The Maintenance of Social Order Involves Moral Choice and Struggle

The maintenance of social order involves a struggle within the individual, a struggle to control our behavioural tendencies to dominate, to compete, to be aggressive—those behavioural tendencies that Stark reduces to greed and lust. That this is consistent with our daily experience is acknowledged widely, but this is not a new intuition. Various religious traditions have been talking about such issues for as long as we have written records. For example, for the Hebrew prophets, the existence of evil in the world was a consequence of humankind’s overreaching pride, of human freedom reaching beyond its limits, leading to alienation from God. For Zarathustra of Balkh (c. 626–551 BC), the potential for good and evil was born in all of us—a consequence of what he saw as a cosmic battle between good and evil, the battle between the supreme god, Ahura Mazda, and the evil god, Ahriman. This teaching points to the prevalence and strength of evil in the world, and of the resulting conflicts within us.[106]

The Bhagavadadgita (Song of the Lord), a popular Indian religious poem forming part of the Mahabharata (The Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty), dating from the fifth century BC, teaches that human beings are distinguished from animals by the knowledge of right and wrong. The world is the field of righteousness and the battleground for mortal struggle between the good and evil in each of us. Drawing on this Indian tradition, Sidharta Gautama (the Buddha, 563–483 BC) taught that all life was suffering and that human suffering could be transcended only by seeing through the illusions of worldly reality and the individual self—and by cultivating a personality that was free from the deluded desires and passions that caused suffering.[107] In this view, suffering arises out of selfish cravings and such cravings can be overcome by following the eightfold path of Buddhism. About the same time, in China, Confucius (Kong Fuzi, 551–479 BC), drawing on the idea of the interdependence of all things, was concerned to define and help cultivate the way to a harmonious society. His teachings were concerned with the avoidance of vice and the cultivation of personal virtue, proper government, the values of family and community.

The ancient Greek conception of hubris—the human bent towards self-aggrandisement, pride and all associated forms of egotism—has similarities with the Judaeo-Christian conception of the Fall.[108] In this view, a shadow lies over every human being because we do not have the ethical stamina we need. This Greek concept emphasised the tragic dimension of this darker side of human beings. Hubris, in this sense, is not pride but the self-elevation of the great beyond the limits of its finitude.[109] In this tradition, Socrates (c. 470–399 BC) was concerned to explore the concepts of the good life and of virtue. While there is some difference of emphasis, the moral metaphysics of ancient Athens is similar to the fundamental moral stance of the Christian Church.

For the Christian Church also, moral evil is omnipresent. As Saint Paul (10–67), some time in the middle of the first century AD, said:

I have been sold as a slave to sin. I cannot understand my own behaviour. I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing the very things I hate…for though the will to do what is good is in me, the performance is not, with the result that instead of doing the good things I want to do, I carry out the sinful things I do not want.[110]

Again, contemporary Christian theology talks about humankind’s ‘torn’ or ‘broken’ condition[111] in alluding to what has more traditionally been called original sin. The Fall involves strong claims about how the human world is, rather than simply a mythological story of how it came to be that way. As contemporary Anglican theologian David Tracey would have it: ‘The one piece of Christian doctrine that is empirically demonstrable is that there is something awry with the world.’[112] The Christian tradition goes on to suggest that an effective social order is possible only through a covenant relationship with God—a relationship that is corporate and individual.[113] Importantly, mainstream contemporary Christian theologians see the myth of the Fall as incorporating a profound insight into the human condition—a fall to moral responsibility—and not as a historical account of the origin of evil. Balancing this negative view of the human condition, the somewhat dualistic Christian tradition also sees humankind as having being made in the likeness of God, and as having been saved by Christ, who initiated the Kingdom of God, within which we can experience our true calling as children of God, open to love and the possibility of radical goodness.

It is largely the doctrine of original sin as developed by Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and transmitted through the Protestant reformers that found philosophical expression in English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ (1588–1679) ‘war of all on all’.[114] Hobbes believed that we were all motivated by a restless desire for power, which we required to assure us of the means to live well. In Hobbes’ view, in a ‘state of nature’,

there is no place for industry; because the fruits thereof is [sic] uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious buildings; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no Arts; no Letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continuous fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.[115]

This is simply a secularised version of Calvin’s natural man.[116] For Hobbes, it was only as a consequence of the discipline enforced by government that a civilised life was possible.

The more optimistic Enlightenment view that humankind and human structures are perfectible is found in the works of Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78). This optimism—that humankind was basically good—was condemned by a number of councils of the Christian Church as the Pelagian heresy in the fifth century, by the Catholic Council of Trent in the sixteenth century and by a number of Protestant councils about the same time. Rousseau thought that human beings were endowed by nature with compassion for their fellow humans—a view he derived from Smith and Hume. He also believed, however, that human life in a ‘state of nature’ was one of solitude: ‘Having no fixed habitation and no need of one another’s assistance, the same persons hardly meet twice in their lives, and perhaps then without knowing one another or speaking together…They maintained no kind of intercourse with one another, and were consequently strangers to vanity, deference, esteem and contempt.’[117]

It is now clear that this individualistic anthropology is nonsense. Our primate ancestors lived in social groups and we evolved as social animals. Nevertheless, while generally holding that humankind in this mythical ‘state of nature’ was inherently good, Rousseau conceded that the weight of human experience demonstrated that human beings were wicked. He claimed that it was human society that induced people to hate each other and to inflict every imaginable evil on one another. He also disputed that private interests were linked to the public interest; rather, they excluded each other. The laws of society were a yoke that everybody wished to impose on others, but not themselves.[118]

The point of this account for current purposes is not theological but empirical. It is not intended to promote particular religious beliefs or a particular or masculine image of God, or to encourage an orgy of guilt feelings.[119] Rather, this account is intended to encourage a more realistic understanding of the human condition. These traditional theological concerns about human sinfulness have been absorbed into secular discourse and then—under the influence of Enlightenment optimism—forgotten. Worse, economic orthodoxy has been dominated by the claim that self-interest provides an adequate basis for modelling human behaviour and, in the process, is legitimising selfishness.

Human moral finitude is, however, alive and active in the world. These traditional religious concerns incorporate a profound insight into the human condition, an insight pointing to the fragility of our social order and an insight that we ignore to our peril. Certainly, in our daily life we do not, and cannot, ignore the fact that to be human is inter alia to be proud, to be vain, to want to dominate others, to become angry, to be vindictive, violent, vengeful, greedy, dishonest, untruthful, weak-willed, easily lead, self-destructive, frightened, confused and to become discouraged.

Of course, we find it easy to see these faults and failings in others. What is frequently overlooked is the insidious and ever-present influence of these tendencies on our own actions and values and on social values more generally. We need to protect ourselves from our own dark side and we should not ignore this particular reality in our institutional arrangements. One consequence is that even our moral vocabulary—and our moral, religious, political and legal institutions—can be subverted into instruments of immoral conduct.

The whole Enlightenment project has been based on a much more optimistic view of the human condition through a secular appropriation of the Christian eschatological hope. It involves a strong belief in the power of rationality to lead to moral and technological progress and greater human happiness. This is despite a human history that includes countless wars, massacres, tortures, cruelty, exploitation and abuses of every kind. Surely the history of the twentieth century demonstrates conclusively that such optimism is misplaced and that we live always on the edge of chaos. Rather than being assured, a peaceful, just social order is something that has to be striven for constantly. The twentieth century saw human viciousness and barbarism on a scale that is hard to imagine. For example, William Eckhardt estimates that in the period 1900–89, 86 million people were killed in war.[120] The Soviet regime alone killed about 62 million people in the 70 years after 1917, with 9.5 million of those killed in the 1930s.[121] These are only some of the grosser statistics. There are other incidents of inhuman treatment of our fellows without number. In Sigmund Freud’s (1856–1939) judgement: ‘[T]he tendency to aggression is an innate, independent, instinctual disposition in man…constituting the most powerful obstacle to culture…there is no likelihood of our being able to suppress humanity’s aggressive tendencies.’[122]

One response to this catalogue of violence might be to argue that it reinforces suspicion of government. This is not, however, an adequate response. While governments—even nominally democratic governments—can behave very badly, not everything they do is bad. Also, in the above cases, government leaders found ready accomplices for their crimes among ordinary citizens. Similarly, while business does great good, it also does much evil—including such things as the design and manufacture of gas chambers, the manufacture and distribution of weapons, assisting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the corruption of governments, the sale of addictive substances known to cause vast numbers of premature deaths, the sale of unsafe and shoddy products more generally, the pollution of the environment, the evasion of taxation, the exploitation of workers and the systematic deception of customers and shareholders.

Taking cigarettes as an example, Simon Chapman, Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney, has estimated that 4.9 million people world-wide are killed by smoking every year—19,000 of them in Australia. This is a rate of death rivalling the worst examples of twentieth-century tyranny. The number of Australian smoking deaths is larger than the deaths caused by breast, cervical and skin cancer, AIDS, suicide, alcohol and road crashes combined.[123] There is well-confirmed scientific evidence for these estimates and the cigarette companies have known about the adverse effects and the addictive properties of their products for many years. Indeed, they have manipulated these addictive properties. Consequently, there is no way that cigarette producers and their distributors—including the local supermarket and corner store—can avoid some moral responsibility for these horrible premature deaths. While we have a war on terrorism, however, we do not have a war on cigarette production and distribution—presumably because this mass killing occurs as a part of everyday economic transactions, because of the superficial acquiescence of the victims and the political power of the perpetrators.

Worse still, we do not have a real war on poverty, hunger or disease. Our tolerance of these particular continuing evils involves the premature deaths of vast numbers of people in Third-World countries.

If these historical insights are not enough evidence to convince the reader of the capacity of human beings—just like us—to engage in the grossest evil in the pursuit of power and economic gain, let us now turn briefly to slavery—one of the cruellest institutions in human history. Slavery apparently first appeared in subsistence pastoral economies, but the transition to a semi-market economy brought a significant expansion in the number of slaves and much harsher treatment of them.[124] Slavery played a dominant role in production in early semi-market economies. For example, plantation slavery was common in ancient Greece and in the Roman Empire, while slaves were also used in mining, industry, commerce, domestic service and brothels and in harems. As a consequence, slavery was accepted as normal for a significant proportion of the population. In ancient Athens—the exemplar of the democratic polis—slaves made up about one-third of the population. Warfare, slave raiding, kidnapping, punishment, debt, the sale of children and birth to a slave mother provided the supply. Aristotle even argued that some people lacked the higher qualities of the soul necessary for freedom and were born to be slaves. To its shame, the Christian Church for most of its history did not condemn this base institution, even if it advised slave owners to be kind to their slaves. Islam took a similar view.

In relatively recent times, the European colonisation of the Americas exploited a pre-existing African slave trade to provide slaves to exploit the lands stolen from the indigenous populations to produce goods for export to Europe. This obscene trade to the West Indies and South America began in 1517, growing rapidly by the end of the seventeenth century. In British North America, the trade started in 1619 and developed slowly until new arrivals totalled about 260,000 in 1754. Overall, it is estimated that more than 15 million African slaves were transported to the Western Hemisphere before the suppression of the trade. It is thought that approximately one-third of the African slaves shipped—usually in appalling conditions—died as a consequence of their treatment on the voyage and in the ‘hardening’ process of their exposure to European diseases. While slaves in the Americas and throughout the Western world were emancipated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the institution lingers on in some underdeveloped states and in some hidden ways.

It has been estimated recently that there are currently as many as 20 million sex slaves throughout the world, including some in Australia. This tendency towards the exploitation of others—which allowed this evil institution to persist for so long—is still with us. Furthermore, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 8.4 million children work as slave labourers, prostitutes or soldiers world-wide. Of these, 1.2 million are kidnapped, sold or smuggled each year.[125] The United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, describes the trafficking of children into prostitution and slavery as a billion-dollar business. Importantly also, the descendants of emancipated slaves have struggled throughout the Americas to free themselves from the low socio-economic status to which they were condemned by the ruthless exploitation of their ancestors.

The conclusion is obvious. We are all capable of unspeakable acts and an extraordinary indifference to the suffering of others. Before we get carried away, therefore, about the perfectibility of modern humans, or even about labour-market deregulation, it would be wise to remember that within every person there exists the capacity to be a slave driver, a slave owner, a death-camp guard, a camp commandant, a torturer and a tyrant—writ large or in the minutia of everyday life.

This is the reason why people have long sought to put in place structures to inhibit the accumulation of excessive power and its abuse. It has been one of the primary justifications advanced for liberalism and the market system in the past two centuries. There has also, however, been a recent strong tendency to overlook the exploitation and the abuse of power that occurs within the market system itself. It is not simply governments that are capable of tyranny. With the passing of the Soviet Union, we might have been better served if we had looked more closely at the warts within our own system, rather than giving ourselves over to triumphal gloating at the collapse of the utopian socialist dream.