Western political debate used to take place on a Locke vs. Hobbes spectrum. To oversimplify:
- Thomas Hobbes argued that humans are naturally selfish and cruel, and so a powerful central authority is needed to maintain order in society.
- John Locke believed that humans are inherently reasonable, and creating enlightened social structures, with limited authority, will bring these tendencies to the fore.
Commonly (but less helpfully) framed as left vs. right debates, people often used different elements of these positions. Jefferson argued for weaker central authority against Hamilton and Adams. In both crime and foreign policies, the Locke vs. Hobbes debate played a central role. Conservatives argued for the authority of good people to defeat bad people, while liberals argued for structural improvements which would enable inherent goodness to flourish. For examples of these different approaches in recent history, think of Reagan and W. Bush on the one hand as opposed to Carter and Obama on the other.
You may have noticed that I’ve been using past tense.
The idea was that in modern democracies these positions were meaningful and reasonable. By debating from these positions, and applying them to specific cases, we could reach compromises that embrace the best of both approaches and avoiding their pitfalls. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, this took the form of hour long statements and responses. In our more recent media age, this has been reduced to two minute statements. Coherent reasoning and argumentation have become a thing of the past. But even this reduced form of the procedure may now be failing before our eyes.
Twitter wars, shouting matches and “cancelling” have become the zeitgeist. People are giving up on political argument as pointless. This is dangerous. The point of political argument used to be a search for common ground and compromise. Now, many assume that common ground can’t exist. Since one can convince an interlocutor to switch sides, political dialogue becomes useless. Posturing and virtue signalling become popular forms of expression. None of this makes any sense within the Locke/Hobbes framework. It belongs to a different philosophical orientation entirely.
To once again oversimplify:
- Friedrich Nietzsche made the nihilistic argument that in modern times we have uncovered that there is no objective truth and human society is a subjective battle of wills.
From such a perspective, political expressions are not reasoned assertions worthy of debate. There are no norms within which debates can take place. Coherence itself becomes irrelevant. What matters are statements of mission and purpose. Expressions of ends justify all means.
To put this into a broader context that is even more oversimplified:
- In civilization’s pagan past, the world was seen as a clash of forces. Lacking united coherence, life was a survival of the fittest struggle.
- The Jewish Bible claimed that the Universe was created and run by the One God. Ethical Monotheism demanded that all humans are created in that God’s image.
- The Greco-Roman world made the concepts of Democracy and Liberty central to their self definitions. And they claimed that reason could be used to make sense out of a coherent Universe.
- We used to call the millennium from 500 – 1500 the dark ages. Until the Renaissance reasserted the aforementioned values leading to the Enlightenment.
- The Enlightenment bridged these two cultural worlds. Liberty and Democracy are the inalienable rights of all humans, bestowed upon them by their creator. We can improve life for all by reasoning how the world works (science) and arguing for better more moral rules and systems for self governance. (political philosophy)
- Nietzsche argued that these arguments have ultimately been undermined by the failure to establish a shared objective perspective. Now that “God is dead”, society will return to a neo-paganism and struggles of will.
Was Nietzsche right? Is this a globally dark political moment that will pass? Or is this our entry into a new Dark Age? Is there anything we can do to direct the outcome? Some questions require more than philosophy to answer.