Saturday, September 13, 2008

A morality which is neutral or harmful?

We've had a debate here in Victoria on a parliamentary bill to decriminalise abortion. MPs are allowed a conscience vote on this issue, a fact which concerns ethicist Dr Leslie Cannold.

She ran an argument that the primary aim of society is to promote autonomy and that it is therefore the duty of politicians and doctors, regardless of their own conscience, to allow individuals to choose for themselves whether to have an abortion.

Dr Cannold is a follower of liberal autonomy theory. She writes:

An autonomous person is one who is free to direct her life according to her own values. It would be hard to overestimate the role autonomy ... plays in the value systems of contemporary Australian society ...

The idea appears to be as follows: a society is made up of individuals each with his own values; the freedom to autonomously follow our own values is paramount; therefore, what matters is that the state remains neutral or unbiased on moral issues, so that this freedom is not compromised.

What's wrong with such an approach to morality? First, it's not true in practice that the liberal state remains neutral on moral issues.

In all Western countries, liberal autonomy itself has become the value coercively imposed on society. If a traditional practice is thought to clash with autonomy, it is acted against in various ways. In Scandinavia, for instance, the state has acted deliberately to deconstruct the traditional family and traditional sex roles - regardless of whether they are held as values by individuals. Nor are any Western states neutral when it comes to traditional Western identities; we are supposed to sign on to multiculturalism, regardless of our individual values.

Even when it comes to issues of "personal" morality, the effect of autonomy theory isn't neutral. If you believe that the highest good is a freedom to choose in any direction, then acting against moral restrictions becomes "empowering". A moral culture in a liberal society will therefore tend to be transgressive rather than neutral.

Similarly, the moral culture is likely to be permissive. Individuals in a liberal society will begin to believe that if they freely choose a certain behaviour, it becomes moral.

And so, for instance, you find the morality of burlesque dancing discussed in a daily paper as follows:

DeLuxe said burlesque ... represented a rebellion against the restrictive morality of the time ... Modern burlesque performers are clearly in charge of their own destiny ... "The woman doing it is completely in control of her own sexuality. She decides." (Kansas City Star, July 2008)

A rebellion against morals becomes heroic; and as long as I decide, and am in control, then I am acting morally. These are the kinds of ideas that are fostered by a morality based on autonomy theory. They are not neutral in their effect on moral values.

There is another way that autonomy theory fails to be neutral in its effects. Morality is thought of not in terms of what is good, or what is right or wrong, but in terms of "values". This word suggests that we are following something subjective, something of value to us, rather than something which is objectively good. It also suggests an equality in the moral beliefs held by individuals: what one person values is as important to them as what another person values.

This has to have a certain effect on the moral culture of a society. If we only talk about equally valid, subjective values, then moral belief itself loses status and there isn't likely to be the same level of moral restraint or self-discipline in society. Nor will a community be as likely to hold to, and identify with, a moral ideal.

So autonomy theory doesn't in practice create a neutral arena for individuals to pursue their own values. Nor would most people really want such a neutral arena to exist. Would we really want the state to remain neutral and allow individuals to pursue their own values, if these values included polygamy? Group marriage? Public nudity? The sale of heroin?

The reality is that every society functions with a view of what is moral and what isn't and liberal society is no different. A liberal society does not simply allow individuals to follow their own values. Far from being neutral, a liberal society tends to be more intrusive than traditional societies in enforcing a moral view; liberal societies have, for instance, gone further than most others in setting up laws punishing "speech" crimes or "thought" crimes.

The real question then is not whether a society should take a view of what is moral or what isn't, as all societies inevitably do this. The real question is what this moral view should be and how it should be decided.

I don't believe the moral view should be the liberal one. Autonomy is important, but it doesn't work well if we take it to be the highest good in society. As explained above, its effect on the moral culture of society is overly transgressive and permissive; it also delegitimises too many important things as immoral, including all those aspects of life which are "predetermined" rather than "self-determined", including sex distinctions, ethnicity and traditional family life.

The alternative? Each generation inherits a view of the good, which is then tested against experience and against our innate sense of what is right or wrong. At times, certain views of morality will be contested in society, others will remain uncontroversial. There is no certain way (i.e. no formulaic way) of getting to a right answer; there is no "principle" acting like a scientific principle to explain how a society is to determine moral issues.

But still a society will arrive at a moral ideal. Hopefully, this moral ideal will work to support 'the better angels of our nature' when we make moral decisions. Hopefully too it will wisely guide younger people, until they have enough life experience to judge the real harm of certain behaviours.


  1. An interesting post on the philosophical side, but it leaves the reader wondering about practical implications--which is perhaps as it should be.

    I've been thinking about the abortion-legalisation debate a bit myself, and finding it difficult to reach a conclusion. The problem is that while it's easy to see how "abortion on demand" is a slogan of the feminists and autonomy- theorists, the alternative (be it the status quo or some more restrictive regime) has its own problems.

    For example, if we want to defend the traditional family, shouldn't we therefore want to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and consequent increase in single-parenthood?

    I suppose you would say that self-control and a return to more traditional sexual mores is the answer, rather than legalising abortion. I'd agree, but then, if the change is to be cultural rather than political, what difference does it make whether abortion is legalised or not, since the task is to reduce demand for it?

    I know that sanctioning abortion sends a certain message: a confirmation of the cultural view that sees sex and reproduction as basically separate questions. Sex is not serious; it's just a passtime and everything's okay so long as the parties agree; having an unchosen preganacy "ruins a girl's life," which could more profitably be spent pursuing a career, etc.

    I know that "abortion on demand," taken as a question of principle, means a rejection of personal responsibility, an escape-clause from the consequences of one's own actions, and that it degrades sexual relationships by making them literally inconsequential. But when we look at the consequences of restricting access to abortion within the current social ethos, I do wonder whether the are desirable.

    Also, unless we take the (discredited) religious view that the foetus is a person with rights--an argument which in any case does nothing to challenge liberal individualism, and sounds to me like an unconvincing rationalisation of a more fundamental kind of piety--the agguments against abortion can equally be taken as arguments against contraception.

    So, basically, I agree that abortion is a bad thing. So, to a lesser extent and for different reasons, do the liberals and feminists. Legalising abortion is not going to create demand for it, because it's not something anyone could conceivably want. Therefore, I think that opposition to it is really just a symbolic gesture; an ineffective political move which merely expresses, but does nothing to instill, a cultural attitude.

    I'd be happy to be proved wrong about this, by the way.

  2. Human natures requires some kind of moral metric to function and create advanced societies. Removing that creates a void and a new morality will rush to fill it. So, since traditional morality was "oppressive", liberals tried to enforce moral relativism. My morality is as good as your morality is as good as his morality except when it isn't. This won't satisfy anyone as humanity craves a standard and higher meaning to life. So, something will rush in to fill the void. This is already happening in Europe.

    I agree with jal that changes need to be cultural rather than political in order to actually work. But I take exception to "unless we take the (discredited) religious view that the foetus is a person with rights" Who discredited this? If anything, modern sonograms have shown just how early the baby moves and reacts to the world around it. Previously, life was said to begin at quickening - when the mother was able to feel the child move. Now we know better - we understand a completely unique human is created before we know they are there.

  3. "Also, unless we take the (discredited) religious view that the foetus is a person"

    ll sums it up, it is not discredited.

    "So, basically, I agree that abortion is a bad thing. So, to a lesser extent and for different reasons, do the liberals and feminists"

    The second sentence is ludicrous. They promote abortion whenever they get the chance.

    "Legalising abortion is not going to create demand for it, because it's not something anyone could conceivably want."

    Replace the word "abortion" in this statement with "murder", "wife beating" or "slavery". Would that change the culture? Is there more or less slavery when it is illegal?

    That last justification reminds me of the statements from when abortion was to be introduced. Nobody wanted it, so it would be rare and used only in special cases. How many millions of innocent children have had their heads bashed in since then?