Monday, June 08, 2009

Modernism & traditionalism

What makes us human? It was the answer given to this question in the early modern period which decided the way we are now.

According to the early moderns, we are made human by our capacity to self-determine. The aim, therefore, is to be autonomous: to self-create who we are through our own individual reason and will and to be unimpeded in determining how to act.

This became the ruling idea of Western societies. It was popular amongst leading aristocrats and the rising commercial classes because it undercut the unchosen authority of the king. It was also presented in the most flattering terms as an argument for individual freedom. Nor, at first, did it undermine other aspects of life that were important to people.

Nonetheless, it was a destructive idea. If the aim is to self-determine, then the individual has to be “liberated” from anything which is predetermined. Anything that is a given part of human nature, or which belongs to an inherited tradition or which is hardwired into human biology is predetermined.

Therefore, the early moderns were committing themselves to making some of the most important things in life not matter. After all, much of what is carried to us as part of a tradition survives exactly because it is significant to us as individuals. Similarly, it’s unlikely that aspects of the self would have been hardwired into us, as part of our given nature, if they were not important.

So what specifically is the cost of this pursuit of autonomy? First, we don’t determine for ourselves whether we are born male or female. Therefore, liberal moderns are committed to making sex differences between men and women not matter. This is how some of these liberal moderns put the issue:

Professor Susan Moller Okin: “A just future would be one without gender. In its social structures and practices, one's sex would have no more relevance than one's eye color or the length of one's toes.”

David Fiore: “Any time a human being chooses to describe themselves as anything but a "human being", liberalism has been thwarted ... The liberal subject is always merely that - he or she can have no group affiliation, no "sexual orientation," no gender in fact!”

Professor Robert Jensen: “We need to get rid of the whole idea of masculinity … Of course, if we are going to jettison masculinity, we have to scrap femininity along with it … For those of us who are biologically male, we have a simple choice: We men can settle for being men, or we can strive to be human beings.”


Nor can liberal moderns easily accept the traditional family. In the traditional family there are distinct gender roles of father and mother, and husband and wife. We don’t get to self-determine these roles; therefore, there are liberal moderns who wish to see them replaced with a single, unisex, interchangeable parental role.

Nor do we get to self-determine the authority that fathers have over us, so liberal moderns are often particularly concerned to reject a distinct paternal role within the family.

Again, if there is only one form of family life we don’t get to self-select which one to belong to. Therefore, liberal moderns will often insist that there is no natural form of family life, but rather a diversity of family forms. Some liberal moderns insist that family life is so open that it cannot even be defined.

What else do we not self-determine? We don’t get to choose for ourselves our ethnicity. Therefore, traditional forms of national identity, based on ethnicity, have been declared illegitimate by liberal moderns.

Professor Michael Ignatieff, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, has rejected ethnic nationalism on these grounds:

Ethnic nationalism claims ... that an individual’s deepest attachments are inherited not chosen.


It is the fact that ethnic identity is both highly significant to the individual, but not able to be self-determined, which puts it so much at odds with the liberal pursuit of autonomy. That’s why there has been so much effort to deconstruct traditional forms of nationalism in Western countries.

Then there is the issue of morality. This is a particularly difficult issue for liberal moderns. If the highest good is to self-determine, then moral rules can only be negative limitations on the individual. Furthermore, if morality is something inherent and objective, then it can’t be self-determined.

So liberal moderns will tend to believe that there is nothing inherently right or wrong, and that what makes an act moral or immoral is whether or not it is an authentic want of the individual (i.e. whether it is freely consented to).

Professor Catherine Lumby, therefore, rejects the idea of morality altogether in favour of “ethics” on these grounds:

Morality is a blueprint for living that someone hands to you. Ethics is the zone we all enter when we find ourselves, by choice or necessity, negotiating those rules.


Dr Mirko Bargaric, an Australian human rights lawyer, assures us that,

we are morally complete and virtuous individuals if we do as we wish so long as our actions do not harm others


And Dr Leslie Cannold, an Australian ethicist, takes the view that,

defining your own good ... is at the heart of a moral life.


So the pursuit of autonomy has a terrible cost: it requires the suppression of gender difference, of traditional family life, of ethnicity and of an objective morality.

Both the left and right are committed to modernism. That’s why underlying principles are never debated in mainstream politics. The distinction between left and right is based instead on a second-tier issue. If society is to be made up of millions of competing wills, each in pursuit of his or her own interests and with no commitment to a collective good, then how is society to hold together?

The right (i.e. right-liberals) believe that individuals can seek their own interests and profit in the economy and that the market will regulate the outcome for the overall progress of society. The left (left-liberals) prefer the technocratic solution of the regulation of society by a state bureaucracy.

The more significant debate is not between right (Liberal Party) and left (Labor Party) liberals but between moderns and traditionalists. The point of traditionalism is not to uncritically endorse everything in the past or to reject all that is modern. It’s to challenge the specific underlying principle of modernism: the idea that we are made human by our capacity to self-determine.

Traditionalists are not opposed to autonomy, but we don’t hold it to be the sole organising principle of society. There are other important goods to uphold, including those relating to family, ethny and nation.

Nor do we believe that modernism can deliver the individual freedom it promises. We cannot be free as abstracted, autonomous individuals. If we are to be free, it must be as we really exist: as men and women, as members of traditional, historic communities, and as moral beings.

15 comments:

  1. I believe liberal modernism has very good intentions, but they lack reality. In a way, I can see where they are coming from; only if we can just get rid of all those traditions & dogmatic rules then the world would be a better place? Therefore we can no longer use sex, race and culture for discriminatory purposes.

    Similar to the liberal modernist approach, early nineteenth-century America attempted to eradicate poverty and to promote a sense of unity and brotherhood by way of communalism. Leaders of this movement thought by taking a cooperative approach rather than working for money would diminish inequality and coveting. However history shows how quick men are to selfishness and pride even when money is taken out of the equation. I have yet to find a place now, where communalism is healthy & successful?

    Like communalism, I think liberal modernist make a huge assumption. They think by eliminating sex, race and culture the world will be a better place? But what about the uneven distribution of talents and abilities? Are we now going to suppress and limit people’s innate skill set? Or are we going to put people with less skill in more skilful jobs just to make things equal? Wait a second…… what’s affirmative action? No matter how hard we try no system or institution can eliminate pride. However Mr. Richardson said it best when he said “the inevitable imperfection of an institution can not justify letting go of all standards.” I believe this to be true even though I wish that we all can be good without institution. Liberal modernist should stick to writing fiction like books similar to Thomas Mores Utopia.

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  2. "We don’t get to self-determine these roles; therefore, there are liberal moderns who wish to see them replaced with a single, unisex, interchangeable parental role."

    Ideally,they would prefer the child to make all their own decisions early on. The child's autonomy should be equal to that of the parents.

    How ill was Western culture that this idea caught on in the first place? I'm not saying idealism doesn't have role in society. But it looks like what happened is people thought they could do a better job than God. They didn't throw out all structures, they threw out the very idea of a structure. If they weren't so convinced God was a dummy for not giving them exactly what they wanted in the first place they never would have embraced this.

    Like anonymous said it is pride!

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  3. According to the early moderns, we are made human by our capacity to self-determine. The aim, therefore, is to be autonomous: to self-create who we are through our own individual reason and will and to be unimpeded in determining how to act.




    I'm not sure that is entirely correct. Yes, Locke thought like this. But Burke and Hume and Tocqueville and many others thought differently.

    But it's true that the strand of thought which has become dominant today is the one called "the left".

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  4. Terrific article by Mr. Richardson. This is one of the best and clearest statements of what is liberalism that I have seen. In the future, when people want to understand the difference between liberalism traditionalism, this article should be recommended to them.

    Today I was talking with three conservative friends who were saying that the word "liberalism" ought to be dropped because it's too ambiguous or hackneyed and can't convey real meaning. I disagreed with them.

    This article shows once again that far from being an outdated or fuzzy or unhelpful term, "liberalism" is indeed the correct word for the ruling ideology of our time.

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  5. Mr. Richardson writes:

    "So liberal moderns will tend to believe that there is nothing inherently right or wrong, and that what makes an act moral or immoral is whether or not it is an authentic want of the individual (i.e. whether it is freely consented to)."

    But if this is the case, on what basis do liberals constantly refer to "our moral values" and harshly condemn conservatives for their violations thereof? Since the core idea of liberalism is that the individual must not be determined or controlled by anything that he himself did not create, including his sex, his family, his national identity, and morality itself, on what basis do liberals say that certain things are immoral, such as racial discrimination or national identity?

    The answer would appear to be that those things are wrong because they violate the liberal principle of the radically autonomous self. So liberal morality does not contradict itself, as may have initially appeared to be the case. The radically undetermined, freely-choosing self—the self which rejects any objective standard of the good—is itself the liberal standard of the good, and moral condemnation of such things as cultural discrimination or national identity is not self-contradictory, because cultural discrimination and national identity violate the standard of radical personal autonomy by placing people in categories that they did not personally choose and limiting their freedom based on their placement in those categories.

    Of course, there is the notorious double standard whereby liberals allow nonwhites, non-Westerners, and feminist women to assert the very group identities which are condemned when they are claimed by conservatives whites. But that apparent double standard comes from a different side of liberalism, namely the egalitarian imperative by which oppressors and oppressed are dealt with according to stunningly different rules, in order to equalize the conditions of oppressor and oppressed by raising up the latter and dragging down the former. Understood in its own terms, the egalitarian imperative of liberalism is as consistent as the radical autonomy principle of liberalism. They do, however, contradict each others.

    I realize that last point may be less than clear and I will need to revisit it.

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  6. Lawrence Auster wrote:

    "if this is the case, on what basis do liberals constantly refer to "our moral values" and harshly condemn conservatives for their violations thereof?"

    I would put it this way. If being self-determined makes us not only free, but human, then it is imperative that we be equally self-determined, otherwise there is literally a breach of human equality (i.e. some people are treated as more human than others).

    If we treat people according to categories that they cannot determine (e.g. sex, race), then we are degrading their autonomous humanity, which is socially unjust and a serious breach of human equality.

    So it becomes vital (under the terms of liberalism) that we do not discriminate on such grounds as sex or race.

    This then becomes the focus of liberal morality.

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  7. Lawrence Auster also mentioned the double standard by which "oppressor" and "oppressed" groups are dealt with by different rules.

    I think he's right to explain this according to liberal equality.

    Take the issue of gender. Historically, sex differences did matter. There was social differentiation between men and women.

    Liberals won't want to explain this as being natural. They'll view it as an artificial social construct to be overcome.

    But why should such a construct exist? Left-liberals generally explain it in terms of power and privilege: one social class "men" organised to gain an unearned privilege over another social class "women".

    Therefore, when men organise it is for illegitimate purposes: to maintain their own oppressive power and privilege. However, when women organise it's a progressive act of resistance.

    Even so, both categories are ultimately artificial constructs for liberals.

    There's a similar logic when it comes to race. Left-liberals argue that whites invented racial categories as part of an assertion of colonial power over others.

    Therefore, white identity can only have a negative aspect for liberals: whites who assert their own identity are thought to be supremacists - which is logical given the left-liberal idea that a white identity was created artificially to assert power and superiority over others.

    This means not only that other races can be thought of as organising progressively to fight oppression, but also given that whites are uniquely guilty of creating racism, the identity of other races might be thought to be more authentic and legitimate.

    A left-liberal, for instance, might think of Australian Aborigines, following Rousseau, as being a natural culture, untainted by civilisation and as nobly resisting white oppression.

    And so you get the radically different treatment - the double standard - by which Aboriginal identity is accorded a positive respect whilst white identity is condemned as illegitimate.

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  8. that apparent double standard comes from a different side of liberalism, namely the egalitarian imperative by which oppressors and oppressed are dealt with according to stunningly different rules, in order to equalize the conditions of oppressor and oppressed by raising up the latter and dragging down the former.

    Yes. I would add a small additional justification: nonjudgmentalism. Because progressives have no shared moral values, they find it very difficult to judge others, and particularly, others who are unlike them. This is semi-codified in the "rule" that each race/sex/ethnicity/etc. (even though they don't really exist) are allowed to criticize themselves, and themselves only. So I can say, as a man, that all persons of the male gender construct are evil! and get kudos. But if I say women are X, for any X less than fully complimentary, then I am being judgmental, and thus wrong. How I can I possibly know anything about women (or blacks, or Mexicans, or gays) without being one?

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  9. Although I recognize it is largely pointless to quibble terminology... nonetheless I would still hold out for "progressive" as the label for our enemies. This is, after all, what they call themselves.

    The ones who call themselves "liberal" are doing so either as political trimming, because they are afraid of the slightly more revealing label "progressive", or else they are not fully committed believers in equality.

    "Progressive" is also a term less bound up with the early development of liberalism. Liberalism has had several distinct phases. Traditionalists can work with at least some proponents of its early "libertarian" phase. (That phase was called "liberalism" by its proponents, but we would now label its ideological content as libertarianism.)

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  10. Thank you for this excellent article.
    One of the horrors of the liberal principal is the elimination or downgrading of all standards. We see this everyday with the absence of dress codes,rudeness, loud cell phone use and people acting out their personal "dramas" in the public square. If you protest against this you are "weird", "not with it" or "old" and face a backlash. I remember commenting to a colleague on the generally unkempt dress of students and was told "it's whats inside that matters!" We in the west are the richest generation in history and so many people walk around looking like bums.The poorest Mexican kids in their nicely laundered white shirts and navy blue pants/skirts go to school looking nicer than our students. Our buildings have no beauty. Everything is tainted by liberalism. How long will this go on until it's bankruptcy is so apparent that people will reject it? Ironically the aridity of liberalism (although he didn't realize it)is summed up by a quote from George Orwell, a socialist, who wrote " I wasn't born for a time like this, were you?

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  11. An excellent essay. Some preliminary thoughts:

    If, according to liberalism,

    "...what makes an act moral or immoral is whether or not it is an authentic want of the individual (i.e. whether it is freely consented to)."

    then morality must not be based on any rules or principles that are external to the self. But this makes liberal morality versus traditional morality analogous to the distinction between Darwinism and Intelligent Design/Creationism: just as the Darwinists are outraged at even the suggestion that life may have been partly the result of a deliberate act by an agent, so the liberal is outraged at the idea that morality might require taking into account rules external to the self. In both cases (life developing or a human being choosing his actions) intellect-based external interference is not allowed.

    Richardson also says,

    "If society is to be made up of millions of competing wills, each in pursuit of his or her own interests and with no commitment to a collective good, then how is society to hold together?"

    According to liberalism, society's harmony can be no more than the "pre-established harmony" of Leibnitz's Windowless Monads. This is why, for example, right-liberals hope Islam will spontaneously become nonthreatening, but will not even entertain the possibility of exerting force on Moslems (other than to make them more free.)

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  12. As Kenneth Minogue observed*: The basic premise of the liberal mind is that suffering can be understood and alleviated wholesale, as it were, as the fixed experience of abstract classes of human beings. In any melodrama of victims and oppressors, Liberals will always claim the roles of judge, emancipator, and fairy godmother. Conservatives will be cast in the roles of reactionary and the cruel laissez-fairy.

    So in a competition for the moral high ground - where the relief of man's estate or a suffering situation is at issue - the Liberals always win. Compassion is the soul of liberalism, and nobody in his senses argues for an increase in human misery.

    *The Liberal Mind.

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  13. There is one area where liberals contradict their basic premises and embrace biological determinism: homosexuality. Witness the attacks on NARTH and other organizations that suggest the homosexual could be otherwise.

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  14. Despite the cogent arguments they are of little effect as they don't address the underlying structural differences that create liberalism and conservatism.

    Liberalism and conservatism are the by-products of the structure of society and not the cause of it.

    Traditional (conservative) society was a flat hierarchical, tree network. The flat spread of authority and wealth (which was based on property)was due to the even consignments of feudal holdings and relative indivisibility of land.

    With the novelty of magnates acquiring confiscated church lands, liens being executed on properties by bankers and the inception of corporations, authoritative and economic control became more centralized.

    This centralization created an increasingly star type network with little interaction between outlying nodes.

    Basically, the greater the centralization of authority, economic power and communal services, the weaker the connections between individuals. Liberalism is the expression of this structure.

    The greatest difficulty lies in the fact that this structure is economically more efficient and endues the holder with greater power than traditional structures.

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  15. Niko writes
    Basically, the greater the centralization of authority, economic power and communal services, the weaker the connections between individuals. Liberalism is the expression of this structure.

    If we marry this idea with that of the insatiable drive for autonomy and non discrimination then we must ultimately derive progressivism as a state of tyranny. Most modern Western governments are only equipped to accommodate such ideas to a certain point.

    If it is true that liberals are always just one revolution away from happiness, *always*, then what will this restless drive mean for the the future path they will cut through the societal and historic foundations that support them and enable their existence?

    In architectural terms it would mean collapse.

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