma of logical thought explicitly formulated in classical antiquity. Commenting on a passage from Aristotle’s Physics (193a3) that reads: “…to try to prove the obvious from the unobvious is the mark of a man incapable of distinguishing what is self-evident and what is not,” Simplicius wrote:

“…the words ‘the mark of a man incapable of distinguishing between what is self-evident and what is not’ typify the who who is anxious to prove by means of other things that nature, which is self-evident, is not self-evident. And it is even worse if they are to be proved by means of what is less knowable, which is what must happen in the case of things that are all too obvious. The man who wants to employ proof for everything eventually destroys proof. For if the evident must be the starting point of proof, the man who thinks that the evident needs proof no longer agrees that anything is evident, not does he leave any basis of proof, and so he leaves no proof either.”

Simplicius: On Aristotle Physics 2, translated by Barrie Fleet, London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 1997, p. 25

The axiological equivalence of self-evidence is intrinsic value, that is to say, self-value. The tradition of intrinsic value in English moral thought arguably reaches its apogee in G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, in which intrinsic value is a theme that occurs throughout the work:

“We must know both what degree of intrinsic value different things have, and how these different things may be obtained. But the vast majority of questions which have actually been discussed in Ethics—all practical questions, indeed—involve this double knowledge; and they have been discussed without any clear separation of the two distinct questions involved. A great part of the vast disagreements prevalent in Ethics is to be attributed to this failure in analysis. By the use of conceptions which involve both that of intrinsic value and that of causal relation, as if they involved intrinsic value only, two different errors have been rendered almost universal. Either it is assumed that nothing has intrinsic value which is not possible, or else it is assumed that what is necessary must have intrinsic value. Hence the primary and peculiar business of Ethics, the determination of what things have intrinsic value and in what degrees, has received no adequate treatment at all.”

G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, section 17

The English, for the most part, had little affinity for Bergson, but it was Bergson who opened up moral philosophy to its temporal reality embedded in changing human experience. In several posts — Epistemic Space: Mapping Time and Object Disoriented Axiology among them — I have discussed Bertrand Russell’s antipathy to Bergson, even though Russell himself was once of the most powerful and passionate advocates of science, and it has been science that has forced us to put aside our equilibrium assumptions and to engage with a dynamic world that forces change upon us even if we would deny it.

The world as we understand it today, from the smallest quantum fluctuations to the evolution of the universe entire, is a dynamic world in which change is the only constant. In such a world, which our traditional eschatologies have invested with eternal moral significance, we would be better served by also abandoning equilibrium assumptions in ethics. There are trivial ways in which this occurs, as when we recognize that different objects have different moral values at different times; there are also more radical ways to think of a morally dynamic world, such as a world in which moral principles themselves must change.

Qualitative risk categories, Figure 2 from 'Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority' (2012) Nick Bostrom

Qualitative risk categories, Figure 2 from ‘Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority’ (2012) Nick Bostrom

In Bostrom’s qualitative categories of risk, the risks of greatest scope are identified as trans-generational and pan-generational (with the possibility of a risks of cosmic scope also noted). Both the idea of the trans-generational and the pan-generational are essentially categories of intrinsic value over time. when existential risks of smaller scope are considered, they are limited to personal, local, or global circumstances. These smaller, local risks when understood in contradistinction to trans-generational and the pan-generational can also be seen as instances of intrinsic value over time, through shorter periods of time appropriate to personal time, social time, or global time.

While it is gratifying to see this recognition of intrinsic value over time, we can go farther by considering the natural history of value. The simple and fundamental lesson of the natural history of value is that value changes over time, and that particular objects may be the bearers of intrinsic value for a temporary period of time, taking on this value and then ultimately surrendering it. Moreover, intrinsic value itself changes over time, as do the forms in which it is manifested and embodied.

When Sartre gave his famous lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism,” he took the bull by the horns and faced straight on the claims that had been made that existentialism was a gloomy philosophy of despair, quietism, and pessimism. Of his critics Sartre said, “what is annoying them is not so much our pessimism, but, much more likely, our optimism. For at bottom, what is alarming in the doctrine that I am about to try to explain to you is — is it not? — that it confronts man with a possibility of choice.” For Sartre, existentialism is, at bottom, an optimistic philosophy because it affirms the reality of choice and human agency. And so, too, the recognition of the natural history of value — that value is not a fixed and unchanging feature of the world — is an optimistic doctrine preferable to any and all false hopes.

Questioning ancient moral prejudices, as Sartre often did, almost always results in claims on behalf of traditionalists that the sky is falling, and that by opening Pandora’s Box we have unleashed evils into the world that cannot be contained. But to observe that intrinsic value changes over time is no counsel of despair, as when Bertrand Russell (as I recently quoted in Developing an Existential Perspective) said that, “…only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” That intrinsic value is subject to change means that the intrinsic value of the world may increase or decrease, and if it may increase, we ourselves may be the agents of this change.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A revaluation of agricultural civilization

In several posts I have made a tripartite distinction in human history between hunter-gatherer nomadism, agriculturalism, and industrialism. There is a sense, then, from the perspective of la longue duree, that the macro-historical division of agriculturalism constitutes the “middle ages” of human social development. Prior to agriculturalism, nothing like this settled way of life even existed; now, later, from the perspective of industrialized civilization, agriculture is an enormous industry that can feed seven billion people, but it is a demographically marginal activity that occupies only a small fragment of our species. During those “middle ages” of agriculturalism (comprising maybe fifteen thousand years of human society) the vast bulk of our species was engaged in agricultural production. The very small class of elites oversaw agricultural production and its distribution, and the small class of the career military class or the career priestly class facilitated the work of elites in overseeing agricultural production. This civilizational focus is perhaps unparalleled by any other macro-historical epoch of human social development (and I have elsewhere implicitly referred to this focus in Pure Agriculturalism).

The advent of agricultural civilization was simultaneously the advent of settled civilization, and the transition from agriculturalism to industrialism left the institution of settled civilization in place. Other continuities are also still in place, and many of these continuities from agriculturalism to industrialism are simply the result of the youth of industrial civilization. When industrial civilization is ten thousand years old — should it survive so long, which is not at all certain — I suspect that it will preserve far fewer traces of its agricultural past. For the present, however, we live in a milieu of agricultural institutions held over from the long macro-historical division of agriculturalism and emergent institutions of a still-inchoate industrialism.

The institutions of agricultural civilization are uniquely macabre, and it is worthwhile to inquiry as to how an entire class of civilizations (all the civilizations that belong within the macro-historical division of settled agriculturalism) could come to embody a particular (and, indeed, a peculiar) moral-aesthetic tenor. What do I mean by “macabre”? The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “macabre” as follows:

1: having death as a subject: comprising or including a personalized representation of death

2: dwelling on the gruesome

3: tending to produce horror in a beholder

All of the above characterize settled agricultural civilization, which has death as its subject, dwells upon the gruesome, and as a consequence tends to produce horror in the beholder.

The thousand years of medieval European society, which approximated pure agriculturalism perhaps more closely than many other agricultural civilizations (and which we might call a little bit of civilization in its pure form), stands as a monument to the macabre, especially after the experience of the Black Death (bubonic plague), which gave the culture of Europe a decidedly death-obsessed aspect still to be seen in graphically explicit painting and sculpture. But medieval Europe is not unique in this respect; all settled agricultural civilization, to a greater or a lesser extent, has a macabre element at its core. The Agricultural Apocalypse that I wrote about in my previous post constitutes a concrete expression of the horrors that agricultural civilization has inflicted upon itself. What makes agricultural civilization so horrific? What is the source of the macabre Weltanschauung of agriculturalism?

Both the lives of nomadic hunter-gatherers and the lives of settled agriculturalists are bound up with a daily experience of death: human beings must kill in order to live, and other living beings must die so that human beings can live. Occasionally a human being dies so that another species may live, and while this still happens in our own time when someone is eaten by a bear or a mountain lion, it happens much less often that the alternative, which explains why there are seven billion human beings on the planet while no other vertebrate predator comes close to these numbers. The only vertebrate species that flourish are those that we allow to flourish (there are, for example, about sixteen billion chickens in the world), with the exception of a few successful parasitic species such as rats and seagulls. (Even then, there are about five billion rats on the planet, and each rat weighs only a faction of the mass of a human being, so that total human biomass is disproportionately great.)

Although nomadic hunter-gatherers and settled agriculturalists both confront pervasive experiences of death, the experience of death is different in each case, and this difference in the experience and indeed in the practice of death informs everything about human life that is bound up in this relationship to death. John Stuart Mill wrote in his The Utility of Religion:

“Human existence is girt round with mystery: the narrow region of our experience is a small island in the midst of a boundless sea, which at once awes our feelings and stimulates our imagination by its vastness and its obscurity. To add to the mystery, the domain of our earthly existence is not only an island in infinite space, but also in infinite time. The past and the future are alike shrouded from us: we neither know the origin of anything which is, nor, its final destination. If we feel deeply interested in knowing that there are myriads of worlds at an immeasurable, and to our faculties inconceivable, distance from us in space; if we are eager to discover what little we can about these worlds, and when we cannot know what they are, can never satiate ourselves with speculating on what they may be; is it not a matter of far deeper interest to us to learn, or even to conjecture, from whence came this nearer world which we inhabit; what cause or agency made it what it is, and on what powers depend its future fate?”

While Mill wrote that human existence is girt round with mystery, he might well have said that human existence is girt round with death, and in many religious traditions death and mystery or synonymous. The response to the death that surrounds human existence, and the kind of death that surrounds human existence, shapes the mythological traditions of the people so girt round.

Joseph Campbell explicitly recognized the striking difference in mythologies between nomadic hunter-gatherers and settled agricultural peoples. This is a theme to which Campbell returns time and again in his books and lectures. The mythologies of hunting peoples, Campbell maintained, revolved around placating the spirits of killed prey, while the mythologies of agricultural peoples resolved around sacrifice, according to the formula that, since life grows out of death, in order to create more life, one must create more death. Hence sacrifice. Campbell clearly explains a link between the mythologies peculiar to macro-historically distinct peoples, but why should peoples respond so strongly (and so differently) to distinct experiences of death? And, perhaps as importantly, why should peoples respond mythologically to death? To answer this question demands a more fundamental perspective upon human life in its embeddedness in socio-cultural milieux, and we can find such a perspective in a psychoanalytic interpretation of history derived from Freud.

It is abundantly obvious, in observing the struggle for life, that organisms are possessed of a powerful instinct to preserve the life of the individual at all costs and to reproduce that life (sometimes called eros or libido), but Freud theorized that, in addition to the survival instinct that there is also a “death drive” (sometimes called thanatos). Here is Freud’s account of the death drive:

“At one time or another, by some operation of force which still completely baffles conjecture, the properties of life were awakened in lifeless matter. Perhaps the process was a prototype resembling that other one which later in a certain stratum of living matter gave rise to consciousness. The tension then aroused in the previously inanimate matter strove to attain an equilibrium; the first instinct was present, that to return to lifelessness. The living substance at that time had death within easy reach; there was probably only a short course of life to run, the direction of which was determined by the chemical structure of the young organism. So through a long period of time the living substance may have been constantly created anew, and easily extinguished, until decisive external influences altered in such a way as to compel the still surviving substance to ever greater deviations from the original path of life, and to ever more complicated and circuitous routes to the attainment of the goal of death. These circuitous ways to death, faithfully retained by the conservative instincts, would be neither more nor less than the phenomena of life as we now know it. If the exclusively conservative nature of the instincts is accepted as true, it is impossible to arrive at any other suppositions with regard to the origin and goal of life.”

Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, authorized translation from the second German edition by C. J. M. Hubback, London and Vienna: The International Psycho-Analytical Press, 1922, pp. 47-48

The death drive, or thanatos, does not appear to be as urgent as the drive to live and to reproduce, but according to Freud it is equally implicated in society and culture. Moreover, given the emergence of war from the same settled agricultural societies that practiced a mythology of sacrifice (according to Campbell), there has been a further “production” of death by the social organization made possible by settled societies. It is to be expected that the production of death by sacrifice in order to ensure a good harvest would become entangled with the production of death in order to ensure the continuity of the community, and indeed in societies in which war became highly ritualized (e.g., Aztec civilization and Japanese civilization) there is a strong element of sacrifice in combat.

Freud’s explanation of the death drive may strike the reader as a bit odd and perhaps unlikely, but the mechanism that Freud is proposing is not all that different from Sartre’s contention that being-for-itself seeks to become being-in-itself (to put it simply, everyone wants to be God): life — finite life, human life — is problematic, unstable, uncertain, subject to calamity, and pregnant with every kind of danger. Why would such a contingent, finite being not desire to possess the quiescence and security of being-in-itself, to be free of all contingencies, which Shakespeare called all the ills that flesh is heir to? The mythologies that Campbell describes as being intrinsic to nomadic and settled peoples are mechanisms that attempt to restore the equilibrium to the world that has been disturbed by human activity.

Agricultural civilization is the institutionalization of the death drive. The mythology of sacrifice institutionalizes death as the norm and even the ideal of agricultural civilizations. As such, settled agricultural civilization is (has been) a pathological permutation of human society that has resulted in the social equivalent of neurotic misery. That is to say, agricultural civilization is a civilization of neurotic misery, but all civilization need not be neurotically miserable. The Industrial Revolution has accomplished part of the world of overcoming the institutions of settled agriculturalism, but we still retain much of its legacy. To make the complete transition from the neurotic misery of settled agricultural civilization to ordinary civilizational unhappiness will require an additional effort above and beyond industrialization.

Despite the explicit recognition of a Paleolithic Golden Age prior to settled agriculturalism, there is a strong bias in contemporary civilization against nomadism and in favor of settled civilization. Both Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (both of which I have cited with approval in many posts) make broad evaluative judgments to the detriment of nomadic societies — an entirely superfluous judgment, as though the representatives of settled civilization felt that they needed to defend an existential orientation of their civilization by condemning the way of life of uncivilized peoples, who are called savages and barbarians. The contempt that has been shown for the world’s surviving nomadic peoples — the Sami, the Gypsies, and others — as well as programs of forced sedentarization — e.g., among the Kyrgyz — show the high level of emotional feeling that still attaches to the difference between fundamentally distinct forms of life, even when one pattern of life has become disproporationately successful and no longer needs to defend itself against the depredations of the other.

Given this low esteem in which existential alternatives are held, it is important to see settled agricultural civilization, as well as its direct descendent, settled industrial civilization, in their true colors and true dimensions, and to explicitly recognize the pathological and explicitly macabre elements of the civilization that we have called our own in order to see it for what it is and therefore to see its overcoming as an historical achievement for the good the species.

We are not yet free of the institutions of settled agricultural civilization, which means that we are not yet free of a Weltanschauung constructed around macabre rituals focused on death. And despite the far-reaching changes to life that have come with the Industrial Revolution, there is no certainly that the developments that separate us from the settled agricultural macabre will continue. I wrote above that, given the consolidation of industrial civilization, we will probably have institutions far less agricultural in character, but it remains possible that the industrialism may falter, may collapse, or may even, after consolidating itself as a macro-historical division, give way to a future macro-historical division in which the old ways of agriculturalism will be reasserted.

I count among the alternatives of future macro-historical developments the possibility of pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism. In any civilization largely constituted by either the historical processes of pastoralization of neo-agriculturalism, agriculture would once again play a central and perhaps a dominant role in the life of the people. In a future macro-historical division in which agriculture was once again the dominant feature of human experience, I would expect that the macabre character of agricultural civilization would once against reassert itself in a new mythology eventually consolidated in the axialization of a future historical paradigm centered on agriculture.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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