Philosophical Enemies of a Free Society
by Dr. Edward Younkins
Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia and author of Capitalism and Commerce.
America was intentionally created based on the following fundamental philosophical ideas: (1) Each man has inalienable natural rights to his own life, liberty, and the pursuit of his own happiness; (2) A government with limited power is needed in order to secure these rights; (3) The material world is an orderly, intelligible, natural domain that is open to man's mind; (4) Man's rational mind is able to attain an objective knowledge of reality that is necessary for the pursuit of one's happiness – a man is able to acquire knowledge based on evidence provided by the senses; (5) The good life is one of personal self-actualization – each person should strive to attain his own happiness through his own independent thoughts and efforts.
The founding fathers' advocacy of rights, reason, freedom, individualism, capitalism, and the minimal state were based on the writings of Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, and Adam Smith, among others. America, the Industrial Revolution and the growth of capitalism were all products of the thought of these individuals. The founding fathers' fundamental ideas have been rejected by a great many of today's intellectuals who ascribe to the ideas of positive rights, an activist government, skepticism, subjectivism, relativism, and pragmatism. The assault against the ideas championed by America's founding fathers has been led by a number of philosophers ranging from Plato to Dewey. At the time of the Declaration of Independence, Aristotle's ideas were generally thought to be superior to Plato's. Since then, a number of thinkers have rediscovered and built on Plato's ideas with devastating consequences for the idea of a free society. The purpose of this paper is to explain the basic ideas of these collectivist thinkers so that supporters of a free society will be able to identify their enemies' errors and thus have the ammunition to argue persuasively for a free society and against a collective one.
Plato's Attack On The Open Society
Plato held that the world is made up of two opposed dimensions – true reality (i.e., the intelligible) and the material world (i.e., the sensible). True reality is a set of universal ideas which are the "essential forms," "absolute essences," or "disembodied abstractions" which represent and contain all the qualities which the particular members of classes of material objects have in common. There is an absolute form or essence which is the true nature and reality shared by particular members of a class. Ideas are nonmaterial existents in another dimension separate from man's mind and any of their corporeal embodiments.
Sensible things of the world cannot be known with any certainty since they are in a continual state of impermanence and change – objects of sense cannot be known for at the instant the observer approaches they will have already changed. For Plato, the Ideas that we contemplate always transcend the things of which we have sensible experience. We never really see a "man," we only see individual men – to be a man is never identical with the particular person whom we experience with our senses. Since individual men are simply particular manifestations of the Idea, "man," they are not actually real. All individual men are essentially the same Idea in a variety of instantiations. It follows that all men make up one unity and that no one person is an autonomous entity. This leads to Plato's advocacy of a life of self-sacrificial service to the community, the standard of value in society. Through his efforts to extinguish his individuality, each person will become one with the community and live only to serve its welfare.
Plato's metaphysical and epistemological dualism is also an ethical dualism of good and evil, right and wrong. There is a moral conflict between the world of the senses and the world of the intellect – to attain happiness one needs to turn away from the material world and its inclinations and instead attend to the contemplation of timeless, changeless Ideas.
Plato envisages an omnipotent state that is more real than the individuals who live within it – a state that is to be ruled by a special elite of philosophers who have the ability to escape the world of sense experience and rise to the contemplation of universal Ideas. The soul knew these concepts in a life before its entrapment in a physical body, and can remember these Ideas when contact is made with actual things through the senses. When the soul encounters a copy of an Idea in the sense world, a process of reminiscence is set in motion making a man curious and spurring him on in his efforts to know reality. The few who are attuned to true reality are by natural right the rulers of the vast majority of men. True reality cannot be known by logic or reason – it can only be known through mystical experience (e.g., intuition and revelation). Only a select few, who have been endowed with the innate capacity to contemplate, are able to master the path to true knowledge.
For Plato, the criterion of morality is the interest of the state and the good life is one of selflessness and renunciation. Not only should a man shun the pleasures of the sense world in the name of loyalty to a higher dimension, he should also deny his individuality in the name of unity with the collective.
Kant's Self-Sacrificial Ethics
Like Plato, Kant believed that the world consists of two opposing dimensions – true reality and the world of appearances that is a creation of man's consciousness. The mind has an inescapable set of innate and subjective processing and ordering powers and devices through which it structures or filters what it receives from reality. Through reason, logic, and science, the mind is able to know things as they appear but it cannot attain knowledge of reality. The world that men perceive and act in is a product of mechanisms inherent in the structure of human consciousness. Since the structure of consciousness is generally the same for all men, the mind is able to make certain universal judgments for all possible sensory experiences. Kant's social subjectivism held that it is the consciousness of mankind taken as a whole group, rather than the consciousness of the individual, that creates the world of appearances. The mental structure that is common to all persons is superior to the idiosyncratic knowledge of a given individual.
According to Kant, the mind can only get beyond sense experience through postulates that are based on a non-rational faith. These postulates are that a man has free will, the soul is immortal, and God exists.
With respect to moral judgments, Kant maintains that each individual man feels or intuits a sense of ought ness or duty. Since the objective, absolute, eternal moral order of being to which man ought to conform is beyond the world of appearances, reason is incapable of determining what is moral or immoral. Kant thus made true morality exempt from reason by shifting morality from the sphere of reason to the domain of intuition, feelings, or faith.
A man should act solely for duty's sake even though the action conflicts with his inclinations and desires. Because of man's selfishness, depravity, and weaknesses, he needs a principle to enable him to go beyond his self-will and thereby obey a will that is universally valid. Such a principle, the categorical imperative, demands that a man behave in a certain way (i.e., from a sense of duty) regardless of his desires or inclinations. Freedom, for Kant, means self-regulation – the opportunity to act according to the universal law.
In order to accommodate duty, Kant had to deny the idea of happiness. Selfless and lifelong obedience to duty without any expectation of reward is required for moral virtue. Moral action is an end in itself rather than a means to an end. A man cannot be certain that no portion of desire is subconsciously motivating him. The closest man can get to Kantian morality is when his desires conflict with his duty and he acts contrary to his desires.
Kant explains that self-sacrificial service to others is one of man's duties. Dutiful sacrifice, giving up that which you value (i.e., your own happiness) in favor of that which you don't value, is the hallmark of a virtuous man. If a man's reason and/or senses are involved in knowing an object, the object contemplated is unreal. Likewise, if a man's desires (including a man's interest in being moral) are part of the motivation for an action, the action itself is nonmoral.
Hegel's State as the Divine Idea on Earth
Kant's ideas largely constitute the starting point of Hegel's thinking which in turn provides a metaphysical framework for Marxian thought. It is in Hegel's philosophy that we find the full expression of the concept of the state as superior to the individual.
Hegel declares that reality is a systematic progression of clashing contradictions – thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. An idealist in metaphysics, he maintains the underlying reality of the universe is the non-material, divine, dynamic, cosmic mind (God, the Spirit, Idea, World Reason, the Absolute, etc.) whose nature it is to constantly evolve, thereby unfolding itself in a series of stages. In one of these stages, the Spirit externalizes itself in the form of the material world taking on the appearance of numerous seemingly distinct and autonomous individuals. The finite is real only in the sense that it is a phase in the self-development of the Absolute. Nature is thus conceived as a coherent whole and external manifestation of World Reason which is progressively revealed in time and space. Individual minds and actions are all phases or parts of the Divine Mind – they constitute steps in its self-actualization. Not a transcendent being, Hegel's God is an Absolute that is immanent in reality.
The Spirit must progressively actualize itself until it reaches its full development – the key to which is the interplay between opposites. The Absolute finds expression in nature through a process of contradiction. All ideas contain their own contradictions which rather than being obstacles to truth are in fact the very means for achieving truth. These contradictions exist for the imperfectly reflecting human mind. Hegel explains that both the assertion and negation of a statement may be viewed as true if they are understood as imperfect expressions of a higher proposition (synthesis) that contains all that is essential in both of these embodying it in a fuller entity. This is an on-going process. The final truth about reality will contain no distinctions of any kind. Everything will be one.
For Hegel, the State is the highest embodiment of the Divine Idea on earth and the chief means used by the Absolute in manifesting itself as it unfolds towards its perfect fulfillment. Hegel argued that the State is the highest form of social existence and the end product of the development of mankind from family to civil society to lower forms of political groupings.
The State is a super-organic whole made up of individuals grouped into local communities, voluntary associations, etc. These parts have no meaning except in relation to the State which is an end in itself. The State can demand that its parts be sacrificed to its interests. Each man is subordinate to the ethical whole – if the State claims one's life then the individual must surrender it. Since everything is ultimately one, the collective has primacy over the individual. Hegel's State has no room for the idea of individual rights or a liberal theory of the State – instead it provides an ethical underpinning for totalitarianism. The State is an independent, self-sustaining, super-organism made up of men and having a purpose and will of its own.
Because men across different groupings (nations) disagree in their moral feelings, each State rightly legislates its own moral code – true morality is expressed in and through the laws of the State which must be obeyed by the citizens of that State but not by the members of other States. The State expresses the universal will and therefore the true will of every individual within it. Obedience to the will of the State is the only way for a man to be true to his rational self since the State is the true self of the individual. Freedom, the right to act rationally, consists in acting in conformity with the orders of the government. The State has supreme right against the individual whose highest duty is to submerge himself into the State. Hegel calls for an anti-democratic authoritarian State that has absolute right over its component members precisely in order to attain maximal freedom.
In any particular era, one State may become the preferred vehicle of the Absolute. This favored State can be recognized by its dominant position in the world arena. That nation has absolute right over all the others including the right to launch wars. For Hegel, wars among nations are unavoidable and healthy representations of the evolution of the Absolute. The nation that wins the wars during a particular period is the one preferred by God. This position is not a permanent one. Each victorious, conquering nation comes close to the ideal State than the one defeated – each represents a more perfect incarnation of World Reason.
The form of Hegel's collectivism is nationalism rather than the majority or mankind as a whole (i.e., a World State). Pitting one nation against another makes possible the even more perfect realization of the Universal Idea. Hegel argues that a World State would not have a contradiction and thus a resulting synthesis would be impossible. However, a World State would have a contradiction in anarchy with a potential resulting synthesis of freely chosen voluntary communities and associations.
Marx's Dictatorship of the Proletarian Majority
Marx accepted Hegel's ideas in modified form contending that the Absolute, rather than being God, is nature (matter) unfolding itself in an endless process of dialectical development. Marx replaced Hegel's Spirit with matter and economic interests. By substituting economic forces for the Absolute as the definer of history, Marx thereby secularized Hegel's theory. In addition, he replaced Hegel's warring states with the class struggle and Hegel's monarchy with the dictatorship of the proletariat. By proclaiming that the Absolute is simply a reflection of matter, Marx uses the dialectic as the ruling force in the evolution of history. Social events are thus rooted in, and determined by, matter. Historical phenomena such as culture, philosophy, politics, and religion are determined by economic factors such as the method of production. At each stage of history, the class that controls the means of production controls society. Not a static situation, each mode of production generates an opposing movement.
Whereas Kant had taken the mind's structure as a given, Marx contends that all men do not have the same mental structure – humanity can be split into contending groups, each with its own distinct mode of consciousness and competing with one another in its efforts to define reality. Each group thus creates its own truth. There is a different truth and a different logic for each type of person. Marx thus pluralized Kant's social subjectivism by proclaiming that each rival economic class has its own way of defining the truth.
Marx explains that social institutions should conform to a given mode of production. Revolution is inevitable when they fail to do so. He argues that the contradictions inherent in a capitalistic society will lead to a class struggle between economic groups that will ultimately result in a classless society. Unlike Hegel, Marx is only concerned with one triad – capital, labor, and the classless society.
Marx argues that under capitalism the proletariat has gradually absorbed all social groups except for a small contingent of capitalists. The victory of the proletariat will thus be a win for almost everyone in society (except the capitalists). Class conflict will end and class divisions will have been eliminated once the proletarian victory has been achieved. The spirit of true community can only be established gradually by abolishing the causes of selfishness and by a long process of education.
Between the overthrow of the capitalistic system (and the bourgeois state) and the rise of a new society in which the individual functions as a cell within a living body, Marx calls for the interim rule of the dictatorship of the proletariat. During this proletarian stage of socialism, the proletarian majority will use the state in behalf of the overwhelming mass of the people. After capitalism has been conquered, there will be no further need for the state. Marx contends that soon this form of state will itself disappear as selfishness, force, and coercion vanish from human relations. Marx did not accept Hegel's idealization of the state. Rather, he longed for its eventual and gradual atrophy with its function falling into disuse in a fully socialized society that guarantees the highest possible degree of happiness for everyone.
Pragmatism and Activism
American pragmatism represents an activist development of Kant and Hegel's idealism. As a theory of mutable truth, pragmatism claims that ideas are true insofar as they are useful in a specific situation – what works today in one case may not work tomorrow in another case. The standard of moral truth is expediency. Ethical ideas are accepted as long as they continue to work. According to Dewey's social pragmatism, what is true is that which works for a society (not for an individual) through the promotion of the public good. Dewey advocates a relativistic, secularized form of altruism that calls for sacrificing oneself to attain the ends of the People. In this view, society rather than the individual passes moral judgment. Social policies are measured by their consequences instead of by abstract principles of what is right or just. There are no facts, no set rules of logic, no objectivity, and no certainty. There are only policies and proposals for social actions that must be treated as working hypotheses. The experience of consequences will indicate the need to keep or alter the original hypotheses.
Knowledge of the world is impossible apart from actions on it. There is no reality out there – both facts and values are products of men interacting with an environment and shaping it to their wills. Society for Dewey is something free men create out of their intellects and imaginations. An advocate of social malleability, he speaks of men reconstructing what they have experienced in order to impose a particular character on it thereby bringing an explicit reality into being. Men are free to choose their own way of thinking and to create whatever reality they want to embrace. However, a man's mind is conditioned by the collective thinking of other people. The mind is thus a social phenomenon – truth is what works for the group.
It is participation in the common life of democratic society that realizes the freedom of the individual and produces growth in him and in society. Democracy expresses the consensus of the collective – society is a moral organism with a "general will." Each man is to do his duty by adapting himself to the ever-changing views of the group.
Men simply act. They usually do not and need not reflect before acting. The goal of thought is merely to reconstruct the situation in order to solve the problem. If the proposal when implemented resolves the issue then the idea is pragmatically true. Truth can not be known in advance of action. One must first act and then think. Only then can reality be determined.
Value judgments are to be made according to desires based on feelings. The test of one's desire is its congruity with the majority of other men's wishes, feelings, and values at that time. These, of course, can be examined and abandoned in a future situation. Value judgments are instrumental, never completed, and therefore are corrigible. In the end it is feeling for the pragmatist that is paramount.
Dewey was primarily concerned with the democratic ideal and its realization in every sphere of life. He advocates education as a way to reconstruct children according to the pragmatist vision of man. Child-centered, rather than subject centered, education treats the student as an acting being and therefore is focused on discrete, experiential projects. Dewey dismisses as irrelevant the teaching of fundamental knowledge such as reading, writing, math, and science. Both the educator and the students are to be flexible and tentative. The purpose of a school is to foster social consciousness. The child is to be taught to transcend the assimilation of truths and facts by learning to serve and adapt to others and to comply with the directives of their representatives. A disdain for reason and knowledge is thus combined with the practice of altruism (otherism) and collectivism.
Rekindling the Philosophy of Freedom
There has been a steady erosion of the ideas upon which our nation was founded. The thoughts of the philosophers discussed above led the revolt against the ideas of negative freedom, natural rights, a knowable reality, the power of man's intellect, the limited state, individualism, and the good life as one of personal self-fulfillment. These ideas have been replaced in the minds of many academicians (mainly in the arts, humanities, and social sciences), politicians, economists, novelists, journalists, media people, labor leaders, and others with the ideas of positive freedom, welfare rights, skepticism, relativism, pragmatism, the welfare state, collectivism, and the virtuous life as one of self-sacrifice. An ironic double message of this new worldview is that: (1) an individual cannot be certain of anything; and (2) society knows (at least as far as "knowledge" is possible) thus requiring the individual to conform to its beliefs. We are told not to worry about this apparent contradiction – as Hegel explained, contradictions provide the means for attaining the truth!
There is a desperate need to return to the thought of the rational philosophers who provided the theoretical basis for our country – Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Smith, etc. In addition, the writings of more contemporary thinkers such as Hayek, Mises, Rothbard, Nozick, Friedman, Hazlitt, and others also exhibit the premises of a pro-reason, reality-based view of life. We need citizens who will fight for the principles underlying a free society as explained by these thinkers. We need to change public opinion through education and persuasion.
Encourage professors to proclaim a rational pro-freedom philosophy in their college courses. Support private enterprise, privatization, collegiate entrepreneurship programs, and school choice. Come back to teach classes yourself. Join free-market oriented organizations. Support solely academic programs that are consistent with the freedom philosophy. Reach out to politicians, economists, writers and other media people, the entertainment community, clergymen, professionals in a variety of fields, and the general public by explaining and teaching by example the worth and meaning of values and ideas such as the free market, limited government, private property, honesty, integrity, self-reliance, and responsibility.
History is made by men and their ideas. The Industrial Revolution, America, and capitalism were the result of the ideas of individual rights, private property, religious freedom, and limited government. Similarly, collectivist ideas produced the totalitarian states, the world wars of the 20th century, the New Deal, Hitler's national socialism, and today's welfare state.
Despite the downfall of socialism in Eastern Europe and the USSR, its doctrines and values live on in the minds of many Americans. The philosophy of collectivism still dominates the world today. Consequently, there is a need for us to be able to recognize and refute the fallacies and errors of the basic premises of collectivism so thoroughly that even the collective leaders themselves will understand and acknowledge their errors. If we can reach and convert these intellectual leaders, they in turn can help us convince the masses and future intellectual leaders of the superiority of a free society. By awakening public interest in sound philosophical ideas, we can rekindle the freedom philosophy.