Join Date: Aug 2004
Local Time: 08:09 AM
The End of History
Portions of a meandering but interesting slate.com interview between science writer Robert Wright (The Moral Animal
) and political theorist Francis Fukuyama, a "Wilsonian neocon" best known for The End of History and the Last Man
, which declares economic and political liberalism the inevitable last stage in human political evolution. (Note: the transcript was rough almost to the point of unreadability, so I took the liberty of adding some punctuation and cutting out numerous "you know"s and "I mean"s).
SLATE: "The End of History" ... one reason I find the phrase interesting is that the word "end" has two separate meanings. It can mean just kind of the final stage of a process but it can also denote purpose...that the whole point of the process was to get to this final stage...What did you mean at the time when you said that the end of history may be near?
FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: Well, I believe that the experience of the 20th century, or at least the way the 20th century ended, indicated to me that we really ought to revive a notion of historical progress, because I think that is one of those ideas that was once believed in the 19th century, then rejected for most of the 20th century...due to all of the horrible circumstances that were I think in some ways special to the first half of the 20th century. But if you take a longer term view, there in fact has been gradual evolution and directionality to human history--and it can go backwards, there can be backsliding and all sorts of short term disasters--but overall, there has been a evolution in political institutions, for example, towards modern liberal democracy and a growing universalism about the spread of that institution and the legitimacy that encompasses more and more of the world. So that's the sense in which I thought History--with a capital H, the sort that Marx and Hegel wrote about--needed to be resurrected, and an "end of History," because where they said it was going to end is just different from where it looks like it really is...they said it was all heading towards socialism or communism, whereas now it seems pretty clear that we're not going to get to that state. We're going to end at the stage before that, which is capitalist liberal democracy.
S: Now like most people who go out on a limb you've been subjected to a certain amount of second guessing. Critics say in some of your earlier writing you suggested that after the end of history things almost might become boring...life would be so sedate and stable, and people say "Tell that to the Bosnians. Tell that to the Rwandans." What's your reply?
FF: I think actually the world...despite the Bosnias and Rwandas, has been largely peaceful, because of what it takes to create instability in all the large powers of the world--to be fighting each other on a planetary scale, that's what happened in the first half of the 20th century, whereas today the most powerful industrialized countries are all liberal democracies. Japan or Germany or the United States...wouldn't even think of competing with each other in a military sense, and so what you have is a world that we haven't seen in a few centuries, where essentially you get a lot of peripheral war among a lot of the smaller countries but really a fairly peaceful situation...history isn't just a matter of war and conflict. It's also that you're fighting over...really big issues that seem to be at stake. That I think...has disappeared because everybody agrees on the basic shape of institutions now.
S: OK...So have you in any fundamental respect revised your thinking?
FF: I have in the sense that, if you asked the question: "Why is there history?", my basic answer to that was that you have history because you have modern science. But science unfolds in one direction; you don't uninvent Newtonian laws of physics or relativity or any thing of that sort. Science gives you technology, technology gives you an economic horizon of production possibilities--it gives you military technology and the various things that define the political institutions and the economic institutions, ultimately, of society. Now, in my view...there's two things that you'd have to have to have a true end of history. One I think we do have, which is human nature, and the kind of argument I was trying to put forward is you have this evolution where you try different institutions and some of them work, and some of them don't, and you only learn that over time. But ultimately, the ones that are permanent and the ones that will work are the ones that are most compatible with human beings as they actually are. This is why utopian regimes, like various socialist ones we've seen, failed, because they had the wrong view of what...human nature was. The other thing is, in a sense you have to have an end of science, because science and the technology it produces is constantly changing the environment that people have to adapt to, and I think that it's fairly clear--especially with biotechnology--that we're not anywhere near the end of science as we enter the 21st century.
S: And you're working on that question now, right?
FF: That's right. I'm trying to do a book on the political implications of, essentially, the ability to abolish human nature, because...one of the consequences of human nature as it is, is...liberal democracy and market-based economics. If you take away the premise that human beings are the way we understood them for the last few tens of thousands of years, then other political forms might become possible.
S: Lately, I've kind of been thinking about the evolution of religion. And one thing religions have done is help kind of give coherence to social organization at various levels...One of your books is called Trust, and it was about the importance of trust within societies...conducting day to day economic activities solving various kinds of problems, and religions of course have played a role in...
FF: A critical role, sure.
S: Yeah. Do you... have you seen any kind of directionality in the evolution of religions?
FF: Well first of all, I think that there is a functional purpose to religion, as you've indicated, that a lot of natural scientists don't take at all seriously, which I think is a big mistake. And there is a kind of modernist worldview that says religion belongs to an age of pre-scientific rationalism, that all of religion is just these silly myths that people make up, but that you can somehow stand disabused of them. I think that if you look at the actual sociological function of religions, they're extremely important and continue to be important today, and I think that we're never going to ever have a workable, totally religiously disenchanted society--because, in fact, religion is the source of common cultural and moral rules by which social cooperation happens. You can have social cooperation--like economists try to argue on the basis of rational individuals interacting in a game-theory manner--but I think, realistically, that's not the way that real-world societies ever arrive at cooperative rules. In fact...they're based on unquestioned assumptions and authority but you can't get away from that.
S: But...having said that, you are still left with the problem...of religion in an age of science...when science has stripped away at least some of the beliefs on which traditional religions have rested. What are the prospects for keeping alive a belief system that you're saying is essential, even as it seems to be threatened in some ways?
FF: I think that religions evolved to meet new circumstances, and so in some sense the development of monotheistic religions was critical in getting people away from this simple kind of animism...it allowed people to abstract from the concrete reality that was around them,and it also laid the basis for what we understand to be modern moral universalism, this idea that there is an essence to all human beings regardless of their outward appearances. This is an idea that doesn't come out of philosophy or out of science; it really comes directly...out of the way the Judeo-Christian tradition spread to other parts of the world. And I think that in a sense, the possibility of having cooperation at larger levels--way beyond the level of the nation-state--really depends in part in people having shared cultural outlooks. Samuel Huntington has talked about "the clash of civilizations" in a very pessimistic sense. He says there are seven or eight major cultural systems and the fault lines between them are going to be the source of global conflict, but you can look at that as either being half-empty or half-full. You can also say: well look, we are down to seven or eight...if you looked at what the world was like 10,000 years ago, there would have been as many different religious systems as you had little tribes running around in the world, each one of which would bump up against another little tribe and club each other to death because of differences in particular gods that they worshipped. Now you're down to world system in which all 5 billion people in the world can be grouped into seven or eight major cultural groups, where you have hundreds of millions of people that basically share common assumptions, and I think that the prospect is...not that there is going to be an end story in that evolution, but that there will be a movement towards greater shared assumptions about what constitutes the basis for morality, that arises out of this.
S: And have you seen signs of...more of an attempt to at least tolerate other religions?
FF: Well...you know, the usual sociological problem is that if you tolerate too much, you actually don't end up believing in anything, sort of like mainline Protestantism--they became so ecumenical. Everyone stopped going to their churches...because there wasn't...any core to the belief. What I perceive is that...50 years ago, you had a broad belief among sociologists that modernization meant secularization, that there is no question that the more modern technologically a society became, the more disabused of religion it would be. As an empirical fact, that just seems not to be true. The only part of the world where it is true is Western Europe...other modern societies, the United States in particular, but Japan and other places, don't seem to necessarily be following that pattern and so the European experience, in a way, may simply be related to things having to do with European culture at this particular juncture and not a universal fact of history...
S: Does that figure in to what you wrote about in the book The Great Disruption? About a kind of restoration of moral values that may be going on now.
FF: I think that's absolutely true...I believe that morality actually has a very natural basis...we're programmed by evolution to cooperate socially, and so we have emotions that promote that kind of cooperation among which are the very strong desire for bonding in various sorts that is traditionally satisfied by things like shared religion...You know the Woody Allen movie where he gets cancer and then decides that he has to have some religion, any religion, so he goes on this shopping spree in the supermarket of the world's religions...a lot of people think of religion in America like that, everyone makes up their own religion and just picks the one that they like the best, but I think in fact that's not what drives most people to religion. Most people want shared values that create community and common bonds with other people. They don't want infinite moral autonomy.
S: You've said that the basis for your everyday life and your everyday moral conduct is not fundamentally a religious one, it's Aristotelian. What does that mean in a kind of concrete everyday sense, when you are trying to decide whether to do something that is right or wrong...not just for fear of being caught?
FF: Well that's a little complicated, because your everyday behavior is shaped really by your culture, and I would not argue that all of the cultural rules by which you live are the direct products of what you are naturally...there really is an interplay between environment and nature that produces the actual moral decision, so whether you inform on a relative that's cheating or broken the law or something is...answered differently in one culture than in another. Aristotle has nothing to do with that kind of decision. I think what it means, though, is that in terms of how you think about moral choices, it's very much influenced by the degree to which you think that moral rules are universal or are simply culturally determined...I'm abstracting, but it affects issues like human rights and your view of whether human rights are enforceable in a country like China. If you believe that there is a moral universalism that transcends cultural distinctions, than you'll believe that there is a duty that foreigners or outsiders or people outside of the culture have, to have certain kinds of rights respected.
S: So you have a sense of absolute right and absolute wrong without appealing to religion.
FF: Well...it becomes hard when you pose it in those terms. You say you believe in absolute rights, so give me an example of an absolute right, and in fact nothing ends up being that neatly categorical, but I do think there are universal rights...and that you can make the argument for them without having to appeal to religion. Religion is very helpful in getting people to agree with you, but I think that it's possible to make the case without religion.
S: But you're not yet convinced that the Aristotelian project can work, that it's kind of a work in progress in the modern world?
FF: I guess I have a very strong intuition that it has to be right on some level. And whether you can make the philosophical argument for why everything that we know about modern science would support an Aristotlean argument is a very tough one to make...Aristotle believed in teleology, he believed in the eternity of the species, he believed in formal causality, a lot of things that modern natural science has either debunked completely or threatens in a very strong way. So the question is, how much of that framework can you keep accepting given something like Darwinism? I believe that you can still keep an important part of it, for example belief in a sort of universalism about morality. But it's a hard argument...I have to admit that.
S: And does that matter whether you can make it in a philosophical way...are there many people whose moral conduct depends on whether you can come up with this philosophical underpinning?
FF: Probably not, but I think it's important in the sense...that if you believe a certain kind of moral outlook is important, and the only basis you can convince people that it is true is a religious prior, then I think you're in a certain amount of trouble...in a country like the United States...it is very diverse religiously and I think people tend to dismiss your argument if you say that it has to stand on a religious principle. It's certainly a nice short cut if in fact people share your religious assumptions and you don't have to explain to them why you know it's true, but there is an important audience out there who cannot be convinced of an important moral argument...if it requires a religious starting point, and that's the group I think might be susceptible to a more Aristotelian argument that is based on empirical, natural science that doesn't require a big leap of faith to explain why it's the case.
S: Although you still think that the smooth functioning of the world may always depend on a certain number of people actually having taken a leap of faith.
FF: That's right.
S: OK. So finally your everyday orientation to the world is not fundamentally a religious one. Is there any connection between it and the work that you're probably best known for--the idea of a direction in history; does the idea that history is heading somewhere help orient you on an everyday basis?
FF: Well sure, if you believe that the institutions we see, or the political struggles we see, around us are not just the accidental byproduct of today's politics, but actually represent a much larger evolution in human affairs, then I think it puts things in a different perspective, and I think it forces you to abstract to the basic principles and ask, you know, where did they come from and why have they survived. So I think it does have a very direct impact.
S: So in your mind it imbues them with a kind of significance even if you don't make the inference that they are the end in some purposeful sense, that they represent a kind of divine design.
FF: That's right...as I said earlier, I believe that you can make a strong case for the end of history based on human nature, that there is a certain set of institutions that are more much more appropriate than all the competitors, given the way human beings actually are--which I believe are liberal democracy and market based economics. And that doesn't give them the sanctity...of an eternal principle laid down by a divine creator, but it gives them much greater solidity than a lot of other interpretations, which will simply say Well, this is a cultural creation of a certain segment of Northern Europe at a particular point in the 21st century...just happened to spin out these crazy ideas and impose them on the rest of the world.
You can more or less guess Fukuyama's take on Marxism from the above; he believes a classless society could never evolve or be sustained without totalitarianism (he's more charitable towards social democracies). He's also (briefly) addressed the criticism that the rise of Islamism casts his thesis into doubt, essentially by arguing Islamism doesn't present a "fundamental intellectual alternative" in the way Marxism or fascism did (e.g., unlikely to achieve Cold-War-style propagation), plus Islamist states tend to be terminally unstable politically and economically.
Some interesting stuff about the role of science, religion and ideology in political trends though.
s have some thoughts about his ideas?