Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Challenge of Liberalism

Liberals, both egalitarian liberals (progressives) and classical liberals (libertarians) object to the conservative claim that the task of government is to make citizens good. 

They base this on several arguments.

Older liberals claimed that for virtuous decisions to be meaningfully moral they must be free. When someone makes the right moral decisions under compulsion, they really are not morally virtuous.

Contemporary liberals reject the idea that government should develop virtue in its citizens as a matter of individual rights. All citizens, they say, possess the right to choose their own version of “the good life.” The government should be neutral on these questions. The government—and society as a whole—should tolerate the moral choices of others.

Finally, as a consequence of the above view, other liberals reject the idea of virtue altogether. Who's to say, they ask, what is right and wrong? John Stossel asks this question repeatedly on television. What's wrong with recreational drugs? What's wrong with prostitution? Who cares what I do so long as I do not hurt anyone else?

All of these claims pose serious questions to conservatism that every conservative must consider; but they contain serious problems of their own.

The first claim—that moral decisions made under compulsion are not really virtuous--is correct. The conclusion—that governments therefore should not promote virtue in their citizens--is not.

The argument fails to appreciate Aristotle's conception of the morally virtuous person. According to Aristotle, a morally virtuous person habitually chooses virtuous acts for their own sake and with a feeling a pleasure for having done so. For such a person, the laws are irrelevant. They do not restrict freedom. The morally virtuous person freely chooses to do the right thing. Moreover, Aristotle argues that the person who makes a morally virtuous decision and is pained by it is not morally virtuous at all. A person who resents obeying the law and follows it only through fear of punishment is morally vicious. The whole point of education and laws, is to habituate such a person in moral virtue, so that he freely acts in a virtuous manner. Laws are not for the virtuous but those in need of virtue.

The second claim contains several problems. First, those who make the argument that people have the right to follow their own version of “the good life” make the fundamental mistake of choosing the right over the good. Choosing the right to live as one pleases often implies the right to my wants. Choosing the good means desiring those things that are really good--that meet my needsLiberty is a means of securing the good, not a substitute for it. 

Moreover, the right, or liberty if you will, to live as one pleases, imposes burdens on society and the government that cannot be met. Any given populace has an almost endless variety of desires or wants. To claim these wants as rights that the government must protect demands more than the government can give. It cannot provide for every one's wants. Moreover, the claim misconstrues the nature of rights. People can make rights claims for their needs, not their wants. Mankind's natural needs are the same for all, for we all have the same species-specific properties. Government can make provision for citizens securing their needs, because these are the same for every citizen. And it is the acquisition of our needs that partly constitutes human thriving or the good. 

And to claim that the government should tolerate every person's conception of the good life seems a self-refuting argument. Virtue, or values, so it goes, are relative. Government and society should not judge. Toleration should be the rule.

But toleration itself is a value. One cannot argue that values should be dismissed and base that argument on values. One cannot defend the value of toleration once one argues that values cannot be defended.

Finally, John Stossel seems to dismiss ethical questions and public policy controversies regarding them. He simply replaces them with the “harm principle.” Who cares what another citizen does so long as it does not hurt someone else? And who cares if I harm myself?

Well, your fellow citizens do, John. At least they should care. We do not live in John Locke's “state of nature.” We live in an organized society. And part of living in an organized society means caring for the well-being of our fellow citizens and attention to the common good. 

Such a libertarian lifestyle sets low expectations for human potentiality and fulfillment.

Listening the Grateful Dead and smoking a blunt while the wife brings home big bucks as a sex worker may constitute an appealing lifestyle for a libertarian. 

Not for a conservative.

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