In short, it's this. The basic values of liberalism are designed to foster autonomy. However, human dispositions can be oriented toward both what is good and what is evil. So encouraging autonomy might just as much encourage acts of evil:
in human beings, morally good dispositions coexist with morally evil dispositions. If autonomy is fostered, then both good and evil dispositions are encouraged. (p.24)
Liberals, therefore, need to explain how fostering autonomy can be reconciled with diminishing the prevalence of evil. Kekes discusses a number of liberal strategies; I won't try to summarise these now, as I want to focus on one aspect alone, namely the Socratic option.
Why do humans commit evil actions? Kekes begins with the Socratic explanation:
The philosophically most influential explanation is embedded in the Socratic paradox that no one does evil knowingly. The thought behind the apparently obvious falsehood of this claim is that human agents are normally guided in their actions by what seems good to them. The explanation of evil actions must therefore be either that the agents are ignorant of the good and perform evil actions in the mistaken belief that they are good, or that if they know what the good is and they nevertheless do evil, then it is because accident, coercion, or some incapacity interferes with their pursuit of what seems good to them. (p.28)
Evil exists then because of a lack of knowledge or a lack of choice. This fits in well with the liberal emphasis on autonomy. It means that it is either ignorance which makes people act badly or some sort of external coercion. Therefore, more autonomy, including more "educated" choices, will overcome the problem of evil:
The Socratic explanation ... is most congenial to liberalism. It attributes evil actions to ignorance and proposes as a remedy the improvement of knowledge and the protection of choice from outside interference, which, in liberal language, is but the strengthening of autonomy.
Kekes has some specific criticisms of liberalism for adopting the Socratic explanation. But I want to leave Kekes for a while and turn instead to the writings of a nineteenth century German socialist, August Bebel.
Bebel wrote a feminist book in 1879 called Woman and Socialism. One chapter of this book was devoted to "Woman in the future." So what did Bebel's hopes for women in the future consist of?
He clung to the liberal modernist orthodoxy. He hoped that there would be a society based on individual autonomy - on self-determination and independence - particularly in the sexual sphere.
He wrote of his idealised future society:
Man shall dispose of his own person, provided that the gratification of his impulses is not harmful or detrimental to others. The satisfaction of the sexual impulse is as much the private concern of each individual, as the satisfaction of any other natural impulse. No one is accountable to any one else, and no third person has the right to interfere. What I eat and drink, how I sleep and dress is my private affair, and my private affair also is my intercourse with a person of the opposite sex.
Bebel was an advocate of what was called at the time "free love". It meant that people should sleep with whomever they wanted and that neither morality nor marriage vows ought to limit this. This was a common idea amongst early feminist writers.
One problem with this view is already suggested in Bebel's argument. In order to make sex so casual it has to be reduced in significance to a mere natural appetite like sleeping or eating. It's no longer connected in a special or significant way to love, or psychological bonding or moral feeling.
But that's not the point I wish to draw out. Bebel goes on to argue that only good will result from such autonomy, not evil, because people's intelligence will have been raised by education and because people will be more independent and less subject to compulsion in the new socialist society.
In other words, Bebel turns precisely to the Socratic paradox to explain why autonomy will expand the good and diminish the evil. If people are more independent and more educated then they will follow what is good:
Intelligence and culture, personal independence, – qualities that will become natural, owing to the education and conditions prevailing in the new society, – will prevent persons from committing actions that will prove detrimental to themselves. Men and women of future society will possess far more self-control and a better knowledge of their own natures, than men and women of to-day.
Has he been proven right? Women today are better educated and more independent than in Bebel's time. Has this led to the possession of greater self-control? To beneficial, rather than detrimental, forms of behaviour in human relationships?
There's reason to think not. There's reason to think that the Socratic paradox is wrong. There's reason to think that giving women more autonomy to act as they will has led, as Kekes suggests it would, to some women acting according to their more base dispositions.
It was reported recently, for instance, that the number of newlywed women in Toronto signing up for an adultery website is skyrocketing:
the number of Toronto-area female newlyweds on their site has skyrocketed in the past year. In March 2009, there were 3,184 women who had been married for three years or less actively using the service. A year later, there were 12,442.
The operators of the adultery website have found a "robust" demographic:
They soon realized they had overlooked a robust and active demographic: “These were young women who, from their self-description ... were only married a year or two and seemed to really be questioning the institution, their next step, entering into parenthood, staying with that partner,” Biderman says.
They called it their “newlywed marketplace.”
A relationships expert believes that it is a result of women being more self-determining and following their own path:
“I just think that women are stronger and coming into themselves and following their own path,” says Toronto relationship therapist Nancy Ross.
The website operator also attributes the trend to the growing independence of women:
Biderman thinks female newlyweds are looking for more than a fling — that many of them are sizing up their husbands and questioning whether they really want to start a family with him. And, in a pragmatic move not unlike job hunting, they might even want to line up a new partner before leaving their current one.
“As more and more people get married later and later in life, does it really surprise you that a 30-year-old woman who just got married a year or two ago, but has a very robust career and is very independent, is really going to tolerate the same kind of failed expectations that someone two generations removed from her (did)?” he asks.
One of the women using the site justifies herself as follows:
Susan, now 27, says she loves her husband and does not plan to leave him ... she’s made many friends who understand her, both male and female, and she’s now had four very satisfying affairs.
“I come home smiling after and I’m just fulfilled, which kind of cuts up my resentment toward my husband, because I just feel better — physically, emotionally, everything.”
So we have better educated and more autonomous women. Does this mean, though, that these women are genuinely acting for the good? Their autonomy has in some cases merely unleashed the worst aspects of female hypergamy: of attempting to trade up to higher status men regardless of wedding vows. In other cases it has led them to pursue selfish ends; despite being newly wed they want to continue to take lovers as well as keeping the advantages of having a husband. They are acting not, as Bebel predicted, with greater self-control, but according to the justification of how they feel at a particular moment.
Liberals cannot, therefore, claim that education or knowledge or independence will lead people to act for the good. It is not always coercion or ignorance that leads to detrimental forms of behaviour. The potential to act detrimentally exists within the disposition of individuals. Therefore, if individuals are given the autonomy to act according to their disposition, we can expect to see more of such behaviour, than if individuals are held in some way to a recognised standard.