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20201129 – The Great Debate

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MAIN IDEA:

The main idea of this book is to present two different types of ideas derived from enlightenment via lives and work of two individuals: Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. Former representing the French revolutionary approach of overturning existing system and rebuilding everything from the scratch and latter representing British conservative approach of upgrading the system via incremental changes with as little disruption as possible.

DETAILS:

ONE: ​TWO LIVES IN THE ARENA

Author begins this chapter by describing meeting between Burke and Paine that occurred in 1788-  a few years before French revolution when their differences were not that obvious as to prevent this meeting from being friendly encounter. Then author describes lives and general approach to understanding of humanity by each of these two men. The Burke’s approach was based on this:” Burke argues that human nature relies on emotional, not only rational, edification and instruction—an idea that would become crucial to his insistence that government must function in accordance with the forms and traditions of a society’s life and not only abstract principles of justice. “The influence of reason in producing our passions is nothing near so extensive as it is commonly believed,” Burke writes. We are moved by more than logic, and so politics must answer to more than cold arguments.”  Paine’s approach was based on believe in all powerful reason that should allow people to consciously redesign and rebuild the system in logical and efficient way as designed by such intellectually superior individuals as himself, in process suppressing or even eliminating inferior individuals that refuse comply with demands of their betters.

Author then describes approach of each of them first to American revolution, about which both were mostly in sync and the French revolution which completely divided them. This division was expressed in their competing books: Burke’s “Reflection on the Revolution in France” and Paine’s “Rights of Man”.  Author briefly describes chronology of their dispute and additional works that each of them produced in support of his ideas.

TWO: ​NATURE AND HISTORY

This chapter is about philosophical foundation of these two people’s views about nature of human society. Paine’s view is that history is irrelevant and one should look at human nature:” And by “nature,” he means the condition that preceded all social and political arrangements and therefore the facts regarding what every human being is, regardless of social or political circumstances. Our nature remains just as it was at the beginning of the human race, since our various social arrangements don’t change what we are by nature—what every human being always has been and will be. And so, our basic nature must remain the foundation of our political thinking—of our understanding of what human beings are and how they ought to live together.”

Correspondingly Burke’s view is historical. He thinks exactly opposite to Paine: it is that original nature is hardly relevant and current condition is more result of historical development. “The beginnings of any society, Burke writes, are almost certain to involve some form of barbarism (not to say crime). But over time, by slowly responding to circumstantial exigencies, societies develop more mature forms—a process that, as Burke puts it in the Reflections on the Revolution in France, “mellows into legality governments that were violent in their commencement.” A return to beginnings would thus not offer an opportunity to start anew on proper principles, but would rather risk a reversion to barbarism. “There is a sacred veil to be drawn over the beginnings of all governments,” Burke argues, because there is little to be learned by exposing them, and there is a very real risk of harm in the exposure itself—especially the risk of weakening the allegiance of the people to their regime by exposing its imperfect origins.”

THREE​: JUSTICE AND ORDER

Here author reviews difference in approach to Justice and Order. As elsewhere it is between Paine’s main problem being the suffering of masses from traditional regimes that should be destroyed by any means necessary, while for Burke it is suffering of everybody, with individuals at the top of old regime suffering from the mob included. Author also reviewing approach of each of them to Moral Order and Morals law, Natural Equality and the Order of Society, and relevant issues.

FOUR: ​CHOICE AND OBLIGATION

Here author discusses their approach to the very purpose of politics:” For Paine, the natural equality of all human beings translates to complete political equality and therefore to a right to self-determination. The formation of society was itself a choice made by free individuals, so the natural rights that people bring with them into society are rights to act as one chooses, free of coercion. Each person should have the right to do as he chooses unless his choices interfere with the equal rights and freedoms of others. And when that happens—when society as a whole must act through its government to restrict the freedom of some of its members—government can only act in accordance with the wishes of the majority, aggregated through a political process. Politics, in this view, is fundamentally an arena for the exercise of choice, and our only real political obligations are to respect the freedoms and choices of others. For Burke, human nature can only be understood within society and therefore within the complex web of relations in which every person is embedded. None of us chooses the nation, community, or family into which we are born, and while we can choose to change our circumstances to some degree as we get older, we are always defined by some crucial obligations and relationships not of our own choosing. A just and healthy politics must recognize these obligations and relationships and respond to society as it exists, before politics can enable us to make changes for the better. In this view, politics must reinforce the bonds that hold people together, enabling us to be free within society rather than defining freedom to the exclusion of society and allowing us to meet our obligations to past and future generations, too. Meeting obligations is as essential to our happiness and our nature as making choices.”

FIVE​: REASON AND PRESCRIPTION

This chapter is about application of reason to the management of society. Here is author’s main point:” Paine understood his own time as “The Age of Reason” (as he dubbed it in the title of his last book). He thought that the combination of new insights into the science of politics and greater freedom for citizens to exercise their own individual reason upon public questions would free liberal societies of countless ancient prejudices and open the way to a new politics of liberty. Burke thought the governing of human communities was much too complex a task to be simplified into a series of pseudoscientific questions and resolved by logical exercises. It required, in his view, a degree of knowledge and wisdom about human affairs that could only be gathered from the experience of society itself. Their views, in other words, were direct extensions of the broader worldviews presented thus far and offer a deeper understanding of the foundational political questions of modern politics. Their dispute therefore deepens as it moves from the ends to the means of political thought.”

Correspondingly Burke stresses need of careful approach and cautious change because reason is limited, causing unintended consequences. For Paine reason is unlimited so the consequences can be limited to intendent, but if bad unintended consequences happen to occur, it is a small price to pay. Author also discusses relevant difference in approach to theoretical and global and specific and particular. At the end of chapter author also discusses Meaning of America, defined differently by Burke and Paine, but in such way that each believed American experience supported his view.

SIX​: REVOLUTION AND REFORM

The question of Revolution vs. Reform once again clearly demonstrate difference in approach, which later became designated as right and left. For left revolution comes with massive destruction of whatever was before to clean up field for the new beautiful construction based on superior reason. For right reason’s limitation points to preference of reform with as little destruction as possible not only because it causes suffering, but, even more important, the limited reason could not possibly create much better arrangements because of its own limitations.  

SEVEN: ​GENERATIONS AND THE LIVING

Here author looks at Burke-Paine debate in relation to generations of people:” Paine seeks to understand man apart from his social setting, while Burke thinks man is incomprehensible apart from the circumstances into which he is born—circumstances largely the making of prior generations. Burke describes a densely layered social whole that defines the place of each of its members, while Paine thinks each person is born with an equal right to shape his destiny. Paine’s case for a politics of reason argues for direct recourse to principle in the face of long-established but unreasonable practices. Burke’s case for prescription is based on generational continuity. This argument leads Burke to prefer gradual reforms that preserve what has come down from the past, while Paine pursues a revolutionary break as the only way to escape the heavy burden of long-standing injustice. The question of the generations recurs so frequently in their discussions because the Burke-Paine debate is about Enlightenment liberalism, whose underlying worldview unavoidably raises the problem of the generations. Enlightenment liberalism emphasizes government by consent, individualism, and social equality, all of which are in tension with some rather glaring facts of the human condition: that we are born into a society that already exists, that we enter this society without consenting to it, that we enter it with social connections and not as isolated individuals, and that these connections help define our place in society and therefore often raise barriers to equality. These facts suggest either that Enlightenment liberalism is in some important ways unworkable in practice given the relations between generations or that those relations must be transformed to make such liberalism possible. Because they took up the question of Enlightenment liberalism at the moment when it was becoming a question of practice, Burke and Paine were unusually attentive to these problems and approached the matter of generational relations as a genuinely practical and open question.”

Eventually author puts it into philosophical temporal framework: Paine’s “Eternal Now” when reason allows setup perfect order after removing everything that was before vs. Burke’s “Eternal Order” when reason has limited use of carefully reforming existing order to adjust this order to new circumstances. Instead of Paine’s “destruction first”, Burke’s approach is “first do not harm what is working and change only what is not working anymore.”

MY TAKE ON IT:

I guess I am mostly on the side of Burke now since I am not that young and therefore do not have illusion that world is simple. However, I do not believe that Pain/Burke’s approaches are polar. It pretty much depends on circumstances of any given society at any given time. Probably the most important part of culture of any society is its ability of supporting effective feedback connections between individuals at the top and at the bottom of this society. Strong feedback typical for democracies lead to effective reaction to changing world via freedom of speech and fair elections when there is little lag between emerging unhappiness of population and correcting measures to resolve the issue. In this case Burke’s approach would be the most effective. However, if such feedback is lacking either due to decay of society’s institutions such as press and education, or, in extreme cases, due to dictatorship of some hierarchical organization, then Paine’s revolutionary approach could become just about impossible to avoid despite it being very inefficient and often murderous. The reason is simple: because the suppression of unhappiness does not make it disappear, but rather keeps I hidden while it accumulates explosive potential until this potential becomes more powerful than forces off suppression. At this point explosion-revolution is triggered by some relatively insignificant event, leading to period struggle before the new order, often somewhat worse than it was before, would be established.


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