Note: I presented this talk to a group of honors students last week, at a conference called "Has Liberalism Failed?"
I. Livingston’s Idiosyncratic reading of Hume
In the ancient and medieval philosophical world, questions about what is real and what is valuable take priority. What is God like? What is a human being? What is a good human life? Descartes says in the introduction to his Meditations that he was disturbed that his teachers, all Christians, could come to such different conclusions on various philosophical questions. His frustration seems logical enough: if we can’t be certain about our fundamental assumptions, then what’s the point of the conversation? By undertaking the thought experiment of doubting everything, he could strip away all shaky assumptions and drill down on what is certain. From that starting point, he could rebuild the world, so to speak – God, mathematics, external reality – on a much surer basis. Descartes changed the nature of the philosophical project to one grounded in epistemological questions, rather than metaphysical or ethical ones. Why discuss human nature if I don’t know how I can trust what I perceive? But the shift to prioritizing questions of epistemology sneaks in assumptions of value without admitting it. What is the worth of knowledge in comparison to other sorts of things? Why should I value the sort of certainty I can get from rational deductive calculation over other kinds of knowing? These are not epistemological questions. And actually, Hume argues that Descartes’ whole project doesn’t even get off the ground. If he doubts mathematics, which he does, then he certainly must also doubt logic, but he does not. For if he were to doubt logic, he could make no arguments and come to no conclusions. Like all enlightenment ideology, Descartes’ project functions by claiming a kind of neutrality which it does not, and frankly, cannot, possess.
The term ‘philosophy’ means, etymologically, “the love of wisdom.” The modern project, or the French Enlightenment, is not about the love of wisdom, but the love of certainty and the love of neutrality. The abject failure of the modern project led inevitably to existential despair, to the radical subjectivity of post-modernism, and sadly, to the bloodiest wars and the most murderous regimes in the entire history of humanity, bar none.
I place the Scottish Enlightenment and its version of liberalism over and against this modern philosophical project. I’m going to draw here from the excellent book, with an excellent title, Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium: Hume’s Pathology of Philosophy by Donald Livingston. Dr. Livingston’s reading of Hume is idiosyncratic, but compelling. (As Aristotle might say, “Hume is read in many ways”). Livingston reads Hume as writing primarily, not about empiricism, and certainly not as we understand the term in the 19th century, but about the nature of the philosophical endeavor itself, as a critique of those he calls “false philosophers.”
II. True and False Philosophy
Philosophy as a task appeals to a few principles:
1.) The Ultimacy Principle: Philosophers want to understand things as they are ultimately. They seek an understanding that is “final, absolute, and unconditioned.”
2.) The Autonomy Principle: The philosopher is participating in “radically free and self-justifying inquiry”. She stands over and against common life, which is constituted by prejudice, tradition, and custom. Descartes calls this the ‘Archimedian point’ and Thomas Nagel later called it “The View from Nowhere”. Hume says that “Reason first appears in possession of the throne...” ruling with “an absolute sway and authority.” And finally,
3.) The Dominion Principle: By the ultimacy principle and the autonomy principle, the philosopher concludes that her system is ultimately correct and therefore entitled to rule over all others. Think here of Plato’s philosopher-king. Who else should dispense justice than those who understand what justice really is? It would be an illogical compromise to stray at all from their decrees or to blend their rule with any other.
There’s just one tiny hiccup. Doing philosophy this way is inconsistent with human nature. If philosophy is the ‘love of wisdom’ and ought, therefore, to lead to some kind of self-understanding, then doing philosophy this way is not only inconsistent with human nature, but with the task of philosophy itself! Therefore, philosophy, if it is to continue at all, must take this into account and reform itself. The only reason so many philosophers don’t land in the sort of despair about self-knowledge that they ought to, if they were honestly carrying out the philosophical task according to these three principles, is because they “smuggle in some favorite prejudice”, as we can see with Descartes.
Okay, so what went wrong in our three principles? The autonomy principle is the one that is flawed. Calculative reason, it turns out, is not the one autonomous tool available to the philosopher in the search for wisdom. Many other sources of legitimate authority exist, including custom. Livingston puts it this way:
"Whereas emancipated philosophy had presumed custom to be false unless certified by autonomous reflection, Hume’s new principle is that custom is presumed true unless shown to be otherwise, and where showing it to be otherwise presupposes the authority of custom as a whole.... [therefore] Philosophical reflection may criticize any prejudice of common life by comparison with other prejudices and in the light of abstract principles, ideals, and models (what Hume calls “general rules”). but these critical principles, ideals, and models must themselves be thought of as reflections, abridgments, or stylizations of a particular domain of custom." (Livingston 21).
The failure of the first version of the autonomy principle demonstrates that there is no viewpoint from nowhere.
This yeilds Hume’s claim that “philosophical decisions are nothing but the reflections of common life, methodized and corrected” and explains why Hume, and others like Burke, often claim that the vulgar, taken as a group, often display great wisdom. It is not their own intellectual achievement, but the collected wisdom of the generations instantiated in their practices, that leads to this wisdom. Philosophers do their best work when they make sense of these insights, rather than when they throw the whole system of common life into question.
A quick look at the character of the ‘false philosopher’ will shed light on some of the issues we’re dealing with today. The false philosopher sees herself as heroically and courageously throwing off the totality of custom for the sake of sublime Reason: ‘property is theft’, ‘all benevolence is self-love', ‘we will force them to be free’, ‘all history is the history of oppression’, ‘the real is the measurable’. Hume says that she thinks of herself as “a superior being”, she thinks of common life as “contemptible and puerile” and that she takes on a “sullen Pride and Contempt of mankind.” Livingston discusses three psychological tendencies of the false philosopher: philosophical contempt, which breeds social withdrawal like Diogenes, philosophical resentment, which breeds revolution, as in Descartes and Marx, and the philosophical guilt of the false philosopher too weak to alienate herself entirely from common life.
Livingston refers to this totalizing tendency as ‘the Midas Touch’. Every question and area of life can be understood in terms of the one ruling principle; it is a new lens through which reality is transformed. Reason, argument, and critical theory will never loosen the false philosopher from the grip of the lens they have adopted. The only salvation for them is the realization that their system is not actually autonomous, that it has depended on some assumed prejudice, and that they actually have no escape from total and utter skepticism from within their own system. Only then can they begin to acknowledge the autonomy of custom for the successful practice of philosophy. Livingston refers to the “insight of this humanistic philosophy – that theoretical, propositional, and explicit knowledge presupposes a background of tacit, practical, and inarticulate knowledge.”
In contrast to the false philosopher, what is the true philosopher like? Livingston lays out 6 characteristics of the true philosopher that contrasts with the contempt, resentment, guilt, and loneliness of the false philosopher.
The true philosopher has humility, piety, folly, eloquence, greatness of mind, and extensive benevolence.
First, humility: The true philosopher has passed through the pyrrhonic skepticism and despair that attends an awareness of the failure of the autonomy of calculative reason. She has admitted to the autonomy of custom, and now understands the wisdom of the generations that is found there. She sees herself as a participant in common life. Therefore, the arrogance and contempt that arise from the ‘heroic moment of reflection’ in the mode of false philosophy falls away. Not only does she no longer resent common life, but she identifies with it!
Second, piety: The true philosopher understands the process of something becoming sacred. This is not a matter for calculative reason, but for participation in common life. Basic human relations in the family, the founding of a people, fundamental social institutions such as property, and others. “Philosophical piety is the respect for the totality of custom as such”: the turn from holding all custom as suspect, to granting custom the benefit of the doubt.
Third, folly: This is not true foolishness, but the comic attitude that the philosopher takes towards her former melancholy state. She also ‘plays the fool’ in the sense that she still talks about the real and believes what she says, though she cannot offer an account that will satisfy pure calculative reason, since her views are not all mediated by custom. Her newfound respect for the views of the mere vulgar make her appear a fool in the eyes of the rest of the philosophical community. Most importantly, though, the true philosopher is joyful! Compare the gaiety and humor of the true philosophers with Sartrean nausea, Heideggerrian angst, Nietzsche’s will to power, or Marxist rage.
Fourth, eloquence: the true philosopher respects the role of the passions in life. She strives to engage them and elevate them through her speech. Contrast her approach with what Livingston calls the ‘philosophical alchemy’ of false philosophy and its effects on language. I’m reminded of the meme with a beautiful winter scene in the background. The text reads, “All I want for Christmas is the abolition of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy.” Or perhaps the #killallmen scandal of Sarah Jeong and the New York Times Editorial Board. When even left-leaning commentators brought up concerns about her calls to #erase various groups of people, they were encouraged to stick to the ideological program and not be distracted by a desire to ‘tone-police’ women of color. Hume is apt here: “There is no virtue or moral duty, but what may, with facility, be refined away, if we indulge a false philosophy, in sifting and scrutinizing it, by every captious rule of logic, in every light or position, in which it may be placed.” Rather, he says, the purpose of the “easy and humane philosophy” is “only to represent the common sense of mankind in more beautiful and more engaging colors.”
Fifth, greatness of mind: The true philosopher knows that she has passed through the trial of false philosophy, and that she is in a position to order and methodize the tacit insights of common life, so she stands above both the vulgar and the false. But the humility, piety, and folly in her character mortifies arrogance. She cannot even systematize and pass on true philosophy to the next generation, as they must find out about the failure of the autonomy of reason and rediscover the autonomy of common life for themselves. Therefore, she knows what is due to herself, but without undue pride. She elevated sentiments, she disdains slavery, and conscious of her virtue. Her questions are still ultimate, she still pursues knowledge of the real with regard to both human and divine, but bravely "compasses the globe” in what Hume called “a leaky weather-beaten vessel.”
Finally, extensive benevolence: Note that for Hume, the term ‘justice’ is relegated to a narrow use having to do with property, transference by consent, and promise-keeping. Justice is also an artificial virtue, which means that it arises from self-love and only becomes a duty over time and under certain circumstances. Since Hume only acknowledges moral merit based on motive, our natural benevolence is a first-class virtue, in comparison to justice. If anything, we value justice because of the peace and prosperity it creates, providing a context for the more important and valued virtues of family and community life. The good we do for one another out of love has moral merit that the good we do for each other out of self-interest lacks. As a full participant in common life, the true philosopher is a friend of the ‘vulgar’ or ‘prephilosophical’ person. She is free from the perversions of charity that can occur through the ‘alchemy’ of false philosophy and is free to pursue true charity.
III. The True and False Philosophy of Private Property
Having grasped Hume’s notions of true and false philosophy, let’s apply what we’ve learned to a particular problem: private property. Hume thinks that this is the basic question that we have to answer in order to settle into society, since it is the most common bone of contention between people. Even most killing is about disputes over property. If our rule of property can be settled, we can live in peace and strive for improvement.
There are several ways that the question of private property in common life can be hijacked by various false philosophies.
First, we can delude ourselves that the distribution of ownership is something we can arrange according to a rational test. First, we might assume that a just distribution of property will be equal. But we quickly find that this system subverts itself, since it requires a tyrant with seriously unequal levels of power to maintain a highly unstable equality. The wide variation in human abilities, personalities, desires, and histories will naturally give rise to differences in the way that property is maintained and developed. Thus the tyrant must constantly track and redistribute in order to maintain an equal system, so that an equal system necessarily requires inequality, and is therefore self-contradictory.
Jettisoning that notion, we argue that property ought to be fitted to levels of virtue. Those most deserving should own the most, and the least deserving the least. This looks very logical. But in application, there is massive disagreement about what counts as virtuous and deserving. Even if this system would be the most fair in some abstract sense, it is impossible to implement.
We have also forgotten, in our abstract reasoning about property, that we generally do not always care to have the particular property that we own, and would rather have something else. So not only must we determine rules of property, but also rules about trade. So even if we could find a way to agree on who the virtuous ones really are, should they be allowed to give or sell their goods to others? And if so, wouldn’t that again upset the distribution by allowing the less deserving to have property they ought not have according to our rule?
So we finally must admit that the reasoning process we have undertaken is not actually how property works at all. We must have a rule, in order to have peace, but it must be one that everyone can easiy recognize and agree on. But this rule already exists! It is the rule that whoever has made something or has possessed for a long time owns it. If they want to trade it, they can, and then that new property distribution will be honored by all. This is called transference by consent. Finally, if I’m not able to make the trade at the same moment, we have a rule called promise-keeping, that allows me to pay you now and receive something later, or receive something now and pay later. Ownership is not really about desert, then, but about association. We all, through imaginative association, automatically associate you with the things you possess (unless we know who possessed it first and that you took it without consent). We also associate your property with the things it produces, like a cow and its calf, or a tree and its fruit. This is called accession. If you were to die, we associate your property with your spouse and/or your children, because they are the closest thing to you. This is called succession. And finally, some grey area issues are just solved by positive law, though we often employ imaginative association here as well. For instance, if you squat in an abandoned building, we may choose some amount of time or level of care that we require in order for you to become an owner. These judgments will be somewhat arbitrary, but not entirely. A week would be too short, but 10 years too long. We might pick a number based on some other, similar legal situation. We might choose the standard of care by comparing to some other, previously agreed upon standard of care. This way, the rule is easily acknowledged in common life, since everyone has the capacity for imaginative association that we appeal to in creating the positive law.
So for Hume, property is a convention, that arises out of a “general sense of common interest”. We’re all willing to comply with some scheme of rules of a critical mass of others are also willing to comply. This system of general compliance evolves slowly over time, starting with a kind of ‘proto-justice’ in the family, extending to experiments of cooperation with neighbors, and on from there. We know that this is the kind of rule that we benefit from because everybody complies all the time. We may not benefit in particular instances, but we hold to the schema nonetheless. While there might have been other rules that could have worked, we have to go with the one that is salient – that presents itself as unique to the imagination. If you asked a group of people to meet somewhere at some time on a certain day in New York City, most of them will go to the clock in Grand Central Station at noon. They know they need to coordinate with the others, and so settle on the rule that will gain the greatest compliance. That is called salience. And all agree to punish or to support the punishment of non-compliers. Much of this punishment takes the form of shame and praise, but eventually, legal punishments as well. There’s nothing particularly natural about me refraining from your property. But I’ll do so out of a consideration of the strategic consequences of non-compliance. Of course, over time, this schema will gain the status of a duty as well, and take on a sense of moral obligation.
But wait! You say. John Locke has already explained the phenomena of private property to us. We gain property through the doctrine of maker’s right. Since God gave the earth to men in common, but we need to utilize resources in order to survive, we must remove resources out of the common by mixing our labor with it. Since I own myself, and I own my labor, then I am in some sense metaphysically related to the things that I make or consume. Everyone knows this because they know the natural law, or at least, they should or could, know it. I’m limited by a few provisos: not acquiring so much that it rots, and leaving enough and as good for others. Locke tells of a Indian wandering in the forest, and asks when he acquires the apple he picks from the tree? Was it when he picked it, when he bit it, or when he digested it? Surely, it’s when he picks it.
Hume admits that everyone can see that someone who takes something from out of the common and makes use of it owns it. He does not deny this at all. What he denies is Locke’s whole understanding of private property as arising from some kind of metaphysical relation between a person and her property. Instead, Hume says, property arises because of public utility.
The term ‘public utility’ is not utilitarian. Hume is not a utilitarian. Public utility is expanded when the realm within which people can make advantageous exchanges is expanded. These are individuals or families or groups in pairwise exchanges with one another. Hume never talks about people or their preferences in the aggregate, as utilitarians do. The utilitarian calculus is impossible anyway, since people’s preferences can neither be compared nor aggregated, or even known, prior to being revealed through action.
So what does Hume mean when he says that private property arises from public utility? In order to show this, he offers four thought experiments in two pairs. In one pair, he considers an situation of perfect abundance, or a situation of extreme scarcity. Would the very idea of making property claims even arise in a situation of perfect abundance? Of course not – it would not be needed. And we know exactly how things go in cases of extreme scarcity because we’ve seen this. In a shipwreck, a flood, or an earthquake, we set aside the niceties of property distinctions to ensure survival. No one would say to Rose on the Titanic that she better freeze to death in the ocean because that’s Miss Otis’s wardrobe door she’s laying on. That would be absurd. So one of the ‘circumstances of justice’ is moderate scarcity. Property distinctions are only needed when we are in this situation, which is why we don’t buy and sell air, though we would if were on Mars.
In the other pair, he considers a situation of perfect benevolence, and a situation of total malevolence. Once again, (and unlike the ‘Golden Age’ or ‘Star Trek Existence’ of total abundance) we actually know these situations. The family is the closest thing we have to perfect benevolence, and indeed, we dissolve property distinctions in the family. It would be absurd for me to make my boys buy and sell their toys to one another, though they might practice a kind of ’proto-justice’ by taking turns. On the other hand, anyone who is kidnapped knows what it’s like to be in a situation of total malevolence. Once again – it doesn’t matter much what belongs to whom. The main goal is to survive and if possible, to escape. You’ll take anything you need to do so, and no one will blame you.
But if it is the case that property only arises under these circumstances of justice: moderate scarcity and limited benevolence, then Locke is wrong that we have some metaphysical relationship with our property. In fact, Locke’s Indian doesn’t need to make any claim of ownership over his apple at all, because there is no one around. A claim of ownership is something we make against others – it requires society. In this way, Hume actually comes closer to Aquinas in his view of property - it is not a part of the natural law as it is in the protestant natural law theorists, but an addition to it that we need to fit with our fallen situation. What does Aquinas say? That we wouldn’t have needed property in the Garden of Eden, and so it is not a part of our true nature. Rather, it is good for all the reasons Aristotle mentioned: proper self-love, incentives, the cultivation of the virtues of generosity and temperance, etc. With all of these reasons, Hume can wholeheartedly agree.
Hume’s great Scottish Enlightenment insight about property is that it is evolutionary in nature. People are not radically alone as Hobbes or even Rousseau seems to argue, but are born into families, ruled by natural benevolence. Within the family, humans become used to cooperating in relationships of trust. They then experiment with extending that trust to their neighbors. Utilizing the enforcement mechanisms of shame and praise they are able to enter into cooperative endeavors with them. Only when the situation becomes so large that anonymity enters in, do we require an official legal structure to punish non-compliers. By then, most of us have internalized the rules of justice as matters of duty that obligate us. If we hadn’t the enforcers would never be able to keep up with the levels of non-compliance. But because only a few of us are “sensible knaves” who make ourselves exceptions while expecting everyone else to follow the rules, the system is workable.
For all its virtues, Locke’s system turns out to be a case of false philosophy. How do I mix my labor with every inch of a piece of land if I want to save it for hunting rather than farm it? If I pour a can of tomato juice into the ocean, do I own the ocean now? What about fishing? And what of the property we own now? Wasn’t it once stolen from others? Since the property exchange occurs as a result of theft rather than consent, doesn’t that negate a majority of the property rights in existence? And the same can be said for all governments under Locke’s notion of tacit consent. First, tacit consent is an insincere theory, since telling a poor day-laborer in England that he consented to the laws by remaining there is like carrying a man onto a ship while asleep and then telling them he agreed to be out at sea because he can’t leave. But furthermore, don’t almost all governments in existence have a history of usurpation, and even murder? Don't they all exceed their roles as the nightwatchmen state? So according to Locke, we have the right to revolt in every place in the world! All Locke can say in response is that it wouldn’t be prudent.
This is a heroic moment of reflection in which all the customs of common life are thrown off in service to the theory. The only escape from the mind-bending alienation from common life that this will cause is to sneak in a favorite prejudice to mitigate the bizarre reductio ad absurdam into which one has fallen. Ah! But Marx and Proudhon caught the prejudice and corrected it. Thus, all property is theft, and all governments illegitimate.
What does this have to do with liberalism? Liberty [understood as true freedom within human constraints] as a perfection of civil society – but not as the only way – consider cultural evolution (Afghanistan is a good example here).
IV. Gospel Capital
After presenting all of this to you, I had to wonder if I’m a hypocrite. There is one total moral revolution of which I wholeheartedly approve. It required of its first adherents to depart severely from the practices of common life in which they found themselves, and I agree with their decision to do it! It turned out to be just as dangerous to the stability of society as Hume says these movements will be. This is the moral revolution of Jesus.
The Christian declaration of the eternal worth and status of every human person should strike ancient pagans as utterly absurd. First of all, love for human beings is far, far below the status of the god of the philosophers – a detached mind incapable of being affected at all. Aristotle called God “Thought Thinking Itself”. The phrase “God is Love”, if one understands this love as always willing the good for everyone, would have been utterly meaningless to him. Secondly, it looks obviously impracticable: if Christians go against the pagan practice of, say, the exposure of children, who is going to rear all of these poor, deformed, unwanted children? And even if such resources existed, what could possibly motivate us to expend them in this way? A society based on the values of Jesus, it appears, would never get off the ground at all, and even if it did, would be bound to fail. The humility and charity of the Christian is not just new for the pagans at the time. It is unthinkable. It is absurd. It is dangerous. The pagan emperors were right to feel threatened by these Christian upstarts, even when their ranks were few. The hostile emperor Julian lamented that “It is [the Christians’] philanthropy towards strangers, the care they take of the graves of the dead, and the affected sanctity with which they conduct their lives that have done most to spread their atheism.” (Remember that Christians were called atheists because they rejected the gods of the city and of the Roman pantheon.) And again he complains to one of his pagan priests, “It is a disgrace that these impious Galilaeans care not only for their own poor, but for ours as well.” In fact, Christians rescued the babies exposed by pagan parents and picked up sick pagans out of the road where they had been thrown by their families in order to care for them. During the medieval period, the ‘hospitaller’ movement began, in which rich land-owning Christians would donate huge tracts of land and large portions of their personal fortune to open hospitals, until every major city had one. The Knights of St. John were given the decree of DuPuis, called “How Our Lords the Sick Should be Received and Served”. The whole church, and particularly the monastaries, were referred to as the “patrimony [that is, the inheritance] of the poor”. A 19th century historian, generally hostile to the church, W.E.H. Lackey, claims that it is “commitment to the poor, both in spirit and in sheer scope , constituted something new in the western world and represented a dramatic improvement over the standards of classical antiquity.”
And here I'll introduce a phrase I'm stealing from my good old dad, the Rev. Wayne Carson: "gospel capital." This is when a secular person appeals to a morality flowing from the Judeo-Christian tradition, but fails to acknowledge (often without even realizing it) that that's what they're doing.
Livingston admits this in passing when discussing the extensive benevolence of the true philosopher. Hume is unwittingly relying on his Presbyterian milieu in prioritizing love over justice, for instance. Therefore he is able to assume a moral background that he cannot himself instantiate.
Furthermore, we can give some defenses of the Jesus Revolution as unlike the revolutionary mindset of the false philosopher.
1) It accords with our true nature, which is made to operate on grace.
2) It’s not an ideology; it’s a person. We find some examples in other traditions the morality of which sounds similar to Jesus in some way. But there is no way for regular, everyday people to fundamentally change their way of life. For those in power, for instance, shifting to an equal system of law will be a suboptimal move. Only the power and personality of Jesus, along with the genuine connection to God’s grace which he ushers in, allows the seismic moral shift that we see in the early church and on from there.
3) Finally, the way of Jesus is compatible with the establishment of customs and traditions that can persist through reform without causing constant revolution unsustainable for human nature, which is what we see with false philosophy.