Defining Liberalism: A deontological account
I know that this post is going to get me into lots of hot water with a number of guys (which I mean in the most gender neutral way) at the league here whom I deeply respect. Nevertheless, I want to see how far I can run with this. The last time I posted, I raised a meta point about whether I could say that liberals should or shouldnt support some policy X or Y. My reason for believing why I could was rightly identified by many commenters as following from the notion that liberalism is not just about what many self identified liberals believe, but being based on a certain set of principles.* Stillwater gets me very well**.
liberalism is defined by a set of a priori and antecedent commitments, so liberal policy follows trivially from them
The tough question is how do we go about picking those principles? After all, it’s certainly the case that not just any set of principles will do right?
For example, if I were to say that liberalism is all about standing athwart history and yelling stop, people would think me ridiculous and rightly so. Before I go into exactly what principle lies at the core of liberalism, I want to explore why we should look at principles rather than the actual positions. So, why can’t the liberal position just be whatever self-identified liberals happen to believe. Of course self-identified liberals believe very different things, and once you get out of the american milieu, liberal can mean different things. In europe and australia, liberal refers to the center right party. And I don’t think this is the case merely because europe tilts leftward compared to the US. A number of countries in europe still have scarily nationalist (quasi-fascist) right-wing parties which are fairly mainstream. (Think constitution party crazy). On the policy question side, maybe there is some core of policy questions which most self identified liberals agree with. Given that there is some such set, is this enough for us that these are the liberal positions?
One possibility is that such positions are not wholly consistent with each other. The idea is that we could get a set of principles from which we could logically infer our conclusions. If we have some set of principles that cannot cover all the central cases, then we could say that no set of principles would cover all these cases. Now this would be decidedly odd because what we are in effect saying is that these policies are the right kind of policies, but I cannot bring to bear any kind of reason that would justify these policies. However, it is rarely the case that it is inconsistency itself that is a real problem. In any particular situation where the principles are not sufficient to explain all the cases, we could accommodate those cases by complicating those principles. i.e. we could introduce a particular kind of distinction and say that a principle only applies when one side of the distinction obtains, while another principle applies at other times.
Of course one problem with a complicated principle is asking why the relevant exception applies? On the face of it, there are more propositions in need of justification. If we could independently establish the additional principles, that would be great, but at least prior to a defence it would look like a taller order. One real worry is that our principles are as complicated as our policy positions. When this happens, we realise that we don’t really have general principles, but have merely restated our conclusions using a different set of terminology. Our “principles” in such a case don’t really seem to do any explanatory work. It is therefore prima-facie better if our principles are simpler. This makes sense when we remember that our goal is to characterise liberalism. What principles would need to be true in order for liberalism, broadly defined, to be true?
The american situation further complicates the definition of liberalism. It is common for everyone on the american left to be identified with liberalism. Yet, there is something wrong with such an identification. Firstly, the left is not monolithic. There are different philosophies that they pursue. While there might be some surface commonality in terms of policy preferences, this is a purely contingent matter. Both Matthew Yglesias and Freddie de Boer are nominally leftist, yet it is difficult to say that their political preferences are really that similar. Their ideas of what a just society consists of and what they find unjust about the status quo are really different.
As a first stab at systematizing liberalism, I will say that a view counts as liberal if it assigns a high importance to things like freedom of conscience, association, speech, personal, agreement and contract as well as a concern for the worst off and equality of opportunity. Let’s call this set A1.This might seem to load it too much in favour of classical liberalism, but nothing I have listed here really differs from stuff modern welfare liberals like Rawls or Dworkin would assert. Intuitively, the idea is that liberalism is an individualist philosophy. Different kinds of liberalism presumably fall out of weighting the various concerns differently. Given that liberalism, broadly speaking, is concerned with such values, if one option is Pareto superior to another along all these relevant dimensions, then of course that option should be preferred by liberals. Usually, this shouldnt be a problem and most liberals do in fact prefer policies which are Pareto superior along the above lines. I will discuss intramural liberal disputes later.
One reason to make the distinction between the left and liberalism is because such distinctions are already made in the anglo- american philosophical literature. The existence of feminist and multicultural critiques of liberalism point to the existence of left-wing policies which liberals qua liberalism need not or maybe en should not endorse. One broad class of such criticisms would move along the following lines. Various types of egalitarian, multiculturalist and feminist ends can be furthered by the provision of group rights which would often (or even necessarily) conflict with individual rights. Of course some liberals just bite the bullet and say that even if such ends were desirable, it would still be unjust to institute such group rights. Other liberals have fought back and argued that such individual rights are sufficient to secure feminsit, goals. Yet other liberals argue that at least some multiculturalist and feminist policies (that initally are taken to be contrary to liberalism) can be defended from a liberal standpoint. The point is that there are a number of left wing policy options which are contrary to liberalism.
There is a worry that I have simply begged the question against self-identified liberals who propose non-individualist policies and justifications. However, I don’t think that this is too much of a worry. Group rights etc are sufficiently controversial among self-identified liberals that they will not form part of the core policy preferences from which we derive liberal principles. The kind of things liberals of all stripes are most likely to agree on are the individualist policies.
Simply listing out all the liberal principles without specifying how they are to be weighted and prioritised does not exhaustively settle all policy dilemmas. Neither is it obviously the case that in such cases neither option is any more or less liberal than the other. To a certain extent, at least som kinds of trade-offs are already delineated as more liberal than others. For example, even though freedom of conscience is highly valued by liberals, freedom from bodily harm is considered more important such that people cannot harm each other even though such is the dictate of their religion. But the core set of liberal policy preferences may not necessarily be enough to resolve all such weightage issues.
Therefore, if there is some deeper principle which liberalism could legitimately lay claim to, that could enable us to resolve conflicts. Also, exploring deeper principles allows us to find out what it really is in virtue of which A1 is true (if A1 was in fact really true). There are of course a number of candidates for what would underly A1. So, we could have things like equality (Elizabeth Anderson), autonomy (Will Kymlicka), tolerance (Chandran Kukathas) or some similar mixture of values that can underly A1 or something very much like A1. And if we used just one value, then there would be a clear way to order the various principles in A1. How such values work is by saying that because, for example, we should value autonomy, we should support institutions which engender the various freedoms, opportunities and goods mentioned in A1. i.e. Such accounts are basically teleological: The kind of institutions that we should support is directly related to what is intrinsically and objectively valuable.
So, one problem that such principles might face is that we cannot choose among the various values because at least more than one set would be reasonably good at delivering some ordering of A1 which would reproduce the core policy judgements that all (or most) liberals share. A second problem is that it is impossible to give any argument to show that something is objectively valuable without being at least somewhat revisionist about notions of value***.
There is however, another deep problem with such teleological theories. The problem is that such theories do not fit very well with a certain core liberal judgement. The core of the liberal objection to laws which establish religion is that it is wrong to impose your personal morality/conception of the good on others. Typically the communitarian argument**** for banning gay marriage relies on gay relationships not constituting the good life, or that homosexuality is sinful. The basic social communitarian view of government goes back Aristotle and plato. Government should aim at producing virtuous people. Therefore the government encourages virtuous acts and discourages vice. The communitarian has two responses to such a criticism. One response is that all laws are as such. Laws against murder and theft are such as they are because killing (except in self-defence) and stealing is wrong. The second is related to the first in that the liberals are trying to do it too. The communitarian says that the liberal sees tolerance or respect for autonomy as a virtue and tries to legislate that tolerance into law by requiring everyone to be tolerant or respectful of others’ autonomy. The communitarian has a different set of virtues which happen to be religiously inspired. Who is not to say that tolerance is not religiously inspired as well. The sermons of Sri Ramakrishna and the Bhagavad Gita contain expressions of tolerance and religious pluralism. Krishna famously said that anyone who sincerely practices their own religion actually really worships Him. So in the case of gay marriage, according to the communitarian, it is not the case that one side is trying to impose their conception of the good on others and the other side is not. Rather, the communitarian basically claims that the situation is symmetrical and that both sides are trying to push their own conceptions of the good on everyone. One side pushing a Christian one and the other pushing an Agnostic, Unitarian or even a Hindu one. The only difference is in the content of the conceptions of the good*****. Such an objection to liberalism is fatal only if the only defence available to liberal policies is a teleological theory such as those I mentioned above.
The task for liberalism is then to come up with a theory by which we could defend A1 without recourse to any particular conception of the good. The starting point for such a theory will naturally be the following principle P: We cannot reason from the fact that something is morally wrong to the claim that it should be illegal without introducing premises connecting what is morally wrong to what should be legal. By symmetry, we cannot reason from the fact that something is morally right to the claim that it should be legal. The nice thing about P is that it is necessarily true. To say something is wrong just is to say that people shouldn’t do it. That says nothing about whether people should be forced not to do it. Neither does it say anything about whether we have a duty to get other people to not do it.
Once we acknowledge P, we can ask ourselves how to go about justifying a law without recourse to any prior moral theory or conception of the good. Basically, we should pursue a free-standing theory of justice. The basic idea of a free-standing theory of justice is that we try to go as far as we can in coming up with principles that are to regulate the basic social institutions of society without assuming any conception of the good. The theory would have to work from foundations that both individualists and communitarians can accept. So, if a free-standing theory of justice can give us something like A1, but appropriately ordered, then we are home free. Any conception of the good which would require the violation of A1 would be ipso facto unreasonable. All this would however depend on whether we could get a free-standing liberal theory of justice. I think we can. Such a theory, in contrast to a teleological account, is a deontological account. The nice thing about a deontoloical account is that it is true whether or not Homosexuality is a sin. It is only under a deontological account can we truly say that people have a right to do wrong/sinful things. Under teleological theories, there are still some sins which are too important to be left up to individuals be that sin intolerance or failure to respect individual autonomy.
*One kind of argument that philosophers really love goes like this: People who support X claim to care about A, B and C. However, if you cared about A, B and C, you should oppose X. Therefore supporting X is irrational. Such an argument saves a lot of time about debating whether or not we should in fact care about A, B and C. Finding arguments like this to make on a number of fronts is, if not the holy grail of philosophers, at least a treasure chest. Such arguments are universally recognised and often fairly simple. For some reason, in blogs, people call this concern trolling and making arguments like this is somehow offensive or wrong or something. Its like people blatantly saying that they don’t want to consider a whole class of counterarguments for some reason.
**In fact, Stillwater understands me so well that it is a wonder that we don’t agree more often (or do we in fact agree more often than I think we do?)
***Basically, the idea is that we can get objective value if by objective value, all we mean is whether something is productive towards a particular kind of end (maybe certain moral ends) That’s because whether something is or is not productive towards a certain end is an objective fact. The problem with such a view is that it is drastically revisionist. What is productive towards an end (even moral ends if there are any) is contingent on the way the word actually is. Objective value claims are typically claims about us necessarily having reasons to desire/value something.
****The liberal argument for gay marriage is that whether or not something is a sin, is detrimental to the institution of marriage or against Thomistic accounts of natural law is irrelevant. What consenting adults do with each other in their bedrooms is their own business. The conservative argument for gay marriage is that allowing gay marriage is in fact pro-family. As we can see it is not the policy position that makes an argument conservative or liberal, but the kinds of values and principles it invokes.
*****I suspect that when Mr Van Dyke argues for just going with the decisions of the legislature or of popular referenda, this is where he is coming from.