I won’t attempt a complete answer here, as it’s such a complex topic. I can, though, point to some of the features of a liberal morality.
Liberals want the individual, above all, to be self-determining. Therefore, for liberals the moral thing is that our autonomy in choosing what to do remains unimpeded. It matters less what we choose than that we have freely chosen it.
This means that the “moral” thing is the act of defining for ourselves what the good is. That is why Dr Leslie Cannold, an Australian ethicist, claims that,
Defining our own good, and living our lives in pursuit of it, is at the heart of a moral life.
But this makes a liberal morality, at least in certain respects, permissive. It means that whatever we do is moral, as long as we have freely chosen to do it.
According to Dr Mirko Bargaric, an Australian human rights lawyer,
we are morally complete and virtuous individuals if we do as we wish so long as our actions do not harm others
The permissive nature of this formulation is clear enough: we are made perfectly moral simply by doing what we want, just as long as we don’t harm others.
Where does this leave traditional morality? It was traditional to believe that there are enduring, objective, knowable moral truths. Some behaviours, therefore, could be judged as being inherently right or wrong.
This doesn’t sit well with the liberal understanding of morality. It means that our behaviour is not entirely ours to determine; that there are rightly limitations on how we act; and that the source of these limitation is external to our own will.
For liberals, this will seem both artificial and oppressive. In a liberal culture, a traditional moral code will often be explained away as an act of power by one social group over another and traditional moral restraints are likely to be challenged in the name of personal liberation.
This makes liberal morality, in one of its phases at least, transgressive. Those who break traditional moral codes or taboos will be looked on favourably as paving the way forward, or perhaps as being cool and cutting-edge.
As an example, consider the case of Clare Edwards. She’s a young Perth woman who advertised in her local paper for sperm donors and then raised the resulting children on welfare. Her local paper, the Subiaco Post, praised her as representing the,
independent and can-do spirit of her generation, young people unbounded by the conventions of older generations
She is morally virtuous, according to the paper, not because she followed an action that is inherently good, but because she acted independently (autonomously) by breaking a moral convention.
Finding a moral language
But what happens if you’re a liberal and you want to object to something on moral grounds? It might be difficult for you to find the language to express your moral objections. After all, if anything that people freely choose to do is moral, then how can you criticise someone’s choices?
One way that a liberal can object to something on moral grounds is to claim that a choice hasn’t been freely made. Perhaps the choice has been coerced in some way, or perhaps it isn’t an authentic want but has been made for the benefit of others.
As an example of this, consider the attitude of Mia Freedman to raunch culture. Mia Freedman was once an editor of the Australian women’s magazines Cosmopolitan and Cleo. When, though, she had a daughter of her own she turned against the raunch culture peddled to young women (in magazines like the ones she edited):
Raunch culture alarms me horribly, especially as I get older and now that I'm the parent of a daughter. Women embrace it because of the shock value, but that will wear off...
Her moral disapproval, though, met resistance from her own mother:
Ironically, I've found myself having to explain to my mother why raunch culture is not a good thing. She's like, "But hang on, isn't this what we fought for as feminists? For women to be able to express themselves in whatever way they choose and reclaim their sexuality?”
Mia Freedman made this reply:
I said, this is different. It's not about women having a threesome because they want to have one. It's about a girl pashing another girl in a nightclub to impress a boy. If it was an organic expression of how they feel, I'd say go for it.
This is all very liberal. The debate is not about whether the acts themselves are moral or not, but about whether women are truly following their own wants. The mother is still in transgressive mode: she is focused on the struggle to break down moral impediments to women’s behaviour. The daughter agrees that there should be no impediments, but she argues that young women are not following their own, authentic wants.
It’s not a very effective way to express a moral objection. All that the young women pursuing a raunch culture have to do to meet this objection is to affirm that they are, indeed, doing what they do to empower themselves, rather than to please boys.
And that’s why actions are often justified in a liberal society in terms of agency, empowerment and free will. These are qualities which are supposed to prove that our choices are authentically ours – which then makes our actions moral.
A good example of this is the controversy surrounding a Nandos TV advertisement. The ad featured a pole dancing mother, naked except for a g-string, thrusting her backside at men for tips, before returning home to her family with a chicken dinner. After public complaints, the ad was brought before the Australian Advertising Standards Bureau. Nandos defended the ad on the basis that the mother:
was clearly in charge of her own destiny. The woman we depict in the commercial is shown to be intelligent, in control and making her own choices. She is not being coerced by the man in any way. She is acting in accordance with her own free will … Many women see the open display of female sexuality as a forthright display of empowerment.
The Board agreed that the woman was portrayed in a way that made it clear that she was not coerced and that therefore there was nothing to object to in the ad:
The Board noted many complaints about the depiction of a mother and wife as a pole dancer/prostitute … The Board considered that this advertisement depicted a strong in control woman who went about her work in a professional manner (wearing a suit to work), enjoyed her work, enjoyed being 'sexy' and enjoyed time with her family. The Board considered that this advertisement depicted the woman as being a strong and empowered woman.
The moral issue is no longer whether it is right to show a mother prostituting herself for money in a TV ad, but whether or not the woman is portrayed as making an authentically free choice. And to make it clear that it really is an authentic choice the person doing it is described as strong, empowered, in control and enjoying what they do.
Here’s another example of this logic at work. In an American newspaper burlesque dancing was defended on these grounds:
DeLuxe said burlesque ... represented a rebellion against the restrictive morality of the time ... Modern burlesque performers are clearly in charge of their own destiny ... "The woman doing it is completely in control of her own sexuality. She decides."
This is a dual defence. First, burlesque is defended as being transgressive: as liberating individuals from “the restrictive morality of the time”. Second, it is emphasised that the burlesque dancers are entirely uncoerced, that they are in control and in charge of what they doing.
In short, it is difficult to express moral disapproval of an act by claiming that a choice is inauthentic. This is too easily met by the counterclaim that a choice is empowering or is a genuine expression of someone’s agency.
There are other ways that liberals can try to express moral disapproval. They can argue about whether someone has genuinely consented to an act, but this in practice places few limits on what people might do.
Liberals can also invoke the no harm principle, the idea that anything is permissible as long as it doesn’t harm others. But the general thrust of this principle is a permissive one; it seems to be understood as meaning “As long as you don’t physically injure or steal from anyone else, you can do whatever”. So, again, it’s not very useful for expressing moral concerns.
Finally, liberals can talk in a more abstract way about the need for people to show respect. This is a more useful option for liberals as the notion of respect doesn’t necessarily rule anything out and at the same time it can be used to appeal to people’s moral natures.
This can sometimes result in mixed messages. For instance, men might have it drummed into them that they must respect women, whilst at the same time living in an “anything goes” lad and ladette culture.
A case in point involves an Australian ethicist, Professor Catharine Lumby. She rejects morality on the basis that it isn’t something that is self-defined:
Morality is a blueprint for living that someone hands to you.
She prefers the idea of “ethics” as this is something that can be individually negotiated:
Ethics is a zone we all enter when we find ourselves, by choice or necessity, negotiating those rules.
What matters to a liberal like Professor Lumby is not what is chosen, but that we ourselves get to do the choosing.
In 2004, she was appointed by the National Rugby League to educate rugby players about sexual ethics, following complaints about some players having group sex with young women. She made it clear that she did not believe in an objective, knowable moral good:
The idea that group sex is abhorrent is a very particular view. What matters is that we avoid asserting moral beliefs as moral truths.
What did matter was the issue of consent:
ABC reporter: There have been stories of a culture of group sex in rugby league. What do you think of group sex? Do you think it's OK if it's consensual?
Lumby: Speaking as an academic, I think that there's no problem with any behaviour which is consensual in sexual terms.
She also added that there must be respect:
[Lumby] has since said what matters isn't that players use women in group sex, but that they treat these women with respect...
But here’s the problem. The police who investigated the complaints against the rugby players found no evidence of a lack of consent. Whatever damage was done happened despite consent being given.
Second, if Lumby were right we would have to believe that young rugby players are going to develop an attitude of respect for women who consent to casual group sex. It’s that mixed message that tells young men that there are no real moral standards, and that therefore anything goes, but that they should still in a more old-fashioned way have respect for women.
Andrew Bolt picked up on this point when he questioned how Professor Lumby could,
imagine sportsmen boozily sharing some groupie they've picked up for a gang-bang and treating her with courtesy. As an equal. With respect...
Yes, Lumby really seems to think that's how gang bangs work. Or could, if only we left our sad old morality on the chair with our jeans.
So far I have described the permissive side of a liberal morality, the one which is focused on the idea that something is moral if you freely choose to do it.
But liberalism doesn’t always strike people as permissive. There is a logic by which liberalism generates a highly strung morality of its own, one which tends, if anything, to be intrusive or even authoritarian.
How does this aspect of a liberal morality come about? In part, it has to do with the liberal belief in individual autonomy. Liberals believe that an autonomous, self-determining life is the basis of human freedom and dignity. But this then requires liberals to make predetermined qualities like our sex and ethnicity not matter, at least in a social setting.
But these predetermined qualities are basic to life. They help to shape our identities and our relationships and are not easy to suppress.
And so liberals have had to force their own moral code on the rest of society. They have used state power to enforce speech codes; they have created at times a stifling atmosphere of political correctness; and they have used their influence in the institutions to intimidate those who would otherwise speak out.
Remember too that liberals believe that they are upholding human freedom and dignity. This means that those who oppose liberalism are thought to be denying basic goods in life to other people. They are thought, in other words, to hold morally indefensible views and are often criticised using highly charged moral terms such as “sexist” or “bigot”. Opposition to liberalism is often treated (by liberals) as a moral or intellectual failing (a result of prejudice or ignorance) rather than as a legitimate difference of opinion in philosophy or politics or values.
How else does a liberal morality become intrusive? In theory, liberalism is supposed to maximise individual autonomy, so that individuals can choose freely for themselves what they can do or be.
But there is an inbuilt limitation to this freedom of choice. For instance, let’s say that women have to choose whether to stay at home to look after their children or to go to work.
There is a conundrum here for a liberal morality. If women choose to stay at home then the aim of maximising autonomy is contravened, as these women will be thought to be dependent on their husbands for support. But if these women are not given the choice to stay at home, then that too contravenes the aim of maximising autonomy, as they have a restriction placed on their freedom of choice.
There is no principled way out for liberalism here, so there are endless debates about what the true liberal position is. However, in practice what happens is that the choices that don’t fit in well with liberalism are gradually made more difficult to make. There is either social or economic pressure placed on individuals to make the “right” choice (by liberal standards) rather than having a genuinely free choice.
It is a case of individuals being manoeuvred into the “correct” choices over time. In other words, if the end goal is to maximise autonomy, then people will be expected to make choices which maximise autonomy – they will be discouraged from giving priority to other goods which they themselves find significant.
For liberals, it is the act of choosing which makes something moral. But if I choose something which deprives someone else of their freedom to choose, the liberal system no longer works. It would mean that I get to be a moral agent, but the other person doesn’t. It would mean that I get to enjoy human freedom and dignity at the expense of someone else.
Therefore, in order to make a liberal moral system work, liberals emphasise moral qualities of non-interference. The aim is to not infringe on how other people define the good, or the moral choices that other people make. This leads liberals to recognise as virtues qualities such as tolerance, openness, inclusiveness and respect, as well as an acceptance of diversity, non-discrimination, pluralism and non-judgementalism.
It sounds like an easy going moral focus, but in practice it’s not. If you are thought to violate a morality of non-interference, it is held to be an offensive and dangerous act in which you are denying an equal status to others and infringing on their human rights and dignity.
This can make liberals very intolerant of what they see as violations of their moral system. It leads to a seeming contradiction: liberals can be amongst the most judgemental in society in the name of a non-judgemental morality and they can be the most fiercely hostile in condemning what they disagree with whilst at the same time preaching the virtue of tolerance.
There is another problem with a liberal morality of non-interference: it is dissolving of the society which adopts it.
A morality of non-interference is silent when it comes to the kinds of qualities that might uphold a tradition, such as loyalty or love of country. All that is required of the liberal moral actor is a kind of neutrality, a willingness to accept whatever other individuals define as the good.
And when people are persuaded that neutrality is the correct moral position, they are more likely to take the role of passive observers who move amongst other cultures and traditions rather than asserting one of their own.
Even if the liberal moral actor does identify positively with his own tradition, he is likely to see this as his own self-defined or self-created good that applies to himself alone. His love for his own tradition loses the status of an objective good to be defended more generally at a public level. This leaves traditions undefended; they can be appreciated individually, but not upheld as a common good.
There is also a logic by which a liberal morality leads not just to neutrality but to an active bias against one’s own tradition.
A liberal morality emphasises qualities such as diversity, non-discrimination and inclusiveness. That can make traditional communities, based on particularity, seem immoral. The criticism will be raised that traditional communities, rather than being diverse, are too homogeneous and monocultural, and that instead of being inclusive and non-discriminatory, that they are exclusive of others.
Also, if you believe that the most virtuous person is the one who is most committed to qualities like diversity, inclusion and non-discrimination, then you might attempt to show your superior virtue by identifying with whoever is thought to be most “other” to your own society. This is how you can display your commitment to inclusion and pluralism and other similar qualities.
But if this is how superior virtue is demonstrated, then it can become a mark of elite moral status to demonstrate solidarity with those most alien to your tradition, rather than with those you are most closely related to.
This encourages a split between the social elite and the rank and file. The elite see the rank and file as morally backward in comparison to themselves and instead of a solidarity based on a shared tradition the elite look instead to those who are thought to be the least connected to this tradition.
If a single, general criticism of liberal morality had to be made it would be that a liberal morality is not “moralising” but rather demoralising.
The liberal approach makes our moral acts largely meaningless. If something is made moral because I freely choose it, then it doesn’t really matter what I choose. One act is as good as another as long as it is my authentic want.
It’s true that a liberal might see the act of choosing itself as a moral thing, but that is hardly a great moral achievement. It’s not that difficult to follow our own wants.
In contrast, the challenge in the preliberal past was to discern a moral course of action and to discipline ourselves to it. That was part of the cultivation of character and a quest for moral excellence.
Furthermore, in the past it was thought that in acting morally we were connecting with a higher good, that is to say, with objective, enduring, moral truths that transcend the self. But a liberal morality does not transcend the self, it remains at the level of our own subjective wants.
Nor can a liberal morality satisfy our need to belong to a moral community. It is difficult to establish moral ideals or standards when the emphasis is on each individual defining his own good and tolerating others doing the same. How can a moral standard, in the sense of a limit on what is considered acceptable, be upheld within this framework? Whatever the least morally refined are willing to do will set the new low point of what is acceptable within society. You end up with a morality of the lowest common denominator.
Yes, liberals attempt to overcome this loss of moral community by focusing on the values of non-interference as the new moral standards. We are thought to be good people if we hold to these qualities and villains if we don’t. And if our community keeps to the values of non-interference we are allowed to hold it in positive regard; if it doesn’t, we are supposed to feel a collective moral shame.
But this reworking of moral community is in itself demoralising. Did communities in the past keep to liberal values of non-interference? They didn’t because they were concerned to defend their particularity. There is a good chance, therefore, that when liberals do ask whether they can hold their community in a positive regard, that they will answer negatively. The past will never measure up to liberal values and so liberals might either turn away from their heritage, or focus on the idea of a morally progressive present generation starting anew, or else have a sense that the past is something to associate with collective shame or guilt.
There do exist liberals who take a more upbeat approach. These liberals take pride in how their society has led the way in promoting liberal values. They have a positive sense of their society as a moral community.
But this too puts the members of that society in a difficult position. They are being asked to base their positive regard for their community on the observance of a moral code that is, as we saw previously, dissolving of their own particular tradition. What is given with one hand is taken away with the other.
In a liberal morality, we ourselves make something moral by choosing it freely. We ourselves get to define the good (for us).
I hope I have succeeded in suggesting the kinds of problems that this starting point leads to. But there remains one last question to be answered. If we ourselves don’t get to define the good, then who does?
That’s the response often made by liberals when their moral system is questioned. Liberals are fearful that someone else will assume the responsibility for determining how they should act morally. Who, they ask, could possibly be entrusted with the authority for deciding what is moral?
The answer is that there is no single person with such authority.
The way that individuals within a society come to an understanding of what is moral is complex. We might have a moral intuition, or a sense derived from conscience, of what is inherently moral or immoral. We might also learn from the consequences of actions what it is that brings harm to ourselves or others. We might use moral reasoning to ensure that our moral beliefs are logically consistent. Our moral sense might be derived as well from the inherited experience of a community, of what the best minds have thought over time, or of how a community has learnt over many generations from its mistakes. Or perhaps we might learn from role models within the community who we particularly admire. It is possible that we might be influenced as well by our function in society; a soldier, for instance, might be oriented to qualities like courage and loyalty, whilst for a small trader qualities of industry and honesty might loom larger. It will often be the case as well that religious texts and traditions will influence the moral code of a society.
And the moral sense we derive from all this has to be fitted together, so that the different aspects of reality are appropriately ordered.
It is not the case that one person in society can be delegated to suddenly decide on all this. Instead, it is an ongoing process of a whole society, a continuing attempt to refine the moral understanding. This process takes place within families, schools, universities, churches, political parties, parliaments and the media. Both the fine arts and popular culture have an influence.
It is impossible to guarantee that a society will get it completely right, but the closer a society approaches to getting it right, the more likely it is to stay on course in its development and to retain the loyalty and love of its members.
Next chapter: Trivial pursuits