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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, October 10, 2011

Novel Activist on Clive Hamilton

Over at Novel Activist, we get a useful critique of Clive Hamilton's deeply conservative worldview and not-so-hidden tendency to authoritarianism.

The lionisation of Clive Hamilton has long puzzled and troubled me. The man is an enemy of our liberty, like so many people who think they have special insight into what is good for us. It's about time that people of reason treated his pontificating with a bit more scepticism, and even hostility.

Conversely, I had never heard of the Novel Activist blog until today - when someone (*goes and checks and finds it was Leslie Cannold*) mentioned it on Twitter - and it looks like an interesting one to explore.

H/T Leslie Cannold.


Anonymous said...

I can appreciate the criticism of Hamilton's porn views. However I really do think that he does some great work on climate change. What is your opinion on that subject?

Neil said...

I guess the main moral I drew from the discussion is the unhelpfulness of the term 'conservative'. According to the analysis Hamilton defends a view according to which meaning depends on conformity with the noumenal. What's conservative about that? Absolutely nothing. Compare Heideggerians, who have a related view. Heidegger was a Nazi; some of his followers were communists. Thing is, if you think that norms depend on Being, or on the noumenon, you can fill in the norms anyway you like. Since these entities are imaginary, we can imagine whatever content that pleases us. In mainstream politics, 'conservative' is no more helpful. Both major parties are mixtures of conservatives and less conservative elements. The dominant strand in the coalition has been the primacy of the market, and we all know what the market does to all existing social relations and to all values ("all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned", as Marx wrote). Labor advocates the market in some ways, opposes it in others. So does the coalition. And everyone agrees that some things are worth preserving. So 'conservative' is either used to mean "the party that is most sympathetic to big business" - ie, the party that is least likely to preserve anything - or is meaningless.

Russell Blackford said...

"Conservative" is the opposite of "liberal". E.g. I don't think Hamilton has much respect for the harm principle or freedom of speech. If he has, he needs to say so a lot more because it's not clear.

Being conservative implies being authoritarian from a position of so-called traditional values, such as anti-sex values. That is exactly what Hamilton is like.

He is conservative in a perfectly familiar sense that has nothing to do with economic policy. My post is not about economic policy and neither is the post that I linked to.

Neil said...

"Conservative" is not the opposite of "liberal". This is a cross-cutting distinction, like 4WD and Japanese. Burkean conservatism is about the wisdom of tradition; if anything deserves to be identified with the paradigm of conservatism, it is Burke. Further, communists and socialists are neither conservatives nor liberals.

The post you linked to is not about economic policy, but it is not about free speech either. The same considerations about how the (silly) metaphysics Hamilton defends underdetermines his norms applies to free speech too. Does the good life (=the life of conformity to the noumenon) require respect for free speech? Your fantasy is as good as mine, since we have to make up a content.

Russell Blackford said...

Well use the word "illiberal" if you don't like "conservative".

The ordinary meaning of conservatism as the opposite of liberal is well known. But as I say, you can use "illiberal" if your prefer. Or "social conservative" if you want to be more specific.

I have no idea what "communists and socialists" have to do with this. You brought them up, not me. I never said anything about whether or not communists or socialists are liberal or conservative. Seems like you're having an argument with yourself. The position being ascribed to Hamilton would generally be considered conservative in wanting to impose a particular conception of a good or meaningful life through political power, rather than wanting people to be politically free to pursue their own chosen ways of life, including ones that the individual concerned deeply disagrees with or is repulsed by.

And the post I linked to is exactly about an aspect of freedom of speech: it is about censorship of pornography and why Hamilton supposedly supports it.

Darrick Lim said...

I'm very much simpatico with the Novel Activist's views on Hamilton, particularly NA's rejection of Hamilton's transcendentalism.

Here are my thoughts on The Freedom Paradox. I wrote this some years ago, and my views on scientific positivism a la Sam Harris have changed since then, largely thanks to critics of Harris like yourself, Russell. I still have to familiarise myself with error theory, but the little that I've gleaned from your posts (and subsequent discussions) on the topic have been persuasive.

Neil said...

After some sleep, a more concessive response... I was reading NA as claiming that CH is conservative *because* of his transcendentalism. That's not an entirely idiosyncratic reading: Darrick Lim shares it. But it is actually consistent with the letter of what NA writes that CH is conservative because of the content of his transcendentalism: that the good life excludes pleasure (does he really say that? I find it hard to believe since it is so silly). I should have been more charitable and made sense of your comments as based on a reasonable reading of what NA wrote.

Concessive comment in conservatism: I think you're right that "conservative" is used that way. But I'm right that the word is useless; in fact this usage is just further evidence. When a word is used in so many conflicting ways within a single domain - so that of each politician the correct answer to the question "is she conservative" is "yes and no" - that word us useless.

I mentioned socialism because even with continuum concepts like color - think black and white - the opposites are usually understood as the ends of the continuum. "Conservative" and "liberal" don't function like that. For that matter, Russell, I think it would be misleading to describe you as a liberal. I think you're more a libertarian.

Russell Blackford said...

Neil, depending on the emphasiss of a disussion I'm a Millian liberal or even a social democrat. By and large I admire the welfare states of Western Europe, and I see myself, in terms of Australian politics, in much the same position as Hawke (whom I admire greatly) and Keating (whom I admire less greatly, but still admire). On some issues, I am actually closest to the Greens.

A libertarian, to me, is someone like Robert Nozick who wants to abolish the welfare state and much of the rest of the state apparatus that is directed to the secular interests of citizens, thinks taxation is theft, etc. That's not my position. Libertarianism (as I understand it) is callous and ungrounded. Of course, I think there's a sense in which all political philosophies are ultimately ungrounded, or, rather, are grounded in human desires, interests, sympathies, and so on. But libertarianism, with its claim that there are absolute individual rights, particularly absolute property rights, seems particularly vulnerable to this charge.

As far as property goes, I see property in the way that lawyers understand it, as a bundle of defined legal rights in things, not as absolute, uncoditional ownership. I see schemes of private property as social constructs that may exist subject to other social constructs such as schemes of taxation and government transfers. That's not a libertarian position as I understand it.

You might say that I have certain libertarian impulses, but only if you'd say the same thing about Hawke or Keating. I.e. I do favour budget surpluses, some limited deregulation of the labour markets from the position that they were in at the time Hawke was elected in 1983 (but this seems to me to have gone too far under Howard), etc., while favouring redistribution of the wealth generated by capitalism for such purposes as relieving poverty, and while being liberal socially.

To me, that's a social democrat position. And note that the huge budget deficits in the US have not been the fault of social democrats. To a large extent they are the responsibility of Republican governments that are, on almost any account, conservative.

I talk about my philosophical position at length in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. However, my philosophical position is compatible with a wide range of substantive political positions on such things as economic policy. It's even compatible with a certain amount of censorship of, say, pornography, though to my mind this would require much stronger evidence than has been adduced so far that certain kinds of pornography cause harm by a fairly direct route that can be blocked only by censorship.

Neil, I was snippy at you because you seemed to be being deliberately contrarian. As you concede, the word "conservative" is indeed used that way both in common parlance and (probably) by philosophers, so I didn't know why you'd want to deny this. But once again, "illiberal" may be a better word.

I think that the words "liberal" and "conservative" are quite commonly used as I've described them, and are usually reasonably clear in context. For me, the less useful terms are actually "right wing" and "left wing" which seem to be much more vague attempts to capture something multi-dimensional. I seldom use those terms, though sometimes I use terms such as "extreme right", with an explanation of what I mean.


Neil said...

You seem to know more about your political views than I do. In my defence, the field of Blackford studies is in its infancy. On "libertarian": I should have avoided it because it is itself polysemous. Nozick - if he held the views he expounded in ASU - represents one strand of right-libertarianism. There are varieties of right-libertarianism, which build on the Lockean proviso: property acquisition must leave "enough and as good for all". Left libertarians hold that because we cannot literally leave enough for all, those with property owe recompense to those without. In some versions, this is used to defend quite radical redistribution. You're clearly not a metaphysical libertarian, given your views on property. But your views might be consistent with a political libertarianism. But things get blurry here, and it seems you have at least as much right to describe yourself as a Millian liberal.

Darrick Lim said...

Just putting this out there, but is it possible to be a liberal while also holding prescriptive beliefs on what kinds of actions and ideas contribute to a good life?

I ask this because although I take issue with Hamilton's conservatism (not least because of the dubious metaphysics underpinning it), I do agree with his arguments along the lines of "certain ways of living/being are more conducive to the good or fulfilled life (eudaimonia) than others". IMO, it seems possible to hold this view (that is, to not subscribe to an extreme form of value relativism) while at the same time upholding the Millian ideal of individual liberty. I may disapprove of a certain type of belief or action (like superstitious beliefs, or anti-science attitudes) while respecting a person's right to believe or act in such a (to me) disagreeable manner.

I guess my feelings on Hamilton and conservatism in general are rather complicated. I'm pretty much on side with Russell with my politics, but when it comes to ethics, I admit that I do wish that more people would value what I consider to be truly (provisionally objective even?)good ideas or worldviews that can only benefit them, i.e. rational, skeptical, critical ways of thinking, among others.

Russell Blackford said...

I think we need to be careful to distinguish between positions about the way of life that we prefer for ourselves - and for people in general - and positions about how the power of the state (or other social formations that might exercise power over individuals) should be exercised. It's not just matter of what outcomes we prefer; it's also a matter of how much trust we are prepared to place in the apparatus of the state.

For example, I am very much against indoctrinating children in supernatural beliefs - beliefs that I consider false and, by and large, harmeful to them. But I am not sufficiently trustful of the state to think that it should be empowered to decide what beliefs are taught to children. Even if it has some role in deciding this, I'd like it to be very constrained and to be subject to a lot of scrutiny.

More generally, there are questions about (1) what is a good life for ourselves or others. There are also questions as to (2) what the power of the state is for or how it should be exercised. It's not obvious that the answer to (2) is that the state should impose on others whatever we take to be the answer to (1).

Darrick Lim said...

I suppose that's my position too. Which is why I don't agree with the Turkish and French governments' decision to ban the hijab and burqa, a decision made in the name of secularism. Such a ban seems to me to be a perversion of secularism, especially in supposedly liberal democracies.

No doubt you cover all these issues in depth in your new book. I'll see if I can get a copy from Embiggen Books.

Russell Blackford said...

In the book, I do talk about the role of the state with all these issues - censorship, abortion, blasphemy, the burqa, etc., etc. I talk about the burqa a fair bit, and do object to the laws in, for example, France, that basically prohibit it in public places.

Russell Blackford said...

Re climate change, the consensus among genuine climate scientists is that the world is warming and that the causes are largely anthropogenic. It's as simple as that as far as I'm concerned. Of course, there's then a question of how to respond. In my case, I do think that the response should include a carbon tax.

Darrick Lim said...

I'm with you on that. Market-derived problems (liberal capitalist encouragement of consumption contributes to anthropogenic global warming) should have market-derived solutions (put a fair price on consumption-driven pollution to be paid by egregious polluters).