A defense of liberalism


Lest the media’s obsession with bad news suggest that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, Harvard Professor of Psychology  Steven Pinker argues in an interview that things have actually gone a lot better over recent centuries, and at an accelerating pace:

“A shift in the summum bonum, or the highest good, towards loose humanism, where life is better than death, education better than ignorance, health better than sickness,” he says, “is what I believe we are seeing currently.”

Pinker’s historic and statistical analysis that violence is on a continuing downward trend is expanded upon in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, where he discusses factors such as globalization, a shift in value systems, the increased quality of life, particularly for women and children, as well as the profound driving force of the rational ideas of the Enlightenment.

And yet, Pinker notes, “Since we are tribal creatures, there is always the temptation to backslide.” A temptation we must resist.

Progress-happensProgress has happened and continues to happen… in our attitudes toward the environment, toward racial discrimination, toward equal rights for women, toward greater awareness of LGBTQ issues… and gradually toward leveling economic inequality.

Yet so many wallow in nostalgia. Often nostalgia for a past that never was. America was built by men and women who dreamed and built, who believed – and believe – in something called progress, in negotiating positive solutions for a better future. For all.

Why do more highly educated people veer toward liberalism? The Pew Research Center recently released a study showing that nearly a third of those who went to graduate or professional school maintain liberal views on social, economic and environmental matters, whereas this is true for just one in 10 Americans generally. “An additional quarter of postgrads have mostly liberal views. These numbers reflect drastic change: While professionals have been in the Democratic column for a while, in 1994 only 7 percent of postgrads held consistently liberal political opinions,” reports Neil Gross in The New York Times.

This might have been interesting as the introduction to an article about the topic. But the article failed to explore this thread in more depth. Though one thing is clear — highly educated people are more cognizant of time horizons that encompass a recognition of change.

altruistic-horizonsWhen the ambient fear level is high, as in civil war riven Syria, loyalties are kept close to home. Me against my brother. My brother and me against my cousins. We and our cousins against the world. Alliances merge and are broken quickly, along a sliding scale that appears to be remarkably consistent.

The general trend seems to be this: the lower the ambient fear level declines, the more broadly a human being appears willing to define those tribal boundaries, and the more generous he or she is willing to be toward a stranger. See this explored in my earlier article: Altruistic Horizons: Our tribal natures, the ‘fear effect,’ and the end of ideologies.

Michael Shermer has expanded in more detail upon the profound influence of rising levels of rationality and reasoning on our morality in his book, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Shermer, the founder and director of The Skeptics Society, argues powerfully that we are living in the most moral and just period of our entire history, largely as a result of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason and their impact on human society. The expansion of this moral sphere has led to widespread democracy, civil rights, and greater justice for more of humanity. (As well as rising standards of living and improved health and sanitation.)

change-nostalgia-1The world was different in the past. That is not just a reason for nostalgia but also for recognition that change will continue. That change must continue. (The kind  of disruptive change that makes science fiction by far the most pertinent literature of our era.)

Liberalism is an attempt to harness and steer change. Hence it is not leftist per se… Marx thought that steering history was futile!  It is this belief that we can refashion ourselves and society using tools of discourse and/or science that makes the educated liberal.

Well… yes… compassion and empathy, too. But it is no accident that free enterprise, markets, entrepreneurship – all desiderata that supposedly the right cares about – do far better when liberals are managing the state.

Sorry, it is a blatant and overwhelming fact, Jack.


Filed under history, politics, society

2 responses to “A defense of liberalism

  1. Sherwood Botsford

    The decline in violence is obvious. NOW when 3 soldiers die from an IED it makes the nightly news. During the Vietnam war you needed a lot more deaths to make the news. During WWII there would be pages of names of the fallen.

    On a smaller scale, the baseline murder rate seems to be fairly consistent — around 2/100,000 population per year. Above this ‘background level’ you have higher rates due to gang violence, racism, drugs, that vary a lot from city to city, and that rise and fall with the level of good governance.

  2. An interesting confirmation to “ambient fear levels” and “keeping loyalty closer to home” may be found in Jonathan Shay’s book, Achilles In Vietnam. Shay notes how exposure to combat in Vietnam causes exactly that effect of shrinking horizons of loyalty — your squad before your platoon, your platoon before your company, etc. Shay makes the argument that the principles and effects of PTSD were known explicitly as far back as the era of Homer and the Iliad.

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