Our three languages of politics

Classical: This view was dominant from classical antiquity up through the Christian Middle Ages. It understood the purpose of politics to be seeking the common good. Furthermore, this common good was understood to be objective, and perceivable through reason, by anyone whose psyche was oriented towards seeking it.

Liberal: Arising with thinkers like Hobbs and Locke, this view became dominant by the 19th century, and is still prevalent today, although it has been seriously challenged by the third view described below. In this understanding, the purpose of politics is to maximize each individual's ability to do whatever they want, constrained only by the requirement not to interfere with other individuals trying to do the same. (What that constraint ought to mean in practice is very nebulous, and explains why there are so many bickering varieties of liberalism.) There is no objective common good, only an objective common bad: the war of all against all. Its discourse consists mostly of discussion of rights, which are trump cards when played against any other consideration of what political action ought to be achieving.

Postmodern: This view is strongly represented today in identity politics. It seeks to unmask liberal claims about rights as being in reality merely tools of the powerful to oppress the weak. (Given its roots in Nietzsche, this view's predilection for siding with whatever groups in society are less powerful is rather curious, and hard to justify. And I don't mean that it is hard to justify concern for the oppressed: I mean that is hard to justify this in Nietzschean terms!) "Property rights" are really just a tool by which the rich can oppress the poor. "Sexual morality" is really just a tool for oppressing sexual minorities. "Free speech" is a trick that allows oppressive modes of discourse to continue without opposition.

Much of the confusion and inability to have genuine discussion characterizing today's politics stems from the fact that actors on the political stage are speaking three different languages, so that speakers of one of these languages are often saying things that are incomprehensible to speakers of either of the other two.

From my descriptions, you would not be wrong in guessing that I find the first of these views to be the most coherent. But we certainly cannot move back to an understanding of politics that existed in 400 B.C., or 1300 A.D. History proceeds dialectically, and if we achieve a new common language, it will be one that draws on the best of all three traditions for its vocabulary. Liberals, for instance, have done magnificent work in bringing to light the benefits and the spontaneous nature of markets. Postmodernists are often correct in claiming that something advertised as morality is really just a thin disguise worn by self interest.

And of course, my categories above are inspired by Alasdair MacIntyre's work, especially Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry.

10 comments:

  1. Only three? There's got to be at least fifty-seven.

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  2. Only three? There's got to be at least fifty-seven.

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  3. "Given its roots in Nietzsche, this view's predilection for siding with whatever groups in society are less powerful is rather curious, and hard to justify. And I don't mean that it is hard to justify concern for the oppressed: I mean that is hard to justify this in Nietzschean terms!"

    I've heard most cons say that it has its roots in "leftism". Why do you say Nietzsche?

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  4. Which language(s) do you speak?

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  5. "What that constraint ought to mean in practice is very nebulous, and explains why there are so many bickering varieties of liberalism."

    We liberals are very much into "big tent" politics.

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  6. Why couldn't rights be a common good? Sounds like that distinction is little shaky.

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  7. Maybe the rise of Trump is also partly explained by him inventing a 4th language of politics.

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    1. But what would Agent Orange's new language revolve around?

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  8. What language is the OP written in?

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  9. This sounds quite similar to Arnold Kling's three axis model, where your 'classical' axis roughly maps to his conservative civilization-barbarism axis, your 'liberal' axis maps to his libertarian freedom-coercion axis, and your 'postmodern' axis maps to his liberal oppressor-oppressed axis.

    Sounds like you guys are on to something...

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