July 20, 2007


Caption: These guys have figured it out. Why can't we?

Is there any chance that the human race might eventually get its act together? That's the question this week on Goat Rope.

According to 18th century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, we may just have a chance. He thought that the craftiness of Nature (or what Hegel called "the cunning of Reason") could make use of even our nasty side to get us there. That's the subject of his 1784 essay, Idea for a Universal History With a Cosmopolitan Purpose.

If this is your first visit, please click on earlier entries.

To briefly recap, he thought our "unsociable socialness" compelled humans both to live together and to constantly struggle to outdo each other. This competition and antagonism forced us to develop our potential. And, while individual human lives are short, the life of humanity is long, so the gains in culture, knowledge, science, etc. build up over time.

Over time, people are or will be gradually compelled to arrive at some kind of social order which balances the striving of individuals with the need for social order. That means a free society based on the rule of law.

Of course, one major problem is that even if people reach that level within a given country, different countries treat each other like "barbarians" in a state of nature (an international Wild Wild West, if you will).

He believed that the same process would repeat itself on a larger scale between nations:

The same unsociability which drives man to this causes any single commonwealth to stand in unrestricted freedom in relation to others; consequently, each of them must expect from another precisely the evil which oppressed the individuals and forced them to enter into a lawful civic state. The friction among men, the inevitable antagonism, which is a mark of even the largest societies and political bodies, is used by Nature as a means to establish a condition of quiet and security.

In other words, after lots of wars, international crises, suffering, etc,

Nature forces them to make at first inadequate and tentative attempts; finally, after devastations, revolutions, and even complete exhaustion, she brings them to that which reason could have told them at the beginning and with far less sad experience, to wit, to step from the lawless condition of savages into a league of nations. In a league of nations, even the smallest state could expect security and justice, not from its own power and by its own decrees, but only from this great league of nations...

He was basically an optimist, at least in the long term. This long view of history "gives hope finally that after many reformative revolutions, a universal cosmopolitan condition, which Nature has as her ultimate purpose, will come into being as the womb wherein all the original capacities of the human race can develop."

Of course, Kant lived before weapons of mass destruction (the real ones) and ecological collapse. I'd say we're in a race between Nature's cunning and humanity's self-destructiveness and the odds are even at best...which means we've got our work cut out for us.

Before we dismiss this view as a naive view of progress, some people today have explored similar themes and possibilities, including Robert Wright, author of Nonzero.

Game theory also explores how cooperation can emerge among self interested parties over time.For more, see an earlier Goat Rope series on the work of Robert Axelrod (if you go there, start at the bottom and scroll up).

On the level of popular culture, the emergence of cooperation and culture out of lawlessness was also the main theme of the HBO series "Deadwood." (Why did they cancel that, anyway?)

EVIL MONSTER RATS, ANYONE? The Russians have bred some in case you're looking.

EDUCATED AND UNINSURED. The latest snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute shows that a growing number of entry level jobs for college graduates lack employer-provided health care.

SPEAKING OF THE UNINSURED, a Senate panel including all Democrats and a majority of Republicans yesterday recommended expanding the Children's Health Insurance Program. WV's Senator Jay Rockefeller has played a key role in this. The measure now faces a veto threat from President Bush.

According to the NY Times, Rockefeller described the attitude of Bush and DHHS secretary Michael O. Leavitt to the bill as “pretty belligerent” in criticizing the bill.

But Mr. Rockefeller said, “It’s not clear to me that the president has any intention of vetoing this,” because the political consequences of such an action could be disastrous.

“There are very few symbols as powerful as kids,” Mr. Rockefeller said.


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