Freedom, Democracy, and the Purpose of Life (working title) reflects 30 years of thinking about these ideas and their relationship to each other. I believe the subject is timely, illuminating, and offers a modicum of hope that we need not despair about the future of our country, of democracy, or of human civilization.
Overview: The embittering and enervating stalemate that marks political life in the U.S. today stems in large measure from the way we think about freedom and democracy, perhaps the two most important social ideas of the modern era. Along with the idea of equality, they figure prominently in public debate over nearly every serious issue.
But “freedom” and “democracy,” as most people understand these terms, are built on a foundation of sand: a deeply flawed conception of individualism, two of whose constituent elements are the “bad seeds” from which the current dysfunctional practices of freedom and democracy have grown. Reinterpreting individualism as an aspiration to individuality—that is, to the flourishing of every unique human life—enables us see more clearly why these two foundational ideas are so important for us, and to understand how they need to be reconciled and revitalized.
Appeals to “freedom” and “democracy” by themselves can’t help us resolve political disagreements and the moral issues that often lie at their heart. Something else is needed: a robust public practice of ethics. Although ethical reasoning is widely viewed as “relative,” and hence incapable of yielding “objective” conclusions, close examination of the concept reveals that we recognize its latent authority. What we lack is a clear understanding of what ethics is, why we need it, and what it requires.
Re-examining ethics shows that democracy is in fact a form of ethical practice—its most public form. The key premise of democracy—equality—is the political expression of the fundamental requirement of ethics: to show other people and their values and interests the same respect and concern we show our own. Ethics requires me to treat others as they would like to be treated, viz., as no more and no less important than I am. It asks us to treat each other as incommensurable moral subjects who are equally entitled to have their most important needs and interests respected.
Understood properly, ethics enables us to reach shared judgments about the relative desirability of the conflicting values (or value priorities) upon which ethical and political issues turn. In particular, ethics helps us resolve apparent conflicts between freedom and democracy. But this requires rethinking individualism.
Shared ethical judgments about which values (or value priorities) should take precedence in cases of conflict are unattainable, though, without reference to some generally accepted, overarching view of what is worth doing. The liberal attempt to deal with conflict by permitting everyone to determine for himself or herself what is best not only impedes reasoned resolution, but also continuously undermines our ability, as communities and as a society—even as individuals—to construct and maintain standards that all of us can accept as authoritative. Liberalism reduces all questions of value ultimately to non-rational desires. That leaves only two viable methods for dealing with ethical and political conflicts: recognize the right of persons to do almost anything they want, or let the majority arbitrarily impose its desires on everyone else.
For all the benefits liberalism has bestowed, it has undercut its own defensibility by failing to provide an account of good and bad, right and wrong, for human beings as such. To preserve what is valuable in liberalism and to revitalize democracy we must attempt to construct just such an account. In short, we must attempt to answer the most basic ethical and practical question of all: How should we (humans) live? No matter how tentative or provisional or open-ended the answers we come up with, there is no escaping the task: we must figure out the purpose of life.
Supporters will receive a free, inscribed copy of the book (or, alternatively, a pdf of the manuscript). Thank you.
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- Julie Fisher Melton
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