In Defence of the Open Society against its Enemies

No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude (Karl Popper)

It is just over 70 years since the publication in 1945 of Karl Popper’s most widely known and influential book, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Written during the war years while in exile from Austria, Popper considered it to be his contribution to the war effort, as it sought to expose the faulty philosophical foundations of totalitarian ideologies such as fascism and communism. Popper identified, in particular, the tendency to historical prediction or ‘historicism’ that proclaimed the inevitability of the social forms advocated by these ideologies according to supposedly scientific laws of historical development. Thus his criticism can be considered an extension to political philosophy of his earlier and more important work on epistemology, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (published in German in 1934), that is, a critique of the epistemological foundations of these ideologies, and indeed of all ideology. The open society, exemplified by liberal democracies, Popper considered the only form of government able to effect political change without bloodshed and to undergo evolutionary (rather than revolutionary) development through piecemeal change and problem-solving. Notwithstanding the debates within scientific and political philosophy having moved beyond Popper’s contemporaneous concerns, his central epistemological concept of falsifiability, with its entailment of transparency and truth-seeking, has particular relevance to this information age, but is a principle which is markedly absent from interactions within the present political, economic and social fields. Some commentators see in this the demise of liberal democracy. I believe that while open societies have vulnerabilities, they are both more robust than these commentators allow and need to be more strongly advocated than we seem willing to do at present.

To drop the anti-historicist baton for a moment, if history has any point, or purpose, it is the struggle for human freedom. While freedom can be variously defined, all freedoms reside in empowerment, whether that be political, economic or moral freedom. What is certain is that all people, everywhere, desire these freedoms, even if, in some cases, that appears to be the freedom to relinquish their freedom by merging into the collective, the rigid, the backward, the insular, the dysfunctional and of course the criminal. These are the enemies of the open society that must, paradoxically, be tolerated even as they are resisted, even those who utilise the freedom of open societies to proselytise their diatribes against freedom. This paradox nevertheless elevates open societies above all other, for they enable the conditions that – given enough time – expose false theories and beliefs, false promises, false policies and false lifestyles to scrutiny and the unremitting evidence of consequences. Freedom involves risk and risk-taking; open societies can seem chaotic, but it is the chaos of dynamic disequilibrium from which innovation and change emerge. However, to reaffirm the anti-historicist perspective, it would be wrong to assume, pace Fukuyama, that liberal democracies represent the end point of history; they embody, imperfectly, a principle of the growth of knowledge that has had precursors in history that were prematurely extinguished, but appeared fully-fledged in Europe in the eighteenth century: that is the scientific method.

The scientific method is not exclusively about the accumulation of scientific knowledge in a narrow sense that is the specific concern of scientists; it is rather a generalised account of how we learn, which is given specificity in the scientific context. Knowledge as such is the interaction between ideas, in the form of theories, beliefs or opinions, and information, in the form of facts and data about the external world that constitute evidence. This much was practiced by Aristotle and the Arab scholars of the golden era of Islamic civilisation, but it was Francis Bacon who systematised it as a method and laid the groundwork for modern experimental procedures. After Bacon the general assumption was that gathering sufficient data was the basis for sound theorising. Popper however pointed out the logical error in such an inductive approach, in that no number of confirmatory examples was sufficient to verify a theory, but a single counter-example was sufficient to falsify it. Instead, he insisted bold imaginative conjectures should be subject to repeated attempts at falsification. This raised the epistemological threshold considerably for the acceptance of theory, to such an extent that practicing scientists, like the rest of us, largely ignore these strictures in the pursuit of knowledge, and accept the balance of probabilities. Popper’s deductive theory is more like a theory of truth; truth which, according to philosophers like Kuhn, can never be realised, but only approximated more closely. Nevertheless, it remains as a reminder of the standard to which, logically, we should subject our beliefs, opinions and theories.

There are numerous implications of the theory of knowledge for the open society. First, we should be free and educated sufficiently to think boldly and imaginatively about any subject. Secondly, individuals should be free to express any opinion and respect no orthodoxy in the pursuit of truth. Thirdly, beliefs, opinions and theories of whatever kind, whether philosophical, religious, moral or scientific, should be considered tentative, however plausible or implausible, until there is confirmatory or disconfirmatory evidence. Fourthly, while persuasion is a legitimate means of transmission of ideas, coercion never is. Fifth, there should be some presumption of respect for people as individuals as free and rational, though not necessarily for their beliefs. Sixth, society as a whole, and at regional and local levels, should be attempting to manage conflict and be committed to finding solutions to problems. Seventh, there should be transparency and the free flow of information. Eighth, there should be a universal commitment to the recognition of and correction of error. Ninth, open societies should empower their citizens, economically, socially and politically, that they can participate fully in the life and development of their society. Tenth, we as individuals should be committed to the improvement of our lives and our societies. These seem the most obvious corollaries.

Modern liberal democracies are not paragons of the open society; it remains something of an ideal. They are rather experiments, each of which have particular virtues and are grappling with particular vices. Yet they embody enough of the principles to be far preferable to any other social form. This alone explains why millions of people are on the move to escape persecution, war and poverty, or the grinding weight of custom and inequality, and make their way to developed countries. This creates problems for open societies, but by their nature they are solution-generating and self-correcting. It is, of course, on this basis impossible to determine what the solution to any particular problem, for example mass immigration, should be. In the short term I suspect there will be a number of solutions, some more viable than others, and hopefully we will learn from the best and improve our strategies. In the long term, the only solution is to transform all societies into open societies. This, though, can only be accomplished on the basis of the principles outlined in the paragraph above, not through military conquest. We have sufficient problems of our own to address. This naturally gives space to the enemies of the open society, the ideological opponents of freedom, to attack the very idea. They cannot do this, of course, resorting to the principles and strategies outlined above, but rather by misinformation and coercion, and, more subtly, by undermining belief in freedom (and its attendant responsibilities) and restricting opportunities for free speech.

Reason justifies open societies as the only desirable future for mankind and reason is their guiding operative principle. Passionate concern, dogmatism and pessimism are inimical to, and are inevitably generated by ideological opposition to, open societies. Nevertheless, attacks on reason come from some surprising places. Universities, which once were bastions of academic freedom, now incubate extremism on one hand, but on the other, under the influence of anti-rationalist postmodern philosophy, forestall the expression of unpopular or challenging opinions by ‘no-platforming’ certain speakers lest some people feel ‘unsafe’ or ‘uncomfortable’, though more probably lest they be disturbed from their dogmatic slumbers.  The law is another area where decisions taken on purely legalistic technicalities can have far-reaching and chilling consequences for transparency. A law being considered at the moment would effectively end the free press in the UK, at least their ability to investigate potential scandal and corruption, by creating a no-penalty right to sue a newspaper if someone considers their privacy to have been invaded. Welfare is another system that seriously endangers individual empowerment and initiative. Compassion, which is a human virtue, experienced by the strong for the weak, can become a vice when it is institutionalised and merely perpetuates that order of power rather than ending it. Low educational ability, despite universal education, much of it free, is strongly indicative of poor life chances in employment, physical and material well-being, prospects for marriage and social status. In many developed countries we are too tolerant of poor educational outcomes and economically supportive of their attendant lifestyles and the subcultures that perpetuate them.

The aggregate enemy of the open society is collectivism and group-think. The foundation of open societies and our freedom is individualism. If for the moment we strip away all the cultural accretions, we are all fundamentally the same in sharing a human nature, as opposed to an animal nature. The frequent assertion that we are ‘nothing but’ animals, specifically mammals, results in a peculiar type of contradiction: the application of reason to cloak its own phenomenology. For reason is what defines us as human and not as animal. There is a qualitative difference; however much we see a spectrum of intelligence in the animal kingdom, there is, as Marxists would say, a tipping point at which the quantitative becomes the qualitative. Therefore, when talking of individualism, this is not to focus on the individual physical body, which is an adaptive form created by the forces of genetic mapping and environmental pressures, but the mind which is embodied. Reason finds the value of the individual in the unique individual mind and this is the foundation of freedom and equality, which are fundamental to the open society. Cultures and sub-cultures that exhibit the trait of differential evaluation of human worth, whether that is as someone to be controlled, as a possession, as a means to economic or social advance, or a sexualised object, exist still within the sphere of slavery and need to be transformed.

For some, individualism has a bad name. It is associated with selfishness and hedonism, as a denial of spirituality, altruism and collective duty, whether to the family, an institution or the nation. The first thing to say is that these arguments have been used throughout history by powerful individuals and elites to crush the aspirations of people everywhere, and they are also advanced by the ideological enemies of the open society. The second point is that, from a rational perspective, selfishness and hedonism are intrinsically inimical to individual flourishing which is both a pillar of, and a desirable outcome of, the open society. Laziness, greed, addiction, irresponsibility – the besetting sins of all societies – are harmful to the individual and to society, and a rational society should be doing all it can to curtail them. Selfishness, though, should not be confused with self-interest. Our life-long project should be the improvement of our selves. It is the nature of this self, though, that it is of interest, not just to us, individually, but to society as a whole. Society is not more than the sum of its parts, or at least only to the extent that it is an emergent property of social interactions. Therefore, society in the abstract has a vested interest in the flourishing of the individual, which means that as individuals we also have an interest in the advancement of others. This is different to the perspective accepted and encouraged in our present economic culture here in the West, which is implicitly a zero-sum game based on the Darwinian-Spencerian idea of the survival of the fittest, which in reality optimises outcomes for neither the individual nor the society.

Therefore the individualism which is suited to an open society has a transcendent quality, in that the self is continuously engaged in a project to extend its abilities. That transcendence can be counted on at least five major fronts: physical, intellectual, professional, emotional and social, which emerge from aspects of our evolved human nature: survival instinct, sexuality, sociality and spirituality. Each of the fronts  necessitates development centred around a cluster of values, for example – and this is merely a limited selection – ‘health’ and ‘fitness’ for the physical, ‘knowledge’ and ‘reason’ for the intellectual, ‘reliability’ and ‘expertise’ for the professional, ‘resilience’ and ‘warmth’ for the emotional and ‘companionship’ and ‘generosity’ for the social. These fronts are not isolated or competing aspects of the individual, even if in the past they may have been seen as such; they are complementary and collectively reinforcing. As our knowledge grows we are beginning to see a more rounded and more extensive picture of human possibilities. No one ultimately need be excluded from this vision. We already see, through events like the Paralympics, the range of possibilities that are opening up even for the disabled. New technologies promise the eventual elimination or circumvention of blindness and paralysis and the emancipation of their sufferers.

Open societies are not perfect, nor will they ever be; they are imperfect by definition. The difference to other social forms is that this fact is universally acknowledged, and this acceptance sets the stage for a programme of continuous improvement through problem-solving. The defence of open societies is ultimately the defence of a process, not a thing. Some people find this threatening, as they would like to retreat to a closed, unchanging world of certainty. Most of us at some time, if the truth be told, feel like this, but the enemies of the open society experience this as perpetual existential crisis. They should be tolerated but kept on the fringes. The growth of knowledge has enabled us to survive so far in a hostile environment and has succeeded in making human lives better, freer and happier. That is definitely something worth defending.

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