RMIT’s Rob Watts attempts to save the welfare state by attacking liberalism
Neoconservatives are winning the welfare debate because they take values seriously, says RMIT’s Rob Watts. In a recent paper on the welfare-to-work debate (pdf) he rejects the idea that the left is struggling because of a lack of access to funding and good empirical research. The problem lies deeper than that. Modern social scientists are incapable of arguing about right and wrong because they treat moral values as if they are nothing more than subjective preferences. As a result, neoconservative appeals to self-reliance and reward face no competition.
Unlike social scientists, ordinary people do not accept that morality is a matter of personal taste — they think that values have authority. Neoconservatives have always understood this. Thinkers like Irving Kristol and Australia’s ‘bad‘ Peter Saunders argue that society depends on a shared moral framework. Saunders says that intellectuals have shattered the old moral consensus by promoting moral relativism and asserting that individuals have a right to pursue any lifestyle they choose. The only thing that is forbidden is moral judgment (p 116-117).
Watts attacks neoconservatives by agreeing with them. He argues that relativism has been disastrous for the left. After all, if values are nothing but subjective preferences then how is it possible to defend policies which promote tolerance and social justice? Why isn’t xenophobia or selfish materialism just another equally valid lifestyle choice? When leftist intellectuals argue for humane treatment of asylum seekers and more spending on social programs aren’t they just forcing their elitist preferences on ordinary people?
During the 1940s thinkers like Aron Gurwitsch warned that if we insisted on abandoning abstract moral reasoning for concrete concepts like need, preference satisfaction, and utility we would end up as nihilists. The problem with nihilism is that it is defenceless against totalitarianism. After all, if some people prefer genocide to economic efficiency, who are you or I to pass judgment?
Like the neoconservatives, Watts thinks that ordinary people are wiser than value-free economists and relativistic postmodernists. At least they are not deluded into thinking that more data and better theories can save the world from a decent into chaos:
Progressives who work in the social sciences or the community sector need to get over its actual disdain for ordinary people and a long established preference for experts and their specialist kinds of knowledge. Progressives need to get over their simple faith that gathering all of the evidence together or engaging in critique by itself will win hearts and minds of those its needs to persuade.
Drawing on the work of American linguist George Lakoff, Watts argues that neoconservatives have done a better job of connecting with the values of ordinary people. By selectively appealing to the values electorate they have managed to win support for their harsh welfare-to-work policies. To turn the tables, the left needs to "begin by specifying the kind of ethical values that will secure a new and widespread consensus, and help to inform any outline of the design principles for a welfare state worth having."
In Niccolò Machiavelli’s time, values were expressed through religion. Machiavelli advised rulers to"favor and encourage all those things which arise in favor of religion, even if they judge them to be false…" Today he would almost certainly advise our rulers to celebrate the Australian civic religion of egalitarianism, mateship and the fair go. No ruler who wants to hold onto power should miss an opportunity to appear at sacred festivals like footy grand finals, ANZAC Day, or Steve Irwin’s funeral. A shrewd political strategist always cloaks his leader’s agenda in his subjects’ most cherished values.
The modern Machiavellian uses social science as a tool. And as long as the fact/value distinction holds, there is no intellectually sound reason why psychology, anthropology or sociology shouldn’t serve the interests of torturers, xenophobes and imperialists — after all, the rightness or wrongness of these things is a matter of personal taste. In an essay titled ‘What is Political Philosophy?’ the German-American political philosopher Leo Strauss wrote:
The habit of looking at social or human phenomena without making value judgments has a corroding influence on any preferences. The more serious we are as social scientists, the more completely we develop within ourselves a state of indifference to any goal, or of aimlessness and drifting, a state which may be called nihilism (p 14).
Most social scientists manage to avoid nihilism. But when they do, it is only because they accept their society’s values for the same reasons that non-social scientists do. According to Strauss, conflicts between rival value systems cannot be resolved by appealing to social science. As he explained in The City and Man, social science can increase man’s power over other men, but it cannot tell him how he ought to use his power (p 7).
Watts agrees. He begins his paper with a quote from the phenomenologist Alfred Schutz, "The social sciences are intellectually vacuous and ethically nihilist".* And after approvingly citing Strauss’ arguments against value-free social science he calls for a revival of the Socratic tradition in higher education:
The Socratic tradition suggests that it is a fundamental responsibility that falls on university teachers to both introduce their students to the basics of good thinking and writing and to ‘turn them on’ to the challenge of curiosity and the delights of thinking.
For Watts, higher education as a basic entitlement of citizenship. And to make sure everyone benefits, he argues that academics have an obligation to make their work as accessible as possible. Curiously, Leo Strauss reached exactly the opposite conclusion.
Strauss, Straussians and the neoconservatives
Strauss did not believe that it was healthy for a society to expose the majority of its citizens to Socratic scepticism. As Thomas Pangle writes:
Socratic skepticism threatens always to weaken the citizenry’s attachment to authoritative moral and religious opinion, whose deep-rooted, habitual or tradition-grounded, hold on the heart is an essential basis for healthy politics, especially in public-spirited republican society.
The ‘godfather of neoconservatism‘, Irving Kristol, agrees. He says that Strauss:
…was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and the political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil, and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion — with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences (p 8).
Peter Saunders takes a similar line. He argues that capitalism "needs symbols to legitimate the inequalities of condition which arise from market transactions, and it needs a core set of values which can bind people together through ties of mutual obligation and social responsibility" (p 119).
Saunders doesn’t offer a philosophical defence of these core values. As a sociologist he stays on his side of the fact/value dichotomy. All he is saying is that society will fall apart unless we find a way of convincing citizens that capitalism is a fair system and that they have an obligation to take responsibility for their own welfare. This is an empirical claim which appeals to shared interests. Saunders doesn’t need to justify his moral claims to make his argument work.
If the neoconservatives are right then liberal education and Socratic questioning must remain an elite pursuit. Strauss himself argued that every political society is founded on opinion rather than on knowledge (p x). Neither social science nor philosophy can justify the values on which society depends.
Neither Athens or Jerusalem
Unlike Saunders, Watts needs to defend his ideas of right and wrong. He suggests a morality based around Martha Nussbaum’s idea of human flourishing. But this suggestion seems more like a pragmatic bit of political strategy than a serious philosophical justification.
In criticising the community sector’s response to neoconservatism and neoliberalism, Watts ignores role of church-based welfare agencies. Unlike secular social scientists, most Christian welfare advocates don’t buy into the idea of moral relativism or anything-goes-liberalism. Their values are grounded in their faith. And as Kevin Rudd argues, there is no necessary connection between Christianity and conservatism.
But perhaps Watts thinks that appeals to faith will lead to division and intolerance. Political appeals based on religious belief are appeals to particular faith traditions while a modern multicultural nation like Australia is made up of people from a diversity of traditions. A philosophy which appeals to reason could potentially offer a universal justification of values — one which does not depend on membership of a particular community. But this is exactly what Strauss and the neoconservatives reject.
The belief that moral values ought to guide politics is destructive when it is combined with the Straussian idea that values are internal to particular communities and traditions. It fuels the culture war and encourages political leaders to see terrorism as a symptom of a ‘clash of civilizations’ that the West needs to win.
Watts should think again about liberalism. Rather than being a value-based ideology, liberalism is a practical response to moral conflict. Since our values cannot be justified by philosophical argument and our opponents cannot (or should not) be destroyed liberals argue that values are a private rather than a public matter. Liberals do not say that all values are equally valid — anyone who believes that is a nihilist. Nor do they argue against shared social norms — just as long as these are not enforced by the state. What liberalism offers is a set of institutions and habits that can allow each of us to live according to our own values without destroying each other. That is why the only thing that liberalism cannot tolerate is freedom for people place more value on the destruction of enemies than they do on the continuation of their own way of life.
* This seems to be one of Watts’ favourite quotes. I’ve seen him use versions of it in Arena Magazine (issue 42 p 22), the Australian Journal of Political Science (vol 36 No 1 p 173), a paper on youth violence, and in a textbook. I expected to find it here, but I just can’t see it. Does anyone know where it comes from?