Radical Positivism


Open to all,

its definitive credo is:

Universal human progress by private and voluntary means.

Radical Positivism

the Provident Ethic

By John G Lankford

Radical Positivism proclaims the Provident Ethic.

The Provident Ethic maintains that prudent productivity is the most moral sort of human conduct, and the wealth generated by that conduct properly belongs to those who generate it.

It is a secular product of the Protestant Ethic, and an important broadening and extension of it.


Preceding Ethical Doctrines

Most of us are familiar with the Protestant Ethic. It is a primarily religious doctrine that greatly influenced the lives of many people, primarily in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It still has influence in western civilization today.

The Protestant Ethic essentially holds that Heaven favors the labors of productive endeavorers in enterprise, industry, and commerce because their activities generate and distribute things people need, and alleviate human suffering due to want. If such endeavors result in the amassing of fortunes, as often happens, those fortunes are seen as tokens of divine approval.

It is closely associated with Calvinist doctrine, which holds that some are born predestined for salvation; that they demonstrate Heaven's favor by demonstrating their election on Earth, that is, by prospering and being seen to do so. A very significant component of this conviction is that its adherents hold hard, sustained labors and personal continence to be the natural and certain path toward demonstrable prosperity. Where material acquisition to demonstrate election is deemed a moral duty, those who so believe subscribe to provident means as the most expedient ones.

Its predecessor, the Puritan Ethic, held it to be a duty to God to labor industriously, supporting self, family, and the needy with little thought of financial reward. Born guilty of original sin, it was believed, humans must suppress their wicked natures and do penance for their own impurities and Adam's transgression by treating Earthly life as a sentence to be served at hard labor, unrelieved by luxuries or material pleasures. But just such work among the sternly pious Puritans produced not only sufficiency, but surplus. As happens regardless of motivation, industrious and thrifty people gradually accumulated considerable wealth. Even after meeting community taxes and religious tithes and supporting charities, Puritans found themselves becoming prosperous indeed.

Their fortunes became sizeable enough to incite envy among some, and to invoke Christian scriptural passages that warned against absorption in earthly fortune and the loss of virtue and divine favor it could cause. A family that became wealthy could hardly take pleasure in the fact, because virtue was believed to require continuation of simple living and self-denial. Hard-earned winnings could not be savored or celebrated among such pious folk.

The Protestant Ethic solved that dilemma, for better or worse, and in doing so unleashed the most powerful productive forces the world had ever seen. It reassembled productive motives not combined since the Middle Ages, and it did so in a social and political environment that, unlike the Middle Ages, enabled multitudes of people to take advantage of its multiple incentives.

By comparison, the ethic of the Middle Ages had been hierarchial. With heaven topmost, political and social rank were determined at birth. Virtue consisted of acting as expected of a member of one's station, serving those above and receiving service from inferiors. The level of birth was considered divinely determined, and to aspire to improve on it or default in service or conduct so as to fall beneath it was believed a sacrilege. Only by humble, faithful, and obedient service to superiors could one of any station expect to merit entry into heaven.

There, the clergy allowed members of the lower strata to believe, the order of preference would be reversed. Those who had served most miserably and faithfully would be topmost. A few decades of toil were surely a small price to pay for an eternity of exaltation. Industrious and exemplary service, or exceptional thrift, might indeed attract bonuses or improve earthly circumstances somewhat. Advancement at the decree of a superior was acceptable, because the higher station betokened a call to greater service. And so a financial incentive to energetic labor and prudent thrift, however modest and spotty, existed. With that added to the hope of holding a princely station throughout eternity, the incentive system was complete.

Worldly and heavenly hopes separated in the rise of the middle class. Those of that emerging category were commoners by birth and rank, but opportunity beckoned them and many found their ways to sizeable fortunes. They did so on indulgence, or indifference, of their betters, and they did so by serving their own interests rather than those of their superiors. Not faithful peasants or serving folk, most of them, townspeople, were considered presumptuous and opportunistic, remiss in their duties and somewhat craven besides: villeins, villains, in the literal meaning of those words, as well as burghers, or bourgeoisie. Did not the holy scriptures warn against the vices of city and town?

Puritanism represented a pious turn away from worldly ambitions, or, at least, their confession and enjoyment. The religious incentive was restored by the Puritan Ethic, but the joys of material prosperity were sacrificed. Not until the emergence of the Protestant Ethic could the industrious again enjoy both. Because of that rejoining, human energy, doubly inspired in a new environment of liberty, wrought prosperity previously unimagined.

Another Division of Incentives

The prosperity was to last, but the delight in it was not. Political transformation that established the rise of the former commoner classes and the erosion, in some places the abrupt abolition, of the privileges of royalty and nobility, established a trend in favor of equality in all respects. Visionaries had assumed, and declared, that the abolition of institutionalized rank and privilege would result in at least an approximate economic equivalence for all. Others, more skeptical, doubted it, and in fact it did not happen. Even without hierarchies, great disparities between human wealth and poverty persisted. Some felt betrayed, and some believed the transformation was not yet complete.

Religion lost credibility in two ways. First, the philosophical foundations for the disestablishment of privilege and the liberation of the lower classes had begun with disputes and doubts about religious matters. Schisms within Christianity had led many to believe no one knew truth, some even to maintain there was no truth in the realm of faith whatsoever. Among thinkers, hope was transferred first to reason and then to empiricism.

Empiricism properly understood never denied divinity, but rather simply turned its attention toward what could be learned from observation, weighing, and measurement of things. Results were so promising science came to be thought to mean only empirical investigation. The second erosion of religious faith came as empiricism was inappropriately expanded, and people began to declare that what could not be confirmed by empirical means must be held not to exist. Of course that tenet denied spiritual propositions.

In the burgeoning west, people craving religious fulfillment inflicted further schism on Christianity. Sects seeming, to outsiders, very bizarre not only appeared, but in some cases became large and influential. Denominations that allowed comfortable adherents to take their religion in stride were joined by more emotional ones that insisted on piety and sacrifice and offered their adherents euphoria and ecstasy in worship. To thinkers, the judgment that all religion was superstition, or only a traditional or convenient observance with moral benefit to dullards who could get it no other way, or, at best, a clever expedient for pacifying the ignorant, became ever more prevalent. At the very same time, humankind's visible triumphs were not seen as miracles of faith, but products of empirical science and the technologies it spawned. Never constituted to do so, science itself became a repository of faith, even an object of superstition. Analytical and fabrication techniques became objects of awe and even reverence. An odd veneration of humankind by humans burgeoned.

When Charles Darwin shocked the world with his theory of natural selection, and its vastly oversimplified but popularly understood doctrine of survival of the fittest, there developed a vogue for what was called Social Darwinism. Industrial and commercial competition should be as vicious as a fight among stray mongrel curs, it was asserted. Only the strongest should survive, to the sacrifice of individuals and the gradual improvement of the species. Social Darwinism prepared intellectual sentiment for obsession with mass movements and indifference to individual miseries, that is, for the episodes of the twentieth century.

At the very same time, the momentum in favor of economic equivalence began to tell. If competition was to determine all, the poor and disenfranchised would coalesce and assert their overwhelming numbers, topple the titans, and establish a Utopia of peace, general material sufficiency and eventually plenty, and universal equality once and for all. If only the strongest could survive, certainly strength also lay in willingness to combine and overwhelm. After all, it always had. Such was the animus of civilization since civilization appeared.

Marxist communism was at the vanguard of that movement. Marxists argued, as radicals, from the roots of human experience as they chose to regard it. They asserted all had been equal in the beginning, but some had unjustly robbed and oppressed others, and an unnatural state of inequities had prevailed ever since. Not they as revolutionaries, but those who disputed them, they explained, were the actual agressors. They denounced their adversaries and intended victims as unrepentant holders of stolen property, and demanded redress by revolution so violent and thorough it could never be reversed. As those previously exalted by the Protestant Ethic had begun to shun religion in favor of indifferently scientific doctrines such as Social Darwinism, the socioeconomic radicals denounced faith as a poisonous instrument of oppression by intimidation and stultification.

Religious faith is not absolutely, but it is nearly, universal in human cultures. Challenges of life and dread of a death that chops off a continuity of existence that feels as though it should go on forever impel people to seek solace beyond the limits of sensation, reasoning, and coherent thought. The human capacity to envision ideals and perfections instills in most a conviction that somewhere those conditions must exist. Imagined perfection in every power and virtue is attributed to divinity, believed to exist because it seems so necessary. A few in every society appear to have no such needs and to be reconciled to material existence alone, to be comfortably at home in the world, but the nature of a species and arrangements to accommodate it can hardly be conformed to those exceptional cases. Wise doctrine addresses circumstances most frequently encountered. Dispassionate assessment confirms some form of religious sense as an overwhelmingly prevalent human trait. The eminently unsentimental Voltaire quipped that if God did not exist, humankind would have to invent Him.

The entire social, economic, and political debate between the levelers and the meritocrats came to be over which social order would produce most efficiently and distribute most fairly. Both sides claimed those accolades for their proposed systems. Neither emphasized any other human objective. Both implicitly conceded that happiness meant material sufficiency and nothing more. The human yearnings traditionally solaced by religious faith were left out of the debate. Religious practice continued, to be sure, but it seemed no longer integral to the main business of life. Religion had become a sabbatical, peripheral matter, and human fulfillment diminished while none took notice.

Empirical science itself began to crumble as a potential support for coherent social doctrine. Physical experiment revealed what appeared to be limits to the possibility of observation and discovery and suggested a fundamental ambiguity rather than an unequivocal principle lay at the base of the universe. Fundamental reality was beginning to appear nebulous and chaotic to human sensibilities. Human capacities to understand also, with the emergence of psychology, began to seem less trustworthy than empiricism had assumed. There were two dilemmas: Ultimate reality, even its physical aspect alone, might be impossibly amorphous, and, even if it were clear, it might never appear so to human beings.

From ambiguity and uncertainty, no absolute moral or social implications could be drawn. Revelation, reason, and now empirical science had in turn failed to show humankind exactly what it is and what it should be doing. With that shock, even secular social doctrine staggered into an abyss of incoherence. There moral, social, and political philosophy stood during world wars and small wars and a cold war of deadly menace. The clergy was marginalized, the secular intelligentsia abdicated, and a bewildered populace staggered into dismay, despair, nihilism, hedonism, cynicism, frenetic impulsiveness, and, most recently, wispy speculation and superstition.

Today in the west, wealth is accessible, but no amount of it seems enough. Envy, spite, resentment, and deliberate obtuseness characterize a western civilization largely triumphant and experiencing, but scarcely enjoying, material prosperity such as the world has never known. Affluence can be added to the list of prescriptions for human happiness that did not succeed.. As unfortunate as that is, another circumstance now upon us means that not only western civilization, but all humankind faces deadly perils.

A Heroic Voyage, a Missing Rudder

We are scarcely practiced at civilization, which literally means the arts and skills for living together in municipal environments. Until this century, most people of all countries lived outside cities, unaccustomed and disinclined to the customs necessary to life in urbanized cultures. Cities concentrate and coordinate large populations. Human experience, however, predominantly encompasses isolated households, tiny settlements, hamlets, villages, and small towns. Until the still-young era of powered transportation and electronic communication, large cities could exist only near large river or sea ports. Otherwise, concentrated populations drew sustenance from surrounding areas soon overexploited and exhausted. The ability to land-transport provisions necessary distances in short enough times to sustain really large cities did not exist until powered transport was developed and proliferated. That occurred only in the past two centuries, did not become definitive until well into the one just past, and still remains unaccomplished in much of the world.

Now, hardly adapted to complex civilization, we have already gone too far toward globalization to fall back without suffering a catastrophe. The pace of that transition accelerates every day. The materialistic miracle that propels it is a predominantly western creation, a product of western civilization. Western experience with technological civilization, scant as it is, is virtually all humankind has. Western culture therefore predominates and pervades the world. It is fair to say that material development at and anywhere near its current zenith is an expression of western culture and, except remotely, no other.

As always happens when a culture's primary feature makes that culture dominant, other components of western civilization are carried along as materialistic advances spread into other regions. As innovators and people most accustomed to material marvels, westerners inevitably demonstrate how they are used. Materialism arrives as a complete way of life, leaving only small room for compatible indigenous cultures, none for incompatible ones. It is also probable that cultures with the highest aptitudes for advanced materialism have achieved it, or are well on their way to doing so. It is the hard portion of the transformation that remains to be done. Leading the world into globalization, the west is called on to explain and demonstrate how to make it work.

Technical expertise the west can provide. But a legitimate, viable, and comprehensive cultural ethic to manage materially adequate, even affluent living is sorely lacking. The majority of the world's population, its habits, customs, and ways, are about to be inundated by a materialistic transformation. If viable and coherent concepts for living with the new arrangement do not accompany its installation, tumult is certain to result.

It is at this crucial moment, when moral, sociological, conceptual, even political guidance is indispensable that the west finds itself bankrupt in all of those categories of human assets, all of its conceptual underpinnings having lost credibility and its populations, even the intelligentsia, being in a state of bewilderment. The west cannot explain how to live with the technological marvels it is bestowing worldwide, for the west itself obviously does not know. It is experiencing materialism, largely traumatically, not enjoying it beyond superficial levels. It is crucial that the west, from its own traditions, coalesce at least one body of doctrine adequate to guide humankind during the dawn of globalization.

Even more urgently than the materially developed west, the rest of the world, about to face a greater and more abrupt transformation, needs a doctrinal construct to satisfy both management of materialism and sustenance of more abstract human necessities. To fill that crucial requirement, radical positivism proclaims The Provident Ethic.

The Provident Ethic: A Guide for Transition and More

The Provident Ethic, as distinguished from the Puritan and the Protestant Ethics that spurred dazzling accomplishment, is of empirical rather than theological foundation. Focused on management of the mortal rather than the eternal aspects of existence, it does not require a particular form of religious faith, indeed, not any at all, to establish its validity, except to the extent one may believe that absent divine will or sufferance there would be no humans to need or derive ethics at all.

It is also distinguished from them in its attitudes toward effort and its rewards. The Puritan Ethic, as we have seen, considered constant drudgery a penance to be laid before a Heaven offended by the intrinsic wickedness of humankind, a species befouled by the Original Sin of Adam. The Protestant Ethic held Original Sin was as might be, certainly grounds for an ultimately penitent attitude, but it minimized self-flagellation and even held a person accumulating and enjoying the fruits of honest endeavor to be in good graces with Heaven as demonstrated by that very earthly felicity. In doing so, it addressed all of the major sources of human motivation and desire until faith in science eroded religious faith and then in its own turn unraveled.

The Provident Ethic rests on a few simple assertions. The first is that it is obviously and undeniably the definitive business of every living thing, including humans, to live, that is, to survive, and that survival inevitably implies prevalence, prosperity, and proliferation. If all mysticism, speculation, even faith are set aside for a moment, that is revealed as the business of life. Since vitality distinguishes living from nonliving entities, vitality is, for living beings including humans, the definitive common trait. From a temporal perspective, conduct that best sustains and enhances life is therefore of the highest morality.

The second is that the means of survival, et cetera, are parasitism, predation, and providence, corresponding with the methods and impulses people and other living beings exhibit during life. Of these, providence, the trait associated with the prime of human life, has been established by experience as the most effective, and therefore the most moral. Providence is not only sentimentally and conceptually preferable, but also entitled to precedence above predation and parasitism, even as parents exercise dominion over infants and adolescents in order to nurture, sustain, and instruct them. Only provident behavior nurtures and advances humankind by enhancing its physical well-being and enabling its emotional, or, as many would put it, temporally spiritual, fulfillment.

The third is that voluntary endeavor bestows rewards associated with its selection and peformance, not necessarily correlative with material gain.. The exhilaration of performance, the belief in good purpose worked for, and satisfaction in completion at last achieved are distinct from, though they often coincide with, material rewards. That is the reason many people exhibit great satisfaction in complete devotion to vocations that pay little. That level of gratification, whether or not accompanied by acquisition of wealth, is the emotional or spiritual fulfillment humans, in their mortal capacity, crave. Materialism enables it by providing a wider range of viable vocational opportunities, so that more people can work according to inspiration rather than material necessity.

Productive effort does not betoken a fallen condition, a guilty status, a greedy spirit, or a duty of penance. Neither is it a grim price required to produce gratification only its products and earnings bring. It is in itself a joyous, fulfilling activity. When it seems otherwise, something has gone wrong.

Humans are of the most provident species in the universe. Despite the ferocity of human warfare, we are much more creators than destroyers. If the balance were the opposite, humans would have died out in our primitive stages. Several human species did, and the reason was want of provident inclination even more than inferior belligerence. The more provident contestants had superior weapons, strategies, and tactics, not only in battle but in ability to sustain and strengthen themselves between battles or be impelled by weight of numbers to occupy empty ranges and eventually overwhelm the others by sheer numbers. And they prevailed, prospered, and proliferated, as the others did not.

What creatures are fitted to do gratifies them. We know our most primal drives are intimately linked with achievement of delight and avoidance and relief of distress. Eating, for example, can be sybaritic, it achieves repletion, and it relieves hunger. That and similar drives we share with many other species. The provident imperative is also shared. But respecting providence, the trait of prudent productivity, we have no close competitors, even comparables. If provident activity gave us no joy, we would not exhibit such providence as we have done.

In western civilization, one of our oldest moral lessons admonishes us that a world of human providence is a world of human shame, representing expulsion from an indolent, languid, infantile, parasitical Paradise. In fact, we departed voluntarily, perhaps in submission to internal rather than divinely external compulsion. Languor satisfies until weariness is refreshed, and then a human begins to cast about for stimulation, a relief of boredom, something to do. Only those in despair and, due to prolonged despair, indolence, idle about aimlessly day after day. If our ancestors were literally evicted from a placid, docile Paradise, it happened only shortly before they would have departed on their own. If we are in fact the children of a creative, provident divinity, molded in that divinity's image and partaking of its character, our ancestors could not do otherwise. Children grow up, and exhibit the traits of their progenitors. If divinity is uninvolved or indifferent, the weight of our achievements speaks for itself, proclaiming our providence to any competent observer.

There has been an obstacle to realizing our greatest happiness and natural fulfillment even greater than that of indoctrination instilling guilt, fear, and reluctance. It has been simple lack of opportunity for all but a few people to pursue satisfying work. In savage conditions, a man was either a mighty hunter and warrior or an inferior one. A woman was either a clever and resourceful homemaker or a bad one. For inferior performers there were no options. Population clusters often specialized, according to their main chances. People were great or poor fishers, or farmers, or shepherds, or traveling merchants, but few dared venture outside their native clusters, much less seek out ones with different specialites. It is difficult for members of modern societies to comprehend how restricted the lives of such people were. It is even more difficult for them to comprehend that many people live in those conditions today. The bold may now depart for great cities, and there partake of widely varied occupational options, but inertia, family obligations, and a innumerable other considerations impede that flow. In addition, options for rustic immigrants to a city may be restricted by desperation, their occupations dictated by chance rather than preference.

We stand at the threshhold, not of Paradise by every definition, but of a great human liberation and improvement in the ordinary, or average, human condition. Quite soon now, by electronic means, information about virtually all the world's activities will become readily accessible in even the remotest reaches of human habitation. Urban or rural, people will no longer be destined by circumstance to forsake their natural inclinations and support themselves as need be. Prosperity has wrought a vast variety in markets, opportunities to reap livelihood from pursuits once incapable of supporting it, surpluses available to indulge and support such pursuits. At the same time, electronic access to information, collegial consultation and shared fascination are making the most arcane productive endeavors sustaining occupations, even lucrative ones. Before providence wrought prosperity, leisure, and elaborate facilities, how could an athlete have supported his family playing out his fascination with some essentially juvenile game?

Where effort can be expended according to fascination and fulfillment, it need not be so dearly compensated. Most people have particular things they would do tirelessly if not forced by economic necessity to spend their time, attention, and effort on toilsome chores. The only consolation for forbearance from labors of love and resignation to gainful employment is secondary gratification, money. Not for nothing is payment for labor called compensation. In such conditions, an adversary relationship between worker and work exists. Workers become, quite naturally, obsessed with driving as good a bargain as they can when they must give up something cherished to receive a necessary, but secondary, compensation. They try to do as little as possible in return for as much as possible, impeding productivity to the extent they succeed. To a steadily increasing exent, the Provident Ethic in the era of globalization will for the first time combine labor with fascination, exhilaration, and euphoria, and reveal monetary or other secondary compensations such as fame or power as the secondary gratifications they are.

In short, what most people have wanted was the chance to do the sort of constructive, provident work each craved to do, the work each feels is like child's play, which is of course performed with remarkable energy without compensation. So accommodated, they will, ironically, become more productive of wealth and surplus than ever, even as they become less obsessed with them. This is the situation that prevails when labor is naturally joyous, and nothing has gone wrong.

We may also anticipate two additional benefits. Culture after culture, upon achieving material advancement, has exhibited markedly diminished birth rates. We can expect to enjoy our planet without overcrowding it, especially as technological advances permit greater enjoyment to be realized at lower resource cost. That happily corresponds with another human characteristic. As we become more prosperous, we crave greater elegance in our surroundings. We typically improve our homes, neighborhoods, communities, and towns or cities. The strength of movements to establish ecological preservation and elegance is drawn not from impoverished rustics or savages, but from the materially replete populations of the world.

Providence Prevalent

When we come into our own as provident creatures, we will at last harmonize with our intrinsic nature and that of the world around us. As living creatures, we will survive as individuals and a species, of course. We will prevail, and, happier and more confident, we will exercise our natural dominion, the boon and obligation of our unique thinking capacity, with prudence, restraint, and consideration for our habitat and our fellow occupants of it. We will have prospered, but we will prosper more. No longer tolerant of parasitism except that natural and unavoidable in infants, juveniles, adolescents, and the ill and the injured, to whom they are temporarily appropriate, or predatory conduct in anyone, we will channel and guide those primitive impulses as wise adults, fairly but with confident insistence. And we will proliferate: our numbers perhaps, though more moderately, and our creations, inspirations, and discoveries most definitely and ever more rapidly.

Those with religious faith will exercise it unburdened by grief, horror, doubt and dismay inflicted by conditions we can correct, unimpeded by the necessity of solacing miseries and frustrations no longer encountered. Those not so inspired will at last find themselves at home in the world, as the world nurtured our species to be. If others choose to live otherwise, they will not live among us, but apart. We will bid them be gone, or, if appropriate, remove ourselves, leave them in peace, and forbid them to follow. Even provident people will have differences, most reconcilable, some not. Again, when differences cannot be reconciled, peaceful partition rather than vicious predation will answer. It is, indeed, better that it be so.

No human nor group of humans has sole possession of truth in detail. When each individual and group is granted leave to pursue and develop convictions unmolested, comparisons will occur and inspire, rather than presume to enforce, general improvements. People not comfortable where they begin will have opportunities to seek accommodations more to their liking wherever they are welcome. When moral, doctrinal, or political conviction resorts to force, fallacies become concealed, legitimate objections suppressed by enforcement of submission and aquiescence. In a provident world, diverse human experiments will proceed and inform us without such distortion.

A figure whose influence on western civilization is unmatched by any other once described an ideal Paradise as a house of many mansions. Mansions have many rooms. Each room is presumably envisioned as being somewhat different from the others. The description was not, notably, of a single great hall for everyone lacking alternative or escape. Single-answer Utopians to the contrary, the latter would not be Paradise, but more nearly Perdition.

Limited as we are, we humans cannot with our own capacities construct an ideal Paradise, even by affording peace, integrity, dignity, and human respect to all individuals and groups, including a right of unimpeded pursuit of right as they see it. We can, by exercising the Provident Ethic, improve the world as it now stands and establish one modeled on that ideal: not a static world, but one in which inspiration, circumstance, achievement, fulfillment, understanding, even the Provident Ethic itself, never cease to improve, develop, and be transformed to ever greater magnificence. To avoid ruinous turmoil and establish viable coherence, we not only should do these things, but we must.


Radical Positivists of the world unite, and make it a better place for all!

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