As far back as the 1400s the Renaissance writer Pico della Mirandola imagined God saying to man that,
You, constrained by no limits, in accordance with your own free will ... shall ordain for yourself the limits of your nature ... We have made you ...so that with freedom of choice, as though the maker and moulder of yourself, you may fashion yourself in whatever shape you shall prefer.
The basic idea of what is now called liberal individualism is that human freedom and dignity require that we choose what we are to be according to our own individual will and reason.
This ideal sounds good in its broad sweep and it has captivated Western intellectuals over the centuries. In its details though it is an ideal that has proved to be ruinous.
Why? Because many of the most important forms of human identity and connectedness are not chosen by individual will or reason. They are instead inborn or inherited. This means that liberal individualists must either give up some measure of their first principles or else deny or deconstruct important aspects of human existence. Over time they have opted for the latter.
Two recent news stories out of Britain illustrate the problem. The first, in a report by Steve Doughty of the Daily Mail (18/6/03), is that four Cabinet members have backed a new policy paper which declares that it's wrong for mothers to stay at home to look after their young children.
The policy paper, titled "Delivering on Gender Equality", claims that mothers of young children should go out to work to help the economy, whilst there should be "diversity targets" to encourage men to work as nursery workers, nannies and childminders.
Now, the demand that young mothers should go out to work to help the economy does not appear to reflect a demand from the business lobby. In fact, Ruth Lea, the policy chief at the Institute of Directors, condemned the proposal, saying that "This is blatant social engineering. It is Orwellian - it reeks of Big Brother."
So what could be the real motivation behind the proposed policy? Jill Kirby, a spokeswoman for a group called "Full Time Mothers" was quite right to say of the policy that "This is target-driven interventionist politics. What they want to see is women at work and men at home."
In other words, they want to completely reverse the normal influence of gender. They want men to be child-carers and women to be breadwinners. This makes sense if you believe in liberal first principles: that what we are should be determined by our individual will and reason rather than by an inherited quality such as our manhood or womanhood.
For liberals it is a kind of "liberation" to reverse traditional sex roles: it frees the individual from the influence of an unchosen part of human nature. For liberals, this is more important than basing the structure of family life on the differing, and traditionally complementary, instincts and drives of men and women.
The second news item from Britain is that a junior education minister has floated the idea that to create "racial equality" schools would have to meet targets to improve the lagging exam results of African, Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi students. (Daily Mail 18/6/03)
In other words, it is no longer sufficient to have equality of opportunity between different ethnic groups. A British Education Minister is now proposing that schools should be forced to produce equal outcomes.
For most people, this proposal would seem unfair, as it means artificially pushing ahead some students at the expense of better qualified or better motivated students.
But for a liberal individualist it is possible to justify such a move. Remember, liberals want to believe that an inherited quality like race or ethnicity should have no influence on what we are. So when it appears from studies that race or ethnicity actually is having an influence on educational outcomes, the priority is to manipulate things to make the influence of race go away. The priority becomes to engage in racial or ethnic levelling, rather than to uphold the earlier liberal aim of equal opportunity.
These kind of policy decisions are really the unravelling over time of liberal first principles. For things to change, and for the normal forms of human identity and connectedness to once again be reflected in public policy, these liberal principles need to be jettisoned. We need to accept that individual reason and will does not determine everything - we need to accept, in other words, the positive influence on us of what is unchosen.
(First published at Conservative Central 18/06/03)