Liberalism

The Oz Conservative Guide to Liberalism

Mark Richardson of the Oz Conservative blog is a perspicacious writer–especially when explaining Liberalism and its pitfalls.

At a time when Liberalism engulfs our political landscape and is difficult to precisely quantify, Mark illuminates the ramifications of this ideology.

Given this crucial insight, I’ve compiled 5 of my favourite Oz Conservative posts below. Enjoy, and if you haven’t done so already, check out Mark’s site at: https://ozconservative.blogspot.com/?m=1.

“Chapter 2: Autonomy Theory”, August 21, 2010:

So what is liberalism? A key principle or aim of liberalism is individual autonomy. According to Professor John Kekes,

the true core of liberalism, the inner citadel for whose protection all the liberal battles are waged [is] autonomy … Autonomy is what the basic political principles of liberalism are intended to foster and protect. [1]

Professor Joseph Raz explains that,

One common strand in liberal thought regards the promotion and protection of personal autonomy as the core of the liberal concern. [2]

Similarly, Professor Bruce Ackerman writes of liberalism that,

The core of this tradition is an insistence that the forms of social life be rooted in the self-conscious value affirmations of autonomous individuals. [3]

And Professor Kok-Chor Tan defines liberalism as,

an individualistic political morality…concerned primarily with protecting and promoting the autonomy of individuals. [4]

But this then raises another question. What do liberals understand by the idea of individual autonomy?

According to liberal autonomy theory, a fully human life is one that is self-determined. What matters therefore is that individuals have a life and a self which are variously described as self-created, self-defined, self-authored, self-chosen or self-directed.

Here, for instance, is how Professor Raz defines liberal autonomy:

A person is autonomous if he can become the author of his own life.[5]

From a chapter description of the same work we get the following definition:

Autonomy is an ideal of self-creation, or self-authorship [6]

Professor Alan Ryan defines liberal autonomy in a similar way,

The essence [of liberalism] is that individuals are self-creating… [7]

As a final example, Professor Wayne Sumner connects the “traditional liberal value of autonomy” to the,

liberal conception of the person as self-determining and self-making [8]

Let’s say that you are a liberal who believes in this. What then becomes your political aim?

Your aim will be to remove impediments to individual autonomy. Whatever defines us in important ways that we do not choose for ourselves will be thought of negatively as something limiting and oppressive that we must be liberated from.

Liberals therefore have a strong motivation to launch campaigns to “reform” society. Over time the influence of liberalism on Western societies has been radical, arguably more radical than anything that has gone before.

This transforming effect on society has been presented to the general public by liberals in the most positive terms, as a progress toward freedom, equality and justice. When put this way, liberalism can seem difficult to challenge, even by those who sense that something is wrong with the direction of modern Western societies.

But if we go back to liberal autonomy theory, and look in detail at what it logically requires, then a more obviously negative picture emerges, one that is very much open to criticism.

What, after all, are the impediments to autonomy which liberalism seeks to abolish? They are those aspects of our own self and existence which we do not get to self-determine. And there is a lot that we don’t get to self-determine, including what we inherit as part of a tradition and what is given to us as part of an inborn human nature.

What is most significant to us as individuals has often survived over time as aspects of a tradition or of human nature. Therefore, liberalism has often found itself having to make what matters most not matter.

In this way liberalism has diminished our lives rather than liberated them.

But what exactly does liberalism not allow to matter? This is what now needs to be looked at more closely.

“Lopsided Liberation”, February 8, 2019:

I want to draw out a point I raised in my post on Cardi B. If you remember, Cardi B released a “twerking” music video and justified it on the grounds of female empowerment. She and many others defined female empowerment as women doing whatever they want or feel like doing, without judgement from others and without negative consequences.

It is an extraordinary social experiment to “liberate” female sexuality in this way. It used to be thought that a person was most at liberty when they were not under the control of their animal passions or appetites, but had instead, through their higher reason/moral sense, cultivated habits of virtue, through which the animal passions/appetites could be directed to their proper ends.

And here we are with this older principle turned on its head. It is now thought that women are liberated and empowered when they are driven instead by unrestrained sexual impulse, by what they feel in the moment in terms of sexual passion.

And what of men? Has society taken a similar gamble and encouraged men to follow their animal impulses when it comes to sex? The answer, of course, is a resounding no. Our society, if anything, is petrified of the idea. There is a suspicion applied in our society to male sexuality, a suspicion that men are potential rapists or harassers of women. Men are forever put on the defensive, feeling pressured to apologise to women for the sexual sins, real or potential, of their sex.

So what we have is a lopsided account of sexual liberation. What is good for the goose is not good for the gander.

The remedy is not to encourage men to act on whatever sexual impulses they happen to have in order to even the score. It’s unlikely that any society would really ever encourage this given the strength of male libido combined with the physical strength of young men.

Our society has been foolish, though, to imagine that “liberating” the female sexual impulse would have happy results. Earlier cultures were very much aware of the negative potential within female sexuality.

In 1613, for instance, Sir Thomas Overbury wrote a poem titled “The Wife”. Overbury gives much thought in this poem as to how a woman might make a good wife. He does not deny the significance of beauty or passion, but he is clearly aware that for a wife to be loyal her love will have to derive not just from the animal passions (lust) but from her reason and her religious commitments.

In the following lines, Overbury observes that having a wife who is beautiful is not enough; unless she loves her husband, then her beauty is of little reward to him:

Without her love, her beauty should I take,
As that of pictures; dead; that gives it life:
Till then her beauty like the sun doth shine
Alike to all; that makes it, only mine.

And of that love, let reason father be,
And passion mother…

Overbury does not want his wife’s love to be based on feelings alone. He wants the “father” (the governing/directing aspect) to be reason and passion the “mother”.

He also makes the point that what matters most is not the birth, beauty or wealth of a wife but that she be “good”:

Rather then these the object of my love,
Let it be good; when these with vertue go,
They (in themselves indifferent) vertues prove,
For good (like fire) turnes all things to be so.
Gods image in her soule, O let me place
My love upon! not Adams in her face.

Good, is a fairer attribute then white,
’Tis the minds beauty keeps the other sweete;

And what does he mean by the word “good”? He wants her to be “holy”, i.e. to have a love of God that then commits her to a love of her husband:

By good I would have holy understood,
So God she cannot love, but also me,
The law requires our words and deeds be good,
Religion even the thoughts doth sanctifie:
As she is more a maid that ravisht is,
Then she which only doth but wish amisse.

Lust onely by religion is withstood,
Lusts object is alive, his strength within;
Morality resists but in cold blood;
Respect of credit feareth shame, not sin.
But no place darke enough for such offence
She findes, that’s watch’t, by her own conscience.

Then may I trust her body with her mind,
And, thereupon secure, need never know
The pangs of jealousie

If it’s not clear, he is arguing that she won’t be inwardly faithful if it is only a fear of being shamed for breaking a moral convention that stops her from cheating. But if her mind is turned toward the love of God, and through this a love of her husband, then it becomes a matter of deep conscience that she remains faithful and then he can “trust her body with her mind”.

What this illustrates is that earlier generations were concerned to answer the question of how female sexuality, as an animal passion or appetite, might be directed, guided or restrained, to make possible a culture of marriage and family. The idea that you would deliberately aim to unleash female sexuality, and call it “liberation” or “empowerment”, would have dumbfounded our ancestors. And the sexual chaos of our own times has proven our forebears to have had greater wisdom.

“On Reason”, February 19, 2019:

There was a longstanding idea in Western thought that tyranny existed when a man was no longer governed by reason but by his baser animal appetites/passions or by his vices. The solution was to cultivate habits of virtue.

Understood the right way, this idea is likely to have positive effects. But I wonder if, understood the wrong way, it might have contributed to the constellation of ideas that led to modern day liberalism.

Here’s how it could go wrong. Let’s say I believe that the important thing is that it is my individual reason that holds sway and that this defines my personal liberty. You might then come to believe the following:

1. If I am to be free, then I must be governed by my reason.

2. If I am to be governed by my individual reason then my reason has ultimate authority.

3. Therefore I should resist the external authority of a power hierarchy (bishops, kings etc). To obey or to serve is suspect, perhaps servile. It should be possible to have a society without a power hierarchy or, at least, to “level” a society.

4. If individual reason has authority, then I should not be swayed by custom, feeling, affection, loyalty or mere “prejudice”.

5. Tradition is especially bad as it might be merely “imitation” which would mean being governed by “other mind” rather than by my own reason.

6. Nor should I be governed or defined by “non-mind” aspects of self, such as sex or race, which I will come to think of as mere “accidental” attributes of self.

Remember that by the time of the French Revolution there was a deification of reason. This is why a critic of the revolution like Edmund Burke attacked the kind of logic I set out above. Burke argued that the stock of reason in each individual man was too small to be a reliable or practical guide to everyday behaviour and that there was often a collective wisdom to be found in inherited tradition or in “prejudice” (i.e. received social norms or standards).

It’s not surprising that the “I am free when governed by individual reason” principle would appeal to secular intellectuals. These intellectuals were no longer employed in the service of an established theological tradition; they were not disciplined to a larger, accumulated body of thought. Nor is it surprising that a bureaucratic class, raised within the new scientific approach, would be supportive of such a principle, as it freely allows society to be governed along technocratic lines.

There’s a second problem as well with the idea that we secure our own liberty, and that of our society, when we cultivate the virtues, so that we are governed by reason rather than gratifying impulsively our animal passions or our vices.

The problem is that it suggests that passion, feeling, instinct, emotion and the physical aspects of life are in a lower category than the mental or intellectual aspects. If understood this way, it can fail to integrate the human person and lead to a backlash in which the more primal, directly felt and forceful aspects of life are reasserted (e.g. aspects of the Romantic movement, or more recently writers like D. H. Lawrence). It might even lead to the original idea being turned upside down, with the claim that we are liberated when we throw off the “repression” placed on our sexual or animal natures.

In short, it’s important that the original principle is understood clearly, in a way that doesn’t drift toward a proto-liberal mindset based on individualism, rationalism or levelling.

To achieve clarity the following might help:

1. The guiding or directing or ordering faculty, commonly called “reason”, is not just a logical, intellectual, analytical feature of the mind. Rather, it is the discerning faculty, able to experience, evaluate, order and rank the variety of human experiences and to judge prudentially.

2. Whilst it is true that the animal or biological impulses and appetites will often need to be overruled by higher order moral or spiritual factors, it is also the case that they (the animal/physical/biological impulses) can be the foundations of, or inspire, much that reason will find worthy and sustaining. Sometimes, therefore, it is more the case of guiding or channeling our animal/biological natures to their proper ends rather than suppressing them.

3. Our individual reason is not sufficient an authority for either our own behaviour or for the governance of society. Our prudential reason itself should know this. It is proper for there to be leadership structures in society. In normal circumstances, it is a virtue to be loyal to the natural, organic communities we belong to and to serve them, whether they be our family, our community, our ethny or our nation.

4. Given that our individual reason will be insufficient, it is important that a society establishes a healthy cultural framework for individual behaviour, one that will include social norms and standards. These will not be permanently fixed or unable to be challenged, but ideally will reflect an accumulated understanding of how a society is able to order itself successfully and orient itself toward a common good.

5. It will be helpful also for a society to establish a framework of education in which young people are exposed to the best minds from previous generations, to help them in the process of acquiring wisdom and insight and to benefit from the life experience of those who have gone before them.

One final thought. Liberal rationalism and individualism often go together with a commitment to an abstract, universal love or to a progress toward “higher unities”. This makes sense once reason begins to be deified along proto-liberal lines. If I am not a man, but a reasoning mind, then the particular attributes belonging to me become less important in defining my self, my attachments, my loves and my duties. Nor am I placed in time, or connected in lineage in as significant a way. My attachments are more likely to be understood to be universal ones that a reasoning mind might abstractly think its way toward; nor are any distinctions between reasoning minds likely to be thought to hold, and so there will only be the individual mind existing alone and as part of a universal entity, either of humanity or of all things.

This, at least, is one possible path of thought that might be travelled by those who take the reasoning mind itself to be the human person.

“The Tyranny of Nature?”, April 8, 2019:

Patrick Deneen, in his excellent book Why Liberalism Failed, focuses on two strands within liberalism. The first is the one that I usually write about, namely the liberal belief in maximising individual autonomy. The second is one that was mostly new to me, but that deserves consideration. According to Deneen, Sir Francis Bacon, ushered in a new way of thinking about our relationship to nature and this is a core aspect of the liberal project.

Deneen set things out as follows:

The modern scientific project of human liberation from the tyranny of nature has been framed as an effort to “master” or “control” nature, or as a “war” against nature in which its study would provide the tools for its subjugation at the hands of humans. Francis Bacon – who rejected classical arguments that learning aimed at the virtues of wisdom, prudence and justice, arguing instead that “knowledge is power” – compared nature to a prisoner who, under torture, might be compelled to reveal her long-withheld secrets.

This post takes the form of notes that I wish to make in regard to this, rather than a final position. I need to think about this more, but it does strike me initially that Deneen is onto something important here, something that explains aspects of modern liberal politics.

Let’s take the issue of the war on masculinity. Why would liberals feel so comfortable describing masculinity in negative terms, as something that is “toxic”?

Part of the answer is the one I have always set out. If liberals want to maximise autonomy, and autonomy means being self-determined, then individuals have to be “liberated” from predetermined qualities, like the sex they are born into. Simple – and this is how liberals themselves often frame things (with talk about autonomy, self-determination, choice etc.).

But the Baconian revolution in the way we think about nature also supports the liberal mindset. Think of it this way. If you are a traditionalist you will believe that we are a part of nature, i.e. that we stand within it and that therefore a purpose of life is to order ourselves and our communities harmoniously within the given framework of our created nature and of the nature of the world we inhabit. We will also seek for the beauty, truth and goodness of our being within this larger created order.

If, however, you adopt the Baconian mindset, then you will assume that we stand outside of nature, seeking control over it, wishing to subdue it. Value is no longer so much to be found within given nature, but in its use as a raw material to realise human purposes and desires that are separate to it. It is the realisation of human desires and purposes that now carries meaning, and this occurs through our sovereign rule over nature, our conquest of it.

Therefore, the “truth claims” of traditionalists and liberals when it comes to masculinity hardly even intersect. Traditionalists will be oriented to the value inherent within masculine nature; liberals will see value in “manipulating” men’s behaviour (as you would a raw material) to suit the purposes set by society.

Liberals are likely to be focused on what purposes masculinity has been “socially constructed” for and to think it normal to debate how masculinity might be reconstructed to fit a more “progressive” social narrative – such as a feminist one (at the same time, the autonomy strand within liberalism will insist on there being “masculinities” as a sphere of choice).

The traditionalist attitude might run from a light traditionalism to a deeper one. Most traditionalists would hold that masculinity is hardwired into a man’s nature and that this gives definite limits on how men might be “reconstituted” within a culture.

The deepest form of traditionalism would hold that masculinity exists as an “essence” within nature, i.e. that it exists not only as a characteristic of individual men but as a principle of reality, and that there is a quality of goodness within the higher expression of this essence. Therefore, an individual man has the opportunity to embody a “transcendent” good through his masculine nature. Our forebears therefore put much emphasis on pursuing what was noble within a man’s nature, and rising above the base.

You can see why it’s so frustrating when liberals and traditionalists argue on this issue. The frameworks are so different, so set apart, that it’s not possible for the arguments to intersect, let alone for the two camps to come to any form of agreement or compromise.

There are a few additional points to be made when looking at the influence of Bacon on liberal thought. I find it interesting that the poet Shelley, writing in 1820, identified Bacon as one of the key early figures in liberal thought:

…the new epoch was marked by the commencement of deeper enquiries into the point of human nature…Lord Bacon, Spinoza, Hobbes, Boyle, Montaigne, regulated the reasoning powers, criticized the history, exposed the past errors by illustrating their causes and their connexion…

The Baconian aspect of liberalism has also possibly contributed to some of the features you find within modern political thought.

1. Blank slatism. If nature is thought of as raw material, that humans stand outside of and subjugate for our own purposes, then this supports the idea that we are dealing with a “blank canvas”.

2. Humanism/universalism. If you think of politics in terms of a revolution in which humans stand outside of nature and conquer it to relieve the human condition, then the key protagonist is “humanity” rather than particular nations. Also, if we are not standing within nature, then we won’t have the same focus on the need for identity and belonging as constituent parts of our nature and this too undermines support for particular forms of community.

3. Functionalism. If we are no longer seeking meaning within nature, including beauty/order/harmony, but see nature instead as raw material to be used for social purposes, then it makes sense that there would be an emphasis on functionalism, for instance, in the architecture of the middle decades of the twentieth century.

4. Progress. If the aim is a humanism in which humans stand outside of nature, using it for our own purposes, conquering and subduing it, then it stands to reason that some liberals might see progress in terms of a history of economic and technological development and growth. They might then see this as a good in its own right, so that development is not thought of as helping to preserve or enhance an existing community, but as being in itself the higher aim or measure of success that all else is to be subordinate to, even if this means radically undermining communities for the purposes of maximising economic growth. (Some left-liberals do see progress as a moral arc rather than an economic one.)

“Every Eve Knows and Follows the Best Path?”, April 16, 2019:

A pastor at Charlotte Congregational Church in the U.S., Susan Cooke Kittredge, has come out in support of abortion. The reason she gives for supporting abortion is interesting, as it gets to a fundamental issue in politics:

“Sadly, our starting point seems to be that women aren’t trustworthy. We can go back to the Garden of Eden to see the church’s interpretation of Eve’s fallibility. In cultural, religious and state realms, women have been perceived as needing the restrictions of ruling authorities—that were historically male—to coerce their compliance in many areas. The underlying assumption has been that women cannot know what is best for their families, their children, their lives and their communities.

We need to question our entrenched cultural distrust of women and summon the courage to face the answers and commit to change. My hope is that everyone will hold the questions in one hand and God’s hand in the other.”

Her assumption is that every individual should be trusted to know what the right thing is for themselves and their community. Furthermore, she assumes not only that individuals will know what the right thing to do is, but that they will choose to follow it.

She can push this confidently because it is an assumption that is woven into liberal culture.

It’s an approach that ignores the fallibility of human nature. It ignores the fact that individuals may know what the right thing to do is, but still be tempted to act according to some baser desire. It ignores the fact too that the capacity for prudential reason differs between individuals.

Finally, the notion of what is right tends to be lost once the liberal principle is set in society. Once you tell people that the key thing is that nothing is to interfere with their own will in deciding what to do, and that there is no legitimate moral authority outside of this, then it quickly descends to the principle of “I chose it, it is my desire, I should not be judged, I should act for my own pleasure/interest”.

What then tends to happen is that the lower, “animal” side of human nature is let loose of the moorings provided even by our own individual prudential reason – which itself is not strong enough to guide people to act according to what is best for themselves and their community.

This is why traditional societies upheld social standards and cultural norms, within institutions like the family, schools and churches, to transmit the inherited and collective wisdom of the past to influence the behaviour of individuals, as a necessary buttress to their own reason.

Edmund Burke put it well when he wrote in the eighteenth century:

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.

One of the reasons that Susan Cooke Kittridge gets things wrong is that she believes that this effort of cultural transmission was not to help individuals to successfully regulate their own behaviour rationally, virtuously and prudentially, but to oppress women. She writes:

What I have found inescapable in the discussion about abortion is the inherent subjugation of women. The underlying assumption seems to be that women aren’t capable of making such deeply important decisions for themselves, that society must step in and direct women who, for whatever reason, are deemed unable to follow a morally acceptable path.

Because reproduction is tangled with sexuality, an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy bears shadows of unchained lust and desire. This, of course, has been true for millennia and though we may consider ourselves staunch supporters of equal rights for women, we are not, I think, aware of the insidious ways the view of women as less than men has pervaded our culture and understanding.

Traditional society “stepped in” to help guide the behaviour of both men and women. Both were thought of as having fallen natures. Both achieved their higher potential only through a difficult process of cultivating habits of virtue. Both required the assistance of a culture that was transmitted in the home, at school and by the church.

It’s true that regulating the sexuality of young women was thought of as particularly important, but the chaos of the modern sexual landscape, and its negative effect on family formation, should make clear why this was the case – and why it was mothers within the family who did much of the work in transmitting the cultural norms to their daughters.

Susan Cooke Kettridge is, perhaps unwittingly, following a line of thought which goes back centuries and which claims that we can have a peaceful and harmonious society in which individuals can equally and freely choose what to do – and that the only thing hindering this is the existence of power structures through which one class of people exploits and oppresses another.

Initially, these power structures were thought to be economic class ones, led by the aristocracy and then by the bourgeoisie. Now it’s racial and sexual classes, with whiteness and maleness being the stumbling blocks to freedom.

But it’s all fundamentally misconceived. You are not going to get peace and harmony in a society in which individuals are perfectly free to act according to their own will and reason. The idea that individuals will choose to act according to the best interests of themselves and their community is just wishful thinking. Absent the restraining and guiding influence of embedded social standards and cultural norms, people will increasingly act to satisfy immediate wants and desires or in pursuit of self-interest or in addiction to the age old vices which are part of human nature.

We will just end up observing the decline of our culture and society.

Leave a Reply