Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Brandis: unique identities, individual ends

It's uncommon for members of the right-liberal parties to set out their beliefs in a systematic way. Back in 1984, George Brandis did just this (I am assuming he is now Senator George Brandis of the Australian Liberal Party).

So what did George Brandis set out as his beliefs?

a) The liberal theory of society
To the liberal, the most fundamental characteristic of any society is that it is a coming together of a number of individual persons, each of whom has a unique identity, unique needs and aspirations, the individuality of each of whom is equally important. The pursuit of individual ends, subject to the agreed mutual constraints necessary to social existence, is the dynamic force of human progress.

This view of a society of free and autonomous individuals distinguishes in two essential respects Liberal social theory from the approaches of its most important contemporary rivals, conservatism and socialism.     

Traditionalists strongly disagree with this view of human society. We would not use the word "unique" when describing identities and aspirations. The reality is more complex than this: some aspects of our identity and aspirations are uniquely individual, but others are shared and communal.

Is it really unique for instance that I have a male identity? Is it unique that I identify with my ethnic tradition? Is it unique that I aspired as a young man to find an attractive woman to love and with whom I could form a family?

Some aspects of our identity and aspirations, far from being uniquely individual, are part of an eternal human condition. Does that mean that it is all dull conformity? No, because these identities and aspirations are refracted differently within each human personality.

It is important to get this right, because if you take the liberal view that there are only uniquely individual identities and aspirations, then you end up with the liberal idea of society as being a whole lot of atomised individuals each pursuing ends that can only possibly be known to them.

What you lose is a sense of the larger social entities which help form individual identity, to which individuals feel a sense of belonging and attachment, and which provide the social context (the framework) for the lives of individuals (i.e. for expressing our nature as men and women).

It is terribly mistaken, in the traditionalist view, to base a theory of society on "the pursuit of individual ends." Let's say that we have a masculine identity and it is a part of this identity to play an effective role as a husband and father and also to uphold the larger communal tradition we belong to. Our "individual ends" cannot then be separated from a number of "social ends" relating to family and community. Our social ends and our individual ends blend together.

That possibly helps to explain why it doesn't feel free to be limited to individual ends. If we are limited in this way, we can't fully pursue some of the more significant ends in life, so part of our personality feels bottled up or stifled.

There's much more to comment on in George Brandis's essay, but I don't like to make these more theoretical posts too long, so I'll resume discussion in a future post.


  1. Mark, how would you re-write that quote to make it consistent with traditional conservatism?

  2. Anon, that's a good challenge. If I have time tonight I'll give it a go.