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Cloning, gene therapy, stem-cell harvesting—are we on the path to a Huxley-like Brave New World? Not really, argues political philosopher and Kass Commission member Peter Augustine Lawler in Stuck with Virtue: The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future, even as he admits that we will likely become more obsessive and anxious and will be subjected to new forms of tyranny. Rather, he contends, human nature is such that the biotechnological world to come, despite the best efforts of its proponents, will ...
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Cloning, gene therapy, stem-cell harvesting—are we on the path to a Huxley-like Brave New World? Not really, argues political philosopher and Kass Commission member Peter Augustine Lawler in Stuck with Virtue: The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future, even as he admits that we will likely become more obsessive and anxious and will be subjected to new forms of tyranny. Rather, he contends, human nature is such that the biotechnological world to come, despite the best efforts of its proponents, will still fail to make it possible to feel good without being good. It will be harder, Lawler warns, to be virtuous in the future, because we will be more detached than ever from the natural sources of happiness. But we may take some solace in the fact that virtue will still be the best way to live well with what we really know.
With irony and wit, Lawler delivers the good news about the future of the American individual: We’re going to remain free, because the modern effort to make increasingly individualistic human beings at home with themselves and their environments through technological progress cannot succeed. That is the truth and promise, concludes Lawler, of a genuinely postmodern conservatism.
We are on the verge of a realignment in American political life today, one that will produce libertarian and anti-libertarian factions. The anti-libertarian faction can also be called communitarian, as long as that term is defined with some precision. These communitarians will not be opposed, in general, to the free market. The Evil Empire has fallen, after all, and almost nobody really believes any more that we are slouching toward socialism. Alexis de Tocqueville's fear that democracy tends to evolve toward a benevolent despotism of meddlesome schoolmasters to whom we surrender thought and concern about our futures no longer seems so prescient. And neither does Tocqueville's hope that the Americans would continue to resist individualism through vibrant, participatory local political institutions. The truth is that American individuals are more obsessed with their futures than ever, while the communal attachments that help take people's minds off themselves and provide the safety nets that keep them from falling too hard are weaker than ever.
The new anti-libertarian faction will have the modest aim of moderating the self-destructive excesses of our self-obsession. It is true that more Americans than ever are now forming, and will continue to form, countercultural, "whole-life" small communities, and most of these communities will have a religious foundation. But that sort of thoroughgoing communitarianism will remain an "alternative lifestyle" that will not be embraced by most of us. The socialist hope that America as a whole could eventually become a "Great Community" founded on the activist, egalitarian pursuit of justice remains nowhere except in the world of professors. Most of our new communitarians will be happy if they can moderate the excesses of the libertarian view of liberty, if they can direct the future of human freedom well enough to encourage or at least not discourage those human experiences connected with love, family, friendship, faith, citizenship, responsibility, and even death-experiences that make life worth living. In other words, the new communitarians will be united more by their opposition to libertarian extremism than any shared, comprehensive view of human community.
The new anti-libertarian faction will oppose the comprehensive and indiscriminate claims for personal liberty made by libertarian ideologues. That view of the world-which until recently was shared only by a few intellectuals-is now emerging as the modern American consensus, cutting across the mainstream of our two political parties. A libertarian, for my purposes here, is pro-choice on everything, or almost everything-a free-marketer economically and an anti-prohibitionist, even an antimoralist, when it comes to social and cultural issues. The libertarian wants the principles of calculation and consent to inform every facet of each of our "designer" personal lives. And today, the ideology of libertarianism is being reinforced and reinvigorated by the promise of unfettered biotechnological development: we will soon be able to design our lives ever more completely in opposition to the various tyrannies and indignities nature imposes upon us.
To be clear, this ideological libertarianism is not characteristic of all or perhaps even most Americans who call themselves libertarians. Nor do I wish to imply that our self-proclaimed libertarians were in any way soft on Marxist totalitarian tyranny. But the kind of libertarianism I am describing here is a creeping cultural phenomenon that is affecting us all.
As I will explain, what libertarian ideology promises today is strangely close to what Marx promised would come with communism-freedom from alienation and oppression, a life constrained by nothing but personal choice, the withering away of religion, and the withering away of the state. The "old" communism of the Soviet empire was, in a certain sense, a strangely conservative ideology rooted in tyranny and historical quackery. It eventually collapsed because it futilely opposed itself to what libertarians call the "dynamism" of human initiative or free human action. Insofar as the hopes of communism present themselves now in a more clearly libertarian and technology-friendly form, they are in some ways more seductive.
Thus, while the title of this chapter will no doubt alarm some readers and irritate others, taking that risk seems necessary in order to help us think more clearly about the peculiar ideological threat that confronts us today. The new anti-libertarian coalition will obviously contain diverse elements. It should include all lovers of human liberty who see that libertarian ideology-like all ideological extremism-may generate rampant statism. I write, largely in the tradition of Hayek, Acton, and Tocqueville, against big government and for the enduring responsibility of fallible mortals.
We are all still living in the modern world, a world that has not changed in fundamental orientation for hundreds of years. The world, in fact, continues to become progressively more modern. One of the great founders of the modern world-Niccolo Machiavelli-thought that the great obstacle to human beings seeing the truth was their propensity to be suckered by tyrants, especially those employing the seductive charms of Christianity. For Machiavelli, people get so caught up in the illusions of an otherworldly imagination that they do not notice how much they are being taken advantage of in this world.
But despite the great success of Machiavelli and others in freeing human beings from that otherworldly imagination and directing them toward the pursuit of wealth and freedom in this world, it is not true that the main effect of his thought has been to liberate us from lies and direct us toward the truth. Even Machiavelli would have to admit that the unprecedented lies of our so-called enlightened era are the most tyrannical ever told. The twentieth century was-and the twenty-first century probably will be-a mixture of unprecedented freedom and unprecedented tyranny.
The name rightly given to a specifically modern lie is an ideology. An ideology is a form of popular science, and so not a form of real science, it is a comprehensive and easy-to-understand account of all that exists. Ideologies are the dogmas that fill the vacuum created by the discrediting of religious dogma. They are, in fact, usually meant to be replacements for Christianity's central tenets. But they never really free themselves from Christianity altogether: The future paradise promised by the personal God of the Bible, we are told, can be achieved in a more human-but still more impersonal-way.
Ideologies are offered as replacements for all personal claims of authority-the claims of particular poets, priests, philosophers, princes, and God. The Machiavellian view-which is the democratic view-is that to defer to someone else's wisdom is to be suckered into being ruled by that person. The claims of ideology, on the other hand, are never personal; ideologies teach that we are not controlled by persons but by forces, such as history or matter or the economy or technology. That is why ideologies are always promulgated by experts who never say "I think" or "I believe" but "history shows" or (nowadays) "studies show." Ideologists always call upon the impersonal authority of science. But is it really more degrading to accept the personal authority of God or a philosopher like Aristotle than to defer to, or be controlled by, no one in particular?
It is true that to be controlled by forces is more democratic than to be controlled by people, since in the former case everyone is at least equally unfree. But that does not change the fact that ideologies such as Marxism and evolutionism make us all seem less truly free than we really are. The libertarian ideologues are at least right to say that we are not determined completely by the division of labor or nature, although they too ideologically imagine a future in which we will be deprived of much that genuinely characterizes our liberty. They, with the Marxists, imagine an unalienated, "designer" or choice-filled future, a kind of techno-paradise on earth. The libertarians, in their own way, imagine that we are less free than we really are.
All ideologies, in fact, oppose the foundational Christian claim, although one that does not necessarily depend on religious faith, that human beings are alienated by their natures. We experience ourselves as to some extent "displaced persons," as somewhat homeless, as aliens or pilgrims in this world. The very existence of human beings-the very existence of myself as a self-conscious being-is a mystery that eludes systematic explanation. My self-consciousness-and so my openness to the truth about all things-cannot be explained by any ideology: Even Marx could not account for his own love of the truth or his own love of freedom-both of which were quite real-through his materialistic, systematic account of historic
Modern ideologies all deny that human alienation is natural, that it is part of the human condition and therefore something we cannot completely overcome on our own. So, all ideologies also oppose the Christian and classical view that false hopes about the effectiveness of human effort always end up intensifying the human alienation that they mean to remedy. Ideological programs to eliminate alienation end up undermining those ways we really do have to ameliorate and live well with our homelessness without providing any real replacement for them.
The claim of communism, for example, is that human alienation is not natural but historical. Human beings alienated themselves through their historical or economic activity-through their development of the division of labor. From the communist standpoint, the bad news is that we unwittingly messed ourselves up. The good news is that we can free ourselves through revolution by bringing the division of labor, and so history, to an end.
Surely, we might object, communism is dead: no one but North Koreans, Cubans, and a few out-of-touch professors buys that ideology anymore. Yet, in my view, while the hard side of communism is dead, the soft side is very much alive. True, nobody really still thinks that the communist revolution is coming, and almost everyone now knows that the totalitarian terror designed to provoke or complete such a revolution was, at the very least, a monstrous mistake. But the seductive lie of communism lives on, in that many people still think that it is too bad that communism could not work, that Marx's beautiful dream could not become real, that we cannot free ourselves through economic or political action from our miserable human alienation.
We can begin deconstructing this lie by looking at Marx's description, provided in The German Ideology, of the unalienated life promised by communism: "in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic." Here Marx predicts that under communism you will be able to do whatever you want whenever you want, with no reason at all to take one activity more seriously than another, no reason at all to take any of them seriously at all. The sign that alienation has been overcome is that no one is consumed or obsessed with any activity at the expense of others. Life has become a series of easygoing hobbies-what we now call playing golf badly, philosophizing or shooting the bull badly, and so forth. If you start to take golf and philosophizing seriously, then alienation has returned. Under communism, Tiger Woods's obsession with perfecting his short game would be unthinkable, as would Socrates's relentless obsession with questions that have no answers. Under communism, surely Tiger would relax, and Socrates would chill out and realize that he is just shooting the bull.
Now, we busy and very alienated Americans sometimes do yearn for weekends much like the communist life described by Marx-weekends of casually terrible fishing and golf followed by shooting the bull after dinner. But if Marx's communism really described all of human life, it would not be heaven on earth but an inescapable hell. It would be worse than the hell experienced by Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day. We would be stuck with lives even more hellish than living the same day over and over again; there would be nothing impelling us to choose in one direction rather than another.
Here is one way of explaining why life under communism would actually be hellish. Marx says that human alienation in some ways becomes magnified under capitalism. In capitalist societies, human beings have become more self-obsessed and individualistic than ever. Our devotions to God, family, friends, country, and so forth define less of our lives than ever before, and it seems that the only human distinctions left that bear any weight concern money. And obsession with money-a most selfish obsession-isolates us and pits us against one another. But the pursuit of money-which is required not just to live well but to live at all under capitalism-at least gives us something difficult and interesting to do, something that can moderate the neurotic self-obsession that can otherwise overwhelm us when we have nothing at all worthwhile to do. The money-based productivity of us capitalists, after all, really has made all our lives more comfortable, secure, and free. Our productivity is surely worthy of pride, but pride-a social virtue that connects one with others-would disappear if hard work, like everything else, became a pointless option.
Marx says that under communism our self-obsession will disappear. But why should that be? It is not that Marx believes that our old devotions to God, country, friends, and family would reappear: these alienating illusions, he thought, would never return. Our need for and devotion to money would of course also be gone. So there would be nothing to orient or direct our lives; all of life would become a personal whim. It is not even clear why Marx calls communism communism, because under it we would not be guided or limited in our choices by any community at all. There would be no sense of duty or love to limit our "designer" lives; the attachments presupposed, and created, by duty and love limit our options and make us obsessive. Under communism, the good and bad news is that each human being would be both more free and more alone than ever.
There would be nothing to limit our self-obsession, to get our minds off of ourselves, under communism. And in that case, human beings would very likely be more death-obsessed than ever. Marx, a good materialist, never says that the coming of communism will bring human mortality to an end, and he never says that human beings will stop being self-consciously mortal. But no being aware of his or her own death can help but be moved by that fact. Under communism, if Marx is right, we would simply be deprived of the means-religion, love, virtue, political life, and so forth-with which human beings have always availed themselves in order to live well enough in the face of death. More than ever, we will be stuck with dying pointless deaths alone. The communist lie also would make it impossible to find the words to explain to ourselves our experiences of alienation in the midst of the paradise we had created for ourselves, and being deprived of such explanations would make us yet more alienated. Communism is not the remedy tot, but merely an intensification of, characteristically capitalistic or individualistic alienation. What is psychologically tough about capitalism-and who can deny that Marx explained pretty well at times why we capitalists are anxious and restless in the midst of prosperity-would be worse under communism.
Excerpted from Stuck with Virtue by PETER AUGUSTINE LAWLER Copyright © 2005 by ISI Books. Excerpted by permission.
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