In today’s world, dominated as it is by the ephemeral, the superficial, and the inconsequential, it can be hard for a rational, dispassionate observer to make sense of what is going on—politically, socially, economically, and philosophically.
It is that last aspect that gets the least “oxygen” in mainstream media, in public education, and in pretty much all debates and disagreements we grapple with as a society. Perhaps the very discipline of Philosophy, academically speaking, has grown too “foreign” and intimidating for most citizens, or maybe the idea of tackling problems that are greater than or exclusive to ourselves or the “here and now” has tumbled to the very bottom of our list of priorities. Both explanations seem plausible, given the current state of public education and discourse, as well as the fact that the media, social and otherwise, have convinced the body politic that short-term goals, spite, and rent seeking are legitimate means to any end.
Whatever the case might be, the fact remains that one of thorniest problems of our time is our inability, as a society and as a voting and taxpaying population, to consider the big questions of our time in any greater context other than that which affects us directly, right now. Ultimately, this the reason why so many people act, argue, vote, and /or behave against their own interests.
Interestingly enough, there is a fix for this predicament and it’s been around for quite some time: it’s the set of tools that Philosophy has to offer. Of course, these days, there’s probably only a handful of people who can even define the word itself (“the love of wisdom”) and even less who see any practical value in exploring this field. Debating, or even pondering, “bigger ideas” can seem like a secondary concern when there’s a war on, when there’s a global recession, or when there are practical, tangible problems to solve, like putting food on the table.
Nevertheless, as Pericles (or whoever really uttered the original quote) would argue paraphrastically at least, “just because you don’t take an interest in the bigger ideas, it doesn’t meant that they won’t take an interest in you.”
It was with this understanding of the importance of Philosophy and of those “bigger ideas” that I turned to Jakub Bożydar Wiśniewski, assistant professor in the faculty of law, administration, and economics at the University of Wroclaw, fellow of the Mises Institute, and affiliated scholar and member of the board of trustees of the Ludwig von Mises Institute Poland. Jakub holds an MA in philosophy from the University of Cambridge and a PhD in political economy from King’s College London. He also has a very rare talent for explaining vague and seemingly inaccessible ideas in a concise and straightforward manner and a knack for clarifying why these ideas are important to everyone, everywhere.
Claudio Grass (CG): If you could put it in the plainest possible and most practical of terms, what is the use of philosophy in this day and age?
Jakub Bożydar Wiśniewski (JBW): The use of philosophy is to see reality for what it is, especially on the most fundamental level. In today’s day and age, this amounts primarily to peeling away endless layers of sophistry created by the ideological gatekeepers of the ruling powers. The importance of this task cannot be overstressed, since living free of such sophistries is a necessary condition of virtue formation and thus the pursuit of existential perfection.
CG: In most Western nations, philosophy, at least taught in any valuable depth, is not part of the core public school curriculum. And even when it is, fundamental ideas like the concept of natural law are excluded. What are the gaps you see in public education in this regard and what do you think could change if they were filled?
JBW: Since natural law is fundamentally a set of logically deducible propositions, a course on formal and philosophical logic would be a most desirable addition to every public school curriculum, even if it were only to be subsumed as part of another subject, such as mathematics. It would also be highly advisable to include classical texts belonging to the natural law tradition (works of Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, etc.) In the curricula of language subjects.
If such additions were to be introduced, students would become familiar with the notion of a natural order of immutable principles, which cannot be overruled by any political act or whim. This, in turn, could make them far less susceptible to political populism and far more appreciative of the potential of responsibly used individual liberty.
CG: Could you give us a “layman” summary of the core arguments and ideas separating natural law and positive law?
JBW: Natural law is a structure of normative principles that can be derived from a careful introspective and deductive examination of human nature and all of its inherent features. As such, they can be said to hold universally and provide an indispensable framework for peaceful and productive social cooperation under all sorts of circumstances.
Positive law, on the other hand, is ultimately grounded in the idea that norms of social order derive from the will of the entity that holds the monopoly of violence in a given territory. As one can easily notice, the latter view reduces legal principles to justifications and rationalizations of imposed institutional coercion, which leads inevitably to the blunting of society’s moral sensibility. By the same token, it goes hand in hand with a self-reinforcing spiral of ever greater incursions into the sphere of individual liberty, which are either not recognized as such or explained away as consistent with the “spirit of the law.”
In sum, insofar as positive law deviates from natural law, substituting expropriation for the protection of private property and paternalism for the protection of bodily inviolability, it becomes institutionalized lawlessness.
CG: Looking at the last couple of centuries of the development of our Western civilization, many would argue that there was some point, most likely fairly recently, that we slowed down from intellectual, political, and social progress, screeched to a halt and then started reversing course. Almost like we forgot what the Enlightenment taught us. Would you agree with this assessment and what is your take on the root causes of this phenomenon?
JBW: I generally agree with this assessment. Giving a satisfactory answer to the question about the root causes of the phenomenon in question could fill a whole series of books, so my reply here is of necessity very brief.
First, the currently dominant sociopolitical system, Bastiat’s “great fiction through which everyone endeavors to live at the expense of everyone else,” institutionalizes envy, parasitism, short termism, and other traits conducive to the accelerated consumption of the civilizational capital accumulated over the centuries. Second, the neo-Marxist infiltration of major educational and cultural institutions exacerbates these parasitic tendencies by creating a permanent atmosphere of unquenchable resentment. Third, in combination with the above two factors, modern technologies—which are neutral in themselves—further infantilize societies by substantially reducing their attention spans.
Finally, the erosion of the awareness of the transcendental dimension of reality understood as the primary anchor of the natural order might well have exacerbated all the above phenomena.
CG: In your view and in a “real-world” sense, what are the biggest problems or intellectual misconceptions that bar our societies today from reaching a state of harmony, prosperity, and peace?
JBW: In reference to the issues mentioned in my answer to the previous question, I would say that among the most harmful intellectual misconceptions and resulting moral problems, one should mention the following: 1) the assumption that one is ever legally entitled to live at the expense of anyone else (barring cases of just restitution), 2) the conviction that, somehow or other, one can get something for nothing, 3) the belief that there is no natural order of reality that one is bound to respect if one is to live a flourishing life, 4) the expectation that purely material and technological progress is self-sufficient and sustainable, even if the underlying social, cultural, and philosophical framework is badly eroded.
CG: There is a long-standing debate over the relationship between economics and ethics, the practical manifestations of which we see today in the form of environmentalist government policies, aggressive tax regimes—i.e., “eat the rich”—or in the backbone of most Western welfare systems. What is your own critique of this relationship as it stands today and what would be the ideal state, in your opinion?
JBW: My critique of this relationship is twofold. First, the relationship under consideration is grounded in the logically faulty assumption that normative claims can override the laws of economics. Among the manifold manifestations of this error are policies that aim at eliminating the scarcity of capital, spending one’s way out of depressions, strengthening economic growth by attacking its foundations, etc.
And second, the normative claims in question are deeply defective on the purely ethical level as well, since they promote envy, covetousness, irresponsibility, and other traits that are roundly condemned by practically all “classical” ethical traditions, as well as antithetical to robust and consistent economic development.
Thus, the ideal situation in this respect would be one in which societies at large clearly understand 1) the difference between what is logically possible and what is normatively desirable, and 2) the extent to which standard welfarist policies amount to nothing less than the institutionalization of vice. As mentioned earlier, natural law-oriented education would likely be able to rectify this state of affairs, at least to some degree.
CG: Given your academic background on both philosophy and political science, what is your assessment of today’s geopolitical tensions? Do you think that conflict and violence are always inevitable, at least periodically, or is there a way for us all, despite our differences, to peacefully coexist?
JBW: Conflict and violence may always be inevitable, since we do not inhabit a world of saints, but it is crucial to realize that in a statist world the number and intensity of brutal, protracted confrontations is especially amplified because of the ability of warring parties to externalize the costs of their hostile activities onto others.
This is especially so in an environment of legal positivism, where private property rights are treated as ultimately fuzzy and reassignable at will, and thus cannot consistently perform their essential function of resolving conflicts over scarce resources. Randolph Bourne’s observation that “war is the health of the state” appears particularly instructive in this context.
CG: There is this commonly held optimistic view, that we as humans have been marching for centuries toward the path to individual freedom. But on the other hand, if that narrative were correct, then we shouldn’t be seeing the levels of public discontent and anger that we’re seeing today, with governments and with the “elite,” however one perceives it. In your estimation, are we really well on the right way to a bright, free future or do we still have important hurdles to overcome?
JWB: I do not believe that we are on the right way to a bright, free future, since the bulk of the philosophical, ethical, cultural, economic, and legal knowledge concerning the indispensable preconditions of a free and prosperous society has been largely forgotten by the general public. It is to be hoped that the current ideological audacity and destructive wantonness of the self-proclaimed “elite” will serve as a final wake-up call in this regard and propel society at large toward the accelerated rediscovery of this treasure trove of civilizational wisdom, especially given how ubiquitously accessible it is in today’s day and age. In sum, the task at hand is considerable to say the least, but so are the values that we stand to gain or lose.