Thursday, November 25, 2010

A more critical take than expected

How is liberalism presented in a work like The Oxford Companion to Philosophy? In a more critical way than I had expected. Here are some excerpts:

Liberalism. One of the major political ideologies of the modern world...Liberalism first emerged as an important movement in Europe in the sixteenth century. is the dominant ideology in many parts of the world.

Excellent. It is recognised here very clearly that liberalism is not only a political ideology, but that it dominates in many countries. It is effectively the state ideology in countries like Australia.

What we then get are two different explanations for the rise of liberalism, one favourable and one critical. The favourable one is that liberalism arose as a way of settling the religious conflicts of the Reformation:

both Protestants and Catholics accepted that the state could not impose a common faith ... Liberalism has simply extended this principle from the sphere of religion to other areas of social life where citizens have conflicting beliefs about the meaning of life. A liberal state does not seek to resolve these conflicts, but rather provides a 'neutral' framework within which citizens can pursue their diverse conceptions of the good life.

I've heard some liberals advance this kind of belief about liberal neutrality. It's not a view that's easily made coherent. First, it's not possible for a state to be neutral when it comes to conceptions of the good life. Second, the demand for neutrality undermines some key conceptions of the good life and privileges others (i.e. it pushes society in particular directions). Third, the reality is that the liberal state has imposed a set of liberal values on society, transforming society in radical ways, rather than remaining neutral.

The Oxford Companion also provides a more critical explanation for the rise of liberalism:

Liberalism's critics, however, argue that liberalism emerged as the ideological justification for the rise of capitalism, and that its image of the autonomous individual is simply a glorification of the pursuit of self-interest in the market. Liberalism replaced the web of mutual obligations which bound people together in ethnic, religious, or other communities with a society predicated on competition and 'atomistic' individualism.

It might well be true that the rising commercial classes found liberal ideas attractive because they tended to dissolve the older precapitalist order of society. But the connection to capitalism doesn't seem sufficient to me to explain why liberalism came to dominate.

The next criticism of liberalism is this:

A major challenge for liberal philosophers has been to explain why individual freedom should have priority over competing values such as community or perfectionism.

The phraseology here takes liberalism on its own terms. What liberal philosophers argue for is a particular understanding of freedom, one based on individual autonomy. So what needs to be asked is why liberals believe that individual autonomy should have priority over competing values such as community.

According to the entry, liberals give two main defences for prioritising individual "freedom". Kantian liberals believe that we are defined as humans by our autonomy and therefore to restrict autonomy is to treat people as being less than fully human:

Kantian liberals, for example, argue that the capacity for rational autonomy is the highest capacity humans possess, and so is worthy of inherent respect. To restrict someone's freedom of choice, on this Kantian view, is to treat them as less than a fully mature and responsible human being, and this is wrong, regardless of the desirable or undesirable social consequences that might follow.

As I've pointed out at this site many times, the undesirable social consequences of making autonomy the overriding good are many and severe. So severe that it would make a lot more sense instead to balance autonomy with a range of other goods. The Kantian approach is not without its critics:

This Kantian view has been very influential in the liberal tradition. However, it rests on a controversial claim about the nature of moral value and moral respect...many critics argue that using the state to promote the Kantian ideal of rational autonomy is as 'sectarian' as using the state to promote Protestantism.

Indeed. The modern liberal state, as noted above, is radically and intrusively ideological.

Critics of the Kantian approach argue that liberals should therefore avoid appealing to the value of autonomy, and instead defend liberalism simply as the only viable basis for peaceful coexistence in culturally and religiously plural societies.

Kantian liberals respond, however, that without appealing to the value of individual autonomy, there is no reason why coexistence between groups should take the form of guaranteeing the rights of individuals. Why not just allow each group in society to organise itself as it sees fit...

The Kantians have a point. If the underlying value of a society is "peaceful existence" then why would you adopt liberalism in the first place? Australia was a relatively unified society one hundred years ago. There weren't great schisms in society. If you had wanted a peaceful society, then it would have been best to let Australia develop along non-liberal lines.

Peacefulness doesn't catch the underlying dynamic of liberalism. After all, it's not as if liberals argue that society has unfortunately become so diverse and multicultural that peaceful existence is threatened and liberalism is required as a remedy. The liberal argument is very different. Liberals tend to argue that a traditionally unified society is boring or illegitimate and that such a society should be transformed by a deliberate policy of diversity or multiculturalism and that this more diverse society will add vibrancy etc.

There's one more criticism of liberalism that I'll finish on:

critics argue that the unfettered exercise of individual choice will undermine the forms of family and community life which help develop people's capacity for choice and provide people with meaningful options. On this view, liberalism is self-defeating - liberals privilege individual rights, even when this undermines the social conditions which make individual freedoms valuable.

In particular, what happens if making individual autonomy paramount dissolves communal institutions and identities? Is the freedom to be an atomised consumer as valuable as the freedom to live as a man, or as an Englishman, or as a husband and father?

In other words, there is likely to be a more significant freedom for the individual if autonomy is balanced with a range of other important goods, including those relating to family life and communal identity.

The Oxford Companion does make one last criticism of liberalism. It's a very good but lengthy one, so I'll leave it to a future post.


  1. In economic terms we can look at economic lassiez faire liberalism of the C19th century in terms of freedom of contract. You are two autonomous individuals (or groups) and you can come together and decide on the terms of your arrangement. If you don't like it you can refuse to agree. In such a set up rational decision making and autonomy is of great importance.

    So for instance if there is a work contract and the workplace is unsafe, the worker should have realised this situation and then either stayed or left. If they stayed they were voluntarily accepting the risk as part of the contract and consequently if they were injured they were not entitled to compensation.

    The left criticised this as a false situation where the worker and the boss didn't actually have an equal ability to negotiate their workplace conditions, or the option of taking it or leaving it. Consequently they argued that the ideal of individual rational decision making was an illusion justifying the existence of unequal workplace environments. In such an environment the idea of older feudal norms of mutual obligations amongst the strata of society were supported by the left and you can see from them a deal of sympathy for these older feudal practices, eg trade guilds. There is a degree of this left attitude in the Oxford discussion.

    Liberal ideas in the C19th century or older took place in an environment where Western norms were the accepted ideal and society was generally ordered. Today with immigration this can no longer be as easily taken for granted and we’re also less ordered I would suggest. Liberal ideas I believe can also be seen to be an addition onto an existing environment, but we see today what happens when the intellectual line has been continually followed so that they have the potential to be a replacement for the existing environment.

  2. As a general point Mark, you might like to take a look at the campaign website of Glyn Baker, a libertarian independent running in the Victorian election for Morwell:

    Obviously he is a radical liberal who wants to basically abolish marriage (the libertarian gay marriage idea), allow euthanasia, and some abortion. But his abortion page also includes references to encouraging mens' rights activism that you might like to look at.

  3. Jesse, you've explained in clear terms, I think, the rise of the "new liberalism" (i.e. left-liberalism) later in the 1800s.

    Your second point is similar to the argument made by Professor Carroll in his book on humanism. He sees political modernism as having originally existed in "fusion" with other sources of value and authority, e.g. with Protestantism or with aristocratic values of honour and duty.

    But during the course of the twentieth century, political moderns abandoned fusion in favour of going it alone in a more pure and radical form.

  4. George, interesting, thanks for the link.

    He is predictably libertarian in his views on drugs and gay marriage.

    But he does make criticisms of feminism, seeing it as part of the reason for men abandoning a commitment to marriage and family:

    "A global Men's Rights Movement has been gathering considerable steam since 2007, and will likely hit mainstream within the next 5 to 10 years. Especially as more men get fed up with the family law courts, and as fewer disillusioned young men get married or start families."

    I'd point to this as evidence of how it's possible to make a difference politically.

    The men's rights movement was very small even five years ago. Now it's influential enough to be appearing in the political manifesto of an otherwise orthodox libertarian.

    It shows that there does exist a "tipping point" at which people will no longer accept political doctrines that are demonstrably false.

    Why would a young man today accept the idea that he is a privileged oppressor? After all, young women seem to have the upper hand in education, in sexual power, in marriage and divorce laws and, increasingly, in professional employment.

    And so we get what began as a tiny movement (of which I was a part back in the late 1990s) which has grown steadily on the internet and which appears now to be gaining a bit of traction.

    Maybe it won't last, but I'm guessing that it will be difficult to dislodge, now that it's spread even to liberal and libertarian young men.

  5. The point you make is valid Mark. Why would a liberal thinking Male of European background accept the demonisation of his own group if given the free choice that liberalism supposedly advocates?

    I would argue that this is because late 20th to early 21st century liberalism is s different beast to classical liberalism of the left or right.

    It is a new ideology based less on ideas than on "feelings". And the main "feeling" being expressed is one left over from cold war propaganda: that the West is inherently evil and responsible for all the evils in the world.

    Since European Males created the West which is the cause of all the worlds problems, then this group must be inherently evil themselves.

    Modern left-liberal thought is a mishmash of conflicting ideologies, many of which openly contradict each other.

    This is probably why in Europe you see proud left-wing "anti-fascists" marching alongside radical Muslims who advocate the slaughter of Jews.

  6. Very interesting, thanks Mark. I've long felt that our society needs to recognise a legitimate tension between Liberal and Conservative interests to function. Instead we have All Liberal All The Time.

  7. Liberalism will eventually self-destroy. By dint of confusing genuine, moderate liberty for licentiousness--and licentiousness for liberty, for that matter--liberals are creating an unbearable divide in society. They transfer morality to individuals, and refuse to acknowledge shared values as they would be a burden on the sacrosanct individual autonomy. The lack of shared value is causing and will continue to cause significant issues. If people do not even agree to some extent on what is good or evil, if every individual gets to determine what its own morality is, then liberalism will collapse and what is left of society will descend into anarchy. My only fear is that it will be replaced by yet another spiritual and material dictatorship to clean up the mess. This was anticipated by both Edmund Burke and John Adams at the end of the eighteenth century. They have displayed considerable prescience in their works on the whole, hopefully they are wrong on this one, and a more balanced form of society will arise out of the ashes of liberalism instead of downright military dictatorship. The backlash will be terrible, liberalism has caused such chaos already...