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Against Humanity

On the cruel hatred of cruelty.


Many of my friends continue to identify as human beings. I doubt Lil Wayne’s long-rumored album I Am Not a Human Being III, if it ever does drop, will feature siren songs that lure them irresistibly towards the transhuman. Few appreciate the genius of a Catholic rapper full of the heady dreams of Dante that cannot be expressed in actual words—Trasumanar significar per verba non si poria—or perhaps those of Teilhard de Chardin. It is just as well. I do not wish to criticize human beings, some of whom I assume are good people. When I argue “against humanity,” it is to detonate the first denotation in Webster’s Dictionary: the quality of being humane. It is this humanity—amiability, mild benevolence, easygoing kindness, what now passes for basic human decency—to which I feel compelled to object.

Ebenezer Scrooge poisons the well on my subject. A Christmas Carol is the model of English charity, English cheer, and English comfort. G.K. Chesterton describes the “philanthropic dream” of Charles Dickens and his “hearty humanitarianism.” The birth of Our Savior is barely mentioned in passing: the title really should be A Season’s Greetings Carol. The author’s love for Tiny Tim is more tenderhearted than Our Lord’s love for the poor, because Dickens takes up their perspective. A Christmas Carol contains no hard sayings about conforming the mind to think not as human beings do. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge two destitute working children doomed to a life of ignorance and want. Dickens offers sentiment rather than policy. He recommends benevolence no less than once a year. Chesterton describes Dickens’s humanitarianism as a “common sense with common sensibility.” The “inspired cockney” Dickens is not humanity’s first champion. Chesterton traces this feeling back to Geoffrey Chaucer’s delight in the lovely low-ceilinged taverns of Merrie Olde England—their large jokes, large brown ales, and tall tales on which every man puts his own bawdy spin. The lonely lack of all these catch up with miserly Scrooge as much as the ghost of Jacob Marley does. Chesterton justifies Scrooge for me. He half-suspects that Scrooge has been giving away turkeys his whole life.

But Humanity is a sentiment older than Dickens and certainly more ancient than the word “humanytee,” which the O.E.D. dates back to the 1380s. Chesterton’s great student, Aurel Kolnai, calls the humanitarian attitude the standard alternative to religion and philosophy in all times. He makes an important distinction between the religious attitude and the humanitarian attitude: the only thing that matters for the latter is what makes men happy. Humanity’s trumps are the pressing needs of our fellows. Goodwill engenders friendly affection for our neighbors. Without this kind of affection, Aristotle says, we would not even desire to share a journey with other people. Humanity is go-along-to-get-along sociability. In the beginning of Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that lawgivers are more serious about friendliness than justice. And rightly so, perhaps, because friendly people have no need for exacting justice. They stay within the ancient bounds of political correctness. Cheap grace is the unguent of our shared lives. Humanity has always held common life together.

Today we are defining humanity upwards. The academia-and-human-resources complex requires increasingly exquisite forms of benevolence. Doing no harm to others requires implicit bias training, then more to check our micro-aggressions, then still more to counteract the violence that is a default setting in our structures and systems. Do-no-harm requires a number of symbolic gestures, such as using the correct nouns for sensitive groups, conjugating the third-person singular pronoun that applies to us (he/him/his), trigger warnings, and land acknowledgments. All of these are semantic equivalents of the smile, a gesture made to make others feel valued and welcomed. And, like a smile, these gestures of inclusivity can be cold comforts when someone is feeling deeply aggrieved. Kindness is no substitute for justice.

New demands of humanity have caught many people by surprise. What looked like a few campus snowflakes around 2016 is now more than a nor’easter that riles up a few coastal elites. A few tenured radicals are not to blame. The job market is. Ten years ago, in Average Is Over, Tyler Cowen predicted this cultural shift would come to pass. High salaries increasingly reward easygoing team players. The global supply chain requires diverse workers who can co-operate frictionlessly. Today Scrooge’s curt “Good afternoon!” could very well offend his religious co-workers and create costly problems for his firm, like the costly problems Elon Musk is creating at X, formerly Twitter. “Humbug!” of course might invite a mandatory meeting with H.R. Doux commerce intensifies.

The humanities guild in the universities, where I am a journeyman, must simply keep up with the demand for humanity. Why else take our classes? We hardly deserve the charge of corrupting the youth. If anything, we re-inforce the official mores. What can be wrong with us? people wonder. Humanitarians that they are, it can only be that they make others unhappy for reasons they do not yet understand. We can suggest and invent them. So many of us enlist Friedrich Nietzsche, who was so sensitive to the spiritual anguish of nineteenth-century bluestockings. (You may have wondered how he became a liberal.) Often students come to me with impressively clinical-sounding self-knowledge about the learning styles, disorders, and syndromes that entitle them to special treatment. They are not self-absorbed. They are willing to accommodate others as exquisitely as they wish to be accommodated. The Golden Rule, long thought to boil down the Law of Moses to its essentials, once again seems to entail six hundred and thirteen or more commandments. My students’ expectations mock the idea that education can be “transformative” through any frank exchange of ideas, that they might be on a difficult road to self-knowledge and understanding others’ perspectives. They know who they are already, and it’s complicated. Yet we are relentlessly positive—You do you!—to the point of exquisite sensitivity.

The new and complex demands of humanity present a chance to live up to my ridiculous academic motley: “political theorist.” I close my eyes and nod solemnly into my finger steeple. It is not easy to learn the microphysics of power. Nor, at twenty thousand dollars per semester, are my scattered impressions of Michel Foucault all that cheap. But as long as normative injunctions operate insidiously as ontology, what can we do? You are violent in very subtle ways, kid, that will take approximately four years to discover. I like this word, violence, that can describe both the subtlest violation of codes of mandatory solicitude and forceful collisions of cars. Violence is a “crypto-positive” word we use to mask the fact that humanity is a norm at all. Thus does the professoriate elevate the moral common sense of all times to uncommon levels of sensitivity.

Liberalism is what I would like to call the insistence that humanity is not only necessary but sufficient for a political community. Basically, liberalism strikes me as a moral creed more than anything else. Plainly, self-identified “liberals” are motivated by strong beliefs that what they identify as homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, racism, and so forth redound to cruelty, hate, and intolerance. Liberals’ adversaries must be moral failures, and they summon the appropriate vitriol. Some famous liberals describe liberalism in these terms. For example, Judith Shklar and Richard Rorty trace liberalism to Michel de Montaigne’s “cruel hatred of cruelty.” Amid the sixteenth-century French Wars of Religion, Montaigne hoped that Frenchmen could rally behind this moral lowest common denominator and give up at least their most grotesque ways of slaughtering and torturing one another. This shared feeling of humanity is the soul of liberalism, its low but solid moral high ground. Originally small and cautious, it has become large in its own estimation and incautious. Yet it is not necessarily more effective at rooting out cruelties that are hidden away in prisons, hospitals, foreign lands, or the home.

Liberalism casts mere humanity in a starring role by emphasizing the ubiquity of cruelty and the dangers of the greatest cruelties. Teenagers clamor for dystopian stories. Photographs, film, television, and digital images stimulate visceral reactions to the most lurid savageries until we are desensitized to them. The liberal message is that humanity alone stands between us and atrocity. If we cannot agree about the summum bonum anymore—if indeed the medieval scholastics aimed too high at peace, shared happiness, and the beatific vision—at least we can agree on the summum malum. Cruelty is the worst we do, Rorty would say. Scrooge is no longer a focal villain. Two spectacles of cruel evil feature prominently in American education. The first is the fact that Africans and persons of African descent were enslaved in the United States as chattel between 1619 and 1865, lynched and terrorized afterwards, and targeted for discriminatory harassment into the present day. The second is the Holocaust. We keep these horrors present to mind and teach the children and whomever else will listen: never again. The least we can do seems to be the most we can do.

Liberals are not distinctive because they are the most humane of all of us, or even because they hate cruelty more than non-liberals, but because they insist that humanity must suffice for public purposes. Liberals insist that no more robust moral vision ought to animate the state, lest it authorize cruelties. Beyond the cruel hatred of cruelty there is only toleration for moral differences. Political Liberalism is John Rawls’s retreat position from A Theory of Justice, or the advance of his moral qualms about any ideal theory of justice, even his, being imposed on the unwilling. Anti-formalists such as Shklar and Rorty give better descriptions of what liberalism looks like on the ground: a cruel hatred of cruelty, pity, common sense with common sensibility, in a word, humanity. Today’s loudest liberals are simply trying to see how much mileage they can get out of ordinary humanity, insisting that petty and even agentless cruelties are the slippery slopes to the greatest moral disasters of all time.

The best reason to think of liberalism as an ethical movement defined by humanity is not that actual liberals describe themselves this way but rather that this actually describes people who call themselves liberals. All liberals blandish or browbeat that commonest and most complacent angel of our nature, humanity. “Classical liberals” and “progressive liberals” construe cruelty differently. Classical liberals despise coercion. Progressive liberals fret about neglect and insensitive attitudes. If progressives overpopulate universities, it is because defining humanity upwards validates our humanities seminars. Their hyperbole can sound as shrill and as ridiculous to outsiders as do hypersensitive online libertarians who equate taxes for schools with roads to slavery. The students at Union Theological Seminary who apologized to house plants for our collective cruelty to the planet offer a convenient example—and an amusing one. Though they may disagree about what humanity looks like, this fighting creed at least formally unites liberals. Liberalism is the dominant moral perspective in the West—nobody really thinks our political regimes are neutral—but it is frequently and obviously strained.

Athletics is one site of resistance to humanity, where we recognize the necessity of leadership that is harsh and principled. More than watching sports all weekend I like hearing grown men talk endlessly about “adversity.” This is one antidote to the toxic positivity of educational institutions. Yet the age of the quarrelsome hero coach may be on the wane. Even now, stern Bill Belichick broods in his craggy Ithaca (not entirely out of tricks and turns, sending a safety in motion to block a field goal) while “down-with-whatever-man” Mike McDaniel sets offensive records. Nick Saban is finished. Liberalism softens the gridiron.

Nevertheless, re-describing liberalism as an ethos of humanity is counterintuitive for several reasons. It means sidelining signature “liberal” policies such as free trade and free speech, though neither of these seem particularly cherished by contemporary liberals. It means bracketing institutions such as the Lockean tradition of natural rights to property, which was retroactively labeled “liberal” by L.T. Hobhouse in 1911. Alternatively, it would mean re-inscribing the constitutional and human rights traditions within the contours of moral sentimentalism. In Inventing Human Rights, Lynn Hunt argues that natural rights only became “self-evident” to the reading publics of the eighteenth century, once they learned empathy for the common problems of common people in the novels of Samuel Richardson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. From this perspective, Dickens has a brighter place than that of John Stuart Mill in the liberal firmament.

Re-describing liberalism in terms of a moral sentiment also makes it more changeable than any fixed set of principles could ever be. Humanity generated passionate defenses of constitutions and free markets, but it has since moved on, in the same way that liberals were briefly passionate about opportunities in sports for biological females. What seems like redress from cruelty one day may seem to authorize cruel exclusion the next. The only fixities are the ultimate atrocities, slavery and genocide. When it comes to policies and even constitutional principles that govern day-to-day life, liberalism is liable to changes of heart. Amiable people cope well with a rapidly changing world, but they are hardly sticklers for rules and principles. They lack integrity.

Finally, if we make humanity the cardinal virtue defining liberalism, we deny that liberalism is a unique artifact of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European thought. It has a Chaucerian brief. Humanitarian attitudes on the part of Democritus, Protagoras, and Antiphon in the fifth century B.C. might be properly described, as by Eric Havelock, as The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics. Havelock argues that Plato and Aristotle meant to re-assert authority against the world of humane opinion already shaped by their ancient Greek liberal predecessors. If he is correct, classical political philosophy is anti-liberal from its origin.

Humanity for the ancient Greeks is something like philia—friendliness—and not liberality, confusingly enough. In Book IV of the Nicomachean Ethics, after describing gentleness that is a proper disposition to anger, Aristotle describes a nameless mean between obsequiousness and quarrelsomeness. Someone with this nameless virtue (close to friendliness) is in the habit of thinking it is noble not to cause pain to others, as well as to be pleasing to others. Montaigne turns to this virtue. The danger for Aristotle, though, is that it can become obsequiousness. Obsequious people are highly adaptable and do not resist change. The sociable virtues of gentleness and humanity are supposed to prevent virtuous people from becoming too rigid, harsh, and dour. Humanity is supposed to loosen us up a bit, for ale and jokes, not to become the impressionable core of the moral life.

An obsequious population gives no moral resistance to the pressures of the marketplace or constant changes in public opinion. Profits and honors have made humanity the central virtue of our regime. As it is stretched from natural, easygoing sociability to exquisite conscientiousness, humanity becomes obsequiousness. When Cowen envisioned the future of the labor market ten years ago, he asked us to consider how attractive personal assistants who remember to brush the shoulders of busy and productive people will increase their earning potential. It is not only humanity that is at a premium in the global economy, but obsequiousness as well. This should concern small-r republicans interested in civic virtue, yet it does not mean that liberalism is simply inculcating servility. The “cruel hatred of cruelty” also authorizes festivals of cruelty, where we can lash out with great harshness (mostly online) against those who are perceived to be cruel at the moment.

Saint John Henry Newman was a lifelong critic of liberalism, though we hear surprisingly little about him in the present liberalism wars. Many Catholic critics of liberalism who have risen to prominence steer clear of him. At first this seems surprising. Upon his elevation to the cardinalate, Newman’s “Biglietto Speech” described his life’s work “from the first” as opposition to “liberalism.” Newman in the appendix to the Apologia defines liberalism as false epistemic humility. But he also describes it as an ancient humanitarian attitude. These two dimensions of liberalism are related—little can be known; therefore many opinions must be tolerated. In Discourse VIII of The Idea of a University, Newman describes a “Religion of Reason” that flourishes in peaceful and “civilized” times, the religion “of the cultivated intellect, of the philosopher, scholar, and gentleman.” The ethos of this gentleman is that he “never inflicts pain”; he facilitates whatever others wish to do. Newman writes that this easygoing spirit made Saint Francis de Sales and Reginald Cardinal Pole good and holy men, but it also prevented the Earl of Shaftesbury and Edward Gibbon from seriously considering the truths of revelation. Humanity is not only an English virtue for Newman but an ancient one. He has very little to say about Dickens, perhaps because, as we so often joke, men are always thinking about the Roman Empire. He concludes Discourse VIII by noting that this “gentleman’s religion” and “liberal” character is shared by both Emperor Julian the Apostate and Saint Basil of Caesarea.

Christ certainly does not call us to less than liberalism does. Newman himself both exhibited the virtues of humanity and believed that the antichrist would come in the cold and gentle guise of liberalism. He worried that liberalism robbed Christians of zeal, or what his poem “Liberalism” from 1833 calls “the dread depths of grace.” Great multicultural empires such as those of Great Britain and Rome seem especially prone to the production of liberals. In the same year, his Arians of the Fourth Century calls the Emperor Julian’s court the first school of liberals. They scoffed at the superstitions of their ancestors. In their discussions, reason and calculation triumphed over zeal. Newman’s ancient liberals are marked by equanimity and languor. Their skeptical indifferentism precludes apostolic zeal. For genteel elites of a vast multi-religious empire in New York and Washington today, appeals to our shared humanity will suffice. In a post-Christian age, Kolnai adds, humanitarians threaten to make their common-sense humanity the essence of Christianity, or indeed of any religion. Saint Francis de Sales was famously a gentleman who charmed the King of France, but this never interfered with his zeal for righteousness and even martyrdom.

I am inclined in habit and temperament to humanity, and quite suited to liberalism as I describe it, more Fezziwig than Scrooge. I like large jokes and, admittedly, large ales. I watch The Muppet Christmas Carol with my children and sometimes with a tear in my eye. It is great how Michael Caine plays it straight. The soundtrack is really good. I began wearing slippers at home early in life. I barely remember the last time I was in a fight, more than a decade ago, but I remember exaggerating my role in it afterwards to laughing friends. Many people seemed to know that I was a gentle cockalorum before I did. I am a school man of the soft modern variety. When it comes to making a controversial point, I prefer ventriloquizing others, so The Collected Works of Spinoza are usually splayed open on my desk. Even in my scholarship I have a lamentable tendency towards the unobjectionable because recondite.

Saint Augustine’s sermon on the fortieth psalm frequently comes to my mind and always troubles me when it does. According to the Doctor of Grace, the psalm is a prayer for those who are mindful of the poor to have the final perseverance. It is not a prayer, he insists, for God’s help in our earthly affairs. Then Augustine calls our sufferings blessings from God. He describes “the innocent man” who “rests in his house” content with his family, “his poverty, his little farm” that he has built with his own hands, his orchards that he has planted. God sends the innocent man bitter tribulations to teach him to love eternal life more than these simple pleasures. These afflictions must be galling indeed for a man who has so little (yet so much!) to lose—maybe he falls ill, maybe his wife or children get sick, maybe they die, maybe he loses his home, maybe his crops fail. These are hard lessons to teach us to love God. “He is taught to love the better, by the bitterness of the worse,” Augustine writes, “lest going a traveler to his country, he choose the inn instead of his own home.” Unimpeachably good eggs beware. Do not grow too at home in the world. Remember those who cannot be. Zeal for our true home and true selves should consume us.

Augustine, Newman, and the fact that Christ never laughs in the Gospels—as Saint Thomas More and Nietzsche remind us—jolt me from the humanity that is my natural mode. At these moments, a religious attitude eclipses my humanitarian attitude. This is not always a personal tent revival; Kolnai also proposes there is a philosophical attitude that denies that humanity is sufficient for peoples or cities. I have pointed out ways that humanity is being stretched thin, to shrill and sometimes to ridiculous lengths of solicitude, and into ever-changing concerns. Abstract, complex, and future-oriented problems such as climate change and the national debt are more difficult to frame in terms of humanity than intergenerational justice, though the image of a polar bear on a melting ice floe is an impressive attempt. What alternative can a political philosopher like Aristotle offer, if humanity alone is insufficient for justice?

I am less interested in a semantic debate about the term “liberalism” and more interested in describing contemporary events associated with liberalism. To my mind, of course, ancient and perennial feelings of humanity are re-emerging in new and peculiar forms. Post-liberals such as Patrick Deneen, I think, have written epitaphs for liberalism that will be premature so long as the current adaptable, shrill, and spasmodic cancel culture is a living tradition. But they may be talking about something else entirely. Call my ethos of humanity “gliberalism” for all I care, so long as you acknowledge this “gliberalism” remains more profoundly part of our lives than anything else that goes by the name of liberalism. Please kindly recognize my unique identity as “super-liberal”—while I am coining neologisms—since I insist we need more than humanity, not less.

We return to the anti-liberal origins of classical philosophy. I disagree with Havelock’s sense of Aristotle’s overriding concern to establish once-and-for-all authority. The Politics invests an impressive amount of care in describing how a range of opinions about justice—aristocratic, democratic, monarchic, oligarchic—become authoritative opinions in different regimes. Citizens have the virtue of being able to rule and be ruled in turn. In A World Without Politics? Pierre Manent suggests that the authority of modern science and personal liberty reduces the space for political decisions. Democracy requires a field where citizens are free to rule. But international human rights law and expert authority rein in democracy, so that we fail to be political at all in Aristotle’s sense, much less democratic. I agree this is where we end up. But from the vantage point of a famously more smiley nation than the French Republic, I suggest that we arrived here by a simpler path. We do not wish to impose our contestable opinions about justice on others. We are too friendly, humane, and even obsequious for politics. Liberalism is basically apolitical, because we are never willing to take turns ruling with the cruel. Liberalism makes humanity a litmus test for belonging in the political community. Spasmodic exclusions occur.

Our zeal for justice is channeled into a cruel hatred of cruelty, that lowest of all moral high grounds, when we content ourselves with charging our opponents with violence. As I see them, liberals sacrifice principle and policy to clutch the pearls of humanity. What’s in a name? We would be worthier of the greatest British and American political leaders, including those whom we anachronistically call liberals, if we defended constitutional rights, free exchanges of ideas, and free exchanges of goods and services, when and only when justice is on our side. A real citizen accepts being ruled by his adversaries’ flawed idea of justice only because he expects an opportunity to rule them according to his own at another time. A frank acknowledgment that disputed conceptions of justice are at the core of our regime would make it fairer and more inclusive in the long term. We might smooth these over with humanity from time to time. But deny the priority of this contest over what justice means altogether, Aristotle suggests, and a regime ceases to be political.

Citizens must have the courage to rule, and not only accept being ruled in whatever way market forces and public opinion may shape their moral character. After the sack of Rome in 410, Augustine answered the Roman antecedents of Gibbon by arguing that Christians, who aim for a real justice, always make the best citizens. Prophetic witness is costly to us but beneficial to society. The City of God is a powerful confluence of the religious and philosophical convictions that justice must be prior to humanity. These perennial lessons about politics from Augustine and Newman apply to our times in particularly urgent ways.