Monday, November 05, 2012

O.S. Guinness: book on "sustainable freedom"

Author: O.S. Guinness

Title: “A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future

Publication: 2012, IVP Books, ISBN 978-8308-3465-5, 224 pages, indexed, 7 Chapters

“Sustainability” has not always been a moral buzzword.  The early Christians expected the “end” to come soon.  In most of the twentieth century (and previous centuries) the welfare of a country and all its constituent social groupings had a lot to do with surviving external threats from enemies and with throwing off political tyranny and authoritarianism, migrating toward liberal democracy with increasing recognition of diversity and individual rights.

In recent years, we have indeed started to question how we can sustain our western lifestyles, not just against competitive enemies (like radical Islam) but from climate change and “demographic winter”.
Guinness generally keeps his reasoning high-level and abstract, as if he were proving a sequence of theorems about political or social science.  He starts out by focusing on “the American experiment” (not to confuse this term with the name of a conservative group in Minneapolis), comparing America to other great empires, and the American revolution to other traumatic changes in history. 

He comes up with a nice idea of a “triangle” of sustainability:   Freedom requires virtue, which in turn requires faith, which in turn requires freedom, closing the triangle.  The problem is that virtue cannot be derived purely by intellect alone, because some moral issues – especially those having to do with the relationship of the “special” individual to the group – tend to lead us into contradictions.  For example, it seems good to like or prefer people who seem “virtuous” (or who “look” virtuous), but then we are putting down the less fortunate.  (Perhaps that means, if I was lifted up, I owe it to “society” (or God) to lift someone else up.)  We tend to resolve these moral conundrums by looking for  absolute moral teachings in scripture (for example, the way the Vatican interprets scripture as “the Teachings of the Church”).   The scriptures play umpire, defining the size of the pitcher’s strike zone.  But no  one can really experience faith until he or she is free to do so without external pressure from the external, paternalistic state.  And that brings us into some paradox concerning what “freedom” at the individual level must mean if it is to remain sustainable.

Guinness defines a concept called “negative freedom”, that is, the insistence on being left alone (mentioned in a couple of famous Supreme Court opinions).  We need to let ourselves be bothered with other people’s needs because our own output in life means nothing except in its ability to meet the real needs of other people (although “real life” can become quite broadly construed, despite my own late mother’s ideas about this.) Guinness decries the weakening not only of marriage but of most social structures.  He says that real freedom is the province only of those who “belong” to others and to purposes larger than themselves.

I always have a problem with the idea of belonging to someone else’s purpose, because you could wind up playing on the wrong team.  Who wants to “belong” to a crime family, however pious? Individualism is indeed a good check on corrupt leadership.  People who are “different” but talented find themselves in a precarious position in these kinds of revolutionary debates; the asymmetry of their efforts can topple things over back toward exclusion of others who are even less talented and maybe to certain kinds of authoritarianism (even fascism).  In an individualistic culture, people are supposed to take care of themselves and “mind their own business”;  but it is still necessary to learn how to be attentive to others and take care of others, at least in a family setting, and this responsibility is inherent and occurs long before any decision to have children.  Indeed, the whole meaning of marriage becomes something that ratifies one’s ability to channel his deepest sense of satisfaction and purpose toward real needs around; but marriage doesn’t cause it.  It becomes a chicken and egg problem, or another endless loop, a moral spin or low pressure system.

Guinness never mentions homosexuality or gay political issues, but he does criticize the notion that sexuality is (or has become in western society) a private, self-serving experience rather than part of the process of socialization.  He seems to think that deference to scriptural notions of right and wrong are necessary to get around apparent surface contradictions.  He sees libertarianism as "selfish", but that's also how he sees the self-serving behavior of much of American business.  Freedom, he thinks, more about doing the right things out of "habits of the heart", for the good of everyone (including other generations), in concentric rings around immediate family.

The book implies that the willingness of people who are "different" (me) to become other-centric, and not too invested in their own chosen purposes, can become critical for the sustainability of a whole free society.  

Amazon link is here

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