A review of The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life by Kenneth Minogue
Kenneth Minogue has written a clear and incisive account and defence of western societies
in which there is moral autonomy and where the conduct of the individual is not just a
product of external pressures but of conscious reflection on his or her internal moral being.
The moral individual is one who ‘self-manages’ his or her own conduct, adapting it to the
varying demands of many diverse institutions and groups – family, firm, school, church,
club, and friends – of which the state is only one. It is a very different world from that of
societies in which there is a sense of a single right way of ordering life based on a monolithic
tradition or on an ideology to which everyone is expected to conform. The absence of such a
pressure permits the formation of a democratic order in which others are seen and treated as
individuals and not as collective enemies and rivals.
There is, of course, a connection here with the kind of competitive capitalist economy that
both emerged from and underpinned the western social order. As Adam Smith pointed out,
much constructive behaviour in our kind of society stems from the pursuit of self-interest in a
world where monopolies are temporary and unstable.
Western societies are characterised by self-chosen commitments pursued under the rule
of law. In the past the key terms in assessing the moral life of the citizen were self-respect
and integrity. Individualism is not heedless hedonism but the attainment of self-respect
and integrity through the constant fulfilment of duties that the individual himself or herself
recognises. It means that moral behaviour often depends on a complex mixture of reasons
including a sense of superiority. The sense of being an honest person is part of why people
behave in an honest way.
The key question Minogue examines is why all this is under threat in contemporary
democracies. One reason lies in the persistence and growth of an ideology of ‘perfectionism’
that leads the state ever more to intervene and regulate the relationships between individual
citizens. The latter are made servile because they are state regulated not self-regulated.
Likewise a pride in personal independence is eroded by a welfare state that offers the
comforts of rewarded victimhood. Even criminals are regarded as the product of external
causes and thus deprived of their moral autonomy.
But why does this erosion of the moral life get ascribed to ‘democracy’, the rule of the
people, when it is inflicted on them by an insulated and unaccountable elite? The labelling
of the feckless and the criminal as victims and the pursuit of perfectibility are merely part
of the fantasies of planners and philosophers; they are not shared by the ordinary citizen
who feels alienated and frustrated by their insinuating prevalence. In this sense they are
profoundly undemocratic notions. It is not the voters but the lawyers who have replaced the
idea of rights as freedom and autonomy with ‘rights’ as stages on the march to perfection;
it has led to an increase in the power not just of the state but of unaccountable courts. It is
the philosophers and scribblers, not the man in the street, who urge the diversion of western
incomes to the ‘cure’ of world poverty. Bizarre views of this kind appeal, as Minogue points
out, to adolescents of all ages and not to the vast majority who are of necessity locked into
private duties and relationships.
Ken Minogue has written a book full of rich thoughts that is both an explanation and a
critique of some of the more foolish yet deadening trends to be found in the contemporary