Saturday, February 06, 2010

The limits of liberal morality

Morality is a problem for liberals. That's why it's still something of a work in progress for them.

The difficulty is this. Liberals believe in individual autonomy as the highest good. Autonomy is thought to define our very humanity.

Therefore, the moral thing is to be free to do whatever we have a will to do; the immoral thing is to have our will impeded.

Liberalism therefore has a tendency to be libertine, permissive and even transgressive, as it will be thought morally heroic to break taboos which restrict what individuals might choose to do.

That's one side of the ledger. The other side is that liberals still have to make moral judgements. What if people choose to act against liberal values? How will liberals morally condemn this? And what if the "do as you will" philosophy creates damaging outcomes? How will liberals set limits to behaviour, when the underlying idea is that autonomy, a freedom to choose, is what determines the morality of our actions?

Liberals sometimes try to resolve the problem by raising the issue of "authentic wants." Let's say that Person X chooses to do something that a liberal doesn't like. In theory, the liberal should accept that the act is moral as it is Person X's choice to do it. But the liberal can argue that it wasn't an authentic choice, it wasn't what Person X really had a will to do. Perhaps Person X was somehow influenced by other people in his choice, or by tradition, or by advertisers.

This hasn't been an effective tactic. All that Person X has to do is to turn to the liberal and affirm that their choice is, indeed, authentic. For instance, a woman who becomes a stripper can talk about her choice being empowering, an expression of her independence, as being motivated by her own sexuality and life goals and so on. And Person X then wins the argument.

So liberals seem to have moved on to Plan B, which is to insist that moral actions be respectful. Here in Victoria the Labor Government has actually appointed a Minister of Respect in response to the wave of crime in the CBD.

Why such an emphasis on respect? The idea of respect places only indefinite, general, subjective limitations on our moral agency. There remain no specific, objective moral truths or inherently superior forms of personal character to guide our behaviour in a certain direction.

Respect works better as a strategy than authentic wants. It does encourage people to think of others when making moral choices. But I doubt that it can work strongly enough to hold the line. Is a young man who sets out to create violence in the CBD likely to change his mind by being told to respect others? Will this really have purchase on him?

And what happens when the notion of respect collides with the idea that "the fact that it's my choice makes it OK". Let's say a woman decides to be a football groupie. It's her choice to do so, so in her mind it's a moral thing to do. Are the football players who encounter her and others like her going to respect her? Is mutual respect likely to flourish in such a social milieu? Is it even reasonable to ask people to show her the same respect as a suburban mum raising a family? (Wouldn't this require people to suspend or suppress their moral instincts? Should we really show equal respect to people regardless of how they choose to behave?)

To illustrate this problem, consider the views of Charmyne Palavi, a rugby league groupie in Sydney. She clings to the "no limits" side of liberal morality, as when she describes herself as,

a single woman who can have sex whenever, with whomever, I choose.

She knows that the rugby league players don't respect the groupies:

Group sex happens ... The reality is there are women out there who do hunt footballers down, are prepared to have sex with them in nightclub toilets ...

Anyone who thinks the culture is going to change just because the story's out there however are kidding themselves.

I was messaging a young player, a Facebook friend, last week and asked what he was doing.

He replied: "Learning how to respect women. LOL (laugh out loud)."

I wrote back: "Yeah, and I'm still a virgin."

But she still believes that "respect" is the solution to managing interactions between the players and the groupies they have sex in toilets with:

People seem to be ignoring the bigger issue here while they look for someone to blame. That is - the disrespect for women inherent in the clubs.

She wants to behave in an unrespectable way and yet be treated with respect. Again, this shows a danger with the "equal respect" mantra. It has the potential to further undermine people's moral sense, by asking us to give moral assent to people regardless of how they behave.

The level of respect we show for others rightly varies according to the kind of personal character they display. It's not something that can be assumed to be permanently booked in.

There's one other liberal approach to morality that deserves a mention. Liberals will often discuss moral issues in terms of discrimination. A liberal can deem a moral action to be wrong if it discriminates, since the discrimination will be thought to limit the life aims (and therefore the autonomy) of some other person.

There was a curious example of this in yesterday's Age. A banker was caught out looking at a racy photo of a model on his computer during a live telecast on TV. He was temporarily stood down by the bank, but has returned to his job.

Cordelia Fine, a research associate at the Centre for Agency, Values and Ethics (a liberal way of describing moral philosophy) at Macquarie University, wrote a lengthy column about it. Remember, liberals are committed to a "if I choose it, it's moral" philosophy, so Cordelia Fine can't really argue that there is something inherently wrong with the banker looking at a racy photo.

Nonetheless, she makes a detailed argument that looking at the photo was an immoral act. Why? Because it fosters discrimination against women in the workplace, by harming the pursuit of careers by women. According to Cordelia Fine, a man looking at a racy photo in the workplace can undermine a woman's performance at work because she has to,

expend mental energy unconsciously suppressing the unflattering stereotype, and this interferes with the task at hand.

Think of the consequences of this approach to morality. It is an invitation to intrusive, petty, bureaucratic regulation of our day to day interactions with other people. Who doesn't suffer some kind of discrimination in their efforts to achieve their life aims? And how would you set about preventing it happening? Morality here takes the path of social engineering.

And so you end up with a mix of the libertine and the intrusive. Autonomy once again generates a contradiction. To be autonomous means rejecting external limits on what we might choose to do; but creating conditions of autonomy requires highly regulated social settings that are experienced as unnecessarily intrusive rather than individually free.


  1. Groupie whores it with multiple guys simultaneously and she wants respect. Guy perves at a clothed model and he gets suspended...hmmmm

  2. I’m not sure where the term “authentic wants” was first used in liberal discourse, but is familiar to me the way your describe it, Mark. I remember reading Lenin back at Uni, which is what happens in an undergraduate arts course these days in Sydney, and came across the concept of “false consciousness”.

    False consciousness in Leninist terms means that when the proletariat refuses to embrace the Revolution, it hasn’t made a ‘correct’ decision because it cannot ‘see’ what it really needs and therefore its conscience is ‘false’. This is why the Red authorities felt a moral right to impose their decrees on the classes they purported to serve. All this just underlies the philosophical patronage of modern liberalism which does exactly the same.

    I think the example Anonymous (above) presents illustrates how liberal ideology is just used to further the political power of an in-group (in this case, women) more so than the hypocrisy of liberalism. Liberalism contradicts itself internally, and Mark has illustrated this many times with case studies in the Australian media. But it is not hypocritical as such because if you consider its ultimate objective (being the destruction of European Christian manhood, generally speaking, and through that, the total annihilation of the West), then it needs to change the rules constantly to further that ultimate objective. We see this as an operative ‘double standard’ because we assume that our opponent will think in the same terms as us, which she doesn’t.

    Your example of Cordelia Fine’s reasoning process is a case in point. Modern feminism in culture places an enormous strain on men today, but I don’t think Fine will consider their (our) “mental energy unconsciously suppressing the unflattering stereotype[s]” in the media etc. Is she being inconsistent? Yes, but only on a superficial level. If you understand the ultimate objective to be the destruction of male authority completely, then she is being very consistent, and the Revolution continues.

  3. Excellent post Mark. It is a terrible tangle that the left/liberals get into.

    On that issue with the banker. Getting stood down for a couple of days, that's so typical of modern left wing punishments they're so pissweak. For those who don't know the banker was in the background of a regular news telecast from his bank. He was unlucky enough to have his computer monitor directly in line of the camera even though he was a fair way away. The fact that he was so incompetent as to be doing that during a live television conference I would have thought would warrant a heavier punishment. He was opening email attachments by the way. (I personally can't stand it when people "play" on the internet at work).

    Back to the main topic the fashion it seems is definitely to move beyond the "do whatever you want" phase, to the show respect etc phase. There's a hippie university in the States where guys must ask the consent of women for every aspect of the intercourse. Can I do this, can I do that ... Which is probably only good manners, if boring, but we're talking about criminalising behaviour here.

    It seems the left looooove morality. It’s the basis of their philosophy, everyone else is the bad guy. However, they can’t be too moral because that reinforces the establishment etc. So if you get feminists teaming up with conservatives for instance to ban pornography then they’re likely to be called out by the sisters for teaming up with the baddies. Moral conversations with the left are so difficult because they take it so seriously but at the same time seem to have confused beliefs/foundations. If you call them out on this they often likely to shrug their shoulders or say, "At least we are moral!"

  4. Kilroy was here:

    "if you consider its ultimate objective (being the destruction of European Christian manhood, generally speaking, and through that, the total annihilation of the West), then it needs to change the rules constantly to further that ultimate objective."

    Thank you for this reminder! Once you understand the objective, everything else can understood as mere tactics -- which must always be selected and adapted to the circumstances.

    Of course, many self-professed liberals won't admit that this is the underlying objective of their politics. They might not even be consciously aware that it is. Occasionally, as in the Sixties, it emerges into explicit awareness. But most of the time, liberals prefer not to think about where all of this is going...

  5. The ultimate goal of Liberalism isn't "destruction of European Christian manhood". It is, just as Mark said, maximum freedom and autonomy for each individual. I think you are confusing Liberalism with Leftism, which has hatred of oppressor groups as it's core belief.

  6. "Perhaps Person X was somehow influenced by other people in his choice, or by tradition, or by advertisers."

    If no force outside of the individual can influence their decisions, then all liberal philosophy allows for is genetic determinism and raw, unvarnished human nature to govern our actions.

    One's genetic makeup and interal wiring as a human being are not at all freely determined. Quite a contradiction in indeed.

  7. Rob, the distinction you draw is between an instrument and the one who wields it. In my opinion, it's best to see the whole thing to see what it's "point" is.

  8. 2009 has ended and in 2010 something has occured

    I'm starting to see people of all walks of life rejecting liberal and conservative ideals and instead going for a mixture and to go independent ( free of all political parties )

    Christianity suffered a decline through 2006 to 2009 but now it's a bit alive again

    Atheism is being rejected and Agnosticism and Deism are rising

    But most of all masculinity is going back to the cause

    An example of this is '' Dear John ''

    Hollywood due to the recession has lost 1/3 of it's industry and ticket sales are down 20 to 35 %

    Hooray for independence
    Christian (conservative-moderate-liberal) independent woman

    No political party :)

    The battle was lost but the war has been won


  9. ''Anonymous 13 February 2010 8:29'' demonstrates the insanity and relativism of the left. Either that or he's part of the Glenn Beck/Sarah Palin/Rush Limbaugh/etc fake conservatism.