Sunday, February 18, 2007

Tackling neutrality

How is liberal modernism to be understood?

There is an important current within liberalism focused on "self-authorship"; this is the aspect of liberalism I most often write about and criticise (see here).

Liberalism, though, so dominates the modern West philosophically, that it's unreasonable to expect that it has been formed from just a single intellectual current or influence.

There is another important aspect of liberalism which focuses not so much on self-authorship, but neutrality.

The importance of the "neutrality" strand within liberalism was highlighted in a recent column by Lawrence Auster. Auster's column considered different explanations for the origins of liberalism, including this one:

Liberalism began, in the 17th and 18th centuries ... by declaring that convictions about God and religion should play no role in politics because they lead to deadly conflict. Instead of being ordered by religious authority, society was to be ordered according to neutral procedures based on the recognition of everyone's equal rights.

Modern liberalism developed from this starting point because:

As Jim Kalb has pointed out, whatever is the highest public principle of a society tends over time to make the rest of the society conform to it.

Since neutrality with respect to religious truth was now the highest ordering principle of society, men progressively adopted a stance of neutrality with respect to other substantive truths and values - natural, social, and spiritual - on which society had historically been based.

At the same time, with the steady extension of state power, the liberal rule of neutrality spread to more and more areas of society where men had once been free to assert and order their lives according to traditional beliefs.

I have to say, first, that I don't believe that this explains the origins of liberalism. The seventeenth century English philosopher John Locke is often associated with this aspect of liberalism, and if you read his works it is striking just how fully developed his liberalism is (Locke's starting point is the abstracted, presocial, contracting, autonomous individual.)

So it's not as if Locke's ideas about neutrality later led to the development of a liberal mindset - the liberal worldview was already in existence when Locke was writing his works.

However, the argument as set out in Lawrence Auster's column does impress me in other ways. It does explain certain characteristics of modern liberalism.

First, I do believe that some liberals operate according to the principles set out above. In other words, there are intellectuals who think they are being good liberals (and acting ethically) in adopting a stance of neutrality not just toward religion but toward other substantive goods.

Here, for instance, is Australian liberal Gary Sauer-Thompson recently discussing the place of ethnicity in modern society:

"Ethnic tribalism" is like religion in a liberal democracy---it's a personal matter premised on the public private distinction.

Notice how clearly the point is made here. Sauer-Thompson believes that ethnicity should be treated by liberals just as it was decided to treat religion. So it is not just religion which men are to adopt a neutral stance toward in terms of public policy, but ethnicity too.

Once you agree to such a stance, you are left in an awkward position in terms of your own ethnic loyalties. I think two postures are common. One is to speak warmly of your own ethnic identity, but to dismiss or relegate this identity as being mere "personal sentiment".

The other is to be a kind of cellophane man. If you are the liberal "subject", the one who embodies neutrality, then your role is to observe the ethnicity of others, rather than to project your own. There was a strong element of this in Australian culture in the 1980s and 90s.

The "neutrality" argument might also help explain the particular way that liberals understand equality. I imagine that it's easier psychologically to maintain a neutral stance toward competing goods if you consider such goods as equal. Therefore, given the natural preference for what is familiar, liberals might seek an equivalence between competing goods by building up what is alien, or seemingly inferior, in comparison to the goods or values traditionally accepted within their own culture.

Finally, let me note just a couple of obvious flaws within the neutrality strand of liberalism. The first, as just touched on, is that neutrality in theory doesn't become neutrality in fact. There are obvious double standards, such as the fact that, with government support, we have been expected to celebrate minority ethnic traditions, whilst denigrating our own mainstream tradition.

Second, the "solution" of managing religion and ethnicity by relegating them to the private sphere is no solution at all, as they cannot survive as private goods.

This is especially obvious when it comes to ethnicity. An ethnic culture is a communal culture not an individual one. It isn't sustained at a purely individual level and therefore can't be upheld as a private good.

This is, admittedly, just a sketch of the whole topic of liberalism and neutrality. It's an argument which needs fleshing out, so I will try to develop some of the points in future posts.


  1. Mark,

    The problem with "neutrality" as a philosophy or guiding principle is that it can't be important because it's neutral.

    Therefore, as you alluded, "neutrality" transforms into something entirely different in practical terms. It has characteristics that betray its neutrality in the real world.

    It seems as though those that brought forward such a philosophy did so with the full understanding that the were using and abusing a innocuous term for their own self-interest.

  2. There is certainly an invisible notion of “neutrality” at the heart of much liberal discourse, though it’s rarely referred to as such. More prominent are concepts like “diversity,” “compassion,” and “justice," all implying the aim of doing away with unequal power relations and distribution of goods. “Neutrality” then appears as the ideal of impartial administration of society. This is good in its place - e.g. in the administration of the law.

    In a liberal society where, as per Auster, non-discrimination is the highest value and there is no larger framework of values, “neutrality” morphs into “complete non-discrimination.” This inherently works to destroy the majority people and culture, by raising the alien and inferior, as you say.

    As for the psychology of “neutrality,” I think of the lifeless tone of American liberal commentators on National Public Radio who discuss matters of life and death to their own country and people as if they were reporting on a golf game. “Hezbollah, which the U.S. government calls a terrorist group….”

  3. Steve,

    An additional point would be that concepts like "diversity," "compassion" and "justice" have legitimate meaning and a positive practical effect if they are applied within a larger framework that tries to prevent their distortion and corruption at the individual/subjective level.

    Liberalism doesn't just involve the ability to author one's self, but has the inherent call to transform one's self into that which has never been, see what has never been seen, do what never has been done. Such a calling compels one to distort all that is known with the hope that one's transformation can be believed. There is truly nothing new under the sun with regards to the depravity, selfishness and greed that man can succumb to. Likewise, man has always been reaching for the stars.

    Extreme liberalism compels one to take concepts like "neutrality" and imbibe meaning within them that serves one's personal interests and distorts the wisdom that created such fascinating and life-affirming concepts.

  4. thordaddy,

    Good point - the same argument applies to the other concepts.

    I think many liberals do genuinely try to be neutral. In a liberal society, that's all that's needed for liberalism to march ahead. In the U.S., liberals hope the Republicans will become more moderate, that is, liberal.

    Being "neutral" also helps one avoid the discomfort of taking certain stands or facing certain realities.