“Assertive self-interest and social decay” by Peter Corney
Why an unrealistic view of human nature undermines democracy and human flourishing.
“Never underestimate the power of self-interest.” Paul Keating
In 1944 not long before the Allies final victory over German fascism and the demonic forces unleashed by the Nazis in WW2 the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote his memorable book “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness”. It is a spirited defence of democracy and a reminder of its dependence on an honest and realistic view of human nature. This view Niebuhr maintained was underpinned by the Christian understanding of reality and its view of human nature. In his introduction he says that the political philosophy on which his defence of democracy rests is “informed by the belief that a Christian view of human nature is more adequate for the development of a democratic society than either the optimism with which democracy has become historically associated or the moral cynicism which leads to the abuse of power and which inclines human communities to tyrannical strategies for solutions to situations of social decay.” The tyrannical strategies he had in mind of course were those of Nazi fascism and Soviet communism.
Writing as he was at the time of the unfolding knowledge of the scale of the Jewish holocaust and the human catastrophe that had taken place in Europe his warnings cannot be taken too seriously by us now. His warning is never to underestimate “the power of human self-interest, both individual and collective in modern society” He says that “evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole”; by the whole he means the common good, including the wider international community of humanity as well as the individual nation state.
Niebuhr is concerned that Western liberal democrats and secular idealists have too superficial, sentimental and optimistic view of human nature. It does not account for the potency of individual freedom for both creative initiative and destructive self-interest. That is why freedom needs a frame-work of order and objective values that transcend the individual. It is why moral relativism is in the end corrosive to society and democracy. It is why the Post Modern emphasis on the rejection of absolutes and their substitute with the autonomous authority of the individual’s perspective unmodified by any transcendent set of values and meaning, will lead to a particularly destructive form of self-interest.
It is sadly ironic that what at first may be seen as a way to self-fulfilment turns out in the end to be self-destructive. For, as Niebuhr points out, that for true and full human flourishing the individual needs not only personal freedom but also community, communal responsibility and obligation, because he is by nature social. He cannot fulfil his life within himself, but only in responsible and mutual relations with his fellows, “The individual cannot be a true self in isolation”
Niebuhr’s views are very relevant to our current situation in Western culture where the quest for individual freedom has reached an extreme and destructive hyper individualism. Anne Mann in her recent book “The Life of I” has described it as a form of social narcissism. Personal freedom has been redefined, having broken loose from its Judeo/Christian influences where it was understood as a freedom from our tendency to a dominating self-interest so that we might be free for the service of God and others, “love God and love your neighbour” . It is now about the unrestricted freedom of my will to choose whatever I decide. It has become what Friedrich Nietzsche that influential prophet
of unrestrained freedom of the will predicted and championed – “the triumph of the will.” (For an insight into Nietzsche’s disturbing ideas and their tragic logic about human nature once the Christian faith is rejected, see the quotation in the reference notes below. )
A major problem with the current view of personal freedom is that it leaves people trapped in their own limited interior world of subjective feelings, impressions and limited perspectives, a world that is frequently disturbed and dysfunctional. For adolescents and young adults in particular they are left without any larger and more objective framework of meaning with which to make sense of their questions and to navigate a very confusing world. Coupled with prosperity and consumerism and the growth of a culture of entitlement and exaggerated individualism they are set upon a journey that will lead them into a life style of destructive self- interest. Remember Niebuhr’s penetrating insight that “evil is always some assertion of self- interest without regard to the whole.”
Nietzsche in “The Gay Science” has a very arresting image in which he describes what will happen when Western culture leaves the stability of its Christian heritage and moral framework. (It is of course a result he approved of, his whole intellectual energy was devoted to overcoming that heritage and what he believed was its repressive hold on the Western intellect and spirit!) He says it will be like leaving the stability of the land and launching out onto the restless uncertain sea. “We have left the land and embarked….we have burned our bridges behind us – indeed we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us….Woe then when you feel homesick for the land….there is no longer any land”. His prediction is a devastatingly accurate description of 21st C Western culture.
Through Existentialism and Post Modernism Nietzsche’s ideas have filtered down to influence a new generation of Western intellectuals who, having driven out transcendent values and Christian faith, have succeeded in contributing to the creation of a spiritual, moral and cultural desert in Western culture. With its old moral energy fading, it is now focussed almost solely on the creation of material wealth but in increasingly unequal distribution. The Wests moral confusion, its growing social and relational instability and restless uncertainty about its ultimate purpose is fast approaching Nietzsche’s graphic image and with it comes a crisis, a storm that will sink individual flourishing and endanger even democracy itself.
Peter Corney firstname.lastname@example.org
(For a more detailed treatment of some of the themes in this essay see “The death of the Contest of ideas” on the Website/blog