The difficulty is this. Liberals believe in individual autonomy as the highest good. Autonomy is thought to define our very humanity.
Therefore, the moral thing is to be free to do whatever we have a will to do; the immoral thing is to have our will impeded.
Liberalism therefore has a tendency to be libertine, permissive and even transgressive, as it will be thought morally heroic to break taboos which restrict what individuals might choose to do.
That's one side of the ledger. The other side is that liberals still have to make moral judgements. What if people choose to act against liberal values? How will liberals morally condemn this? And what if the "do as you will" philosophy creates damaging outcomes? How will liberals set limits to behaviour, when the underlying idea is that autonomy, a freedom to choose, is what determines the morality of our actions?
Liberals sometimes try to resolve the problem by raising the issue of "authentic wants." Let's say that Person X chooses to do something that a liberal doesn't like. In theory, the liberal should accept that the act is moral as it is Person X's choice to do it. But the liberal can argue that it wasn't an authentic choice, it wasn't what Person X really had a will to do. Perhaps Person X was somehow influenced by other people in his choice, or by tradition, or by advertisers.
This hasn't been an effective tactic. All that Person X has to do is to turn to the liberal and affirm that their choice is, indeed, authentic. For instance, a woman who becomes a stripper can talk about her choice being empowering, an expression of her independence, as being motivated by her own sexuality and life goals and so on. And Person X then wins the argument.
So liberals seem to have moved on to Plan B, which is to insist that moral actions be respectful. Here in Victoria the Labor Government has actually appointed a Minister of Respect in response to the wave of crime in the CBD.
Why such an emphasis on respect? The idea of respect places only indefinite, general, subjective limitations on our moral agency. There remain no specific, objective moral truths or inherently superior forms of personal character to guide our behaviour in a certain direction.
Respect works better as a strategy than authentic wants. It does encourage people to think of others when making moral choices. But I doubt that it can work strongly enough to hold the line. Is a young man who sets out to create violence in the CBD likely to change his mind by being told to respect others? Will this really have purchase on him?
And what happens when the notion of respect collides with the idea that "the fact that it's my choice makes it OK". Let's say a woman decides to be a football groupie. It's her choice to do so, so in her mind it's a moral thing to do. Are the football players who encounter her and others like her going to respect her? Is mutual respect likely to flourish in such a social milieu? Is it even reasonable to ask people to show her the same respect as a suburban mum raising a family? (Wouldn't this require people to suspend or suppress their moral instincts? Should we really show equal respect to people regardless of how they choose to behave?)
To illustrate this problem, consider the views of Charmyne Palavi, a rugby league groupie in Sydney. She clings to the "no limits" side of liberal morality, as when she describes herself as,
a single woman who can have sex whenever, with whomever, I choose.
She knows that the rugby league players don't respect the groupies:
Group sex happens ... The reality is there are women out there who do hunt footballers down, are prepared to have sex with them in nightclub toilets ...
Anyone who thinks the culture is going to change just because the story's out there however are kidding themselves.
I was messaging a young player, a Facebook friend, last week and asked what he was doing.
He replied: "Learning how to respect women. LOL (laugh out loud)."
I wrote back: "Yeah, and I'm still a virgin."
But she still believes that "respect" is the solution to managing interactions between the players and the groupies they have sex in toilets with:
People seem to be ignoring the bigger issue here while they look for someone to blame. That is - the disrespect for women inherent in the clubs.
She wants to behave in an unrespectable way and yet be treated with respect. Again, this shows a danger with the "equal respect" mantra. It has the potential to further undermine people's moral sense, by asking us to give moral assent to people regardless of how they behave.
The level of respect we show for others rightly varies according to the kind of personal character they display. It's not something that can be assumed to be permanently booked in.
There's one other liberal approach to morality that deserves a mention. Liberals will often discuss moral issues in terms of discrimination. A liberal can deem a moral action to be wrong if it discriminates, since the discrimination will be thought to limit the life aims (and therefore the autonomy) of some other person.
There was a curious example of this in yesterday's Age. A banker was caught out looking at a racy photo of a model on his computer during a live telecast on TV. He was temporarily stood down by the bank, but has returned to his job.
Cordelia Fine, a research associate at the Centre for Agency, Values and Ethics (a liberal way of describing moral philosophy) at Macquarie University, wrote a lengthy column about it. Remember, liberals are committed to a "if I choose it, it's moral" philosophy, so Cordelia Fine can't really argue that there is something inherently wrong with the banker looking at a racy photo.
Nonetheless, she makes a detailed argument that looking at the photo was an immoral act. Why? Because it fosters discrimination against women in the workplace, by harming the pursuit of careers by women. According to Cordelia Fine, a man looking at a racy photo in the workplace can undermine a woman's performance at work because she has to,
expend mental energy unconsciously suppressing the unflattering stereotype, and this interferes with the task at hand.
Think of the consequences of this approach to morality. It is an invitation to intrusive, petty, bureaucratic regulation of our day to day interactions with other people. Who doesn't suffer some kind of discrimination in their efforts to achieve their life aims? And how would you set about preventing it happening? Morality here takes the path of social engineering.
And so you end up with a mix of the libertine and the intrusive. Autonomy once again generates a contradiction. To be autonomous means rejecting external limits on what we might choose to do; but creating conditions of autonomy requires highly regulated social settings that are experienced as unnecessarily intrusive rather than individually free.