I like to offer ideas to people. They may find them useful, or they may not. No harm, either way. I also like political philosophy. For this reason, I offer some ideas on a political philosophy for my fellow Progressives.
There are many reasons why people may regard themselves as “Progressive.” I offer you those ideas which have provided a philosophical foundation for me...in case there are seekers of a similar nature out there.
All Life is Problem Solving - Karl Popper
The human brain is the result of millions of years of adaptive problem-solving by life on this planet. It’s been a process of accretion, not logic, so it’s not perfectly logical. But the brain is a calculating organ, and, as an organ evolved over millenia, it calculates on both conscious and older sub-conscious levels to solve problems associated with survival.
Obviously, association with other people has presented a successful survival adaptation for us. But nature and social life continue to present us with problems, so we are constantly calculating, consciously and subconsciously, the potential risks, costs and rewards that various actions will present to us.
In sociology, this viewpoint is represented by Exchange Theory. I would summarize the major premises of “Exchange Theory” as being that
1. Social interaction of any kind involves a conscious or unconscious calculation of benefits and costs, or expected benefits and costs;
2. The benefits and costs being calculated include the material, such as money and imprisonment, and the non-material, such as honor and dishonor; and
3. The objective of this conscious or unconscious calculation is to manage benefits and costs so that benefits outweigh costs to the greatest extent possible.
These principles apply from the smallest social groups, such as families, to the largest, such as nations and multi-national organizations.
I was surprised to discover that Aristotle, in his essay “The Polis,” long ago suggested that social groups were formed on the grounds of the benefits they provided. At least, that is what I see in his following observations:
“Every State is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good…”
“In the first place there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue…”
“But when several families are united, and the association aims at something more than the supply of daily needs, the first society to be formed is the village…”
“When several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life.”Thousands of years later, Petr Kropotkin noted in his treatise “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution,” that our spheres of association provided the mutual support we needed for our survival, and that our spheres of association changed over time to meet changing conditions, such as migrations:
Sociability and need of mutual aid and support are such inherent parts of human nature that at no time of history can we discover men living in small isolated families, fighting each other for the means of subsistence. On the contrary, modern research, as we saw it in the two preceding chapters, proves that since the very beginning of their prehistoric life men used to agglomerate into gentes, clans, or tribes, maintained by an idea of common descent and by worship of common ancestors. For thousands and thousands of years this organization has kept men together, even though there was no authority whatever to impose it. It has deeply impressed all subsequent development of mankind; and when the bonds of common descent had been loosened by migrations on a grand scale, while the development of the separated family within the clan itself had destroyed the old unity of the clan, a new form of union, territorial in its principle--the village community--was called into existence by the social genius of man. [CHAPTER V]Combining these ideas, I would say that we live together in social groups on the basis of exchanges we expect to enhance our well-being and probability of survival. The social groups vary in size and complexity, and they can change over time, in response to changing conditions.
Survival of the social group and its members is not guaranteed. The social group and its individual members, through action or inaction, can defeat the purpose of or even destroy the social group. If the social group is to survive, it behooves the social group and its members to act in ways which are likeliest to result in the well-being of the social group and its members.
How do you determine what that is? You could take actions on the basis of whimsy, tradition, doctrine or some authority’s pronouncements. But the likelihood of survival is greatest if the actions of the individual and social group are based on reason, observation and experience, and are responsive to changes in the natural and social environment. This is where Pragmatism comes in.
Pragmatism, as a philosophy, basically asserts that propositions should be judged primarily by their real-world results, not their origins, their emotional support, or their reinforcement of existing beliefs. If an idea is found to work in the real world, again and again, then it should be accepted on that basis, at least until a better idea comes along, or it is discovered to have lost its utility. As I see it, philosophical pragmatism is essentially an argument for the application of scientific principles to all of the problems which life presents to us – including social, economic and political problems.
This is reportedly the message of philosopher Karl Popper, in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies. According to Bryan Magee,
“Because he regards living as first and foremost a process of problem solving [Popper] wants societies which are conducive to problem solving....a society organized on such lines will be more effective at solving its problems, and therefore more successful in achieving the aims of its members, than if it were organized along other lines.”
John Dewey, one of the foremost philosophers of pragmatism, used the same idea to argue specifically in favor of democracy and democratic education:
The social condition for the flexible adaptation that Dewey believed was crucial for human advancement is a democratic form of life, not instituted merely by democratic forms of governance, but by the inculcation of democratic habits of cooperation and public spiritedness, productive of an organized, self-conscious community of individuals responding to society’s needs by experimental and inventive, rather than dogmatic, means.Such an objective is anathema to contemporary American conservatives. One conservative author goes so far as to say that Dewey’s principles “departed from those of the American founding:”
“In the founders’ view, by contrast, the natural rights of the individual correspond to a series of natural duties, the scope of which vary with the social relationship in question. Thus, while parents are obliged to promote the comprehensive good or welfare of their children, and to sacrifice their personal concerns accordingly, the obligations they owe unrelated adults are far more minimal — e.g. to refrain from interfering with their freedom, to honor contracts with them, and, at the outside, to promote their (mere) preservation. Beyond these duties, individuals are entitled to pursue their own concerns, a right that government, in turn, is obliged to respect. While individuals are free to assume a more robust obligation to unrelated others, as through a church, government itself is not the agent for advancing it.It is not only disgusting, it is also counterproductive and destructive to the fabric of any social group larger than the family. It is an understanding worthy of the Donner Party at the depth of its hunger, but not of a social group intent upon survival of the group as a group.
From Dewey’s (and the progressives’) standpoint, so minimal an understanding of obligation allows men to pursue a degree of selfishness that is developmentally primitive and hence morally disgusting.”
Furthermore, the Founders demonstrably did not hold to a minimally intrusive, laissez-faire, anti-social view of government. Alexander Hamilton proposed that Congress create a national bank to address the debts of state and national governments, and national tariffs to nurture American manufacturing. John Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, supposed to protect the Federal government from dangerous immigrants and libel. Thomas Jefferson instituted an embargo prohibiting Americans from trading with England and France, supposing that this would cause England and France to respect American ships and sailors. And fifty-six Founders signed the Declaration of Independence, which begins with the proposition that all people have equal rights to“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” and they create governments specifically “to secure these Rights.” This is not a prescription for laissez-faire administration. This is an affirmation that a government’s role, responsibility and objective is to ensure that its members, regardless of status, are protected with respect to their lives, liberties and ability to do the things they enjoy.
In fact, the whole point of the Declaration of Independence was to declare that the government of Great Britain had abdicated its responsibilities toward its American members, even injured and exploited them, to the point that it was necessary for the American colonists to establish their own independent states, to ensure that they would be able to enjoy the “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” to which they believed they were entitled.
We Americans continue to see our government as responsible for recognizing our social equality and ensuring our equal rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. This is why U.S. administrations, Republican and Democratic, have sought over the years to institute policies and programs related to such things as public health, public education, civil rights, environmental protection and labor laws.
It hasn’t been a 100-year conspiracy of progressives to create a “socialist utopia.” It is the result of a progressive, pragmatic evolution of human relations. We live and work together for mutual aid in survival and happiness. We share common needs, and we learn from experience that working together with other people enhances our ability meet those needs. This requires coordination. It is out of this need for coordination that governments arise. The more effective a government is at coordinating and ensuring our mutual survival and happiness, the longer it will remain. Eventually we learn that the survival and happiness of the social group is best achieved by ensuring that the “mutual aid” we all seek is “mutually” enjoyed by all members of the group, not just a particular individual, class or sub-group, and that the “aid” we seek addresses all of the challenges we face in life, not just defense. As a result, the majority of us do not subscribe to the Donner Party ethics of contemporary conservatism.
We are not alone. Centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that:
“Variety is disappearing from the human race; the same ways of acting, thinking, and feeling are to be met with all over the world. This is not only because nations work more upon each other, and are more faithful in their mutual imitation; but as the men of each country relinquish more and more the peculiar opinions and feelings of a caste, a profession, or a family, they simultaneously arrive at something nearer to the constitution of man, which is everywhere the same. Thus they become more alike, even without having imitated each other. Like travelers scattered about some large wood, which is intersected by paths converging to one point, if all of them keep their eyes fixed upon that point and advance towards it, they insensibly draw nearer together--though they seek not, though they see not, though they know not each other; and they will be surprised at length to find themselves all collected on the same spot. All the nations which take, not any particular man, but man himself, as the object of their researches and their imitations, are tending in the end to a similar state of society, like these travelers converging to the central plot of the forest.” [Democracy in America, Volume II, Part III, Ch.17]This is because life presents similar problems to people everywhere. And wherever people seek to solve life’s problems by reason, observation and experience, and they are responsive to changes in their natural and social environment, they will experience a progressive, pragmatic and democratic social evolution. The alternative, in fact, is not so good.