Friday, April 23, 2010

Locke's Rational Foundation

Two central concepts in modern theories of government were formulated and proposed by John Locke: first, that the legitimacy of a government derives from the consent of the governed; second, that the method of majority rule is most effective in pursuing the goals for which governments are instituted. Locke derived these political views from his more purely philosophical understanding of how the human mind works, and how it attains accurate knowledge, identifying and dismissing falsehoods. Merely because we believe a statement strongly and passionately, writes Locke, is no reason to grant that statement any more probability of being true than another conflicting statement:

For, if strength of persuasion be the light which must guide us; I ask how shall any one distinguish between the delusions of Satan, and the inspirations of the Holy Ghost? He can transform himself into an angel of light. And they who are led by this Son of the Morning are as fully satisfied of the illumination, i.e. are as strongly persuaded that they are enlightened by the Spirit of God as any one who is so: they acquiesce and rejoice in it, are actuated by it: and nobody can be more sure, nor more in the right (if their own belief may be judge) than they.


We must not ask how strongly a proposition is believed, for the strength of the belief in no way correlates to the probability of its being true; rather, we must how rational a belief is:

Reason must be our last judge and guide in everything. I do not mean that we must consult reason, and examine whether a proposition revealed from God can be made out by natural principles, and if it cannot, that then we may reject it: but consult it we must, and by it examine whether it be a revelation from God or no: and if reason finds it to be revealed from God, reason then declares for it as much as for any other truth, and makes it one of her dictates. Every conceit that thoroughly warms our fancies must pass for an inspiration, if there be nothing but the strength of our persuasions, whereby to judge of our persuasions: if reason must not examine their truth by something extrinsic to the persuasions themselves, inspirations and delusions, truth and falsehood, will have the same measure, and will not be possible to be distinguished.


In the above paragraph, Locke is writing that reason will not tell us if a proposition is true, but reason will tell us if it is from God; and if it is from God, then it is true. A slightly different method for judging the rationality of a proposition appears a few pages later in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

But it is not the strength of our private persuasion within ourselves, that can warrant it to be a light or motion from heaven: nothing can do that but the written Word of God without us, or that standard of reason which is common to us with all men. Where reason or Scripture is express for any opinion or action, we may receive it as of divine authority: but it is not the strength of our own persuasions which can by itself give it that stamp. The bent of our own minds may favor it as much as we please: that may show it to be a fondling of our own, but will by no means prove it to be an offspring of heaven, and of divine original.


Reason and revealed text are here shown to be in harmony; they form a single continuous decision procedure for determining the truth-value of a given proposition. In this, Locke rejects the mere claim of a person who may claim to have received a supernatural revelation from God - such a claim carries no value in itself:

In what I have said I am far from denying, that God can, or does, sometimes enlighten men's minds in the apprehending of certain truths or excite them to good actions, by the immediate influence and assistance of the Holy Spirit, without any extraordinary signs accompanying it. But in such cases too we have reason and Scripture; unerring rules to know whether it be from God or no. Where the truth embraced is consonant to the revelation in the written word of God, or the action conformable to the dictates of right reason or holy writ, we may be assured that we run no risk in entertaining it as such: because, though perhaps it be not an immediate revelation from God, extraordinarily operating on our minds, yet we are sure it is warranted by that revelation which he has given us of truth.


Locke builds a case for the notion that to be human, and to be rational, grants access to truth - equal access. From this theorem, it is possible to move on to logical arguments for majority rule, and for the proposition that the consent of the governed is the source of a government's legitimacy. If we deny Locke's epistemology, we are obliged to deny his politics; if we reject his understanding of how humans access truth, we embrace dictatorship and governments indifferent to their subjects.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Uses of History

Many thinkers have studied history and concluded that, from its lessons, a series of reforms for government or for society should be undertaken. Edmund Burke concluded from his study of history, however, that the chief lesson to be learned is that such reforms are often wrong-headed and should not be taken: the lesson of history is that sweeping reforms don't work.

Historian David Bromwich, teaching at both Princeton and Yale, puts it this way:

Burke adopts the premise that history is an adequate weapon of criticism. However, he does so in order to question the practicability of just those large-scale reforms which had been relied upon as a clear effect of historical research. History ... is the repository of all the existing evidence of our nature, the record of how our moral and cognitive life came to be what it is. Yet history, Burke sees, may also challenge the notion that, by the exercise of theoretical reason, we can actually perfect human nature.


Instead of sweeping reform, Burke suggests that the lesson of history is that we need to preserve our habits, customs, and traditions: without them, we are lost. He departs from other writers in not relying so much on the concept of natural law, and instead relying on our inherited social structures, which could not be deduced from natural law. He does not pretend or imagine that our civilization is perfect - on the contrary, he is keenly aware of injustices, and pleads, for example, that the British should treat their Indian subjects more humanely. But Burke sees that sweeping reforms usually collapse, or go awry, and end up with the very opposite of their intended goals: the French Revolution, seeking freedom, ended up placing its people under a dictatorship harsher than the Bourbon absolutists. The move toward justice and freedom, according to Burke, is a slow, cautious, and organic growth based on tradition, not rejecting it. Bromwich notes that Burke's writing

contains the following nonpopulist statement of republican prudence: "The people have no interest in disorder. When they do wrong, it is their error, and not their crime." What can this observation be supposed to say about human nature in general? The first sentence does not quite assert that the people have an interest in order. One might even read a Hobbesian moral into the two sentences together: those who wield power, like those who suffer it, need some limitation upon the restless desire" that produces disorder; but only the prudent organization of political life will bring that. Burke would then be urging a tolerant remedy for natural errors. Yet there is also a suggestion that such organization is difficult to attain; that, once achieved, it starts to earn respect from the mere fact of duration; and that, becoming a part of what the people have an interest in, it will grow obscurely attached to their self-interest.


Habits and customs give stability to human societies: without them, there would be chaos and insecurity. Traditions are not valuable because they are old; they are valuable because they help people.

In his way of thinking, historically sanctioned practices are to be cherished for something apart from themselves. The value they represent, and in the name of which he defends them, is order.


This enable Burke, in opposition to liberals, to embrace various cultures and viewpoints. Living and writing in England and Ireland in the 1700's, he saw value in the supposedly "primitive" cultures of Britain's colonies:

For Burke, any history, any set of inherited practices (that of the village culture in India, for example, which Warren Hastings and his "Jacobins" of the East India Company were destroying) will very likely be acceptable, so long as it has issued in order. This, as distinct from pastness or power or success, is his final point of reference. But he makes one restriction on the understanding of order itself. An order of the sort familiar in Europe is appreciable only to the extent that it permits modification through.


A little background: Burke was involved in proceedings against the leaders of the East India Company. He saw that their treatment of the Indians was not respectful of their traditions, and was cruel to the point of criminal.

Burke's concept of tradition was not opposed to change; in fact, he saw it as the road to change, because another lesson of history is that traditions and cultures continually change. Burke asked only that we make the type of changes which history shows to be successful - changes as the organic outgrowth of our traditions, rather than defiant attacks on them.