Saturday, November 3, 2007

Democracy for Sinners

“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; man’s capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary” (emphasis mine). Reinhold Niebuhr makes this powerful observation as early as the forward to his book, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. Essentially, Neibuhr is a realist regarding human nature, and his views are largely influenced by his Christian beliefs. Niebuhr argues that political idealists, despite their good intentions, always fail in the execution of their ideals because they don’t fully understand the intricacies of human nature. The book doesn’t say much in the way of Neibuhr’s own principles of justice (with one notable exception that I mention later), but instead he focuses on how you move from ideals to reality. He does make it clear that democracy is probably the best bet, but the problem lies in democracy’s traditional justifications. These justifications, according to Neibuhr, not only fail in their justification but also hinder democracy’s ultimate success. Of course this book happened to fit perfectly with the last philosophy class I took, which studied ideal and non-ideal philosophy. And even better, Niebuhr borrows heavily from the Christian world view, to which I am also a believer, so as you may imagine I enjoyed the book immensely. (Let me note before I go on that apparently Niebuhr was a pretty important theologian and philosopher in the previous decade, and this is the first I’ve ever heard of him. My education, both philosophically and theologically, has failed me.)

So let’s start by setting up the scene as proposed by Niebuhr. On the one hand you have the CLs (children of light), who are all those who “believe that self-interest should be brought under the discipline of a higher law.” That includes pretty much all political idealists (the forerunners of democracy, Marxists, and whoever else). Let me point out that the higher law need not be God’s, and in the case of many of the political idealists described by Niebuhr it isn’t. The only common denominator is that they believe there is something bigger than the self out there, and that something is important enough to trump individual interests every now and again. For all intensive purposes, you can call this a sort of objective moral standard, which includes a standard of justice. Now on the other hand you have the CDs (the children of darkness). These are the pessimists, or moral cynics, who “know no law beyond their will and interest.” I would go so far as to include the relativists in this category. So the CDs don’t buy into the whole objective moral standard. Maybe they believe there is no such thing as morality, or maybe they believe morality is really just the pursuit of selfish ends. The point is these folks don’t think there is a greater ‘justice’ to attain, just a will to either suppress or pursue.

Needless to say, the different views of morality will have a profound impact on each group’s political theories. For the CLs, they rightly strive to subordinate society to the claims of justice. For the CDs, they either don’t want to subordinate self-interest, or think that the only workable society will have to completely subordinate people’s selfishness (think Hobbes). The CLs get it wrong because they underestimate people’s capacity to screw things up and be selfish and unjust. The CDs get it wrong because they either pursue self interest shamelessly, or they don’t remember that the leaders of more authoritarian regimes (intended to suppress this sort of pursuit) also have selfish pursuits. Of the two groups, the CDs have the best understanding of the inner crookedness of human nature. Call it sin, call it selfishness, call it whatever you want. Humans have complicated motivations, and it’s rarely ever black and white. The CLs presume that people are basically good and will, for the most part, care enough about justice to make society work. For the CLs that promote democracy, they justify their ideals on the basis that most people will pursue justice within a democracy, and that’s why the government should be controlled by the people. Neibuhr disagrees. Instead, he thinks the justification for democracy is that the government is always going to be made of people, people who are selfish, and so that government should be held accountable to everyone. Democracy is the best way to go because it leaves (in theory) no person unchecked. Authoritarian regimes have no such check. So for Neibuhr, we don’t vote because deep down we’ll all vote for justice; rather we vote because deep down even the leaders of our government will be selfish and ought to be held accountable for their actions.

Neibuhr sees the human struggle as this: we want to flourish but deep down we have these fighting convictions that are hard to reconcile. We have a need to flourish (or as he says, reach our full potential), which is essentially a pursuit for the self. But, we can only reach our full potential in community with others by contributing to other people’s flourishing. So although we have this selfish pursuit of flourishing, its fulfillment depends upon non-selfish means. That’s one part, and he calls it the will-to-live-truly. The other part is called our will-to-power. We have a will to power that is rooted in our recognition of our own insignificance. In the scheme of things, each person is nothing. To compensate for this insignificance, we try to make ourselves as significant as we can, which is translated into a desire for power. The power can be inner power, or power over others (sounds a bit like choice theory). So anyway, the point is that we have two battling desires, and they can (and do) make it both possible for us to do really good things or really bad things. I’d say most people would agree with this. People have the capacity (and desire) to be good, but we have an equal capacity (and sometimes desire) to be bad. It’s Milton’s “able to stand but free to fall” dilemma. Unfortunately, it’s the capacity to fall that most CLs don’t take into consideration. That’s where Neibuhr’s realism comes in. The CLs should borrow from the wisdom of the CDs, who understand the capacity for man to be evil. BUT, he warns, they should “be careful not to borrow too much.”

The lesson: we need to self-critical all the time, and we need institutions that allow us to put this criticism into practice. Democracy is one such institution. But it’s not as simple as that. We can’t, Neibuhr warns, just set up a rigid system and leave it at that or problems will ensue. Neibuhr’s main focus is how to go from the principles of justice (to which he doesn’t propose his own, as I mentioned earlier) to their implementation. This is a big step, from ideal theory to non-ideal situations. How can it be done? What process do you follow? What’s the formula for turning principles of justice into policy? Niebuhr say’s there aren’t any! But, there are important constraints to think about if you’re dealing with a human nature as Neibuhr describes it.

Okay, so let’s say you set up a society with working laws, that are really only relative to the society itself at a certain time period, and you make those relative laws subject to criticism as time, technology, culture, etc changes. Surely that’s enough? Or, should we be able to also criticize the principles of justice themselves? Surely that’s going too far, to allow the principles of justice to be subject to popular mood and selfish interest? Right? Wrong. To the idea that the principles of justice are subject to change, I was initially taken aback. For if even the highest principles are relative, then what is the higher standard supposed to be?? Well, Niebuhr says that even our principles must be subject to criticisms because the beings that discovered them are themselves fallen creatures tempted by selfishness and whatnot. So really, it’s not that justice changes, it’s that our conception of justice must be flexible because it’s always, at some level, tainted by our own capacity for error and sin. Okay, I guess I agree with that. The standard is immutable, but our conception of that standard must be flexible, because our reason is not pure. This differs decidedly from the liberal idolization of human reason. Neibuhr claims that because “reason is something more than a weapon of self-interest it can be an instrument of justice; but since reason is never dissociated from the vitalities of life, individual and collective, it cannot be a pure instrument of justice.”

He goes on to add that as you go from ideal to the real world, each step closer becomes more and more relative because it is linked closer with a specific time in history. The principles are the least flexible, but they still are flexible to some extent. As you go down the latter, the laws and policies must be more and more flexible, because they are too dependent upon currant circumstances.

Neibuhr follows this thesis with an interesting discussion of religious humility, which is the greatest contribution of religion to society. It’s not common even among religious folks, but some religious folks do have it and the best thing for the rest of society is to emulate it. Deep humility comes from an encounter with something so much greater than yourself that, while you have important beliefs in that being and the society you live in, you can’t help but be acutely aware of your own fallibility in the face of this being. In other words, no matter how strongly you hold your beliefs, if you have religious humility, then you are very aware of just how wrong you can be because you realize your own powerlessness and ignorance. That, Neibuhr claims, is very rare, but it is the best sort of toleration for a pluralistic society. What’s more common is religious indifference, which doesn’t come from one ounce of humility, and is the worse for it. Democracy desperately needs this sort of humility for it to work properly. If everyone was aware of how wrong they could be and probably are then we’d all get along much better. Neibuhr worries that “blind ideological devotion” (of either the secular or religious variety) is the greatest threat to democracy, and to justice as a whole. I totally agree, but I don’t anticipate any great humbling of our prideful race any time soon. It’s too bad. (His thoughts on humility are way more extensive and interesting than I’m letting on here, but I just don’t have space to elaborate).

Before you think Neibuhr is himself a pessimist, let me mention this. Neibuhr is very aware that our capacity to fall is equally matched by our capacity to overcome our fallenness. We possess the power to go either way, often we do a bit of both. So the flexibility of the government is not only there to check our fallen moments, but it is also flexible to allow for our moments of redemption. He's not a pessimist, but he's not an optimist. He's a realist. We can go either way. We ought to go one way, and sometimes we should, and our society should be set up in a way to allow for that to the greatest possible extent. But we shouldn't be foolish and forget that we can just as easily mess it all up.

The one principle of justice that he does propose is our global responsibility. His book was written at the culmination of the second world war, and he was very aware of the looming global crisis at hand. Our community, he argues, is not limited to our nation. But, it’s easier said than done, and he also realizes the very real issues involved in a global community. I just thought it was nice that he didn’t limit his discussion to the nation. Justice is worldwide, and there’s no reason for us to be just within our own nation and unjust elsewhere.

He also said something about libertarians that I found quite interesting. He pretty much puts them into the CD category of pessimism about the human race, but they suffer from the opposite problem of Hobbes and the other authoritarians. Where Hobbes didn’t see that the rulers of his government were just as prone to selfishness as the people they rule over, the libertarians overestimate the guiding hand of the market. The hand, Neibuhr argues, is just not strong enough. And if you limit government because you don’t trust the people running it, then you should be even more worried about the people running the market (business leaders) because they can’t be checked. At least the government, however imperfect, can be held accountable, but those in charge of the market can run amuck without reprimand, and that is much more dangerous for justice than a corrupt government. Let me add that I thought libertarians were essentially too optimistic about our ability to run ourselves. I just figured they thought we were better people outside of the government than within. But I see Neibuhr’s point.

Now, what I would really love to know is what Neibuhr thought (or would think) about Rawls’ principles. They are, for the most part, harnessing self-interest, but Rawls doesn’t give much guidance for their implementation. I wonder. And I wonder what Rawls thought about Neibuhr, if he thought about his ideas at all. (I’m sure there’s a book or paper out there about this already)

So the moral of the story: we suck. We need to be checked and rechecked all the time. The good news? God doesn’t suck and He offered to take away our suckiness while at the same time being happy that we tried to not be sucky. Neibuhr puts it more elegantly:

“The task of achieving a [just world community] must be interpreted from the standpoint of a faith which understands the fragmentation and broken character of all historical achievements and yet has confidence in their meaning because it knows their completion to be in the hands of a Divine Power, whose resources are greater than those of men, and whose suffering love can overcome the corruptions of man’s achievements, without negating the significance of our striving.”

Well said.

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