Sunday, July 28, 2013

James Kalb: Out of the Antiworld

James Kalb has written an excellent article titled Out of the Antiworld. It's best to read it in its entirety, but I'd like to focus in this post on just one aspect of it.

James Kalb describes the liberal moral system in his article and it reinforces some of the points I have been trying to make in recent posts. According to Kalb, the liberal understanding of what makes something rational includes a scepticism about what can be known and this rules out the idea of an objective moral order, so that the focus is put instead on what is subjective:
The result is that nothing can be held to have a natural goal or reason for being, and the only meaning something can have for us is the meaning we give it. In such a setting, wanting to do something is what makes it worth doing, and the good can only be the satisfaction of preferences simply as such. Morality becomes an abstract system that has nothing substantive to say about how to live but only tells us to cooperate so we can all attain whatever our goals happen to be.

Given such a view, the uniquely rational approach to social order is to treat it as a soulless, technically rational arrangement for maximizing equal satisfaction of equally valid preferences. That principle claims to maximize effective freedom, but it narrowly limits what is permissible lest we interfere with the equal freedom of others or the efficient operation of the system. Private hobbies and indulgences are acceptable, since they leave other people alone. So are career, consumption, and expressions of support for the liberal order. What is not acceptable is any ideal of how people should understand their lives together that is at odds with the liberal one. Such ideals affect other people, if only by affecting the environment in which they live, and that makes them oppressive. If you praise the traditional family, you are creating an environment that disfavors some people and their goals, so you are acting as an oppressor.

The result is that the contemporary liberal state cannot allow people to take seriously the things they have always taken most seriously.

Liberals claim to stand for individual freedom, but if you have a system in which everyone must be equally free to do as they will, then you cannot assert as a good anything which might limit what other people do, or which might even create an environment which defines things according to one view rather than another.

When you look at what then individuals are really left free to do you find that they are mostly left with the more trivial of choices rather than the more significant ones. Career is perhaps one of the more important choices left to people, which might partly explain why most liberals are so focused on the good of career. Then there are consumer choices, entertainments and travel. These can all be chosen in a way that doesn't necessarily interfere with the choices of others (though even with careers there are issues about who should be favoured or not in employment).

And what is lost? In general the things that matter most to people, as these require a community to defend them as public goods. For instance, most people want to live within a traditional community of their own, one in which they have a sense of continuity over time, a link between generations and the transmission of a particular culture and heritage. But to realistically offer this choice to people means that you must have some sort of borders between different communities - otherwise distinctions are lost. And the liberal system of equal freedom doesn't allow for such borders, because it would mean asserting as a public good a measure that would limit the freedom of some people (those not within the community) to exercise a choice (to join the community). It would mean, in other words, discriminating between people in order to uphold an important public good, thereby violating the non-discrimination rule.

But going to the shops and choosing how to spend your money is OK. Or deciding to go to Bali rather than the Gold Coast is also OK. That becomes what defines us as liberal subjects, it even defines our dignity as human individuals in the liberal understanding of things. But to most people it seems a trivial base on which to try to build a sense of human dignity and flourishing. It is "equally free" but at a depressingly low level. Aspects of life that are meant to be secondary are what are left to us; we lose the traditional anchors of identity and meaning and motivation; and we find that public life is dominated by people from everywhere shopping together.

There is one other aspect of James Kalb's article I'd like to discuss, but I'll leave that for a future post.


  1. Yes, this essay of his is of major importance and I will be spreading links to it across the blogging spehere.

  2. I will be spreading links to it across the blogging sphere.

    Yes, that's a useful thing for us to do. I've started already - I've linked to it at one other site so far - I'd encourage readers to link to Jim Kalb's piece at any appropriate sites they're aware of.

  3. I like his point about what happens when two peoples desires conflict. After all, we can't all get the same job, the same mate, live in the same place.

    Right liberals believe the "God" who should determine whose preferences get precedence is the market.

    Left liberals believe the "God" who should determines whose preferences get precedence is "experts" (determined by some human system that confers expert titles).

    Both ignore the conservative answer, that weighing peoples preference requires a complex set of factors including reason, intuition, experience, tradition, culture, faith, common sense, etc that requires active engagement in an ongoing social question rather then outsourcing morality to these impersonal forces (markets, experts).