McMahon C6 Liberalism and Discontents

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McMahon, Chapter 6: Liberalism and Its Discontents (1st half to 331)

  • Enlightenment liberalism and Classical Republicanism in the American experiment
  • example of Franklin as quintessential representative of the American appropriation of Enlightenment liberalism.
  • symbol of thrift and accumulation, self-made, tract, The Path to Riches and Happiness. But then, McMahon raises the question of whether the money - happiness connection is really central to the American experiment. Need to go into Enlightenment thought behind the “pursuit of happiness” phrase.
  • Trivial Pursuits
  • Dec. of Independence: tracing "pursuit of happiness" in enlightenment texts. Jefferson claims that he was trying to express a “common sense” of the American mind. However, he is altering Locke’s “Life, liberty, and property (estates)” phrase. Critic might call this a smokescreen for protecting property.
  • Locke did think of happiness as a natural part of a Christian worldview, leading us to God. Virginia Declaration on Human Rights, contemporary, shows the liberty — property — happiness connection (318).
  • Connotation of “pursuit” - Locke and Jeff understood hedonic treadmill at some level. McMahon suggests that this negative connotation is part of a deeper Christian line of thought that survived in the Enlightenment. Christianity teaches us not to expect ultimate desire satisfaction in material goods. Sermons of the time routinely linked happiness to Christian virtues.
  • Jeffersonian Christianity focused on teachings of Jesus. The Jefferson Bible…. Jefferson is identified with “Classical Republican” less individualistic than Locke, focused on civic virtue and civic participation. Quote at 324. Jefferson’s knowledge of the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers would also inform him of a critical issue in Locke (raised by Hutchison), that pleasure may just lead to self-centered hedonism. Postulated “moral sense” as counterweight. A capacity to feel pleasure from good.
  • McMahon traces this appreciation of limits of “trivial pursuits” of pleasure in Hume and Smith. Smith theorized that the illusory goal of desire satisfaction could have positive social effect, motivating pursuit of wealth, which is good for the society, even at the sacrifice of individual Happiness.
  • Strange Melancholy
  • Alexis de Tocqueville's contribution: Democracy in America 1835 1840: Sociological insight into sadness in the American experiment.
  • Of Toq's thesis: Macmahon writes: "perhaps, the cynic, or at least the skeptic, may be on firmer ground. For in a society in which the unhindered pursuit of happiness (to say nothing of its attainment) is treated as a natural, Godgiven right, the inability to make steady progress along the way will inevitably be seen as an aberration, a suspension of the natural order of things." big passage: 333-334
  • really about the dynamics of equality, freedom, and democracy vs. community and social values. U.S. a big experiment. Tocqueville also praised Americans for self-reliance and a sense of "enlightened self interest" -- realizing that it is in your self-interest to be concerned about others.
  • And that, Tocqueville concluded in a famous line, "is the reason for the strange melancholy often haunting inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance, and of that disgust with life sometimes gripping them in calm and easy circumstances."
  • More detail of Toqueville’s analysis:
  • ”self-intrest rightly understood” - today we document this as measureable mental adaptations of “impersonal prosociality” and “impersonal fairness” (Henrich, WEIRDEST People in the World)
  • ”a sublunary focus of religious spirit” - in other words, we took Locke’s (and maybe Calvin’s) analysis to heart. Religion in Am context serves as counter weight to Am drives to maximize.
  • A crisis of faith 343
  • Mill's contribution: Autonomy and Liberal Hope
  • 344: image of John Stuart Mill reviewing Toq's essays and longing for democracy in Europe. Maybe the problem isn’t equality, as Toq claims, but a British thing? Or just the “commercial spirit”. "Let the idea take hold," Mill warned, "that the most serious danger to the future prospects of mankind is in the unbalanced influence of the commercial spirit. .. ."
  • 347: section on Mill's depression -- famous -- finds solace in romatic poetry. why? evocative, imaginative against starker imagination of rationalist enlightenment. Also an example of the “internal strategy” for happiness.
  • also in Mill (and Butler), the problem of indirect happiness. Q347-8. ( Mill's passage 348 breaking with simple Benthamism. Happiness too complex to reduce to pleasures. “Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” What would that “higher end” be beyond pleasure: Liberty!
  • Mill, On Liberty passage 350 - Only legit. Power of the state is to prevent harms from rights violations. Can't violate someone's liberty to make them happier... “The individual is sovreign.”
  • McM: Liberty as liberation “from” oppressive conditions. (Early feminist.) Is there a romanticism in Mill's position on Liberty? Perhaps a romantic faith that the “true self” would emerge. (Note: Also in Marx.). Anti-conformity.
  • The Capitalist Ethic and the Spirit of Happiness
  • Weber's contribution: Socio-religious insight into the dynamic between capitalism and Protestant Christianity.
  • Weber Section: 355 "In the Protestant anxiety over the fate of individual salvation, he argued, lay the motive force behind an impetus to capital accumulation, regarded as a sign and partial assurance of God's blessing. Combining ascetic renunciation, a notion of work as divine calling, and a critically rational disposition, the Protestant faith, Weber argued, brought together nascent capitalism's essential qualities: the restriction of consumption in favor of the accrual of capital, and a religiously consecrated ethic of discipline, delayed gratification, industry, and thrift.” (Digression on contemporary approaches in cultural evolution that qualify, and enlarge, Weber’s point.)
  • Think Ben Franklin, heir to dad’s Calvinism (though a bit of a libertine, I’ve heard). His “ethic” was, however, about foregoing short term pleasures to accumulate wealth.
  • Weber claimed that as the after-life diminishes as a goal, wealth accumulation becomes an end in itself. “… a man exists for the sake of his business, not the other way around…”
  • 358: "Indeed, it was during the very period when Weber was writing that America, and the West more generally, began to undergo what the sociologist Daniel Bell has described as a monumental transformation, "the shift from production to consumption as the fulcrum of capitalism." Bringing "silk stockings to shop girls" and "luxury to the masses," this transformation made of "marketing and hedonism" the "motor forces of capitalism," driving over all restraints that stood in the way of the enjoyment of material pleasures with a momentum that would have surprised even Tocqueville." (Note: Galbraith, "The Dependency Effect; reliance on raising GDP; sustainability of economy and population)
  • "Material goods," he observed at the end of The Protestant Ethic, "have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history."
  • And yet, Weber was no hedonist. 359. Close the chapter with the “specter of Marx” and the Russian revolution, which had it’s own (also Romantic) assumptions about liberation.