Saturday, June 08, 2013

Peillon's conceit

I want to spend some time in France in my next few posts, as important things are happening right now in that country.

France has a left-wing government and the Education Minister is a man by the very French name of Vincent BenoƮt Camille Peillon.

Monsieur Peillon has stirred some controversy in setting out his vision for French schools. He wants to have courses on "secular morality" taught in French schools. But what is this vision of morality?
The purpose of secular morality is to allow each student to be free, because the starting point of secularism is the absolute respect for freedom of conscience. To give freedom of choice, we must be able to remove the student from all determinisms, family, ethnic, social, intellectual...

The Minister of Justice, Christine Taubira, has said much the same thing in the National Assembly:
in our values, education aims to relieve pupils of social and religious determinisms and make them free citizens.

When questioned in the National Assembly Vincent Peillon had this to say:
Regarding freedom of expression and "remove the student from all determinisms," I remind you that the purpose of the republican school has always been to produce a free individual.

The possibility of building your own autonomy, that is to say the ability to give yourself the rule, means being able to take some distance from all heritages. This does not mean that we abandon these legacies, but simply that one is able to choose for yourself.

These ideas are clearly very similar to those of liberal autonomy theory. This is the theory that politics is about securing a certain kind of freedom, namely the freedom to be an autonomous individual. Autonomy itself is understood to mean that the individual is free to be self-determining rather than being "trapped" by whatever is predetermined.

We do not get to choose membership of a family or ethny, so these are considered to be 'determinisms' and are set against the ideal of the "free citizen".

I could spend some time looking at Peillon's efforts to push a "secular morality" when he himself declares that he does "not believe at all in a fixed moral order." But I want to focus for now on his idea that students must be removed from all "determinisms".

Part of the traditionalist response to this was made in the National Assembly by Xavier Breton. He reminded the members of the Assembly that family and ethny are not to be written off negatively as impeding freedom, but are important for fulfilment and self-development:
The environment, especially a family one, is not a determinism to fight absolutely, but unavoidable and possibly a place of fulfilment. For us, being part of a group, an ethnic community, or perhaps a social, intellectual or family one, may be a factor in development...the intention of the State should not be to "snatch" members...

I want to go even further than this by looking at the specific liberal conceit that is being pushed by Vincent Peillon. If you read through Peillon's interview, you get a certain picture of reality, one in which Peillon imagines that liberals like himself are far enough removed from any inherited determinisms (e.g. beliefs, values or ways of life that you get from parents or from your ethnic culture) that they are able to assume the status of free-thinking, critical, reflective, rational individuals able to pursue a universal morality.

The traditionalist answer to this conceit is important. It gets to the crux of the significant differences in outlook of traditionalists and moderns.

A traditionalist accepts that there are important ways in which we are "determined". But we do not see this as inhibiting or limiting our reason, or as leading to arbitrarily held beliefs or values, but rather as providing a necessary platform from which we are able to seek to understand the truth of an order of being.

Let's go back a bit to look at what it means to be determined as a traditionalist or indeterminate as a liberal. The traditionalist has specific grounds for identity, for relatedness, for solidarity and from all this for telos (ends or aims). But if you have made yourself indeterminate or abstracted as a liberal, then you must make up for yourself what you are (self-create or self-determine). This might be presented as a freedom to self-define, but it means that you could be one thing or just as easily another. You become something merely as a matter of choice, and this not only seems arbitrary, it also has a sense of lacking meaning or significance. How then is an individual supposed to be oriented to a truth of his own being?  How can you actively seek the truth when you begin from a point of emptiness and then make things up as an act of your own individual will?

A strength of the traditionalist position is that humans clearly do have a created being, for instance in the fact of being a man or a woman. It is through our created being that we come to experience who we are physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. And from this come the forms of relatedness through which we express our social natures. From the cultural traditions we belong to we experience a real endeavour over time to make the different layers of our experience (the natural, the social etc.) work together within a larger social setting.

It is through our engagement with this particularity that we are more likely to seek and to be brought to universal truths about man, rather than by abstracting ourselves from it and dealing with individuals as indeterminate and interchangeable.

Traditionalists, therefore, would contest the notion that in rejecting determinisms people are no longer "trapped" in beliefs and values but can rise to a universal, secular morality as free, rational and reflective citizens. Instead, it is more likely that, in becoming indeterminate, individuals will lose an orientation to pursue the truth of their being and they will deny themselves the particular context through which the universal is made known to us.

And apart from all this, the liberal position is not a neutral one and so itself "catches" people in certain beliefs and values and ways of life. For instance, the liberal position suggests that we have not been created in specific ways for specific purposes, which will then lead over time to a secular outlook. Similarly, by advocating a distance from "determinisms" like family and ethny, the liberal position will encourage over time an atomised individualism. The emphasis on autonomy will lead to a preference for uniquely chosen careers over inherited and gendered family roles and so on.

Liberals arrive at certain positions, then, not because they have freely, rationally and critically decided on the merits of these positions, but because liberalism itself has a set character that inclines them this way.


  1. Freeing Man from determinism is a form of determinism. Any denial of metaphysics is a metaphysical theory. There is an intrinsically contradiction here: we cannot free Man from determinism without imposing another determinism: the difference is that the new determinism is not natural and depends upon the will of a political gnostic elite.

  2. Peillon may imagine that he is saying something rather fine here, but he is not. He clearly cannot mean that people will be free to invent a personal morality when it comes to weighty matters, such as the moral prohibitions against murder and theft. What will this personal morality be about, then? Will it be weird and eccentric foibles like a refusal to eat chicken on wednesdays? I doubt it. Something tells me it has something to do with sexual morality. Something tells me that when Peillon talks about freedom, he means sexual freedom. And to a traditionalist, particularly a Christian traditionalist, the morality he proposes--it is a morality--leads not to freedom, but to slavery. When you set people "free" to follow certain impulses, particularly certain sexual impulses, they become slaves of those impulses.

  3. @JMSmith

    This is the main problem with liberals; while they'll never admit it to themselves, they assume that this existential quest for personal morality will lead everyone to the same place. IE, that morals and proper codes of societal conduct can be arrived at via logic, and that logic will always steer to the same place. They never imagine a world with a heterogeneous mixture of morality - or indeed, a world where the intelligent, sick, or sociopathic will create predatory personal moralities that can there never be condemned nor stopped. Sex is a part of it, I'd agree, but mostly because they believe that logic will lead everyone to accept the same set of sexual norms.

  4. Liberalism sometimes strikes me as Satanic. Didn't the evil foe, the villain of the Bible, before he was cast out of heaven, want to become like God and was jealous of Him?

  5. @ Mark

    Isn't self- determintion, itself, a form of constraint? Isn't the endgame of freedom a complete lack of any definition, including a self-imposed one?

  6. Asher,

    Interesting thought. And you could well be right. Maybe this "feminist mother" is the way of the future:

    I refuse to define my Feminist Motherhood ... I want my daughter to have a happy and successful life as an adult, which she will define individually. I will not confine my Feminist Motherhood by defining it.

    She is on the cusp between promoting individual self-definition and a refusal to define.