A dialogue on liberalism

The following dialogue is intended to clarify the basic arguments for philosophical liberalism and problems regarding those arguments. Since I’m not a liberal, it seems fair to me that liberalism should lose, but since it’s a dialogue it should present the liberal point of view as forcefully as possible. The liberalism I’m concerned with is mostly the kind now usual that calls for comprehensive state adminstration of social life to guarantee particular outcomes for individuals, but most of the arguments should apply to other forms such as libertarianism. All comments, criticisms and additional arguments are welcome.

[The time is next year, the place is a conference room in Geneva, and the characters are John and Ed, special rapporteurs to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights.]

Ed: What are we going to do? The UNHCHR wants us to draft model constitutional provisions that make international human rights law concrete so people can apply it. I think human rights law is a mess that can’t be fixed. It guarantees the right to work, grants people paid vacations and social insurance, insists on rehabilitating the disabled, creates a right to the continuous improvement of living conditions, demands support for the family, eliminates cultural patterns based on stereotyped sex roles, guarantees 12-year-olds freedom of expression while educating them for universal tolerance and in accordance with their parents’ religious and moral views, and much, much more. It also says government has to be based on the will of the people and involve electoral and judicial systems of particular kinds.

Even if we can make all that consistent, what sense does it make to try to force it on everyone everywhere? Conditions differ, people settle on arrangements based on what makes sense to them, and you can’t know in advance what’s going to work. How can we write a form of constitution to impose a particular kind of society on the whole world? Why would anybody tolerate that kind of intrusion? I think we should tell the UNHCHR to pack it in.

John: I think we can go forward based on the nature of politics. When you bring things down to the basics, politics is a matter of discussing what you want, and I want, so that we can understand each other, identify differences, find common ground, and work out ways to accommodate each other and live together peacefully. That’s what it should be, anyway. If you take that approach seriously you’ll find it has a lot of specific implications and a lot of the particulars will fall into place.

Ed: But why should the people to whom all this is supposed to apply take that approach? Instead of trying to give everyone what he wants why shouldn’t they try to understand what it’s good for them to do, so they can live together peacefully that way? If we’re worried about “rights” why try to force some understanding on everyone that’s different from the way they actually look at things?

John: The world needs something that works, and you won’t get that unless the standards can be made clear. People call different things “good.” What do you mean by the word and why should anyone accept your interpretation?

Ed: The good is whatever it’s most reasonable for us to want and try to achieve.

John: That suggests that desire and reason are connected, so that some desires are just more reasonable than others. That’s a pretty controversial view. A lot of people would say it’s intolerant. Even if it’s right, though, people don’t agree on what desires are reasonable, and they’re not likely to agree on the point as a result of dialogue. So if someone insists on what he thinks is good instead of taking the approach I suggest there’ll be conflict instead of peace.

Ed: But you’ve just presented an argument for the goodness of treating what people want as the standard, at least in public life. I don’t see why that definition of what it’s good—most reasonable—to do in politics should be exempt from the rule that no one can insist on his own definition of what’s it’s good to do. More to the point, I don’t see how any common effort can go forward without a common idea of what’s good.

John: We both in fact want peace. Everybody who’s not evil or crazy wants peace. The people of the world want peace. Why not try to get it in the most likely way?

Ed: But if the issue for me is getting whatever I happen to want, and the issue for you is getting whatever you happen to want, how are you going to show me that accepting your principles, going through the discussion, and sticking by whatever comes out of it is going to do it for me? Why shouldn’t I just go for what I want, directly or deviously depending on circumstances? Also, why should I trust you? It seems to me you can’t just appeal to what people actually want. You have to show that what you propose is what they should want—that what you call good is better than what someone else calls good.

John: But it’s not a matter of what I call good. I’m not saying my opinion on the matter is better than someone else’s. The point is that even if arguments about what’s good are put aside, action still has a rational component. As human beings we need to think of our actions as justified. If we can’t think of them that way we can’t understand our own lives or have any idea how to cooperate with other people. Each of us wants his own goals respected, and if we can’t insist our own goals are special—which we can’t, if we can’t insist on our own definition of goodness—the only basis for a system in which our own goals can be understood as reasonable and have a right to respect is agreement that all goals get treated that way.

Ed: That’s still an argument for the superior goodness of accepting and abiding by your system. You’re saying it’s the most reasonable thing for people to want, which is just saying that it’s the best thing. And anyway, a lot of people don’t believe that the goals they happen to have must be respected simply because those are their goals. They believe their goals must be respected to the extent they comply with what’s good—they’re in accord with human nature at its best, God’s will, or whatever. So they have no reason to accept your logic.

John: The bottom line is that if people don’t accept principles like the ones I describe there won’t be peace. Avoiding catastrophe trumps logical quibbles.

Ed: How do we know you have the magic key to avoiding catastrophe? There would also be peace if people accepted something else as the common standard of what’s good. There would be peace if everyone became a Catholic and did whatever the Pope said. Why listen to liberal academic theoreticians or whoever instead of the Pope?

John: The Pope isn’t a real possibility. He has his followers, but the popes weren’t able to maintain the unity even of Christendom. If you look at who’s signed human rights treaties—which is what we’re working with—the views I’m proposing have a lot more followers, and they’re spreading. Everyone today feels he has to talk the liberal language, even the Pope.

Ed: So is it the argument from power that you’re presenting?

John: That argument doesn’t hurt, since we’re talking about politics, but to be reliable power has to be based on principle. The advantage of the views I’m presenting is that they minimize the principles we have to agree on. They assume next to nothing in advance. We all have things we want, and that’s something we can recognize in each other and work with. To the extent my theory involves a definition of the good, that the good is giving people equally what they want, it’s the most minimal and tolerant definition possible. Everyone gets something and everyone gets the same. All it requires is that each show equal deference to the other’s judgment and accept that it’s reasonable for people to go for what looks good to them. Why isn’t that the best approach? It’s a big world, and we can’t force our own ways on other people.

Ed: But if just going for whatever looks good is what’s reasonable then it makes no sense to ask whether what looks good really is good. People do ask that question though. Just because I want something or think it’s good doesn’t make it good. What you’re doing is forcing a view on people that they in fact reject. Why is that better than when someone else does the same thing? Most people believe that some judgments are right and some are wrong, so it doesn’t make sense to defer to them all equally. That view is absolutely central to their understanding of the world, their sense of who they are, and the way they live. You’re demanding they give it up. A lot of people think treating what is desired as the same as what is good makes it impossible to make sense of human affairs. How do you propose to give that judgment equal deference? Or do those views just get shut out?

John: I can’t give those views equal deference. But the problem with them is that they don’t lead to a practical way to do politics. It’s easier to find out what people want than what’s good, if “good” means something other than what people want. Also, as a practical matter what people want is what they think is good. So if we identify the two and just look at what people want it simplifies the discussion so it can get somewhere. We’re not going to have peace unless politics is manageable and deals with things that can be easily identified and discussed on a common basis.

Ed: Ignoring what’s good and just looking at what people want sounds like a wonderful way to deal with relations between independent sovereign states with radically opposed systems. Maybe you can avoid war that way and maybe you can’t—after all, there’s no reason to expect that the parties will have enough in common for an agreement to be worked out. Maybe they’ll decide that the best thing is to avoid each other or settle things on the battlefield. But what does that have to do with an established order within a settled society? That isn’t possible unless there’s a common understanding of what life is and what goals make sense. You can’t renegotiate those things every day for every citizen.

John: I’m not demanding a common understanding of what goals make most sense. I’m just saying that when participating in public life each should show equal respect for the goals of the other and not try to get preferred treatment for his own.

Ed: And that’s because you claim that setting up politics that way is the goal that makes most sense. Look, you’re assuming that conflicting goals can be treated equally, and then you’re taking the supposed absence of a common basis for preferring one understanding of what is good to another and turning that absence into the positive demand that in public life all understandings of the good be treated as equally worth favoring. Assuming for a moment that conflicting goals can really get equal treatment, why isn’t insisting that all goals be treated equally the imposition of a standard for how good each one is? You can’t move from the lack of a basis for saying what goals make most sense to a statement that they are all equally worth protecting and forwarding. Saying A and B should be treated equally is just as much a statement how good each one is as saying A should be required and B forbidden.

John: Saying they should all be treated the same is a pretty minimal statement as to their merits. Besides, I’m only saying it should apply to public life.

Ed: It’s a minimal standard in the sense that it imposes compulsory moral minimalism on everyone, at least in public. The effects of that aren’t at all minimal. No one but an ideological liberal accepts the moral minimalism that insists that we treat every goal as equally worthy, at least if the goal itself is tolerant, and it’s radically at odds with every social system that’s ever existed. So it means that all aspects of how people live together have to change in ways that don’t make sense to anyone. Read the treaties we’re talking about—that’s what they demand. Why is that something everyone is supposed to accept as a neutral basis for peaceful social coopertion? If it’s so neutral, and treats everybody so fairly, why does it put experts, judges, bureaucrats and liberal theorists in charge of everything?

Also: how do you tell the difference between public and private? We’re social beings, so it’s not obvious that anything is all that private. It’s public authority that decides where the line should be drawn, and public principle always ends up treated as supreme from a moral standpoint because it has to justify obedience, sacrifice, and killing. So when there’s a question, why wouldn’t the public authority responsible for distinguishing public from private always come down on the side of public principles like compulsory moral minimalism? Isn’t that why we now have international treaties that tell people how to live their family life?

And besides, the claim that all goals can get equal respect is absurd. The whole point of government is that goals conflict so some have to give way to others. Why not be honest and admit that what government is doing is deciding that some goals are better than others and forcing the other goals to give way?

John: This is all pretty far-fetched. The kind of view I’ve been presenting has been successful and evidently beneficial, and it’s spreading, so why not stick with it? [What else should he say in response to the objections?]

Ed: Are those views, and human rights, really so reliable? Why expect more from them than other views that claim a universal key for resolving all conflicts? Liberalism promises total freedom and equality but it gives us functionaries who decide everything. It promises us freedom of conscience and tells us that everyone except a liberal have to give up what he actually believes. Why should that work for anybody? If you look at what’s happening in Western countries it’s not so clear your approach to things will be able to reproduce itself, intellectually, culturally, or even biologically. Isn’t it obvious that there are problems that are going to catch up with it?

20 thoughts on “A dialogue on liberalism”

  1. It’s hardly Plato, Mr Kalb
    What’s the Greek for “straw man”? Your “Sophistes” is poorly named.

    The following words, which you put in Sophistes’ mouth, are a misrepresentation of the liberal view:

    Liberalism doesn’t demand common values and principles, though. It just demands that each accept the goals of the other and treat them as equally as good as his own.

    There is no demand that the other’s goals are accepted or treated as good, only that the other is free to choose his goals for himself. You remain free to consider him a sinner or a fool—and to say so

    • Bedrock social values intrinsically transcend the individual.
      Cato writes,

      “There is no demand that the other’s goals are accepted or treated as good, only that the other is free to choose his goals for himself. You remain free to consider him a sinner or a fool—and to say so”

      The problem is that some values and principles cannot exist in forms that are limited in scope, because they are by their intrinsic nature society-wide. Liberalism by restricting their scope to something less than society itself in effect abolishes them. It won’t do to say, “If Mr. Jones wishes personally to condemn murder in his own mind, that doesn’t bother me. His morals are his business. I remain free to condone murder and no one has the right to impose contrary values on me.” The rule against murder which societies depend on to be liveable is intrinsically society-wide, to take one example. Mr. Kalb is talking about the set-up, health, and well-being of societies, not about what individual X, individual Y, or individual Z likes or dislikes in his personal life. If there’s no common set-up, no continuity from inside the four walls of one’s domicile to outside in the community’s streets and public places, there’s no society possible in the long run. The liberal principle which rejects society-wide values (or pretends to reject them) in effect DOES amount to a “demand that each treat the goals of others and his own as equally good,” since a certain category of values can’t exist if limited in its scope of applicability to the level of the individual. This liberal demand can’t be the basis of a functioning society but will fragment society to smithereens.

      • Hypocritical Liberalism is unable to be consistent and knows it.
        I say “or pretends to reject them” above, because Liberalism of course commits unprincipled exceptions all over the place to attempt to compensate for the impossibility of rejecting them and still being left with anything remotely resembling a functioning society.

        “Though thou beatest a fool in a mortar, as with a pestle smiting above dried barley, his folly shall not be done away from him.”

        “He who hideth his great trespasses shall not be made rightful; but he who acknowledgeth and forsaketh those shall get mercy.”

        Proverbs 27:22, 28:13 (Wycliffe)

        ( http://www.sbible.boom.ru/wyc/pro27.htm , http://www.sbible.boom.ru/wyc/pro28.htm )

    • Thanks for the comment
      I added a phrase to deal with Cato’s point. The liberal claim I think is that it’s only as a participant in public life that one is required to accept the goals of others and treat them as equal to one’s own. I don’t see that the restriction affects the specific argument, but I need to add a section dealing with the very strong public/private distinction on which liberalism relies so heavily.

      Note that in the current form of liberalism, in which government promotion of “tolerance” in the sense of celebrating diversity figures so prominently, the distinction exists only as a rhetorical figleaf used on occasion.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • You’ve still missed the point, Mr Kalb
        Liberalism does not require you to accept the goals of others or treat them as equal to or as good as your own.

        You are not required to judge them one way or the other. All you are required to do is to allow the other to make his own choices.

        Liberalism per se is not identical with relativism, although modern liberalism has certainly been infected with and distorted by it.

        • Counterexamples to what Cato says spring up every day, it seems.
          Cato writes,

          “Liberalism does not require you to accept the goals of others or treat them as equal to or as good as your own.”

          It doesn’t? Then why was this Protestant clergyman in Sweden condemned to serve a month in jail?:

          http://antitechnocrat.net:8000/node/view/1050 .

          Wasn’t it liberals who condemned him? And didn’t they condemn him for not “accepting the goals of others or treating them as equal to or as good as his own”?

          • Reply to Mr Scrooby
            Mr Scrooby should note my frequent use of the distinction between classical and modern liberalism, and that I have not spoken favorably of the latter. I am as opposed to these PC abuses as he is.

            The issue is whether the historical movement from classical to modern liberalism was inevitable—i.e., whether modern liberalism was logically (or practically) entailed by the classical theory. Mr Kalb thinks that it was. I disagree.

          • Classical Liberalism
            Cato raises an interesting point. The classical liberals who were present at this nation’s founding would, like Cato, oppose the modern version of liberalism. I think the best argument I’ve seen for Mr. Kalb’s position is that classical liberalism was restrained in early America by the profoundly non-liberal Anglo-Protestant culture that was overwhelmingly dominant at the time. The range of different positions open to debate were substantially narrower than the unlimited range of the present day. With the dilution and marginalization of this culture (through race-replacement among other means), all the restaints are gone and liberalism’s basic nature emerges – drifting ever leftward towards nihilism. (This process is known as the “Hegelian Mambo” over at VFR.)

            By contrast, In France there was a rapid progression from classical liberalism to Jacobinism, which bears a great resemblance to the liberalism of the present day. In France, as it has been mentioned on the other thread about the “Wars of Religion”, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church (the non-iberal constraint) had been already seriously weakened by the actions of the monarchy consolidating its own power during the previous two centuries. The French church had been reduced to functioning as another branch of the monarchy. Thus, when the revolution was launched, Catholicism was overthrown along with the King.

            The historical record appears to support Mr. Kalb’s position. The burden of proof therefore lies upon Cato. Classical liberalism is inerently unstable and can exist only within the constraints of a non-liberal culture.

            John Adams basically stated the same thing:

            “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

          • For those in Rio Linda: what “gallantry” meant in those days…
            Note that “gallantry” in the above-cited John Adams quote was a polite term in those days meaning (unless I’m mistaken) sexual immorality (on the part mainly of men)—unrestrained sexual license/libertinism. So we see that in his comment, Adams was essentially foretelling the future with a high degree of accuracy. (It’s not for naught these Founding Fathers are considered to have been far-seeing individuals.)

          • Thanks
            Thanks to Mr. Scrooby for pointing out the 18th-century usage of the terms “gallant” and “gallantry”, which have very different meanings in today’s general usage.

          • Carolus on classical liberalism
            Carolus’s comments remind me of the need to make a further distinction between the English and the French forms of classical liberalism. The latter was hyper-rationalistic and aimed at the reconstruction of society ab novo. The former was empiricist in tenor, and aimed at the analysis and clarification of existing customs and institutions.

            I have no desire to defend the French idea.

            For the rest of my reply to Carolus, please recall my earlier comment, in which I stated that the movement from classical to modern liberalism involved the substitution of utilitarianism, positivism, materialism and nihilism for the former anchors of Judaeo-Christian faith, natural law, and striving for excellence (virtue). On this issue, there is less distance between us than might appear to be the case.

          • Agreed
            I expect Cato’s position and my own aren’t really that far from each other when it comes down to actual policies, though we may very well approach it from different angles.

        • What about the “public life” limitation?
          It seems to me that liberalism does require one, as an actor in public life, to give equal respect to the goals of others &mdash which means to treat them as equally worthy, etc. What’s happened I think is that over time the scope of public life has expanded and so have the demands of equally respectful treatment, so that today it’s thought obviously necessary and right for the government to train small children in the celebration of homosexual diversity and whatnot. The development seems quite logical and unavoidable to me, since the principles that govern public life are necessarily supremely authoritative &mdash their function is to justify extreme sacrifice and killing &mdash and man is social so everything about him that matters has direct public implications.

          Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • It’s a matter of accurately presenting your opponent’s position
            Mr Kalb, I understand that you think liberalism inevitably collapses into relativism, but that is something you must prove rather than simply put into the mouth of the liberal character in your dialogue.

          • Who’s the generic liberal?
            Cato raises the point of just who the generic liberal collocutor should be with whom the dialogue is carried on. I don’t think it’s a straw-man misrepresentation of liberalism to say that according to generic contemporary liberalism politics should be a matter of reconciling interests rather than determining and instituting ultimate goods, and that liberalism “demands that when participating in public life each show equal respect for the goals of the other and not try to get preferred treatment for his own” &mdash which are the positions the discussion considers. And I don’t think any form of liberalism today is “aimed at the analysis and clarification of existing customs and institutions,” or treats “Judaeo-Christian faith, natural law, and striving for excellence (virtue)” as anchors.

            I don’t see anything in my presentation of generic contemporary liberalism that the Libertarian Party, for example, would find objectionable, except for the conclusions I draw. Of the political parties mentioned in the current poll the Constitution Party seems closest to Cato’s apparent idea of liberalism. But even though the positions of the Constitution Party are probably similar in many ways to those prevalent at the time of the Founding, I think it’s too explicitly religious to qualify as liberal.

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • No remaining objections
            I see that the dialogue has been rewritten, and that it no longer puts words in Sophistes’ mouth which no liberal would so readily concede, let alone volunteer.

            I look forward to reading the final draft, assuming that Mr Kalb intends to continue developing his argument.

  2. A Dialogue on LIberalism
    Good is subjective, and dialogue does not result necessarily in good. I believe in the goodness of the Roman Catholic Church; others believe in the goodness of the Protestant Reformation or Buddha (not that Buddha is in any way equivalent to the Reformation). Yet we can agree not to kill one another based on those differences in beliefs. The idea of dialogue is good if it retards killing; but it is only one of many means, not an end. The end is agreement to refrain from killing one another. But then, if one is faced with a 1940’s German SS soldier, killing is the only solution; dialogue is impossible. The SS soldier was a killing machine. He had to be eliminated, as Saddam Hussein had to be eliminated.

    Hussein would have continued to sow destruction in the Middle East, in his own country principally but without Iraq secondarily. Similarly, how can a Christian dialogue with someone that believes Christians must convert to Islam or be put to the sword? Dialogue is therefore not a talisman or goodness; it is merely a process, which will never work in every case. Thus, liberal dialogue is disgusting in its pontification as some kind of beatific virtue. P. Murgos.

    • Comments on Mr Murgos’s entry re dialogue
      While I would disagree with his assertion that good is subjective, I agree with main thrust of Mr Murgos’s comments. Indeed, dialogue is a means rather than an end-in-itself. To think otherwise is to fall into Wilsonian errors.

      Nevertheless, when it is still available as an option, dialogue is preferable to violence. The theory of just war is instructive here.

      • Dialogue
        I really have not thought out the idea that good is subjective, and it was unnecessary to say so. With Mr. Kalb’s ideas about there being truth in things that cannot be proved with highly formal logic, I should have seen the problem. I, like our mass culture, have been used to classifying good in the subjective category without really thinking about it or to not really giving the issue much thought. It is the kind of question philosophers wrangle with.

        The issue is complex. For example, some cultures have believed that certain abnormal babies or old people should be left to die. In addition, much of our culture believes 3 month-old babies that smile and blink are subhuman and can be butchered by abortionists at the whim of the mother and, at the same time, believe bringing unwitting born humans into Nazi gas chambers to be killed is a horrible crime against humanity. I often think about what Oscar Schindler might have thought when he socialized with people he knew were murderers, ignored the murder, or RESPECTED the Nazis’ RIGHT TO CHOOSE murder. (I probably should read his book, if he has written one.) I justify my relative silence possibly for some of the same reasons he did. (I won’t socialize with an abortionist, not that I know any or that I would be making any significant sacrifice.) P. Murgos

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