First steps up from liberalism

Liberal society says it leaves the question of ultimate goods up to its members. That’s not possible, since every choice implicitly defines what is worth choosing and thus what is good. Every society, like every human being, thus accepts a definition of the good that is as specific and comprehensive as its system of habitual choices. Liberal society attempts above all to promote maximum equal satisfaction of individual preferences. It is therefore guided, at least implicitly, by a specific conception of the ultimate social and moral good: everyone gets whatever he wants, as much and as equally as possible.

What, a liberal might ask, could possibly be better than that? At first glance it seems he might be right. Nonetheless, such a conception has serious weaknesses. A big one is that we want our desires to be justified as well as satisfied. We want what we want to be what we should want. That is not a demand we can reasonably give up, since simple desire is useless as a guide to life. Desire is unstable, and we often can’t tell what it leads to. When we do know where our desires lead us, and it’s somewhere we don’t want to go, we nonetheless often persist in them. And above all, we want to see ourselves as part of something greater, so we can place, orient and understand ourselves, and pursuit of desire simply as such doesn’t help us do that.

Within liberalism there are three possible responses to such concerns:

  1. To treat them as an indication of dangerous judgmentalism. Judgmentalism is wrong, or so we are told. It is simply a desire to assert superiority over others, and has to be suppressed as a private vice and public danger. Stick to your satisfactions, whatever they are, accept those of others, and don’t try to label them as “better” or “worse.”
  2. To promote an understanding of each individual and his desires as divine. Calling someone’s goal his “dream,” thus raising it to an ethereal plane, is an example of that approach. So is the current emphasis on self-esteem, which makes it almost a religion.
  3. To treat liberalism—not equal satisfaction itself but equal satisfaction as a cause—as a higher standard that justifies all sacrifice and gives life the necessary ideal element. PC is a stern master, but for liberals its appeal is peremptory and undeniable. “Though it slay me yet will I trust it” seems to be the idea.

The problem with those responses is that they’re stupid and don’t work. The desire for standards superior to the will is not the desire for self-assertion but the opposite. The attempt to eradicate it is an attempt to eradicate something essential to human life. Ungrounded self-esteem is either fragile or invincible, and in either case makes big problems for everyone. It also sits oddly with rejection of judgmentalism, since self-esteem is a judgment. And austere self-abnegation in the cause of maximizing satisfaction is downright weird.

So how do we do better? First, it’s important to note that we don’t have to start from zero and derive a complete conception of the good from neutral principles. We all have a conception of the good, we couldn’t act without one and we’ve been building one up all our lives, and the same is true of every institution and society. That implicit conception of the good is never altogether liberal. Pretty much everyone accommodates to liberal society by rejecting one aspect of it or another, and most people become less liberal as they accumulate experience of life. So we can start with what we have, abandon the illusion that we can make it a transparently rational deductive system, and clarify and develop it. There doesn’t seem to be any other way forward.

Life can’t be fully rationalized, but the work of clarifying and developing the principles by which we live can make use of rational criteria. Those criteria, applied without reference to the needs of dominant public institutions and career advancement, are likely to make our views still less liberal. For example, we’ve seen that many goods must refer to a higher good. Satisfying desire is good only if the desire is justifiable, which means it must be able to appeal to some standard higher than desire simply as such. That higher standard, in order to function socially in the face of disputes, must appeal to something beyond institutional needs and other particularities that do not apply to everyone. It must be able to appeal to the nature of man, and thus the nature of the world of which man is part.

It follows that in order to make sense of the good, and therefore of our own actions, we must understand the world in which we live as somehow morally ordered. In other words, we must take a religious attitude toward life. That, in fact, is what every reasonably functional human being does. His religion may be perverse, contradictory, self-deceiving or what not else, but he always has one. He always views his actions as justified, at least arguably and for the most part, because of the nature of man, human life and the world. In other words, he believes that the world has moral implications sufficient to guide action, and thus that the world is, among other things perhaps, a rational moral order.

The issue then becomes how to make sense of the world as a rational moral order. The attempt to do so will move us yet farther out of liberalism, which after all is based on the modern attempt to reduce the considerations relevant to human action to things that can be known with utter clarity and immediacy—sensation, desire, means-ends rationality, and formal logic—and thus to deny the transcendent.

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