Sunday, June 28, 2009

The U.S. National Interest: The America Metaphysic

The American is a new man who acts on new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas and form new opinions. J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur

The American metaphysic is a complex synthesis of a soul within a soul. One soul is a bridge building system linking noumenalism with naturalism, which is not as I have discussed in earlier blogs, merely pragmatism or realism. The other soul, as Renan pointed out in my earlier blog post The U.S. National Interest, is the concept of heritage linked with the present context. Within both souls is the will to continue to synthesize and build a common heritage. Plato’s idea to continually reexamine tradition and build upon it, Aristotle’s conclusion that history is disintegrating toward “the good” and that change and stability are the key factors in this movement, Burke’s call to cautiously conduct political experiments, and both Lipset’s and Almond’s emphasis on stability through system maintenance and access of new groups manifests a metaphysic based on optimistic progress. The answer to the question: “what is the American metaphysic”... In the final analysis, the answer closely approximates John Stuart Mill’s own discovery: happiness (or understanding, or defining the cosmos, knowledge and being) can only be achieved by not making it a direct end. The only chance for happiness is to treat not happiness, but something external to it (progress and anticipation of the future), as the purpose of life. In other words, the journey is more important than (because it proves the) arrival. Unfortunately, this metaphysic can also get lost in quick fixes like consumerism for example.

The very fact that there is movement presupposes confidence in man and that there is a “good.” The questions: “what is reality?”, “what is the good?” and “can we actually know ‘the good’?” are still not answered to suit all, but that becomes secondary (but still very important). Confidence in man is manifest in Augustine’s noumenalist theory that God is “good” and God created man, therefore man is “good.” Aquinas sees man’s reason as still incorrupt and capable of finding “the good.” Virtually all the theorists discussed (Plato, Aquinas, Augustine, Rousseau, Locke, Mill, Weber, Dewey, and Strauss) think of man as a duality of “good” and “bad.” They all also offer a way to stimulate the “good.” Even Nietzsche in an ironic way highlights the danger of rejecting reason over impulse. Augustine states that selfish desires are not enough, in fact alone they will cause decay. Weber calls for an enlightened self-interest and Rousseau calls for commitment to society for moral development. Whether the “good” is of noumenalist or teleo-naturalist origin, or whether it is actually reachable are not part of the common American metaphysic, but are uncommon (and important) subsets. We will find out if and when we get there.

With such a fluid and dynamic metaphysical base, caution and order become critical. There are many obstacles to the key issue of progress. Burke warns of corruption. Rousseau, Weber, and Dewey fear the dangers of alienation and identity crisis due to industrialization, specialization, and bureaucracy. The loss of commitment and hedonistic self-interest void of recognition of Rousseau’s society (collection more than the sum of the parts) is mentioned in an earlier post. Too much of the noumenalist or naturalist schools could break the delicate balance of the countervailing forces of this metaphysic. With such a nebulous “end” the means could actually become the end which would leave the metaphysic rudderless. The liberalist movement of equality and the populist sentiments of the Obama zeitgeist could crush the (or create a new) “natural aristocracy” that Plato, Aristotle, Burke, and many others hold as so important. The aristocracy could break the move toward the “open society,” as Popper charges Plato with inciting, or as Nietzsche foresaw Hitler doing. Progress could come too quickly and challenge stability as Burke and Lipset warn. Progress could come too slowly and civil society would have the right to rebellion as Aquinas and Locke argue. The challenges and obstacles to an open and changing society continue on and will multiply as progression continues.

To combat the dangers to this fluid and dynamic metaphysic, precautionary measures become pivotal issues. The concept of checks and balances becomes a key issue long before the concept of government is considered. Order becomes more important than justice in the eyes of some. As Lipset and Almond point out, stability (order) is evidence of justice (goodness). This is because justice in any form is only realizable in a context of order. Even this has a check in Aquinas’ and Locke’s theories of rebellion. This metaphysic also highlights the pivotal importance of the individual, and his fragility. Therefore, human, environmental, and capital investment called for by Aristotle, Weber, Niebuhr, Almond, and Lipset becomes very important. Finally, government, in general terms, is an issue on the metaphysical level because it too must reflect the open-ended answer of this complex philosophical framework. The rights of Locke’s and Rousseau’s man are inalienable, so government must not be too powerful. Yet the dangers of disorder (as Hobbes feared) and the threats to Burke’s “natural aristocracy” are threatened by the masses, so government must not be too weak. If confusion persists concerning this discussion of the American Metaphysic, let me offer one final explanation by paraphrasing and transposing the thoughts of Miguel de Unamuno about himself to personified America. The country America seems to come to no conclusions, she vacillates—now she seems to affirm on thing and then its contrary. She is full of contradictions—I can’t label her. America affirms contraries; she says one thing with her heart and another with her head. It is this conflict that unifies action—life! Therefore, it is this uncertain America that acts, not because she deems her principle of action to be true, but in order to make it true, in order to prove its truth, in order to create her own world.

Friday, June 19, 2009

U.S. National Interest: The Bridge Builders

We have looked at the naturalist and noumenalist concepts that are part of the American common identity. With this brief discussion of bridge builders we will complete our general philosophical discussion. My next post will delve into the specifics of the American Metaphysic Synthesis.

Bridge Builders

In the strict definitions of noumenalists and naturalists, these two metaphysics are mutually exclusive. In actual practice though, there are theorists from both camps that incorporate elements of the opposing school in an attempt to perfect a synthesis. Although I did not include them in this category, both Aristotle and Augustine have elements of the naturalist school in their works. Aristotle’s work in metaphysics places him squarely in the noumenalist camp, but in his work on psychology he manifests strong naturalistic tendencies. Augustine, in The City of God, draws on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire for his analysis of the earthly city using naturalistic psychology and reason. Two more important bridge builders from the noumenalist school that I discuss below are Edmund Burke and Reinhold Niebuhr.

Noumenalist bridge builders are nor necessarily realists (as is Niebuhr). Realists assume universal principles are not more real than objects as sensed. Noumenalists could place higher importance on some empirical “facts” over some ideas, but will continue to equate the “best government” with divinely ordained values above all else (something pure realists could not do). Bridge building naturalists, subjectively, seem more numerous. This may be due to pure naturalists’ difficulties in coming to grips with a source of morality and search for a foundation that offers rational hedonism, or a Nietzschean extreme. These modified naturalists (teleo-naturalists) have, on the other hand, built bridges to altruistic motives, hierarchical value systems, and ideals of perfection (if only as psychic facts). This group of teleo-naturalists includes John Stuart Mill, Lipset, Almond, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Dewey.

Naturalist bridge builders are not necessarily pragmatists (as is Dewey). From the definition of teleo-naturalists, it is clear that not all in this school are concerned with practical consequences and most would certainly not agree with the pragmatists’ stand that if there is no difference in the consequences between two alternatives, then they mean practically the same thing.

Burke was a firm believer in God and that He gave us laws to follow. We can know these laws through our instincts. The institutions which survive in society over time are those that parallel our instincts and therefore may be good (but survivability may not be the only requirement of the “good.”). We must adhere to the social and political institutions to find the “good.” If a society doesn’t follow the natural order, it will decay (France of his day—a very British viewpoint!). Political experiment is important, though to refine the “good” institutions, but we must act cautiously. Burke believed in a natural aristocracy that defines and leads the nation. The aristocracy must do what is best for the people because they know what is best. If leaders don’t follow their superior instincts, society will collapse. The reason corruption occurs is because aristocratic society itself is corrupt. Religion is crucial for public virtue, for the aristocracy and the masses.

Niebuhr’s work is a reaction against the neoclassical rationalists (who are naturalists).
He was part of a wave of realists (including Kennan and Morgenthau) who believed that American foreign policy, if continued to be based on rationalist assumptions, might prove to be disastrous. Niebuhr rejects the possibility of reason to solve all problems and that at best only a precarious peace could be hoped for. Niebuhr is committed to Judeo-Christian noumenalism and sees transcendent theological values in every aspect of realist/rationalist combat. This viewpoint offers hope of gradual progress toward a more just world and that the influence of the Freudian irrational id can be reduced.

Thomas Hobbes sees all men as too equal, which causes conflict. Man’s appetite is selfish and in the pursuit of his own values, leads man to deprive others, but he is guilty of no moral sin. If there were a “pecking order,” problems of equality and appetite could be dealt with. As long as this conflict continues, man will not develop because it is easier to steal than produce. For self-preservation, man should be willing, when others are too, to come to an agreement and establish a society. Man is selfish though and therefore it is unreasonable to expect that this society will work self-imposed. Covenants such as this only work when a third party (the sovereign) is available to keep order. Without the sovereign there is no government. Without the government, there is no society. He sees temporal and spiritual sovereignty as the same thing (religion is only a branch of government). Hobbes, although writing in support of monarchy, states that the form of government doesn’t matter, as long as it can impose its will to keep order.

John Locke’s work was stimulated by the same civil stresses that led Hobbes to his conclusions.
There are in fact some epistemological parallels of these two men’s works. Both men said our knowledge extends no farther than our ideas. We cannot know the inner meanings of essence and purpose. Hobbes continues beyond ideas to make judgments on the cosmos. Locke, although believing in God, is agnostic concerning the cosmos. He feels we cannot know the ultimate “why,” but only the “how.” We can reason what God wants though, by seeing what man tends to and establish natural laws from these tendencies. “Good” to Locke is what gives us pleasure, “bad” is what does not. Therefore, we can know “the good,” because “good” is our passions. Mankind has the natural right to pursue these passions (such as self-preservation, property, etc.) because they are “good.” A social contract is formed to get and keep rights. When men’s passions are in conflict, the majority should rule. In Hobbes’ social contract, individual rights are ceded to the sovereign. Locke says we give our rights to society. Government is the protector of this social contract and has the duty to preserve live, property, and equality. Government does this by elections and separation of powers, with the legislature dominant (parliamentary). If government does not meet these conditions, men can look to heaven and revolt.

Jean Jacques Rousseau believed in a good-hearted common man in contrast to the Machiavellian man of Locke and even more so, of Hobbes’. To Rousseau, man in the stat of nature is personified by the peace and innocence of Adam in the Garden of Eden. Self-preservation is still man’s first desire, but he is not aggressive and his wants are simple. Rousseau’s natural man is his own master and his only authority is his own will. Rousseau’s society is a synthesis of noumenalist teleological tradition and naturalist utilitarianism of the Enlightenment. Man discovers the utility of association and from association arises the habits of living together, which in turn spawns a new development in man’s moral life (through a sense of commitment). With the development of society, new wants also develop. The rich want to dominate the poor. Society becomes corrupt in its goal to gain prosperity and wealth. A “good” society is possible though (characterized by common interest and moral unity). Through the general will (the collective is more than the sum of its parts) of society decisions are made. Rousseau calls for a middle class economy with little specialization, legal equality of all members of society and majority rule.

John Stuart Mill was trained in the principles of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian ideals. Bentham proposed a political philosophy centered on the precept of “greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Happiness to Bentham simply meant pleasurable sensations. This pleasure is the only thing that man actually pursues. Motives and abstract principles such as natural right had no place in his theory. Bentham confines his philosophy to the world of facts. He felt that to leave this realm would destroy the possibility of objective measurement. Mill, at the age of twenty, began to question strict utilitarian theory. As told in his Autobiography, “Suppose that my highest aim in life—complete public reform—could be effected at this very instant, would this really make me happy? And a distinct vice answered—NO!” (John Stuart Mill, Autobiography, New York: P.F. Collier & Sons, 1937, p. 10.) Mill came to believe that happiness could only be achieved by not making it a direct end. The only chance for happiness is to treat not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Mill transcends the naturalist state of phenomena to a noumenalist set of values (ends). Through out his life Mill refused to give up his naturalist premises, but insisted on noumenalist conclusions, trying to unite value with fact, purpose with process. Mill offers the lesson of “open-mindedness of the many-sidedness of truth; [and] he became the most tolerant of philosophers.” (F. Parvin Sharpless, Essays on Poetry by John Stuart Mill, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1976, p. xii).

John Dewey expands the freedom and pluralism ideas of Rousseau in the context of turn of the century America. Dewey believed that social equality is a necessary precondition for society. The problem is, how does one obtain a sense of cohesion in a society while still maintaining equality and individualism? His answer: Man as an individual is meaningless, but in society he can develop morally. Democracy is the only political system that can meet the needs of moral development. In a democracy our individual actions all have effects on society. Therefore the establishment of a social contract is justified. This is not a static entity, however, and from time to time new forms of state must be evolved to express new interests. Dewey saw specialization, industrialization and bureaucracy as working against the general good by alienation the individual. He could not reconcile that modern fact that where ever there is a large effort to establish social equality, etc. bureaucracy and hierarchy are also developed. He saw social science as the best hope in developing correct policies, such as expanding the social obligation of the better off to enhance equality and thus true freedom. He did not agree with the behaviorists though, that certain laws will happen.

Seymour Lipset and Gabriel Almond complete this discussion of bridge builders with their contemporary Aristotelian synthesis.

Lipset studied various democracies and then described the social conditions under which a democratic order can be constructed and maintained. He theorizes that the more well to do a nation, the more likely it will sustain democracy. Rather than poverty though, inequality is the key causal factor which leads to instability in any system. For equality, and thus stability, Lipset offers three conditions which must be present in any system. First, the status of conservative institutions must not be threatened. Second, major new groups have access to the system. Finally, new structures must be effective. Only a democracy can encompass these three conditions successfully.

Almond offers a final key factor for stability, system maintenance through change and adaptation. System maintenance has three criteria, subsystem autonomy, cultural secularization, and structural differentiation. Both Lipset and Almond seek to define an implicit process, like Aristotle. There theories are empirically oriented. They also make the judgment though, that stability is impossible without “goodness.” Therefore, stability must be evidence of “goodness.”

Monday, June 15, 2009

U.S. National Interest: The Naturalists

Just to connect this post to past posts on this subject. I posted an intro on the concept of National Interest in May, followed by a post titled U.S. National Interest: Toward a common Identity. A few days ago I got into the specifics of the philosophical details with a post I titled: Elements of the American Metaphysic, and talked about Noumenalist Theory. The post today will concentrate on Naturalist Theory. The follow-on post will investigate the Bridge Builders.

Naturalist Theory

Naturalists assume that reality, at least as far as they can know it, consists only of phenomena. “Reality is coextensive with the empirical world... No intelligible essences or other forms of nonempirical reality lie beyond or behind this world to lend it being and significance.” (William T. Blume, Theories of the Political System, p. 17) Naturalism is not materialism though. Materialism postulates that the physical world and movement are all that exists. Naturalism does accept the reality of ideas, but places them as only part of the empirical world. Naturalists believe that universe requires no supernatural cause, or supernatural government. The world is self-operating, self-directing, and self-explanatory. The spiritual, mental, and physical aspects of man, who is only an incidental outcome of nature, are also an explainable product of nature. Values are justified on natural grounds. Ultimate values have no meaning other than as the objects of the strongest human passions. Reason orders and balances our passions so as to prevent mutual frustration, no more. Rules are only precepts of reason for efficient behavior. The naturalist society, organized by reason, is made up of people who efficiently maximize their values, in contrast to the strict empirical order that is rife with frustration.

The naturalist school did not begin with the “death of God” after World War One, or with the rise of modern science and relativism (although these events have created a larger chasm for the noumenalist leap of faith). Some of the prominent naturalists include Thucydides, Weber, Nietzsche, Harrington, Riker, and Downs.

Thucydides, writing in Athens in 400 BC, believed man mechanically determined causes and effects. Many of his ideas were the result of the Sophist’s skepticism. The Sophists traveled extensively for their time and saw many different cultures and noumenalistic ideas. Astronomy, medicine, and the disintegration of Greek society added to their skepticism. Thucydides’ skepticism relegated to man three main impulses: security (safety), honor (glory), and wealth (gain of profit), but felt reason could dominate these impulses. In Athens during his writing, reason did not over come these impulses and society began to decay. Thucydides’ conclusion: democracy can produce greatness, as with Athens, but without reason to overcome impulses, democracy can only survive in the absence of a threat.

Max Weber, like Thucydides, assumed the unit of analysis was the individual. One could understand his own values through introspect. To understand the values of others, look at what they thought and what they did. He felt there was a “good” and “bad,” but their origin was of personal development. Weber disagreed with Marx, that we are not driven by history and that dialectical materialism was narrow and simplistic. Weber felt that through education people could learn to make wise choices that would lead to a “good” society. He saw three levels of motivation in man. The “least rational” includes motivation due to traditional conduct that was unreflective and habitual. The “less rational” motivation includes behaviors that are affectual, religious, or sentimental. The “rational” motivation is the product of enlightened self-interest (i.e. higher interest than just self). Weber also warns against the potential alienation dangers to the individual of modern capitalism and bureaucracy. Once institutionalization sets in, specialization limits individual choice.

Friedrich Nietzsche is the iconoclast of what he sees as the crushing conformity of the masses. He attacks traditional Christianity, materialist liberalism and socialism. Nietzsche is the ultimate supporter of elitism with his “over-man” theory and in an indirect way warns liberal societies of this danger. His work even becomes apocalyptic with the rise of Nazi Germany. Nietzschean philosophy, therefore, poses a pivotal dilemma for naturalism. When noumenalist ideas of the divine origin of values is rejected, two choices arise. One is to accept hedonic drives as the basis of values (as pure naturalists do). The other possibility, in craving for something “higher,’ but refusing to give up naturalistic assumptions, is to consider will, ego, and creative imagination. The naturalist cannot answer, with certitude, whose will, whose ego, whose imagination. He cannot prove that the liberal society of Rousseau is a better Nietzschean than Hitler’s Germany, because reason has been thrown out in favor of will, ego, and imagination.

James Harrington’s notions center around the concept of “interest.” In The Commonwealth of Oceana, Harrington explains that there is a high degree of factions in society and that these factions can be balanced so that a republican government can be formed. Holding strictly to naturalist assumptions, Harrington feels that a balance could be constructed through institutions based on class and property. He also called for free elections by secret ballot to guarantee executive responsibility. Harrington, in other words, established a system in which the hedonistic drives of man would produce countervailing forces toward a unified end.

Anthony Downs and William H. Riker are contemporary naturalists who both assume the rationality of man. The polity in which both men theorize is democracy. The rational end for Downs is power, defined as control over public policy. Therefore, the motive behind political activity is power. The primary axiom that follows is that democratic governments act rationally to maximize political support. Political parties create rational policies to maximize votes. Every citizen rationally attempts to maximize his utility income. Riker centers his attention on the construction of coalition building among decision-makers. He asserts that few decisions are made by individuals, but that important political decisions are conscious acts, not a bureaucratic process. His primary proposition is that in zero-sum coalition building situations, only minimum winning collations occur, so that less compromise will take place. If a group knows how to win an issue, they will aim for a minimum number of coalitions. As uncertainty increases, so will the minimum number of coalition subgroups.

Next I will touch briefly on the bridge builders—those that straddle the chasm between the noumenalists and the naturalists.

Monday, June 8, 2009

U.S. National Interest, Elements of the American Metaphysic

Noumenalist Theory

The American answer to the central questions of reality, “the good,” and achieving “the good,” is the result of a bridge building synthesis between the noumenalist and naturalist schools of thought. An understanding of these theories is required in order to gain a full appreciation of the unique synthesis of the shared values in the American metaphysic. An in depth discussion of all the theories and theorists of these schools is well beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, I will offer only a general survey of each school, highlighting the points most pertinent to this topic of discussion.

Noumenalist Theory. “Noumenalist theory equates the ‘best’ or ‘rational’ political order with a divinely ordained set of values (i.e. ends, goals) and rules of behavior which are understood as having the fullest or most perfect reality.” (William T. Blume, Theories of the Political System, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1971, p.15) Noumenalism is not idealism. Idealism, simply put, postulates that reality is ideas and although this gives ideas a greater importance the empirical, it does not rank order ideas or specify the origin of the ‘best’ ideas. Noumenalism in turn, does not assume that all reality consists only of ideas. Two subgroups emerge when defining the relationship between this divine order and the empirical order. The “transcendentalists” view the divine order as completely transcending the empirical world, which is incapable of any complete or permanent establishment of divine or “good” society. The other subgroup is the “immanentists.” They give hope to the potential of the rational order, immanent in the empirical world, to grow to perfection. Both groups agree that man can know the perfect order by intuitive faculty. Not all connote this to religious inspiration, though. Finally, noumenalists do not agree to the extent to which man can be perfected and exactly what our obligations are in attempting to achieve the good society.
Tracing the noumalist strain thorough history, such theorists as Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Strauss lead the list. Plato (a transcendentalist) borrowed from Socrates the ideas of dialogue, that it is possible to know “the good” (something is “good” in-so-far as it accomplished its purpose). Plato felt a reexamination of tradition (not a rejection of tradition that the Sophists called for) was important to establish traditional values on a new foundation. Plato’s “psyche” is also an important concept. This concept postulates that the life giving substance is the soul, which is developed through intelligence. It has the ability to discern concepts and realize absolute truths. To Plato, empirical things are not real; ideas are real. In Plato’s Republic, he develops a system of government in which the philosophers govern, since they alone can “understand the good.” Even the specific details of the upbringing and education of these guardians are discussed at length. The concept of a philosophic aristocracy is important since justice equates to being ruled by this class. In other words, don’t tell the people everything, because they can’t know “the good.” This system Plato defines as the “good polis,” rules out democracy because the masses are unfit for the task. Fortitude, virtue, and temperance are required to rule and the masses are to prone to hedonism. The needs of men, which are divided into three types—rational, spirited, and appetitive, are met in the polis, which interestingly operates as a tri-functional system of a deliberative and governing body, an executive, and a productive functions body. This system of government must be consciously founded (through reform, not revolution), it will not evolve by itself.
Aristotle (an immannenist) was a student of Plato, but challenged many of Plato’s ideas. Aristotle felt that it was the empirical world that gave meaning to concept, but he doesn’t reject the idea of “the good.” In this sense he was an important synthesizer. The other concept which sets Aristotle apart from his teacher is that Plato thought things were disintegrating away from the “good.” Aristotle thought things were disintegrating to “the good.” There are four concepts which we must know—to know “the good.” First, what (final cause; ends and purpose). Second, why (formal cause; structure). Third, how (efficient cause; process). Fourth, out of what (material cause; origins). From these concepts man can know the best government. Government, in turn, must aid man to fully develop “the good life.” For governmental structure to be capable of perfection, it must achieve both political stability and the ability to change. Finally, the material environment is important. Just as oak trees do no grow out of hazel nuts, the best political system will not grow out of poverty or opulence. Value systems therefore, are dependent on class structure, quality of life, and opportunity. Aristotle saw men in two groups, the philosopher and the political man. He therefore opted for an oligarchy in which each person fulfilled the duties of his class, was subject to his won reason in that class, and overall rule was by the philosophers. Ultimately, though, as all political systems evolve, they will grow to be the “good society.”
St Augustine wrote The City of God in response to the Gothic hordes’ sack of Rome and the seeming superiority of paganism over Christianity. In his work, Augustine speaks to two realities, the earthly city and the transcendental City of God. Most of his efforts center around the City of God, but he does offer some valuable insights into the earthly city and its relationship with the City of God. Since God is “good” and God created man, man is “good.” Although man has both “good” and “bad” will and tends toward the “bad,” he can be “good” if he takes the leap of faith and accepts God. The earthly city, although providing useful functions like material goods, protection, shelter, etc., is subject to man’s will and is not God’s responsibility. The Christian should be politically passive and there should be separation of church and state (render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s). In other words, Christians should be in the world, but not of the world. This is important because Augustine saw the earthly city as founded on base passions and love of self, while he felt that the true rewards were not material, or of this world. The fall of Rome, or any society, was and is due to the material excessiveness of the state and its citizens and the follow-on decay of the citizens who refuse to selflessly give to the society, but only take.
St. Thomas Aquinas synthesized the works of Aristotle and Augustine. Whereas Augustine spent most of his efforts on the City of God, Aquinas centered his interests on the earthly city and correlated Augustine’s cities with Aristotle’s men of thought and men of action. He felt that despite the fall of Adam, natural reason remains essentially incorrupt. Man’s reason is therefore capable of helping man reach “the good.” We must look at what men are inclined toward (self preservation, reproduction, etc.) and that is what is “good.” This gives rise to norms and helps direct government to create positive laws (laws of man) that correlate with natural laws (laws of God). Government’s purpose is as the director of action for the purpose of meeting the common good. If the positive laws of government stray from the natural laws of God for a long period of time, rebellion is acceptable. St. Thomas Aquinas also tended toward Aristotle’s aristocratic notions and felt that the best form of government was a constitutional monarchy. Finally, positive law should only “tend” toward natural law. If positive law were too strict, man would turn away form society. Government must gradually lead society toward “the good.” Man need only follow the ethical standards of the world, since he was in the world, and the institutional certitude of the church (through baptism, confession, etc.) would protect him from the wrath of God.
A contemporary noumenalist, Leo Straus, carries the flight to the enemy camp. Strauss indicts the behavioralists (who are naturalists) for their attempt to create a “value-free’ political science. He explains in Natural Right and History, that the human world cannot be reduced or understood with value-free categories. The true political science is political philosophy. Political scientists have no right to relegate ultimate values to the realm of mere preferences. Values are independent of man, not, as the behavioralists would say, values stem from man. Each would use values in explanation, but Strauss would say they are part of the situation, not just part of the explanation. In the final analysis, Strauss feels behavioralism leads to indifference about goodness (since there is no “good,” why try to attain it).

I will look at the Natuaralist Theory in my next post.

Friday, June 5, 2009

U.S. National Interest: Toward a Common Identity

The concept of national interest presupposes a common identity within a political community. Common identity is the “social cement” that binds people together. It answers the basic questions: How do I define “self”? How do I fit in? How is this society different than others? Who is the enemy and who is our friend? What are “good” goals? How do we achieve goals? In other words, common identity is the focal point for all civil interactions. Edward Shills defines common identity as the “central zone” of society. He explains that this central zone:

is a phenomenon of the realm of values and beliefs. It is the center of the order of symbols, of values and beliefs, which govern society. It is the center because it is the ultimate and irreducible.... The central zone partakes of the nature of the sacred. In this sense, every society has an “official” religion, even when that society or its exponents are interpreters conceive of it, more or less correctly, as a secular, pluralistic, and tolerant society. (Charles F. Andrain, Political Life and Social Change, Belmont: Duxbury Press, 1975, p. 55)

To understand the Untied States’ national identity, we need to look closer at the “ultimate, irreducible official religion” of this country. Rarely, even in a homogeneous society, can one pinpoint a single identity. The problem is even more complex with the Untied States due to the pluralistic and complex nature of its civil society. Yet every society, including the United States, must make assumptions, either purposely or subconsciously through their actions, about what is reality, what is “good,” ad how (if possible) is “the good” achieved. Answers to these concerns are provided by shared values, norms, and expressive symbols. Each of these ideas exist on separate planes of understanding and together provide the superstructure of the common identity that defines society.

Shared values characterize the irreducible metaphysical assumptions of society and set the course for norms and symbols. These are highly general concepts of the desirable and set the criteria for deciding courses of action. Society may never fully realize these values in actual situations due to their abstract nature and the complex linkages that connect them to specific application. Values are also complex in themselves as they stem from four separate sources: 1) primordial values (first order attachments—biological family), 2) sacred values (religious, ideological), 3) personal values (common attachments that are not biological), and 4) civil values (political, civil society).

Values set society on a trajectory that directly defines the second level of common identity, norms. These represent more specific statements of the more general values of the first level. They are the generally accepted intellectual attitudes about reality and “the good,” which set general guidelines, rights and obligations indicating how society and its members may realize values. Norms are tightly interwoven into the fabric of society and become part of the culture.

The third level of common identity is described by expressive symbols which are the manifestation, in specific form, of values and norms and convey the meaning of these more abstract concepts to civil society. These symbols are instruments, not answers, in connecting desirable values, mobilizing society and resources toward a specific goal, stimulating group cohesion and serving as a societal memory bank with which to weigh actions. Expressive symbols take form as people, such as George Washington; songs, such as “America the Beautiful;” symbols, such s “Old Glory;” holidays, such as Veteran’s Day;” and the written word, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America; to name a few.

To fully comprehend the American national interest than, we need to look closer at these three levels of the American common identity. I will investigate these issues in my next blog post.