Thursday, June 20, 2013

Immediate Pessimism and Ultimate Optimism

And now that our blog has entered its second week of life, let the navel-gazing begin!

It occurred to me upon rereading my last post that I had articulated a critique of the interventionist position on Syria which had a decidedly Burkean and conservative cast to it.  More distressing still to someone who is currently blogging from the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, it occurred to me that my argument displayed a sense of the limitations of human agency in the world which is difficult to reconcile with the heritage of liberal theology.

Confronted with this realization, my first impulse is to say: "So what?"  If an argument is valid it is not made any less so by being Burkean or Jacobin or anything else.  Besides, there is a strain of traditionalist conservatism for which I have a great deal of sympathy and which, when applied to America's misadventures overseas, seems to possess an inarguable wisdom: namely, the strain which insists that the world is full of injustices; that these injustices arise out of innate human tendencies toward pride, greed, and the will to power; and that for these injustices we do not always possess immediate or obvious remedies.  In light of this tragic condition, and the fact that we are subject ourselves to the same temptations which give rise to it, we should not strive to exert power or control over everything that is wrong with the world, but rather to do the best we can with what little we have-- and with whatever small collection of people and places to which we have an immediate connection.

Burkean as this argument might be, it helps to explain a great many of the cruelties our government has inflicted on other peoples and places in the last century, despite having "the best of intentions."  By recognizing that we share the same moral limitations as the rest of our species, it helps to show us that the best response to gross human rights violations around the world is often not to try to exert control over the violators (in the process of which we often sink to their level or lower) but rather to set whatever example we can over what is truly our own-- by refraining from doing evil to others and violating their rights, even when we imagine that doing so might bring about a positive end "in the long run."

Finally, this Burkean argument teaches us that there is a certain type of "optimism" which is not only naive and misguided, but dangerous and morally suspect.  This is a lesson our Neocons and liberal interventionists desperately need to learn.  Norman Podhoretz, for instance, has argued that the American intervention in Vietnam was naive but admirably idealistic.  While it could be critiqued on strategic grounds, according to Podhoretz, it was impervious to moral condemnation because of the good intentions which inspired it.  In my last post, I tried to explain why this sort of reasoning is utterly misguided.  In entering a war, any war, a country and its leaders know that they will commit horrible and unjust acts.  They will kill conscripted soldiers who did not choose to fight, they will cause the deaths of civilians, whether accidentally or on purpose, they will ally themselves with morally suspect local elements, they may even torture and enslave and take prisoners they never intend to release (hard to imagine, I know).  If a person knowingly signs on to do all of this because he thinks it will eventually produce some nebulous positive result, like "ending terror" or "fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here," I guess you could call that person "optimistic" in some sense, but he's not exactly displaying the endearing Pollyannaish quality we usually associate with that term.

So that's the "so what" answer.  But there is a deeper problem with finding myself making Burkean arguments than a mere discomfort with the label and a dislike of Burke himself-- and that is the fact that I do not tend to apply a similar line of argument to the one I just laid out to issues other than foreign policy.  A more thoroughgoing Burkean might well as me why I am so distrustful of overweening human ambitions when it comes to the War on Terror but still seem to think it is possible for the federal government to implement massive public works projects or systems of social relief without abusing its power.  Would not such schemes simply produce new evils on top of the old, because the people implementing them would be subject to the same temptations to the abuse of power which create the social misery in the private sector which social democracy aims to ameliorate?

I can see several possible responses to this argument, but none of them satisfies me.  One would be to say that robust public sector interventions in the economy are fully in keeping with what we know about the moral limitations of humans, because the public functions as a necessary check on the power of private institutions and vice versa.  Neither public nor private is morally pure or immune to the temptations of unjust power, which is precisely why both are necessary.  Foreign policy is different because when a global superpower acts around the world, there is virtually no countervailing force to limit its ambitions.

I might also respond to the more thoroughgoing Burkean that just because a certain logic applies in certain circumstances doesn't mean it applies everywhere.  Just because there are some limits to human capacities, that is, doesn't mean that those limits proscribe everything we might wish to do on a large scale.  We should never be enthralled to the belief that if an argument works for one thing it works for all.  Just because absolute pacifism is sometimes impossible to practice, let us say, does not mean we should start raining bombs on Tehran.  Just because it would probably be a drag on economic growth to nationalize every industry does not somehow mean we should all become libertarians.  Just because Isaiah Berlin is right that utopian ideologies possess a dangerously totalizing power does not mean that any effort to envision an ideal social order is doomed to degenerate into totalitarianism.  And so on and so forth.  There is no contradiction in maintaining any of the positions I just named.  They may lead to a certain discomfort or psychological tension, but nothing about the world indicates that the truth never hurts.

But like I said, I'm still not satisfied, and I think the reason is that beneath my nods in the direction of Burkean skepticism with regard to foreign policy, there is also a strain of perfectionism, optimism, and idealism which underlies my (generally) non-interventionist position.  It is a strain to which the Burkean label does not do justice and which comes from my heritage of liberal religion.  And that is the abiding conviction that the human condition, while tragic and faced with limitations, is not ultimately so deplorable and limited that it compels us to commit evil in order to achieve good.  I continue to believe that one can have human rights without killing and torturing to get them; that one can have social equity without an all-seeing state; that one can have liberty without license, and so on and so forth.  This is what I understand James Luther Adams (the most important UU theologian of the 20th century) to have been referring to when he called for an "ultimate optimism," but one "based upon an immediate pessimism."  These views have little in common with the sort of deadly optimism described above, and in that sense, they are based on an immediate pessimism about what is likely to take place when one tries to destroy freedom in order to save it, etc.  But they also display an ultimate optimism that is far removed from Edmund Burke and orthodox theology.  I don't ground this optimism in any necessary truths about the universe, but in empirical observation.  Nor do I base it in any observed conviction that that people will do the right thing.  The only thing my observations indicate to me is that they can do the right thing, and that the universe seems to function in such a way that ideals are possible.  As James Luther Adams put it in describing the mature liberal position, as opposed to the jejune idea that the world is progressing "onward and upward forever," as a Unitarian document of an earlier generation put it: "the resources (human and divine) which re available for meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism."

This is perhaps a rather thin optimism.  It makes no claim to predict the future.  But it does reflect a belief that human beings and human capacities, while limited and fallible, are the ultimate source of value and the repository for whatever thin hopes we are justified in cherishing for a more profound and lasting justice.  This is not a Burkean position, as I understand it, and it is a long way away from the sort of Barthian Neo-Orthodoxy which predominated in most of the non-UU Protestant Churches of the last century and insisted that whatever good human beings appear to do in the world is an illusion.

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