Progressivism vs. the Pursuit of Happiness

Self-interest is good -- not because it "raises the general standard of living" or "makes workers more productive."  If it did neither of these things, it would still be good for a more fundamental reason, namely that it is the proper motivation of our nature as human beings.  In short, self-interest is moral.

Most public discussion today, however, occurs within the moral paradigm established by our universal progressive indoctrination.  Even principled people who wish to defend liberty often find themselves in muddled and unwinnable debates, having unwittingly accepted progressive moral premises. 

The progressive paradigm is diffuse and sophisticated, but it may be summarized in one thought, namely that individuals exist for the State, rather than the State for individuals.  This is not a new idea, on its face; what is new is that this idea, which used to be called tyranny, has been recast as morality.  An alliance of serious thinkers and clever subversives has fundamentally shifted the burden of proof in moral matters to favor the presumption of collective authority over every aspect of life.  This deep-seated principle reduces everyone who has not radically purged himself of it to the Pyrrhic position of arguing that the slackening of government control is justifiable because it will benefit the State in some way -- defending freedom as a more efficient way of achieving tyrannical goals, rather than as our birthright.

Understanding precisely how the burden of moral proof was shifted, and how this shift has distorted political debate, is essential to any hope of eventually regaining a proper perspective.

An intellectual tradition developed in earliest modernity framed our epoch's basic political question as, in effect, "Why do free men need a government?"  Hence the famous "state of nature" theories, the vocabulary of "natural rights" and "social contracts," and the gradual establishment of the principles of limited government. 

Today, progressivism, having fed mankind through its educational, artistic, and bureaucratic meat-grinder, has supplanted modernity's basic political question with a new one: "Why does a government need free men?" 

The first question arose from the premise that individual humans and their needs are natural and primary, such that superimpositions of collective authority upon social relations are justified only insofar as these help to advance our rational, pre-governmental ends.  The second question, which is implicit in all contemporary politics, arises from the premise that the collective is the primary reality, such that any freedoms individuals are permitted to enjoy are justified only insofar as they serve the collective's ends, as defined by the State.  

How did civilization achieve this complete metaphysical and moral reversal, from the presumed priority of the concrete rational individual to the presumed priority of an abstraction, "society"?  

It was the revolutionary German philosophers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries -- Kant, Fichte, Hegel -- followed by their critics and intellectual heirs, from Schopenhauer to Marx, who developed the soul-obliterating theories that have eroded modernity.  The moral ground of their corruptive influence was the view that self-interest, meaning nothing less than the pursuit of happiness, is intrinsically immoral and slavish, while true freedom entails the submission of one's life to the interests of the collective, i.e., to the State. 

This historic turn from the individual as source of any possible collective to the collective as source of whatever is permitted to remain of the individual came into full bloom in Kant's ethics. 

Eighteenth century thought was shaken by the perceived implications of Newtonian physics: if the new scientific materialism is truly comprehensive -- if mechanistic nature is all there is -- then man too must be reducible to the cause-effect laws of science.  But this, it was feared, would mean the end of all dreams of human uniqueness, rendering moral freedom a mere delusional perception of our place in nature's causal chain.

Kant's famous solution, crystallized in his "categorical imperative," was that the only way to perceive ourselves as free, rather than as part of a mechanistic nature, would be to reject all motives of individual interest in favor of obedience to universalizable moral maxims.  That is, we must obey "rational" rules of behavior formed independently of contextual considerations, which means independently of any concern for our own happiness.

To clarify: moral choice, classically understood, is in most cases grounded in the practical conditions of men's lives, requiring the combination of well-formed character and mature practical reasoning, i.e., virtue, to find and pursue the "golden mean" as defined by the particular situation and human nature.  Thus virtue is not only consistent with, but the realization of, our desire for well-being or happiness, properly understood.  To live virtuously is to pursue the good -- the naturally desirable -- through choices made in accordance with our circumstances and the nature of a rational animal, which, in turn, is to be happy. 

This formula is detailed in the most influential of all moral treatises, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, but its foundation -- that man is the happiness-seeking animal -- may easily be traced backward through earlier moral thought, from Socrates to Democritus to Pythagoras, and forward through the medieval Christian philosophers, the Enlightenment rationalists and empiricists, and indeed through any moral philosophy worthy of the name.

Kant categorically rejected this conception of virtue grounded in the natural desire for happiness -- the desire to feel "complete" or "perfectly alive" -- in favor of a demand for duty and obedience without regard for the contextual deliberation that reveals genuine virtue.  That is, he demanded that men deny their quest for the good-for-them in favor of his abstract "good" -- the universalizable maxim -- which was explicitly not the good for any individual human being per se, but rather the means of silencing all self-interested motivation.  It followed that all action undertaken as a means to individual well-being should be regarded as not only outside the realm of legitimate moral reasoning, but in fact a countervailing motive which must be eliminated from moral thought.  In other words, according to Kantianism, the desire for happiness -- previously seen as nature's defining moral motive -- is at best morally irrelevant, at worst a hindrance to pure morality.  (Kant's own account of happiness is notoriously confused, trivializing, and contradictory, presumably because he wished to remove it from the realm of moral ends, but could not see how to deny its value altogether.)

The liberal Kant's most influential student, the authoritarian Fichte, drew out the full implications of Kant's ethics, applying to practical politics what Kant had left largely theoretical.  Fichte, arguably the first true progressive in the precise sense, objected to Kant's concern with saving human dignity and free will, regarding this as an illegitimate throwback to the old morality of self-interest which, on consistently Kantian terms, must be obliterated.  Declaring free will the enemy of true morality, and prescribing its eradication as the primary function of education, Fichte advocated obedience to social duty for its own sake, and specifically the submission of individual conscience to the collective.  The State would supplant the traditional religious role of a transcendent being, replacing God with a new heaven on Earth, alternately defined by Fichte as "the nation," "Germany," and "the future." 

Paradoxically, the spiritual life of modern freedom was all but over even as the fullest practical realization of that life, America, was still in its infancy.  The first nation to make "the pursuit of happiness" an explicit founding principle -- a pithy expression of the link between moral and political freedom -- would be forced to grow up in a world in which that pursuit had just been declared illegitimate and immoral by the leading intellectuals.  Modernity's true vanguard and bright hope was suddenly branded hopelessly backward and superficial, clinging to an antiquated moral perspective that placed "mere" individual well-being above the good of the State.

From here it was a short step to the development of nineteenth century socialism and communism -- Kant's Perpetual Peace laid the UN's spiritual foundation, and Fichte's Addresses to the German Nation were already calling for compulsory indoctrination against private conscience and property.  Among the nineteenth century European and North American intellectual elite, schooled in the fashionable new German philosophies, often studying at German universities, the idea that morality entailed the rejection of all motives of self-interest spread like a brushfire.  This rejection of the search for personal happiness -- the core of proper moral thought -- appeals to spiteful intellectuals and power-hungry political operators alike, as it belittles all human hopes or motives that might be recalcitrant to artificially imposed grand designs of one kind or another.  Paternalistic despotism and theoretical assaults on all notions of government rooted in natural freedom were the bread and butter of "advanced" Western thinking throughout the nineteenth century, provided the impetus behind the totalitarian atrocities of the twentieth, and form the essence of establishment politics today.  

As for the inevitable historical lag between the evolution of the leading thinkers and that of the "masses" or "folk," this can be traced in the gradual implementation of the true progressive society envisioned by the academic and political forerunners.  Universal government schooling, the most indispensable step, came early, modeled on the original Prussian schools inspired by Fichte.  From there, the marginalization of the family's role in child development (the early public school advocates' primary goal), the diminution of the distinction between male and female (gradually transforming nature's complementary parts into spiritually uniform "workers"), and the withering of religious belief in favor of the deification of government, proceeded apace.

Psychologically, the rejection of the ethics of happiness in favor of "disinterested" self-abnegation diminished and denatured our species, producing the moral split personality that has ravaged modern society -- sentimental collectivism crossed with nihilistic self-seeking. 

Faulty theory cannot change nature.  Humans must and will continue to pursue their self-preservation and self-development.  However, due to the universal slander of individual happiness as an immature or immoral motive, men have been left with no education grounded in reason and nature to guide their pursuit of the good.  The political result of this moral dissonance is today's mainstream: greedy, gluttonous, irrational pleasure-seekers who are also easy dupes for every charismatic rabble-rouser who rallies their nihilistic sentimentality against "the wealthy," "the uncompassionate," and those with "more than their fair share." 

German academia's poisonous assault on individualism and the ethics of personal happiness (i.e., virtue) quickly infected every organ of modernity, from the spires of the ivory tower to the floorboards of the one-room schoolhouse.  The moral tenets of German idealist and post-idealist philosophies -- from Kant and Fichte through Marx and Engels and on to the Frankfurt School -- have become the defining beliefs of the late modern world:

  • The individual is merely an illusory facet of the collective.
  • Self-interest, meaning concern with one's own well-being, is immoral.
  • The pursuit of one's own happiness is petty and superficial.
  • Submitting one's mind to the collective will is true morality.
  • The future belongs to those who accept the trajectory of History, which is progressively dissolving all distinctions between nations, between men, between man and woman, adult and child, reason and feeling, as we flow together in History's current toward a kaleidoscopic dream of collective self-creation, guided by the unlimited State.

Contrary to the more impatient German thugs, such as Fichte and Marx, the pluralistic forms of progressive authoritarianism have generally proved the most durable means of embedding collectivist ideals within a society.  This is perhaps due to democratic man's endless genius for prettifying Hell with decorous chains and scented flames.  Thus "the rule of the people," filtered through the prism of collectivist ethics, becomes the presumption of every man to a legitimate claim on the life, time, and labor of every other man. 

This is the mechanism whereby Tocqueville's "soft despotism" has been realized on a global scale.  The mechanism has two sides or phases.  The famous side is what we call the entitlement mentality, which, simply stated, is the presumption that all members of the collective own all others, and may therefore demand things from them coercively. 

The equally important flipside, however, is the presumption that all men are owned by the collective, and must therefore pay tribute to the beast in order to be considered worthy of living.  This side's function, from the point of view of the progressives who carefully cultivate it, is to reinforce the ethics of self-negation by entrenching the social rule of submission to the State, whereby anyone who resists his proper role as servant of the collective, i.e., of the government, must be ostracized as "selfish," and punished and/or re-educated.

This leads us back to where we came in: until we understand and reject this entire ethical framework -- the German philosophy that has become the moral background music of our civilization -- the proper argument for freedom can never be made.  If we accept the premise that the pursuit of happiness is immoral (indistinguishable from "greed") then we are reduced to the apologetic, self-defeating argument that some partial freedom ought to be tolerated as the most effective way to produce the prosperity that sustains authoritarian rule.  Would today's Chinese Communist Party disagree?

Let's return to the only argument worthy of the subject: Individuals are metaphysically and morally prior to collectives.  Happiness is our proper moral motivation.  The free man does not have to justify himself to the State; the State has to justify itself to the free man.  These are the premises we have inherited from our tradition and from our nature, though we now grope for them with difficulty through the smog of despotic philosophy that dominates our world.

Allow me to conclude with a breath of fresh moral air from beyond that smog:

Therefore the last and perfect happiness, which we await in the life to come, consists entirely in contemplation [of the divine essence].  But imperfect happiness, such as can be had here, consists first and principally, in an activity of the practical intellect directing human actions and passions.... [Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Treatise on the Last End, Question 3]

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