Kenneth Minogue on The Servile Mind
By Arnold Kling
“For Minogue, the fundamental source of freedom is individual moral responsibility.”
The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life,1 the last book by the late Kenneth Minogue, examines libertarian issues from a pessimistic, conservative perspective. Elsewhere, I have suggested that libertarians focus on freedom versus coercion, while conservatives focus on civilization versus barbarism.2 Minogue sees freedom undermined by a descent into barbarism.
For Minogue, the fundamental source of freedom is individual moral responsibility. In traditional societies, behavior was dictated by custom. In modern societies, individual moral responsibility took over. However, we are now replacing this modern individualism with government. In the process, we are losing freedom. We are also losing our sense of moral responsibility.
Ken Minogue (1930-2013) passed away suddenly on June 28, 2013. For more by and about Ken Minogue, see The Liberal Mind, by Kenneth Minogue, 1963, available free at the Online Library of Liberty; “Ken Minogue’s last essay”, by Alberto Mingardi, September 4, 2013, EconLog; and Kling on the Three Languages of Politics, EconTalk podcast, June 3, 2013.
Minogue writes with great rhetorical flourish. For example, in describing the encroachment of laws on personal behavior, he writes,
The inescapable conclusion is that the rulers of democratic states judge the populations of democratic states to be incompetent over a whole range of important matters—yet these are the very people who are charged by the constitution with deciding who should have the power to rule them… this is a problem whose salience increases over time because democratic governments have revealed an almost continuous drive to take more and more control over the details of society, and particularly to judge more and more people unable to live their own lives.
He speaks with admiration of what he calls the moral life and contrasts it with what he calls servility.
The moral life consists in doing the right thing from a motive related to some virtue we believe we admire. Being the conduct of autonomous agents, it is the essence of freedom. The servile mind, by contrast, is marked by an extreme dependence of judgment on outside powers, and particularly a concern with the substantive benefits (money, food, sex, etc.) that might result from an action whatever the moral considerations might be. Both forms of conduct will be found in modern societies at all times, but the remarkable thing is that many aspects of contemporary life, since early in the twentieth century, have tended to facilitate servility rather than independence.
As we will see, Minogue regards the political life as being in conflict with the moral life. For example, the political life is corrupted by sentimentalism, which is the belief that
… [bad things] would not happen… if our society were differently organized. We must abandon the immemorial assumption that human beings have a propensity to evil acts and must be kept in check by authority… The essence of sentimentalism is the aspiration to remove fear and other uncomfortable emotions from human life.
He also is suspicious of perfectionism.
One value of moral conduct in the lives we lead is that it orders our lives so that we can rely on other people, and other people on us. This is a supremely valuable basis of cooperative enterprise in social life… But since it inevitably has its failures, it is understandable that many people dream of a better way—a form of social life that avoids the failures of virtue we cannot avoid. Those failures, however, are the price we pay for freedom, which is thus logically incompatible with perfection.
Minogue has little patience with bleeding-heart political views.
Today we have a whole industry of social workers whose task is to direct the lives of a class of persons whose incompetence in the business of life is likely to damage either themselves or those dependent on them. Although their manners may not be servile—many are confidently assertive—these people constitute a servile class periodically dependent on the state.
He defines the servile mind as
… the abdication of moral autonomy and independent agency in favor either of some unreflective collective allegiance or of some inevitably partial and personal impulse for illicit satisfaction…. The moral life, we may say, reflects some deliberative attention to the whole of an individual’s context, both psychological and social. Servility is a collapse of independent judgment into partiality, and it is an aspect of what I shall presently be discussing as the “politico-moral.”
Later, he writes,
Servility being the collapse of moral agency, any explanation of an action that transfers responsibility away from the actor as a moral agent, and toward some abstract social condition, is servile.
And still later,
The essence of the servile mind is the readiness to accept external direction in exchange for being relieved of the burden of a set of virtues such as thrift, self-control, prudence, and indeed civility itself.
He writes that
… the advance of the servile mind results from a pincer movement, in which the almost “instinctive” drive that states exhibit to expand their powers links up with a popular (and democratic) disposition to value easy enjoyments whatever the cost.
Minogue views the political arena as inherently untrustworthy.
Getting one’s interests wrong soon leads to disadvantage and pain. Getting one’s ideas wrong seldom brings a rapid disillusionment.
For Minogue, politics creates a stage on which to act out moral daydreams.
… it is a conspicuous feature of democracy, as it evolves from generation to generation, that it leads people increasingly to take up public positions on the private affairs of others. Wherever people discover that money is being spent, either privately or by public officials, they commonly develop opinions on how it ought to be spent… each person thus becomes his own fantasy despot, disposing of others and their resources as he or she thinks desirable.
Minogue is keen to expose rhetoric that undermines individual moral responsibility.
Take, again, the term “social capital,” which has come into sociological currency to describe a cluster of virtues such as self-control, punctuality, steadiness in work, ability to learn… These virtues are all moral… moral virtues are the fruits of the moral will, whereas social capital is merely a feature of the world, causally derived from social conditions.
Describing some international pop music concerts held to “make poverty history,” Minogue writes,
This was an archetypal politico-moral event, because although it raised some money for its causes, its real point was to persuade the G8 conference of heads of state… to spend vastly more money on relieving African poverty… One of the central features of the politico-moral world is its widespread public enthusiasm to spend other people’s money.
If Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney got in trouble for talking about the “forty-seven percent” who rely on government support, imagine how poorly he would have fared had he quoted Minogue.
The irresponsibles, in all their spectacular variety, must be construed as “vulnerable people” in need of our compassion and professional help. Yet they retain full democratic rights of participation in the responsibilities of public choice.
Minogue sees the political-moral life as a retreat from modernity.
… politico-moral society resembles traditional societies in that the rulers are using their authority to implement the one right way of life, a perfect society, into which each person must fit.
Parts of civil society have been corrupted by the political-moral outlook.
NGOs have flourished, and they dispose of large cash resources, some of which is provided by governments themselves. They constitute a standing pressure group devoted to politico-moral causes. Economies are suspect as being animated by profit and greed, and states by the interests of their peoples. In the world of concerned voluntary bodies, however, perfectionism finds an agent much closer to its own ideals… and perfectionists want to entrench them in world bodies as a recognized voice in world affairs.
Overall, I would say that for libertarians Minogue’s book provides a litmus test. If you find yourself in vigorous agreement with everything he says, then you probably see no value in efforts to work with progressives to promote libertarian causes. The left is simply too dedicated to projects that Minogue argues undermine individual moral responsibility, and thus they are antithetical to liberty. On the other hand, if you believe that Minogue is too pessimistic about the outlook for freedom in today’s society and too traditional in his outlook on moral responsibility, then you would feel even more uneasy about an alliance with conservatives than about an alliance with progressives.
For more articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.