Monday, October 29, 2018

Standards & the liberal formula

The current liberal understanding of liberty is that we are free when there are fewest constraints on individual choice. The one constraint that liberalism formally recognises is that we are not in our own choices to limit the choices of others (we are not to discriminate, or be intolerant, or judge, or lack openness toward what others choose to be or do).

I don't want to address in this post the lack of internal coherence of the liberal formula. I simply want to point out some of the ways that traditional societies believed that individual choice should rightly be constrained.

I am pointing out a conflict between the traditional view and the liberal one. A liberal society, in attempting to maximise the realm of individual choice, must eventually push against the traditional constraints on choice.

In other words, you cannot operate on the liberal formula and hope to preserve, in the longer run, those cultural standards within a traditional society that constrained individual choice.

Some of these standards held within traditional societies, in no particular order, included:

1. What might be thought of as aristocratic codes of behaviour, including standards of honour, nobility and dignity. These ruled out choices or actions that were thought to be base or dishonourable, including cowardice and dishonesty.

2. Loyalty. It was thought right to be loyal to family and to country (hence the motto "God, King and country"). If we are loyal, then we are constrained in our choices from putting our own immediate material self-interests above the well-being of our family or nation.

3. Manhood & womanhood. In traditional societies men were expected to act according to standards of courage, resilience, self-control, reliability, industry and strength; womanhood was measured by a loving heart, patience, tenderness, kindness, grace, modesty and beauty.

It is perhaps no coincidence that in eras that were focused on dissolving restraint that sex distinctions between men and women were deliberately flattened (e.g. the flappers of the 1920s or the hippies of the later 60s).

4. Duty. I remember as a young man having a serious talk with an older male who told me "there is no such thing as duty." He had been raised in a culture that had already rejected duty as a standard. That's not so surprising, as duty really does suggest a constraint on our choices.

Duty seems to arise, in part, from a sense of what we owe to those who have brought about our being, and nurtured and raised us, and made sacrifices for us. In many cultures, therefore, filial duty is prominent (a duty toward our parents). Similarly, it can be felt that we have a duty to past generations, to our country and its traditions, and to God. (Duty can run the other way as well, in that we have duties to those under our care, such as our children.)

In the ancient world, duty was connected as a concept with piety. Cicero, for instance, defined pietas as the virtue "which admonishes us to do our duty to our country or our parents or other blood relations." For the Ancient Greeks, eusebeia (the Greek counterpart to pietas) was represented by the demi-god of piety, loyalty, duty and filial respect.

5. Reverence/respect. This is a constraint on transgressing certain places or offices that are thought to hold a deeper meaning within a community. For instance, in some communities it might be thought irreverent to shout obscenities in a church, or to damage a flag that soldiers have fought for and died under, or to insult the monarch, or to blaspheme. In modern Australia, there is the example of the reverent way that ANZAC Day services are carried out.

Liberals still sometimes make appeals to an ideal of respect, as when they call for respect for women. But this works differently to the traditional concept. In a liberal society, women are encouraged to self-transgress (to act against moral ideals associated with their sex), as this then widens the realm of individual choice. Similarly, the very notion of womanhood is transgressed when liberals treat it as an oppressive social construct that is, at best, a merely subjective identity open to all.

So there is no deeply held meaning to the idea of womanhood in a liberal society that it might be thought wrong to transgress. We are told to respect women in a general sense, more as a way of upholding women's unconstrained choices, rather than as a response to something within womanhood itself that might naturally draw respect from men.

6. Integrity/self-respect. A desire to maintain moral integrity constrained choice in traditional societies. A person begins with moral foundations that provide a sense of "wholeness" (perhaps the term "wholesomeness" comes from this). If these foundations collapse, there is a loss of the sense of being an integrated, complete person. The feeling of integrity that is so valuable a part of our identity is damaged.

Similarly, a person who routinely yields to vice (to sloth, gluttony, avarice etc.) will eventually feel less respect for themselves (hence the reprimand "a self-respecting person would not do that"). We do not wish to lower ourselves in our own eyes; self-respect therefore places constraints on what we might choose to be or do.

7. Love. If we genuinely love someone, we will wish to protect them from harm. More than this, we often seek to serve and defend that which we love. This could be our family, our nation, our friends, our church, or the larger tradition we belong to. We wish too to uphold the conditions in which such loves can flourish. All of this places constraints on individual choice. There have been some very radical moderns who have rejected love because of this; they have identified it as a brake on "liberation" movements or as a fetter on personal freedom.

8. Service. An impulse toward service is one aspect of our created nature. The use of our strengths and talents in service to others gives us a sense of purpose and fulfilment. Even though it makes claims on us, and therefore places limits on choice, service adds to the richness of our commitments, as when a man acts to protect his family, or a woman nurtures her children, or perhaps when there is a calling toward a higher service to God to uphold the good.

In a liberal society, the call to serve is most often heard from the churches. Some of these churches have accepted the fundamentals of a liberal philosophy and so service is interpreted through a social justice framework as meaning a commitment toward the "equal autonomy" of individuals.

This creates a negative loop. The churches, in response to a largely self-centered culture, preach service to others, but by keeping to a modern philosophy they support movements which further dissolve the traditional, common bonds of historic communities, leading to ever more withdrawn, self-centered forms of culture.

Service shouldn't be just tacked on to an otherwise socially dissolving ideology, but should flow from the commitments that grow naturally within settled, stable, traditional forms of community.

These are some of the key cultural standards that acted as restraints on individual choice in pre-modern societies. If the aim of a modern society is to maximise such choice, then there is going to be a problem in attempting to retain these standards - there is a danger that they will be lost.

Now, a liberal might reply to all this by saying that if choice is unconstrained that people could still choose as individuals to be honourable, or manly, or loyal. If I remember correctly, John Stuart Mill was confident that people who were "liberated" to unconstrained choice would, particularly if they were educated, choose to act like gentlemen.

But there's the problem of the logic at play. If the aim of society is to enlarge the realm of unconstrained choice, and these traditional standards constrain that choice, then they are likely ultimately to be seen as barriers to be taken down. The reality is that these standards will eventually come to be thought of as old-fashioned & out of date, or regressive, or quaint. And if the words themselves survive within a liberal culture ("service," "respect," "manhood"), it is likely that they will have been redefined to better suit liberal purposes.

They don't survive intact as cultural standards. The logic of the liberal formula works against this.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.


  1. When liberalism was first being developed it sounded good. Do you think there is some early point in liberal development when it was a good thing but the idea is that we mustn't go down that road because there is no logical stopping point?

    1. That's a really good question. The problem is that the anthropology of liberalism, its understanding of man & society, was deeply flawed at the beginning (say, with Hobbes). The idea of man starting out solitary and then making a social contract (man and state) is artificial - a truer anthropology would be more organic than this, with at least some forms of human community being present from the beginning.

      Still, it might be possible to make an argument that if liberalism had a stopping point it would not have used up all the social capital it inherited from pre-liberal traditions and so might have had a longer lifespan.

    2. When liberalism was first being developed it sounded good

      Every ideology sounds good when someone first thinks of it. Every ideology works perfectly in theory. Communism sounds fabulous in theory. Even libertarianism, the most insane of all ideologies, probably sounded good at first.

      The trouble with liberalism is that like all ideologies it's theory-based. If the facts are at variance with the theory then the facts must be changed. All theory-based ideologies are fatally flawed right from the beginning.

      That's why traditional ways of doing things are better. They're experience-based and reality-based rather than theory-based.

    3. Whose traditional ways of doing things?

      What about all of the others' traditional ways of doing things?

      Australia's indigenous people live in reserves, as do the Native Americans who also artificially maintain their traditions as if they're staged in a museum. I imagine a day when Tradcons will live in reserves (if they don't already), being studied by anthropologists from the government social services bureau. Nostalgia tours.

      When the concept itself - traditonalism - is tagged onto every notion of what used to be, it's too late. Traditional this and that. Traditionalism is all ready so broad a subset of culture and politics, that it's use is a clear identifier of something clearly in the past and long lost to a people.

    4. The traditions of civilised people obviously.