The End of History Redux

While Roland Emmerich’s “2012” was not spectacular as a cinematic effort, its premise wasn’t entirely wrong—the end of history is almost here. It’s slightly more than two years away, though, according to the academic Francis Fukuyama. In “The End of History and the Last Man,” Professor Fukuyama famously argued that liberal democracy will become the last form of government, the final product of the evolutionary mechanism that is history. But both the director of this would-be blockbuster and the renowned political scientist got it wrong. While Fukuyama’s vision of the future was surely more accurate than Emmerich’s, he didn’t dream wildly enough.

The equilibrium Fukuyama anticipates would likely contain not only a certain regime but also a certain view of liberty. Specifically, the trajectory of modern liberal democracy seems aimed at an apex of liberty in which freedom is maximized within the constraints of the “harm principle.” The harm principle states that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a political community against his will is to prevent harm to others. Such an idea boils down to a simple but effective approach to life: “Don’t hurt me, and I won’t hurt you.” History, if it does function as Fukuyama posits, would be just as likely to give the citizens of the future the same philosophical outlook as well as the same political organization.

The reason for this eventual uniformity is that the ever-upward climb towards personal freedom arises from a pluralism, which, under specific conditions fostered by a liberal democracy, invites a type of relativism. Citizens see a difference of moral opinion, and since they are uncomfortable with claims of moral objectivity, they find it easy to pick the most conflict-free arrangement. The harm principle utilized in liberal democracy makes governance easier, but it surely has its drawbacks. This idea has been identified as the forerunner to a disintegration of protection of minors, altruism, and other social goods. Decisions on such issues, if this intuitive preference against conflict prevails, are more likely to tend toward freedom over protection.

An extreme instance of this made headlines, including Sunday’s New York Times article on the end-of-life issues surrounding the personal struggle involved in a patient’s fight to continue living in the face of severe illness. Patients with the opposite temperament—those who no longer want to fight and end their lives—have also garnered national media attention. Here it’s clearest that the community of citizens within liberal democracy becomes a house divided over the question of whether society should leave man free to destroy himself. This difficult question forces an even more difficult choice between liberty and limit.

Very few countries, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, have chosen the former option on a nationwide level, and here in the U.S., Washington and Oregon have followed suit. But even without such drastic permissiveness, there is a link between Fukuyama’s predicted champion, liberal democracy, and a rejection of constraint. A democracy that attempts to retain any sense of right and wrong beyond the obvious indicators of injury and illness faces an uphill battle in light of this aversion of conflict.

At stake are issues that, while fundamental to societal preservation, don’t have a clear-cut harm, such as the keeping of profanity from children or the maintenance of monogamy. In matters such as these, this final stage in the historical process poses a danger by prioritizing liberty over any societal standard that’s not rooted in avoidance of concrete harm.

Yet the specific historical circumstances in which liberal democracy flourished are likely to keep society’s normalizing compass spinning. The U.S. is a notable example of this—a society that has retained a sense of morality outside of the harm principle but is unsure where to proceed next. As fewer and fewer citizens in Fukuyama’s predicted world see the value in virtue, society would be likely to advance toward a morally minimal liberalism. This philosophical stance, coupled with a democratic political organization, is likely to make the end of history closer than you’d think.

The culture wars in the U.S. are a good example of the more general societal conflict over whether time’s arrow points the way toward a world that is good or, for that matter, happy. Empirical studies give some indication that progress is not a recipe for satisfaction, even though citizens are freer—perhaps, at liberty to be as unhappy as they are unconstrained. Society might not be on the path that Fukuyama or the preceding picture suggests, but any reclamation of societal standards—such as those underlying monogamy or speech regulations—would require a firm commitment to the ideal rather than the free.

An only somewhat less-frightening version of “2012” would involve the end of history arriving with no earthquakes, solar flares, or eruption of mountains in national parks. Instead, the end of history in this epic would arrive incrementally, as societal changes saturate the public sphere with freedom. In this apocalypse, heroism would arise not from a struggle to convince others that the world can be saved from external destruction, but instead that it could be safeguarded from disintegration from within.

Gregory A. DiBella ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Government & Philosophy concentrator in Mather House.

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