A Vision of the Future
Chorus : Did you perhaps go further than you have told us?
Prometheus : I caused mortals to cease foreseeing doom.
Chorus : What cure did you provide them with against that sickness?
Prometheus : I placed them in blind hopes.
- Prometheus Bound1
Here in the original Aeschylean myth, perhaps we glimpse the motivation behind the heroic actions of Prometheus. The purpose underlying his courageous appropriation of fire from the Gods on our behalf. Was it not to wrest control of our lives and our fate from the Gods? To allow us to be self-reliant, through possessing the means to determine ends of our own choosing? As we head into a new millennium, it is an appropriate time to wonder about our attitude to life, existence and the future. Will the zeitgeist of the next century be Promethean in character? If so, then we can triumphantly claim to have liberated the past from the future. For our outlook will be one of confidant hope, and not forlorn resignation.
It is true that many people find security in being part of someone else’s master plan. In participating in some cosmic purpose rather than creating one’s own. Their fear of the future is driven by a fear of uncertainty. However, a teleological view of life has its drawbacks. Whilst comforting to some, it is confining to all. The future becomes not a horizon of potential alternatives, but of absent opportunities. Where is freedom in such a scheme? One cannot liberate the past from the future, nor the future from the past. They are immutably bound together and directed towards a goal over which we have no influence. Yet, history has shown that human beings are congenitally dissatisfied with being directed towards unchosen ends. Apprehension over the future may be a recurring theme in the story of mankind, but our passion for freedom is surely the animating force.
If the story of mankind has not already been scripted, then neither is it being produced and directed at this very moment. Freedom is no illusion. We cherish it and jealously protect it precisely because we know what it is. We all make choices and take actions every day. Those decisions are real, volitional choices between alternatives, not merely some inconsequential epiphenomenon. History does not unfold; it is created moment by moment, choice by choice and action by action.
What then can we say about the relationship between the past and the future? Is there even any sense in speaking about the future if it is so fathomless? Yes, there is. For though it is fanciful to entertain constructivist notions about designing a better society, we must not forget who the agents of historical evolution are : people. Our choices and actions are not made in a vacuum. Thought and ideas are the dynamo that propels history onwards. And the knowledge and understanding that results provides fertile soil for further productive exercise of the intellect. Thus, ideology and philosophy are immensely important. The future is no blank slate to be written on. It is a topographical landscape with a few deep grooves and a multitude of shallow channels.
Consequently, my interpretation of the essay question has two aspects. To liberate the Future from the Past is to learn from the mistakes of history, thereby freeing ourselves from committing the same errors in the future. To liberate the Past from the Future means that we should not let tradition and history restrict or narrow our aspirations and visions for the future. E.H Carr advised us that “Change is certain. Progress is not.”2 Prima facie this is quite true. Nevertheless, a panoramic perspective of the great changes in the past can only give grounds for great hopes for the future.
History and Human Freedom
Few people would be persuaded that liberating the future from the past means that we should forget altogether about history. To claim that nothing can be learnt from history is akin to claiming that nothing can be learnt from the events of one’s life. In fact, we have such a strong sense of history because we are so practised at applying lessons from our individual past’s to decisions we make in the future. However, there is a subtle danger present in this powerful analogy. That danger lies in the way the word future is used in drawing the parallel. In our own lives we never actually make decisions in the future, but always in the present. Nobody ever exists in the future. Everyone that has ever existed, has existed in the “here and now”.
Ignoring this distinction, some historians and philosophers have set about constructing rules derived from the past, so as to apply them to the future. In its passive explanatory form, this is called historicism. When used for proactive advocacy, it is known as constructivism. Karl Popper defines historicism as “an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their principal aim, and which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the rhythm or the patterns, the laws, or the trends that underlie the evolution of history.”3 Popper has rightly criticised this approach for ignoring the volitional nature of human beings. This approach is founded in the ultra-environmentalist mantra that “culture makes man”. The obvious objection to this is that if men and women are only a product of culture, this begs the question as to what makes culture, and how it changes. Evidently, we do. Therefore, individuals and their decisions cannot be totally determined by our environment.
Nor can a solution be found in positing a balance between biological and environmental determinism. All such attempts to apply deterministic laws to predicting human behaviour are destined to fail. The key insight missing from both the determinists in the natural and social sciences is that human beings possess a volitional consciousness. To learn, think or act is a choice. Genes and the environment may interact to form the brain, but they cannot determine whether a person spends her time at a library or at a café. Nor can they determine whether someone thinks before acting, or just goes ahead and acts extemporaneously. That our decisions are free is self-evident to almost everyone. Choices and alternatives are real. This is not to deny the existence of strong genetic and cultural dispositions. They are also real. But it is to deny that human behaviour is determined, and if not determined, then nor is it rule governed and predictable.
As Popper asserts, history is the study of human actions, and there can be no laws of human actions. Accordingly, the social sciences are very different from the natural sciences. The social sciences can often explain human behaviour effectively, but there are no hard and fast laws of causality to be discovered. Assumptions will always have to be made – such as rationality in economics. It might be argued that given the success of economics as a science of human behaviour, that the fact that “laws” of human action are not infallible does not invalidate applying such an approach to history. This overlooks a significant dissimilarity between historicism and economics. Economics is largely based upon assumptions that relate to patterns of behaviour which are inherent in human nature. People are unlikely to ever alter their tendency to buy more of a good at a lower price. On the other hand, the annals of history are replete with contingencies, accidents and chance. The evolution of history is similar to the evolution of life. It is a story of a thousand dead branches for every one that develops new offshoots.
Remember the tale of poor King Richard III :
For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For want of a horse the rider was lost,
For want of a rider the battle was lost,
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for want of a horseshoe nail.
It may only be a tale, but it captures the vagaries of historical change. All the great shapers of history are the product of thousands of radical contingencies and chance events. Evolutionary biologists actually have explanatory laws and yet they recognise the enormous, unpredictable impact of contingency. Hence, even if it were possible for historicists to explain the past, this would not enable them to predict the future.
Why do we care about the Past? Why do we care about the Future?
Before anyone proposes solutions to the essay question, it is essential that one first tackles the question : Why should we care? Why is the past, the present and the future important? What is the point of this international competition? It is only by answering these questions first, that one can confidently submit a solution to the essay question. Otherwise one is offering up a solution without having convinced anyone that the problem has any relevance or significance for them.
Surely the answer is because we care about life! We can at least be certain of one thing, and that is that everyone cares about their own life. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be alive, as life demands that we act to sustain it. However, some argue that it is not self-interest that ought to motivate us, but our concern for the future of humanity. This is not as innocuous a suggestion as it appears. Self-interest is readily compatible with concern for the future of mankind, but often this is not what is being advocated. In The Principle of Duty David Selbourne begins his explication of a new “civic social-ism” for the future with a quote from Richard Overton which neatly encapsulates this perspective :
Humane society, cohabitation, or being
must above all things be maintained as
the earthly soveraigne good of mankind,
let what or who will perish or be confounded;
for mankind must be preserved upon the earth.4
This exhortation to elevate the good of mankind above the good of any individual is a trademark of collectivism. Collectivists subjugate the individual to the group – be that the tribe, the race, the culture, the society or mankind. Taking a collectivist approach to the issues involved in this endeavour would obviously result in utterly different solutions to those which would be proposed if individuals could not be sacrificed for the sake of mankind. This is why it is important to elicit the exact nature of the problem each participant is attempting to solve. Almost all participants will indicate that the problem is the future of mankind, and that their solutions are to the issues confronting humanity as it heads into the next century. However, for the collectivist, the ultimate end is mankind or society. For those who are unwilling to subordinate individual’s interests to the global community, the ultimate end is the individual. When we come to comparing the means being advocated as solutions to the issues in question, it would be wise to remember that our ends are not all the same.
My own philosophical position treats individuals as ends in themselves. Individuals do not exist to serve society or humanity; instead, the institutions and laws which order each society should exist to serve individuals. Thus, I vehemently oppose the historicist and constructivist project. For as Popper noted in The Open Society and its Enemies, it treats individuals as “pawns in the general development of mankind.”5 There is no valid reason why humanity should follow some teleological path; and even if there were, there is no rationale that could possibly justify the conclusion that each individual should conform to such a plan.
This is an essay about the sanctity of the individual; the preciousness of genuine freedom; and the awesome potential of human life. We are faced with many problems. Some are inherent in the nature of human life on this earth. Some are problems of our own making. But every solution will be of our own choosing. I am convinced that the solutions to these problems lie in recognising the glorious possibilities of existence and the phenomenal gifts nature has endowed humankind with. There is no conflict between the interests of individuals and the progress of humanity. Rather, the interests of future generations are best served by individuals of each successive generation pursuing their own happiness in a rational and moral manner. The self-regarding interests of rational individuals do not need to be suppressed or enervated. And the happiness of humanity cannot be bought at the price of the happiness of individuals. The solution to every problem afflicting mankind is to increase freedom, not restrict it. I intend to make the truth of these claims manifestly clear by proposing solutions which are consistent with the philosophical principles I have espoused.
When one considers the salient issues confronting people today, one cannot help noticing how ubiquitous they are. Topics like globalisation; the environment; economic and political freedom; developments in science and technology; morality; nationalism; social justice; cultural identity and pluralism; and religion and secularism; are dilemmas for every country. Of course, nations differ in the relative importance they place on these issues, but no country is immune to any of them. Unfortunately, these universally problematic issues have often been sidelined by the tendency to focus exclusively on the symptoms, which include poverty, disease, famine, civil and international conflict, repression, unemployment and alienation. Concentrating solely on treating symptoms – for example by sending food relief to Sudan and North Korea, represents the traditional bandaid solution. It is time we addressed the causes of these perennial problems.
As with any biological species, human beings are fundamentally alike. This is what makes the important issues facing us global. A political system which leads to oppression and misery in one country is not going to engender felicity in another. Similarly, an economic system which produces abject poverty and destitution in one country, will never bring prosperity to another. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to speak of universal solutions. This does not mean that cultural diversity need be eradicated. But it does mean that solutions to a country’s problems should not be rejected in the name of protecting it’s cultural and social identity. Though we should never force our practices on others, we should share our ideas with each other. If problems are global, should it surprise us that the solutions might be too? Ultimately, it is the people of each country who will decide whether to accept or reject them. They ought to be given the opportunity to do so.
If the mutual sharing of ideas is our goal, there has never been a better time to do it. Advances in technology have made communication and information sharing cheap, efficient and easy. In this Golden Information Age, we are possessed with the capability for a truly global dialogue and exchange of thoughts. A unique opportunity for rapid change on a enormous scale exists. It would be a tragedy if we were to let cultural relativism and postmodernist sophistry impede the progress of such an enterprise. To use the hallowed name of cultural integrity to deny people in certain countries the right to enjoy the wealth, freedom and lifestyle of people in other countries, is a gross injustice.
I envisage this essay competition as one starting point for a truly global exchange of ideas, perspectives and values. We should not fear or feel threatened by foreign ideas and values. Instead, such a traffic in cosmopolitan thought should be treated as an exciting opportunity to expand our philosophical and ideological frameworks. Nevertheless, in this process of mutual edification we should bear in mind the objective of such a dialogue. It is not simply one of engagement and understanding. The eventual purpose is improving the richness of our lives, in every sense of the word. Richness in material goods and in our relationships. In the fulfilment of our potential and the joys of achieving our goals. If happiness is our common purpose and our rational minds the chosen tool for achieving it, then we cannot fail to appreciate that some ideas are superior to others, some techniques more effective than others, some values more just, and some means more prudent. The following thoughts represent my contribution to this competition of ideas. Let’s not forget that competitions are more than a spectacle. In achieving some desired end, some approaches will be better than others.
Universal Values and Human Rights
In the history of national and cultural interaction, no issue has caused more ferment and created more friction than the subject of values. The past exhibits little mutual sharing of values, and is characterised by a familiar pattern of the visitors attempting to impose their moral standards on the natives. Ironically, most of this cultural imperialism and bigotry was perpetrated in the name of “civilisation”. Thankfully, in this enlightened age, using force to persuade people to adopt a new ethos is almost universally repudiated. Nevertheless, the question of values and morality remain contentious issues in international relations.
It is my view that the only justifiable solution is to uphold freedom. Thus, I sympathise with those who complain about cultural hegemony, and reject the use of “bribes” such as privileged trading arrangements to facilitate the adoption of new standards of morality (eg. human rights). The motivation for altering one’s values should not be bribery or blackmail. People should accede to ethical standards because they consider them right, just and true. Only then will they actually treasure, protect and follow them. Nonetheless, this does not mean that economic sanctions are illegitimate. No country or person is obligated to trade with anyone, especially given they affirm contrary values and standards. We would not lend money or enter into a contract with our next-door neighbour if he was a thief or con-man. Why would we do so with unprincipled thugs and villians who lived overseas?
This principle of freedom does not stop at national borders. If nations should not be subject to force or coercion from other nations, what justification could there be for a nation using force to compel its citizens to conform to a certain ethical code? The proponents of cultural relativism are caught in a vicious bind. One cannot advocate freedom from force in the name of national sovereignty and reject it when it comes to individuals within the nation’s borders. How can one defend an individual’s freedom from the force of foreigners, whilst sanctioning the use of force by her fellow citizen? This is a transparent double standard.
There are only two solutions to this dilemma. Either, no objective moral values exist and every individual gets to act as they please. Or, an objective code of ethics does exist; which means it is the same for you, me and everyone else, no matter which country we reside in. The first option is untenable. No society would be willing to throw open the doors to murder, rape, theft and every other form of violence. Every rational individual in any country recognises that certain actions are unacceptable. Therefore, objective and absolute moral values do exist. We can validly speak of things like universal human rights. The question is : how do we define and validate this objective code of morality?
The solution to this problem lies in the imperatives of human nature. To live, every individual must satisfy certain needs. These include nutrition, water and protection from the vicissitudes of the environment. Since none of us live in the Garden of Eden, acquiring these values requires us to act. To think, to learn, to expend effort. To live is a choice, and that choice must be to act to acquire the values we need to sustain our lives.
No other individual can think for you. Nor can they learn for you, desire for you or act for you. This means that no other individual can live for you. No-one can force you to think, eat or work. If one chooses to do something under the threat of force, that does not abrogate the fact that you chose to act. Since each individual must think and act for themselves, then each individual must by definition own their life. To say : “I own my life” is simply to recognise that to live is to act and that only you can choose to act for yourself. Consequently, the proposition that every individual has a right to their own life, is the recognition that if anyone is to live, they must be free to do that which is required to sustain their life. No-one else can pinch hit for you.
The right to one’s life is inherent in the nature of life and existence. Rights are not bestowed by society and nor can they be abrogated by it. They are natural and inalienable. The existence of natural rights is made necessary by the fact that individuals live with each other. Rights define and sanction each individual’s freedom of action in a social context.6 Man’s inalienable rights are all derived from a single fundamental right : the right of every individual to their own life. They are the rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. This means the right to think, choose and act with absolute freedom, given that one does not violate the right of every other individual to do the same. Because rights are inherent in the nature of human life, the exercise of one person’s right cannot deny or violate the right of any other person. The institution of natural rights in society requires only one principle : the prohibition of the initiation of force. As no harm can be done to anyone without the threat or use of force, then nobody’s rights can be violated if the initiation of force is forbidden.
Individualism and Collectivism
I have demonstrated that the imperatives of human nature provide the basis for objective and universal individual rights. These natural rights consist of the right to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. Translated this means : I own my life and therefore assert my freedom to pursue the values I require to sustain my life and achieve happiness, sacrificing nobody’s life to mine, nor mine to anybody else’s. The single greatest advance we could make in liberating the future from the mistakes of the past would be to have every person in every country endorse these natural rights. The past is littered with monstrous crimes and tragedies which are the direct result of failing to recognise every individual’s right to their life. This principle constitutes the essence of individualism. Conversely, every pernicious evil in history has been committed under the banner of the antipodean philosophy : collectivism.
Collectivism contends that no individual has a right to their life. No person may live for themselves, everyone must live for others. No person’s life is an end in itself. Every individual exists to serve a higher end : the group – be it the community, the country, the race or humanity. Stated like this, collectivism may sound like an abhorrent philosophy with few adherents. However, collectivist sentiments pervade all contemporary societies. Consider how often one hears appeals to the common or greater good. We are often entreated to act for the national interest and do our civic duty. Yet, the direct and honest approach rarely works. No person of self-esteem will accept a moral principle which treats their life as a means to someone else’s happiness. As a result, the most insidious attack on individual liberty has been the attempted perversion of esteemed concepts like rights, justice and even freedom itself.
Collectivist’s claim that rights impose obligations. They tout rights as a gift that society grants, which consequently imply certain obligations. Specifically, the subordination of one’s life to the interests and wellbeing of society. Thus, they invert the purpose and function of society, turning it into an insatiable monster whose high priests demand the sacrifice of every individual on its altar. Society no longer exists to serve individuals; individuals exist to serve society. This travesty does not end there, for the very meaning of rights must be altered for this evil to be permissible. Collectivists have performed another mendacious inversion. The right to life they say, is not the right to the freedom to think and act to support one’s life, but the right to be supported, to have one’s life maintained. This is moral depravity incarnate. For every person’s rights make slaves of every other individual. If I have a right to sufficient food, water and clothing, then others have an obligation to provide it for me. This is a slap in the face for morality. The concept of rights originated with the recognition that man’s nature requires that individuals be free from force if they are to live. Now rights are used to justify enslavement.
If we are to have any hope of liberating the future from the past the first shackle we must break is the subjugation of the individual to the group. The collectivist instinct in human beings dates back to our primitive past when “groupishness” was an evolutionary advantage. But like xenophobia, collectivism has long passed its used by date. Unfortunately, this biological instinct of human beings is still easily exploited. Since the 19th century when Auguste Comte coined the terms : “To live for others” and “to become incorporate with Humanity”, we have experimented with every possible form of designed collectivism. Marxism, Socialism, Communism, Fascism and every other variant have unfailingly led to totalitarianism, genocide, racial bigotry, devastating internecine wars, starvation, gulags and concentration camps, and abject poverty. Collectivism has given us the worst horrors in human history. All in the name of noble ideals such as improving the lot of humanity. If we really are capable of learning from history, then on this point we have been staggeringly obtuse. Comte’s two “cardinal virtues” have turned out to be capital vices. We would do well to remember that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The Meaning of Freedom
The concept of Freedom is the leitmotif of this essay. I have appealed to it in pressing my case on every issue, confident in the conviction that it is one of our most cherished values. I doubt any advocate in history has ever argued for slavery or bondage. Accordingly, it should come as no surprise to anyone that those conspiring to abrogate people’s freedom should couch it in euphemistic language. But to have the audacity to turn the actual meaning of freedom inside out and offer it back to us as a commendable ideal, is truly amazing. Yet, this is exactly what has been done. In 1848 Alexis de Tocqueville warned us about it :
“The subtle change in meaning to which the word “freedom” was subjected in order that this argument should sound plausible is important. To the great apostles of political freedom the word had meant freedom from coercion, freedom from the arbitrary power of other men, release from the ties which left the individual no choice but obedience to the orders of a superior to whom he was attached. The new freedom promised, however, was to be freedom from necessity, release from the compulsion of the circumstances which inevitably limit the range of choice of all of us, although for some very much more than for others. Before man could be truly free, the “despotism of physical want” had to be broken, the “restraints of the economic system” relaxed.”7
Thus, we are now presented with the notions of “freedom from want”, “freedom from hunger” and “freedom from poverty”. They are admirable objectives, but how are they possible? Is everything one needs to survive suddenly going to appear miraculously like manna from heaven? Of course not. Every value one needs to survive is the product of thought, knowledge, capital, and labour.
Genuine freedom is freedom from force and coercion. It is the freedom an individual hold’s against society. It is the freedom to act. Deny someone the freedom to act, and you deny them the freedom to live. For to live is to act. One cannot extend this freedom by freeing someone from acting. There can be no such thing as “freedom from want”. That translates into the freedom from having to think, choose and act to acquire the values one needs to survive. One cannot possess such a freedom in a world where everyone possesses this right, since our needs – including food, water and shelter, can only be provided through action. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generating action. Freedom from action can only mean freedom from life. “Freedom from want” is achievable only in death.
Freedom from want is therefore not possible for all individuals. But it can be bought for some at the price of the blood, sweat and tears of others. In other words, by subjugating some individual’s lives to others. By making them slaves, with their duty being the provision of the needs of their masters. Freedom from want can never be a natural right. Rights are moral principles defining and sanctioning an individual’s freedom of action. The “right to enslave” is a pernicious perversion of the meaning of rights, not to mention the meaning of freedom.
I imagine that many idealists will feel compelled to reject this conjunction between “freedom from want” and slavery. Most of them are not disingenuous hypocrites, and would genuinely find slavery unconscionable. Hence, they refuse to countenance such contrary implications. Let me remind them then of the words of their patron saint Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his ideal society, the freed “noble savages” were supposed to act voluntarily for the common good. Yet, if they did not want to act altruistically, the state would force them to be “free”! Rousseau’s idea of freedom was “denatured” individuals, devoid of “the passions of petty self-interest”, who would be beaten into “freedom” (conformity) if they didn’t agree with his conception of what was good for them.
The Perils of Democracy and Equality
Though the concept of democracy has a long history in political thought, it has never been more popular and exalted than it is today. All over the world one hears the clamour for democracy. It has come to be synonymous with freedom, and the diametric opposite of totalitarianism and dictatorship. Nonetheless, I believe that it too has become contaminated by collectivism. In its modern form democracy is neither the herald nor guarantor of freedom. It is a threat. The intrinsic danger within democracy lies in another passionate ideal : equality.
Egalitarianism has become the defining characteristic of the traditional “social democracy”. We are zealots for equality. But what do we mean by equality? Equality was originally conceived as a political concept that sought to give every citizen a voice in the election of a representative government. This political equality was synonymous with democracy. Equality simply meant universal suffrage. It was also extended to include not just equal participation in government, but equal treatment by government. Hence, we proudly assert that everyone is equal under the law, and nobody is above it. However, this political concept of equality was expropriated and came to mean something entirely different – not equality in treatment, but equality in fact.
Today, the word democracy is used as a euphemism for this fraudulent ideal of equality. In Screwtape Proposes a Toast C.S Lewis explained how this deceptive switch is made :
“Democracy is a name they venerate. And of course it is connected with the political ideal that men should be equally treated. You then make a stealthy transition in their minds from this political ideal to a factual belief that all men are equal. As a result you can use the word Democracy to sanction in his thought the most degrading of all human feelings. You can get him to practise, not only without shame but with a positive glow of self-approval, conduct which, if undefended by the magic word, would be universally derided. The feeling I mean is of course that which prompts a man to say I’m as good as you.”8
Lewis proceeds to expose the malicious evil this sentiment inspires. It is false in fact – “he is no more equal to everyone he meets in kindness, honesty, and good sense than in height or waist-measurement”. And nobody actually believes it himself – “No man who says I’m as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did. The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain. The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept. And therefore resents. Yes, and therefore resents every kind of superiority in others; denigrates it; wishes its annihilation. Presently he suspects every mere difference of being a claim to superiority.”9
Here we have in plain speech the basis for the egalitarian ethic. Envy. Envy as a response to the inferiority that itches and smarts within. Anyone who succeeds, anyone who acquires wealth or distinction, essentially anyone who achieves, is despised precisely because they are better than average. More intelligent. More creative. More talented. More inspired. And because of this they achieve more. They produce more. They own more. And they are more successful. And envy breeds resentment, and resentment breeds spite. There is no greater evil than this : hatred of the good for being good. Execration for daring to live up to their potential. Contempt for striving to be virtuous.
Equality in fact does not exist; people are not born with exactly the same gifts and attributes. Nor do they make the same choices and decisions : to work hard, to educate oneself, to exercise one’s mental faculties. Collectivists and altruists reject individual’s rights, and feel free to use force to redress this difference. However, it is impossible to do it in fact. One cannot redistribute personal attributes and acquired virtues. Intelligence, creativity, ambition and hard work are not things one can spread evenly over society. So these egalitarians use force to redistribute the consequences – the rewards, benefits and achievements created by these personal attributes and virtues. Thus, the vicious benefit at the expense of the virtuous, all in the name of equality.
The evil doesn’t end there. For this passion to implement equality in fact is so fervent that it is not enough to enslave the virtuous in service of the vicious. Consider the two possibilities for these aspiring levellers. One either raises the lesser to the heights of the greater, or tears down the superior to the level of the inferior. The former is impossible. One cannot turn the indolent fool into the industrious genius any more than one can turn a short person into a tall person. But one can chop the tall person off at the knees. So too can one ridicule, demean and shame the high achievers into performing at the level of their inferiors. This is what is meant by that consummately Australian phrase – the “tall poppy syndrome”. It is as C.S Lewis writes : “the discrediting and finally the elimination, of every kind of human excellence – moral, cultural, social, or intellectual”.10
This is the peril of democracy. It easily becomes a stolen concept, and the imprimatur for egalitarianism. The quest for equality in treatment is corrupted and becomes the search for yet another chimera : equality in fact. And because this fantasy conflicts with reality, we are left with a vicious approximation – obliterate all excellence and every difference. The great danger in this form of democracy is that it has more than a passing resemblance to freedom. Previously, this inimical practice was only possible through the tyranny of force. But when it infects the minds of the majority and becomes a democratic ideal or cultural norm, it is achievable through the corruption of minds and the pressure to conform. Ultimately, the ballot box is used to institute it in law and egalitarianism becomes a “moral principle”. At this point we have come full circle. Where before illegitimate force was needed to do evil, now legitimate force (the rule of law) is used to do the same – except now we call it good. Robin Hood used to be a common thief. Now he represents the epitome of principled democratic government.
Capitalism : The Only Moral Economic and Social System
Take a step back and survey the history of the 20th century from the vantage point of today, and one finds that two ideologies have emerged victorious. Democracy is the political system of choice and Capitalism is the economic system of choice. Today, democracy and capitalism represent the two pillars of civilised society : political freedom and economic freedom. Despite the nexus between them, there remains a critical difference in the reasons why most of us embrace them. Democracy is seen as the natural outcome of our moral desire for political equality and liberty. However, capitalism is generally not morally affirmed in such an unambiguous fashion, if at all. Socialism still seems to be the system we wish we could have. Capitalism is often seen as the victor by default. It prevailed because we could never get a collectivist system to work. In any endeavour to liberate the future from the past, a fundamental objective must be to transform this attitude towards capitalism. Until we free ourselves of our collectivist longings, we will continue to attempt to ameliorate laissez-faire capitalism by introducing collectivist reforms.
To do this we must dispense with the traditional utilitarian justifications of capitalism. Capitalism must be shown to have a moral foundation. This moral basis is the same as that of individual rights : human nature. As explained earlier, human nature necessitates man’s right to his life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. These natural rights are essential if any person is to live the life proper to that of a human being. Reject these rights and the only alternative is life as an animal. A man must be free to enjoy the product of his mind and labour, if he is to bother thinking, creating and producing. The only economic and social system which unequivocally affirms and effects all of these rights is capitalism. Capitalism allows individuals the freedom to think, create and produce; to enjoy the fruits of their mind and labour; to capitalise on opportunities in the market to respond to needs and wants; and to exchange value for value with other individuals such that both may gain by focusing on what they do best.
Socialism, Communism, anarchy and tyrannical dictatorships cannot ever succeed in yielding productive, wealthy and felicitious societies. If people are to survive and achieve happiness they must be able to enjoy the fruits of their mind and labour. These dictates of human nature can only be breached through the use of force. The use of force in human society for any purpose except the protection of individual rights can only have one result – to pervert, corrupt and destroy man’s nature. It turns some men into masters, and others into slaves. It condemns both to living as animals instead of human beings. Is it any wonder that the countries which suffer from disease, famine, high mortality and low standards of living, are also racked by civil and international wars, lack of political and economic freedom, corruption, nepotism and are governed by socialists and despots?
Recently, there has been talk of a “third way” of organising society. A compromise between laissez-faire capitalism and socialism. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton are the supposed champions of this compromise between the free market and collectivism. In Western Europe this “third way” is known as Social Democracy, and is now the predominant system in the majority of European countries. This approach is not a new phenomenon. It used to go under the monikers of the Mixed Economy and Welfare State. The intention is to use the enormous wealth generating capacity of capitalism to achieve collectivist aims.
This revival of the principle of self-sacrifice is destined to fail. Human beings are not and have never been sacrificial animals. Even in the heyday of collectivism when we lived in prehistoric tribes, the reason we subjugated the individual to the group was self-interest : the self-interest of our genes. Rousseau’s fantasy about a society of “noble savages” is just that – a fantasy. The option back then was collectivist savage or dead savage. Now we have an alternative : to live for ourselves and pursue our own happiness. And we all do. Because it is right to think, learn, desire and act for ourselves, and wrong for anyone to demand or force us to do otherwise. The freedom to act for our own interests is moral. It is right because it accords with our nature as rational beings. When this simple truth is universally understood and we finally abandon our collectivist and altruist aspirations, we will have entered a wonderful new era in human history.
Globalisation : Reaping the Rewards of Capitalism
Globalisation is perceived as one of the biggest threats to national sovereignty, cultural identity and even living standards. This is astounding, because globalisation actually represents the best opportunity to protect and improve these ideals. I believe this misapprehension is due to a failure to understand what globalisation means. Globalisation is simply the extension of the application of two economic principles from within each country to the world. Those principles are the division of labour and comparative advantage. The principle of the division of labour declares that we can produce a lot more goods and services by splitting up the aspects of production and encouraging people to specialise by concentrating on just one of these tasks. The idea of comparative advantage means that if you focus on producing what you can make most efficiently and if I do the same, we can both obtain more of each good by trading some of our surplus, than if we tried to produce both goods ourselves. The combined principle simply means that if everybody concentrates on doing what they do best, we can all be better off by trading our goods.
This is the marvellous feature of capitalism and the rational self-interest that drives it. Adam Smith was the first person to appreciate the genius of the free market concept, which is that so long as any cooperation is strictly voluntary, no exchange will take place unless both parties benefit. Every individual acting in their own self-interest will “be led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”11 Globalisation is only an attempt to further increase our gains from trade by extending it to the entire world. That this is in everyone’s interests was manifestly obvious to Smith :
“What is prudence in the conduct of every private family, can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom. If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it off them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage. In every country, it always is and must be the interest of the great body of the people to buy whatever they want of those who sell it cheapest. The proposition is so manifest, that it seems ridiculous to take any pains to prove it; nor could it have ever been called in question, had not the interested sophistry of merchants confounded the common sense of mankind. Their interest is, in this respect, directly opposite to that of the great body of people.”12
There still remains one fear to be dispelled – that globalisation will inevitably lead to a homogenisation of cultural and national identities. This is a specious myth that relies on an ignorance of the principles that underlie globalisation. Globalisation requires only one common attribute – the self-interest of individuals and their freedom to trade. The real beauty of globalisation is that it relies precisely on national and cultural differences for it to survive and prosper! Gains can only be had from trade if individuals in different countries have a variety of aptitudes, skills, resources, ideas, desires, goods and services. Globalisation is the saving grace of the modern era! It stands against a global homogenisation of culture. I leave the final word to Smith :
“Each animal is still obliged to support and defend itself, separately and independently, and derives no sort of advantage from that variety of talents with which nature has distinguished its fellows. Among men, on the contrary, the most dissimilar geniuses are of use to one another; the different produces of their respective talents, by the general disposition to truck, barter and exchange, being brought, as it were, into a common stock, where every man may purchase whatever part of the produce of the other men’s talents he has occasion for.”13
Cultural Diversity and Pluralism
Globalisation is only one aspect of a more significant change that has been taking place. That change is the dynamic trend towards much greater cultural interaction and communication. The rapid growth in cross-cultural intercourse has been propelled by the even faster developments in technology. Last century flight wasn’t even possible. Today we can fly to any country in the world, and we do it often. International migration is another incredibly successful phenomenon which arose this century. Cosmopolitan cities and multicultural countries are now the norm rather than the exception. We can speak “foreign” languages, eat “foreign” foods and have “foreign” friends, without ever leaving our own country. By far the most influential development has been in information technology. The phone, radio, television and now Internet have enormously increased the volume and ease of information exchange between people in different countries.
There is little doubt as to the vast benefits this enhanced interaction has conferred. Our lives have been massively enriched by the opportunities presented to participate in new activities, meet new people and engage in a diverse range of experiences and perspectives. The expansion of our knowledge and understanding of other cultures has also been a tremendous advantage. The exchange of ideas and information has extended our often narrow and distorted views of the world we live in. Cooperation in various cultural, intellectual, scientific and artistic endeavours has been a wellspring of original creations and achievements. Moreover, intercultural mixing and burgeoning friendships has certainly led to a lessening of cultural misunderstanding, racism and conflict. Our instinctive fear of the unknown has been allayed through dialogue and association. Familiarity has not bred contempt, but fellowship and camaraderie.
So much for the threats posed by increased cross-cultural interaction. Ironically, the worst danger to cultural identity are the insular solutions proposed by those who wish to preserve the integrity of national and cultural boundaries. They seek to protect cultures from alien influences by restricting freedom and instituting policies of conformity and homogeneity within each nation. Immigration and multiculturalism are restricted and cross-cultural exchange inhibited. There are two clear outcomes of such a policy. One is that in such a parochial and fragmented world, instead of people taking their cultural traditions and identities with them when they migrate or travel, they will be forced to assimilate and adopt the provincial customs. The cultures of the world will become disparate and isolated. The second outcome will be that those cultures that are static, conformist and institutionalised will stagnate and die out. Meanwhile, those which are dynamic, adaptive and people-orientated will thrive.
Once again, we find that the sculptor of the future is freedom. Its presence makes the future look invigorating, enlightening and auspicious. In its absence we approach the future with a trepidation built on fear, uncertainty and prophecies of doom. Protectionism, whether in the exchange of goods or the exchange of practices and values, is an impotent philosophy. It goes against the grain of humanity’s moral fibre. Every individual claims freedom as their right. And this includes the freedom to encounter new ideas, values and traditions, and accept, reject, modify or integrate them. Nobody has the right to arrogate to themselves the power to decide what others may or may not think, value and engage in. This can only be accomplished by force, and only if one has convinced oneself that one owns another person’s life. On every issue, collectivism stands in the way of human dignity, liberty and happiness.
The successful association and integration of people from diverse backgrounds can only be accomplished on a foundation of universal respect for the rights of individuals. With this guarantee of freedom, voluntary cooperation and interaction between the rainbow spectrum of cultures will flourish. My vision of the future is one in which the richness of cultural traditions, ideas and talents are not limited by the dictates of geography and national borders. Instead, each community and society will be a pastiche of races, customs, practices and cultural identities. Culture is not a static, inanimate quality. It is the component of an individual’s identity which forms a shared heritage with their race, community or society. Culture evolves with people, not in spite of them. To liberate culture from its traditional, narrow context, is analogous to using a certain fabric to make a new style of clothing. Nothing is lost or tainted in the process. Instead, it gains a new dimension, and retains its relevance. Here again, freedom gives a new lease of life to that which we cherish from the past.
The Future of Science and Technology
In any discussion about the future, the contribution of science and technology cannot be ignored. These two elements will figure prominently as the primary catalysts of change. Some historians may dispute this assertion and point to the significance of other factors, but this overlooks the fact that science and technology have only demonstrated their full potential in the last four centuries of human history. Right up to the end of the medieval period, there was unquestionably a lot of change, but progress was far less obvious. Mankind was still plagued by much the same problems it had been from its origins. Poverty, disease, famine and periodic, internecine wars were customary features of life for practically everyone.
Consider for example the problem of power. In human prehistory the only power available was muscle power, augmented occasionally by primitive tools such as wedges and levers. The domestication of animals around 8500BC and the invention of the wheel circa 300BC paved the way for the water mill in the 1st century BC, and later the windmill in the 12th century AD. So, for more than 99% of human history, we were almost totally reliant on the muscle power of people and animals. It was only in 1712 that the first working steam engine became available. Since then we’ve added Faraday’s electric motor, Otto’s four-stroke engine, nuclear fission and solar power.
Science and technology have always driven the progress of civilisation, from the time our early ancestors first learnt to utilise tools. However, it is only in recent centuries that the sheer scale of the changes that progress in these fields can effectuate, has been impressed upon us. Since the Enlightenment, science and technology have been advancing at a geometric pace. These developments have had an enormous impact on our lifestyles. Only a couple of centuries ago the average lifespan was less than 40. Less than a hundred years ago populations were still being decimated by epidemics of TB, smallpox and other diseases. Science and technology have radically reduced mortality and improved health, and allowed the majority of people to escape poverty and the daily struggle for survival. In turn, this has freed us to pursue other goals and activities which make life fulfilling and gratifying, whether that means landing men on the moon or indulging in an afternoon game of golf. The horizon of opportunities for human beings has been dramatically expanded thanks to scientific and technological achievements.
Despite these accomplishments, progress in science and technology is often unwelcome. There is a common tendency to foist the blame for almost any problem on their broad and capable shoulders. Change is feared, and promises of progress distrusted. The most famous malcontents in history were the English textile workers who railed against the replacement of their jobs by mechanical looms. Thus, the word Luddite has come to mean someone who eschews new technological changes. Unemployment and alienation are viewed as the most serious drawbacks of technological advances and are used as justification for retarding its progress. Recent neo-Luddite predictions attest that in the knowledge and technology intensive economy which is to follow, only 20% of people will have jobs. The rest will be junked on the economic scrapheap.
Yet again, the very source of salvation is in danger of being crucified. Without the benefits of advanced technology, everybody would be damned to living a life of subsistence. Science is simply our attempt to acquire knowledge of ourselves and of the world we live in. The primary aim of this Promethean endeavour is to use this knowledge to gain some control over our lives and happiness. Technology is the result of people applying their minds and knowledge to the problem of creating the values they need and want. Technology is abstract ideas and conceptual knowledge in the “flesh” – all the tools, techniques and information we use to produce the goods and services we need and want. Imagine trying to produce anything without technology, and you will understand why impeding its development amounts to shooting oneself in the foot.
Technology allows us to vastly improve our productive capacity and efficiency. If it were not for technology, we would all be busy struggling to provide for the basic needs of ourselves and our families. Because of the productivity of technology we are able to pursue other activities. Hence, one person can produce enough food to feed 50 people, thereby enabling the other 49 to engage in producing other values, of which they can exchange part of the surplus for the other goods they need. Therefore, technology permits an otherwise impossible degree of diversity between individuals. People from various locations with a diverse range of talents and skills, can all have the freedom to do what they do best and enjoy the most, and trade their excess goods or services for a portion of the many other goods and services being produced.
Without technology, we would all be working in our vegetable patches and sewing our own grass skirts. Rather than engendering unemployment and alienation, technology provides the opportunity for individuals to choose or even create an occupation they enjoy and are skilled at, and trade their product for a huge number of goods and services that satisfy their needs and wants. Of course, the good or service one seeks to produce must be of value to others, but in a technological world which is easily able to satisfy basic needs, there is an abundance of opportunities to find buyers for one’s product in such a diverse market of desires.
So next time you are assailed by the wails of the “starving artists”, ask them how they think they would fare in a world where everyone was fully occupied in simply fighting to stay alive. More often than not, the most vociferous critics of the free market system and the technology that powers it, are those who have little of value to offer the rest of us. They want us to work to provide their needs and wants, whilst they indulge themselves in indolence and other pastimes from which we derive no benefit. Justice and freedom are inextricably bound together. Justice requires that every individual be free to exercise their talents and virtues to the best of their potential, and reap the rewards of that thought and effort. In the case of science and technology this entails each person being free to think, learn and apply their minds in whatever way they choose, so that they can transform their ideas into devices which can be used to create the values they desire.
Against Nature : The Myths of Ecology
In 1854, the governor of Washington state offered to buy the land of the Duwamish Indians. The leader of the American Indians was Chief Seattle, and his reply is now famous as one of the best statements of the ecologist’s creed. In his book Earth in the Balance, Al Gore quoted it thus :
“How can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us… Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people… Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth. This we know : the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man does not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”14
Ecology has become the new religion. Central to its profession of faith is the belief that man must learn to live in harmony with nature, not fight against it. Hubris is seen as our crucial flaw. We are arrogant enough to think we are above nature, or that we can escape the clutches of its web. All our ecological problems are attributed to this bumptious struggle against nature. Lester Brown from the Worldwatch Institute explains that “building an environmentally sustainable future depends on restructuring the global economy, major shifts in human reproductive behaviour, and dramatic changes in values and lifestyles.”15 These are not trite platitudes. Ecologists are appealing for radical changes in human desires, goals and behaviour. The moral dimension of this new religion is unmistakable. Virtue consists in subordinating oneself to nature, as befits a humble strand in the web of life. Vice involves taking the opposite approach to life; claiming dominion over the earth and everything that lives on it. Behold the new ethics of self-sacrifice. The Earth is to replace Society as our God, and ecologists will take over from humanists as the new high priests. We are being entreated to heed the wisdom of Chief Seattle and acknowledge that “man belongs to the earth”.
Before we subjugate ourselves to this new master it would be prudent to check the premises upon which this new religion is built. Is there evidence to support their veracity? Or is this another religion based on myth and superstition? Our inquiry gets off to an inauspicious start, for it turns out that the entire speech of Chief Seattle is a work of fiction. As Matt Ridley reveals, it was written for an ABC television drama by the screenwriter Ted Perry in 1971. The only report on what was really said by Chief Seattle suggests he praised the generosity of the white chief in buying his land. Ridley also advises that Chief Seattle was no “tree-hugger”. We do know that he was a slave owner and had killed almost all his enemies.16
So much for the fairytales. What then can we make of the major tenets of ecological dogma? Are human beings no different from other animals, and wholly dependent on the earth’s bounty? Is it pure conceit that motivates us to seek to escape this reliance on the munificence of Mother Nature? Does man overstep his capability when he tries to do some of his own weaving in the web of life? Is true moral virtue to be found in living in harmony with nature by not seeking to change or exploit it? The answer to all of these questions is : “No!”. This ecological doctrine is thoroughly flawed and totally mendacious. Their debased, impotent, slavish and vapid portrayal of man and the life proper to human beings does not square with reality. The truth is very different.
We are not like other animals. Fundamentally, animals cannot change their environments. Yes, birds build nests. And in the same environment, we may build homes out of trees. However, we can plant trees, as well as chop them down. Animals can at best manipulate features of their environment to their advantage. We can change the environment itself. Animals seek out their food. We plant, cultivate, and produce our own. Animals huddle together in burrows when it is cold. We learned to build fires and manufacture clothing. Examples are numerous, and require little imagination, therefore I do not intend to dwell on this point. The distinction is clear though – other species are limited to the given, we can create.
This has momentous implications, for it means that the world may be finite for every other species, but infinite for us. If we can create what we need to survive, then though every other species may be constrained by a population “ceiling”, we are not. Human beings are indeed free! We are not reliant on the providence of the earth. We are capable of providing for ourselves. We are not a humble strand in someone else’s web. We are independent creatures who build our own webs. Imagine a normal day of your life. I am willing to bet that nothing you eat, drink, wear or use is “naturally occurring”. We create and produce all the values we need to survive. Now you might protest that the orange or apple you ate most certainly occurs in nature. Indeed it does. But did it come from a wild fruit tree? Or did somebody plant it? One might also appeal to water. But where did your water come from? A stream that just happens to flow past your house? Or a dam, cachement or well.
Contrary to popular sentiment I do not live in a natural world. My world is man-made. And I am very glad about that! Imagine if I did have to spend my life camped out next to a wild fruit tree. If I had to trek miles to the nearest stream. And every day was a constant struggle for survival. Contrast my existence with that of any other animal. Their world’s are natural. With some minor exceptions, they do not create anything. Their requirements for life are limited to what they can find in nature. To reiterate, every other species is constrained to the given, human beings alone have the capacity to create.
Consequently, every other species must inevitably come to a population crunch, because the resources required for life are finite. But they are finite as an actual, not a potential. To put it simply, the world is finite for other species because they do not have the capacity to create. The world is not finite in and of itself. This is why the world can be finite for every other species, and infinite for our species. Life for homosapiens is not a zero-sum game. Life for every other species is. When goods are fixed, life inevitably becomes a struggle for existence, where one can only gain at another’s expense. Thomas Hobbes was right when he said the life of man in the state of nature was “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short”.17 Fortunately, man is not condemned to live in the “state of nature”. Man is different, and because of that difference, our world is not finite. And ideas not physical resources are the source of man’s creative potential. The wellspring of man’s created values is man’s mind.
Yet, we do not create out of nothing. Therefore, it can be argued that if we are ultimately dependent on finite resources, then our world is still finite. This is a fallacious inference. The missing piece of this puzzle is that man does not create his values out of finite resources alone. In fact the critical “ingredient” is not fixed in measure. That ingredient is man’s mind. This is what makes us so radically different from every other species. Man’s mind is not finite. It is the intangible, inexhaustible resource. And it defies comparisons. It is the resource which never runs out.
If you are still struggling to grasp this counter-intuitive concept, reflect on the technological example of energy that I illustrated earlier. Several thousand years ago people had access to the same resources we do today. In fact if anything, they had access to more. Yet, they were unable to produce a trillionth of the energy we produce today. In the last century, our capacity for energy production has increased gigantically. In fact, every year that goes by we find new sources of energy, and more efficient techniques for extracting, producing and using it. The same story can be told for any of the values we need to survive and achieve happiness. Each year the global population increases, as does the affluence of its members. If we had reached or exceeded our sustainable level this would be impossible. And if a sustainable upper limit even existed, then one would expect the price (which reflects scarcity) of resources to mirror our growth. Yet, the price of resources and commodities continues to trend downwards.
Therefore, the ecologists who proclaim that we are no different from any other animal, and must live in “harmony” with nature (a euphemism for living like other animals), have built their entire castle on spurious premises about the nature of human beings. No wonder their prescriptions amount to a call for changes in human nature itself. Little surprise either that their trumpeted heroes either turn out to be frauds like Chief Seattle, or invented and contrived fictions. Recent studies have demonstrated that there was no conservation ethic amongst our early ancestors, and nor does one exist among our tribal contemporaries.18 In fact, our ancient ancestors were responsible for far more extinctions than we have been, and studies of groups like the Amazonian Indians have shown an amazing lack of environmentally sustainable behaviour.19 This is even more surprising given that hunter-gatherer societies do have to depend on what nature provides because they generally do not create the goods they need to survive. The “state of nature” eulogised by the ecologists is no idyllic existence. If it were, the overwhelming majority of mankind would not have chosen to escape it. That being the case, it is reprehensible for anyone to advocate that human beings should choose to live in such a vicious, zero-sum world.
Again we find the fundamental question of freedom facing us as we approach the future. On one side are those who would deprive men and women of the use of their greatest asset, by restricting their ability to turn ideas and knowledge into technology that can improve and enhance their lives. On the other side stand those who defend the right of every individual to think and act in the pursuit of their own happiness, and refuse to submit to slavery for some unjustifiable and unchosen ideal. This does not spell doom and gloom for the environment. Rejecting sacrificing people for the sake of the planet does not mean one must advocate sacrificing the planet to the short term interests of people. Notwithstanding the customary hype and exaggeration that goes with them, we do face some real environmental problems. But the only solution to these problems lies in self-interest, not exhortations to self-sacrifice for the good of humanity or the planet. “Tragedy of the commons” (externalised costs) dilemmas are not intractable. But every attempted solution which has failed to coopt the self-interest of individuals, including nationalisation and bureaucratic regulations, has failed dismally. Instead, economic choices must be designed such that self-interest concords with the common, long-term interest. Many economists and biologists have found that allowing communities with a common interest to police the resource themselves, and punish offenders with non-cooperation and ostracism, is an effective strategy of conjoining individual self-interest with the common good.
The initiation of force to violate the right of an individual to their own life is the greatest threat to happiness, and religion has been history’s worst repeat offender. No convictions of faith, no matter how strongly believed, can ever justify claims upon other people’s lives. There is a clear line between respecting cultural traditions, and accepting the abrogation of somebody’s rights under the banner of cultural relativism. Freedom cuts both ways. Consistency and common sense demand that Freedom of religion must also sanction Freedom from religion.
Of course, religion can also be harmful to its adherents. Religious beliefs tend to be the most intransigent in the face of reason and experience. Using force to eradicate the voluntarily held religious practices of adults is clearly not tenable. Nevertheless, in some instances it would be appropriate to try to educate the community in question. This is especially important when one remembers that most adherents of such a faith will have been indoctrinated in childhood. Education can be used to facilitate conditions for enlightened decisions on religious beliefs.
Children present a special situation in which various forms of sanction and even force may justifiably be used to protect their rights. Consider for example the circumstances of the Tokosi in Ghana. The Tokosi are young girls who are given as slaves to the high priests of a certain religion, as atonement for one of their relatives having offended the Gods. These “offences” include such trivialities as the theft of a tape recorder. Tokosi are taken to the temple as young as five, and serve out the rest of their lives as slaves. Most of them are beaten and raped by the priests. No religion which treats children in such a fashion has a right to survive. The only people to suffer when such abominations are wiped out are the parasites who profit from the fear and ignorance instilled in their communities by these religious beliefs.
Dostoyevsky warned us that those who reject religion “will end by drenching the earth in blood.” History has shown that most of the blood letting has occurred as a result of religion, not in spite of it. The sanctity of individual’s rights and freedom must take precedence over any belief system. Having said that, religion does have a significant role to play in the future, if only because the majority of human beings will continue to believe in something. Many faiths are of great advantage to civil societies. Their members provide the backbone of most voluntary charity work, and communities are often strengthened by their presence. To the extent that traditional religions affirm the same moral values of respect for the dignity and freedom of the individual, they constitute a positive influence on society.
The future lies in nobody’s hands and everybody’s hands. Nobody’s hands – because it cannot be designed or directed by anyone. Everybody’s hands – because every moment in time will always be the product of the choices and actions of every individual in the moment preceding it. Yet, our thoughts, choices and actions are influenced by those of our predecessors. In this almost Panglossian situation we have the best of both worlds. There is the potential for liberation from the mistakes of the past, provided by our knowledge of history; and also the enormous expanse of future opportunities furnished by the inherent freedom of human action. Thus, true freedom requires both a sense of history, and the autonomy of each person to act in pursuance of their own interests and values.
When all individuals in every country are enlightened as to the alternatives, and are free to choose between them, we will see some common characteristics emerge. Individualism will triumph over collectivism. Capitalism will have annihilated socialism. Constitutional democracies which enshrine and protect individual rights will prevail over all forms of tyranny. This trend should be celebrated not denounced. It represents the continuing march of progress. We are all human beings and when we reach this stage we will all be able to live as human beings. We will treat each other with respect, be confident enough to regard strangers with warmth and goodwill, and exchange value for value to mutual benefit.
This may sound like wishful thinking, but there are two factors which suggest we are uniquely positioned to succeed in this enterprise. One is that the wonders of storage and communication technology mean that our knowledge of events of the past and especially the present has never been better. A child in China knows what life in America is like. This permits the existence of the second factor : the fact that for the first time in history, the vast majority of people know that life can be very different. That poverty is not man’s natural condition. That slavery is not a circumstance necessitated by reality. That force is not the only method nature has provided human beings to deal with each other. If I am right about human aspirations for freedom and happiness, then this knowledge of real alternatives must inevitably lead to the actual liberty of all people.
In this essay I have outlined the alternative approaches and solutions to each issue confronting humanity. I have strived to espouse the alternative that is consistent with the moral principles of individual rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. It is because these moral principles are based on the nature of human beings and human existence, that I am so confident that the options I have advocated will emerge victorious. Individualism and capitalism will succeed because it is natural and right for individuals to live for themselves; act on their values; pursue their own happiness; and reap the rewards of their thought and effort. Constitutional democracies which protect individual rights will prevail not only because they treat individuals as ends and not means, but also for allowing citizens to voluntarily act to achieve common goals – including charity for the unfortunate. Globalisation is inevitable, as it simply extends to the global community the mutual benefits that result from individuals acting in their own self-interest. Cultural diversity will flourish as it becomes liberated from its traditional geographical constraints. Science will continue to expand our knowledge of ourselves and reveal the grandeur of the world we live in. Technology will transform this growing horizon of possibilities into means for achieving even greater prosperity and fulfilment. Finally, rather than resorting to living like animals, we will solve any environmental problems by making greater use of the unlimited potential of our minds, and hence the ideas and technology that eventuate.
This is the essence of the Promethean spirit I alluded to at the beginning of this essay. The “blind hopes” granted by Prometheus provide the cure to our fear of the future, and my answer to both parts of the essay question. The spirit of endeavour is blind because we cannot know the future, since it is determined by the freedom of human thought, choice and action. It is a spirit of hope because the fact that the future is determined only by ourselves, liberates it from the past, and thus the egregious mistakes we have already committed. The Promethean spirit is the confidence that the future can be better than the past. This is an inspiring vision of the future of mankind. It is a vision possessed of a sense of purpose and efficacy. It honours ambition and achievement instead of glorifying impotence. Nor is it crippled by portents of doom, or one resigned to the inevitability of destiny. With happiness as its ultimate goal and the phenomenal capabilities of the mind as its primary means, this spirit of “blind hopes” could not be more sanguine.
David Grene and Richard Lattimore. 1956. The Complete Greek Tragedies. Uni. of Chicago Press, Chicago. In : E.O Wilson. 1978. On Human Nature. Harvard Uni. Press, Massachusetts.
E.H. Carr. From Napolean to Stalin and Other Essays.
Ronald Duncan and Colin Wilson. 1992. Marx Refuted. Penguin, Harmondsworth.
David Selbourne. 1994. The Principle of Duty. Sinclair-Stevenson, London.
In : Marx Refuted.
Definition and conception of rights drawn from : Ayn Rand. 1964. The Virtue of Selfishness. The New American Library, New York.
In : Marx Refuted.
C.S. Lewis. 1965. Screwtape Proposes a Toast. HarperCollins, London.
Adam Smith. 1776/1986. The Wealth of Nations. Penguin, Harmondsworth.
Ibid. vol. 1, pp. 422 and 458.
Al Gore. 1992. Earth in the Balance : Ecology and the Human Spirit. Houghton Mifflin, Boston. In : Matt Ridley. 1996. The Origins of Virtue. Viking, London.
Matt Ridley. 1996. The Origins of Virtue. Viking, London.
Thomas Hobbes. 1651/1973. Leviathan. J.M. Dent and Sons, London.
Matt Ridley and Bobbi S. Low. 1993. Can Selfishness Save the Environment? The Atlantic Monthly. Sept. 1993. Vol. 272, No. 3. pp 76-86.
19. The Origins of Virtue.
- Adrian Lobo