To Belong Is to Be Who You Are, Research Time, 26/03/2014

I often get into arguments with my libertarian friends, despite how much some of our beliefs overlap. We very much disagree when it comes to the libertarian tendency to economic conservatism, but we tend to agree on the basic philosophical importance of individual freedom and liberties. Even so, we differ substantially. A conversation I had with my friend C over the Hobby Lobby case before the United States Supreme Court found us disagreeing on a simple, intractable matter. 

I sympathized with the position of a woman who should have the economic freedom to have her medical expenses, birth control included, covered by her insurance plan. He sympathized with the position of an employer being forced to underwrite insurance plans that included services he considered unconscionably immoral. Two incompatible needs collide where the satisfaction of one creates an intolerable situation for the other. But beyond the collision of individuals, a greater social tragedy unfolds. For me, at least, the world is already too cruel to tell people ‘Then don’t work there,’ because so many of us can’t actually afford to make that choice. 

John Locke was a definitive thinker of the era we call
modernity, whose individualistic political philosophy
captures the essence of the new time as it arose.
One of the most interesting of the pithy descriptions of libertarian philosophy I’ve come across in my time as a professional philosopher came from my friend D at the Canadian Philosophical Association conference in Waterloo two years ago. He described philosophical libertarianism as, basically, the ideas of John Locke ported into the modern world. Reading Karl Mannheim, I find myself thinking of particular dimensions of human life that such a philosophy does miss. 

Mannheim spends good chunks of the introduction to Ideology and Utopia explaining and justifying why his focus on the social generation of knowledge is required. One way he does so is to explain the era of individualist thinking in which the problems of philosophical epistemology and the individualist conception of the human personality arose was, in fact, an anomalous era. 

The popular view of modernity is as a new epoch, an emerging social order in the West. But Mannheim sees that period instead as the end of a social order in Europe, where a new order doesn’t begin. The old order was the medieval period, where every social function and moral question was determined by the dogma and guidance of the Church and its officials. Just as Max Weber saw the Protestant movement as ushering in a new era of thought and personal morality, Mannheim follows this notion that the assault on the dogmatic power of the Church in the West to avoid fundamental questioning of its guidance. 

But where Weber saw a new beginning, Mannheim seems to describe a pure transition zone. He appears to interpret the fragmentation of society’s moral orders with the proliferation of different religious creeds and authorities as a period of flux that would eventually settle down into a new order. Individualism would be a passing phase on the way to a new social order of conformity within accepted institutions.

I’m not entirely sure what I think about this (though I still have a ways to go in the book, and I expect Mannheim to surprise me yet). The consensus today seems to be that individualistic capitalism has actually become our newly unquestioned moral order. Indeed, historical research into the medieval period of the West has since shown there to be far more cultural fragmentation in that time than was typically believed. Many intellectual perspectives today regard capitalism and its individualistic philosophical premises as the unquestioned moral order of our day. Many people across disciplines have written about how, despite all the upsets to social order, stability, and prosperity unfettered capital flows and corporate power have provoked today, no one really conceives of any genuine alternative to capitalism on a large political scale. Some of those people are my friends

Yet I do sometimes wonder if our capitalist culture has made us forget about our individualism. Perhaps instead of submitting our individual desires to the control of Church dogma as Christians, many working people now submit their individual desires to the control of their companies as good employees. That seems to be, at least to my thinking, how to rationalize a company owner’s right to mandate to his employees what health care options they are allowed to access.

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