The Performative Contradictions of Liberalism

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John P. Safranek, The Myth of Liberalism. Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2015.


Can a regime function in the absence of a conception of justice? This is contemporary liberalism’s apparent aspiration. Amidst the undeniable fact of ethnic, racial, religious, and ideological diversity – add to this now the menu of choices of sexuality opened up by medical technology and fueled by doctrines of liberation – liberals generally hold that the particular merit of liberal regimes is that they leave us all free to choose. Freedom to choose is left as much as possible to individuals because no one else including the state can say for sure what authoritative morality can be enforced and because enforcing the good life is not a legitimate function of the state in any case.

Liberal polities do not require moral commitment. They merely require assent to a set of side-constraints within which each can pursue his or her plan of life. Such a plan can be a highly developed account of the good, or just the satisfaction of this or that desire. In this sense liberal polities are like large fieldhouses in which individuals choose the games they wish to play. The liberal constitution defines the boundaries within which the players execute their moves. Liberalism is the perfect political program for a sceptical age abounding in diversity.

John Safranek methodically takes this tidy account apart. He admits the rhetorical power of the liberal language of individual freedom, equality, the limited state, and of rights. He concedes the importance of these for the vitality of liberal societies. But, fundamentally, the liberal account, according to him, fails. It contains inconsistencies and deceptions that his book attempts to uncover. Safranek’s specific target is “contemporary” or “modern” liberalism whose contours he does not clearly specify. But the context suggests American liberal thought since the 1970s, that body of academic and judicial work unfolding in the wake of the sexual revolution.

At the heart of it all is personal freedom, “the fundament of modern liberalism” (25). Personal freedom is synonymous with autonomy, liberty, and individual freedom in the liberal lexicon. Safranek’s blanket term is “voluntarism”, the view that the most critical feature of the human being is his or her capacity to choose everything from a brand of toothpaste to the moral code by which he or she shall live. The US Supreme Court in the famous abortion case of Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992) expressed the voluntarist commitment poignantly: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of life.” This remark comes in the context of a challenge to the constitutionality of restrictions on abortion and the voluntarist trope was deployed to preserve for a woman the zone of freedom to abort her unborn child established in Roe v. Wade (1973). Its rhetorical power is undoubted. What of its philosophical and moral power?

Safranek asks many questions of statements like these. If freedom consists in defining one’s concept of existence, is one also free to act on that conception? Is freedom to define a worldview worth much in the absence of the freedom to act? What if one’s concept of existence involves the infliction of some harm or otherwise unpleasant consequence on others? How is harm defined and measured? What if one’s worldview involves the salutary treatment of others? Is it no less objectionable? After all, who is to decide whether a concept of existence is in fact negative or positive in its consequences for others? My concept of existence may involve ending homelessness. What if homeless people want to be homeless? Can we take the homeless person at his or her word? Or shall we disregard objections as being the nonsense of one who is deluded or otherwise misinformed?

On the other hand, if the homeless want to be housed, on what grounds can an individual chooser of the good life be forced to divert resources from his or her project to the project that assists another? Answers like the one offered by John Rawls and others come to mind: one can imagine oneself in the homeless person’s predicament and if one thinks about it, that condition is not very nice. Since people in general – abstracted from their particular circumstances – would want a bourgeois life, goes the account, the state has the authority to impose bourgeois conditions on those who lack them, and tax others to pay for it.

In other words, liberal political theorists say, reflection orders our desires. With the use of reason we can distinguish preferable desires from those less preferable. We can then construct an ordered, coherent, and viable way to manage individual freedom. Reflection will prompt us to support abortion but not one-month-old children. But why, Safranek asks, will reflection produce such finely sorted policy results? What exactly is imported into the concept of reflection to enable it to produce policy outcomes that bear a striking resemblance to the policy status quo of contemporary liberal democracies?

Liberals say they believe in freedom simpliciter, but as the above example suggests, support a reflective ordering of the uses to which freedom is to be put. They implicitly or explicitly arrange desires hierarchically. There are lower or first-order desires, and higher, second-order desires. We should accept the need for hierarchy, know the difference between higher and lower, and place the various human desires in the proper categories. All this while declaiming the enforcement of morality.

The language of desire here is apt. Safranek discusses the close relationship between liberal ideas and utilitarianism. Utilitarian ethics seeks to dispense with metaphysics by ordering moral choices and policy results according to the pleasure-pain calculus. Safranek goes through the many reasons why liberalism should not be a friend of utilitarianism. They need not be rehearsed here. But one key affinity is the language of desire. Liberalism is all about the liberation of desire, and the central philosophical challenge liberals have to meet is to provide persuasive reasons why the satisfaction of some desires is legitimate and that of others is not.

Beyond this, the more basic question is why freedom is such a big deal for liberals. First of all, does autonomy have descriptive power? Many choices we make have the necessary consequence of limiting freedom in future. If I choose to have children, I have foreclosed for a good long time the life of a carefree traveller. So am I less free for having become a parent? Am I freer if I confine myself to lots of little choices each of them having few consequences for the future? Is such a confinement a limit on or an expansion of my freedom? If I so confine myself, am I exercising discipline or diminishing my autonomy?

In a more anthropological vein, Safranek asks whether freedom is as central to the human condition as liberals make it out to be. We do not control our birth or the myriad circumstances into which we are born. So many of the things that ennoble and enrich our lives in fact limit our freedom. Relationships with other implicate us in ties of obligation, service, and sacrifice, but the lack of freedom pales in comparison to the goods we experience. The things that constitute the very personhood of each individual – height, weight, appearance, intellect, family situation, economic status — are largely unchosen. Indeed, Safranek argues, we did not even have any say in being created with freedom (192). Here he points to, but does not elaborate, the relationship between liberalism and technology: so powerful is the drive to freedom that we increasingly cannot countenance the limits nature places on us. Liberalism issues in the conquest of nature.

What Safranek does with the concept of individual freedom he does also with liberal ideas of equality and rights. Yes, they are powerful tropes, but when examined closely, the words melt into muddles.

The nub of the book, I think, is this. Liberalism lives a life of denial and deception. It contains a moral program but denies the same. It adheres to some conception of justice but refuses to acknowledge it. It engages in concealment for the purpose of undermining traditional moral virtues without confrontation:

“All of these general terms liberal use – liberty, autonomy, dignity, and equality, as well as public reason, self-respect, animus, hate-speech, tolerance, diversity, bigotry, and discrimination – are Trojan horses: liberal employ these powerful rhetorical tools to smuggle their view of the good or morality into the conversation. They are ruses, sound-bites, slogans, decoys to distract from the underlying goods liberals are trying to impose. Contemporary liberalism is less a political philosophy than a façade for undermining extant social and legal mores” (188).

This passage is telling. Safranek’s book is not an exercise in political philosophy as much as it is an analysis of a political ideology. Ideology, as George Grant once wrote (English-Speaking Justice (1974)), is “surrogate religion masquerading as philosophy.” As ideologues, liberals have a worldview to which they are deeply, “religiously”, committed. And the facts shall not stand in the way of a good argument. As Safranek, writes, “Liberalism is no longer a protection for the way people otherwise want to live but something we all have to accept as a supreme guide to life” (41).

But the quandary is that the self-image of liberalism is not that of a worldview. It is supposed to be the limited program for the sceptic. Liberals do not want to argue for or against particular religions, particular foundational accounts of rights and human dignity. They assert that human have dignity but will not say why. To do so is to commit for a particular account of dignity that may foreclose moral and policy options.

So liberals do have moral commitment but they cannot or will not reveal them. Behind words like liberty and equality is a conception of justice – what is fitting for a person, what a person is due. Take the idea of equality. The most potent argument for same-sex marriage is the equality argument. How can recognition be given to one union and denied the other? This must be the product of “animus” against same-sex couples. Couples are equal with respect to marriage if they are equal in the relevant respects. If there is unequal treatment of two couples who are relevantly equal, then an injustice is done. But are opposite-sex and same-sex marriages relevantly similar? If marriage is defined as a union of two people who love one another, then the differential treatment of opposite-sex and same-sex couples is unjust because equals are treated unequally. But what is the nature of marriage? What if marriage is more than mutual love? What if reproductive capacity is inherent in marriage? Then same-sex marriage is not relevantly similar to opposite-sex couples and unequal recognition befits the unequal character of the unions.

Same-sex marriage advocates generally avoid the question of justice – what is due to different kinds of unions. Instead they move straight from the appeal to equality the conclusion that same-sex couple should be able to marry. If we examined rather than assumed the definition of marriage as a loving union of two persons, we would have to confront different conceptions of morality and justice, which is what the liberal shell game wishes to avoid. Of course if we open the debate in these terms, then we would have to examine why marriage is limited to two people, or to people. Stephen Macedo (Just Married: Same-Sex Couples, Monogamy & the Future of Marriage (2015)), is among the few who take up the arguments squarely.

Here is where the courts come in. Judges, like contemporary political theorists posit general principles like “privacy” and then immediately declare that certain interests and acts are embraced by the constitutional protection of privacy. Not every act is so protected. But acts based on interests the courts deem “fundamental” are covered. They rarely explain why some acts are fundamental and other not. If the scale of importance is based on feelings – the passionate intensity with which one wishes to perform an act – the courts usually weigh only the feelings of the aggrieved group, not the feelings of others. Implicit in this of course is that the oral status of the aggrieved group is held to be privileged. This moral status is merely expressed by the elites as passionate intensity.

Courts look like forums of principle and the argumentation seems to be independent of crass considerations of popular will. Their invocations of equality, dignity, and the other code-words of liberal rectitude lull us into sleepy acquiescence. Safranek’s point: we have the right-thinking elites in high places managing public opinion by managing the use of key words in pursuit of a new morality of liberated desire.

What is the alternative? Briefly, Safranek calls for a return to the Aristotelian, casuistic method of the common law whose development through time is tied to living traditions of people in concrete, particular circumstances. Tested principles and customs are adjusted to new circumstances. Tradition is that assemblage of customs that last precisely because they emanate from what is true and right in human nature. Alas, we do not just make up the standards governing human life; the natural law comes from the particularity of experience and is given shape in custom and common law.

Safranek’s book bears a striking similarity to Stephen D. Smith’s The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse (2010) which goes over much the same ground and has the same argumentative thrust. Readers of this book will profit also from reading Smith’s work. Like Smith, Safranek writes from a Christian perspective, though he wears this lightly in his book. Only once does he mention that the moral inheritance of the modern liberal world is Christian. This no accident, as Brad S. Gregory has suggested in The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (2012). There is a deep relationship between Christianity and liberalism that haunts this book. One wishes that Safranek explored this theme. This would take him into a more delicate treatment of tradition which needs more critical appreciation than he gives it. Clearly one cannot, as Safranek, seemingly does, rely in blanket terms on “tradition.” Some traditions are beautiful; others are appalling. We need to make distinctions.

A final point about this book is that it speaks to the rather poor quality of public debate these days. Liberalism is no longer a fighting faith; it is now the establishment and either lacks the nerve or the intellectual acumen to defend itself. Instead, liberals deploy ruses and propaganda techniques to carry the day. This cannot last forever. Safranek makes a practical point with implications for the future: liberal individual autonomy portends ruinous consequences for peoples and societies, but “The new aristocracy is intact families” (250). Out of the desolate landscape new growth will emerge.

Tom Bateman

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Tom Bateman is Associate Professor and Chair of Political Science at St Thomas University in Fredericton. His teaching and research interests are in constitutional politics, the Charter of rights, and religion and politics.