"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, February 13, 2012

Pinning "liberalism" down

My title has the word 'liberalism' in scare quotes because I want to discuss the sort of liberalism that has grown scarier and scarier over the last several decades. I'm not talking about the liberalism of Locke and the American founding fathers, which stressed respect for natural rights and the consent of the governed as necessary conditions for a legitimate polity. I'm not talking about "classical" liberalism, which called for individual liberty, private property, and a free market as the best conditions for promoting the common weal. I'm not even talking about the liberalism of the early-20th-century "progressive" movement, of which New Deal liberalism was the direct heir and whose achievements, like those of prior liberalisms, have the overwhelming support of the American people. As Walter Russell Mead has argued, such liberalisms, while not reducible to each other, intersected in ways that together explain why each unfolded historically within something recognizable as an American moral consensus. That consensus was strong enough to constitute, in Robert Bellah's felicitous phrase, a kind of "civil religion." Requiring both the free exercise and the non-establishment of religion strictly speaking, the old consensus could itself be called 'liberal' in a broad and now-hoary sense. But since the 1970s, it's been unravelling along with the mainline Protestantism that had been its traditional custodian. The result is what I call The Thing that Used to Be Liberalism ('TUBL' for short; with thanks to Mark Shea, who likes referring to "The Thing that Used to Be Conservatism."). As I shall illustrate, TUBL is now out of control.

For that reason, the label 'liberalism', like 'feminism', has become a net political negative. Contemporary liberals and feminists accordingly prefer to eschew those labels in favor of 'progressive', sounding such rhetorically effective themes as "equal rights" and "fairness." And by its very nature, TUBL is hard to pin down philosophically. The main purpose of this post is to show how and explain why.

It is not news to conservatives that, on matters of domestic policy, today's "liberals" are actually authoritarian about everything except sex. On that score, they are as laissez-faire as can be. (E.g., it's become all but impossible to get them to see what's intrinsically wrong with incest and bestiality, apart from the "ick-factor" and the health risks involved. But hey, childbirth can be messy and dangerous too...) It's that discrepancy that's got out of control, and it's not so much liberal as hedonistic. Today's "liberals" want Nanny State to regulate every aspect of life except what goes on in our bedrooms, so that life is safe for the pursuit of a "happiness" understood as maximizing one's preferences consistently with others' maximizing theirs.

In such a scheme, complete sexual autonomy (within the bounds of a vaguely defined "mutual consent") is so important that marriage and family themselves are to be defined simply as what enough people want them to be. They can no longer be seen as having a form or nature prior to what civil law, as the expression of popular will, specifies. And now that all means of birth prevention are available to everybody, nobody should be expected to incur the natural consequence of ordinary intercourse or even cover the full cost of preventing it--unless, of course, one brings a child into the world anyhow, in which case one should be made to pay dearly, especially if one is the father, who might otherwise get off scot-free. But really, there's no reason why things should reach such a pass; if you're poor, they positively should not. Contraception, sterilization, and abortion are much cheaper than children, and if you're poor you'd better have recourse to them, because there's every reason to expect that you and your children, if any, will be net burdens to society (and to yourselves, for that matter). That expectation is not the only reason why "the right to choose" abortion is central to TUBL, but it is why the Obama Administration has decided to require, in the name of "women's health," religiously-sponsored institutions who object to contraception, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs to utilize health-insurance policies covering such things at no charge to the user. Planned Parenthood--which, needless to say, does not help people plan how they will actually parent--is the very embodiment of this mentality. In the bedroom we should all pursue our own vision of happiness, if need be at others' expense; outside the bedroom a de facto utilitarian calculus, enforced by state policy, should govern moral decision-making quite generally.

Except when it shouldn't. I'm always amused when I hear Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton cite "universal values" against this-or-that foreign dictator. What makes them think that everybody ought to assign the same weight to certain values as they? The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Why is that more than a piece of paper whose appeal today is understandably weaker than when it was composed? The dignity of the human person? But where are we supposed to find a coherent and reasonable account of human dignity? In philosophy, a discipline whose practitioners cannot agree on whether it affords us knowledge of anything at all? In science, which is morally indifferent in itself? And if in religion, why should we find the deracinated, social-gospel Protestantism of Obama and Clinton more rationally cogent than other forms of religion?

Even John Rawls, whose work has dogged philosophy graduate students for several generations now, admitted late in life that his vision of the ideal polity logically depended on a "comprehensive world view" he could not justify by reason alone. Many writers have indeed argued that secular liberalism is just living off the moral capital of the Judaeo-Christian tradition it's largely repudiated. As a more honest and radical sort of liberal, the late Richard Rorty knew that and admitted it, while rejecting not only Christianity but the very notion of what he called "Truth-capital-T." All that the acolytes of TUBL seem sure of, beyond the paramount importance of sexual autonomy, is that being an accredited "victim" gives one a special moral claim on one's "oppressors," who in most narratives are white, male, and Christian--a class which, by definition, cannot be victimized, because it represents everything about the past that victims are, and the rest of us should be, rebelling against. But that stance is just self-deconstructed Judaeo-Christianity. I postpone exploration of how the sense of sexual entitlement relates to that of victim-entitlement.

In any case, lust and sentimentality are not enough to explain what's going on here. Consider the following two, rather typical examples of TUBL thought.

Last fall, when the HHS contraception mandate for health insurers was drafted, Francis Beckwith argued that President Obama had thereby abandoned the liberalism he had embraced in speeches given in 2006 and 2009. Thus:
What one finds in these speeches are prescriptions for public discourse derived from a widely held understanding of liberalism that is often and correctly attributed to the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls. What the president is saying is that if you want to restrict another’s fundamental liberty based on reasons that those coerced would be reasonable in rejecting, your coercion is unjustified, even if it is not unreasonable for you to embrace those reasons for yourself.
That sounded reasonable enough at Notre Dame, when the President accepted his honorary JD by gamely defending the "pro-choice" position in essentially Rawlsian terms. But the new mandate abandons Rawlsian liberalism by defining 'religious organization', for purposes of granting "religious exemptions" from the rule, as follows:
(1) The inculcation of religious values is the purpose of the organization.
(2) The organization primarily employs persons who share the religious tenets of the organization.
(3) The organization serves primarily persons who share the religious tenets of the organization.

So, according to the U. S. government, a Catholic hospital, university, or charitable organization that believes its purpose is to actualize the moral commandments of Christ, to love its pre- and post-natal Catholic and non-Catholic neighbors as it loves itself, and to do so by welcoming with open arms all in need of its services, has ceased to be Catholic. The absurdity of this is palpable.
But here's the kicker. Not only does that absurdity, just by being absurd, abandon Obama's earlier espousal of Rawlsian liberalism; it contradicts his own current, stated understanding of the mission of religion in society! Recounting Obama's message at the National Prayer Breakfast not ten days ago, Charles Krauthammer points out: "To flatter his faith-breakfast guests and justify his tax policies, Obama declares good works to be the essence of religiosity. Yet he turns around and, through [HHS Secretary Kathleen] Sebelius, tells the faithful who engage in good works that what they’re doing is not religion at all."

Is such obvious inconsistency a sign of insincerity? Many would presume as much. But I think it more likely that Obama just doesn't see the inconsistency. Why not? Because he's "in the grip of a theory": TUBL. Thus one should not impose on people what they could reasonably reject, unless what's at issue is sexual autonomy, which is not just eminently reasonable but also, on utilitarian grounds, important enough to warrant full subsidy. If the religiously retrograde don't see that, then their "conscience" is so irrational as to be unworthy of consideration, save when giving lip service to it is politically unavoidable. Those in the grip of TUBL see nothing untoward about pretending to be Rawlsian when it suits them and dropping the pretense when it no longer suits them. Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of sexual autonomy.

Among so many I could pick, another example of TUBL run amok was brought to my attention by Paul Cella.

In his new book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 - 2010, Charles Murray makes the following observation:
Data can bear on policy issues, but many of our opinions about policy are grounded on premises about the nature of human life and human society that are beyond the reach of data. Try to think of any new data that would change your position on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage or the inheritance tax. If you cannot, you are not necessarily being unreasonable.
To be sure, Murray is not in the grip of TUBL. And by 'data', he seems to mean the results of scientific research. If so, I should think that new data could be quite relevant to the questions whether marijuana should be legalized and when the death penalty could be justified. But no amount of new data would change my mind about abortion and same-sex marriage. New data cannot affect the questions whether the fetus qualifies as a person and whether same-sex "marriage" qualifies as marriage. Both are essentially philosophical and theological questions for which the pertinent empirical data are already to hand.

But last week, a correspondent for The Economist who signs him- or herself as 'W.W.' blogged thus about the Murray passage:
I found this exceedingly odd. I can easily imagine what evidence would cause me to change my position on any of these issues....Abortion is far and away the hardest one. I favour legal abortion. I don't think embryos or fetuses are persons, and I don't think it's wrong to kill them. I also don't think infants are persons, but I do think laws that prohibit infanticide are wise. Birth is a metaphysically arbitrary line, but it's a supremely salient socio-psychological one. A general abhorrence of the taking of human life is something any healthy culture will inculcate in its members. It's easier to cultivate the appropriate moral sentiments within a society that has adopted the convention of conferring robust moral rights on infants upon birth than it would be in a society that had adopted the convention of conferring the same rights on children only after they've reached some significant developmental milestone, such as the onset of intelligible speech. The latter society, I suspect, would tend to be more generally cruel and less humane. This is just an empirical hunch, though I feel fairly confident about it. But I could be wrong. And I could be wrong in the other direction as well. If it were shown that societies which ban abortion, or which ban abortion beyond a certain point, exceed societies which don't ban abortion in cultivating a "culture of life", which pays off in terms of greater general humanity and diminished cruelty, I would seriously weigh this moral benefit against the moral cost of reducing women's control over their bodies. Also, if it were shown that abortion tended to damage women's mental and physical health more than forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, I would tend to look more favourably on restrictions on abortion, especially for minors. [Emphasis added]
Now at first I found that passage as "exceedingly odd" as WW finds Murray's. WW never tells us why he doesn't think either fetuses or infants are "persons," but there's nothing to suggest that he finds the very concept of personhood open to revision by new scientific research. Whatever his concept--and I have a fairly good suspicion as to what it is--it's a philosophical one that's "underdetermined" by the data, which only matter for helping determine which entities actually fall under the concept. (I wouldn't be surprised if WW thinks, with Peter Singer, that adult dolphins make it while human babies don't.)

But even odder than such inadvertence is how WW simply takes for granted a particular view about the nature and basis of moral obligation. He thinks, e.g., that "society" can and should have essentially utilitarian reasons for having "adopted the convention of conferring robust moral rights on infants," who cannot be thought merit such rights by nature. But on WW's own showing, such reasons could conceivably be overturned by new data suggesting, somehow, that we'd all be better off for dropping that convention. And the question what counts as "better" cannot be answered, even in principle, by citing anything we should value as distinct from what we actually do value. What's better is simply what's apt to yield what "society" wants. But there's no transcendent criterion for assessing what society--ours or any other--wants. Ultimately, moral reasoning consists in discovering and prescribing the policies likeliest to yield what we want. "Ought" is always hypothetical, never categorical. And so, as Hume put it, reason is and ought to be "the slave of the passions."

The question for the WWs of the world is this: Are there, or are there not, "data" that could determine whether that's the correct view of moral obligation? WW doesn't seem to have considered the question, but those in the grip of TUBL would reject it. It's supposed to be self-evident that freely pursuing the maximization of preferences--whatever they are--is the best we can do, and there can be no obligation higher than, or inconsistent with, the best we can do. Such is the ideal of the radical autonomy of the imperial self. The only admissible limits on such autonomy are those which are necessary in practice for collective preference-maximization. Those turn out to be considerable, of course, which is why TUBL is rather authoritarian. Except about sex.

What makes TUBL so hard to pin down is that it combines sexual libertinism, which is distinctly not Judaeo-Christian, with a statism that's supposedly required for helping the unfortunate. As deconstructed Judaeo-Christianity, the latter requires a discipline and moral earnestness that are otherwise undermined by sexual libertinism and the calculus of preference-maximization generally. Since that combination is ultimately unsustainable, both theoretically and practically, the most fervent prescription of TUBL is to help the poor and the otherwise disadvantaged get rid of themselves by every means of birth prevention. Any amount of philosophical incoherence is accepted for the sake of implementing that prescription. We're only seeing the earliest stages.

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