"Maybe she just wanted other things."

I just heard the above line in a TV show, and it made me think of the false anthropology of Lockean liberalism* that lies behind it. (We, the audience, were to suppose that if the teenager who was the "she" in the quote "wanted other things" then, gosh darn it, she should have gotten them!)

The false anthropology of Lockean liberalism pictures human beings as atomic bundles of "wants" or "preferences." The "good life" consists in satisfying as many of those wants as possible. The only limit on the number of these wants that should be satisfied arises from the fact that at some point, my attempt to satisfy one of my wants may collide with your attempt to satisfy one of yours. And the role of government in this liberal understanding is to soften the force of those collisions to whatever extent is possible. (This is true of all Lockean-liberal proposals for governance, from Rawls on the left through to Rothbard on the right.)

The falsehoods behind this are at least twofold:

1) We are not atoms** only related to each other as potential sources of preference satisfaction. We are in fact, to a great extent, constituted by our social relations. There is no such thing as pre-existing human individuals who choose to enter into society or not. Outside of society, the human individual is an impossibility: we would only find a wild beast. (And as a corollary to this, there is no such thing as a "purely private" action: all of my actions impact those around me to a greater or lesser extent, since their relationship to me is part of their very being, so that if I alter myself I necessarily alter them as well.)

2) Wants are not all equal, and not all should be satisfied. Joe's desire to have a nice family life and Joe's desire to snort up a giant pile of cocaine are not to be measured merely by their intensity, and social arrangements then judged based upon how well they score on some "utils gained" scale. The first desire is moral and the second immoral, and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with society encouraging the first and discouraging the second. (This does not imply that any and all means of doing either are good!)

* I am now using "Lockean liberalism" based on the fact that I am discovering a different strain of liberalism has co-existed alongside it, at least since Hegel.

** Yes, some Lockean liberals pay lip service to this fact. But if they actually thought through its implications, they would cease to be Lockean liberals, since this atomic view of individuals underpins the whole Lockean project.

7 comments:

  1. What was the TV show?

    ReplyDelete
  2. What is this new form of liberalism? It's tenets or key characteristics?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's not that new, as it dates back at least to Hegel. A key difference would be that it does not assume the individual has really existence apart from society.

      Delete
    2. Should have read "real existence."

      Delete
  3. The false anthropology of Lockean liberalism pictures human beings as atomic bundles of "wants" or "preferences." The "good life" consists in satisfying as many of those wants as possible.

    …and social arrangements then judged based upon how well they score on some "utils gained" scale.

    I'm not sure that this is an accurate portrayal of Lockean liberalism. When I was first introduced to social contract theory (which I immediately took to), it certainly didn't seem to me like it was about base preferences or that it said anything about the individual being separate from society. I simply saw it as being about the legitimacy of government.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am sure, see you can take my word for it. :-)

      But the whole contract theory is based on this individualism: the state is ok if it satisfies people's preferences (so they consent to it).

      Delete