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Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Liberal Illusion

Now, one of the things grad school does for one is that it teaches one how to use words in a way no one else will understand. And here that word is "liberal." In political theory, "liberal" means everyone from Ted Kennedy to Murray Rothbard: left-liberals and libertarians are (quite correctly) understood as being but branches of the Enlightenment project.

The liberal illusion is this: that liberalism is morally neutral amongst the diverse moral viewpoints held by citizens, and only seeks to create a "meta-framework" in which they can get along peacefully. In fact, liberalism, like every other approach to politics, is grounded in and promotes a particular moral view of society, and uses coercion to establish that view. And the view liberalism promotes is that individual autonomy must always, or at least nearly always, trump every other claim in the public sphere. (For lengthy demonstrations of this point, see Alasdair MacIntyre's Whose Justice? Which Rationality? or Charles Taylor's The Sources of the Self.)

This illusion frequently manifests itself in a particular sort of accusation which liberals direct at anyone challenging the liberal dominance over moral discourse: "You are attempting to impose your morality by force on others!" For example, consider this: One of the costs of living in New York is that one is regularly exposed to pornography by simply walking down the street or buying a cup of coffee, since news stands and delis prominently display a selection of pornographic magazines. And the people thus exposed include young children.

However, if I were to attempt getting the public display of these magazines banned, liberals would accuse me of "imposing" my morality, by force, on others, failing to recognize that that is precisely what they wish to do, as well: they wish to impose a view that holds the "right" of people to display pornography trumps the right of anyone who wishes to be able to walk down the street without being exposed to it. Now, it is one thing to argue that that position is morally superior to opposing views, but that is generally not what liberals do: instead, they claim that their stance is morally neutral ("No one is forcing you to look at those magazines!" -- Well, true: I could put out my eyes, and those of my children, and then we wouldn't see them!) among diverse moral stances. And if this could be called a "trick," then it is a self-played one: most liberals actually believe this rhetoric.

We can see this illusion at work everyday in op-eds and on the news and in political stump speeches and government press releases. It is at work in the nonsensical response often given to those opposed to abortion: "If you are against abortion, don't have one!" Certainly; and if you are against murder, don't murder anyone! Similarly, a New York company rented billboards and used them to display the idiotic slogan: "If you don't like gay marriage, don't get gay married." (By asking for the right to marry, gay couples are very explicitly leaving the "purely private" sphere and asking for public recognition of their couplehood, and it is surely a matter of public interest as to whether or not granting such recognition is a good idea. Having asked for such recognition, it is ludicrous to tell anyone who decides it should not be granted to mind their own business!)

One final example... the one, in fact, that prompted this post. Gene Healy writes: "The Tea Party movement was supposed to represent an end to this sort of moralistic Big Government conservatism [that seeks to promote strong families]."

Gene, the idea that the government has no business passing laws strengthening families is not a non-"moralistic" stance; it is a rival moral stance to the view that government does have a business passing such laws. Rick Santorum's legislative proposals may be bad ideas, and your opposition correct; but if that is so, it is not because his position is moralistic and yours isn't; it is because you have a better moral position than he does.

UPDATE: Although I am often a sharp critic of Murray Rothbard, I have always admired this about him: he was quite willing to admit that his position was a non-neutral moral stance, and that he thought it should beat out, on moral grounds, rival moral positions.

14 comments:

  1. "The liberal illusion is this: that liberalism is morally neutral amongst the diverse moral viewpoints held by citizens, and only seeks to create a "meta-framework" in which they can get along peacefully."

    That also seems to apply to proponents of democracy and modernity. The Grand Narrative does have its appeal.

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  2. Gene, I'm not saying your overall point is wrong, but I think you are claiming too much.

    Are you saying that all governments everywhere, at all times in human history, had the exact same scope of power? For example, the US federal government in 1912 regulated toilet tanks as much as it does in 2012, it's just that the content of the policy changed in the 100 years?

    Or, the German government right now has a policy on extermination of undesirables, it just changed the particulars since the early 1940s?

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  3. "Are you saying that all governments everywhere, at all times in human history, had the exact same scope of power?"

    No! Nothing of the sort! That claim would be ridiculous.

    In reference to this, let's say: "A claim about how much power the government should be able to exercise is itself a moral claim, and not morally neutral."

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  4. And Bob, see my note on Rothbard in the "UPDATE."

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  5. I might be wrong, but the usual distinction isn't 'moral' and 'amoral' or something like that, but a distinction between the good and the right.

    And then liberals give arguments for why some things are related to the good life and other things are related to what is justice/right; and it is this latter part that is the only role of government (or political institutions in general).

    Does it get the same kind of criticism from you?

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  6. "And then liberals give arguments for why some things are related to the good life and other things are related to what is justice/right; and it is this latter part that is the only role of government (or political institutions in general)."

    Well, that distinction is itself a moral distinction, and is not morally neutral. What I criticize is not trying to make such a distinction, put the pretense that one can make it in a value neutral way.

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  7. I'm sorry Gene I think you are getting mixed up here.

    Suppose I say, "I'm a pacifist. I think it's immoral for anyone to use the threat of violence to enforce views of morality."

    I might be right or wrong, but my position is coherent, right? I'm not fooling myself with such a claim, right, except for my possible naivete?

    OK, assuming you're with me so far, let's change it. Now I have a weaker claim:

    "It is immoral for the federal government to use the threat of violence to enforce common views of morality concerning sexual relations."

    Sound coherent?

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  8. "It is immoral for the federal government to use the threat of violence to enforce common views of morality concerning sexual relations."

    Yes, Bob, but I'm not sure what your point is here. I recognize that some people think this. How would that fact contradict anything I've said? Why do you think it shows I am getting mixed up?

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  9. I don't know, but I think the burden of proof is on you to show that you are not wrong. Also, try to guess what Silas would say, and demonstrate to me that he would be wrong to say it.

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  10. Bob, I don't think Gene is saying libertarianism or pacifism are inconsistent. What he's saying is that the following claim is wrong:

    "I'm a libertarian: I don't use coercion to enforce my moral views"

    A libertarian actually uses coercion to enforce moral views. For example, if someone attempts to steal something, the libertarian is perfectly ok with using force to prevent him from doing that. So, he's using coercion to enforce the right of property he defends. This is not a criticism of libertarianism, but a criticism of those who hold moral views and attempt to enforce them with coercion while saying they are not doing so.

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  11. But Bob, I have no idea why you even think your example shows that I am wrong about something, or what you think it shows I am wrong about!

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  12. "Bob, I don't think Gene is saying libertarianism or pacifism are inconsistent."

    That's correct, Pedro.

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  13. Gene,

    As is usual of late, you are spot on. Good thing I read some real conservatives in my misspent youth; otherwise, after all that time spent on libertarianism, I wouldn't know what the hell you are talking about.

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  14. It is at work in the nonsensical response often given to those opposed to abortion: "If you are against abortion, don't have one!" Certainly; and if you are against murder, don't murder anyone!

    As a pro-choicer, I, too, have always thought that this line of argumentation completely missed the point.

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