After morality…

Liberals aren’t comfortable talking about right and wrong. After all, the whole point of liberalism is to avoid arguments about morality. Rather than arguing, liberals want to establish institutions which will allow everyone to pursue their own idea of the good life. Morality becomes a matter for civil society, not government.

Many libertarians think that moral values are just subjective preferences dressed up as objective facts. They treat moralizers with the same contempt as creationists and flat-earthers. In contrast, classical liberals like Friedrich Hayek have more respect for traditional morality. But even Hayek didn’t think there was such a thing as a moral fact. In The Fatal Conceit he wrote that "morals, including, especially, our institutions of property, freedom and justice, are not a creation of man’s reason but a distinct second endowment conferred on him by cultural evolution" (p 52).

But if the difference between right and wrong is just a matter of custom or opinion, then what does a liberal say to someone who doesn’t see why they should allow others to live as they want to? What if they say that liberalism is the morality of weaklings— people who try to talk their way into privileges they can’t claim through their own strength? Rights, they say, are what powerful people say they are.

I’m guessing that most liberals would just yawn and say that everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. Then, if their argumentative companion turns to violence, they might admit that maybe a person’s rights really are whatever the stronger party says they are — then they’d call the police.

Perhaps the reason this scenario sounds so silly is because any genuinely powerful person who thinks rights and morals are a sham isn’t going to be stupid enough to say so. And that raises an interesting question. What would they say?

This entry was posted in Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
16 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Tony Harris
Tony Harris(@tony-harris)
15 years ago

One of the issues is to find some sensible position between the traditional or authoritarian “this is the way you live or you get burned/stoned/shot/go to hell” and the other extreme “suit yourself, anything goes”.

We are talking about the rules of the game of social life and how to adopt a rational attitude to improve the rules so things work better. This applies to simple things like who does the cooking, washing and puts out the garbage. The authoritarian and the others (especially teenagers) have no interest in discussion, or at least, not in discussion that might involve them changing their minds (and their actions).

Part of the problem is the assumption that diversity and the lack of a criterion (like truth in science) to regulate our choice of moral values means that they are arbitrary. But that is not quite the case, there is a kind of third way between rigid traditionalism and anything goes, this is to try to form critical preferences for particular values or sets of values based on their capacity to get the job done (help things run better) and stand up to various forms of criticism, if you want to get heavy and philosophical about them.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
15 years ago

Elaborating on my previous comment in the other thread, you appeal to their rational self-interest.

Tell them:

‘Sure, you may think you’re the Ubermensch but most of the rest of us aren’t prepared to treat you as the Ubermensch and most of the rest of us aren’t prepared to tradeoff the possibility that we might be against the risk that we’re really not and change the rules of the game and call off this truce where we agree to deal with each other according to tort, contract and property (fundamentally).

‘But it’s not as if you’re fully stifled in your abilities to leverage your ubermenschen qualities even in our societies. it’s anything goes as long as you can persuade someone to do so with words or money rather than your fists or guns. Are you confident of your ubermenschen qualities because of your physical superiority?

‘Why not go become a boxer, make lots of money and buy whatever you want? Look at Mike Tyson. Do you get off on just beating people up for free? This is a free society. There are lots of masochists around. In this wonderful free society you can get on the Internet and meet up with them and make a mutually benefial trade. In this wonderful society, we’ll protect you from those pesky moralists who want to get up your back for doing this – as long as you persuade with words or money rather than fists or guns or implied threats of violence. Why engage in pillage on such loaded terms against yourself by dismantling this society when you can take advantage of it and still satisfy most of your preferences? What do you have to lose?’

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

It depends in part on what sub-species of liberal we’re talking about. John Locke was the archetypal classical liberal, and he certainly believed in (some) human rights as grounded in both God and reason.

However, if we’re talking only about modern secular liberalism, and relating it to analytical and moral philosophy, then it’s difficult to argue convincingly with Hayek’s proposition that morality is a wholly social construct. Not even modern natural law theorists like Finnis or Fuller really attempted to argue in any fulsome sense against that proposition. Moreover, modern rights theorists like Rawls, Dworkin and Nozick also demonstrably failed to provide a completely convincing analytical foundation for rights (or morality in general). And Bernard Williams fairly persuasively debunks both Kant and utilitarianism as providing secure analytical bases for morality.

But, even if we accept that our morality (especially the rights and duties we still label as universal or fundamental) is unavoidably grounded in culture and not God or nature or some unassailable notion of human reason, western liberal democratic culture is a very wide, deep and secure cultural soil in which to be planted. Hopefully we’ve learnt from the excesses of Nazism and Marxism, and hopefully GW Bush, with his legalisation of torture, “extraordinary rendition” and the surveillance State, is a momentary aberration (although the failure of many classical liberals including Jason Soon and Andrew Norton AFAIK to raise their voices loudly against these disturbing aberrations isn’t a hopeful sign).

Yobbo got it just about right on the previous thread when he said about aspirant ubermenschen:

Why would you say anything to someone who wanted to enslave you? Why debate a dictator?

You ignore such people.

If they try to force their beliefs upon you, well that’s what guns are for.

But I’d be getting out the gun if necessary to fight Bush as well as the Islamic fanatics. Luckily it presently seems, however, that American democracy will dispense with the neocons fairly soon.

Rafe’s “third way” basis for morality (a form of preference utilitarianism)

Fred Argy
Fred Argy
15 years ago

The ideal of classical liberals is to have minimal government intervention so that any laws and regulations in place (e.g. health and environmental safeguards) are effectively value-free – they are targeted at protecting everyone equally. In a liberal society, people will still be able to preach their own values through non-coercive means but no particular set of values should be imposed from above.

But can any “liberal” policy mix ever be really value-free?

If you protect property rights (such as through limited liability or bankruptcy laws) but do nothing to protect workers’ rights (such as through laws regulating minimum workplace conditions or controlling the monopsony powers of large employers) do we have truly ‘liberal’ society? In a liberal society, does voluntary insurance and charity (with no tax concesssions) replace state welfare and if so don’t you need to regulate these institutions? What happens to compulsory education and health care for the low-paid?

Going back to the real (non-liberal) world, governments do lots of things in practice which reflect their particular sets of values. So we will always have a vigorous public debate on the merits or demerits of these values. The main thing is that participants all make their values transparent – and that’s one thing classical liberals do very well. Social conservatives and social democrats often put forward arguments which masquerade as “economic” but are in fact principally about their values.

Rafe
Rafe
15 years ago

Taking up Don’s links to Thrasymachus and the views that Plato put into his mouth in “Republic” (probably the most influential book on justice prior to Rawls). It seems that Thrasymachus was the mouthpiece for a kind of unscrupulous, selfish individualism which Plato contrasted with the altruism of the collective morality that Socrates (Plato) was promoting to create a kind of class-stratified, stable, totalitarian state.

Hence the longstanding and unhelpful view that individalism and altruism are opposites, so individualism has to be curbed and justice is converted from equality before the law into either the tribalism of the totalitarian state or the coercive redistribution and social engineering of socialism in the name of “social justice”.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

“In this wonderful society, we’ll protect you from those pesky moralists who want to get up your back for doing this – as long as you persuade with words or money rather than fists or guns or implied threats of violence. Why engage in pillage on such loaded terms against yourself by dismantling this society when you can take advantage of it and still satisfy most of your preferences? What do you have to lose?’ “

But what if the aspirant ubermensch who is persuaded to accept Jason’s classical liberal rule-set has lots and lots of money, and his words are crafted by spin doctors who’ve learnt from cognitive scientists the tricks of manipulating humans to make the “choices” the ubermensch wants (whether those are economic, political or moral choices)? Doesn’t the “liberal” ubermensch’s satisfaction of his preferences without resort to fists or guns then become potentially every bit as destructive of the freedom of everyone else, and of any meaningful notion of liberal democracy and choice, as the dictator or terrorist who uses threats or physical force? Does the State have any role in regulating the activities of the non-violent ubermensch? Are we incapable of designing checks and balances to avoid the State itself becoming just as tyrannical if we concede to it a role in restraining ubermenschen in all their guises?

Bring Back EP at LP
Bring Back EP at LP
15 years ago

sorry but fallible huumans can never guide to what is right and wrong only God can.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

Over at Catallaxy, where Jason reproduces his above comment as a post, Liam observes:

On the morality of weaklings, Jason, I think you missed the really interesting question Don asked:

any genuinely powerful person who thinks rights and morals are a sham isn’t going to be stupid enough to say so. And that raises an interesting question. What would they say?

My answer to Don’s question is implicit in previous comments. A genuinely powerful person who thinks that morals are a sham (or rather that their own version thereof should be imprinted on society) would sound an awful lot like GW Bush or John Howard. He would use spin doctors to keep citizens in a constant state of fear and to label advocates of classical liberal or social democratic freedoms as arrogant intellectual elites who are not only weak and deluded but dangerous due to the threats we all face from terrorism, North Korea, Iran etc etc. In other words, such a person would be spinning the sorts of yarns suggested by Strauss, Bloom, Kristol et al, which is exactly what they’re doing. That is not to say that terrorism etc don’t in fact pose real threats to western democratic liberal societies, but that the threats don’t justify abolishing basic freedoms in order to save freedom. Moreover, the scale of those threats is being exaggerated for strategic reasons, not to mention exacerbated by the mismanagement of those who seek to capitalise on public fear.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
15 years ago

Ken
I think you’re overestimating the intellectual consistency of Bush. I’ll come back to your other points later in the day.

cam
cam
15 years ago

Rights, they say, are what powerful people say they are.

Political rights are the just a-priori between individual and government. No rational individual would submit to tyrannous or arbitrary governance. Consequently rights are the exclusion of executive, legislative and judicial tyrannical and arbitrary behaviour.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

“I think you’re overestimating the intellectual consistency of Bush.”

That may be true of Bush himself, but not of the more calculating neocons who surround(ed) him, like Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. Take for example this extraordinary story (via Tim Dunlop) of an alleged meeting between Wolfowitz and key neocon-sympathising journalists where they secretly orchestrated the selling of the invasion of Iraq as early as November 2001.

Liam
Liam
15 years ago

I agree, Ken, on Cheney and Rumsfeld. But I do like the Cheney poetry.
Cam, rational people generally do whatever they need to to survive under tyrannical or arbitrary government, including submitting to it: that’s precisely why it’s so bad and so intractable. ‘Yessing’ is a very rational response to repression.

cam
cam
15 years ago

Liam, That is where Harpur and Deniehy make their points. People act immorally and unethically under tyrannical regimes because they have no choice. The lack political equality and suffer at the arbitrary will of the government. Constitutionalism in conjunction with liberal democracy is important as it lays a framework that inhibits arbitrary government.

Patrick
Patrick
15 years ago

I don’t think I am a ‘liberal’ in the sense the word is used on this site, because my approach to public policy is basically my approach to parenting, slightly stricter by virtue of the greater degree of separation and consequent reduction in sympathy.

The overriding principle is that people ought to be responsible for their own actions, which sounds suspiciously like morality to me. The secondary principle, along the lines of the familiar rear-view-mirror warning, is more reductionist: people who actually pay for their mistakes may be a lot less dumb than they appear.

But, leaving aside Don’s last question, and the far-from-clear mental step from the preceding idea to that question, isn’t liberalism, and most of all Hayekian liberalism, all about an empirical and logical superiority to a particular form of social organisation, being the ‘classically liberal’ one?

So wouldn’t they respond to the would-be Caliph: ‘no, history (and, er, Muslim civilisation today) shows us that people are far worse off under your kind of stagnant poverty than in our hedonistic world’ and much in the same vein to the social democrat: ‘no, history (and, er, western Europe) shows us that no matter how well-intentioned you are pretty much everyone will be better off after just a few years of making their own mistakes’?

Wouldn’t they justify, eg, superannuation on the grounds that it is empirically shown to a) make people personally richer, thus (despite Mr Hamilton’s Follies) better off, and b) radically reduce government spending and thus (in theory) taxation, making everyone, (despite Mssr Hamilton and Colebatchs’ Fabulous Frocked Fifties Fancies) better off to that extent? All the while leaving people free to organise their ‘moral’ and ‘social’ lives more or less as they wish?

Scott Wickstein
Scott Wickstein(@scott-wickstein)
15 years ago

Don Arthur’s original post seems to describe contemporary Russia to me.

Patrick
Patrick
15 years ago

No, Scott, you clown, it isn”t Russia!! How can you be so thick?? ;)