You're reading Part 3 of my After the End of History essay series which delves into the crisis of authority and legitimacy facing liberal democracy. [Read Part 1 and Part 2].

Overall, the essay series serves as a call to reimagine our politics to address contemporary challenges by reviving the foundational questions of political life, aiming to reinvigorate public discourse with moral and ethical considerations about the societies we aspire to create.

The inescapability of analogy

"We see things not as they are, but as we are" – Anonymous

Our understanding of the world around us is profoundly shaped not just by the material facts before us, but by the analogies and metaphors through which we interpret those facts.

There may well be an objective reality, but we can only experience it through our senses, and filtered through our own interpretation.

The more complex and abstract the subject matter, the more significant is the cognitive heavy lifting done by analogy and metaphor.

Political discourse, in particular, is rich with metaphors and analogies that simplify complex ideas into understandable chunks. Whether it’s discussing a government 'steering' the 'ship' of state or the 'foundation' of legal systems, metaphors structure our political understanding in profound ways.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their influential work Metaphors We Live By challenge us to consider metaphors not just as cognitive tools or linguistic flourishes that merely describe reality, but as fundamental constructs that shape how we think, feel, and react to the social and political landscapes we inhabit.

Taking this argument further, Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander in Surfaces and Essences suggest that analogy is nothing less than the fuel and fire of human thought.

They argue that every thought process is, at its core, analogical – we understand the new in terms of the familiar.

In everyday life, analogies manifest in simple yet profound ways. Consider how we might describe the taste of a new fruit – we automatically liken it to fruits we have already tasted. "It tastes like a mix between an apple and a pear," someone might say. Here, the analogy helps bridge the gap between new sensory data and our existing knowledge base.

Similarly, when we learn a new language, we inevitably relate its grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation to languages we are familiar with. This not only helps us to understand and assimilate new information but also influences how we perceive the unfamiliar language's structure and capabilities.

This process extends to social interactions and problem-solving. When faced with a new situation at work or in personal relationships, we subconsciously search for similar past experiences to guide our responses.

Hofstadter and Sander argue that it is impossible to step entirely outside this analogical framework. Our cognitive processes are so deeply intertwined with analogy-making that any attempt to avoid them entirely would result in a kind of conceptual paralysis.

One of many illustrative examples of how everyday objects and their functions can be understood through analogical thinking discussed in Surfaces and Essences is the humble speedometer.

The function of a speedometer can be seen as analogical because it translates the abstract concept of speed into a visual format that can be easily understood and acted upon. The dial or digital display acts as a metaphor for speed: the higher the number, the faster the vehicle is moving.

The speedometer thus simplifies a complex reality—namely, the rate at which a vehicle travels over a distance—into an easily readable format, namely kilometres or miles per hour. This transformation is fundamentally analogical, as it involves creating a comprehensible representation (a number or position of a needle) of something inherently more complex (the rate of movement through space).

This allows drivers to make quick decisions based on a simple, abstract representation of their actual speed. Tools and devices like speedometers are often designed to bridge the gap between complex, abstract phenomena and our need for simple, actionable information.

Even 'hard' facts of reality (another metaphor) like mathematics can be understood as analogical in nature.

Hofstadter and others argue that the classification of numbers as 'even' or 'odd' is a fundamental example of how analogy-making permeates even the most basic aspects of thought.

An even number is defined as any integer divisible by two without leaving a remainder. On the surface, this seems like a straightforward mathematical rule. However, beneath this definition lies an analogical framework. We group numbers based on a shared property—their relationship to the number two. This act of grouping by commonality is a quintessential example of analogical thinking.

In Where Mathematics Comes From, George Lakoff and Rafael Núñez observe that the conceptual metaphor of numbers as objects that can be 'grouped' or 'collected' shapes how we think about operations like addition or multiplication. Even numbers fit neatly into this metaphor as they easily pair up or group together, enhancing our perception of them as stable, harmonious quantities.

I'm sure by now you get the point – metaphors matter and analogies run deep.

Naive analogies and myths we live by

The test of a good analogy or metaphor then is whether it captures the essential, salient features of what it represents — a good analogy is one that corresponds to reality in a way that offers useful insight in an actionable way.

The test of a good analogy or metaphor is whether it corresponds to reality in a way that offers useful insight in an actionable way.

And so we come to the substance of today's discussion – what if some of our most cherished political theories are too reliant on misleading analogies that do not correspond well to reality?

Here are some of the analogies in question:

1. That human beings are like individual atoms
2. That reason is in a fight to overcome emotion
3. That society is like a contract
4. That human beings, without binding restraints, engage in a war of all against all

These pervasive analogical assumptions are at the core of almost all our dominant political and social theory, but one does not have to look far to find that they do not match the reality of how people and societies actually are.

But instead of trying to bring our imagination in line with reality, we have mostly preferred to puzzle over why real people aren’t more like their imaginary counterparts.

At worst, our bad analogies cause us to create Procrustean beds of public policy in which we arbitrarily or ruthlessly force real people to contort and conform to abstract visions of the human condition that do not describe lived reality, lopping off the bits that don't fit.

By exploring the analogies and metaphors pervasive in our dominant political thought, we can uncover deeper insights into how they craft our political realities and consider alternative analogies that better represent the reality of our common humanity and can help us arrive at a more flourishing politics that ultimately infuses liberal democracy with great vitality, authority and legitimacy.

A gift that keeps on giving

In What Money Can't Buy, Michael Sandel writes:

Economists don’t like gifts. Or to be more precise, they have a hard time making sense of gift giving as a rational social practice. From the standpoint of market reasoning, it is almost always better to give cash rather than a gift. [1]

The possibility that gift giving does not need to be explained as a rational social practice does not appear to be entertained.

Sandel mentions Joel Waldfogel, an economist who has ‘taken up the economic inefficiency of gift giving as a personal cause’ in his book Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays. By carrying out research ‘to measure how much value this inefficient practice destroys’, ($13 billion annually in the US, apparently) Waldfogel is able to tell us with economic certainty that ‘Americans celebrate the holidays with an orgy of value destruction.’[2]

Doubtless Waldfogel is a cheerful fellow to pull a cracker with over Christmas dinner.

Sandel goes on:

If gift giving is a massively wasteful and inefficient activity, why do we persist in it? It isn’t easy to answer this question within standard economic assumptions. In his economics textbook, Gregory Mankiw tries gamely to do so. He begins by observing that “gift giving is a strange custom” but concedes that it’s generally a bad idea to give your boyfriend or girlfriend cash instead of a birthday present. But why?[3]

Why indeed?

The custom of gift giving is hardly a strange one. It is quite familiar to me, as I’m sure it is to you. If it isn't easy to explain within standard economic assumptions, could it be because it is the economic assumptions that are strange, rather than the custom of gift giving?

While economists grapple with the utility and inefficiencies of gift-giving, Margaret Visser delves deeper into its social and symbolic dimensions in her book The Gift of Thanks, illustrating how these acts are not merely about the exchange of goods but are rich, ritualistic conduits of cultural expression.

In Visser's analysis, gifts are seen not just as items given but as carriers of meaning, essential in forging and reinforcing social bonds. This perspective resonates particularly within societies that value the symbolic over the material, where the act of giving is itself a message, an emblem of intent and relationship.

One of Visser’s highlighted examples is the Potlatch ceremony practiced by the Pacific Northwest Indigenous peoples. This ceremonial event involves chiefs giving away wealth to assert prestige and maintain the community's social structure. This tradition exemplifies how gift-giving, even in its most extravagant form, is a tool for reinforcing social hierarchies and fostering community bonds through reciprocity and resource distribution.

In Japan, the practice of Omiyage involves travelers bringing back gifts for their colleagues and family. This ritual is less about the gifts themselves and more about sharing one’s travel experiences with others. The act of giving Omiyage is a thoughtful way of maintaining work and family relationships, showing consideration and respect that strengthen communal ties.

Further, in traditional Indian weddings, the elaborate exchange of gifts like jewellery and garments between the families of the bride and groom underscores the ritual's role in weaving together social fabric. These gifts, rich in symbolism, are not merely transactions but are public affirmations of alliance, family continuity, and mutual respect.

However baffling gifts may be from the standpoint of standard economic assumptions, they are a commonplace and universal part of what Visser likes to call the 'history, anthropology, and mythology of everyday life'.

This anthropological view on gift giving makes it clear that gifts are more than transactions. It is less about the items themselves and more about the implications of giving and receiving.

There is much at stake here.

Visser gives us a glimpse of the implications for our societies when she considers the intricate relationship between thinking and thanking, and between truth, memory, and gratitude.

'Thinking' and 'thanking', and the German denken and danken, are close etymological cousins. In German, 'Gedächtnis' (memory), from the past participle of the verb denken, also shows us that memory is a kind of thinking. And in Old English, thanc refers to what we would now call 'thoughts'.

'The thanc was "the gathered, all-gathering, thinking that recalls." It was the human being's disposition, our "heart's core."

Truth, for Heidegger, is not correctness, but rather what is otherwise hidden from us but now revealed—through thinking. The etymology of the Greek word for truth, aletheia, is "not being the victim of oblivion, lethe." (Lethe was the river in the underworld that caused those who drank from it to forget.) Thinking and philosophy have the task of revealing. Real thinking takes place in the thanc, and it is what makes us human: the more thoughtless we are, the less human.

The assumption is that something exists which is to be "dis-covered," something that needs to be revealed in order to be known. Thinking, however, is not questing by nature, but rather receptive. It "receives a call" from the nature of things, and it responds to that call. Thinking, then, is grateful in essence: it receives and responds. German famously uses the words es gibt ("it gives") for English "there is" and "there are." (We ourselves talk of what we call a "received" supposition as "a given.")

[...] The overcoming of forgetting is what the thanc in its thinking is called to do. [...] "Memory" is a form of awareness; it is attention paid; it is faithfulness. (A faithful person, we say in English as in German, is "true.") Like thinking, remembering is a grateful action. It is not only recollection, but also "an unrelinquishing and unrelenting retention" in the thanc.[4]

When we thank someone, we do more than express gratitude. Thanking is a form of recognition – it is an intellectual act that acknowledges and validates the actions of another, a kind of social adhesive that reinforces the value of relationships and our common humanity.

To put it another way, to give thanks is to think publicly – it is thinking turned outward.

Now that we have integrated the richness of Visser's anthropological perspective on gift-giving, let's check in again on our baffled economists.

‘Economists know that gifts have an expressive dimension, even if the tenets of their discipline can’t account for it’, Sandel continues:

“The economist in me says the best gift is cash,” writes Alex Tabarrok ... “the rest of me rebels.” He offers a good counterexample to the utilitarian notion that the ideal gift is an item we would have bought for ourselves: Suppose someone gives you $100, and you buy a set of tyres for your car. This is what maximizes your utility. Still, you might not be terribly happy if your lover gave you car tyres for your birthday. In most cases, Tabarrok points out, we’d rather the gift giver buy us something less mundane, something we wouldn’t buy for ourselves. From our intimates at least, we’d rather receive a gift that speaks to “the wild self, the passionate self, the romantic self.”[5]

This comment is even more revealing than it seems at first.

Here, a perfectly ordinary phenomenon can’t be explained by ‘reason’, so we explain this to ourselves by saying that reason has been rebelled against by 'wild, romantic passions'.

This is an old story.

Unsplittable atoms of individual willpower?

Reason has been at war with emotion since at least the time of Plato.

Reason, Plato tells us, must rule. In his tri-partite soul, the head is the seat of reason, so we must be ruled by our heads. Reason is the charioteer that controls the wild, untamed stallions of emotion and appetite.

It has been an appealing and enduring image, one that has licensed a time-honoured prejudice in favour of the pure realm of the mind over the imperfect, decaying and corrupt realm of the body.

Reason at war with emotion has been an appealing and enduring image, one that has licensed a time-honoured prejudice in favour of the pure realm of the mind over the imperfect, decaying and corrupt realm of the body.

As Mary Midgley observes in The Myths We Live By, the comfortable modern tradition of ‘centring human personality on the (disembodied) will’ can be understood as a continuation of this apparent mind/body problem.[6]

During the Enlightenment, science’s newfound prestige gave occasion to draw ready analogies between the natural sciences (especially physics) and the social realm. This is where the image of human beings as ‘unsplittable atoms’ of individual willpower comes from. Midgley writes:

The idea that people are solitary, self-contained, indeed selfish individuals, who wouldn’t be connected to their neighbours at all if they didn’t happen to have made a contract, looked rational because it reflected the atomic theory of the day, a theory that similarly reduced matter to hard, impenetrable, disconnected atoms like billiard balls. The two patterns, of political and scientific atomism, seemed to strengthen each other, and, for some time, each appeared as the only truly rational and scientific pattern of understanding in its own sphere. Social atomism, expressed as political and moral individualism, got quite undeserved support from the imagery used in science.[7]

Physics of course has moved on quite a bit since then, such that the analogy no longer holds. We have mostly not moved on from this image of the social realm, however. Why not?

(As a playful aside for language nerds, Hofstader points that “the indivisible English word “atom” comes from a compound word in the original Greek — “a-tomos” — meaning essentially “without a cut” or “part-less”. Thus, as was wittily pointed out by David Moser, the word “atom” is an unsplittable etym in English despite not being so in the original Greek, and contrariwise, physical atoms are now known to be splittable despite what their etymology would suggest.”)[8]

One answer to why we have not moved on from the idea of social atomism, obvious (and inconvenient) though it may seem, is that doing so would mean having to throw away much that is dear to us, such as sexism:

Women ... were still called on to remain hierarchical, feudal, emotional, ‘bodily’, and biological, in order to make it possible for the men to become totally free, equal, autonomous, intellectual and creative ... Although life in many parts of the world is still conducted on this assumption, there are now considerable difficulties about defending it in the West. Too many women have noticed the absurdity of the demand, and are impolite enough to mention it.[9]

The idea of social atomism still holds great sway today as a default mental model underpinning many of our cherished assumptions, especially across the domains of political science and economics.

Such unreflective mental models that come to us by habit rather than conscious adoption are what Hofstadter and Sander call ‘naive analogies’ – the kind that ‘lead directly to conclusions without there being any consideration of other options, and without any uncertainties or doubts arising.’[10]

Let us now raise some more of those doubts and continue to consider the implications of naive analogies for the authority, legitimacy and flourishing of our liberal democratic societies.

Logical atoms and moral particles?

When we separate minds from bodies, odd things happen, especially to intellectuals.

For instance, one popular movement tried to capture philosophy and pin it down under the auspices of science, much like how liberalism tried to capture authority and lock it up safely within the law where it couldn’t make a nuisance of itself.

Some of these analytic philosophers held that the world contained unsplittable facts called logical atoms. Sound familiar?

This manoeuvre attempted to make philosophy a branch of science by proposing a theory of knowledge in which the only statements that could have any meaning were those that could be logically or empirically verified.

One particularly virulent strain of this line of thinking was logical positivism.

For logical positivists such as A J Ayer, emotions were regarded as ‘pseudostatements’ with no cognitive value, while ethical statements were reduced to the same status of bodily phenomena.

According to Ayer’s theory of emotivism, if I say ‘stealing is bad’, I have not really said anything meaningful at all, because there is no way that I can verify logically or empirically that stealing is bad. All I have done is express an emotion about stealing by indicating I don’t like it. I may as well have said ‘Stealing, boo!’

This has been called the hurrah/boo theory of ethics, which suggests something about its level of sophistication.

But while logical positivism has largely gone out of fashion, the idea that ethical statements cannot be true, or that they can be at most a matter of personal opinion, remains much in vogue.

The assumption underlying such moral scepticism – the idea that value statements can only ever be opinion and never true – is that testing moral claims for their truth would be a matter of finding some kind of material moral entities ‘out there’ in the world. Or in Ronald Dworkin's words, it is akin to saying:

that the universe contains not only quarks, mesons, and other very small physical particles but also what I called morons, special particles whose configuration might make it true that people should not torture babies and that optional military invasions seeking regime change are immoral. [A moral sceptic] might then declare that because there are no moral particles, it is a mistake to say that torturing babies is wrong or that invading Iraq was immoral.[11]

Dworkin says those who search in vain for such moron particles are using the wrong theory of knowledge for value claims, like trying to eat soup with a fork.

In Justice for Hedgehogs, Dworkin challenges the conventional scepticism about moral truth by proposing that moral statements can indeed be objectively true, but only within the framework of an interpretive theory of value. His theory posits that moral truths are not empirically discoverable and are not analogous to physical objects or scientific facts, but are rather the outcomes of our best moral reasoning, consistent within a coherent framework.

For Dworkin, living a good life is intrinsically tied to these moral truths. He argues that when we claim a moral statement to be true, we are asserting that it best fits and fulfils the moral and ethical commitments that structure our community and personal lives.

This interpretive process is akin to a judge interpreting a complex legal document, where the truth emerges not from subjective opinion but from a principled coherence in our moral understanding.

This is not the time to pursue Dworkin's argument further. I mention it here because it is a fine example of why it is important to start with an analogy that accurately represents the features of the terrain it is supposed to help us navigate.

Where is my mind?

If logical purists would prefer to discount all ethical, emotional and bodily phenomena entirely, there are others who would prefer to resolve the mind/body problem by saying it is the mind we should disregard instead. As Midgley writes:

If ... certain confusions do result from Descartes’s having sliced human beings down the middle, many people feel at heart that the best cure is just to drop the immaterial half altogether.

The early behaviourists said this explicitly; mind and consciousness were unreal. And under the surface this suspicion is still very widespread. It is felt that reductive techniques should not merely atomise the mind. They should get rid of it altogether, translating whatever needs to be said about thoughts into statements about bodies. And eventually, their translations will be experimentally checked in the laboratory.[12]

These days, the mind has been plucked from its 17th century ether and imprisoned instead in the brain. Accordingly, many believe that all we need to do is figure out, scientifically, how the brain ‘works’ and we can resume our progress towards the moral perfection of humanity.

This idea is exemplified by Sam Harris, who foresees a time when science will determine human values. If I say ‘stealing is bad’, Harris can show me which regions of my prefrontal and parietal cortices, as well as the basal ganglia, are activated when I am in this state of belief. So it is not ‘me’, but my brain that is having a thought.

Harris explains this new determinism by saying ‘trains of thought ... convey the apparent reality of choices, freely made. But from a deeper perspective ... thoughts simply arise (what else could they do?)’[13]

But is the quest to find the essential truth of our humanity in our neurons another turn to science to escape the world that science is revealing?

Raymond Tallis, Paolo Legrenzi and others have begun to critique our growing ‘neuromania’ and its technological claims, particularly the use of fMRI scans that show the brain ‘lighting up’ under different conditions, like those that constitute the bulk of evidence Harris puts forward.

Tallis says of the brain scan (‘that fast-acting solvent of critical faculties’) that ‘you could be forgiven for thinking of the brain as being managed by a crooked estate agent letting out the same bit of real estate simultaneously to different clients.’[14]

But perhaps the best evidence that there may be something fishy about brain scans came in 2009, when a trio of researchers performed fMRI on a dead fish and found it showed ‘neural activity’ when asked questions about its emotional state:

One mature Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar) participated in the fMRI study. The salmon was approximately 18 inches long, weighed 3.8 lbs, and was not alive at the time of scanning. The task administered to the salmon involved completing an open-ended mentalizing task. The salmon was shown a series of photographs depicting individuals in social situations with a specified emotional valence. The salmon was asked to determine what emotion the individual in the photo must have been experiencing.

The now-infamous Dead Salmon paper would go on to win the 2012 Ig Nobel Prize for neuroscience and has led to ongoing re-examination of the usefulness of fMRI data.

When we consider, in light of this, Harris’ claim that ‘we already know enough about the human brain and its relationship’ to foresee a time when ‘science should be able to tell us what we ought to do to live the best lives possible’, the future promises to be interesting indeed.

My intent here is not to poke fun at fMRI research in particular – there is more than enough ignominy to go around in the scientific establishment. Social science has its replication crisis, medicine has its publication bias, and the entire peer-review system is routinely brought into question.

Science is a human system, with all the messy and imperfect complexity that entails. Just as it is foolish to try to restrain philosophy within science or politics within law, it seems unlikely that we will contain the mysteries of the human condition inside an MRI machine.

What if the mind/body problem isn't?

We might well ask of course, why the relationship between mind and body is a problem at all.

We might observe with Alain de Botton for instance the familiar and perfectly natural phenomenon that ‘our whole perspective on life can be altered by the digestion of a heavy lunch.’[15]

Botton then has Montaigne ask us, quite unkindly it must be said, to ‘imagine Plato struck down by epilepsy or apoplexy ... then challenge him to get any help from all those noble and splendid faculties of his soul’, or to imagine Plato needing to fart:

That sphincter which serves to discharge our stomachs has dilations and contractions proper to itself, independent of our wishes or even opposed to them.[16]

Anyone who has ever felt the need to hold in a fart for the duration of a long meeting will be acutely familiar with this particular mind/body problem, but this is no reason to see the two as somehow disconnected, no matter how much we may wish to free our ‘higher’ selves from our bodily nature.

Montaigne had his own doubts about other matters, but as Botton reminds us vividly, one thing Montaigne did not doubt was that ‘kings and philosophers shit: and so do ladies.’[17]

Might it even be that our discomfiture surrounding natural and necessary bodily functions is itself an artefact of an age-old Western rationality? John Ralston Saul certainly thinks so, offering an extended analogy between the way we pass information and the way we pass food:

The measurement of our power is based upon the knowledge which either passes through our position or is produced by it. One of the truly curious characteristics of this society is that the individual can most easily exercise power by retaining the knowledge which is in his hands. Thus, he blocks the flow of paper or of information or of instructions through his intersection to the next. And with only the smallest of efforts he can alter the information in a minor or a major way. Abruptly he converts himself from a link into a barrier and demonstrates, if only to himself, his own existence.

The principles of Erasmus and Richelieu have been carried to such a preposterous extreme that the encouragement of such retention has become a religion of constipation. It’s worth pointing out in passing that when you go beyond the Judeo-Christian rational civilization, actual physical constipation ceases to be a cultural phenomenon. The most obvious reason is that toilet training outside the West tends to take positive, reassuring, even pleasant forms, as opposed to our controlling and disciplining approach to what we see as an unpleasant function. In Buddhist and Confucian societies, the idea of power through retention also disappears. The concept of the secret still exists, but in a different mode and not as a central theme. Even the Islamic world, which rises out of the same religious roots as ours, has drawn different conclusions and gone off in another direction.[18]

Something to chew on.

Once we have digested the far-ranging socio-political consequences of separating mind and body, we might start to wonder how to integrate them again.

Once we have digested the far-ranging socio-political consequences of separating mind and body, we might start to wonder how to integrate them again.

Neurologist Antonio Damasio takes aim at the problem of mind/body separation in his landmark work, Descartes’ Error. He presents a compelling picture that the mind is embodied; that while mind and body are not one and the same, they are dependent on each other:

The comprehensive understanding of the human mind requires an organismic perspective; that not only must the mind move from a nonphysical cogitum to the realm of biological tissue, but it must also be related to a whole organism possessed of integrated body proper and brain and fully interactive with a physical and social environment.[19]

In this view, reason and emotion are dependent upon each other – if feelings devoid of reason can become flights of fancy, reason without feeling can become cruel.

In a normal, socially-functioning person, neither has the upper hand. Rather, as Damasio says, we would do well to develop ‘a passion for reasoning’.

This is a theme that neurologist Jill Bolte-Taylor develops further in Whole Brain Living, in which she expands upon the traditional dichotomy of left and right brain hemisphere functions by delineating four key brain quadrants, each contributing uniquely to our cognitive and emotional repertoire.

Bolte-Taylor advocates for a balanced engagement between each of our four brain 'characters', proposing a whole-brain approach that dismantles the traditional dichotomy where rationality ostensibly reigns supreme.

Instead, by coming together in a 'brain huddle', true intellectual and emotional maturity arises from honouring and integrating each brain character's strengths.

If, rather than being at war, reason and emotion are better understood as being in a constant duet, or entwined in a perpetual dance, what implications might this have for a doctrine that believes progress is made by expanding reason’s dominion to all areas of human life?

And if the embodied self is also a socially embedded self, what implications does this have for an idea of social life that is deeply individualistic?

Alone in a crowd: no such thing as pre-social

A standard approach to thinking about society in liberal political theory is to imagine a world of hypothetical individuals before any social or political relations have been formed and to ask under what conditions they would hypothetically agree to come together to form a society.

This, in its various forms, is the analogy of the social contract.

What could the notion of an imaginary, pre-social individual actually mean? If what we have been discussing so far is true then the idea is scarcely coherent and could be considered at best a naive analogy that doesn't correspond to the reality it wants to help us navigate.

The idea of a pre-social state of nature, or original position, is supposed to allow us to consider the interests individuals could have, and how these could be negotiated, shorn of their actual social circumstance.

But any negotiation of interests is inevitably going to take place using a language of some sort, and a shared language is already a social phenomenon.

The idea of negotiating interests also presumes certain shared concepts of what a contract is — exchange, deal-making and basic honesty, for instance — and what are such shared concepts if not social?

The idea of an individual without a social context is as naive as the idea of a mind without a body.

The idea of an individual without a social context is as naive as the idea of a mind without a body.

Real people, in any case, do not have a single set of interests that they pursue rationally from one moment to the next in isolation from the consideration of other people. Those people, if they do exist, we call sociopaths (or worse), and we do this to mark out precisely how unusual and baffling they are.

We understand the interests of real people better when we see that individuals are in fact constituted by their social relations.

I have interests, for instance, as a writer, as a friend, a son, a lover, a student of political philosophy, a citizen of New Zealand, a business owner, a regular customer at my local cafe, a person who cares about the wellbeing of animals, and so on.

Like most people, I constantly navigate a huge web of such social relations, many (but not all) of which overlap in various ways, and my aims and actions differ depending on what relations I am currently emphasising. And like most people, that emphasis changes often and effortlessly throughout the day, and sometimes even through the course of a single interaction.

It is therefore hard to imagine just what ‘interests’ an individual with no body and no social relations could have in a hypothetical society. Even the most dedicated hermit can only be understood as such in relation to the society from which they are seeking to be apart.

‘Interests’ is also a slippery word.

In its widest sense, shorn of financial connotations, an interest implies a kind of advantage to be gained. But an advantage in what sense, and compared to what, and whom, makes sense only if we already have in mind some theory of goods and bads, as should not surprise us by now.

Standard approaches thinks they provides this by saying that our interests are what bring us happiness. But this is also a slippery concept. The word ‘happiness’ derives from ‘hap’, in the sense of having good fortune. This in turn dates from a time in which human life was understood to be directed by fate and the tribulations of Fortune's Wheel.

To be happy in this sense means to have avoided misfortune, or indeed mishap. Improving the general ‘happy’-ness of the population would later become the goal of the welfarist political economy advocated by the likes of Jeremy Bentham, which in turn would become the basis of the utilitarian ethics that I wish to reject as having led us into many of the very difficulties I seek here to address.

How utilitarians put the fun into fungible

One of many difficulties with utilitarian ethics is that it treats ‘interests’ as fungible, meaning that my desire to comprehend the mysteries of the universe and my desire for a perfect flat white are regarded as mutually interchangeable kinds of things.

Utilitarianism distinguishes between the amount of happiness something delivers, but has little interest in the qualities of what's causing it.

And believe me, there are some days when I derive far more pleasure from the prospect of a perfect flat white than the prospect of comprehending the mysteries of the universe, yet somehow this way of valuing things is troubling.

The great appeal of ‘happiness’ for the political, social and economic sciences of course is that it can be quantified, which is a Very Proper thing that people who want to be taken seriously by the natural sciences do.

To quantify something is to count or measure it, which presents a difficulty — what is the unit of happiness?

Jeremy Bentham thought that happiness was a function of the pleasure and pain that an act produced, so his answer was to calculate this mathematically using a new unit he called ‘hedons’.

Bentham’s ‘felicific calculus’ took into account the intensity, duration and extent of the pleasure, as well as the likeliness of the pleasure and how soon it would occur. It also allowed for its ‘purity’ – the likelihood that the act would not be followed by unpleasant reprisals. And its ‘fecundity’ – the likelihood of the pleasure happening again.

Is maximising pleasure, understood hedonistically, really the same thing as happiness? Even Epicurus thought there was more to it than that.

Utilitarian ethics has become more sophisticated (or at least more elaborate) since Bentham, but at its conceptual core it’s not clear that it has advanced very much on this idea of happiness.

To be fair, it must be acknowledged that Utilitarianism, like any ‘ism’, contains a broad assortment of differing and dissenting views, such that a ‘core’ can be hard to identify.

This is demonstrated in the differing perspectives of Shelly Kagan, Peter Railton, JJC Smart and Peter Singer, for example. But it is still a central tenet of the utilitarian doctrine that the best action is the one that does most to increase people's satisfaction or psychological happiness.

Utilitarian assumptions are deeply present in much economic thought, though most economists tend to steer as clear as possible of the troublesome practice of quantifying happiness and instead prefer to talk about goods, income or ‘marginal utility’ as a loosely-related proxy for this.

You'll never live like common people

Let's recap.

The image that standard approaches of socio-political theory (especially social contract theory and utilitarianism) give us of social and political life is of disembodied, pre-social individuals doggedly pursuing unspecified but interchangeable interests for reasons that cannot be adequately explained.

Meanwhile, real people stubbornly persist in going about their lives, constituting their identities through their complex web of social relations and their set of plural, diffuse and overlapping goals that are emphasised differently depending on context.

Many real people stubbornly continue to practice strange customs like gift-giving, love, friendship, and sacrifice in flagrant disregard for socio-political theory's expectations about their pursuit of self-interest (whatever that could mean).

Many real people stubbornly continue to practice strange customs like gift-giving, love, friendship, and sacrifice in flagrant disregard for socio-political theory's expectations about their pursuit of self-interest.

Yet the notion of the sovereign, self-interested individual still exerts enormous influence.

For instance, Chicago economist Gary Becker’s proposal that we treat the entire domain of human behaviour according to the rules of neoclassical economics has had profound impact on public policy, academic disciplines and the popular imagination since the 1960s.

And in so-called ‘realist’ theories of international relations, the presumed qualities of the individual are transferred by analogy to the nation state. International affairs from this perspective is about sovereign states pursuing their interests in an ‘anarchic’ state of nature.

But treating a nation-state as a single, unified entity flattens the plurality and complexity of interests that exists within any state, just as the pre-social view of states at the international level ignores the myriad real social relationships that exist between states.

The elevation of an economic worldview and a renewed focus on individualism has combined to produce a new kind of liberal political philosophy that emphasises individual economic freedom.

This neoliberalism, despite looking more than a little shopworn in today's marketplace of ideas, still remains the de facto dominant ideology across many liberal democracies.

If, as Margaret Thatcher said famously, ‘there is no such thing as society’ because we see only individuals, then politics and the public sphere can mean little. Ronald Reagan encapsulated this thought when he said ‘government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem’ — accordingly, the aim of much neoliberal policy has been to get rid of it wherever possible, in theory if not in practice.

But if, as we have seen, there can be no individuals without a society to give them shape and meaning, then trying to ignore or suppress this fact is really just shooting ourselves in the foot. As Roger Scruton writes in The Good of Government:

We individuals, who have a deep and in many particular cases justified suspicion of government, have a yet deeper need for it. Government is wrapped into the very fibers of our social being. We emerge as individuals because our social life is shaped that way. When, in the first impulse of affection, one person joins in friendship with another, there arises immediately between them a relation of accountability. They promise things to each other. They become bound in a web of mutual obligations. If one harms the other, there is a “calling to account,” and the relation is jeopardized until an apology is offered. They plan things, sharing their reasons, their hopes, their praise, and their blame. In everything they do they make themselves accountable. If this relation of accountability fails to emerge, then what might have been friendship becomes, instead, a form of exploitation.

Scruton’s picture evokes a much richer picture of social life than the mere pursuit and transaction of economic interest.

Rather than a sovereign self, we see here a relational self who is accountable to others. Notably, it is much easier to locate accountability in real relationships than in the relationship ‘the people’ have with ‘the government’, where it is diffused such that accountability is hard to pin down.

Accountability is important — without it, ‘people are locked into the game of domination. If they are building a relationship, it is not a free relationship.’

True freedom, for Scruton, is not unfettered. It requires a recognition of and obedience to others as ends in themselves — the freedom of equal individuals ‘who face each other “I” to “I.”’

True freedom is not unfettered. It requires a recognition of and obedience to others as ends in themselves — the freedom of equal individuals ‘who face each other “I” to “I.”’

The standard image of society, with its focus on the free-floating individual and the pursuit of its interests, thus has a hugely harmful consequence — it robs us of an ability to see beyond ourselves.

If the standard image has any concept of an ‘other’ at all, it tells us only that they are mirrors of ourselves, and that if we are not careful, they will be out to get us.

Some, in the spirit of Ayn Rand, take the war of all against all for granted — the point is to go out and win it! But that path can lead only to unhappiness, in both senses of the word.

If we are to do better, we need a more expansive organising principle that accounts for real embodied and embedded others, and an idea for living well among them.

Public space and the questions we dare to ask

In this part of After the End of History we have seen that some of liberal democracy’s most cherished assumptions are those most in need of a rethink.

For a long time, the questions of what kind of society liberal democracy is, the nature of the people who live in it and their relationship to one another have not been up for serious public discussion in many liberal democratic societies.

This is because it is thought that such questions have settled answers, and that it is Science and Reason that have settled them.

You'll recall that my overall argument across this series is that liberal democracy has greater authority and legitimacy as a political form when it creates public space in which such questions may dare to be asked, and in which the inevitable conflict between differing perspectives can be settled democratically.

If many of us feel unsettled with the state of the liberal democracies we live in, it could be because we sense it is past time once again to open up the deepest questions about who we are, where we are headed and how we are going to live together.

If many of us feel unsettled with the state of the liberal democracies we live in, it could be because we sense it is past time once again to open up the deepest questions about who we are, where we are headed and how we are going to live together.

For this to happen, we need to do more than shout past each other online or wave opposite placards at each other in the streets, while our public spaces become ever-more saturated with the cynicism of an ersatz speaker's corner in which all the important matters to be questioned have been frozen and marked out of bounds.

We need genuinely public spaces in which life's big questions can dare to be asked, and we need to constitute a politics that can handle the results without collapsing into violence, authoritarianism, or segregation.

Ultimately, the problem with 'the end of history' is that it is much too certain about where we are headed.

At best it is a naive analogy. At worst, by insisting on certainty in the first principles of history, reason or science, without asking what warrants certainty in those principles, our politics become frozen in place, the possibilities for public life and open society are diminished, and the credibility of liberal democracy as an authoritative form of society continues to drain away.

All the while an ever-volatile and uncertain world swirls around us, and we watch our lives slide out of view with no meaning or control, and with nowhere left to go, as metaphorical roaches climb the walls.

Instead of insisting on seeing everything as certainty-in-progress, could we allow space for uncertainty in the way we fundamentally conceive of politics and society?

Can can we allow conceptual uncertainty into our very midst yet still retain order and authority? Especially at a time when there seems so much uncertainty in the outside world, how can we tolerate it within our own form of society, yet alone embrace it?

Even if we sense it is time to move on from some of our most-cherished naive analogies about politics and society, in the absence of better alternatives, we will still find ourselves clinging to them for comfort and security.

What could replace them? That's the question we will turn to in the final part of this essay series.

I will be publishing the remaining parts of this essay series in instalments. To get notified, sign up to our mailing list here.

Offline References

[1] Sandel, Michael, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (Allen Lane, 2012), 99.
[2] ibid., 100.
[3] ibid., 100–101.
[4] Visser, Margaret, The Gift of Thanks: The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), 234–235.
[5] Sandel, What Money Can't Buy, 102.
[6] Midgley, Mary, The Myths We Live By (Taylor and Francis, 2011), 138.
[7] ibid., 13.
[8] Hofstadter, Douglas & Sander, Emmanuel, Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking, (Basic Books, 2013), 89.
[9] Midgley, The Myths We Live By, 140.
[10] Hofstadter & Sander, Surfaces and Essences, 386.
[11] Dworkin, Ronald, Justice for Hedgehogs (Harvard University Press, 2011), 32.
[12] Midgley, The Myths We Live By, 127.
[13] Harris, Sam, The Moral Landscape (Simon and Schuster, 2011), 105.
[14] Tallis, Raymond, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, (Acumen, 2011), 82.
[15] de Botton, Alain. The Consolations of Philosophy (Penguin UK, 2001), 122.
[16] ibid., 122.
[17] ibid., 126.
[18] Saul, John Ralston, Voltaire's Bastards (Penguin, 1993), 307.
[19] Damasio, Antonio, Descartes' Error (Random House, 2008), 252.