Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Eich affair: why conservatives are wrong, Part 1

Something quite scary happened the other day. Brandon Eich, the newly appointed head of Mozilla, the internet company responsible for the Firefox browser, was forced to resign, on the grounds that he had contributed money to the campaign for 'Proposition 8', a referendum which opposed same-sex marriage in California back in 2008.

He was forced because of a public outcry and the beginnings of a boycott against the company. There was no suggestion that his views would affect his running of the company. Rather, it was felt by our new political masters that it is unacceptable that a person holding those views should be in a position of responsibility. He should be run out of town.

What do they want social conservatives to do? For one thing, they certainly don't believe the old myth that persecution and censorship never works. Of course it works. Many people soon give up opinions which make them despised and poor. Others suppress them to the point that after a while they can simply forget they ever had them. Even highly principled people adopt a degree of self-censorship that prevents their condemned opinions spreading. Cases of persecution and censorship not working are cases where it was not, and perhaps couldn't be, carried out in an effective way. There's no danger of that in this case. The new censors and persecutors know their job very well.

The internet has lit up with condemnations by conservatives of the intolerance shown by Eich's critics, and the hypocrasy of progressives who demand freedom but deny it to their opponents. This may shame some, perhaps many, on the left into saying that the persecution of Eich went too far. But at the level of principles it is muddle-headed and wrong. It is not the case that liberalism has turned on itself or betrayed itself or given way to fascism or anything like that. What has happened is perfectly coherent, and is easily explained. However, I admit that I appear to be the only person in the world saying this (from a socially conservative perspective), so I will take this and another post to explain myself.

It is really very simple, and comes down to the principles of political theory and ethics.

1. Any kind of liberal, tolerant, free-speech-loving 'neutral state' theory has to rely on a set of basic, agreed moral principles. We all know you have to keep your contracts and not murder, steal, rape and so on. Indeed, we all know that you can't shout 'fire' in a crowded theatre. All these things harm people, and stop them pursuing happiness.


Just let that sink in. All the talk over the last fifty years about moral relativism has been about what liberals call 'substantive theories of the good', not the basic principles of justice. They've never advocated a free discussion of whether arson-rape-and-bloody-murder are morally ok (except the really loopy ones). They've only ever wanted a discussion about what kind of life leads to happiness, so that, with the basic moral principles secure, we can all choose our own path in life.

2. The basic principles have to come from somewhere, and since a liberal non-confessional state can't get them from Christianity, or anything tainted by association with Christianity like Aristotelianism, they have been coming from Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment moral theories. (What did you expect?)

3. These theories reject the notion of original sin, and equally the idea in ancient philosophy that we should have a conception of a good person and aim to transform ourselves into that. Instead the use the desires people happen to have as the basis of the moral life. The more desires you can fulfil, the better your life is going. The more of other people's desires you help fulfil, the more of a good person you are. The more desires the state can facilitate being fulfilled, the more enlightened the state.

Again, let that sink in. The basic principles of justice in a liberal state obviously overlap with common sense - we can all agree that you mustn't go round killing people for fun and so on - but the underlying principles are actually incompatible with the Christian revelation, and even the classical tradition. Plato said that we should be careful to desire the right things. St Paul told us that we have desires in us which lead to hell. These views are rejected by the liberal state.


4. The purpose of the liberal state is to facilitate each person pursuing his chosen conception of the good. The choice is up to him, but the only kind of consideration which liberals really understand is what he happens to like. Obviously our desires can clash, so the state needs to deal with clashes. A handy way to start doing this is to say that our desires for other people don't count, only our desires for ourselves. We may all have desires that other people behave in certain ways, but trying to fulfil those is going to lead to endless conflict. We should focus on want we want for ourselves: for the most part, this can be the basis of conceptions of the good each of us can pursue without treading on each others' toes.

I should think my readers will realise by now where this is going. But come back tomorrow to read the rest.

Photos: Liberals doing what they do best: stopping other people exercising their freedom of expression. Oxford Pro-Life Witness.


  1. I look forward to tomorrow's post; which I shall view on my newly installed Opera browser.

    One thing worse than the twitter mob's anarchy is a sordid little company like O.K.-Cupid telling people how to think

    1. Anonymous8:33 pm

      Or Starbucks or Google.

  2. I boycotted Tesco a few years ago when one of their senior managers derided opponents of gay marriage. I now realise that taking this route to the modern world is only suitable for ascetics or people (like me) who wish to distance themselves as completely as possible from modern life.

  3. You seem to be on to something. The issue with V2 ecclesiology is that so much of it is predicated on or fortifed by a set of values which no longer exist. These valueds (OK let's call them prejudices) are themselves, in part, the legacy or footprint of a once christian civilisation. In a sense, Papa Ratzinger was saying the same sort of thing at Regensburg in respect of the Anglo-Saxon transplant of 'democracy' to the Middle East. That this region, without the baggage of a Christian past, would resist the project.

    It's curious to reconsider Gibbon's thesis that Christianity destroyed the Roman empire a theory which I had long since dismissed as black Victorian propaganda. One wonders though, if Christianity can weaken the resolve, inducing a tolerance towards sworn enemies rendering the host a 'soft touch' for those who, in turn, would seek to conquer and destroy the host itself. Given that Gibbon's target audience were the project managers of the British Empire and his primary concern was the Empire's maintenance by these managers, then perhaps he has a point.

  4. The Church has a major problem. Catholic MPs and now Eich. Soon whole professions will be barred.

    You state that is because of post-Enlightenment theories, but the reality is that the Church abandoned the ground to the Secularists. In my youth in the 50s we still lived in a broadly “Christian” civilisation. The Catholic Church enjoyed a high reputation, attracting many prominent thinking converts. But we lost the battle, particularly in the 60s and 70s – by our silence. Our leaders allowed themselves to be distracted by the whole Vatican II episode.

    This is the lesson from the Church in the 20th/21st centuries.

    Future historians may well conclude that the periods of the Borgias and others, were by no means the worst, in the Church’s history.

    Had our Hierarchy vigorously contested Secularism in the post WW11 social and cultural turmoil, instead of trying to compromise with it, and had they continued to shout Catholicism from the rooftops, I suspect some sort of truce would have been reached, morale and therefore Faith, remained high and this would have allowed Catholicism to consolidate, lick its wounds and then surged ahead.

    As it is we are a diminished confused, demoralised army requiring a quite exceptional leader. Please God we have one!

  5. Jacobi raises the interesting question around strategy in the post war era. Like him I frustrated by the one adopted. What compounds this though is the perception that the clerical class and clericalised laity refuse to admit to a problem. The sex abuse scandals are the only time I have heard muttered the words, "mistakes were made". The perception I have is that apart from this everyone is still having a blast. Yet, I watched a TV documentary on Allen Hall a couple of years ago (then under the management of the new Bishop of Plymouth) and everyone looked miserable.

  6. Anonymous5:48 pm

    "The basic principles have to come from somewhere, and since a liberal non-confessional state can't get them from Christianity, or anything tainted by association with Christianity like Aristotelianism, they have been coming from Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment moral theories."

    I just popped over here on the recommendation of the Orthosphere blog. I'm American, and I try to be a serious Catholic, so I hope you'll accept this comment with that framework in mind. This quote seems essential to your argument and I'm afraid that I don't agree. The American Declaration of Independence says the following:

    "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

    Clearly our 'liberal' state believes that rights come from a creator. Further, our Constitution says nothing about where people might get their moral ideas. If legislation is inspired or informed by Christianity, that should not be a problem. Our courts, unfortunately, have at times gotten confused about what our First Amendment means, but that is an argument about our foolish judges; not necessarily an argument that invalidates the principles of a constitutional republic.

    1. Most Enlightenment thinkers believed in God. The most influential one for the Americans writing this document was Locke. So what? The principles expressed are incompatible with the Faith for the reasons explained.