Liberalism — What and Why?

Delivered April 7, 2001 at the St. Justin Martyr House of Studies in Shohola, Pennsylvania

I. Introduction

Today we will be discussing liberalism, which is a subject we all know something about. It is so much around us that it is difficult to get perspective on it and see what it is. That can make it hard to know where to begin. What I’ll try to do today is present a very general perspective on liberalism: what it is, where it comes from, and what to do about it.

I should say, by way of clarification, that when I say “liberalism” I’m speaking more of an overall view of things than of particular issues. Someone could take a liberal view on a particular issue, capital punishment say, without being what I would call a “liberal.” I’ll develop what I mean by the word in the course of the talk.

I’m looking forward to the question and answer period, so we can exchange thoughts. In the meantime, if something I say seems hopelessly obscure or wrong, do let me know. You may not be alone.

II. The Essence of Liberalism

A. The varieties of liberalism

Liberalism as a movement and philosophy has been around for hundreds of years, and nothing human lasts that long without changing and developing. It therefore comes in different forms:

Classical and contemporary liberalism.

Free-market and welfare-state liberalism.

Political, social, economic and religious liberalism.

B. Essentialism and its limitations

These seem to be very different things, and some people doubt that they have much in common besides the name. Classical liberalism favored small government and emphasized individual responsibility; contemporary liberalism does the reverse. It seems to me, though, that there is a single basic tendency behind all of them, and today I would like to start by talking about that tendency is.

Naturally, if I talk for an hour about grand tendencies I won’t be able to cover all the variations. I won’t be speaking in particular of John Locke, or Hillary Clinton, or a particular liberal theologian, each of whom has his own qualities, good and bad. Every liberal is a human being with a great many different concerns, some of which lead him in nonliberal directions. So my theory won’t account for everything and everybody.

I do think though that there is a basic view that lies in some way, often mixed with other things, behind particular liberal positions, and that understanding that basic view helps make sense of general tendencies.

C. The principle and its manifestations

1. Statement

What I understand by essential liberalism, then, is the view that the ultimate goal of political and moral life is to further the satisfaction of individual preferences as much and as equally as possible. A particular view or position or thinker is liberal to the extent he or it advances that goal.

2. Manifestations

That’s a very abstract statement, so a few examples should help. People put the basic liberal view differently depending on their interests and concerns. There is:

a. The belief that individuals should be able to choose their own values, and have access to the options and resources they need to make those choices effective.

b. The call for “liberty and equality,” where “liberty” is interpreted as the right to do whatever we feel like doing, and “equality” as equality with regard to that right.

c. The politician or businessman who feels justified in simply “giving people what they want,” no matter what it is.

3. General effect

All these different ways of putting the matter come to the same thing, which is acceptance of actual individual wants as the measure of all things, and therefore the elimination from public life of everything that goes beyond, or transcends, the goals particular individuals happen to have. In the end the only permissible public standards for liberals are standards that tell us how to resolve disputes among individual goals so that no person and no goal loses out. Standards that tell us what the goal is to be, which purposes are better and which are worse, drop out of political and even moral life.

D. Complications in application

In a minute I will discuss the implications of this fundamental principle. First, though, I want to take a short detour and deal with a possible objection. There are complications when you apply simple explanations, and my explanation of liberalism is no exception. When complications come up the question becomes whether they can be dealt with in some consistent way.

1. Multiculturalism

An example is the liberal call for “multiculturalism.” I claim that liberalism has to do with helping individuals get what they want, and multiculturalism looks like a group-oriented conception.

My response is that multiculturalism is fundamentally a denial that a man’s acts can be judged by other men’s standards. Like the other examples I gave, for instance freedom and equality, multiculturalism makes it impossible to apply any standard to conduct except the liberal standard of equal respect for preferences. If I belong to another group you can’t judge me by your group’s standards, and in fact you can’t judge me by my group’s standards either, because if I reject those standards I can simply claim the difference puts me in a subgroup.

2. Ersatz religions

Another example is the liberal attraction to various made-up religions—environmentalism, the religion of humanity, and so on—which also seem to add a non-individualistic element to liberalism. It seems to me though that those religions, if you can call them that, are basically only ways of buying off the human need for the transcendent at a minimum cost. The inhabitants of a liberal society are human beings, after all, so they feel the absence of something that transcends their desires. The easiest way to deal with the situation is to find a substitute—something like humanity or the earth or some vague spiritual presence—that minimally transcends them and so supplies their need for something higher without making any real additional demands.

III. If I am right about the essential nature of liberalism, that it’s basically a kind of rational egalitarian hedonism, what follows?

Liberalism has triumphed worldwide in moral and political life. In order tounderstand where political and moral life go wrong today and why we need to understand its essential nature.

A. The basic problem with modern political and moral life is that it chooses the wrong absolutes

Liberty and equality, diversity and tolerance, people getting what they want and what they think they need, all these things are good things in their place. The problems come when they are put ahead of everything else and turned into absolute standards. To put them first is in effect to make getting what we want the final test of morality. Not surprisingly, making the wrong thing absolute leads to any number of problems that can’t be overcome without a basic change in direction.

B. Public Life

1. Emptying of public life

An example is the destructive effect of liberalism on public life. Liberalism makes public life a matter of getting people what they want, as efficiently and fairly as possible. That leaves out a great deal. In particular, it leaves out everything we view as more important than our own desires, except to the extent we view liberalism itself that way.

2. Common deliberation becomes impossible

That limitation makes public life impossible. Liberalism claims to emphasize popular self-rule, but it ends by making it impossible by destroying the common standards and loyalties needed for groups of men to reason and act together.

Liberalism calls for a society in which the highest goal is for each to get what he wants. That kind of society is not one that can govern itself. For self-government a common mind—that is, something of a common culture motivated by common public goals—is needed. Our current liberal political understandings and arrangements destroy common culture and goals, by making every goal equal to every other, and they are evolving in ways that the absence of anything that can be called a common mind makes necessary.

You can see the trend in the triviality of modern politics and the increasing role of the courts and various bureaucracies, who substitute their own views for the views of the people and for historically established legal principles. The people are no longer trusted to make decisions on important issues like education or abortion or the place of religion in public life. One reason is that their decisions are viewed as an imposition of mindless prejudice rather than the result of a reasonable process leading to a judgment by the people as a whole. It is assumed that the people have no common mind.

C. Extension of effects to private life

1. Liberal theory that the two are strictly separable

A further consequence of liberalism is an attack on transcendent standards even in private life. The problem is that if transcendent standards are allowed in private life they don’t stay cooped up there. The liberal theory is that public life has limited scope. It relates, we are told, only to coordination of the particular goals men have, and the goals themselves can be pursued privately. Those goals, liberals say, can be transcendent as easily as anything else. You can go to church on your own time, or even become a priest if you want; liberalism, it is said, only forbids you to force your views on others.

2. Difficulties with theory

The theory isn’t persuasive, because we are social, and we rely on public life and participate in it in all sorts of ways.

a. Trivialization

Things that are morally and religiously fundamental necessarily affect our relations to others. Liberalism opposes that. As citizens, even when we deal with the most important realities, with matters of life and death, with the education of our children, with whether children are born or not, the liberal state requires us to view our most basic commitments as a dispensible matter of personal opinion. That requirement necessarily has an effect on the nature of those commitments. If they are excluded from public life they lose their connection to human life in general and it becomes difficult to view them as specially important.

b. Self-contradiction

The insistence that fundamental religious and moral commitments be treated as strictly private violates their integrity, because if they do not command authoritatively, without regard to individual desire, they are nothing. “This is bad if you feel it is bad” may make sense to the extent it tells you that you shouldn’t do things that violate your conscience, but it is absurd as an overall approach to religion and morality.

3. Consequent suppression of traditional morality and transcendent religion

a. Inevitability of conflict

Strongly held religious and moral views are therefore a threat to any public order that in principle denies their authority. Simply by existing they undermine the established order. If held with integrity they will tend to modify it radically or even overturn it. A political order that starts by ignoring nonconforming moral and religious views and insisting that they be treated as private will end by suppressing them in some more forceful way. How forceful the suppression becomes will depend on circumstances, but it will be forceful enough to show that the liberal dream of giving equal play to all views is fantasy. In a liberal society, like any other, the governing moral and religious views become authoritative in all aspects of life, and other views suffer.

b. Religion

The tendency is obvious in the case of religion. In America, church and state have always been separated at the federal level. The First Amendment forbids Congress to establish a national religion. As a matter of plain intent and language, it also forbids Congress to interfere with state religious establishments. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court has extended the requirement of non-establishment to the states, and radically broadened its scope to become something like a requirement of established secularism.

These legal developments have worked together with other trends to bring us to the point of driving religion out of public life altogether. Everything with religious implications has become suspect. Saying “Merry Christmas” is treated as an aggressive act. As in past societies, the laws now provide for bringing up children in the established views on religious and moral issues. The difference is that the views are liberal instead of traditional ones. That is what so-called education for tolerance is about, that is why a moment of silent prayer or meditation in public schools is unconstitutional, and that is why there are lawsuits claiming that abstinence education is unconstitutional because it’s tainted by a religious motivation.

c. Morality

As the case of abstinence education shows, it’s not just strictly religious standards that liberalism feels compelled to suppress. Sexual freedom, the privatizing of standards of sexual morality, has led rather quickly to an orthodoxy that views traditional standards as harmful and bigoted, not something to welcome in public life and certainly not something to expose children to. We therefore have compulsory government sex education that attacks traditional standards by emphasizing the equal value of possibilities and the right to free choice among them. We also have antidiscrimination laws that in a variety of ways make it illegal to respond to violations.

D. Ultimate consequence—tyranny

In the end, liberalism—the principle that human desire belongs at the center of things—must bring everything in line with itself. It must attempt to eradicate all standards of morality except for recognition of the equal dignity of all desires and whatever flows from that. Any other result would, by liberal standards, be oppressive and discriminatory since it would put people who reject the standard at a disadvantage and pressure them to submit to other people’s views. Allowing nonliberal standards any effect is, from a liberal standpoint, giving a green light to bigotry and social oppression.

Liberalism ends by aiming at comprehensive control over all human relations, and therefore over the human mind and spirit. It is in the end tyrannical.

IV. How did liberalism arise?

A. Deep background in modernity

1. Not a matter of chance

Liberalism has lasted a long time, and it continually expands to more and more aspects of life. That kind of staying power must have some good explanation. It appears in fact that liberalism rests on something very basic, on the understanding of the fundamental nature of the world, and of how we know things, that is dominant today.

2. The modern turn

That understanding is the outcome of a long process. I won’t begin at the beginning, because the beginning is the Garden of Eden. For the past several hundred years, however, ever since Bacon and Descartes in the 17th c., the tendency has been to discount revelation and tradition, as well as habitual common understandings—common sense—and to accept as real only what we can immediately and surely perceive, grasp, control and make clear to others, things like sensation, measurement, technique and logic. That tendency has gone with a turn from contemplation to use as the final goal of knowledge and from rightness to success as the ultimate standard for action. The purpose and test of truth has become whether it helps us predict and control the world for our own purposes.

B. Modern natural science and liberalism are dual consequences of modernity

1. Science and technology

Those tendencies have given us modern natural science, which is based on controlled experiment and observation that can be repeated by anyone with the necessary training and equipment, and technology, which is the application of science for comprehensive practical control of nature.

2. Liberalism

a. Modernity and liberalism

Those tendencies have also given us liberalism.

The limitation of thought to what we can see, grasp, and master through our own resources has moral consequences. It favors moral views that amount to variations on utilitarianism—to treating satisfaction of preferences as the goal of all morality and social order. After all, the things of which most people are most vividly aware in connection with action are pleasures, pains, desires and preferences, what works and what doesn’t work.

What we want and how to get it is therefore the basis for modern morality, just as our senses and ability to control nature are the basis for modern natural science. All that is needed to turn the utilitarian outlook implicit in modernity, that makes human preferences the standard, into full-blown liberalism is to add the logical consideration that since all preferences are equally preferences, as such they have an equal claim to favor.

b. Ontology and ethics

Liberalism is of course a moral and political doctrine, and modern natural science deals with other matters, but morals and politics do not exist in a vacuum. What we should do, what is good and bad, depend on what the world is like. If God made the world, and called it good because it was good, then value is not an add-on to a world that is in itself ambiguous. It is part of the nature of things. If, on the other hand, there is nothing but atoms and the void, then “values” can only be the desires you and I happen to have.

It is natural that modern science, which is oriented toward control of the natural world, and modern politics and morals, which are also oriented toward getting us what we want, should be consistent. If science is the search for mechanisms which we can control, which is what the experimental method suggests, then the world it reveals will be one with no highest good and no supreme being, no objective standard of right and wrong, just ways and means of attaining our ends. It will be a world suited to liberalism.

V. How Should We Evaluate Liberalism?

A. Why it appeals to people

1. General

I don’t like the way of thinking I’ve been describing, and most of you probably don’t either. It appeals to many people, though, and not purely for bad reasons. If that weren’t so, it wouldn’t have lasted so long or become so dominant. So it’s important for anyone who wants to oppose it effectively to understand its appeal.

2. Practical considerations

First, there are practical considerations. Both science and liberalism have the prestige that comes with success. Science has transformed our physical world and liberalism our social world.

The argument from what works goes beyond that though. Science and liberalism are both based on things that everyone, or almost everyone, recognizes as important—desire and aversion, the evidence of our senses, logic, technology, cooperative effort to attain goals. Those are also things that people who disagree on any number of issues can discuss productively. By putting all goals on the same level of personal preference, science and liberalism seem to promote the possibility of compromise, since one goal can always be traded against another. Even if you and I see things very differently we can agree that you want A and I want B, and discuss how each of us can get what he wants. Science and liberalism therefore seem likely to promote productive and cooperative social life. Not only have they been successful, but they appear well-suited to lead to further success.

3. Intrinsic moral appeal

a. General

Further, the ways of thinking we are discussing seem to have certain intrinsic moral and political virtues. In some respects they even seem Christian. It’s not accidental that they arose in Christian society, and that in spite of their total opposition to the transcendent they have been able to gain so much ground even within the Church.

b. Christian-like qualities

i. Humility

First, liberalism and modern natural science are in a sense humble, because they tell us not to make claims that go beyond our ability to back them up. They tell us to recognize our limitations and not presume to exceed them. On their face, they oppose spiritual pride.

ii. Antiauthoritarianism

They also have apparent political virtues. They seem antiauthoritarian and democratic. They raise valleys and lower high places.

iii. Universal humanity

Further, since these ways of looking at things accept as true only what can be verified by anyone who has been properly trained and equipped, they make thoughts and experiences that can be universally shared the standard of truth and goodness. They therefore seem fundamentally social, and even suggest a kind of universal love—all are accepted, none is excluded, and each furthers the goals of all the others, judging not that he be not judged.

B. What is wrong with it

1. Dogmatic insistence on leaving out too much

a. A fundamental problem with the way of thinking we are considering is that the limitations it imposes on knowledge lead first to limitations on truth and then to the deification of man.

b. Truth has two aspects. There is what we can know, and there is what there is, and it is hard to keep the two apart. After all, if something simply can’t be known, so we can’t shed light on whether what we are saying about it is really true, why bother talking about it?

c. Seemingly humble statements about the extent of our knowledge can therefore turn very quickly into statements about reality that are not at all humble. If you say we can’t know anything about God you will soon be saying, at least for practical purposes, that there is no God. To accept that our knowledge is limited to what we can see, touch, and control makes sense only if those things are all we need. If they are not, the necessities of acting and making choices will force us to search for some truth beyond those things, and not let us stop until we find it.

2. A new and intolerant religion

To refuse to talk about the transcendent, and to view it as wholly out of our reach, is in practice to put our own thoughts and desires at the center of things, and so to give man the place God once had. Modernity therefore gives rise to a new religion, one of man and of the things of this world, that has no place for the old.

Liberalism has moral objections against the old religion and is therefore intolerant of it. It claims that transcendent religion sins against truth and charity: against truth by arbitrary assertion, since it makes claims that are not demonstrable, and against charity by setting up the preferences of some—of necessity the powerful—over those of their fellows. It therefore views transcendent religion as an essential evil with which peaceful coexistence is impossible.

VI. What response should we make to liberalism?

A. Response from the standpoint of a more comprehensive truth

You can’t beat something with nothing, so if we oppose liberalism we must offer an alternative. Liberalism, and for that matter modern natural science, fall short by leaving out too much. The best single response is to say what is missing. When you do that people may not believe you, since they’d rather stay with what they are used to and think they understand, but they won’t be able altogether to exclude what you say from the realm of possibility. The availability of the alternative will force them to live in a larger world. It follows that boldness and clarity of statement regarding fundamental issues are more important than immediate success, because the most important thing, from the standpoint of ultimate victory, is to keep comprehensive truth alive as a possibility.

I won’t advise you any further on this point, because I take it that the whole mission in life of many of those here is to set forth an alternative to the narrowness of modern thought.

B. Response from within

1. General

While bold statement of an alternative is the most important response, if we want to reach those not already persuaded external criticism is not enough. We must also be able to respond to liberalism from within. That response involves showing that it does not and can not work on its own terms.

2. Virtues are fraudulent

We have laid the basis for such a response already. As we have discussed, liberalism delivers the opposite of what it promises. It promises humility and moderation but gives us arrogance and overreaching. It claims to promote universal freedom and equality but imposes a single intolerant orthodoxy. Instead of popular rule, it promotes distrust of the people and reliance on elites who are answerable to no-one. Instead of cooperation and rational efficiency, it leads to manipulation, division, irrationality and corruption. It promises benefits to women, minorities and children, but instead we get family collapse, children with no fathers, women and children in poverty, and one in eight young black men in prison.

The point is not that non-liberal governments are perfect, or that all liberal measures are bad, but that liberalism—in essence, modern political life—is by nature unbalanced because of its fundamental decision to make man the measure. Because of that decision it tries to drive out everything that appeals to another standard, and so eventually loses contact with reality, since reality does not depend on human wishes.

3. Can’t work because it leaves out too much

a. The most fundamental internal problem of liberalism is that it cannot provide a sufficient basis for thought and action, even its own. When it cuts the world down to man’s size it makes it too small to be a world.

b. No one can rely solely on the public verifiable truth to which liberalism and modern natural science appeal. Both liberals and modern natural scientists have to rely on on things that transcend their own theory, principles they are not able to justify.

i. Both believe in reason, but neither is able to give an explanation why the world should be reasonable.

A. Modern natural science rests on assumptions of the continuity of the present with the past, and of the ability of a community of inquirers to choose the most reasonable interpretation of the evidence. Those assumptions are not matters of scientific knowledge. They must be assumed before scientific demonstration can go forward. What, however, is measurable or observable about the reasonableness of an explanation? What is scientific, except in the sense of being necessary for science, in the ability to identify a community of expert inquirers whose findings can be relied upon?

B. Liberalism is a moral philosophy. As such it requires an aspiration to live in accordance with coherent universal principles. It is not able to explain the binding nature of those principles; a constant problem for liberal thought is to explain how moral principles can motivate anyone. They don’t help anyone get what he wants, in any ordinary sense. Why should the self-interested individuals liberalism presumes pay bother with them?

ii. Both science and liberalism in fact must open the door to the transcendent

Both must believe in a goodness and truth that cannot be reduced to what we think, see or want. Both must accept that we are somehow oriented toward that goodness and truth. But once the door is open, where do things stop?

iii. Both attempt to stop it as soon as possible

A. That is mostly justified in the case of modern natural science. It is possible to treat modern science as a strictly limited enterprise, the effort to discover principles that enable us to predict and control nature. It is not necessary to treat it as the key to the whole truth about the world. There could be truths known through natural science and also truths of morality, theology and revelation, known through other means. There is in the end no necessary conflict between the truths of modern natural science, which deal with only a limited range of existence, and any other truth. Objection to some ways of thinking related to modern natural science does not mean rejection of science itself, it means limiting it to its proper sphere.

B. The case of liberalism is different because liberalism claims supreme jurisdiction over all political and social life. As such it must deal with the whole man and touch on all his concerns. Liberal theoreticians like John Rawls claim that liberalism imposes only a few limitations to protect fundamental freedom and equality, and so leaves moral and spiritual life free in general to follow its own bent. We have discussed the unworkability of that answer. In practice, those few basic limitations turn out to be infinitely ravenous and end by dominating all of life. When that happens, and it has happened, the position of liberalism becomes self-contradictory and it must be abandoned.

V. Concrete responses to contemporary liberal skeptics

A. Basic problem regarding religious truth

A liberal—someone who thinks questions of value, which include religion, are matters of personal sentiment, with all sentiments counting equally—is suspicious of religious doctrine. Why should people believe it? What right do those who do believe it have for viewing their beliefs as somehow binding on others? Aren’t these things individual and private, and shouldn’t everyone be free to go his own way? Not just legally, but even, for example, in the church?

It is best to meet those concerns head-on to the extent possible. Otherwise no one will be persuaded, and the same issues will keep coming back.

B. Objection that absolutes are unknowable

It’s usually modern natural science that is taken as the point of comparison. God’s will can’t be demonstrated in the same way as the orbit of Jupiter. The problem with the comparison is that not everything can be demonstrated by the methods of science.

The foundations of modern natural science itself can not be demonstrated. Once we know what kind of world we live in we can talk about evidence and demonstration within that world, but until we know what kind of place we are in we cannot know how to find our way around within it. And what kind of place we are in—the nature of the whole of which we are part—is not a matter of scientific demonstration but of much larger and more intangible issues—our experience in general, and how we can make sense of it. If science does not help make sense of our moral and spiritual experience that failure refutes claims that it gives us the comprehensive truth about the world.

B. Decision unavoidable

To the extent science does not give us the comprehensive truth, the problem of what that truth is can’t be avoided, because no-one can avoid taking sides on fundamental issues. Are there universal human rights? If there are, do they include the right to life or a woman’s right to choose? What is the relation between universal norms, to the extent they exist, and cultural particularities?

These questions must, as a practical matter, receive answers, and the answers they receive can’t be applied only individually. Nor can they be answered by equal respect for all religious and moral views. What equal respect means is that no view can be respected; all must be made equally irrelevant to everything that matters. That means that all must be suppressed, except of course the view that tells you to suppress them, which is liberalism.

People are too much linked together for “let them do what they want” to be a fundamental general principle. If everyone is free to get an abortion then no one is allowed to live in a world in which life is respected. If there is free love there is no marriage, in the sense of a socially normative lifetime bond between a man and a woman. And lack of respect for life and for marriage has consequences that extend throughout social life. Whether we like it or not, we are all members of each other.

C. Conclusion

Such are the arguments one might advance to persuade a skeptic that religious and moral arguments are legitimate and even necessary, and what they lead to should be treated as truth. Having said that we must still argue for the answers we believe true, but if these preliminary arguments succeed we will have passed what is today the first and highest barrier to progress, the ingrained sense that no argument matters because all these things are just a matter of personal opinion anyway.

2 thoughts on “Liberalism — What and Why?”

  1. The basic idea behind liberalism

    The basic idea behind liberalism is that human desire determines value. That means that liberal freedom — removing all possible restrictions from the satisfaction of desires (that don’t complicate things by referring to or interfering with other people’s desires) — comes first, and efficiency is also important.

    Equality comes in too, because desires are all equally desires and therefore equally determine value, but I think it’s a bit subordinate. Rawls agrees on that point. Of his two basic demands for a just system freedom comes first, before equality.

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