Pulling no punches, he published an essay titled "The Spiritual Bankruptcy of Liberalism". In the essay Cardinal Williams writes that,
Relativism and permissiveness have been deliberately promoted and morality reduced to purely subjective preference. Our failure to protect basic values and rudimentary citizenship is fast converting our society into a moral wasteland.
We have rejected the moral sustenance of the past and are attempting to live on junk food provided by a bankrupt liberalism ...
Can we restore health and sanity to society? My answer is yes. Yes, by challenging a culture asserting the exaggerated individualism that what one does is no one else's business.
The cardinal was immediately challenged in his views by Jim Perron who runs a classical liberal (a traditionally right-liberal) think tank. Mr Perron protested that,
When Cardinal Williams attacks "relativism and permissiveness" he is attacking the idea that individuals can make choices and should be free to do so provided they do not violate the equal right of others ...
At its core liberalism is about liberty and liberty means the right of the individual to make choices ... People may choose to live according to values which others find abhorrent. But in a liberal society, unless those values directly violate the life, liberty and property of another person they are allowed.
I believe that the cardinal is right and Jim Perron is wrong in what they claim about morality. However, I concede that the liberal approach put forward by Jim Perron sounds appealing. The idea that people can do whatever they like provided it doesn't directly harm the "life, liberty or property" of others seems reasonable at first view.
So why then is it wrong?
1) General standards of morality are important
The liberal approach assumes that we each determine our own moral standard by which we freely make individual moral choices.
But it's not as simple as this. There also exists a general moral standard in every society which exerts a powerful influence on the choices we can and do make.
Therefore, we need to be concerned not only about our own individual standard and choices, but also about the general standard.
The problem is that liberalism doesn't allow us to do this. Liberalism makes the defence of an existing general standard illegitimate. Therefore, the general standard is left unprotected to gradually fall to whatever it is that a minority of people are willing to do.
This doesn't help the majority to freely enact moral choices. The influence of the general standard doesn't go away, it simply reinforces the lower standards of the minority rather than the higher standards of the majority. Many people find themselves having to resist the lowered general standards, rather than being inspired by a higher standard.
2) Liberals aren't morally neutral
Liberals claim to be morally neutral. In other words, they claim that they are merely concerned to establish the framework of moral "liberty" and that they don't enforce a positive morality of their own.
In reality, though, liberals do advance a positive view of morality. They aren't really able to leave things just to individual choice, but do instead assert a kind of "good" which they seek to enforce across society.
To a minor degree, this positive view of morality is traditional. For instance, if I were to walk up the street naked with a heroin syringe hanging out of my arm, I wouldn't be directly harming anyone's life or liberty. But even a liberal society draws the line somewhere and I would be quickly removed from the scene. It's not possible, in other words, for liberals to live entirely consistently according to their own theory.
Generally, though, the positive liberal view of morality is anti-traditional. This is because liberals believe that we should be self-created by our own will and reason, rather than by something we inherit or by something external to us, like a traditional code of morality.
Therefore, in a liberal culture, it will be seen as "emancipated" to throw off in your own personal life traditional understandings of morality. This is particularly true of the liberal intelligentsia who exert a tremendous influence over culture and the arts.
This is another reason why the general trend in a liberal culture is toward a lower standard of morality: on the one hand, as explained above, it is made illegitimate to defend a general standard of morality, and on the other hand, liberal intellectuals will mostly act to deliberately "deconstruct" traditional morality as a logical outcome of their first principles.
There is one final way in which liberals seek to enforce a positive morality. Liberals believe that we should be unimpeded to act according to our own will and reason. This belief itself then becomes a kind of moral law for liberals, which is enforced as an overriding moral good.
This leads liberals to set up their own versions of censorship and thought crimes which are far more intrusive than anything which traditionally existed in Western societies. When we talk of "political correctness" for instance we are mostly talking about a kind of intimidating regime of what we may and may not believe.
Another example of liberal censorship and thought crime is a proposed law in France which would make any "incitement to discriminate" on the basis of gender or sexuality punishable by a year in prison. The real effect of this law depends on its interpretation, but if taken literally it would mean that someone arguing that it's morally wrong for women to be sent into military combat would be "inciting to discriminate" on the basis of gender and could risk a lengthy jail term.
So, despite liberal claims to be morally neutral, modern liberal societies are becoming very lax in some areas of morality and increasingly repressive in others.
3) Morality is not just about power
I started out by conceding that the liberal theory of morality seems appealing, at least on the surface. However, there is one particular aspect of the theory which immediately seems less plausible. That is the idea that morality is just an attempt by one group to assert power over another.
For liberals what is important is that we are equally free to to create ourselves according to our own will and reason. Therefore, when someone asserts something to be generally a moral good (ie to place it beyond individual choice) liberals interpret this is a kind of authoritarian power play: an illegitimate attempt to assert the power of one person's will over another.
Liberals are especially inclined to make these claims about the Christian Churches, which have traditionally held some moral authority in the West. Instead of judging that the churches have tried to uphold a genuine, objectively existing moral good in what they teach, many liberals assume instead that the churches are really motivated by an authoritarian "will to power".
That's why right-liberal Jim Perron makes the claim that,
From the start the Church opposed liberalism because liberalism opposed state control and the Church desired to merge church and state into one monolithic centre of authority. For the Church power was something granted by God to the ruling elite. It did not, and could not, reside in the people themselves particularly in individuals.
Left-liberal Niall Cook is cruder, explaining the Christian religion as,
A fallacy created in dim distant times by powermongers and fanatics ... and perpetrated by religious organisations in a bid to spread their dominance over the ignorant unwashed multitudes.
The historical record, though, suggests something very different. Here, for instance, are the words of Pope Pius XI lamenting the fact that power was becoming overly centralised in the modern state:
On account of the evil of "individualism" ... things have come to such a pass that the highly developed social life which once flourished in a variety of prosperous and interdependent institutions, has been damaged and all but ruined, leaving virtually only individuals and the State ...
The idea that the Western religious tradition has all been about a competing will to power is unreasonably cynical, and shows the extent to which liberalism is stuck within its own ideological framework.
Making the argument
Let's say that you're debating a moral issue with a liberal. You as a conservative make a positive moral claim. The liberal replies that people can act however they choose provided they don't violate the life, liberty or property of others.
What could you then say in opposition to the liberal? You actually have several choices. You could reply with any of the following:
a) But people make moral choices within the framework of a general standard of morality. So we have to be concerned about the general standard.
b) But you liberals don't just leave people free to make their own moral choices. You seek to enforce your own understanding of morality. You actively reject traditional standards and you are gradually enforcing a liberal understanding through repressive thought crime laws.
c) But you liberals limit morality to individual choice because you are too caught up in an ideology of "equal wills". You wrongly see general claims about morality as an authoritarian power play. You're too cynical and unrealistic in limiting moral claims in this way.
I expect that there also exist other arguments against the liberal position. The point, of course, is to become adept at making whichever arguments we think best, so that we can follow the lead of Cardinal Williams and begin to challenge the orthodoxy that liberals have established in dealing with moral issues.
(First published at Conservative Central, 06/07/2004)