Freedom and Its Discontents
by Peter Marin
Peter Marin is no supporter of psychology, arguing that psychology encourages selfishness and is oblivious to history. Psychology urges us to spend ages thinking about ourselves merely to accomplish the great goal of a flat inner life. It caters to wishful thinking, overemphasizing platitudes and will power. A taste of Marin's skilled, passionate prose: "Psychology is a scandal and a joke, a ritualized ignorance maintained of catechisms of pain, self-justification, self-esteem, dysfunction, addiction and other excuses that distract us from moral incumbency and labor." (See. No straw person, at least not in this paragraph.)
Marin attributes many of the world's flaws to secularism. The "pretense of unquestioned virtue" is common among secular and avuncular individuals alike. Both, he argues, hold those who do not believe, in contempt. Careful self-examination is anathema. Respect for complexity and uncertainty is low. Almost all theories of human living are concocted out of extremely thin air. Individuals of various opposing ideologies share the similar belief that if it were not for their opponents, utopia would be on the way.
The current world offers little that deeply satisfies, writes Marin, so we look for satisfaction in consumerism or horrific ideologies. Marin claims no efforts to provide an illuminating set of moral principles have been made, but he is mistaken. Many, many sets of principles fill human minds.
He needs to look harder. Let's see. There is fascism, hedonism, socialism, communism, neoconservatism, scientism, luddism, techno-utopianism, multiculturalism, absolutism, objectivism, communitarianism, paleoconservatism, status quo conservatism, radical feminism, parochial liberalism, , ultra-liberalism, ultra-conservatism, evolutionary psychology, self-help isms, postmodernism, relativism, neonationalism, nihilism, asceticism, status quo liberalism, entertainment conservatism, fundamentalism, populism, charisma cults, tribalism, egalitarianism, info-salvationism, neoenvironmentalism, shallow wonkism, biocultural determinism, neotraditionism, neopragmatism, gerontarianism, emotionalism, reductionism, cynicism, consumerism, so-called libertarianism, and paleolibertarianism among millions. What more could a person ask for? The efforts are there. The problem is good results are unlikely from the above. (Oh, wait. Marin said the word illuminating. Some have done that job, but those principles are in books rarely bought or checked out.)
Humans, Marin suggests, have a poor history of teaching and discussing morality. The little discussion that exists is loaded with ad hominem attacks and hostile reactions to the mere articulation of a point. Many popular "moralities" are merely attempts to buttress ease, habit, or desire. Any good set of moral principles should require us to change as well as others. We preserve our innocence "by ignoring whatever calls it into question... [w]hat we think, say and do affects the realities others inhabit." He calls naive and arrogant arguments that claim power, freedom, or futuristic optimism guarantee goodness. "Right and wrong have not vanished but their deep moral context has. And so has the universe in which people searched for the good and struggled with what they have done and what they ought to do."
A good world features much joy, gratitude, universality, reciprocation, freedom, generosity, compassion, skepticism, adventurousness, self-examination, and awareness of the importance and responsibility of our interactions with others, writes Marin. Resignation and blind, passive hopes should be loathed.
On specific policy issues, Marin's arguments are less than deft. Marin, apparently, favors some form of socialism. He notes that all good things come from the "human harvest." Much of what he blames on secularism could more accurately be blamed on socialism. He alleges that welfare discriminates against men. One good point he makes is the homeless problem was made worse when cities bulldozed skid rows.
Marin writes that we fail to treat others as valuable ends. We also fail at matters of flesh, irony, and laughter. Individuals renouncing their physical bodies, the physical universe, or the development of their moral selves have given up hope for a full human existence. Worth skimming.
—Book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated June 29, 2009