Monday, July 21, 2014

Olsen's Criticisms: Straw Men and Moral Progress

Olsen claims that my criticisms of the Left are directed at straw men (109-14, 290).

My criticisms of socialism, communism, and central planning have no application to modern liberalism, because modern liberals don't promote socialism, communism, or central planning.

My defense of private property against attempts to establish economic equality has no application to modern liberalism, because modern liberals accept private property and economic inequality, although they would like to reduce that inequality.

While I criticize the utopian belief in human perfectibility, Olsen insists that this has no application to modern liberalism, because modern liberals do not believe in human perfectibility, although they do have a meliorist belief in human improvability, which falls short of perfection.

I have to confess that this is the best criticism of my work.  Herbert Gintis might have been the first person to suggest this criticism (in his review of Darwinian Conservatism for "Amazon").  He wrote: "Arnhart avoids all the hard questions by choosing as the alternative political philosophy an absurd caricature of the leftist alternative that is more or less 19th century Utopianism."

This ignores the fact, however, that the utopian Left continued well into the 20th century--with Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, and Pol Pot--and such utopian ideology was the source of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century (as Pinker has argued).

Now, Olsen and Gintis might respond that modern liberals are not adherents of such socialist utopianism.  But as I indicated in Darwinian Conservatism, Herbert Croly--the founder of modern American progressive liberalism--proclaimed as his fundamental principle that "democracy must stand or fall on a platform of possible human perfectibility."

Of course, over the past 40 years, much of the Left has become disillusioned by the historical experience of the last half of the 20th century--including the collapse of the Marxist regimes, the introduction of free market reforms in the welfare states of Scandinavia, and the apparent triumph of neoliberal globalization.  And some people on the Left--like Peter Singer--are now arguing against the utopian Leftist tradition in favor of a Darwinian Left.  But as I indicated in Darwinian Conservatism (122-29), Singer admits that this would require a painful rejection of Leftist utopianism.  A Darwinian left, Singer admits, would accept "that there is such a thing as human nature, and seek to find out more about it, so that policies can be grounded on the best available evidence of what human beings are like."  Such a left would have to realize that natural tendencies (such as social ranking, male dominance, sex roles, and attachment to one's kin) cannot simply be abolished.  But the strain in his argument is clear when he confesses: "In some ways, this is a sharply deflated vision of the left, its utopian ideas replaced by a coolly realistic view of what can be achieved.  That is, I think, the best we can do today."  Remarkably, most of his "deflated" Leftism would be acceptable to conservatives, who have long assumed that conformity to human nature is a fundamental standard for good social policy.  For example, Singer agrees with Adam Smith about the benefits of a market economy in channeling the selfish motivations of human nature in ways that serve the public good.

Olsen says that even a deflated Left that rejects the perfectibility once assumed by the utopian Left can still work for improvement and thus moral progress, while Darwinian conservatism denies that human progress is possible (114-20, 122, 156-59, 184-85). 

This criticism is perplexing to me, because all of my historical case studies are about moral progress.  For example, Olsen cites the abolition of slavery as moral progress, but my chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right--the longest chapter in the book--is about how Darwinian natural right allows us to understand why this really was a case of moral progress.

Olsen cites the decline in violence as chronicled in Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature as an illustration of moral progress (117).  But Olsen is totally silent about all of my many blog posts in which I have agreed with Pinker.  The first of these posts on Pinker appeared in October-December, 2011.

Olsen says that while liberals question and criticize traditional customs and beliefs, Darwinian conservatives refuse to do this (122).  He is totally silent here about my account of how "moral judgments" allow us to question "moral traditions" (Darwinian Conservatism, 40-43). 

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