Sunday, November 06, 2016

"How can you be so certain you are right?"

Let us begin by distinguishing between political liberalism and metaphysical liberalism. Political liberalism is focused on the activities and institutions of governance. Its rough outlines include insistence on certain basic rights, such as free speech, some level of respect for private property, the right to free assembly, etc.; and a preference for a certain type of governmental institutions: democratic, republican, non-hereditary, accountable, and so on.

Many, many people are political liberals who are not what I would call "metaphysical liberals": these political liberals' own metaphysical beliefs may be traditionally Christian or Jewish or Muslim, for instance, but they believe that the best form of state is neutral between such commitments, and is broadly liberal in character. While they might strongly believe that, for instance, pre-marital sex is wrong (and not just "wrong for me"), they don't feel it is the place of the state to correct such misbehavior.

The metaphysical liberal is different. For him, liberalism is not merely a practical guideline for how to create a polity in which we can all manage to get along, somehow. Instead, it is the central truth of human life itself, expressed in cliches such as: morality is all relative, everyone is entitled to their own view, what's true for you may not be true for me, no one is entitled to force their morality on others, and so on. (Yes, the these slogans together are an incoherent mess: if morality is really all relative, how can the liberal possibly say that it is wrong for me to "force" my morality on someone else?! That is just the liberal "forcing" his morality on me!)

I ran into a metaphysical liberal the other day. He told me that it was just the truth "for me" that killing babies is wrong, and that if someone else was an atheist and didn't believe what I believed, it wouldn't be "the truth for them." I responded that no, truth is just truth, a "truth" that is just "for me" isn't truth at all, and if there is anything I can't assert as true, it is that killing babies is wrong. He became almost hysterical (because New York liberals in particular are so smug that they are actually stunned to discover anyone who isn't married to his cousin in a shack in Tennessee disagreeing with them), yelling at me, "Just listen to yourself: how can you be so certain you are right!"

First of all, this is clearly projection. There is simply no one more certain they are right, about, for instance, moral relativism, than the typical "sophisticated" metaphysical liberal. There is no one more contemptuous of the "basket of deplorables" who actually believe in moral truth than such a liberal. They are so sure they are correct that they are willing to economically ruin people and places that will not bow to their certainty. They are so sure they are correct that they are happy to bomb non-liberal countries into submission.

But more: I thought back to that conversation tonight while I ate dinner with a traditional Muslim family who had just arrived from Bangladesh. I thought about how I am not at all certain that my approach to the divine is right and theirs is wrong. I thought about how, if we had begun to discuss our most deeply held beliefs, we would have had a rational conversation about our differences, with no yelling or hysteria. I feel pretty sure about this, because I actually wind up having conversations like this on cab rides with fair frequency: I climb in the back, and the driver, a Sikh or a Hindu or a Muslim or a Rasta, looks in the rearview mirror and seems to sense something about me, and almost immediately begins talking to me about God. These conversations always go well, and I always find despite our differences, we are largely in agreement.

That is because all these people, and the Buddhist monk and the Taoist mystic and the Orthodox rabbi and the Amish farmer and the Mormon missionary, we all believe one large truth: that there is a transcendent moral order, and that it is our job in life to bring our actions into harmony with that order. (The metaphysical liberal's claim that this is "just my truth" is obvious rubbish: if there is a transcendent moral order, then by definition it obligates everyone, whether they believe in it or not. The law of gravity does not fail to punish your plunging off of a cliff if only you yell "But I don't believe in gravity!" as you fall. And if there is not such an order, then all of us who believe in it are simply deluded, not in possession of a "personal truth.")

In any case, I have great hesitation in claiming that my particular approach to climbing that mountain is better than anyone else's, among those who are actually climbing the mountain. How can I really know that my route ahead doesn't harbor hidden dangers that will halt my progress upwards, and that the Taoist's or Muslim's route might not actually be better?

But all of us actually climbing that mountain can be pretty darned certain that the metaphysical liberal, standing in a swamp of self-love, smearing himself in the mud of vice and yelling that truth is whatever he prefers it to be, has gone somewhat mad, and is not going up that mountain at all.

Or, as Bob put it:

But someone will have to pay
For the innocent blood
That they shed every day
Oh children mark my words
It's what the Bible say...

8 comments:

  1. Just double checking, but the "metaphysical liberal" need not be a social liberal, but could also be a conservative or a libertarian, correct?

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  2. So you are both certain, just of different things. I have always thought moral relativism was just uncertainty so profound it wasn't worth discussing.

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  3. sed -i "s/hysterial/hysterical/g" blog_post.txt

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  4. "That is because all these people, and the Buddhist monk and the Taoist mystic and the Orthodox rabbi and the Amish farmer and the Mormon missionary, we all believe one large truth: that there is a transcendent moral order, and that it is our job in life to bring our actions into harmony with that order."

    I am reminded by this of Russel Kirk's statement that libertarianism (extending this to all types of liberals), in contrast to socialism and most other political ideologies, is "quite bottomless".

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  5. Though most religious libertarians do not seem to be bottomless. Only the flippant and unrefined Misesian atheists.

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  6. A claim that “X is true for you, but not necessarily for me” is a claim that X is personal and subjective. For instance, if I feel sad then “I am sad” is true for me but not necessarily for you (people with impaired theory of mind would have trouble grasping this). So, if someone makes a similar claim about morality, they are asserting that morality is personal and subjective. In fact, I don’t need to speak in generalities: I assert that morality is personal and subjective. As a religious person, I think I can also agree that there is a transcendent moral order (hesistant because that’s not how I would normally put it), which doesn’t seem like the same thing at all as subjective human morality. Personally, when I use the word morality, I normally mean the personal, subjective sense. So, the premise that it’s either metaphysical liberalism or climbing the mountain of transcendent moral order doesn’t seem to me like it follows.

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    Replies
    1. The FACT that you are sad is true for me as well as for you!

      A "morality" that is personal and subjective is not morality at all. What IS true is that each of us only sees the transcendent moral order "through a glass darkly."

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    2. Well, in this sense, I guess morality is objective after all. It's objectively true that, for example, John Calhoun thought chattel slavery was good, and it's objectively true that I disagree and think it's bad.

      Delete

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