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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1486

Oakeshott rejects the determinist view that individual behavior is simply a response to a stimulus, and he insists that “human conduct” is based on choice and intentionality, with rational human beings responding to situations and anticipating the choices of other humans. In making choices, individuals are influenced by their personal histories, for they are conditioned by educational processes which result in acquired beliefs, skills, knowledge, and understanding. Although there are many constraints which place significant limits upon a person’s freedom of choice, the concept of human freedom is based on the premise that a person is endowed with “reflective consciousness.” In other words, a person has freedom in interpreting and understanding a situation, and “what is called ‘the will’ is nothing but intelligence in doing.” Oakeshott explains: “Wherever there is action or utterance there is an intelligent agent responding to an understood (or misunderstood) situation meaning to achieve an imagined and wished-for outcome.”

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In arguing that humans have a margin of indeterminate choice, at least in their ability to use reflective consciousness, Oakeshott takes a position which is both reasonable and respectable. Critics have charged that he sometimes tends to assert his theories rather than to formulate cogent arguments and that he also tends to present either/or alternatives without considering the possibility for other perspectives. This second criticism appears to have some validity—for example, when Oakeshott criticizes the determinism found in certain schools of modern psychology, as in his conclusion that “psychological mechanisms cannot be the motives of actions or reasons for beliefs.” Many psychologists would maintain that humans do indeed possess a margin of freedom but that, at the same time, unconscious mechanisms— sometimes irrational in nature—can also operate as motivations for behavior. Such a view, in fact, does not necessarily contradict Oakeshott’s position about conscious motives providing a basis for the use of reasoned judgments in making decisions. It does appear, moreover, that the most intelligent of humans sometimes react to environmental stimuli without much use of conscious understanding. Even if somewhat extreme, however, Oakeshott’s description of human conduct constitutes a strong case against utopian schemes such as that of B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948).

This distrust of utopian thinking is especially evident in Oakeshott’s delightful interpretation of Plato’s allegory of the cave dwellers. The philosopher-king, according to this interpretation, does not use the same language as the cave dwellers, and they are suspicious of his claims because he does not have any respect for their dignity. In truth the cave dwellers are correct to suspect such a pretentious theoretician: “They resent him [the philosopher-king], not because they are corrupt or ignorant but because they know just enough to recognize an impostor when they meet one.” When a philosopher-king or another utopian theoretician claims to seek the substantive goals of equality and justice, Oakeshott fears that the actual consequences will be to establish a relationship of master and servant. Similarly, he believes that the goal of communal solidarity “is easily recognized as a relic of servility of which it is proper for European peoples to be profoundly ashamed.” As one might expect, he is most critical of the utopianism of Karl Marx, Francis Bacon, and anyone who promises a “New Jerusalem” or “Grace Abounding.”

Going beyond this anti-utopianism, On Human Conduct is generally consistent in its antistatism, reflecting a strong distrust of, if not dislike for, all forms of political power; although Oakeshott definitely supports the civil association as the ideal model of how a state should be organized, his description of the civil association is not very attractive. He basically endorses the authoritarian views of government which are defended by Thomas Hobbes, Jean Bodin, and G. W. F. Hegel, and he consistently describes a political relationship in terms of a sovereign ruler, obeying subjects, and the enforcement of rules. He insists that the essence of the civil association is the obligation for citizens to obey noninstrumental, sometimes arbitrary rules (or laws). Because of the diversity within all large political units, moreover, there can be no substantive objectives shared by all citizens, and to impose the character of the enterprise association upon a state where membership is compulsory constitutes “a moral enormity.” To have substantive objectives in a state, in order to be morally acceptable, requires the express consent of each citizen. In contrast to liberals, Oakeshott argues that the majority does not have the right to require the minority to accept such objectives. He writes, “It matters not one jot whether this undertaking is that of one powerful ruler (or coup d’etatiste), a few, or a majority.”

Oakeshott does occasionally concede that in modern politics the distinction between a civil association and an enterprise association has not been widely recognized, especially in regard to the existence of substantive objectives. For example, he makes favorable references to John Locke’s works and the United States Constitution, both of which accept the validity of some substantive objectives. John Locke argued that the state had the substantive objectives of protecting life, liberty, and property (objectives that can be interpreted broadly or narrowly), and the preamble to the U.S. Constitution speaks of “we the people” having the shared goals to “establish justice” and “promote the general welfare.” Although fearing the slippery slope, Oakeshott appears willing to tolerate such objectives as long as there are definite limits on the power of government combined with a recognition of the value of individual rights. In the final pages of On Human Conduct, he even concedes that the two kinds of association are not totally hostile to each other and that they can coexist as “sweet enemies.” Even with that, however, it is clear that Oakeshott does not want the state to go beyond the laissez-faire approach in economic policy, and he has little patience for citizens with a “slavish concern for benefits” from the state.

A serious work of political philosophy, On Human Conduct is remarkable for the many topics that are generally avoided. The reader will find little about representative democracy, human rights, positive liberties, or social justice. Oakeshott does not develop much of a theoretical explanation about why different forms of conduct should be morally praised or condemned, except that he expresses a high value for individual freedom. Rather than developing criteria to separate right from wrong, he usually uses the word “morality” to refer to a system of authoritarian rules which have no justification other than that they have been decreed by a civil association. Although he often speaks about reason and intentionality in human conduct, he does not actually consider the possibility that average citizens might use critical reason in the democratic formulation of public policy. It does not appear as if Oakeshott is able to conceive of a state except from a Hobbesian point of view, and he assumes that true human fulfillment, a sense of solidarity, and shared objectives are found only in private, voluntary associations.

In making this ideal distinction between two kinds of associations, Oakeshott takes a philosophical approach that is often referred to as essentialism; that is, he considers that words have essences which can be captured in definitions, and the definitions become the foundations of key arguments. For example, when he declares that the state cannot seek distributive justice, his argument is based on his definition of a civil association, the essence of which precludes substantive purposes. In contrast to most conservative philosophers, he does not argue against such a goal in terms of how it relates to values such as liberty or prosperity. In fact, Oakeshott’s definition of a civil association is not well-grounded in history, for even conservative capitalistic regimes have commonly pursued limited efforts at distributive justice, as in graduated income taxes, public education, welfare, and other social programs. In the modern world the real controversy centers not on whether states should seek distributive justice but on the degree to which they should do so.

Both admirers and critics agree that On Human Conduct is a difficult and challenging book. An admirer of Hegel, Oakeshott writes in an obscure style not unlike that German philosopher. Oakeshott looks upon philosophy as a form of literary discourse, and he clearly enjoys using metaphors and striking phrases. (He describes human conduct as a “conversation.”) In general, critics commend Oakeshott for his literary skill, but they usually fault him for his lack of clarity. There are places, in fact, where his writing is ambiguous to the extent that one suspects that he is almost deliberately hiding his meaning. Many critics have been especially harsh about his excessive use of Latin terms (lex, respublica, and so on) when standard English words would suffice. Oakeshott appears to recognize that his book might be more concise, writing in the preface, “When I look back upon the path my footprints make in the snow, I wish that it might have been less rambling.”

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Critical Context