Liberalism and the Will, Part II

Part one here.

So how is it that liberalism became so tied to the position that rational argumentation is the primary way by which people change their opinions and behavior, despite all of the evidence to the contrary?

To answer that question, we must understand liberalism as an attempt to solve a very serious problem, that of religious civil war. With the Catholic Church's loss of authority over the moral life of Western Europe, the region had become subject to a series of terrible civil wars over just who would possess that authority. All sides still agreed that reason alone, without guidance from a properly oriented will, was liable to drift off into mere self-justification. But how should we decide whose will is properly oriented? Charisma? Faith alone? Faith plus good deeds? The performance of miracles? Apostolic succession?

The battle over these questions devastated Western Europe. People were desperate to find a way to stop the fighting, and liberals suggested one: reason alone, setting aside any question of whose will was properly oriented, was sufficient to achieve civil peace. Once that had been achieved, every citizen could have their own, purely private opinion about what constituted a proper orientation of the will: such matters would not concern the civil authorities. And so liberalism produces a series of proposals for "purely rational" bases for why we should get along:

Hobbes: "You don't want to die, do you?"
Locke: "You don't want to die, and you'd like to be prosperous, right?"
Mill: "You don't want to die, you'd like to be prosperous, and you'd like society to keep improving, right?"

But the basic idea was always the same: we just don't need any agreement upon any universal notion of what constitutes a good human life: it is is enough that people are "rational," and then we can establish a liberal order in which people whose wills are oriented in wildly different directions can get along.

The liberal achievement here should not be dismissed lightly: if I had been alive in the 1600s, and I wanted to pen a book begging people to just please stop killing each other, I doubt I could have done better than Hobbes or Locke. Nevertheless, there was always a worm eating away at the core of the liberal apple: Liberalism's supposed acceptance of all orientations of the will was never really sincere, or even possible. In fact, what liberal "tolerance" has always meant is that all "purely personal" orientations would be acceptable, so long as the persons having those orientations adopted as their primary, public value system liberal values, and regarded their "subjective" valuations as no more important than their preference for pistachio over vanilla ice cream.

And so we find ourselves in our current situation, where, say, a Christian baker, whose deepest values suggest that homosexual marriage is wrong, is punished for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding: while pretending to be neutral among different orientations of the will, in fact, liberalism is only "tolerant" of the liberal orientation: all value judgments (except the embrace of liberal values) are "purely subjective," all attempts to publicly embody an orientation of the will in law are invalid (except the embodiment of the liberal orientation), and all cultures must be viewed as equally valid, unless they diverge from liberal culture, in which case they must be roundly condemned, and perhaps even bombed.

And thus we can see that the liberal idea that all of these issues can be resolved by "pure reason," and worked out solely through rational argumentation, is itself a credo of an ideology. Liberals cling to the idea that rational argumentation can resolve all important public policy issues because that is one of the hills that their will has directed their reason to defend, and thus, as we have seen, contrary evidence is not understood as a reason to re-examine this position, but as an attack on a position that the liberal army simply must not abandon, lest it be defeated.


  1. Gene, I'm curious: what is your preferred answer (if you have one) to the question "But how should we decide whose will is properly oriented?"

    1. We don't "decide." Someone comes along and lays out a vision, and people coalesce around it, and next thing you know you have a civilization. This can't be decided by a vote or anything like that!

    2. Decide is your word, not mine. But in any case, you laid out a bunch of potential criteria like apostolic succession, miracles, etc. for identifying a properly oriented will. What are your preferred criteria?

    3. Well, if someone is making "criteria," those are the basis for a decision!
      But there is no such list of genuine criteria to be had. You'll know it when you see it.

  2. I think we know it is fiction, but a useful fiction, as in the belief the truth will win out, and truth will persuade what reason cannot.


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