Friday, October 26, 2007

What about conservative preference?

If liberalism is based on the idea that we should be equally free to satisfy our preferences, then liberalism has a major problem. Many of us have conservative preferences. If liberalism is to be true to its basic principle, then it ought to establish a society in which we conservatives can have our preferences realised.

So how do liberals cope with this problem? I have observed at least two distinct "solutions". The first is to deny the legitimacy of conservative preference. At times this is done (relatively) gently, by claiming that conservative preference is based on fear or ignorance. Often, though, the process is a fierce one, in which conservative preference is attacked as a form of hatred or dominance.

The point to be made about this first response is that the ferocity of attack makes sense under the terms of liberal theory. It's not enough for liberals to state that they don't like or that they oppose conservative preference. They would still be obliged, in this scenario, to recognise the equal value of conservative life choices and to make possible the realisation of conservatism in society.

The strategy has to go further: it has to be to place conservative preference outside the normal, acceptable bounds of society.

There is another option available to liberals. This is simply to deny that conservative preference can't be satisfied in a modern liberal society.

Consider the response of Marc Ramsay to philosopher John Gray. Gray had made a seemingly obvious point, that there are limits to choice in liberal societies, as pre-liberal values and ways of life become unavailable:

[l]iberal societies tend to drive out non-liberal forms of life, to ghettoize or marginalize them, or trivialize them. [Liberalism] passes over the commonplace truth that, even if pre-liberal virtues linger on in liberal societies, they do so as shadows of their former selves, incompletely realized in those who exhibit them. This commonplace is, after all, only an application of the pluralist insight that the virtues are not all combinable--not, at least, without some loss to them; and that many genuine goods depend upon specific social structures, some of them illiberal and uncombinable with liberal societies, as their matrices.

What Gray takes to be commonplace, and what seems obvious to me, is dismissed by Marc Ramsay curtly as follows:

[Gray] does not sufficiently justify the claim that liberal societies cannot adequately capture or maintain the pursuit of so-called pre-liberal virtues.

If the depth of denial is astonishing, it needs to be remembered that liberal theory is based not on the idea that liberals should triumph over others, but that there should be an equal freedom to satisfy our preferences. So there are theoretical reasons for liberals like Marc Ramsay to resist to the end the reality that some important sets of preferences (values, ways of life) cannot be satisfied in a liberal society.


  1. Liberals also deploy the "false consciousness" gambit against conservatives at every opportunity. And it's surprising how difficult it is to argue that you really want what you know you really want.

    That just triggered an insight. The deepest premises of ratiocination -- particular to this topic, that one knows one's own desires and purposes -- cannot be argued for. If an adversary questions one of these things and how you know it, you can't respond with anything but tautology. To my mind, that invalidates the argument a priori, as some things, such as consciousness of one's own existence and separate identity, must be conceded before argument is even possible!

  2. That's an excellent comment from Francis; he put my ideas into words better than I could have. Like totalitarians of various stripes, leftists try to ensure that people are only allowed to want certain things. Goods that can only be had at the price of "intolerance" or other no-nos, have to be "deconstructed" so we understand that really, they're not goods at all.

    Excellent post, Mark.