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A Liberal Philosophy

Updated 13 Oct 2019

This essay is very unfinished, perhaps even incoherent in places. It is growing slowly as I dig bit by bit into the philosophical issues it raises. But it is beginning to hold together.

The basis of society

It is inherent in the nature of all living organisms to improve their lot as best they can by modifying their environment. Cooperation allows greater improvement than mere individual effort can achieve. James Lovelock's studies of the global biosphere, his "Gaia", have shown how all of life cooperates to keep its home as amenable as possible. Individual animals of a given species often join together in some form of cooperative group. So often in fact that we have many names for such groups - flock, swarm, shoal, herd, pride, pack, nest, colony and so on. When people form such a group we may call it a society. All people who wish to improve their lives beyond their individual abilities must join such a society.

The larger, richer and more complex the society, the greater the scope for individual improvement. A society of any complexity needs an organizational structure, with specialists to develop and maintain that structure. This structure may be called its constitution and may be taken to include its various laws and established customs. The specialists who devise and administer the constitution are its government.

The benefits of scale also dictate that a healthy society grows by merging with other societies. Modern biological sciences are bringing an unexpected corrollary to this. The neurological and behavioural scicences are revealing sentience - consciousness - in many animal species, from the octopus and manta ray to birds, dolphins and many land mammals. In all cases the brain complexity necessary for sentience is driven by the benefits and pressures of primitive society. Although there is little immediate practical benefit to be gained, we must remember that embracing all sentient beings is the logical goal of any healthy society. In the not too dim and distant future, artificial intelligences will also be joining us.

Dealing with human nature

Human nature has not changed since the days we were one with the apes. Only the intelligence to apply it has evolved to any great extent. We may have gained in wisdom, ingenuity, culture and other aspects of intellectual maturity, but the old animal emotions, inherited from the biological process of evolution, remain a fundamental aspect of human nature. On the negative side the likes of selfishness, greed, hatred and indifference still often overwhelm us. Even after many millennia of social development, the most enlightened of modern societies must still make allowance for the psychology of the ape man.

We cannot escape our baser instincts but, if we do not control them, they will tear society apart or, at best, pervert it into something oppressive and ultimately unstable. If we want to make the most of our lives, both individually and collectively, then we must subdue those instincts to the call of reason and mutual respect. Any practical foundation of a fair and sustainable society must be built around the principle of mutual protection.

Protection is not only needed against other members of society, it is needed against other societies too. Any society that focuses too exclusively on mutual cooperation risks invasion and destruction from more primitive and aggressive societies. A peace-loving, empathic soldier is no reply to an experienced and dedicated warrior with his victory prize gleaming in his eyes.

Any stable society must somehow balance out the opposing forces of evolution, of cooperation and aggression. Only in this way can it both build cooperation among its members while retaining an aggressive ability to protect itself from attack, both from within and without.

It might seem fortunate, but really must come as no surprise, that these forces have over time evolved a natural balance. The balance may be struck at a different level in each individual and in each society, but the mechanisms of that balance have been bred into all of us, for the very reason that it has ensured our survival. That must give us some hope in coming out of the other end of this review with a tenable solution.

Nevertheless, it is especially important that the politics of hatred or disdain should have no place in the formative workings of an enlightened society. They are bred of division and in turn they breed division. Even dragging down an enemy is no solution, unless you understand with a high order what you are going to put in their place, otherwise it becomes a recipe for disaster. Society must guard against them in others and be able to fall back on them in an emergency, but that is a different thing.

Three principles of a Liberal society

Freedom. The first and most basic principle of any fair society is to recognise the freedom of all individuals to improve their lot as best they can, to do what they want when and where they want.

Protection. But, human nature being what it is, we will frequently get in each other's way. A second principle must allow individuals to defend themselves against the abuses of their fellow citizens, whether intentional or unintentional. That is, a citizen may act as they please under the first principle, only provided that in so doing they do not abuse a fellow citizen. We may note that ecologically, any abuse of Gaia represents an abuse of the support system for every member of society. Thus any abuse of Gaia, especially any abuse of the many known sentient species, constututes a breach of the principle of protection.

Support. We do not live in isolation – cooperation is what creates society. The first two principles dictate that this cooperation should be to our mutual benefit. But the requirement not to impede others is a passive one. A sensible citizen will not merely avoid abusing others but will actively help them. In this way they encourage others to actively help them in return. From this arises a third principle of society, to enable and support the self-improvement of others, even to support those unfortunates who cannot support themselves.

These three principles, of freedom, protection and support applied from the individual to the global level, provide a foundational definition of Liberalism.

Political realisations

Staying closer to the here and now, many attempts have been made to create what people see as a fair or just society.

The most fundamental political principle must be that power and governance are exercised through the will of the people as a whole; the government is the servant of society and not the other way round. We may discount top-down despotism as inherently illiberal through and through.

Capitalism sought to replace despotism by ruthlessly applying the dynamics of evolution to the marketplace. It recognises the first principle of freedom to act but actively denies the right to defend yourself from predation, deliberately exposing the less fortunate to the merciless rigours of the marketplace. It leaves the third, that of mutual support, to the dictates of free markets. Ultimately, it fails to protect the weak from the powerful or to ensure that governance is fairly appointed.

Socialism is aimed above all at redressing that imbalance. It is broadly similar to Liberalism but in practice promotes the third principle above the others, judging personal wellbeing via top-down directive and thereby tending to defeat its own object. In particular, the idea of social "privilege" is on the one hand anathema and must be seen to be rooted out, yet at the same time the elected government are granted great privileges of power in judging and interfering with other people's lives. The end result is that those with perceived privilege get unduly blocked from doing as they will, even persecuted, while everybody else is expected to conform to a societal norm embodied in an ever-growing bureaucracy. The first principle of freedom disappeares ever further under its weight.

Communism treats socialism as an intermediate stage to something better. As people come to discover the benefits of cooperation, it is believed that their baser motives will simply wither away. The ideal, evolved Communist state need concern itself only with the organising of productive work and the fair distribution of wealth and support. The first principle of freedom is expected to look after itself, the second principle of protection is unnecessary and only the third principle of support is addressed.

Anarchy more directly anticipates the natural wasting away of our more negative animal drives, without prescribing any intermediate steps or ultimate role for society. It anticipates that bothe the first and third principles will be automatically fulfilled by our new and better natures, while failing to recognise any need for the second. It is a nice ideal, one of several which may be encapsulated as, "If we could all learn to be nice to each other, then life would be better for all of us." But all such ideologies have lost touch with reality. They require human nature to change, and that can only be accomplished through the same process of biological evolution that created human nature in the first place. It would need new evolutionary pressures - or forced eugenics - to drive humanity in the right direction. As a social philosophy for the next ten thousand years, they are a lost cause.

Capitalism disdains the losers of society, Socialism hates and drags down the winners and leaders who become rich and powerful, communism and anarchy ignore the inevitability of our animal natures, we have to find a better way. Only Liberalism fully enables, protects and nurtures all individuals fairly.

Towards a Liberal constitution

The Three Principles of Freedom, Protection and Support may form the written core of a Liberal constitution, to become a constant reminder and challenge to all. It is perhaps trite to remark that they could be challenged only through a constitutional reform as radical as that which would have set them in place.

A constitution is a living thing, comprising not only diktats written or customary, but also all those multifarious individuals and institutions who influence the continued evolution of those diktats. All I can present here is a snapshot of my proposed diktats, along with some small commentary upon them.

The Rule of Law is a principle fundamental to the workings of the UK constitution. It is the Common Law principle that nobody can be molested or disturbed at home without due legal process. This is in effect the same principle which I describe from the other side, as the right to do as you please provided it hurts no-one.

All other aspects of the constitution are concerned with the institutions of government and the manner in which they execute and administer their policies.