Against Cartesian Liberalism

April 9, 2013

To be a liberal is to be in favour of individual liberty. You’d think this is a pretty clear statement, but like all political philosophies, so much depends on how you define the words that make it up. Today I’m interested in ‘individual’. What makes an individual an individual, in the political sense here highlighted? There are at least two popular definitions.

The first is that of the radically autonomous will, the rational maximiser of utility, Homo economicus. In this definition, the individual is a single unitary will that acts to bring about states of affairs which maximise its utility, a general term which covers whatever the individual’s objectives happen to be. They may be happiness, money, peace on earth or anything else besides. More popular amongst economists and right-leaning types, it has the advantage of making very few claims about human nature beyond that it is fundamentally goal-orientated.

The second is that of the embedded will. Under this definition, ‘individual’ as a term makes little sense, as any particular person is constructed by the society in which they happen to find themselves. They do not act as an individual, but rather in accordance with the social ‘class’ they happen to find themselves in, whatever the appearance to the contrary. The individual is therefore a lacuna of apparent decision-making which in reality is the reverse of what it appears to be: your decisions are made as a result of your position in society, and you merely think you’re making them as an individual. If you think this sounds like errant nonsense, I encourage you read Zizek. This approach is more popular on the left, and has the advantage of capturing the role that engagement with others has in informing thought. One can read Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument as a partial endorsement of this definition; if language is something that must be social in order to have meaning, then our thought is at least in part constructed by the linguistic society in which we find ourselves.

The role both these definitions play in political thought should be clear, and which one you find most comfortable is a useful guide to your political intuitions. For example, I have always found the second definition unsatisfactory: it places society above individual reflection in its methodological approach, paradoxically meaning that determining whether it is correct through individual reflection is impossible. It can therefore only be asserted.

However, the first definition is also unsatisfactory, even though it informs much of my political creed. The radically autonomous will has much in common with the mind/body distinction of Descartes: much like the Cartesian mind, it is not necessarily embodied at all. It can apply to any entity that has goals and utility to be maximised. Gods, if they exist, would be rational utility maximisers. Souls too; economic models could be equally applied to the afterlife as well as this one. Such a broad definition misses something about the very particular experience of being a human on Earth, and more importantly, it is outdated.

Ever since Kant, we have known that the individual will is inextricable from the means by which it perceives the world. Our experiences and thoughts are structured in a particular fashion to which our will is bound; it makes little sense to talk about our experiences outside of the framework of space and time. This approach has been expanded on by a range of philosophers, including Heidegger, who points out that we encounter the world through a web of projects and goals, and that these are in many senses prior to rationality. We cannot encounter a hammer, say, without simultaneously encountering its use. If goals are part of the way in which we encounter the world, then they precede reason and are irrational in and of themselves. While we may make rational plans to achieve our goals, they remain necessarily irrational.

This means there is no reason to presume that we are capable of evaluating our differing goals and identifying which one we prefer in a rational manner. If we cannot do so, then the rational utility maximiser is not simply too broad, it is a fundamentally incorrect way of understanding humans qua individuals. Another way to consider this is to think of the ways in which a human could be teleologically divided: goals for genes, goals for the individual, goals for a society. There is not necessarily a rational way of deciding which of these types of goal to prefer and in some cases they will be incommensurable. I would therefore claim that this Cartesian conception of the individual is highly likely to be fundamentally incorrect.

There is another reason to reject the Cartesian individual, as a liberal: it provides for restrictions on freedom. If we give freedom to individuals qua rational utility maximisers, then in instances wherein they appear to not be rational (i.e. not maximising their utility) and we can identify ways in which their utility could be maximised through restricting their freedom, then we are not prevented from doing so by our conception of ‘individual’ freedom. It is this Cartesian liberalism which lies at the heart of movements like liberal paternalism and much contemporary left-wing thinking. It also informs, bizarrely, the more extreme forms of libertarianism that claim that the mind owns the body and so can sell it into slavery. The notion that the mind can own the body rests upon a separation between the two. The contemporary Conservative Party, much of which is a union between the Cameroonian ‘nudgers‘ and more hard-core libertarians is united in an antiquated understanding of the individual.

I propose that our politics is informed by a very different definition of ‘individual’ to the two above: that of the manifold will. There is no state of affairs for an individual that will necessarily maximise their utility, because they are a bundle of competing goals. Without a rational way to decide what’s best for a person from the outside, the only course for any political philosophy that aims to improve the human lot is to leave much of that improvement up to humans themselves.


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