Monday, 5 February 2007

Liberal Malaise it possible that the reason people in wealthy, healthy, liberal democracies tend to be so hooked on anti-depressants is that they have no idea who they actually are?

To expand, I was reading on multicultural citizenship when I chanced upon this comment by Margalit and Raz.

"Identification is more secure, less liable to be threatened, if it does not depend on accomplishment. Although accomplishments play their role in people's sense of their own identity, it would seem that at the most fundamental level our sense of our own identity depends on criteria of belonging rather than on those of accomplishment. Secure identification at this level is particularly important to one's well-being" (Multicultural Citizenship, Kymlicka, p89)

This interests me because it explains why our society's obsession with ambition, status and competition has caused individuals to become so stressed out. Once we conceive of competing to climb the social ladder as the necessary precondition for self-worth, we must also be aware that the threat of decline and fall is always present and demands constant vigilance. When value is entirely dependent on such outside factors it creates a situation where nobody and nothing is permanent. And adult human beings, as we well know, desire security and predictability as much as children. In the words of Isaiah Berlin: “the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past”

However, fulfilling that desire for a stable conception of identity and the good life is extremely problematic in the modern age, both from a societal and an intellectual perspective. Those within an insulated culture (though such a thing may be no less than hypothetical) may find security and fulfillment through its tenets or alternatively, develop internal methods for criticising it that leaves the epistemogical foundations of their thought intact. Either way, the coherence of their modes of thought or identity remains secure since it has been developed from within a closed, though potentially expanding, circle.

However, in plural societies, rejection or critique of the individualist liberal credo is likely to be based on reference to the diverse range of visions of the good life with which we are familiar, coming from a range of traditions whose premises may all be different. The problem is that it is not always possible to weigh these choices in any rational manner. They may in fact be incommensurable.

That fact does not, as such, preclude as from making choices, though it does mean that a choice between incomparables is equivalent to simply 'plumping' for one option over another on the basis of those traditions of thought and experience which we, as individuals located in a particular time and space, have accumulated throughout our lives. As Berlin goes on to say:
“In the end, men choose between ultimate values; they choose as they do because their life and thought are determined by fundamental moral categories and concepts that are as much a part of their own being and conscious thought and sense of their own identity as their basic physical structure” (Two Concepts of Liberty, p57)

So we can only choose within a framework that makes sense to us whilst remaining aware that the nodes that form and link our thoughts together are highly historically contingent and therefore lack universality. As such “To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet to stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian”. To demand more is perhaps a metaphysical human need but it would be immature to allow this to guide our collective practices.

So choice can be based only on what we know at any one time - and must therefore be open to revision depending on the kind of lives we lead, who we encounter, what we read, and in which societies we live.

Doesn't sound so bad as long as our nostalgia for the grand narrative doesn't override this tentative, though ethical, conclusion.

1 comment:

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