Tzvetan Todorov is primarily a literary theorist, but it’s often worth highlighting the following:
“Or take the current fetishisation of The Science, or as Todorov calls it, ‘scientism’.”
“We experience this most often, although far from exclusively, through environmentalist discourse. Here, science supplants politics. Competing visions of the good are ruled out in favour of that which the science demands, be it reduced energy consumption or a massive wind-power project. This, as Todorov sees it, involves a conflation of two types of reasoning, the moral (or the promotion of the good) and the scientific (or the discovery of truth”
On this analysis, those who would defend skepticism and political conservatism against climate change politics (demanding less, much less and in some ways more, from their politics …and with a healthier understanding of what politics can do) are boxed out.
But our author is somewhat critical of Todorov’s approach:
“Any redemption of the hopes of the Enlightenment, any revival of the core principles of Enlightenment, from autonomy to secularism, can never be a purely intellectual exercise.”
As for literary theory, here’s Roger Scruton on the subject of the humanities:
“In the days when the humanities involved knowledge of classical languages and an acquaintance with German scholarship, there was no doubt that they required real mental discipline, even if their point could reasonably be doubted. But once subjects like English were admitted to a central place in the curriculum, the question of their validity became urgent. And then, in the wake of English came the pseudo-humanities—women’s studies, gay studies and the like—which were based on the assumption that, if English is a discipline, so too are they.”
“And since there is no cogent justification for women’s studies that does not dwell upon the subject’s ideological purpose, the entire curriculum in the humanities began to be seen in ideological terms.”
And I’d argue with greater consequences for all of us…just some thoughts…are you convinced?
Ou author, Daniel Ben-Ami, makes some good points while reviewing Robert Frank’s the Darwin Economy. Here are some quotes from the Princeton Press page on the book (found at the link):
‘The good news is that we have the ability to tame the Darwin economy. The best solution is not to prohibit harmful behaviors but to tax them. By doing so, we could make the economic pie larger, eliminate government debt, and provide better public services, all without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone. That’s a bold claim, Frank concedes, but it follows directly from logic and evidence that most people already accept.’
It’s good to know there are people arguing for such a collectivist moral and political philosophy out of the Origin Of Species and Darwin’s theories of natural selection. Of course, this view requires our betters to gently steer the Ship Of State through the stormy seas of human irrationality, manipulating its levers of taxation wisely, with only the stars of reason, Darwinian group selection, and the dismal science as their guides.
Ben-Ami invokes the fact/value distinction:
‘Students have long been taught that economics is a ‘positive science’ – one based on facts rather than values. Politicians are entitled to their preferences, so the argument went, but economists are supposed to give them impartial advice based on an objective examination of the facts.’
Well, if we do use the fact/value distinction, we should acknowledge that all economists (e.g. Milton Friedman) would fall short of achieving factual knowledge on this view….but point taken. There is a deeper debate about where to ground our knowledge and what it is that we know. Economics and potentially unfalsifiable theories are here presented as knowledge upon which to organize all of our lives. Ben-Ami goes on:
The focus of The Darwin Economy is to work out how best to resolve such conflicts. To do so, he turns to an influential approach developed by Ronald Coase, a Nobel laureate in economics based at the University of Chicago in the late 1950s. His concern was to find a pragmatic way to resolve conflicts rather than having to rely on moral principles
To illustrate his argument, Coase gave the example of a confectioner who had used his business premises for many years. A doctor moved in to occupy the neighbouring property and the confectioner’s machinery did him no harm till he built a consulting room at the end of the garden, next to the confectioner’s premises. The noise and vibration of the machinery began to disturb the doctor’s work.
Coase then made the following assumptions:
If the doctor did nothing it would cost his surgery $20,000 in damage;
If he moved to a different location it would cost him $10,000;
The factory owner could eliminate the noise by installing soundproofing at a cost of $5,000;
The costs for the two to negotiate were minimal.
From these premises, it is clear that the two sides should be able to negotiate an agreement with each other for the installation of soundproofing. This is the case even if the government does not make the factory owner responsible for noise damage.
Why not just use the power of taxation to nudge people where you want them to go…if you already happen to know what is rationally in their best interest (or the common interest) anyways? Individuals come into conflict with each other while pursuing their own rational self-interest, and eventually many use the State to resolve their conflicts (property disputes, tort law etc), so why not just head them off at the pass?
And if you’re worried about your freedom?:
”To those who believe that such measures can lead to the denial of individual freedom, Frank enlists an unlikely ally: John Stuart Mill. The nineteenth-century British philosopher is normally seen as the arch proponent of liberty, but Frank turns him into its opposite. Mill supported the maximum possible freedom for individuals with the important caveat that they should not be able to harm others. For instance, I should be free to criticise individuals as harshly as I like but I should not have the right to punch them in the face. Frank extends the harm principle to cover more or less any behaviour that could be deemed harmful. His argument is not that harmful behaviour should always be banned, but government should in many cases impose extra taxes to make it more expensive.’
Don’t worry, these folks are on your side against the interests of large corporations, pretty much all industries, crony capitalists, the oligarchy etc. J.S. Mill’s harm principle is being used to rectify the harm done to individuals by the State through the laws by wielding that State power rationally. If an individual lives downwind of say, a smelting plant, and comes to develop a disease he thinks can be proven to have been caused by the plant’s activities, he might be able to file suit. This of course, may be proper legal recourse, but is also used to defend global warming, as virtually any industrial activity can be held legally and morally responsible for causing harm to the individual on this view (acid rain, climate change, rising sea levels, poorer air quality etc). Scientism abounds.
I could see this view getting much more traction in Britain, and Europe more broadly, because there is a much more entrenched Left (many more actual Communists, Socialists, Big Labor parties, Social Democrats, Humanists, Marxists etc) milling around. Europe is actually run by techo-bureaucrats largely because such a large techno-bureaucracy is arguably the product of such Leftism and certain strains of collectivist, post-Enlightenment thought.
But is this really where the modern American Left is, as well?
Malik takes issue with some of the British left’s handling of the Salman Rushdie (wikipedia) affair:
“It has now become widely accepted that we live in a multicultural world, and that in such a world it is important not to cause offence to other peoples and cultures.”
There is an important difference between having problems with the Muslim world, and having problems with your own society’s conflicted views of the Muslim/outside world (I think Malik means the intellectually adrift, culturally relativistic, identity politicking left).
He argues that 3 myths persist:
“The first myth is that the controversy over Rushdie’s novel was driven by religion. It wasn’t. It was a political conflict.”
“The second myth is that all Muslims were offended by The Satanic Verses.”
“The third myth lies in the perception of the anti-Rushdie campaigners as male, middle-aged, poorly educated, badly integrated…”many, equally, were young, left-wing, articulate, educated, integrated.”
and his main conclusion:
“So why were these people drawn to the anti-Rushdie campaign? Largely because of disenchantment with the secular left, on the one hand, and the institutionalisation of multicultural policies on the other.”
Would Malik indict the British left itself, or is it a larger problem? Is it the current excesses of the left and British society (classical liberalism lost in the shuffle?) or something deeper?
‘Although Ramadan’s book is presented as a spiritual meditation on the problems of existence, it is actually an eclectic mixture of current intellectual prejudices and old-fashioned appeals to revelation and dogma’
“It is precisely because Ramadan is unsympathetic to the idea of individual autonomy and moral independence that he can casually dismiss tolerance as the intellectual charity of the powerful. Tolerance is anything but charity.”
Because, Furedi argues, there is no acceptance of the idea of critical judgement in Ramadan’s embrace of Western multiculturalism.
Obviously, I can see danger in many Muslims’ claims to faith (at times an unyielding moral absolutism) mixed with only an acceptance of the West’s moral relativism. I would also point out that to an American, smaller European economies, more stratified societies, and greater cultural homogeneity can lead to less space in Europe than America for immigrants (and we are facing a current round of homegrown terrorists, however low the percentage, the consequences are very high).
One step beyond Ramadan, on this view, might be a Muslim thinker accepting a definition of tolerance that includes critical judgment and more classical liberalism. I would also point out such a definition would likely require greater inclusion of Muslims into European societies as well, if integration is in fact the goal.
Ayan Hirsi Ali’s rejection of the European Left and flirtation with the right (where a narrow nationalism combined with racial identity lurks in darker corners) could be instructive as a possible, but perhaps not necessary, path. She has also been very vocally anti-Islam as a faith entirely.
Perhaps there a few ways around the current stalemate in the Middle-East with our military involved in protracted nation-building in order to achieve security aims. Perhaps I haven’t come up with any.