According to the early moderns, we are made human by our capacity to self-determine. The aim, therefore, is to be autonomous: to self-create who we are through our own individual reason and will and to be unimpeded in determining how to act.
This became the ruling idea of Western societies. It was popular amongst leading aristocrats and the rising commercial classes because it undercut the unchosen authority of the king. It was also presented in the most flattering terms as an argument for individual freedom. Nor, at first, did it undermine other aspects of life that were important to people.
Nonetheless, it was a destructive idea. If the aim is to self-determine, then the individual has to be “liberated” from anything which is predetermined. Anything that is a given part of human nature, or which belongs to an inherited tradition or which is hardwired into human biology is predetermined.
Therefore, the early moderns were committing themselves to making some of the most important things in life not matter. After all, much of what is carried to us as part of a tradition survives exactly because it is significant to us as individuals. Similarly, it’s unlikely that aspects of the self would have been hardwired into us, as part of our given nature, if they were not important.
So what specifically is the cost of this pursuit of autonomy? First, we don’t determine for ourselves whether we are born male or female. Therefore, liberal moderns are committed to making sex differences between men and women not matter. This is how some of these liberal moderns put the issue:
Professor Susan Moller Okin: “A just future would be one without gender. In its social structures and practices, one's sex would have no more relevance than one's eye color or the length of one's toes.”David Fiore: “Any time a human being chooses to describe themselves as anything but a "human being", liberalism has been thwarted ... The liberal subject is always merely that - he or she can have no group affiliation, no "sexual orientation," no gender in fact!”Professor Robert Jensen: “We need to get rid of the whole idea of masculinity … Of course, if we are going to jettison masculinity, we have to scrap femininity along with it … For those of us who are biologically male, we have a simple choice: We men can settle for being men, or we can strive to be human beings.”
Nor can liberal moderns easily accept the traditional family. In the traditional family there are distinct gender roles of father and mother, and husband and wife. We don’t get to self-determine these roles; therefore, there are liberal moderns who wish to see them replaced with a single, unisex, interchangeable parental role.
Nor do we get to self-determine the authority that fathers have over us, so liberal moderns are often particularly concerned to reject a distinct paternal role within the family.
Again, if there is only one form of family life we don’t get to self-select which one to belong to. Therefore, liberal moderns will often insist that there is no natural form of family life, but rather a diversity of family forms. Some liberal moderns insist that family life is so open that it cannot even be defined.
What else do we not self-determine? We don’t get to choose for ourselves our ethnicity. Therefore, traditional forms of national identity, based on ethnicity, have been declared illegitimate by liberal moderns. Professor Michael Ignatieff, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, has rejected ethnic nationalism on these grounds:
Ethnic nationalism claims...that an individual’s deepest attachments are inherited not chosen.
It is the fact that ethnic identity is both highly significant to the individual, but not able to be self-determined, which puts it so much at odds with the liberal pursuit of autonomy. That’s why there has been so much effort to deconstruct traditional forms of nationalism in Western countries.
Then there is the issue of morality. This is a particularly difficult issue for liberal moderns. If the highest good is to self-determine, then moral rules can only be negative limitations on the individual. Furthermore, if morality is something inherent and objective, then it can’t be self-determined.
So liberal moderns will tend to believe that there is nothing inherently right or wrong, and that what makes an act moral or immoral is whether or not it is an authentic want of the individual (i.e. whether it is freely consented to).
Professor Catherine Lumby, therefore, rejects the idea of morality altogether in favour of “ethics” on these grounds:
Morality is a blueprint for living that someone hands to you. Ethics is the zone we all enter when we find ourselves, by choice or necessity, negotiating those rules.
Dr Mirko Bargaric, an Australian human rights lawyer, assures us that,
we are morally complete and virtuous individuals if we do as we wish so long as our actions do not harm others
And Dr Leslie Cannold, an Australian ethicist, takes the view that,
defining your own good ... is at the heart of a moral life.
So the pursuit of autonomy has a terrible cost: it requires the suppression of gender difference, of traditional family life, of ethnicity and of an objective morality.
Both the left and right are committed to modernism. That’s why underlying principles are never debated in mainstream politics. The distinction between left and right is based instead on a second-tier issue. If society is to be made up of millions of competing wills, each in pursuit of his or her own interests and with no commitment to a collective good, then how is society to hold together?
The right (i.e. right-liberals) believe that individuals can seek their own interests and profit in the economy and that the market will regulate the outcome for the overall progress of society. The left (left-liberals) prefer the technocratic solution of the regulation of society by a state bureaucracy.
The more significant debate is not between right (Liberal Party) and left (Labor Party) liberals but between moderns and traditionalists. The point of traditionalism is not to uncritically endorse everything in the past or to reject all that is modern. It’s to challenge the specific underlying principle of modernism: the idea that we are made human by our capacity to self-determine.
Traditionalists are not opposed to autonomy, but we don’t hold it to be the sole organising principle of society. There are other important goods to uphold, including those relating to family, ethny and nation.
Nor do we believe that modernism can deliver the individual freedom it promises. We cannot be free as abstracted, autonomous individuals. If we are to be free, it must be as we really exist: as men and women, as members of traditional, historic communities, and as moral beings.