You are here

Liberalism, Tradition and the Church I

Liberalism, Tradition and Faith

We live in odd times. Rationalized insanity like political correctness (“PC”) and “zero tolerance” show a growing conflict between public standards and normal human understandings that makes common-sense judgments impossible. The same conflict has disordered activities that rely on formal standards, like education and scholarship, practices that express public ideals, like architecture, and institutions that depend on harmony between social standards and natural human tendencies, like the family. The result is that our young people are badly instructed, our scholarship disconnected from normal experience, our built environment ugly and alienating, and our family life chaotic and ill-tempered.

No-one seems to know why these things have to be so, but it seems that nothing can be done about them, so people ignore them, deny them, or minimize their importance. The officially-approved approach is to recognize that society and values evolve and trust the experts to explain why everything is in order and how to accommodate ourselves to whatever changes come along. It is not clear the experts should be trusted. When major institutions persistently act in a senseless way while praising themselves for unprecedented rationality there is something wrong with the public philosophy they rely on. The nature of the problems indicates that the outlook now official does not permit public affairs to be discussed freely and rationally. A fundamental critique and exploration of other possibilities is therefore necessary.

Man the Measure and Liberalism

The contradictions in political and moral thought today are the contradictions of the view that things are as they are to us — that man is the measure of all things. That view is immediately self-contradictory, since it seems to most of us that appearance and reality are quite different. Nonetheless, it has come to pervade the whole of life and thought. An obvious consequence has been a one-sided emphasis on personal feelings and arbitrary freedom at the expense of objectivity and qualitative distinctions felt to have public validity. A more surprising consequence has been the presumed omniscience of experts. Man-the-measure has been made a rigorous and usable principle through insistence on formal reasoning and close attention to immediate human experience, both of which require special training and expertise. The result is that the trained observer has become the real measure of all things, beyond whom no appeal is possible. Man-the-measure has thus come paradoxically to mean that ordinary people, who are not experts, cannot trust their own perceptions and understandings.

The effects of making man the measure in such a way have differed in different settings. In the natural sciences they have mostly been beneficial. The critical tendency and the emphasis on human thought and activity have meant an emphasis on observation, measurement and model-building. Observation and measurement reduce things to simple units we can grasp completely, while model-building eliminates the need to talk about anything but measured quantities and our own theories. Such procedures may not give us the whole truth about the world, but in physics and similar fields of study they have often been spectacularly successful.

In social and moral affairs, however, man-the-expert-observer is not usable as a final measure. Formal reasoning cannot tell us what goods to pursue, and the complexity and subtlety of human phenomena make measurement, modeling and controlled verification mostly useless. Further, the attempt to reduce human realities to measurable appearances misses the things that are of greatest concern to us. When I am dealing with table salt I do not lose much by ignoring what it may be in itself, and talking instead about mathematical models based on quantitative observations. The case is different when I am dealing with family and friends. Kantian morality, the social sciences, and the therapeutic approach to human life attempt to substitute formal reasoning, experimental findings, and successful mutual adjustment for concern with human beings as they are in themselves. Such efforts are fundamentally misconceived. In human affairs we are concerned with realities that cannot be controlled, experimented on, or reduced to our own measure. Our concern is with things as they are, not as they are to us.

But what are “things as they are”? The phrase seems to refer to a self-subsistent order of things that is altogether independent of our experience. Critically-minded moderns do not see how something altogether independent of our experience could become known to us, since to be known is to be part of our experience, so they want to restrict the applicability of the phrase as much as possible. If reducing others to our own experience does not work, the way to go beyond our experience while recognizing as few things as possible that transcend it is to recognize the experience of others in its ineffable otherness and treat it as its own measure. Measuring each by the standard of himself then yields the radically subjective view that a man’s good is whatever he thinks good, so that giving each what he wants becomes the highest ethical and political aspiration.

Such a view is widely accepted today, even though it turns out to have too little content to yield a reasonable ethics or politics. Hence the modern dilemma: if there are no standards other than how things seem to me and how things seem to you, our choice is between the imperialistic view that we are the measure of others and the utterly empty view that each is his own measure. If those are the alternatives, the latter seems more humane. Advanced liberal society therefore pins its moral hopes on the view that the good is what seems good to each man. People are attracted to that view, because they believe it leaves the moral and spiritual world wide open for each to develop in his own way. [fn: See Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 851 (1992): “[a]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”] It seems to demystify ethical questions, establish freedom on a firm basis, hold out hope for the greatest possible wealth of human diversity, and make it possible for us to tolerate each other and concentrate on the practical problems of living together rather than speculations as to ultimate goods.

Nonetheless, it is evident that the attempt to make each man his own measure leads to tyranny. The need for government remains, but the search for a common standard becomes pointless, so arbitrary rule is the outcome. A free society discusses things, but if each man is the measure there is nothing of substance to discuss. The rule is simple and clear — give each what he wants — and all alternatives, no matter how good their arguments or numerous their adherents, are ruled out in advance as religious dogma or idiosyncratic private opinion with no place in public life. The only legitimate questions are technical issues regarding how to satisfy as many desires as possible while giving equal weight to each. Such technical issues are for experts and not ordinary people. In addition, very few people are consistently willing to let man be the measure. Most of us cannot help but import other ethical standards into our understanding of life with others. It follows that for “man the measure” to prevail, the small group of those who truly accept it and are expert in applying it must rule the rest.

“Man the measure,” which was intended to bring ethics down to earth and establish tolerance and inclusivity, thus turns out to be a transcendent principle interpreted and forced on the whole of life by a small elite. Further, the principle has too little content to decide particulars, so it becomes the interests of that elite that in fact determine government decisions. In the Theaetetus, Plato’s objection to “man the measure” was that it contradicts itself theoretically. Modern life demonstrates that the contradiction is also practical. When made the highest standard, “man the measure” does not solve but creates anew and even exacerbates the problem of intolerant public claims of ultimate truth leading to ideological tyranny.

In an attempt to avoid such contradictions, it might be said that man is required to be the measure only for limited public purposes, and that in private life each of us is free to use any measure he chooses. Presumably, something of the sort is involved in the proposal that liberalism — the political manifestation of the view that man is the measure — be viewed as a “political conception” rather than a “comprehensive doctrine.” [fn: See John Rawls, Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press, 1993).]

The dodge does not work. An ethical doctrine is not a personal taste. It is a teaching as to what it makes sense to do and avoid. By their nature understandings of what is right and wrong, good and bad, claim to be part of reason and so to be public and authoritative. A purely private evaluation of some ethical point with no public implications is as nonsensical as a purely private understanding of good engineering practice. To say that to the extent it varies from the official “political conception” a “comprehensive doctrine” has no place in public life is to say that comprehensive doctrines cannot be taken seriously except to the extent they repeat public dogma.

As a practical matter, it means that private ethical doctrines must be suppressed. Man-the-measure leaves room for differences in taste but not ethics. When accepted as a political conception it becomes authoritative for the whole of public life. Since man is social, and most of the goods he cares about depend on complex interactions with other people, man-the-measure greatly limits the legitimate presence of conceptions that reject it even in private life. The nature of the advanced liberal state compells that result. That state is everywhere. It educates the young, confers honor, disgrace and punishment, and intervenes to reform our attitudes on things as close to home as relations between the sexes and the rearing of children. It spends a large part of our national income on things as value-laden as education and family support. As a state it demands a loyalty that extends to life and death decisions. How can it act in an orderly and intelligent way with regard to such things without a comprehensive ethical stance?

In fact, everyone in advanced liberal society is pressured into acting as if he accepted unreservedly the official political doctrine and all its implications. How could it be otherwise, when that doctrine is the basis of everything recognized as authoritative? If you believe man is the measure you can treat that as truth, speak out publicly in its favor, act on it in affairs that affect other people, and attempt to enforce it wherever you want. If you believe God is the measure you cannot. The minuteness and comprehensiveness of the rationalized social controls available today make up for the comparative mildness of the sanctions they impose. Seriously to deny man-the-measure — to assert the superior authority of transcendent truth that adds or subtracts anything to it that matters practically — is to be excluded from the mainstream of public life, treated as a threat to social order,[fn: The most extensively violent political doctrine has, of course, been Marxism, a view that is insistently man-centered and anti-transcendental.] viewed as potentially violent, and subjected to social, vocational, and on occasion (especially outside the United States) criminal sanctions.[fn: Criminal sanctions for assertions at odds with official doctrine include “hate speech” prosecutions based on expression of a negative religious judgment on homosexuality or Islam.] And in any case, saying “each of us is free to adopt whatever standard he wants” is just another way of saying “each of us is the measure.” The phrasing changes nothing.

It seems paradoxical to claim that liberal society, reputedly so open and pluralistic, is in fact a closed ideological system with an extraordinary ability to disguise its own nature. It should be obvious, however, that there is no such thing as pluralism. Every society functions on definite principles viewed as basic to public order and the common good, and every society ensures in one way or another that those principles are inculcated and treated with deference. The widespread contrary conviction suggests that a more extended discussion of the implications and contradictions of man the measure as expressed in the institutions of liberal society may be useful.

As a practical matter, to make man the measure is to make human desire, technology, and formal reason the ruling principles of morals and politics. Desire sets the goals, technology tells how to realize them, and formal reason keeps the system rational and coherent. Those principles can also be formulated as tolerance, efficiency, and equal justice. Tolerance is the equal authority of all desires, efficiency the adaptation of means to ends in fulfilling desire, and equal justice the uniform application of the other principles. All these principles can be summarized as “equal freedom”: tolerance and efficiency together constitute freedom — the ability to satisfy one’s desires — while equality is the requirement that desires be treated and principles applied consistently.

The recognized means in liberal society for putting equal freedom into effect are free agreement, representative democracy, and rational administration within a universal legal regime that makes equal freedom an overriding enforceable standard. Markets, the contractual arrangements of civil society, parliaments, and state and transnational bureaucracies, all under the supervision of courts armed with human rights charters, are thus today’s characteristic institutions.

Those institutions accept that man is the measure, and that each man (assuming the Rawlsian requirement that differences in wealth and status benefit the least well off) is equally the measure. They are thus designed to give effect to will simply as such, as much and as equally as possible, and are alone allowed public authority. Things like family, ethnic ties and religion, which are based on standards other than giving everyone what he wants as equally as possible, are abolished as public institutions, assimilated to contract and personal taste, and — when not suppressed as intrinsically dangerous to equal freedom — made wholly private and voluntary.

Liberal rationalism requires that the principles governing public life be derived in a formally correct and publicly verifiable manner, as either a priori demands like equality or facts backed by certifiable expertise. The alternative would be to follow personal biases, which — especially when held by the majority — would oppress those who do not share them. The result is that the officials who determine the facts and principles that count as neutral have the final say on everything. To achieve consistency of principle, liberal institutions are therefore arranged hierarchically, with experts at the top and the people at the bottom. Bureaucrats and judges decide matters of principle, develop them into detailed specifications for all aspects of social life, and leave only non-political and ethically indifferent matters — for example, the specifics of economic initiatives and public and private consumption choices — to popular and participatory institutions.

Liberalism thus leads to a guardian state. The justifications presented for the guardian state are scientism and “tolerance” (understood in the current politically correct sense). Scientism is the view that formalized procedures carried out by professionals are the only legitimate source of knowledge. It holds that experts should decide all public issues, and to disagree is simply to take the side of ignorance. The people, whose knowledge is not formalized, have no legitimate role in public life other than to support the established order, and when relevant to make their preferences known. Since there are experts who study everything, even popular preferences, in the end scientism implies that the actual participation of ordinary people should count for nothing in public life. It is window dressing that should not be allowed to affect anything important.

Tolerance, in its PC sense, demands that since substantive value falls outside expert knowledge, and is therefore simply subjective, every opinion regarding it must be equally respected and none permitted to dominate the others. The effect is that all views regarding substantive value have to be kept private and powerless. To allow any of them public influence would unjustly burden other equally valid views. PC tolerance views dissent from the liberal state as oppressive in itself, because simply by existing it creates a social environment unfavorable to some people and ways of life. It therefore silences everyone except experts, committed liberals, and those whose speech undermines traditional understandings of the good that must be suppressed because they pretend to public validity.

The two ideologies complement each other. PC supports scientism by emphasizing the unreliability of ordinary understandings and the need to rely on neutral expertise. Scientism confirms PC by debunking tradition and positive religion and asserting that all legitimate truth supports PC, bypassing ordinary standards of scientific inquiry if needed to do so. [fn: No matter what investigation actually reveals, official expert conclusions always support the liberal view of things like race, sex and gender. See Charles Murray in the Afterword to The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (Free Press, 1996) on the corruption of social science with regard to race, and Regent University Law Review , Volume 14, Number 2 Spring 2002, with regard to homosexuality.] Both support the claim of liberalism to be “transparent” — to eliminate the distortions introduced by irrationality or special pleading into the process through which desires attain to equal satisfaction — by portraying the essence of the liberal state as not power but neutral expertise and protection of the weak against aggression.[fn: In fact, of course, “transparency” is an attempt to deny power is power by making it invisible. Liberalism is therefore unable to recognize PC or scientism as substantive ideologies. To do so would admit that liberalism is not the neutral realization of human rights but a substantive engine of power, an admission that would destroy the basis of its claim to rule.]

The spheres of social life that scientism and PC leave open to the people at large are careerism and consumerism. Careerism says that you are your position in the universal rational system of production, consumption and governance established by managerial liberalism. Career thus becomes an ultimate ethical category. Since recognized social position makes us what we are, competing values like love, loyalty and integrity come to seem sentimental fantasies or even pathologies. Discussions of women’s roles make the established careerist view particularly clear: to be a housewife and mother is to be self-indulgent or oppressed, to be useless, to be nothing.

Consumerism says that all choices the system provides are equally and interchangeably valid, and those choices also make you what you are. It too is an ultimate ethical category: I shop, therefore I am. Lack of customary consumer goods becomes a deprivation of personal dignity. Understandings of personal morality, and the basic commitments and personal connections that formerly defined who someone is, become “alternate lifestyle options” and thus consumer goods like any other.

To exclude anything from the way of life justified by PC and scientism and fleshed out in personal life by careerism and consumerism would be to violate tolerance and equal freedom by giving some person, status or goal a special position. Even religion, to be legitimate, must accept PC and scientism and reform itself so that it simply restates established consumerist and careerist values. It must understand itself as an optional consumer good. Its public face and authoritative principles must be decided by experts and emphasize tolerance, inclusion and equality. Anything more concrete and particular must remain purely private. In particular, no religion can claim superiority over any other religion or over irreligion.

In concept, the absolutely private falls outside the scope of the demands of liberal neutrality. In theory that exclusion is extremely important because it is central to the claim that liberalism is not an oppressive system of power but a system of mutual social accommodation that is uniquely legitimate because it leaves the self free and untouched. It is unclear, however, why liberal protection of the strictly private matters so much, when modern government is so pervasive, human life and even meaning have such a strong interpersonal aspect, and no government can touch the absolutely private in any event.

Advanced liberal society can be evaluated from a number of perspectives. It may focus discussion to concentrate on functional aspects. Managerial liberalism has been notably effective as a form of social organization. Its success in establishing a generally peaceful social order, however, is largely built on obfuscation that deprives opposition of any definable target. It maintains the appearance of complete freedom while deciding all significant questions without regard to public participation. Scientism and political correctness, enforced by the professionalization of knowledge and social life in general, define rationality and fairness in a way that either determines all serious issues in advance or hands them over to experts and other functionaries. The real freedoms granted are strictly private and relate to career, consumption, and private indulgence. Advanced liberalism can grant those freedoms generously, and indeed make them almost absolute, because they have been deprived of public significance and they support the established system by keeping the people safely occupied.

Liberalism thus succeeds in large part by making conflicts seem to disappear. That is the basis of its success but also its fatal flaw. Conflict that is obfuscated cannot be dealt with rationally. Men organize their lives individually and socially by recognizing goods that precede personal desire and to some extent are independent of it. By doing so they recognize a common moral world within which thought and discussion can bring conflicting impulses into order. Liberalism destroys the possibility of such a common moral world. It cannot recognize goods that precede desire, and so cannot put conflicts in a setting that permits them to be dealt with on their relative merits. It treats them as either absolute or unreal, and attempts to resolve them, when they cannot be bought off, mainly by ruling one side out of order.

That approach does not often yield definite results without cheating. Is it really true that protecting unborn babies and opposing sodomy violates human dignity, while protecting baby seals and keeping people from sticking cigarettes into their mouths does not? The basic problem for liberalism is that if every man is the measure it cannot be right to tell him what to do. The attempt to get around that problem inevitably leads to irrationality and unprincipled conduct. What makes things worse is that making man the measure rules out any principle of moderation or common sense. Such principles require recognition of human limitations, but if man is the measure then in concept there can be no standard in relation to which limitations might exist. And in any event, common sense is a matter of settled popular preconceptions — “prejudices and stereotypes” — that liberalism and modernity treat as irrational and therefore oppressive because there is no clear rational procedure behind them.

Liberal society tries to minimize the problems with which it cannot deal by reducing the conflicts implicit in social life as much as possible. It promotes prosperity, tries to equalize the satisfactions of different people, and insists that goals are illegitimate if they do not give other goals equal respect — in particular, if they involve changing or discrediting the goals of others. Such expedients cannot be relied upon. Prosperity and social protections sometimes fail, because the world does not obey human will. Further, the attempt to maximize aggregate satisfactions runs into insoluble problems because satisfactions of different people cannot be measured and compared. When John and Mary differ it is generally impossible to determine whether overall satisfaction would increase if John gave in to Mary or Mary to John. Matters become infinitely worse when one attempts to deal with the complex satisfactions of millions of very different people, and with the effects of what people do and think on the situations in which desires arise and find fulfillment. How can such difficulties possibly be resolved except arbitrarily, by imposing the preferences of those in power?

Also, man is social. The goals that matter most to him require the participation of others, and so normally require changing what others want. If John loves Mary he will want to persuade Mary to love him. More generally, some people will be happier if traditional marriage is given special honor, others if homosexual connections are approved equally. Both groups proselytize and try to bring social attitudes and institutions into line with their understanding of how things should be. The liberal tendency is to say that proselytizing and even compulsory re-education is right when the goal is to make others more “tolerant” — whatever that ends up meaning — but not otherwise. It is not clear why an attempt to root out anti-PC values is less violent than an attempt to root out (for example) anti-Islamic values. However that may be, liberalism allows public legitimacy only to efforts to influence others that favor the liberal conception of tolerance. If those efforts succeeded completely, people would care only about equality and self-centered satisfactions that do not require others to give of themselves. Things as basic as love and loyalty would be ruled out. A fully liberal society would thus be altogether inhuman.

Since liberalism cannot deal with conflicts reasonably, has no principle of moderation or common sense, and points toward a form of society radically at odds with human nature, it is doomed. Its final triumph destroys it by depriving it of any opposing principle that could keep it sane and compensate for what it lacks. When it becomes the sole governing principle it insists that nothing should limit abstract freedom except other abstractions like equality and public order. Such things cannot be balanced against each other. To avoid incoherence one of them must end up the sole standard and the others be reinterpreted so they offer resistance no longer. The result is monomania, either of freedom, of equality, or of bureaucratic control. Liberalism thus ends in the comprehensive denial of its original stated goals of modesty, restraint and reason based on taking man as the measure.[fn: We can see the incoherence of liberalism in the paradoxes that surround us: rigidly uniform diversity, totally administered freedom, radically elitist equality, bigoted tolerance, discriminatory anti-discrimination, immoral moralism, sordid idealism, mindless expertise, dogmatic agnosticism, compulsory established rebellion, and mainstream extremism.]