Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Barrington Moore Problematic and more

Brad DeLong recently gave an interesting talk about the "Social Studies" major at Harvard. It seems that this concentration is a hodgepodge of humanities and social science subjects, including history, economics, and political science. It seems a little like the "Philosophy, Politics, and Economics" concentration that some universities have. It seems to also be related to the "Great Books" concentrations, but with perhaps more emphasis on social science and less on the humanities. DeLong says that the major has been focused on the study of the Big Question of the 20th century: totalitarianism vs. freedom, tyranny vs. tolerance, etc., what he calls the Barrington Moore Problematic. In the 20th century, especially the middle of the 20th century, this seemed to be the main problem at hand. However, the Nazis and Soviets are gone now, so what should we study? DeLong points out that we actually don't even have a consensus that the Lockean principles of liberalism (freedom of religion, etc.) are correct. So in a sense the new Social Studies students maybe will be studying the post-Barrington Problems, but also perhaps pre-Barrington problems, since the Problematic basically takes for granted a Lockean consensus that doesn't exist.

I agree with the bulk of what he says, but I have two comments.

1) The period we are in looks a bit like the 1815 to 1914 period: relatively peace, prosperity, advancement of science and civil liberties. But that period was followed by the age of totalitarianism. How do we know ours won't be followed by something similarly monstrous? Or maybe the monstrosity will look a lot different. Maybe our dystopia won't look like "1984," but rather like "Brave New World." Maybe that dystopia is already here to a large degree. Even if we grant that our current political arrangement is fairly good, are we really in a stable equilibrium? I take it that we may actually be in fairly uncharted waters. For example, it seems that religious unbelief is more widespread among non-intellectuals than it was in just about any previous period. This is true especially of Europe and China. Can we know with much confidence that this won't lead to catastrophic outcomes?

2) Perhaps the students of Harvard need to go deeper than Locke. I think the Enlightenment consensus of live and let live made a certain amount of sense, but it was in some ways a bit ad hoc. We didn't know why we should stop killing each other, but we agreed to stop killing if the other side did as well. It was a contract more than an actual intellectual consensus. I think the same is true, and maybe even more so, of the post WWII consensus. We talk a lot about human rights, but we don't really agree on why slavery and murder are so wrong. I actually think that Aristotle and Aquinas had a coherent worldview in a way that the liberals of, say, 1776 or 1945 did not. Are our current problems more matters of philosophy than of social science?

I think Mr. DeLong would do well in reading "After Virtue" by Alasdair MacIntyre, if he has not done so already. In some ways I am closer to the liberals than to MacIntyre, but I think he does a great job of explaining how unsatisfying the current "consensus" is.

Lastly, a minor point: It seems that Locke had some hesitations, to say the least, about tolerating Catholics and atheists. So, in being intolerant towards Muslims, perhaps Peretz is not quite so un-Lockean after all.

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