William Reville: Is the liberal agenda based on a delusion?
The freedom pendulum has swung too far, and the assumption about humans’ innate goodness is flawed
The ground-breaking psychiatrists Sigmund Freud uncovered the flawed nature of the human psyche. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Liberalism is the dominant social-political philosophy of our day and has been in the ascendant since the 1960s. Although the liberal agenda has supported many positive changes there have also been many negative consequences. In a recent book, The Liberal Delusion (Arena Books 2012), John Marsh cogently argues that the core belief in innate human goodness that underpins liberalism is false and unscientific and is now harming society.
The word liberal comes from the Latin liber meaning free. Marsh defines liberalism as the promotion of human freedom from ignorance, superstition, oppression, hierarchy, external authority, tradition, sexual inhibitions, etc. Such aims resonate positively with most people and liberalism has promoted advances in many areas such as reducing social and racial prejudice, advancing women’s rights, advancing minority rights, decriminalising homosexual sex, widening access to education, abolishing corporal punishment in schools, and more.
However, liberalism also has negative consequences because it neglects the importance of duty, obligation and responsibility to others. Society now has big problems (Marsh quotes UK data) with violent crime, binge-drinking and other drug abuse, high rates of teenage pregnancies, suicide in young men, erosion of marriage, family breakdown, indiscipline in schools, declining educational standards, subversion of parental authority, and we are all still trying to cope with the aftermath of recent disastrous liberal economic policies. And all these problems affect poorer people disproportionately.
I agree with Marsh that the liberal pendulum has swung too far in the freedom direction. We obsessively extend freedoms and rights but neglect to accompany them with the duties and responsibilities that make these extensions meaningful. For example, we broadened access to third-level education to universal proportions but then allowed extensive grade inflation to develop.
Belief in the innate goodness of human nature underpins the liberal programme – if we are born good it makes sense to increase freedoms, to discard restrictive rules, morality and religion and to attribute any imperfections surfacing in later life to damage inflicted by society. We should view criminals, for example, as victims of society and not blame them for their crimes. The liberal educationalist AS Neil, headmaster of Summerhill School, claimed that a burglar who leaves a turd on your carpet after burgling the house is leaving something he values in recompense for the theft!
But modern evolutionary science, genetics, anthropology and psychology show that this liberal assumption of innate unsullied human goodness is wrong. We now know that we are not born perfect and many human flaws have a genetic basis. We are naturally selfish and self-centred for example and we depend on the guidance and discipline of parents, teachers and others to overcome these flaws. Liberals illustrate the inherent goodness of human nature by pointing to simple societies, isolated from the modern world, whose members live in blissful harmony with each other and with nature – the “noble savage”. However, anthropology has established that this notion is a myth. Like all animals, humans are the products of natural selection in the highly competitive evolutionary process. In his book The Blank Slate (London Alan Lane 2002), Steven Pinker, the noted Harvard evolutionary psychologist, says: “A thoroughly noble anything is an unlikely product of natural selection, because noble guys tend to finish last. Nice guys get eaten.” Marsh also points out that the ground-breaking psychiatrists Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Carl Jung (1875 - 1961) clearly uncovered the flawed nature of the human psyche.
The Christian doctrine of Original Sin holds that human nature is imperfect and requires work and effort to improve it. The liberal notion of innate human goodness emerged 300 years ago from the Enlightenment as a reaction against this doctrine – “There is no original evil in the human heart. There is not a single vice to be found of which it cannot be said how and when it entered” (Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 - 1778).
Liberal humanism devalues the role of the family, religion and moral codes. However Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate asserts that these institutions play a valuable role in dealing with our innate defects, allowing us to “work around the shortcomings of human nature”.
William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC. http://understandingscience.ucc.ie