Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A curious debate

Should the liberal state permit the existence of non-liberal communities? There has been a debate amongst academics in recent years on this issue.

One curious feature of this debate is the concept that the liberal academics have of themselves. They usually take themselves to be free, autonomous individuals leading self-directing and self-chosen lives in contrast to the unreflective, non-liberal individuals in traditional communities.

One academic has described the way the debate is framed as follows:

The philosophical issue centers on the questions of who is entitled to freedom, and what sorts of lives they are entitled to create with their freedom.

Are all persons entitled to have their choices respected and their lives left alone? Are persons as we find them in the world — culturally and socially influenced, holding many beliefs heteronomously and only because they were raised to believe them — already suited for liberty?

Or is the moral case for freedom dependent on people having some level of autonomy or intellectual attainment? To put it another way: If persons are living lives into which they have been socialized, if they are making decisions solely on the basis of what tradition demands, or if they are unreflective about their choices, can they really be said to be living freely?

And if their choices are not free to begin with, can one make a moral demand that these choices be respected by the state? We do not think that children, the insane, or the brainwashed are free in a morally desirable sense if they are simply left alone to follow their whims. Why, then, should we consider as free those who hold a religious belief simply because it was instilled in them while they were young?

(The quote is from an article by Professor Jacob T. Levy who is not endorsing the above view but describing a commonly held position amongst his fellow liberal academics.)

To summarise, the question being asked is whether the liberal state should respect the choices made by those people, such as those raised within a religious tradition, who are not autonomous and therefore not free.

What is the problem with putting things this way? Well, one considerable problem for liberal academics is that they themselves are condemned by the very principle they are putting forward.

Who is really the most unreflective in the adoption of their values? The liberal academic or the church-goer? These days it would have to be the liberal academic. A Westerner who makes a serious commitment to a church is acting against the stream and will usually be making an individual choice. Liberal academics, on the other hand, are simply falling in with a reigning orthodoxy.

Another major problem with the framing of the debate is the assumption that what really counts is that I have autonomously chosen a life path rather than being influenced by culture or tradition.

There is a denial here that what really matters are real goods that can be known to individuals and to communities. If, say, we recognise courage and honour in a man as a real good, then we would think it a positive thing if a culture and tradition encouraged these qualities. What would matter would be getting to the particular good.

In the liberal view, though, the priorities change. The liberal is less concerned that a man is honourable and courageous and more interested in the fact of self-direction. If I self-direct against honour and courage I have satisfied the liberal principle.

The end result is not a society of independent free-thinkers. Nearly everyone in the political class today follows the same unexamined first principles. Nor have human vistas been opened up. All the talk about life projects, life plans and so on usually boil down to nothing more than selecting a career for ourselves.

This is the bland side to liberalism: it is what is left when the individual is removed from culture and community and the goods embedded within a tradition.


  1. Are liberal academics ready for freedom? If they are just followinging the pre-determined moral and cultural strictures of their environment, are we morally required to respect their choices?


  2. 'children, the insane, or the brainwashed' are equated with 'those who hold a religious belief'

    How delightful.

    Must be the enlightened mind of a progressive.

  3. Oh Boy Mark,

    Regrettably I can't turn a phrase like Prof Levy.

    But I do get a visceral reaction when I read more of the 'cosmopolitans' mulling whether They-as-"We" should afford the same level of political rights to various other social groups of divergent views.

    Hey - as my kids regularly point out, I am judgmental enough to grumble about various others and I know others grumble about me - that's life. But out of my own self-preservation if nothing else I am not about to paint vast swathes of society as potential fodder for a latter day Gulag !

    Paraphrasing: "Are all persons entitled to have their...lives left alone....Or is the moral case for freedom dependent on people having some level of intellectual attainment?"

    Let me put this in a 20th century context:

    "Are all persons entitled to have their...lives left alone....Or is the moral case for freedom dependent on people not being :

    Jewish ? - Adolf Hitler
    Kulaks ? - Josef Stalin
    Reactionaries ? - Mao Tse Tung
    Kafirs - Osama bin Laden


    And doing a bit of stereotyping, I find it quite extraordinary that a man named Levy would be so blinkered to the history of the 20th century and so enamored of the supposed moral superiority of the public intellectual as wannabe-philosopher king that he would actually be posing dis-enfranchising target groups deemed incapable of participation in the political discourse.

    Great call Prof - someone demagogue will doubtless up pick your theme one day - I only hope to find you sharing the cattle car with me on that trainride to the countryside for deemed opponents of the regime !!

  4. Nasty little totalitarians aren't they?

  5. Mr. Richardson,

    Another wonderful article with great follow-up.

    The irony, of course, is that the more "liberal" one becomes (a required mandate of the true liberal) the more he may have physical and mental mobility but the less he must have of intellectual breadth.

    The true liberal is a singular thinker

  6. Mark,

    I don't know how you get through these dreadful offerings and maintain your composure, always providing calm insightfulness. Thank you.

    The Professor's approach leads to societal schizophrenia at best, assuming there would not be an open insurrection. His ideas will dovetail nicely with coming trends in health care, though: the State deciding who lives and who dies. Combining these ideas would be irresistibly efficient for reductionist progressives, using pre-determined criteria for both liberty ad mortality.

    Is there enough of traditional society-- "regular folks"-- to resist these idiotic elitisms? I think there is more than enough to resist. There is enough to help modern liberalism collapse in on itself. We have not yet been pushed far enough to worry the elites or the politicians, but at this rate can anyone doubt we will be?

  7. Why, then, should we consider as free those who hold a religious belief simply because it was instilled in them while they were young?

    But what, precisely constitutes 'religious belief'? I have yet to hear a coherent definition which excludes Progressivism and includes Buddhism and The Religious Society of Friends.

  8. Kevo, you and the other commenters are justified in your visceral reaction to the academic debate. It really is outrageous that academics should be debating whether or not any non-liberal community should be allowed to exist - particularly when liberalism itself is so meagre in its first principles and ultimately so incoherent.

    Thordaddy and leadpb, you both make an important point. Thordaddy wrote that "The true liberal is a singular thinker" and leadpb used the term "reductionists".

    There has been an unfortunate trend within modern Western thought to try to make the social sciences follow the natural sciences. The aim has been to find a small number of laws which explain human society, with the same certainty and simplicity of a natural law, such as the law of gravity.

    And so you get liberals who define humanity in terms of a capacity for autonomous self-direction.

    There may be some truth in this. It may be significant that humans have a self-directing power of personality.

    But liberals are too reductionist, too singular. They grasp at a single principle to order human society.

    And so everything must submit to one partial aspect of existence. Whatever doesn't accord with the self-directing power of personality is treated as anti-human and irrational and loses legitimacy.

    The reductionism helps to explain why liberalism ends up limiting the scope of life so radically, despite setting out to do the opposite.

    As an alternative, consider Lawrence Auster's idea that there is a tripartite order of existence, namely the natural/biological order, the social/cultural order, and the divine/spiritual order, with man "a part of them all and experiencing them all".

    Auster goes on to write that,

    "The structure of the world is experienced philosophically, spiritually, through rational intuition, and through common sense. It consists of all kinds of natural distinctions and hierarchies, which liberalism systematically denies."

    Conservatives don't attempt to boil down existence to a single principle or law. This makes it more difficult to simply articulate conservatism, but it increases the scope of what conservatives consider when judging things.

  9. Is the crux of this debate really: "Should be people be free to restrict the freedom of others?"
    An honest question without prejudice so do not assume I have a stance on this. Bearing in mind the reference to a liberal State implies a government with some kind of obligation to it's constituents (all of them?) rather than the opinions of some individual or group. Is there some point we arrive at which determines where harm (physical or developmental)is being done to another and some kind of intervention is called for or is it a sliding scale that varies with the type of issue at hand? I must apologise for being less-cerebral in my comment but I do find a lot of the discussion so esoteric that I am not sure what side anybody here is on...! I am somewhat the pragmatist and like the "what if" things sorted. I have more questions but let's see where thisis going.

  10. Mark, I am blown away by your quotations of Jacob Levy.

    He's turning the usual knee-jerk liberal line against conservatives—that they are mindless, superstitious dumbos under the grip of prejudice—into a philosophical argument and saying that such people, since they are not rational, shouldn't have rights!

    He is turning the standard liberal hate rhetoric against conservatives into a system.

    More profoundly, as you very clearly point out, he turning membership in any normal or traditional community that embodies and transmits a world view and a way of life, into a disabling factor that should deprive a person of freedom, the freedom to have the community he wants.

    As I said, I'm blown away.

    But I guess it was inevitable.

  11. He's not attacking conservatives per se. He's attacking people who belong to a community, a church, a tradition. The very thing that traditionalists believe in and say is needed for a full human life, Levy is saying makes one a sub human not deserving of human rights.

    The signs are gathering that the Western societies are heading into an age of civil wars. Not between white and nonwhite, not between Christian and Muslim, but between liberal whites and non-liberal whites. That's shaping up as the major divide of our time.

  12. Well, I'm an illiberal white, and I have a gun. The liberal whites near where I live run (on tip-toe) away from guns.

  13. We have met the new untermensch, and he is us.

  14. Why, then, should we consider as free those who hold a religious belief simply because it was instilled in them while they were young?

    This notion that conservatives only believe the things that they believe because they were raised that way and then went their entire lives without questioning these beliefs is actually quite common among liberals. I see it bandied about on the internet, directed at anyone holding heterodox beliefs regarding politics, religion, or race. Needless to say, it's an incredibly bigoted and condescending position. In fact, I can say that I've never encountered a "racist" who thought as lowly of other races as the average liberal thinks of conservatives.

    The ironic thing is that Levy was probably raised in a liberal household that was hostile to Christianity. I guess some beliefs instilled in childhood are superior to others, though.

  15. I hear the NWO requires a population reduction in the order of 80%, including the removal of whites from the scene.

    This, (another white on white war) should do nicely for starters.

  16. As I have noted at VFR, I have read part of Jacob Levy's long article and it is not clear that he is advocating the position he lays out in the passage quoted here by Mr. Richardson. Levy is considering both sides of the argument between what he calls the "rationalists," those who want a single uniform system of laws and rights enforced by the central state, and the "pluralists," those who believe in the autonomy of local government and community. However, that he even considers that position to be a reasonable one shows how radical he is. I have transformed part of the article into html for easier reading and have posted it here.

    On another subject, I note that the comment by Tanstaafl that Mr. Richardson has deleted is very mild compared to his usual anti-Semitic outpourings. Tanstaafl has written, "Jews are my enemy," and criticized me for, among other things, not directing "all" my criticisms against Jews. The basic Tanstaafl position (and the Darwinian anti-Semitic position) is that everything that Jews or people of Jewish background do and say (including everything that I have ever written) is directed at undermining white gentiles in the interests of Jewish power. The only good Jew, in the anti-Semites' book, is one who agrees with the anti-Semites' position that I've just summarized.

  17. Lawrence, I've been aware for some time of the debate amongst liberal academics about the state permitting, or not permitting, the existence of traditional communities.

    Professor Levy is not amongst the most radical proponents of coercion. I quoted his framing of the debate to show how offensive and how radical the debate itself is, rather than to single out Professor Levy.

    Having said that, Professor Levy's own position is not that great. Yes, he talks about pluralists and rationalists and urges at one stage that both be taken into consideration.

    However, (and I'll publish a post on this when I have time), his actual position seems to be that both the pluralist and rationalist approach are logical within the terms of liberalism so that there is an inevitable logical "tension" existing within liberalism itself.

    He is not, therefore, arguing that coercion is an unprincipled position for a liberal to take. He sees it as one legitimate option existing in logical tension with the pluralist option.

    The "tension" could just as easily be described as a contradiction. If the aim is to have self-directing individuals, then neither position works out that well.

    If you endorse state action to coercively repress "illiberal conditions", then the individual has been prevented by the power of the state from self-directing his own life.

    If, on the other hand, you endorse traditional social institutions in order to limit state power, you are then accepting "illiberal conditions" in society which also places limits on the self-directing individual.

    It's better for traditionalists if liberals opt for the second position, in part because it's more likely to lead them to defend the traditional institutions on non-liberal grounds (is this what happened to Edmund Burke?).

    However, in reality it's the first option which has the greater effect. Over time, the state has acted coercively to repress "illiberal conditions".

  18. I'm glad I decided to host that document and I'm still perplexed why it was removed from the web.

    My impression is that Levy himself advocates a balance between rationalism and pluralism, avoiding the Scyllis & Charybdis of Robespierre and de Maistre, and this was him playing Devil's Advocate for the exclusively rationalist. Myself, I am a radical pluralist. This puts me closer to Keith Preston than the "conservatives" of today.

  19. My post on Levy's paper is here, and there I reject his claim about the autonomy of children, the mentally ill and so on.

  20. For what it's worth, I really entirely *do not* accept the rationalist position whose logic I was describing in the quoted passage. That's all in the voice of the rationalist, not in my own voice.

    It's true that I say that rationalism is a part of liberalism and cannot be done without entirely-- but that has mainly to do with rationalism's sociology, its understanding that the family, the cultural community, the plantation, and so on can be local tyrannies, threats to freedom. (And so it's no violation of freedom for the state to show up and prevent child abuse or free slaves.) I reject entirely the autonomy-based moral psychology according to which only idealized Kantian choosers are entitled to freedom, and against the background of a liberal political theory that had veered very close to that view, my article had as a main purpose the reintroduction and relegitimation of pluralism.

  21. Levy: (And so it's no violation of freedom for the state to show up and prevent child abuse or free slaves.)

    Whether or not it is a violation of freedom depends on the definition of child abuse and slavery.

  22. Professor Levy, thanks for stopping by and clarifying your position.

    I didn't intend to suggest in my own post that the quote represented your own point of view; I intended to present it as the way one academic framed the debate.

    However, in hindsight I didn't make this clear enough - I'll revise the post to better introduce the quote when I have some time.

  23. Readers might have noticed that I deleted a number of comments. It was either this or spend time arguing why Jews alone are not to blame for our problems. I don't want to expend my limited time doing so.

    I'll just briefly summarise my own position:

    Yes, there are Jewish groups and individuals who have acted against the majority whether out of a commitment to liberalism or perceived self-interest.

    But there are Muslim groups who do the same.

    And significant sections of the Anglican and Catholic churches also campaign for open borders and other liberal causes.

    As do countless gentile members of the political class, whether they are teachers, academics, artists, bureaucrats or politicians.

    This is the real situation we face and I can only view it as an evasion - an unwillingness to grasp the whole picture - to focus on one particular group.

    There is too wide a gap between my own politics and those who don't recognise this larger picture. Any engagement between us won't be productive. Therefore, I won't engage with those holding to an anti-Semitic politics. Please don't waste your time commenting at this site.

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