Philosophies of Social Reform

Excerpts from How We Are and How We Got Here: A Practical History of Western Philosophy.

British Reform Movement

Significant developments in social philosophy and social reform took place in the United Kingdom in the 1800s. The Parliament of the United Kingdom passed a progressive series of laws beginning in 1802 regulating working hours and requiring basic safety and sanitation for people working in the country’s factories. By 1847, factories were not allowed to employ children under the age of nine, and for other laborers, the work day was limited to 10 hours and the work week to 63 hours. These working hours seem unacceptably high to us today, but they were significant reforms in favor of workers’ right for the time. The sentiment was growing in British society that working people deserved legal protections from exploitation and abuse. Throughout this period, philosophy and society were progressively moving toward awareness of ways that society can be reformed to benefit more people.

British social reform philosophy remained firmly within the empiricist conception that the mind was passive and that all aspects of a human were formed by experience. These thinkers were influenced by both Hobbes and Locke, taking elements from each. A tension that was difficult to reconcile arose between the doctrine that all human character is formed (determined) by external circumstances and the conviction that one must be allowed freedom to act in one’s self-interest.

That men (in the gender-exclusive meaning) act primarily on the basis of self-interest was popularized by Adam Smith (1723–1790) who argued that government must address itself to men’s self-interest and not interfere unduly in men’s freedom to act on it. Smith is often misinterpreted as believing men act only out of self-interest, but Smith also stated that men feel benevolence for others and have genuine interest in the good fortune of their fellow man. Smith’s writings demonstrate the tension in human nature between the desire for oneself to be happy and for others to be happy. This tension translated to the question of how best to govern; how do we best structure society such that it funnels human nature into appropriate acts without interfering with individual self-interest?

Jeremy Bentham

Adding to this tension was the ethical philosophy of utilitarianism. Its inventor, Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), used the term “utility” to mean a quality within any object whereby it tends to produce pleasure, good, or happiness or to prevent pain, evil, or unhappiness. Utilitarianism is a social ethical system based on the principle of utility, meaning that happiness should be maximized for the greatest number of people. We will not, at this point, go into the details of the ethical system of utilitarianism. For our purposes, we need only understand that (1) a number of the social reform theories were guided, at least in part, by the principle of utility, and (2) the principle of utility was considered in terms of the good of society as a whole.

The common remedy for the tensions between individual freedom and the determined human character was education. From Locke’s epistemology, British philosophers saw the human mind as a tabula rasa, a blank tablet on which experience writes. If individuals are determined by external circumstances, good circumstances will make them good and bad circumstances will make them bad. Thus, we are wise to fill the individual with good circumstances that mold the individual’s character. Hence, reform-minded philosophers advocated for public education—filling people with the good circumstances to make their “free” actions conform to appropriate standards of propriety. Proper education would develop an enlightened public that would act rationally—at least, that was the theory.

Another key element in social reform that intended to enhance utility was the expansion of the franchise—meaning the right to vote for representatives in government. John Locke had proposed the liberalization of government by expanding power beyond the monarch, but only extended political power of choosing who is in government to landowners. In the early 1800s, reform-minded philosophers urged a further liberalization of who was allowed to vote for members of the British Parliament. Their argument was firmly grounded in the idea that giving more people a voice in government would increase social utility. Utilitarian philosopher James Mill (1773–1836), in his essay, “Government” (1820), argued that all men are moved by self-interest and the only way to secure good government is by making the interests of elected representatives identical with those of their constituents. He therefore called for expanding the voting franchise to all men (he thought’s women’s interests were involved in that of their fathers or husbands),

The United Kingdom had an arcane system of electing members to Parliament that was uneven and too easy to corrupt. Desire for fairness led to Parliament’s passage of the Reform Act of 1832, which reapportioned the distribution of Parliament seats and standardized voting eligibility rules across the United Kingdom. This was in no way universal suffrage. The Reform Act still limited voting rights to men of a certain level of wealth measured in terms of land owned or leased. However, it increased the number of eligible voters from around 366,000 to 650,000. That was still only 18 percent of the total adult male population. Even so, it was the first step toward full democratic participation in government.

The reluctance of reformers to include unpropertied working people came from their belief that such people were not sufficiently rational to make good political decisions. Education was proposed as a remedy for this, but the prejudices associated with the British class system—that one was either a “gentleman” or a “peasant”—meant that all but the most radical thinkers were disinclined to suggest that the working man should have a voice in government. Only male humans were thought to be capable of rational voting, and the Reform Act of 1832 put into law what had previously been custom—that only men were allowed to vote.

The doctrine of self-interest inclined John Stuart Mill, son of James Mill, to reject any socialist or communitarian political reforms, as they relied, he claimed, on what he called the “inferior” efficacy of feelings for one’s fellow persons. The younger Mill wanted to expand the franchise, but he wanted to put in place systems that would ensure that the “very élite of the country” would be elected to and exercise influence within government.

American Progressive Reform Movements

Progressivism in the United States was inspired by philosophy but powered by working class people. Progressivism has been an openly political movement attempting to improve society by making it fairer and better for working people. It took some inspiration from the British social reform philosophers and French socialist theorists who predated Marx. The movement has been focused on reforming society rather than tearing it down as Marx thought was necessary. That does not mean that progressivism has not been radical in its ideas or its demands for social and political changes. Numerous progressive ideas and causes, once deemed radical, are now widely accepted mainstream ideas, such as universal suffrage, civil rights and liberties, labor laws including the 40-hour work week and banning child labor, free primary education, corporate accountability, environmental protection, and others.

There have been progressive theorists, but one of the crucial elements of progressivism has been the need to engage in concrete actions to improve society. Progressivism is important in the history of philosophy because the ideas and the social changes generated by the movement have inspired and informed much of the philosophy of the late 1900s and our current century.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Social reform theories and movements in the United States developed a distinctive character in response to the new country’s distinctive social and economic circumstances. Some key insights into the distinctness of the United States came from French writer Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859). In his 1835 book, Democracy in America, Tocqueville was critical of the United States on several points. Tocqueville was conflicted on the issue of democracy. He was, like John Stuart Mill, a strong believer in personal liberty, but he expressed misgivings about democracy in terms similar to Plato’s, that in democracy the majority can be too easily led by a tyrant with enough charisma and guile to secure their loyalty and grab power.

Democracy could work, Tocqueville thought, but was on shaky ground in the United States. He observed that people in the young nation of the United States had views of class and property that were different from those of Europe. Lacking an aristocracy and its hereditary ownership of land, the United States offered the promise of gaining wealth though hard work, a hope unavailable to the lower classes in Europe. Wealth in the United States could be attained through working the land as a farmer—land having been stolen from indigenous populations being made freely available by the government—or through work in the growing industrial sector.

The problem, Tocqueville thought, was that although being a laborer was more respected in the United States than it was in Europe, this situation created a population focused on middling values. By this he meant that working people had the false hope that hard work alone could make anyone wealthy, and they thus ignored the needs for education, talent, and intelligence. His attitude dovetailed with his views on the dangers of democracy, and he saw America’s industrialization as a catalyst for the democracy’s majority rule of mediocrity. In a passage reminiscent of Nietzsche, Tocqueville decried America’s “depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level” (Democracy in America 1.I.3). Like Nietzsche, Tocqueville wanted men with superior talent and intelligence to have more social power than the “flock of timid and industrious animals” that America was creating (Democracy in America 1.VI.5).

Tocqueville’s elitism aside, his observation was sound that the United States was a different society because of its different circumstances in class and property ownership. There were wealthy elites in the United States but not an aristocratic class. That and the belief that the North American continent was free land there for the taking, led to the notion of a “Manifest Destiny” for the country and its (white male) citizens. This land was their God-given land, and they could create on it what they wanted. These circumstances invited many people to change their thinking about what was possible.

Social reformers in Europe had to work in response to the traditional class structure. Reformers in the United States were able to work with a much blanker slate. Reformers seized the opportunities to experiment. The United States itself was an experiment in a new kind of nation, and idealistic people took advantage of available land to conduct some radical experiments in planned communities.

For example, the Oneida, New York, community was founded in 1848 and the Amana Colonies, Iowa, in 1855 as communal industrious societies based on the principles of equality, democratic governance, communal property, and mutual support and benefits to fulfill the needs of the people, including housing, health care, education, and daily necessities. Oneida and Amana were the most successful of dozens of such communal societies attempted in the 1800s. Most failed within a decade for a variety of reasons. Oneida and Amana eventually transitioned into the corporations that still bear those names today.

What these experimental communities had in common was the ethical conviction that society should serve the interests of all of society, not just the interests of the ruling class, and function for the benefit of all, not a few. Then and now, this ethical position is called “socialism.” The word “socialism” has become a negative term because Marx used it to label his theorized intermediate stage between capitalism and communism. The Soviet Union called their country, and the countries they controlled in Easter Europe and Asia, “socialist,” and their peculiar style of political dictatorship came to be associated with the word “socialism.”

The idea of socialism had existed for some time. Thomas More (1478–1535), had imagined a socialist society in his book, Utopia (1516), and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, published posthumously in 1626, outlined a scientific socialist utopia. French aristocrat Henri de SaintSimon (1760–1825) was the first to set down the principles for a political socialism in his book, L’Industrie (1817). He foresaw that society was about to be transformed into an industrial one, and he wanted to ensure that the working-class people who were essential to society were supported. He therefore urged a restructuring of society that would dismantle aristocratic feudalism (he renounced his title) in favor of a hierarchical meritocracy. Social hierarchy would be based not on heredity but on who were the most talented in scientific decision-making.

Saint-Simon’s vision was not unlike Plato’s with technocrats, chosen for their skills, running industries for the benefit of society. Saint-Simon did not see a conflict between industry managers/owners and workers, as Marx did. In Saint-Simon’s vision, everyone who engages in productive work is a member of the industrial class. The role of government is to ensure what is good for society as a whole by ensuring the productivity of industry. Marx rejected Saint-Simon’s vision of socialism because it did not end hierarchical management of industry, which Marx thought was crucial to fully liberate the working class.

Various forms of socialism sprang up over the next century and were based on various assumptions about human nature and society, from scientific reductionism to religious perfectionism to romantic agrarianism. All these forms shared in common the desire for a society structured to allow all in society, not just an elite class, to participate in society and benefit from it. Many forms had a utopian vision of what society could be, often unrealistically so. Regardless, the ethical passion for a society that works for society as a whole was appealing to many, for obvious reasons.

The progressive movement in the United States in the last half of the 1800s and first half of the 1900s worked to implement socialism’s ethical goals in society at local, state, and national levels. Progressivism is the belief that instead of waiting for social change to come from the top down, people need to make change happen through their own activism. Progressives wanted to see society progress to include greater prosperity and freedom for a greater number of people.

Through philosophical writings and political and economic action, progressives organized in favor of workers’ rights, women’s rights, abolition of slavery and then racial equality, immigrants’ rights, environmental protections, electoral reform, and economic justice, including reigning in the excessive power of landlords and corporations. If reading that, you think, “Wow, those are the same issues people argue over today,” you are correct. These philosophical and political issues have been fought over for nearly 200 years.

Progressivism developed in a distinct way in the United States for reasons already mentioned, but also because the country had a different political structure than European countries did. In the United States, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution promised citizens more liberty and justice, something progressive activists could point to and use. Individual states and large cities had more political power than their European counterparts, so social reforms could be won more easily at lower levels of government. For example, some progressives called for direct democracy—meaning people voting for specific laws—and the popular referendum was introduced in South Dakota in 1898 and in Oregon in 1904. On a national level, the push for greater civil rights and political inclusion won legalization of the 40-hour work week, labor organizing and collective bargaining, child labor laws, the breakup of corporate trusts and monopolies, food and drug safety laws, environmental conservation, and women’s suffrage, to name just a few.

Henry George

One of the most important progressive philosophers was Henry George (1839–1897) who proposed a radical rethinking of landownership. Writing in Progress and Poverty (1879), he argued for the value of land to be taxed while the value added by people’s work would be retained by them. Similar to Locke, George believed that land and natural resources in principle belonged to all of humanity. Departing from Locke, George thought that labor entitled a laborer to ownership of the products derived from the land but not to the land itself. George thought a central cause of poverty was that United States law allowed wealthy landowners to monopolize land use and charge economic rent to those who lived and worked on the land. George called this a system of slavery in which workers were taxed heavily on their income from productive labor while the landowners were taxed little on their unearned income from charging rent for use of the land. Worse, landowners were incentivized to speculate on land, holding it and hoping it would appreciate in value. Furthermore, they could buy up land around a natural resource and hold a monopoly on access, enabling them to charge others exorbitant rent to use it.

George’s solution was to tax the value of the land itself, not income from labor, leaving the only tax to be levied the tax on economic rent received from ownership of land. In that way, he argued, economic justice would be achieved. George’s philosophy of the land tax was an expression of the time. Westward expansion in the United States spurred a rush to control land and natural resources. That, the Industrial Revolution, and a huge wave of immigration fed, on the one hand, a sense of limitless progress, but on the other hand, a sense of despair over economic exploitation and poverty. Land speculators and business monopolies had too much economic and political power. The country’s overall wealth was increasing but so was poverty. George eloquently encapsulated the economic inequalities of the 1870s in Progress and Poverty, and he correctly pointed the finger at land barons, landlords, and business monopolies and the exorbitant rents that they could charge people.

Unfortunately, like Karl Marx, George was a better diagnostician than prescriber. His land tax solution was never feasible, legally or economically. Nevertheless, George’s book was a catalyst for new thinking about the fairness of business practices and the need to rein in corporations and robber barons. George inspired many people, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, John Dewey, and Albert Einstein. In general, progressive thought in the 1800s inspired numerous threads of social and political philosophy.

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