Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Josh Claybourn has an interesting blog that I read now and then, but this morning he has an odd entry on the front page entitled “Libertarian Freedom: Self Destruction?”. I think he’s engaging in a bit of a straw man – at the very least, in drastically oversimplifying complex ideas. The entry begins,

The consequence of original sin – man’s fallen nature – is central to everything in the Christian worldview. Marxists, humanists, and most atheists/agnostics will tell you that human nature is perfectible and that only our faulty societies and social constructs have hindered man’s reach for perfection. Therefore these worldviews’ psychological theories stress the importance of getting in touch with your “real self” and building self-esteem.

I say that he is engaging in a straw man here because he is lumping together 4 very different things (marxism, humanism, atheism and agnosticism) and claiming that they all take the same position on whether human nature is perfectible or not. In fact, these 4 things are not even the same types of categories. Atheism and agnosticism are only positions on one single question, the existence of God. Atheism and agnosticism do not entail adherence to any particular philosophy or system of thought on questions of ethics, psychology, sociology, economics, or political ideology. In reality, atheists and agnostics run the gamut on those issues just like Christians do.

Marxism and humanism are examples of those more general systems of thought to which atheists or agnostics might subscribe, but even then it is a mistake to lump them together. Humanism and marxism are not linked by a common view on the perfectibility of human nature. Perhaps I should note here that I am not an atheist, an agnostic or a marxist (quite the opposite, in fact), but I am a humanist. I don’t know of any humanist who believes that human nature is perfectible. Indeed, I know of no humanist who would speak in such simplistic terms. I think most humanists would see that Josh has offered a false dichotomy, as though the only two ways to look at human nature is that it is either “fallen”, and therefore unredeemable except by supernatural intervention, or “perfectible”. Humanism would argue, I think, that human nature is far more complex than that, that human beings are by nature capable of a vast range of behavior, from the greatest kindness to the most depraved barbarism. There is a big difference between believing that human beings are “perfectible” and believing that human beings are improvable, that through education and cooperation we can generally improve the human condition and build communities more conducive to human happiness than we have had in the past or have at present. Indeed, I would say that we have already done that in many ways throughout human history. We have managed to improve society rather dramatically in very important ways, from stamping out slavery and reducing racism to giving women access to education and economic viability. I’m sure we could all dispute specific details, and some of us may argue that in some instances the pendulum has swung too far or we haven’t done so in the correct manner in some particulars, but I don’t think any reasonable person would argue the fact that, as a whole, society is more humane and decent today than it was in the days when most people considered it normal and acceptable to own other human beings and to beat them and kill them with no remorse.

Josh doesn’t cite any marxists or humanists to support this point, but he does include this statement:

Boris Sokoloff, one of those academic types, writes that inherent in our nature is “a desire for and drive toward unlimited freedom…a protest, often violent and vicious, against any limitation or restriction of freedom in any possible way.”

I’m not sure why he calls Sokoloff “one of those academic types” other than perhaps to express some form of misology. Sokoloff was a doctor, not a sociologist or philosopher. At any rate, I don’t think this statement is representative of either marxism or humanism, so I’m not sure what the point of it was. At the very least, I would point to the counter viewpoint offered by Erich Fromm, who was both a humanist and a socialist, in Escape from Freedom. Fromm argued that inherent in human nature is the desire to escape from freedom and the responsibility that comes with it. Fromm points out that even in situations where political authority is restrained, individuals still tend to voluntarily subjugate themselves to something larger than themselves. Or as Mencken puts it, man is “quite unable to think of himself as a free individual; he must belong to a group, or shake with fear and loneliness – and the group, of course, must have its leaders.” Perhaps this is a bit too pessimistic, but my only intent in quoting it is to point out that Sokoloff does not speak even for the “academic types”, in whose category the author has placed him, much less for humanism or marxism.

Josh quotes another blogger, who was himself quoting another blogger, to the effect that freedom is, in the long run, inconsistent with freedom, that unrestrained freedom leads to chaos, which in turn leads to the institution of more brutal control to fix the situation. But this, it seems to me, is speculation without a shred of evidence to support it. In every situation where an expansion of liberty led to a crackdown, the crackdown was led by those who were opposed to the concept of liberty in the first place, and those are precisely the people that make expansions of political liberty necessary. And speaking as a civil libertarian myself, I find the notion that we are on some runaway train of rampant license leading to chaos to be relatively silly. American culture, while it celebrates freedom to a great degree, is still imbued deeply with the authoritarian impulse to control what people drink, smoke, eat, say, read, hear and view. It is a constant battle to prevent the forces of reaction from instituting legal penalties on private behavior, and we are still a far cry from the society that Jefferson and Madison envisioned, a society in which the law exists only to protect one person from another while allowing all other actions and thoughts to remain free and unfettered by the majoritarian impulse to control others.