Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How Secular Liberalism is Incoherent and Nihilistic

In Liberalism, freedom is defined negatively as: “freedom from constraint.” Individuals must be free to do whatever they want. Whether I can do whatever I want is the ultimate test of whether or not I am free.

This is very different from the Christian idea of freedom as the will being drawn toward the good. For Christians, being free means doing God’s will and thus fulfilling our true nature as His creatures. As Pope John Paul II put it, in accordance with the mainstream of the Christian tradition,

“Acting is morally good when the choices of freedom are in conformity with man's true good and thus express the voluntary ordering of the person towards his ultimate end: God himself, the supreme good in whom man finds his full and perfect happiness. (Veritatis Splendour, 72)

To obey the Word of God is to do that for which we were created and to find joy. But to go against the Word of God is to become enslaved to our appetites and to lose our freedom.

What I want to argue here is that the liberal notion of freedom is self-contradictory. Louis Groarke's article "What is Freedom? Why Christianity and Theoretical Liberalism Cannot Be Reconciled" (Heythrop Journal, XLVII (2006), pp. 257-74) is one of the best statements of why this is so.

Groarke argues that in liberalism, freedom is the first principle, the highest good. Freedom is defined as "freedom from constraint" meaning that an individual is free when he or she is able to choose whatever he or she wants without being coerced by anyone or anything.

As popularly stated, liberalism has two components: 1) the idea that freedom is non-interference and 2) the no-harm rule. In other words, individuals should be free to do whatever they wishso long as they do not harm others. The crucial problem is that there is no way to deduce #2 from #1. The no-harm rule must be derived from some substantive understanding of human nature and objective values. But this is just what Liberalism cannot do. And, to makes matters worse, not everyone agrees with the no-harm rule. Nietzscheans, for example, oppose such a restriction of individual freedom and the will to power. If I am superior and can get away with it, why should I not harm another person when it is to my advantage to do so? Groarke summarizes the dilemma:

"Theoretical liberalism champions freedom understood as non-interference as the ultimate value. If we do not impose order on society, however, some people will likely prey on others. Liberalism obliges us to intervene in order to curtail this natural chain of events. This seems paradoxical, however. If non-interference is the supreme value, we apparently can only preserve non-interference by interfering. It turns out, then, that liberal authors are not arguing for unlimited interference, but on the contrary for limited interference. But then non-interference cannot be the first principle of justice after all." ("What is Freedom?" 266)

Non-interference cannot be the first principle because if we have to decide when to interfere and when not to interfere, we must either do so arbitrarily (i.e. when the mob howls) or on the basis of some sort of principle that would be logically prior to a negative view of freedom and, therefore, would be our real first principle. This means that Liberalism is dependent on some other set of religious and/or philosophical convictions that citizens of a liberal democracy happen to hold and is dependent in two ways: first, to convince people that the strong should be restrained from preying on the weak, and second, to determine when to interfere and when not to do so. Liberalism, we must therefore conclude, is inadequate as a public philosophy. It leads to the culture of death and we can see evidence of this fact all around us.

9 comments:

1224027452s9341 said...

For Christians, being free means doing God’s will.

Interesting. Assuming one were even capable of knowing what god's will is, that would mean that for the Christian, freedom is slavery.

nero_null said...

For Christians, being free means doing God’s will.

Interesting. Assuming one were even capable of knowing what god's will is, that would mean that for the Christian, freedom is slavery.

Craig Carter said...

Nero Null,
Spoken like a true nihilist. That is exactly what Eve said.

nero_null said...

So what exactly is it you're saying here? That freedom is bad and that everyone should be obligated by their government to think, feel and live exactly the same way you do? Doesn't the choice to follow god have to be made freely? Isn't the ability to follow one's conscience, to choose their own path, to follow their conscience essential to the salvation process? Free will, that's what it's all about right? It's starting to sound to me like god is a liberal.

This “liberalism” you talk about, this perverse Nietzschean anarchy just doesn't exist. Freedom may be the only consideration in “theoretical liberalism” but in it's application it's really about justice, which is given equal or greater importance. A sense of fairness and balance in the way that the freedom of one individual or group may be limited when it adversely affects another. Justice is the attempt to quantify and enforce the “do no harm” rule. The idea being mostly to prevent lone psychos (can there be lone psychos?) from wiping out entire Amish communities, because the Amish should be free to be pacifists and if they are members of a larger, liberal society that values that freedom then they should enjoy the protection of said society. The same applies for every other member.

This decision of when and when not to interfere must always be made, and it can only be made arbitrarily, regardless of “public philosophy.” In my view of liberal justice; which I believe to be similar enough to the predominant view among those who might use the term to describe a philosophy they endorse; relies on a sense of fairness and balance in the ways and circumstances in which is it administered. Justice is not absolute, the finer points of it must be carefully decided upon by society at large. It is a code which evolves (sorry to have to drop the E-bomb) with society and that sense of balance is the organizing principle.

nero_null said...

I also like how you drop so precipitously in to the "culture of death" which seems to be a major concern. I'm assuming this is a pet-name for "abortion, condoms and stem-cell research."

Craig Carter said...

Jesus said: "If you hold to my teachings, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free" (Jn. 8:31-32)

He also said; "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin . . . If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (Jn. 8:34, 36)

Human beings have a telos, which is to fulfill their nature. Even the pagan philosophers Plato and Aristotle knew that. Christianity teaches that God made us for Himself. His laws (eg. 10 Commandments) are given so that we can maximize our freedom and attain our full potential as human beings. When we flaunt God's laws we fall into slavery to our appetites.

Liberalism says that this slavery to do whatever we feel like doing at the moment is the meaning of freedom and the highest good. But that is madness. To live virtuously and well is to worship and serve God for only then can we rise above our appetites and pursue long-term goods in relation to others.

Secular liberalism says we can throw off religion and morality and simply create value by our own choices. But it degenerates into the will to power where the strong eat up the weak. Look at the world around you; is that not what is going on?

You think you are free because the laws allow you to indulge your appetites, but remember that everyone else is doing the same. At some point it becomes chaos and when it does, you will beg a "strong man" or some fascist political movement to take control so that you can at least move around in safety and have basic security. You eventually will accept slavery in exchange for security and the right to indulge your appetites in private.

Those who will not rule themselves will be ruled by others. This is the law of life. Liberalism is a phase, not a philosophy.

The only way a society can be free is to acknowledge basic principles of justice. Liberalism disolves all such rules in individualism. There is plenty of room for individual liberty in a society that acknowledges the Judeo-Christian moral tradition as foundational, but not enough for today's anarchistic, violent, murderous, promiscuous left. And that is the biggest threat to freedom today.

Craig Carter said...

Nero Null
You write:

"In my view of liberal justice; which I believe to be similar enough to the predominant view among those who might use the term to describe a philosophy they endorse; relies on a sense of fairness and balance in the ways and circumstances in which is it administered. Justice is not absolute, the finer points of it must be carefully decided upon by society at large."

This is vague and sentimental emotivism. It amounts to this: "justice is the name we give to the ever-shifting prejudices of the current majority." Today murder is wrong, tomorrow it is right. No problem - as long as you are not the one being murdered.

According to this definition, the Muslim countries that execute homosexuals are as just as Canada, since they too have a "sense" of justice that is exactly like the "sense" of justice you have described. If you condemn them you are hypocritical.

Everything comes down to the will to power. The strong get their way and the weak are slaughtered.

nero_null said...

Regarding the fulfillment of man's nature, the “will to power” and the relationship between the strong and the weak.

To say that man will fulfill his nature says nothing. You may as well have just said: “Man will be man.” Man's is complicated. His appetites are diverse. He's not limited to the three F's (food, fight, f***.) Surely, we have aggressive tendencies, but that's not nearly the full spectrum of human desire. What about our thirst for knowledge? Our desire to create? Do we not also desire peace? Is this a contradiction? Very well. Man is large and contains multitudes (as the poet once said.) We may be slaves to our nature, like any being, but our nature isn't as bad as it seems. Allowing people to live they way they choose doesn't necessarily lead to utter chaos.

It is also true that I don't believe in “absolute” justice, at least not the way you seem to. I don't believe in an absolute moral veracity. Morality too, is complicated, and the ins and outs of it depend entirely on circumstances and so yes, justice is fluid. What could be said to be right in one time and place might seem wrong in another. Yes, it is wrong to murder today but it might be okay tomorrow. Tomorrow there could be a zombie apocalypse. If it's kill or be eaten, you do what you must to survive. You picked an extreme example, so can I too eh?

This notion of absolute justice is irrelevant anyway because in the end, you're right in saying that the strong get their way regardless of what moral standard they are to be judged by. This is indeed, the way of the world. It is society, though, that is strong (or so we hope) and my desire is for a society that can offer protection to it's citizens, while respecting and valuing their (and my own) of personal freedom. I don't think this is too much to ask.

You write: “the Muslim countries that execute homosexuals are as just as Canada, since they too have a 'sense' of justice that is exactly like the 'sense' of justice you have described.” Well, their sense of justice comes from the same place yours does right? They have “acknowledged the Judeo-Christian moral tradition as foundational.” Quite foundational in fact, and so they enforce the laws of their doctrine strictly. This is antithetical to most everything I believe in politically. Of course, I don't have to agree with this, because I do not subscribe to that system and being free, I can condemn anyone with whom I disagree.

Craig Carter said...

Nero Null,
On human nature, you are a naive optimist of the most dangerous sort. Lacking a doctrine of original sin and a sense of trnascendent moral truth, you put your faith in man and hope it all works out for the best. No need to discipline human nature with a moral code - too much work. Just see if it doesn't work out. It reminds me of the attitude of the leaders of Weimer Germany just before the Nazi take-over.

Morality can be both complicated and still include absolute right and wrong rooted in a transcendent moral order. Your example is that in an extreme sitution you might have to kill or be eaten. For 3000years the right of self defence has not been seen as being in conflict with the prohibition of murder. That was worked out a long time ago. On the other hand, to murder an innocent person just because that person is inconvenient or because one can gain financial advantage by eliminating that person is always wrong.

Muslims do not acknowledge the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. Islam is an unorthodox offshoot of that tradition. Christian countries have never executed homosexuals, contrary to propoganda, even though they have often prohibited it as deviant behaviour. But my point was that your relativism simply serves totalitaianism and despotism. Your philosophy is tailor made for a Hitler or a Stalin. It leaves them free to murder, enslave, manipulate and deceive individuals who stand in the way of their 'grand schemes' and ideologies (the classless society, the Volk, etc.)

Your philosophy is incoherent, irresponsible and immoral. But my appeal to you is not ultimately pragmatic in nature. Liberalism does not work because it is untrue. The Christian Faith is true. Why not embrace the Gospel that sets you free to be all that God created you to be? As St. Augustine wrote: "You have created us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." (Confessions I.1)