by Ali Minai
Following the shock of Brexit in Britain and the cataclysmic election of Donald Trump in the United States, there is much soul-searching, head-scratching and gnashing of teeth in liberal circles. Some see the end of democracy, others predict the collapse of liberalism, or at least of the liberal world order. The more sanguine speak of history's pendulum and some see both promise and peril in new technologies. A sub-genre of political analysis that has blossomed in these troubled times is the critique of cruel, corrupt neoliberalism that has abandoned the working classes in its search for a technocratic utopia powered by unbridled markets. For the most part, all these responses take for granted the existence of a well-defined liberal ethos, and – more importantly – its stability in human affairs. Not surprisingly, liberal thinkers see liberalism as inherently "better" than the alternatives, and approach their analysis from a "How will liberalism succeed?" viewpoint. Conservative critics, in contrast, see liberalism as a deviant human condition that seeks to subvert the "natural" order of things. Understandably, these views are regarded as contradictory. The central aim of this article is to argue that, in fact, accepting both viewpoints as valid may provide a better understanding of liberalism, its promise, its challenges, and its current state.
An early disclaimer is also in order: this article on a very complicated topic is intended as a "view from 36,000 feet", and does not speak to the microdynamics of activism by individuals and organizations. The world is full of good works on all sides of the political spectrum; the focus in this piece is on historical forces and long-term global patterns.
Political analysts often express amazement that, in many important instances, ordinary people support leaders and causes against their own rational interests. But this surprise stems from an idealized and rather inaccurate view of human decision-making as a rational process focused on optimizing economic costs and benefits. In the practical situations of daily life, people usually make choices driven by values, not calculation or analysis. And, as students of human nature have always realized, and as the recent work of behavioral economists has shown systematically, these values are instantiated in a toolbox of heuristics – rules of thumb – that suffice for reasonably good and highly efficient real-time decision-making, but often flout the rules of probability and logic. At different levels, this repertoire of heuristics is termed instinct, intuition, or common sense, and is identified with the "natural" – as opposed to calculated – decision-making. Amos Tversky – one of the pioneers in this field – famously termed these irrational heuristics "natural stupidity" as a tongue-in-cheek contrast with "artificial intelligence", and with the implication that, in fact, much of "real" intelligence arises from this "natural stupidity" rather than the logical rules that underlie theories of classical economics and artificial intelligence.
This distinction is formalized most clearly in the work of Daniel Kahnenann, who postulates two levels of cognition: System 1, which makes decisions rapidly, based purely on heuristics; and System 2, which makes slower, more deliberate – and therefore more rational – decisions. However, as I have argued in a previous article, instead of two distinct systems, it may be more useful to think of a continuum of deliberation from the totally instinctive and automatic System 1 to the highly deliberative System 2, and that, for all its deliberation, System 2 is still based more on heuristics than on rational analysis.
The main relevance of these ideas in understanding human behavior – including political and social behavior – is to support the concept of "human nature" as a real and active force in the lives of individuals and the history of societies. This idea of a fixed human nature might seem rather essentialist, but once mind-body dualism – the notion that mind is distinct from the material body – is rejected, everything from the basest instinct to the pinnacle of intellect is reduced to biology. In this framework, even the most sophisticated rational calculation and moral choice must be grounded in the biology (and ultimately the physics) of the individual, for which "nature" is a reasonable designation. All perception, all thought, and all behavior emerges from this biological nature as it interacts with its environment. Experience, learning, and education can adapt an individual's nature, but at its most basic level, it remains grounded in drives, emotions, and values – the primitives that not only shape the actual individual but also constrain the possible individual. Both System 1 and System 2 – and all the systems in between – operate within the space defined by these factors and their interplay. While any specific description of these primitives is somewhat arbitrary – for example, the space of emotions may be divided up differently in various cultures – the framework itself is remarkably consistent across individuals and across history. And though each individual may, at a given time, inhabit a different place within this framework, most of it is recognizable territory to almost all members of the species. That is why we understand not only our contemporary peers but also characters from history and Homer; not only friends from our neighborhood but also strangers from distant lands. And since it emerges from large numbers of individuals, human society too shows a remarkable consistency in its most basic features – a fact responsible for the possibility of universal art and universal morality. For all that has changed over millennia of recorded and unrecorded history, the social, cultural and political dramas of today still revolve around the age-old themes of allegiance, faith, envy, retribution, compassion – the most basic features of human nature. In fact, the sophistication of increasingly complex civilization has only been possible through the co-option of System 1 drives via institutions such as tribal, national, religious, and ideological solidarity. The possibility of a purely rational mode of human society that transcends these "irrational" allegiances is more idea than reality. Even the "universal" ideals that undergird the rational enterprise are inextricably tangled with notions of political, national, confessional, and ethnic identity. The further humanity tries to move from its ancient tribalisms, the more it finds itself embracing them in new guises – perhaps because that is the default human attitude. The ideal of a truly technocratic society based on rational calculation alone may have become entrenched in the halls of academe and been paid lip service in the deliberations of corporate, political, and military planners, but it has not yet found a comfortable home in ordinary hearts and minds, and may never do so. And that brings up the question of the liberal enterprise – indeed, of the entire project of secular, humanist democracy based on liberal ideals. How does it fit into a world ruled by human nature? Is it a viable long-term basis for human societal organization?
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, as science went from triumph to triumph, as colonized people became free, and as materialistic, pluralistic culture surged, there was an assumption that the world was transitioning to a new secular, liberal, democratic age. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 was seen as the culmination of this hope. Now, less than three decades later, this optimism is looking increasingly unrealistic and the world seems to be moving in a decidedly illiberal direction. There is again much discussion of whether this is a temporary reversal, a decisive turning back to old ways, or a transition to something altogether new and unexpected – perhaps a dystopia of techno-authoritarianism or a glorious new age of fusion between man and machine. What role, if any, will liberal humanism play in any of these futures? What will be its fate? The central contention of this article is that liberalism is both necessary for continuing human progress and not the natural state of the human animal. Far from being inexorable, it will always remain a fragile and precious ideal doomed to permanent imperfection and struggle in the real world –a set of balls kept in the air by an expert juggler, but always subject to the gravity of illiberal human nature.
The most fundamental challenge for liberalism comes from its view of human society. The attitudes and behaviors of individuals are shaped by a wide range of values from cruelty to compassion, from selfishness to empathy, from justice to vengeance. But collective behavior is another matter. Getting human societies to behave inclusively and compassionately has been a recurring goal for great social movements throughout history – most often in the form of religion – but all these movements have depended on exploiting the built-in repertoire of irrationality in human nature – the fear of supernatural forces, the hope of retribution against opponents, the promise of eternal bliss. And in virtually all cases, these movements have worked by co-opting the levers of secular power to enforce virtue as defined by their ideology. As a result, they have all been fundamentally illiberal. Theocracies have required unquestioning allegiance to orthodox faith. Philosophers from Plato to Hobbes to Nietzsche have posited the need for an authoritarian hand to organize a moral order. Perhaps most profoundly, the great philosopher of history, Ibn Khaldun, has argued that successful societies are shaped by exclusivist tribal solidarity (‘asabiyyah). Liberal humanism is unique among political philosophies to expect good behavior from societies without coercion – postulating that societies of free individuals organizing with collective participation will spontaneously act in inclusive and compassionate ways. History provides no support for this postulate. While human societies over time have shown great diversity in their ethos, group identity, xenophobia, aggression, exploitation, and coercion have been the norm virtually everywhere and at all times. Even the brief "golden ages" turn out, on closer inspection, to be more myth than reality, and advances in inclusiveness are often reversed rapidly in the face of crisis. Establishing liberal ideals as the norm of human behavior is nothing less than an extremely ambitious, systematic attempt to change the very nature of human society. Illiberal tribalism is an ancient tree rooted in the prehistory of humankind, and nurtured by the forces of biological and societal evolution. Liberalism, in contrast, is a mere sapling newly planted in alien soil and trying to grow in the looming shadow of its giant rival.
One great impediment to the liberal project is an internal problem that might be termed the paradox of inclusiveness. Can a system that seeks to include all viewpoints exclude bad ideas, harmful choices, and dangerous behaviors? And what mechanisms can be used for this exclusion without violating the foundational principle of inclusiveness? In other words: How can a system opposed to drawing lines draw lines? All policy involves making choices and setting priorities, which inevitably requires making judgments, discriminating between ideas, applying norms, dealing with inconvenient facts. Common sense and tribal instincts have well-developed mechanisms for these things (e.g., denying facts that are inconsistent with orthodox beliefs); liberalism is still struggling to find alternatives. At its root, the paradox is a struggle between discrimination and inclusion, rationality and compassion, the head and the heart – and all too often, both sides lose because of their own excesses. Liberals have a healthy suspicion of norms, since they always privilege some choices above others. But a reluctance to accept norms leads inevitably to a cacophony of voices with no discipline, and therefore no efficacy, unless a charismatic leader – or charlatan – can take control and impose an often illiberal vision. Liberals understandably abhor discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, etc., but this refusal to discriminate too often gets extended to not discriminating between knowledge and ignorance, good ideas and bad ideas, truth and error. Closely related to this is the liberal wariness about judging others, which can occasionally become aversion to judgment itself. Predictably, this leads to circular arguments and nonsensical opinions. In extreme cases, this reluctance to judge can even produce liberal apologia for the most illiberal attitudes such as terrorism or dangerous choices such as opposition to vaccination. Inconvenient facts also present a challenge. The world does not always obey the abstract principles of any ideology, but this is a special problem for an ideology claiming to be grounded in fact rather than belief. The desire to save ideology at the cost of inconvenient facts leads quickly to political correctness and denial of basic science, for example, rejecting all innate gender differences or denying a biological component to intelligence.
Nowhere is the unresolved liberal struggle between inclusiveness and discrimination more apparent than in the case of free speech. The ideal is clear: All expression, no matter how abhorrent, must be protected. Voltaire himself is credited (incorrectly) with the clearest statement of that sentiment, and it is enshrined in the First Amendment to the American Constitution. In practice, all liberals realize that the ideal must have limits – that some expression is too dangerous to be permitted – but liberalism has evolved no settled criterion for this limitation. Predictably, the problem has usually been "solved" in accordance with human nature, that is, by imposing illiberal limits on unwelcome ideas. Just as predictably, this has almost always led to a slippery slope. Both the French and Russian revolutions began ostensibly with liberal values, but both degenerated rapidly into tyranny. The pattern has been repeated on large and small scales throughout history. Today, for example, it plays out on the global stage in the imposition of draconian security measures by ostensibly liberal democracies, and at the local level in the adoption of speech codes by liberal institutions.
All the dilemmas listed above – and many more – arise from the quest to find a balance between rationality and inclusiveness in the context of human nature and history. Unfortunately, this effort is manifesting itself is as a great struggle for the very soul of liberalism.Though its antecedents can be traced back to many ancient cultures, the ideals of modern liberalism are clearly rooted in the Enlightenment. But this root sprouted (at least) two trunks: Like Goethe's Faust, two souls dwell in the breast of liberalism. That was a problem for Faust, and is equally a problem for the liberal project. One branch of liberalism, which may be termed rationalist liberalism, arose from the ideas of Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Mill, and the rapid scientific advances of the 17th century that decimated the theocentric worldview of Christian tradition. The second one, which can be labeled ideological liberalism, derived from the political ideals of the American and French revolutions, and is perhaps best epitomized in the writings of Voltaire and Paine – a robust humanism focused on human rights and opposition to royal tyranny. Over the last three centuries, these major strands of liberalism have intertwined to create a somewhat unified liberal ethos that is humanist, secular, materialistic, rational, and empiricist in the sense of accepting science as the repository of objective truth. However, the fundamental dichotomy of the two strands remains unresolved because they represent very different things. Rationalist liberalism seeks to transition human society from an urge-centered mode to a reason-centered one by redefining the spectrum of human values. In terms of the earlier discussion, the goal of this approach is to build upon System 2 towards more deliberative and less irrational modes of thought and action – to create Systems 3 and 4, and so on – to establish an efficient, rational society where human want is reduced not by the imposition of moral imperatives but by the dexterous invisible hands of capital markets, innovation, and technology. Ideological liberalism, in contrast, is less committed to changing the mode of human nature towards greater rationality, but rather seeks to rearrange the emphasis of human societies from the values of exclusivist tribalism to those of inclusive compassion. Thus, it is more interested in bringing about social change through political action, and cares less about a fundamental cognitive transition in how people relate to the world. And while both types of liberalism embrace a secular attitude, this is much more essential to the rationalist version. Indeed, ideological liberalism can often take on religious trappings, and even allow traditional religious affiliations to thrive within its fold (e.g., the idea that Jesus was a liberal).
Not surprisingly, ideological liberalism has been far easier to sell politically than rationalist liberalism. In spite of its challenge to "traditional values", it is readily recognizable as a human ideological orientation and, therefore, as more natural. Activists and politicians seeking to promote liberal ideas often emphasize ideology over philosophy, leading to the popular "bleeding-heart liberal" and "social justice warrior" memes. In contrast, rationalist liberalism is seen – correctly – as elitist, technocratic, and somewhat unnatural. Its privileging of rational analysis and calculation over ideology makes ideological liberals skeptical about the beneficence of invisible hands, which often seem to be connected to the corrupt body of oligarchy – hence the pejorative dismissal of this strand as "neoliberalism". It is an open question whether either type of liberalism – or their various sub-genres – can succeed decisively, since both require significant re-engineering of human nature, and both are subject to the inherent vulnerabilities discussed earlier. And yet, the future of humanity – and of the Earth – may depend on the success of both.
The human nature that evolved out of the pre-human past has served humanity reasonably well until recently, but society has undergone a fundamental transformation in the last few centuries. The emergence of what some have termed Homo Technicus – Technological Man – has altered the fundamental relational structures of human society, which were grounded largely in geography, ethnicity, kinship, and language. As technology undermines each of these, individuals find themselves embedded in far more complex, geographically unmoored, multicultural, polyglot, ethnically mixed socioeconomic structures. Understandably, this has created immense anxiety in all human societies, and has made a decisive impact on people's lives. But, barring a reversal of history's clock, this change is only likely to pick up pace and it is increasingly clear that a tribal human nature is not a good fit for this complex new world. A fresh positive basis for social and political organization is desperately needed – one that can thrive on diversity and rapid change, harnessing them to useful ends rather than seeing them as threats.
In fact, this drama may play out on an even larger scale. As some have argued, the rise of Technological Man represents a fundamental change not only for human societies but for the planet itself. The very nature of the world as a physical system has acquired new dimensions with the emergence of a species that can shape and control the forces of nature on a global scale in a purposive way. It is a change as profound as that brought about by the first appearance of life on Earth 3.5 billion years ago, which also dramatically altered the planet. The most salient and novel aspect of this new transition is that, for the first time in Earth's history, a species has the power to destroy the planet itself, and this power is likely to grow exponentially in the coming centuries. Thus, the existential future of the Earth has become inextricably linked to the fate of humanity, making it even more important that human society find a new way to handle its social transformation without destroying the very ground beneath its feet.
But is liberalism the transformational new system that is needed?
Of course, it is impossible to answer the question definitively since there is no canonical catalog of possible systems for human societal organization: Whatever new system is to be found, it must arise from the same messy, irrational process of evolution that has brought humanity to its current situation. But it is possible to identify the fundamental basis for the problem at hand: The world created by Homo Technicus is becoming too complex to be grasped and governed by instinct, intuitions, or common sense alone. This has (at least) two immediate implications. First, that the complexity of the emerging global human society is beyond the capacity of absolute rulers or "a few wise men" to manage. Only a system that thrives on complexity as a source of order can work. And second, that accurate information and rational analysis – however imperfectly deployed – must play a greater role in decision-making than tradition, intuition, or belief. In theory, secular liberal democracy uniquely satisfies both these requirements. It relies on the collective wisdom of people to generate order, and is rooted in universal rights, diversity, inclusiveness, and personal liberty rather than autocracy, theocracy, or factional tribalism. It is also a system that – at least in theory – prefers deliberation over instinct. The question is whether such a theoretically appropriate system can succeed in practice given the fierce challenge it faces from entrenched traditions and its own internal contradictions.
With rising stress from climate change, mass migrations, demographic imbalances, religious extremism, and geopolitical conflict, it is quite likely that the default traits of human societies will increasingly reassert themselves, and the world will move into a more illiberal phase. Many see the rise of right-wing populist nationalism across the world as the harbinger of this future. If that comes to pass, the entire experiment with secular liberal democracy may turn out to be a bubble – a brief failed flickering of enlightenment in the long night of history. Given the rapidly growing aversion of the ideological Right to any rational or scientific thinking, this would be a calamity. Humanity and the Earth can no longer afford human nature in its native form. National, ethnic, and religious identities will need to melt into a truly global human ethos, which will inevitably have to be more liberal. In this sense, the contention of liberals that their vision is inherently "better" is justified. But for the liberal vision to succeed, the two souls within its body will need to reconcile and learn to sing a single song with one voice. Humanity needs both social justice warriors and rational technocrats, but they need to agree on fundamental principles and learn to compromise on practice. Liberalism cannot succeed by becoming illiberal, by dividing itself into any identities other than the human identity, and by turning itself into just another religion with its own pieties. Nor can it succeed by treating humans merely as numbers in a vast calculation – often to the benefit of those doing the calculation. In any case, Reason can supply analysis, but the ultimate criterion needed for resolving the paradox of inclusion must always come from values provided by ideals and ideology. What is needed, in fact, is a mass transformation in the way individual humans think – how they calculate their risks and rewards, how they define good and evil, and how they relate to the world at large. Activism alone cannot do this. Nor can think tanks and markets. It requires acculturation and education into a more rational, more evidence-driven, more critically thoughtful, and yes, more compassionate mindset. It also requires a broader understanding of both the promises and perils of capital markets, participatory democracy, and technology – three connected forces that have transformed the world for better and worse over the last few centuries, and will continue to do so. Unless liberalism can give up its factional shibboleths and settle its discontents, a dystopian future may well be inevitable.
Facing long odds against success, how should liberalism approach its task? With militancy or compassion? Or with Reason alone? As an inclusive philosophy, liberalism, in principle, offers understanding even to those who do not reciprocate it. In practice, this is often equivalent to unilateral disarmament in the zero-sum game of politics. This is a real conundrum because liberalism cannot survive the loss of its essential compassion. Nor is liberal militancy likely to succeed: It rubs too harshly against human nature, eliciting more aversion than attraction. And the application of dispassionate Reason alone is perceived too readily as an elitist conspiracy against ordinary people. There is an expectation that succeeding generations with better information and education will be more amenable to a liberal vision. History suggests otherwise, but history is too contingent to be an infallible guide in times of fundamental transition. All we know is that, far from having ended, the tide of history is more furious, more dynamic, more dangerous, and more full of possibilities than ever before. Liberalism can either ride this wave or be engulfed by it. Liberal thinkers, activists, and foot-soldiers, all need to focus on asserting their principles, attracting young minds, and offering clear solutions rather than ideological mantras. And human nature may, after all, come to the rescue here. Nothing focuses the human mind better than a mortal enemy, and one is finally at hand for modern liberalism. Perhaps, in a paradoxical way, the rise of Trumpian kakistocracy and far-Right attitudes the world over will prove to be exactly the catalyst needed for a new liberal awakening. What we are seeing in the world today may be a kind of "market capitulation" – the last gasp of an old, illiberal order that destroys false value so that better growth may arise. Or it may not. The deep question facing the world today is this: Can human nature be changed by human action? Exciting times indeed!