Saturday, October 12, 2019

The skirmish line

The focus in liberalism is on freely determining for ourselves our identity, our purposes, our values and so on. Therefore, a liberal society cheers on those who reject received identities. It's considered a great thing for a young woman to play rugby and not so good for her to be oriented to motherhood.

On what basis do traditionalists reject this liberal focus? One serious way to do so is to emphasise that we should, as individuals, be focused on ordering ourselves to the good. In this view, our impulses are wayward and need to be directed, through the cultivation of virtue, and with the support of culture, toward higher ends.

How would a liberal react to this claim? Well, I don't think a liberal would easily think along these lines, but at the same time a liberal might attempt to incorporate it into the liberal view. A liberal might respond that, yes, an individual might order themselves toward the good, but that nobody else but the individual has the right to determine what that good is. We would then have a society in which each individual orients themselves toward the good that they have chosen, whilst respecting the right of everyone else to do the same.

So the idea of being oriented toward the good is only, at best, a skirmish line separating liberals and traditionalists - it is not the war line.

The liberal view can work if people choose a good that can be pursued at the individual level. For instance, if it is my chosen good to be successful in the career, status and money sense, then I can pursue this within the liberal framework. Similarly, if I choose to pursue personal pleasure, such as through travel, entertainment or dining out.

So what is the war line?

We get to the war line if we insist that the good that we orient ourselves to is given to us within the natural order rather than being subjectively chosen. The liberal view is that we can choose anything, and that as long as it does not limit the choice of anyone else, it is equally valid. The traditional view is that there is an objective good for us to order ourselves toward and that there are ends given to us that we properly seek to fulfil in life.

Professor Patrick Deneen, in his book Why Liberalism Failed, explains the distinction this way:
Premodern political thought...understood the human creature as part of a comprehensive natural order. Humans were understood to have a telos, a fixed end, given by nature and unalterable. Human nature was continuous with the order of the natural world, and thus humanity was required to conform both to its own nature and, in a broader sense, to the natural order of which it was a part. Human beings could freely act against their own nature and the natural order, but such actions deformed them and harmed the good of human beings and the world. (p.35)

A secondary war line is when we see the individual good and the common good as being intertwined. For instance, let's say that I see my individual good as being tied in with the good of family life. I might take seriously a goal of marrying well, having a large family, playing a distinct sex role as a husband and father, expressing both marital and paternal love within the family, socialising my children into a familial, communal and civilisational heritage and so on.

I cannot easily do this within the liberal framework because I cannot do it alone through my own choices. It requires that I live within a culture that supports such a concept of the good. Imagine, for instance, that the women I live amongst have been socialised to be independent career women, who see family life as limiting their autonomy, and who see an unrestrained sexuality as empowering. Imagine, too, that it is assumed that family life is secondary to careerism and that I should spend all my time and energy at work. Or that I should not be paid a living wage, given the default assumption that there will be two full-time wage earners.

In other words, the assumptions that liberalism makes about the good - that it is based on the subjective preferences of autonomous individuals - limits the realm of what goods are practically available to us, in particular by undermining the possibility of a common good. And if you hold that the individual good rests upon the existence of a common good, then liberalism does clearly fail.

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