Monday, July 05, 2004

Dinesh D'Souza, Rousseauian?

Conservative pundit, Dinesh D'Souza, claims that there can be no virtue without freedom. Islamic fundamentalists have a point, according to D'Souza, when they argue that they're on the side of virtue and piety and we're on the side of freedom and decadence. But this is not the end of the story, for D'Souza claims that there really can be no virtue without freedom. So the terrorists are not as virtuous as they say they are, and we at least have the preconditions of virtue.

Now nobody would want to deny completely the basic principle that a moral act must be done freely for it to be moral. But there is an oddly Rousseauian or Kantian tinge to D'Souza's inordinate emphasis on freedom in his discussion. The upshot of Rousseau's famous association with virtue and freedom, the near interchangeability of freedom and virtue in his system, is to eliminate what Arthur Melzer (author of the finest book-length study of Rousseau) has called the more traditional "vertical" understanding of virtue -- that human beings need to conform to a hierarchical moral standard outside of themselves to be virtuous.

Rousseau's revolution in moral thinking consists in the replacement of this traditional "vertical" understanding of virtue with a more modern, egalitarian "horizontal" one. There are no religious or other external standards of behavior to follow or emulate, according to Rousseau. There is only the requirement of "psychic unity" or avoidance of "personal dependence" (the great evil for civilized man). The only quasi-standard is the "psychic unity," the sweet sentiment of existence, that man experienced in the state of nature and must recover in civil society. Virtue, which is often interchangeable with moral freedom in Rousseau, is the way for civilized man to avoid "personal dependence" and regain his psychic unity. Virtue is consequently largely formal or without content. Psychic unity is the standard, no matter the unifying principle.

Because man is by nature asocial, the standard in society must replicate the psychic unity enjoyed by natural man. The first thing Rousseau does to reunify social man's divided soul is to encourage the belief in the doctrine of free will. And this is what D'Souza himself propounds without question. It is never even an issue for D'Souza to what extent there is such a thing. Rousseau also seeks to make men fall in love with virtue and to love virtue in and of itself rather for than whatever other utilitarian benefits it might bring. Finally, the virtuous man must believe in God, although it is questionable whether this means traditional religious doctrine or not. According to Melzer, "In short, Rousseau attempts here to bestow on virtue the splendor of self-creation, absolute freedom, or what later came to be called "autonomy." The standard is the psychic unity of man in the state of nature or something "horizontal" rather than something external and "vertical."

Interestingly, one of the things that D'Souza misses in his Rousseauianism is the importance of civic education. Part and parcel of the Rousseauian point of view is that within society the individual must be patriotic if he is to be psychically unified. Citizens must love the city more than they love themselves. And it is important to understand that Rousseau argues this not because he is religious or a partisan of classical political philosophy, but precisely because he is a modern, believing in the natural asociality of man and working through what that means for man in society. Rousseau is a "defector" from the modern liberal camp, arguing that natural asociality requires radical collectivism in civil society to reunify man's soul.

Now most conservatives today would typically advocate a little more civic education. Indeed, D'Souza ends with a rousing defense of patriotism (for which he turns to Burke), but it's unclear how he gets there. Does he want to go the route of Rousseau's legislator, reshpaing men's souls into radical attachment to the political community (Rousseau's system necessarily contains a rather authoritarian contour)?

Another interesting twist is that this later modern association of virtue with freedom stems from thought that is hostile to the philosophy underlying liberal democracy. In fact, this is the thought that has arguably inspired Islamic fundamentalists, as D'Souza himself points out. D'Souza doesn't seem to realize the philosophic foundations of his own thesis. The association of freedom with virtue, the "horizontal" solution to man's "horizontal" problem, leads to hatred of cosmopolitanism and the preference for direct or participatory democracy instead of the representative kind. It is debatable how authentically Muslim the terrorists are or how much they are inspired by radical modern European philosophy.

Does D'Souza understand which road he is traveling on? Does he really want to pursue this path? Now we have discussed previously how Americans might appear more favorable in Rousseau's eyes than Canadians or Europeans, for example. But it's not clear how much we should try to rely on Rousseau's formal, contentless, "horizontal" standards.

These are all difficult questions, and I don't claim to have a complete handle on Rousseau or even Melzer's interpretation of him. There are also excellent interpretations opposed to Melzer's view -- namely Laurence Cooper's study which argues for a certain positive content to freedom, virtue, and psychic unity. But D'Souza's emphasis on freedom, his combination of virtue and freedom, strikes me as owing something to Rousseau's "horizontal" understanding of the human problem and its potential solutions.


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