August 2008

Arts & Letters

In search of essence

By Pete Hay
Clive Hamilton’s ‘The Freedom Paradox’

Clive Hamilton is one of the dissenting intellectuals that the Right loves to hate. He may not be not quite up there with Robert Manne, but he stands in an adjacent paddock. Hamilton is remarkably Renaissance in his intellectual range, and now he has written an ambitious and peculiarly vulnerable book of philosophical abstraction and application, one that conjoins German metaphysical idealism to that staid and dusty old branch of philosophical speculation, Ethics. Why vulnerable? Well the Right's chatterers will hate this book, and they will have a field day. It will inspire much wrathful damnation. Even those in tune with the book's project and most of its claims will find it very difficult to step into its central chamber within German metaphysics. As I read on, I found myself repeatedly thinking, Clive, you will be hammered for this. But he must have been entirely aware that this would be so.

The Freedom Paradox: Towards a Post-Secular Ethics (Allen & Unwin, 274pp; $35) consists of five parts, each containing several smallish sections. In the first of these parts, Hamilton systematically works through the paradox of "unfreedom" to reveal the pathological structures - what we might call the worms - that have subverted the promise of freedom heralded by the several revolutions of the twentieth century, of which economic liberalism is the most recent and enduring. The coercive forces that Hamilton deftly identifies are not primarily institutional: they are ingrained dispositions that have "lodged themselves in our psyches". In part two, Hamilton provides the metaphysical basis for his analysis - and for his resolution. The moral life has its basis in a conformity - a creative and vibrant conformity - with Schopenhauer's noumenon, a "metaphysical absolute" or "universal essence". In Hamilton's handling of it, the noumenon seems to oscillate between a force unifying all of existence (something akin to the notion of the life force, perhaps, though richer than this, and more complex) and a universal quality of mind that in turn structures all of existence. In the final three parts, Hamilton anneals his ethics in the forge of his metaphysics, and provides several practical applications (to suicide, sex, non-human life, aesthetics, sociality, happiness). It is a considerable achievement, but the parts, I think, are greater than the sum.

Hamilton is imperious when he treads the terrain with which he is usually associated: providing a withering analysis of the prevailing assumptions that underwrite market liberalism. He provides compelling evidence that the institution that the neo-liberal Right lionises, the capital market, is essentially totalitarian. "The market itself has in recent times evolved into an instrument of subtle coercion," he writes; and elsewhere, commenting on the perceived failure of free-market capitalism to engender human flourishing, observes: "what flourished was not the human spirit but the political power of capital and the culture of consumption, forces that have ... turned it into ... a sort of market totalitarianism." This was achieved through the deception that is "essential to modern marketing. It is not true that a particular brand of margarine will impart a happy family life or that a sports car will deliver sexual allure. Yet the purpose of advertising is to convince us that these things are true."

His attack upon the bedrock assumptions behind liberal philosophy is even more pointed. The coolly rational preference calculator that is the foundation unit of liberal economic, political and social activity is dismissed as a chimera on the basis of evidence from a most unexpected quarter. Hamilton draws upon studies in neuroscience to demonstrate that the cold judgement of the liberal preference maximiser is, quite literally, de-human. The evidence from neuroimaging indicates that both emotion-processing and cognitive areas of the brain kick in when any decision with a moral component is made, and that only brain-damaged individuals whose emotions-processing centres of neural activity have been impaired are capable of making entirely dispassionate, utilitarian calculations. His assessment is as devastating as it is succinct:

The model of the rational agent that forms the basis of neoclassical economics, around which the modern world of free markets is constructed, is one appropriate to a society of people who have been rendered incapable of feeling normal human emotions. Rational economic man is a neurological freak. The utilitarian model, in which agents calculate the best means of maximising social welfare without regard to the effects on [other] individuals, is a sociopathic one ...

The case against neo-liberalism's image of humans as rational, preferencing calculators is part of a wider concern on the author's part to put reason back in its box. Hamilton wants to establish a legitimate ground for emotion and intuition as components within an authentic moral self. This does not constitute a rejection of reason, though the rational domain is set within a richer context. Reason, intuition, emotion all arise within the universal essence and are, indeed, analytically indistinguishable within an authentic moral self.

This may well be the most contested aspect of Hamilton's case. He has some heavy philosophical hitters up against him - more formidable hitters than the one-dimensional "mystics of the market" (a well-chosen designator from Hamilton's earlier work) - and he takes them on with vigour. Kant, Hayek and Rawls figure prominently here. I am with Hamilton. It is clear that whenever we face a political or economic choice, the essential position we adopt typically springs to mind in an instant - too promptly to be the product of dispassionate reason. This is so whether the decision is moral in nature, or even when it is a merely selfish market choice with which we are faced (perhaps excepting, but only in part, some big-ticket optings, such as the purchase of a house or a car). These decisions are made prior to the workings of the reasoning mind, which serves rather to find defensible justifications for positions reached intuitively or emotionally. Such a view constitutes no great assault on reason: the instantaneous disposition that then hardens into a coherent position may be attributable to intuition, but intuition should not be seen as it customarily is, as some sort of mystical leap of faith. It is, rather, the accreted totality of our life's experiences, including past applications of reason, that come together in the immediate flash of insight which provides us with a perspective on a moral, political or economic problem. Reason is present in the exercise of what Hamilton terms "inner freedom"; it is just that it is not the sole arbiter of right and wrong - or any other category of personal decision, for that matter. His is a carefully qualified position, but it nevertheless seems inevitable that Hamilton will be labelled an enemy of reason by those seeking evidence of his iniquity.

The Freedom Paradox is also persuasive when it discusses the character of inner freedom - persuasive, at least, up to the point of its metaphysical grounding. Hamilton effectively demonstrates that true freedom should not be crudely equated with the freedom merely to do whatever takes our hedonistic fancy. This may be the understanding of freedom that prevails in these times of ego gratification and artificially massaged wants, but such is not freedom; it is actually enslavement to our whims and appetites, and in such enthrallment to base and shallow urges we surrender the control over our actions that is the true hallmark of the free individual. "In the popular understanding," Hamilton writes, "free will means being able to do whatever one wants, following one's own wishes unconstrained by rules or external authority. Yet this cannot be true freedom, inner freedom. Even if we are free to do as we will, we are not free to choose what it is that we will." To be truly free we must be free to turn away from the urgings of appetite and act in accordance with higher imperatives. This means that the moral life and the free, autonomous life are one and the same: "we are free," Hamilton explains, "only when we act according to goals and principles that we have given ourselves."

Would that he had left it at this. Instead, we get this vexed notion of the noumenon: the "universal essence" that is not "inherently good" but which "transcends good and evil", so that the point of being good is that it "gets us closer to our moral selves and thus to the noumenon". Slippery stuff, and the book never satisfactorily conveys the essence of this uber-essence. Take, for instance, the subtle sentence-by-sentence shifts in the first paragraph in section 39, ‘Nature'. Sentence one: "The metaphysics I have developed provides us with a monistic view of the world, one that asserts the essential unity of reality, in which all creation is the manifestation of the ‘subtle essence' of the noumenon." Here the noumenon is a universal force from which all being arises, one within which humankind is not elevated above the species mix but is a mere equal within a democracy of all life. But then we come to an approvingly tendered quotation from Schopenhauer: "we must learn to understand nature from ourselves, not ourselves from nature." OK, so the natural world is actually subordinate to the perceiving mind, perhaps even a creation of that mind. The latter reading is reinforced by a quote from Kant: "a glance into the interior of nature is certainly granted to us, in so far as this is nothing but our own inner being."

All very confusing, and more trouble, I think, than it's worth. In the middle of the book, Hamilton establishes "compassion" and "the will to justice" as the touchstones of his practical ethics, and these thread prominently through the subsequent sections of the book. But we do not need recourse to German metaphysics to establish a basis for such principles as informants of a moral life. Indeed, it is hard to see how any necessary connection can be made between the practical prescriptions of a moral life and an elusive and insubstantial universal essence. Though they will want to distance themselves from what they will deem a dangerous rejection of rationality, Hamilton's ideological opponents could as easily derive the principles of market liberalism by following his injunction to source an inner life to a universal essence. In their faith that the workings of the market embody some transcendental and perfect justice denied to the imaginings of any mere mortal, the mystics of the market do precisely this already!

Much of the problem stems from Hamilton's stark distinction between noumenon (the ineffable universal essence) and phenomenon (the world of appearances). This is not a distinction that phenomenologists would ever care to make, for we would insist that our search is for essences, though they are intrinsic to the material world. At the deep end of its philosophical pool, The Freedom Paradox could have benefited from an injection of Merleau-Ponty (never mentioned) and Heidegger (quoted just once, in passing).

I want people to read this book, though. I applaud Hamilton's philosophical project, as I have always applauded his political one. Parts of this book merit close reading and careful thought. They well survive the unnecessary expedition in search of an all-binding universal essence - a yearning towards a unicausal theory of everything that is itself a pathology of Enlightenment hubris.

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