Man is born free, and yet everywhere he is in chains. -- JJ Roussau "On Social Contract"
One of the key selling points of Liberalism is the ideology of autonomy, and the view that other ideologies don't share a concept of autonomy. The latter is false (though few others phrase autonomy as specific to the individual), and the former deserves careful understanding before we can see both the problems and opportunities for a replacement. In this post we will take a short journey through the early liberal philosophers, Hobbes, Locke, Roussau, Hume, and Kant and look at the evolving views of autonomy, society, and government that came out of them.
Hobbes and the Need for the State
The beginnings of progressive social theory come from Thomas Hobbes and his book "The Leviathan." Hobbes introduces a couple of ideas which become the basis of Western liberalism since. In particular he argues there is no greatest good, that man's behavior can be explained materialistically. This becomes the basis of what we might call psychological and political materialism. Hobbes largely denies the idea that man is by nature a social creature and therefore sees man as at his natural state where there is no society.
In such a state, Hobbes reasons, people need protection from people engaging in violent theft, and therefore the state arises for joint protection of this sort. In this regard he echoes Cicero's claim that there are certain things, such as private property rights, that must be respected for humans to live together in cities. However where he differs from Cicero, Aristotle, etc is that he saw humanity as by nature isolated, alone, autonomous.
Hobbes thus lays the framework for progressive views of history. For primitive man, life is nasty, brutish, and short, but with social developments, prosperity is possible. There is no need to look to religion or to a philosophical notion of the greatest good. All we need to do is look to avoiding a violent death.
From Hobbes then emerges a concept of right to life and a general right to autonomy. These get fleshed out in greater form by later thinkers (Locke, Rousseau, and others).
Locke and Universal Rights
The next major thinker in this regard was John Locke, whose works built on Hobbes view of natural rights. While Locke followed Hobbes in a right to be generally free from violence and to follow one's own desires, he added to this a right to property, largely following Cicero. He also formulated a hierarchy of rights, with life above liberty, and liberty above property.
One of the most enduring aspects of Lockean thought in the US is the abortion debate. Both sides of the debate effectively accept a Lockean outlook, where life is greater than liberty, and therefore the only question to discuss is whether a fetus is a person, worthy of a right to life. This leads to a very narrow abortion debate. We don't get to discuss the questions of the role in an economy which treats men as normal and women as only normal to the extent they are like men. We don't get to discuss the way that the social need to recognize shared humanity between mother and fetus. We don't get to discuss the effects on society or the family. The only question is personhood.
In my view, this leads to a very impoverished debate. But it is worth noting two things in defense of Locke. First, he notes the importance of property, something Hobbes doesn't formulate as well and secondly he treats property rights as not even close to absolute, being limited by their impact on the liberty of others.
Rousseau and the Liberation of the Individual
Rousseau can be seen in "On Social Contract" to be reacting largely to Hobbes. Rousseau effectively follows Hobbes in the natural rights approach but sought to soften Hobbes assertion that humans are not social creatures. Rousseau on one hand acknowledges a social nature to humanity, but on the other hand sees society as deeply corrupting. It is through the influence of society, Rousseau held, that people though by nature good become either evil or enslaved. Rousseau then accepts both a social nature of humanity, but also treats society as fundamentally suspect and damaging.
Some respects of Rousseau's theories are clearly accurate. Monarchs can be more authoritarian than democracies and, as Rousseau pointed out, democracies become more oppressive as they cover larger numbers of people. Rousseau's theories then seem to suggest that the only guaranteed nonoppressive form of government is the local, participatory democracy, but it isnt clear that Rousseau would have liked these much since they are basic manifestations of the society that chains the individual.
Rousseau is universally hated by conservatives and for good reason. He follows Locke and Hobbes down an antisocial hole and favors liberating individuals from the fundamental units of society, the family and community. However, he the first of the liberal philosophers to really grapple with humanity as social by nature, and for this reason he cannot be ignored entirely.
Hume and the Nature of Reason
Hume noted that reason is not by nature directed and is therefore amoral in nature. Of course he was not the first Aesop's fable of the wolf and the lamb carries with it a similar lesson. But Hume attempted a solution here based solely on individual experience. Where Aristotle, Cicero, and others would look to social duties and function Hume looks to the experience of emotion for guidance. Argument from emotion may be a fallacy, but emotion alone can give reason direction, so reason is always, according to Hume, a slave of the passions, and this is as it should be.
With this view of reason and emotion comes the basic view of human rights being things which one feels strongly about. Individual emotions thus become seen as the guiding light for society.
The problem of course is that prejudices steer our reasoning and when we cloak these in universality, we turn them into things which go from being functionally protective of community into things which are oppressive of other communities, and even oppressive of our own.
The picture of liberal autonomy that develops is one where society is a corrupting influence on the individual, where the goal is to erode family and community so that chosen relationships are more important than unchosen ones. Parenthood thus is a one-way duty and children need not have duties towards their elders. Communities have duties to their members but the members have no duties to communities they did not choose, and so forth.
But beyond these are a trust in the combination of reason and emotion leading to the visible cult of the personality. However these are only enabled by worshipping ever more powerful social machines. We factory farm our food and we factory farm our kids. We produce our work in factories. The home becomes nothing more than a place for isolated individuals to hide at night from the inhumanity of the world.
In the next in this series I will look at an alternative way to look at human autonomy from a social function perspective and how computer science of all fields can provide a far more conservative alternative to this sort of autonomy theory.