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Friday, October 17, 2008

Egalitarianism and the Idea of Indefinite Perfectibility

Two strands of conservative thought run throughout Tocqueville's Democracy in America. On the one hand are the traditional philosophical objections to egalitarian regimes or the general idea of equality which is contained in such statements as "all men are created equal." Historically, the denial of equal rights or equal treatment for all men is based on the simple observation that such equality does not exist in nature, and is a repudiation of common sense. In fact, throughout the classical period of Greece and Rome, no one could possibly take seriously the idea that everyone is equal or deserves equal treatment. Slaves, for example, could never expect, and did not receive, comparable treatment as their masters. The rule was understood by all: deference must be paid to one's superiors. This attitude was expressed in the Greek hierarchy of gods, in which Zeus ruled over all immortals, from Hera to the lowliest nymph. Philosophers like Aristotle, Hegel, and Nietzsche have all agreed that human civilization naturally divides into two opposing groups: those who should rule, and those who should serve. Hegel called this the master-slave dichotomy. Not until the arrival of Christianity and the gradual diffusion of Christian morality throughout the Roman empire were these assumptions challenged. For Western civilization, the spread of Christian doctrine brought with it a new emphasis of egalitarian values that rose out of a theology based on man's original sin and the possibility of his future salvation.

Along with the doctrine of original sin came also the teachings of Jesus Christ and his invitation that all people might follow the path of righteousness into a new life of grace and atonement for one's sins. This new life, characterized as a rebirth or reawakening of the human spirit, would be available to all. Thus, the universality of sin and redemption brings with it the notion that all people are basically the same, at least in the eyes of God. Henceforth, every man's salvation will depend on what he actually does, rather than who he is or what his birthright might be. Over centuries, this meritocratic principle is embraced by Christians and transforms itself into a Protestant ethic guiding our daily work and leisure. The institutions of democracy today manifest this egalitarian belief which is expressed in our laws and social values. Yet Tocqueville views democracy as an inferior political regime based on a naive understanding of human nature. Rather than see people as basically similar, aristocrats emphasize the distance separating one person from another. For conservatives, all claims regarding basic human equality are not only naive but fundamentally mistaken. They rest on the illusion that no one deserves better treatment than anyone else, and that government by a majority of people is more beneficial than government by an elite few. This view is anathema to Tocqueville. For him, differences in ability should translate into differences in political power.

The other objection Tocqueville has regarding democracy is the belief that man is capable of self-improvement or progress. This can also be characterized as a belief in the power of reason to overcome nature. Conservatives associate a belief in progress with the belief that man will in time evolve into a superior being. This, they feel, is nonsense. Man has a particular nature which is unchangeable; it cannot be nurtured to a higher moral state, nor can it be modified by any form of social engineering. In other words, we are what we are. Individual men might possibly attain a higher degree of moral perfection, but man as a whole will never change into something other than what he has always been... a frail, proud, selfish being, prone to flights of fancy and ungrateful to his maker.

The argument that mankind never changes requires us to take an abbreviated historical perspective. It says that one's internal "nature" cannot be cultivated or improved because God has created the world in a certain way to satisfy his own purposes. God's ultimate agenda is hidden from man. But what we do know is that man lacks the power to change or undo whatever God has ordained. Thus, our moral fallibility follows us to the end of time. Regardless of our good intentions.

Aside from the biblical references to support this view, there is little reason to accept Tocqueville's word as a final authority. Both Darwin and Edwin Hubble have demonstrated that our universe is in a constant state of change. What is true of galaxies is also true of human beings. As time goes by, we evolve from one state of being into another. Whether by the process of genetic mutation or cosmic expansion, we move and change in a variety of ways we scarcely comprehend. Does that mean that we are definitely getting better and evolving into a higher state of consciousness? No. The evidence does not yet support that conclusion. But neither does it preclude that outcome as a possibility.

As human intelligence expands, its power to influence and change its own environment also expands. So, it is not irrational to think that as one's power to control one's environment grows, that control might even be extended to the human psyche. But even if it doesn't, the mere belief that one's mind can influence one's behavior is enough to positively impact one's culture. William James said that "the will to believe" can bring forth evidence that otherwise would not be able to appear (a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy). Thus, faith in God sustains many people when all else fails. It makes survival and even dignity possible in situations where reason is silent. Is it then so absurd to believe that faith in human reason might possibly accomplish what otherwise could not occur in nature? Reason itself, after all, is just an evolutionary byproduct of nature. Who is to say what particular train of dominoes is set into motion by the intrusion of human reason upon the tableau of cosmic events? We may just vanish into history, or we might evolve into something altogether different from what Tocqueville imagines.


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