‘The Philosophy of Liberty’

An exercise in communication embedded within sustainability.

Following a conversation between Steve Parker and Anna Hughes in the sustainability google group I watched the video “The Philosophy of Liberty‘ .

It is a good resource to provoke discussion.

I have written this response to the video and I welcome your comments. Also it occurred to me that this ‘essay’ could be used as a writing skills task embedded within the context of sustainability – I have some questions at the bottom,

First watch the video…


Here are two comments from the author in answer to some of the criticism of his video:

“There will always be inequality. There is nothing fair about one man being born blind and the other with sight. That outcome is evolutions fate, and no amount of stone-age thinking collectivism will ever rectify the situation.”

“Hunter-gatherers were egalitarians! Sharing makes a heck of a lot of sense if you’re simply trying [to] scrape by enough food/shelter/clothing to survive. In modern chaotic developed economies where participants spend ~90% of their time producing luxuries and new wealth arises mainly from new ideas, sharing is not the best way to motivate and inspire people to maximize output.”

My response to his comments are: “The author of this video clearly has a misunderstanding of the theory of evolution and seems ignorant to the state of many people’s lives in the world.

The video states, “Since you own your life you are responsible for your life” –

I state “What about responsibility for the lives of others?”

Here is my lengthly response to the video :

The Essay

Libertarianism and philosophy go hand and hand, especially when your philosophy of life includes the belief that there is no ‘right or wrong’. Libertarians know “what is right for me’ but do they think about what is the right for the greater good? Perhaps, however, I think the author of this video, and probably most libertarians have good intentions for humankind but are lacking a certain level of ‘spiritual evolution’ for their system to ever work. I define spiritual evolution in the context of this essay as ‘an awareness, which acknowledges the interconnection of all human beings and species on this planet and the need to consider others as well as themselves”.

As the author has chosen to use the theory of evolution to support his ideas I will do the same. Who was it that said, “Nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution”? Darwinian Theory explains much about human nature, and so, let’s apply it to the ‘Philosophy of Liberty’ and Libertarianism.

Along with many higher order mammals, humans evolved as a co-operative species, surviving by using strategies such as living within communities and sharing resources. This altruistic behaviour served humans very well for hundreds of thousands of years. Is altruism still working? If not, what has gone wrong? Why are humans going to war with each other, flying planes into skyscrapers and destroying the planet with over consumption and pollution? This is not altruistic behaviour. The answer might be revealed through an understanding of the theory of ‘mate selection’.

The theory of mate selection states that many animal species display their strength, territory or resources through adaptations like colourful feathers, song, nest building, demonstrations of physical prowess, etc in the hope of attracting a mate or scaring off a rival for a mate. Likewise, humans put value on the acquisition of wealth; fancy clothes or property etc for the same reason. The owner of the massive house with its large plasma TV is really saying – “Look at me, haven’t I become successful, come and mate with me, I can not only provide food and shelter, but I am so successful I have excess to spare. This instinct to ‘store acorns’ is ‘materialism’ and it is in our genes. We can’t help it! Material possessions are seen as sexy.

Materialism is therefore an evolutionary trait that has increased reproductive success and hence survival of the fittest. Altruism is another one. Altruism and materialism are not mutually exclusive. Altruism sits within a superset of behavioural traits, which include materialism and were selected earlier by an environment of scarcity and intra-specific competition. Altruism is a higher evolutionary strategy, which has enabled humans to succeed not only biologically but culturally as well. Through cultural evolution humans are now in a position to enjoy music, fine food, international travel, fast cars, the right to bear arms, nuclear weapons, fashion clothing, I-pods, plastic bags, etc. All those wonderful inventions and commodities that libertarians believe we have the freedom and right to possess.

So humans are both materialistic and altruistic. Is this a fatal flaw in our evolution? As we know, humans are fighting each other over ownership of territory and resources and destroying the planet with over consumption and pollution, so if we are altruistic why don’t we just stop this nonsense and save the world?

The answer is twofold. Firstly, research into other altruistic species has shown that altruistic behaviour is only extended to ‘kin’. This is called kin selection. Help or “sharing” is offered only to those with genes in common, i.e. relatives. Secondly, there is an alternative to the altruism gene; the ‘cheating gene’. “Cheating” is a behavioural strategy that survives within a predominantly altruistic population. Cheaters are tolerated by the altruists and get ahead by exploiting their good nature.

The ‘Cheating’ strategy thrives within a model of ‘liberty and freedom’. If people are rewarded by putting themselves and their greediness before the greater good of the species and the planet then the ‘cheating’ gene’ will continue. Indeed it will be selected for.

To stop the nonsense and save the planet from destruction we must consciously fight against our natural instincts to be selfish and change our value system. We must sanction cheating behaviour and extend our altruism beyond kin or our local gene pool (e.g a country) to include all races and creeds on earth. We must look at the species as having a global gene pool. We must recognise all humans as being kin.

Libertarianism does not recognise the interrelatedness and interrelationships between all the people on this planet. It provides a haven for inherently selfish people – people with the ‘cheating’ gene. Unless humans recognise we have an inherent nature for materialism and greediness, which competes with our altruistic tendencies, we are doomed to compete and fight with each other forever.

Evolution acts at the level of the species but it is enacted at the level of the individual. Intelligent, educated 21st Century, ‘enlightened’ individuals have reached a point in evolution where they are able to understand some of the nature of human behaviour. They are able to see that only a value system firmly grounded in notions of community responsibility and caring for others will ensure the survival of our species. We have been “vehicles for our DNA” (S. Gould) at the cost of our environment for too long. Our environment will eventually no longer be able to support an ever growing population of selfish destructive human genetic material.

Libertarianism as an evolutionary step, will only work if we are all enlightened. This is sadly not the case. Libertarianism only serves the needs of a minority. Whilst there are still greedy people in the world, libertarianism and the notion of ‘freedom’ are too risky, and sane humanitarian democratically elected governments must remain.

The end

Communication skills task:

  1. Comment on the structure of this essay – how could you improve it?
  2. Find the references that are missing and insert them into text
  3. Add some examples to illustrate some points made
  4. Add any missing definitions that are needed.
  5. Write your own counter or supporting argument.

10 responses to “‘The Philosophy of Liberty’

  1. Pingback: What does education for sustainability mean? | Who’s Teaching Whom Here?

  2. Hi Don, I absolutely agree with what you said. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  3. helenlindsay

    Well I’m glad we agree on that last point. My essay is an attempt to look at ourselves objectively and try to pinpoint the flaws in our nature. Yes you are right, there really is no such thing as altruism, because it is only limited to shared DNA, relatives with a common genome. The less related to each other we feel, the less altruistic we will be. My main point is that humans need to change/evolve into a more caring (altruistic) species – You say “there is no-one who needs saving? what about the 30,000 children that die every day in this world? Isn’t the pursuit of happiness a bit shallow in the face of that? Yes socialism failed in the Soviet Union, but hasn’t capitalism failed in the west? The time for shallow surface flapping has passed, there is no historical case study for me to draw upon to support my argument because so far to my knowledge humans have not ever succeeded in creating a utopia. So the time is now my friend, we are the ones creating history now. Think about what you can do for future generations.

  4. Addendum: “community responsibility and caring for others” is a necessary part of saving the planet. I don’t want to be misunderstood on that point. We must work together. And it will happen as people come to see it as a shared goal that is in each individual’s favor. I wouldn’t be quite as pessimistic as in your last comment.

  5. There are many flaws in this essay. I will write just a brief note.

    Altruism in early human nature was self-interested. Like many species, humans evolved to do better when they co-operate. They did not however co-operate in the feeding, say, of a rival tribe who wished to feed off the same hunting ground. That would be altruism and is so far as I know unknown in the primitive environment. Life is competitive. Humans are smart enough to know when to compete and when to co-operate. Same for many other species.

    What was the most basic motive of the men who flew planes into the Twin Towers? They were acting on behalf of their god and in defense of their community of faith. 9-11 was an ultimate act of altruism, insanely misplaced.

    The damage wrought by socialist societies in the past century — wars, suppression, mass murder, rampant pollution — also lies at the door of altruism, sadly misplaced. This is because socialist theory derives from an altruistic twist on politics. Socialists believe in some form or other of self-sacrifice, extended (by force eventually) to the rest of the community.

    That to save the planet we “must” enforce some form of altruism, as you aver, is merely to fall into the same destructive trap.

    Libertarianism absolutely recognizes the interrelatedness of all people. It is about exactly that, implemented through negotiation. Not by force, or the attempt to implement some shared if impractical idea, but by negotiation. You have what I want. Let’s talk and trade and find out what it is worth to us both to close the deal.

    “… only a value system firmly grounded in notions of community responsibility and caring for others will ensure the survival of our species,” is a huge assumption for which you have provided no sound backup. In comments you further suggest that a system that enforces a pre-defined ideal (“laws against living beyond your means” etc) has to be the answer. This is absolutely backwards and will only create more war and discord — except, perhaps, for the members of that class of people whose “enlightenment” has put them in charge. Lenin was of that class. Not an example to emulate.

    I’m sorry you misunderstand the concept of liberty and can only imagine it is because your mind has not yet opened to the fact that as a moral imperative it applies to absolutely everyone, equally. There is no one who needs saving, so long as we can achieve universal recognition that every human has the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are a few centuries away from that, but note that the obstacles — religionism, nationalism, collectivism — are all disparate flavors of altruism.

  6. helenlindsay

    His final comment in this post is this “The way we are, and always have been, we cannot ‘afford’ to combat climate change. Even though the cost of not doing so is extinction.”

    What if climate change is not caused by human activity but by the sun’s cyclical activity as many scientists believe? Then there is hope for us all, afterall,humans have survived climate changes in the past.

  7. helenlindsay

    Unfortunately he goes on to say it won’t work..”What I’m saying is that these three interventions fly in the face of human nature, and cannot be effectively implemented. We will inevitably fall back into the Industrial Growth Economy, which evolved as a result of human nature and a response to human needs. It reflects (alas rather sadly) who we are as a species. There is no going back to the garden once your species has tasted the forbidden fruit, and we’ve absolutely gorged on it. It’s only natural. This is why all civilizations crash as a consequence of their excesses. This is why the ecologist-philosophers who are also students of human nature (John Gray, Ronald Wright, and I suppose Dave Pollard) see the catastrophic collapse of our now massive and global civilization as inevitable. It is not in our nature to live within our means, to limit our numbers voluntarily, or to conserve for future generations (especially when we don’t appear to have enough to go around for our current numbers). ”

    Now I am depressed!!

  8. helenlindsay

    William pointed me to this site by David Pollard which comes up with some ideas for a solution. Here is a short quote from David

    “The only way out is to abandon the Industrial Growth Economy and shift to a Steady State Economy. As the chart below describes, such a shift requires three interventions (shown in square boxes) to bring it about:

    * laws against living beyond your means (essentially a prohibition on long-term indebtedness)
    * laws against waste, pollution and non-renewable resource use
    * laws encouraging smaller families

    These interventions could eliminate debt-driven inflation and consumption, waste and pollution, population growth and the degradation and loss of natural capital. Instead of the Industrial Growth Economy’s vicious cycles we would have a virtuous cycle of stability in prices, purchasing and consumption:”

    Food for thought.

  9. helenlindsay

    Hi Anna,
    Thanks for your kind words, I often silently applaud your comments posted to the sustainability group and I agree the answers and solutions to our problems will be hard to find, however not impossible. Keep up the dialogue!

  10. Thanks Helen

    I very much enjoyed reading your essay! I am glad we have people like you on staff here at OP. I feeling is that there are few ‘answers’ to these issues, but great opportunity to discuss and explore the possibilities. Thanks again. anna 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s