August 15, 2010

Scruton: The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope [book]

Roger Scruton's new book tackles the question of social progress and whether or not it can actually be achieved. Scruton, a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University, transhumanist critic, and the author of over thirty books including Beauty and Death-Devoted Heart, looks back into human history and pieces together a rather grim narrative of how our civilization got to where it is now.

According to Scruton, institutions progress but human beings don't. And at the same time the human capacity for cruelty and violence remains infinite. Ultimately, Scruton's anti-transhumanist argument boils down to, "To be truly happy we must be pessimistic"—an adage that most transhumanists reject outright.

Book description:
Ranging widely ove—r human history and culture, from ancient Greece to the current global economic downturn, Scruton makes a counterintuitive yet persuasive case that optimists and idealists -- with their ignorance about the truths of human nature and human society, and their naive hopes about what can be changed -- have wrought havoc for centuries. Scruton's argument is nuanced, however, and his preference for pessimism is not a dark view of human nature; rather his is a 'hopeful pessimism' which urges that instead of utopian efforts to reform human society or human nature, we focus on the only reform that we can truly master -- the improvement of ourselves through the cultivation of our better instincts.

Written in Scruton's trademark style-- erudite, sweeping in scope across centuries and cultures, and unafraid to offend-- this book is sure to intrigue and provoke readers concerned with the state of Western culture, the nature of human beings, and the question of whether social progress is truly possible
From Richard King's review:
This dose of pessimism is necessary, not because of the leftist intellectuals whom Scruton endlessly takes to task, but largely because of unchecked capitalism. That, if you like, is the snail in the bottle of this conservative philosopher's engaging treatise: it fails to acknowledge that sometimes crises result from conservative patterns of thinking, and not from those who seek to challenge them.
From Kenan Malik's review:
Scruton appears equally complacent about the contemporary impact of tradition. The liberalisation of social norms in recent decades undermines tradition and defies human nature, he argues. So why, he asks, should the onus be on conservatives to defend the importance of traditional forms of marriage against "innovations" such as gay partnerships?

The answer is the one that would have been given to those who argued against miscegenation or giving women the vote. The unequal treatment of gay people is a moral wrong and no amount of tradition can make it right. It is up to Scruton to defend discrimination, not liberals to have to justify treating all equally.

Scruton insists that he is averse to optimism only in its "unscrupulous" form. The trouble is, what makes an optimist unscrupulous is, in his eyes, a belief in the possibility of "goal-directed politics". He dismisses as a "fallacy" the "belief that we can advance collectively to our goals by adopting a common plan, and by working towards it". Progressive changes, however, rarely happen by chance. History is a narrative of humans rationally and consciously transforming the world. To give up on "goal-directed politics" is to give up possibilities of betterment.
More from Roger "The Gloom Merchant" Scruton:
Such fallacies have led to disastrous results on account of the false hopes that are built on them. Many of these false hopes have fizzled out. But there is truth in the view that hope springs eternal in the human breast, and false hope is no exception. In the world that we are now entering there is a striking new source of false hope, in the “trans-humanism” of people like Ray Kurzweil, Max More and their followers. The transhumanists believe that we will replace ourselves with immortal cyborgs, who will emerge from the discarded shell of humanity like the blessed souls from the grave in some medieval Last Judgement.

The transhumanists don’t worry about Huxley’s Brave New World: they don’t believe that the old-fashioned virtues and emotions lamented by Huxley have much of a future in any case. The important thing, they tell us, is the promise of increasing power, increasing scope, increasing ability to vanquish the long-term enemies of mankind, such as disease, ageing, incapacity and death.

But to whom are they addressing their argument? If it is addressed to you and me, why should we consider it? Why should we be working for a future in which creatures like us won’t exist, and in which human happiness as we know it will no longer be obtainable? And are those things that spilled from Pandora’s box really our enemies – greater enemies, that is, than the false hope that wars with them? We rational beings depend for our fulfilment upon love and friendship. Our happiness is of a piece with our freedom, and cannot be separated from the constraints that make freedom possible – real, concrete freedom, as opposed to the abstract freedom of the utopians. Everything deep in us depends upon our mortal condition, and while we can solve our problems and live in peace with our neighbours we can do so only through compromise and sacrifice. We are not, and cannot be, the kind of posthuman cyborgs that rejoice in eternal life, if life it is. We are led by love, friendship and desire; by tenderness for young life and reverence for old. We live, or ought to live, by the rule of forgiveness, in a world where hurts are acknowledged and faults confessed to. All our reasoning is predicated upon those basic conditions, and one of the most important uses of pessimism is to warn us against destroying them. The soul-less optimism of the transhumanists reminds us that we should be gloomy, since our happiness depends on it.

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