Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The Eich affair: why conservatives are wrong, Part 4

Gregory XVI: 'So, too, it is a crime for the state to act
as if there were no God, or not to have a care for religion,
as something beyond its scope, or as of no practical
benefit; or out of the many forms of religion to adopt
whatever one it likes; for states are bound absolutely to
worship God in that way which he has shown to be his
will.' (Mirari vos 1832)
My point in these posts is that conservatives have made a terrible strategic blunder in seeking to limit the attacks on themselves by liberals by accepting the basic liberal picture, and then trying to ameliorate the problems liberalism causes by special pleading. This was never going to work; in the medium and long term it never has worked. It is high time conservatives freed themselves from this strategy and tried something which addresses the arguments at the basis of the liberal project, which are often terribly weak.

Political liberalism is the view that, on the basis of an agreed set of very basic moral principles designed to protect us from obvious harms like being murdered, everyone should be able to pursue the good life as he conceives it to be. This contrasts with the political theories of the ancient world, which started from a particular understanding of the Good Life, as the life of virtue, and maintained that the role of the state was to promote that by encouraging virtues and discouraging vice. Classical Catholic theories, to simplify, had the same idea but bearing in mind that our ultimate good as human beings is heaven, and dividing responsibility for the government of a Christian society between the state and the Church. A Catholic state, naturally, must do its best to assist the Church in its proper function spiritual government over Catholics.

Pius IX: 'that erroneous opinion, ... called
by Our Predecessor, Gregory XVI, an "insanity,"
viz., that liberty of conscience and worship is
each man's personal right, which ought to be
legally proclaimed and asserted in every
rightly constituted society; and
that a right resides in the citizens to an
absolute liberty, which should be restrained
by no authority whether ecclesiastical or civil,
whereby they may be able openly and publicly to
manifest and declare any of their ideas
whatever, either by word of mouth,
by the press, or in any other way.'
(Quanta cura 1864)
I want to describe two wide open goals in liberalism, which are being neglected by the 'conservatives' who are so terrified of being called 'illiberal' that they can't bear to breath a word of criticism against liberalism, hoping desperately - but in vain - that the freedom promised to all by the liberal state will allow them to carry on their conservative lives in peace.

The first derives from the fact that the theory is not going to get off the ground unless the basic moral principles protecting us from being murdered etc. are uncontroversial. The whole idea here is that liberalism can contain a wide range of views by allowing each person the freedom to do what they want as far as their 'substantive conception of the good' is concerned: to devote oneself to painting, collecting stamps, meditating on a cushion, making money, having as much pleasure as possible, or whatever. (It excludes, of course, the conceptions which actually harm others, such as those which stop homosexuals getting married, pregnant women getting abortions, unmarried couples sharing a room in the B&B of their choice: those conceptions are unreasonable.) We can all agree - they say - on the basic things which make a common life possible.

The problem is that their basic principles are not uncontroversial at all. When you look at them in detail, they are clearly derived from certain specific moral theories - how could they not be? - and there aren't any non-controversial moral theories out there. The claim is often made by liberals that these basic ('thin') principles derive from rationality, but exactly what rationality implies is also hugely controversial, and the way rationality is understood has varied enormously over time. (A good place to see arguments about this is Alasdair MacIntyre's book Whose Justice? Which Rationality?)
Leo XIII: one of the “chief duties” of rulers
is to 'favour religion, to protect it, to shield it
under the credit and sanction of the laws,
and neither to organize nor enact any
measure that may compromise its safety.' 

(Immortale Dei, 1885)

The interesting fact is that issues which liberals regard as 'substantive' are often less controversial than issues which liberals call 'thin'. It is much easier to get the saloon bar to agree that children should be taught the three Rs or that incest is disgraceful than to get them to agree that it is rational to seek to make the worst-possible future outcome as good as possible, rather than to take a risk with that for a higher chance of getting a much better outcome. This has real political implications. Liberals like to claim that they can cope with multi-culturalism better than conservatives, but this is not so. Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Christians disagree on fundamental issues, but we actually agree on many substantive issues, such as the need to limit sexual licence and support the stability of the family. There are historically many examples of multicultural societies run successfully on conservative lines - it is true of all the great empires of history. They way they do it is to make policy on the basis of widely agree aspects of the substantive good, just as Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland agree to restrict abortion there. As the radical implications of liberalism are worked out, it is increasingly clear than a consistent liberal state could never co-exist with a large body of, say, Muslim citizens.

The second exploitable problem with liberalism is that it implies a very radical freedom for each person to do what he likes with his life, as long as it does not harm other people. The horrible consequences of this principle are such, however, that even liberal states can only apply it selectively and inconsistently.

Pius XI: ' these manifold evils in the world were due to
the fact that the majority of men had thrust Jesus Christ
and his holy law out of their lives; that these had no place
either in private affairs or in politics: and we said further,
that as long as individuals and states refused to submit
to the rule of our Savior, there would be no really hopeful
prospect of a lasting peace among nations.'
(Quas primas 1925)
For example, serious liberals have long wanted to permit the consumption of all kinds of drugs. And they have long wanted to legalise prostitution. But after some experimentation in these directions, the consequences so socially ghastly that debate inevitably swings back against it. It turns out that, perhaps indirectly, the free pursuit of grossly immoral ways of life have negative consequences for others: it is not victimless. Having legislated a free-for-all for prostitution in Germany, Sweden and France and now taking effective measures to suppress it. But then you start to realise that almost no vices are truly victimless: think about suicide, for example, or adultery.

Health policy has currently swung so far back against liberal principles that I begin to wonder whether my body is my own, or a tool of the state to improve the efficiency of the economy or to lower the costs of the National Health Service. But of course the health fascists, like feminist opponents of prostitution, have a point: it is just not a liberal point. The state has, perfectly reasonably, a substantive conception (shared by pretty well everyone) of what is good for us in terms of physical health, and, perfectly reasonably, wants to encourage (not necessarily compel) us in that direction. The state has an interest in the health of its citizens: liberals should logically deny this but it is obviously true.

To conclude, liberalism as a theory cannot cope without basic, 'thin' moral principles being accepted by (pretty well) everyone: to point out that their chosen principles are actually accepted by almost no-one (this is indeed the case with the most influential account of rationality in liberal theory, that of John Rawls) check-mates the whole theory. Again, the theory cannot do without a nice clear distinction between what harms others (to be forbidden) and what is a legitimate pursuit of a private, perhaps controversial, conception of the good life (to be permitted). To point out that this distinction collapses in practice is to show that the whole theory is untenable. If all the things we'd expect to be optional conceptions of the good turn out to be required or forbidden by justice to others (because they affect other people), liberal freedom simply disappears.
Vatican II: 'Indeed, since people's demand for 
religious liberty in carrying out their duty to 
worship God concerns freedom from compulsion 
in civil society, it leaves intact the traditional catholic 
teaching on the moral obligation of individuals and 
societies towards the true religion and 
the one Church of Christ.' (Dignitatis humanae)

So liberalism is not unassaible: in fact it is weak. On the other hand, a conservative alternative to liberalism isn't a dystopia: it is just a set of compromises between people with much in common, but disagreements as well, about what makes for a good life, negotiated by perfectly ordinary political means.

We don't hear the arguments I've outlined much because, to repeat, the mainstream so-called conservative parties don't actually have the courage to criticise liberalism as a system, and the same is true of the bulk of so-called conservative Catholic apologists. When they come across issues related to these problems they use them only to score minor points on specific issues, such as fighting back against the legalisation of prostitution. It isn't a problem about prostitution, however: it is a fundamental flaw in liberalism.


Oh and did I mention that political liberalism is also against the teaching of the Church? For more on 'religious liberty', which is in fact only partially relevant here (it is not primarily religious liberty which is at issue), see here


  1. Well done, sirrah! But it's one Hell of a job to try and get the average 'liberal' to analyse his position in sufficient depth to discern the flaws you quite rightly point out. On one level, the common arguments *pro* the liberal position are easier to understand (and/or more palatable)than the arguments *contra*, and ease of understanding seems essential to the modern mind.

    This is where Belloc coud be said to have got it so horribly wrong in (I think) "Survivals and New Arrivals" when he averred that the Chucrh would prevail in the Modern Age because it defended reason. The Man of the Modern Age (and even the Catholic Man of the Modern Age) seems uninterested in reason to the same extent that (bizarrely) he appears to be in thrall equally to scientific claims and to the sentimentalism and sensationalism that almost define the public media today.

  2. Here is a letter in today's Wall Street Journal that shows the uselessness of the 'conservative' Catholic position. It concerns the suit by a company called Hobby Lobby, owned by Catholics, that seeks exemption from the requirement to provide health coverage for contraceptives on the basis of the alleged right to religious freedom.

    "If the CEO of my company is Jehovah's Witness, can the company then exclude bold transfusions? How about the owner of a large business who is a Christian Scientist? That company's medical plan would really be quick reading because it would cover only the setting of bones. To some, these conclusions are laughable, but they are the logical conclusion to Hobby Lobby's argument.

    Pamela Lappin,

    Pamela Lappin of Atlanta has obviously got things right. The conservatives might respond that the evil of contraceptives is knowable by natural reason and hence the refusal to pay for them is defensible on non-religious grounds, but that is not the grounds that this company is arguing on.

    John Lamont

  3. Anonymous8:50 pm

    I don't know, but maybe it's time for the Catholic Church to split. The CC is infested with homosexuals at all levels who have corrupted the Church. The Pope appears to be more interested in popularity than in clearly laying down norms. So many Catholics just shout and flaunt publicly all kinds of ideas that go directly against the teachings of the CC. The CC is a very mixed circus at the moment.

    While liberals on the outside are going to increase their attacks on everything religious in society and ramp up the destruction of religious freedom, it's actually also the liberals inside the church, and all the nasty homosexuals, that are doing the greatest damage to the Church.

    The CC today often resembles these starlets who want to do everything to please the audience to move up in the ratings.

  4. Excellent four-part series, Mr. Shaw, thank you.

    Can you comment on how Pope Leo XIII's condemnation of the heresy of Americanism relates to this?

    Also, thinking back to the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan last year, many Catholic writers chimed in with the "this is where Christianity went wrong and got perverted by the state" song that many Protestants sing. If we look at the history of Christendom, what are the lessons that we can learn about implementing an alternative to Liberalism? What does (or should) a 21st Century Catholic state look like?

  5. Very good thank you. Back to the proper love of neighbour!

  6. Your articles are excellent. It is high time someone understood and pointed why we have lost the battle over the last 50 years. It’s not that the liberals won, rather The Church has lost, because of poor understanding, judgement and timidity. Secularism is now common within the Church.

    From Gregory XVI to Vatican II the line was held, and then sudden collapse. Something went wrong after Vat II?

    We really have to re-assert the Catholic position that a society must start from an understanding of the common good.

    Thank God we have now, at last, some clergy and an increasing number of laity, who are fighting back. As for the Hierarchy, well we don’t seem to hear much from them?

  7. I found your website about five days ago and read these articles then.

    It has taken me until now to decide what I want to say. So here goes.

    Excellent articles. You have put into four pages what I have been trying to get over for a while, but struggling. "we may be winning the occasional battle, but we are losing the war". Yours is just much more eloquent and knowledgable.

    So then. Where do we find the leaders? Where do we find those to get behind and work with/for?

    We can sit at home, applauding great internet posts. Some of us (you) can even write them. If we don't have those articles to read then we will not have a focus point to get together and then to work together. Our enemies use directed email well, such as in this Mozilla situation and we must learn to do the same.

    But then my other favourite saying of the moment is " posting on the Internet has become the alternative to doing anything". Because it doesn't matter how many people read your article and sit there nodding heads. It doesn't matter how many reply to tell you how clever and right you are. If we just move on to the next website, or just wait for your next words of wisdom it's all in vain.

    So, what do we do?

    1. Thank you very much.

      We aren't going to get anywhere while most orthodox Catholics are convinced that the only strategy is the one in which they pretend to be liberals. So the internet discussion is perhaps a necessary first step.