Thursday, January 13, 2005

Concerning a Liberal or Free Society

An Excerpt from the 1973 textbook, An Introduction to Moral and Social Philosophy,
edited by Jeffrie G. Murphy (pp.413-414):

What form of government would a moral man choose for himself and others? The position of liberalism holds (1) that freedom or liberty is the most important value[*] and (2) that democratic forms of government are most likely to maximize this value. According to this position, freedom or liberty is to be understood as the ability, without hindrance from others, to gain satisfaction for one's wants and desires, insofar as this is compatible with a like liberty for others.

John Stuart Mill is generally regarded as the most persuasive spokesman for this kind of liberalism. And one of his great strengths is that he perceives some of the pathologies to which democracy is susceptible. One of these pathologies, which Mill calls the "tyranny of the majority," results from the power that a majority has in a democracy to coerce an unpopular minority. To cure this pathology, Mill suggests that democracies should subscribe (in a legal constitution perhaps) to the following principle: society is justified in coercing any one of its members only to prevent harm to others. Only if the democratic principle of majority rule is limited in this way can the tyranny of the majority be avoided.

Herbert Marcuse [1898-1979], a contemporary Marxist, believes that even a democracy so limited will still have grave defects. Modern technological societies, even those calling themselves democracies, have subtle and terribly dangerous ways of repressing their citizens. This kind of repression is dangerous just because it does not seem repressive at all, since a substantial number of people in the population have most of their needs and desires satisfied. Suppose, however, that those needs and desires are artificial--that is, manufactured and satisfied by the power elite in a society to ensure that citizens remain pliant and cooperative. This supposition forms the basis for Marcuse's disquieting commentary on contemporary Western democracies. To use the language of Marx, the evil of these societies is that, despite the wants they satisfy, they have failed to reduce alienation. Indeed they rest on it. ...

[*Comment by T.J.White:

Notice that he nowhere mentions the value of security or safety, which is so much trumpeted about today. I hold that complete (or near-total) security or safety is wholly incompatible with a free society, one that cherishes the liberty of the individual. One cannot have both. Freedom necessarily entails risk, and it seems that nowadays, our society is (tragically) increasingly unwilling to take that risk to be truly free. Many people in our society would much rather (it seems apparent) give up those freedoms which their forefathers most cherished (and fought and died for) in the name of and for the sake of safety and security, rather than continue to be a truly free people, but constantly risk another "terrorist attack." And even more tragically, it seems equally obvious that there are many in our current government who are attempting to use the threat of "terrorism" and "terror attacks" to stampede the fearful American people (like a herd of buffalo over a cliff) into giving up those freedoms. And it appears clear that they are succeeding. How many more years before Americans will have lost all their basic (worthwhile) freedoms, and will be reduced to the level of serfs or slaves (albeit perhaps happy and contented--if brainless--ones)? How many more years (if we are to be honest) before we must call America the "United Fascist States of America"? I am stating this really somewhat tongue-in-cheek, for I feel that the time is already upon us, and our future condition can differ from our present one only in a matter of degree, not substance.]