Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Conservative Dilemma: Charles Murray's Two Conceptions of Human Nature

I want to talk about Stephen Harper's venture into the "Whither Conservatism?" sub-genre. But first I want to talk about Charles Murray's excellent contribution earlier this month.

It's hardly an original thought, but much of the American right in the age of Obama resembles the liberal-left in the era of Reagan. Back in those days, the conservative intellectual elite understood leftist arguments, while the left basically just assumed that conservatives must be stupid and evil. They could not really comprehend that their might be an argument on the other side, or that it could be adopted by someone who understood their own perspective and was not wholly malevolent. Right-wing intellectuals like Milton Friedman were the ones who were trying to shake their opponents into seeing things differently. They knew they'd win the argument if they could get a hearing. But even when they took power, they still couldn't be taken seriously. The Reagan/Thatcher revolution must just be a terrible burst of atavistic primitivism, rather than a rival set of ideas.

Obviously, there are still people like that on the left today, and there were unthinking partisans on the right back in 1980. But my sense is that today it is the right that talks to itself, and is blinded by its own certainty that it is always right. There are exceptions, but they tend to be moderates -- the kind who are easily praised by the New York Times.

Murray, as co-author of The Bell Curve and a bona fide movement neoconservative/libertarian, can hardly be accused of the same. In his March speech, he gave an uncompromising defence of fusionism and left no doubt that he expects advances in genetics to falsify left-wing assumptions about human equality. But he did so while making serious arguments and without pretending that mild social democracy and Stalinism are exactly the same. He does not pretend that Obama is Mugabe, but makes a fairly appealing argument against what Obama wants to do.

Murray's speech has two parts, and the division between them is, as Ross Douthat has noted, rather stark.

*In the first part, Murray makes a deep argument against European/Canadian-style social democracy and in favour of the Red State American model. Murray adopts Aristotle's idea that happiness (the good life) consists not in pleasure and the avoidance of pain, but in a life of "deep satisfactions" -- hard but important things:

I'm talking about the kinds of things that we look back upon when we reach old age and let us decide that we can be proud of who we have been and what we have done. Or not.

To become a source of deep satisfaction, a human activity has to meet some stringent requirements. It has to have been important (we don't get deep satisfaction from trivial things). You have to have put a lot of effort into it (hence the cliché "nothing worth having comes easily"). And you have to have been responsible for the consequences.

There aren't many activities in life that can satisfy those three requirements. Having been a good parent. That qualifies. A good marriage. That qualifies. Having been a good neighbor and good friend to those whose lives intersected with yours. That qualifies. And having been really good at something--good at something that drew the most from your abilities. That qualifies. Let me put it formally: If we ask what are the institutions through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life, the answer is that there are just four: family, community, vocation, and faith.

The most important objection to the European social democratic model is that it denies these four to huge swathes of people. The model citizen of Canada or the EU cohabits, but does not marry, and does not have children. S/he avoids atavistic attachments to tribal identity. S/he is probably a spiritual seeker or at least believes in UFOs and ghosts, but does not belong to a church. And if s/he does not have the skills to be a knowledge worker, s/he doesn't work at all.

Murray does not seem optimistic that the hard things will survive if there are easy ways to avoid them.

Last April I had occasion to speak in Zurich, where I made some of these same points. After the speech, a few of the twenty-something members of the audience approached and said plainly that the phrase "a life well-lived" did not have meaning for them. They were having a great time with their current sex partner and new BMW and the vacation home in Majorca, and saw no voids in their lives that needed filling.

In this part of the speech, "human nature" has a teleological meaning. It consists in proper ends for a human life, ends that can be lost sight of by whole cultures.

But in the next part of the speech, "human nature" gets a scientific, measurable, even positivistic meaning. He expects (undoubtedly correctly) major advances in the biological understanding of human psychology, and he expects it to refute core social-democratic premises. Women and men think differently about sex and babies. Intelligence and personality are largely determined by genes, and those genes are differently distributed in different partially reproductively-isolated human populations. Etc.

The difficulty is bringing these two conceptions of human nature into one frame. If the deep satisfactions are triggered by our biology as given through eons of natural selection, then it is hard to see how Barack Obama can seriously threaten them. On the other hand, it may be that wealthy twenty-somethings caring more for fast cars and loose sex partners than for the virtues is also coded in the genes, and was as familiar to Aristotle and Plato as it is to visiting professors in Zurich. To the extent social change is making this attitude more common, it is just the spread of wealth and education. Wealth makes it easier to avoid hard satisfactions, and the educated sensibility cannot just return to the naive faith without becoming an angry fundamentalism. In other words, if anything is at fault, it is capitalism (for generating the wealth) and the Enlightenment. In other words, it is a product of the same forces that will drive those advances in genetic science.

No comments: