Monday, April 07, 2014

The Eich affari: why conservatives are wrong, Part 3


In my last post I explained why the conservative backlash against the ousting of Brandon Eich as head of Mozilla was confused. It may, of course, still have some success; it may force the liberals to pull back a bit, at least for a time, because of the strength of feeling. But the liberals have logic on their side.

What opponents of Same Sex Marriage are doing is trying to stop other people from pursuing what those other people consider a good life. This is never allowed in the liberal, tolerant, neutral system. Conservatives - neoconservatives - who proclaim loudly that they are at ease in a permissive liberal state are being hypocritical when they demand the right to restrict the freedom of others. It really is as simple as that.

Here are some more examples of the same thing.

Liberals regard it as intolerable that anyone doing any kind of job should refuse to engage in immoral behaviour at the request of a client. Registrars who don't want to serve same-sex couples, pharmacists who don't want to dish out the Morning After Pill, doctors and nurses who don't want to take part in abortions, B&B owners who don't want to give double rooms to unmarried couples, and now companies which don't want to pay for abortions for their employees: the same logical pattern is present in each case. The conscientious professional is attempting to stop another person doing something, or at least potentially make it more difficult, which is part of that person's free pursuit of the good-as-he-understands-it.

Conservatives often try to make the argument that the obligation on the professional to do what he is told is itself an infringement on the professional's freedom, that is, his ability to have a good life as he conceives it. The argument does not work. There is no parallel between wanting to do something which harms no one else and wanting to stop people doing something which harms no one else. When there is a clash between them, of course the liberal state is going to side with the first and against the second. What else could it do?

Remember the distinction I made in the first post of this series about one's desires for oneself, and one's desires for other people. These conscientious professionals are concerned ultimately about other people's behaviour. If the liberals allowed each person to have a conception of the good which included the behaviour of other (non-consenting) individuals, you'd have endless clashes between different people pursuing their conceptions of the good. So they tend to assume - and arguments for this can be found in the philosophical literature - that only a person's desires about him or herself should count: egocentric desires, not allocentric desires.

I'm just passing on here what seems obvious to many mainstream political theorists, the people who provide the theoretical backing for the liberal political system in which we are living. The conservative response which I have been describing is something which would be laughed out of the room in ten thousand graduate seminars across the English-speaking world.

That is not to say that political liberalism in unassailable: far from it. The difficulties and alternatives to liberalism as a political theory are hotly debated in academia. It is only Catholic apologists and neo-conservative political commentators who believe it is the only game in town. Remember, liberalism denies that the state should take a view on the relative merits of different 'conceptions of the good' / ways of life, once it has ruled out certain unacceptable (intolerant) ones. It is, perhaps, a minority view in political theory, but still one which is taken seriously, that the state should after all gently steer people away from clearly worthless ways of life like those of counting blades of grass or soaking oneself in whisky, even if the state should be open-minded between ways of life which have serious supporters, if only for reasons of practical politics. Such views have, pretty obviously, a good deal of intuitive plausibility. But they imply the rejection of the 'neutralist' liberal project.

But before you can assail something, you must want to assail it. Before we are going to make any progress, we must free ourselves from the desire to present ourselves in every debate as liberal. And this presentation is exactly the strategy which has been adopted by our clever-clever Catholic apologists, and for that matter by the conservative political class as well.

Oh how brilliant they think they are being! To be electable or listened to, every conservative political party and think-tank must show it is essentially liberal. To have a place at the table, every Catholic school and charity must show it accepts the principles of liberalism. To get a hearing for the Gospel, every bishop and every apologist must make it clear that he, of course, accepts liberalism. We are all in favour of free speech! We all abhor laws which discourage private vices! We all condemn the crusades! We all condemn the persecution of heretics in the past, even when carried out by canonised saints! We all accept educational theories which ignore Original Sin! We all accept theories of psychology and medicine which regard well-being solely in terms of desire-satisfaction! We all, in short, will bend over backwards to ridicule the awful old conservatives of the past, the ones who were foolish enough not to accept liberalism.

One of the headlines generated by the conservative backlash against the persecution of Brandon Eich was 'Error has no rights' (see picture above): some conservative (Rod Dreher, in fact) thought it would be clever to use the classical liberal attack on the Catholic conservatives of the past as a stick to beat the liberals of today. How clever is that? These conservatives quite literally want to present themselves as more liberal than the liberals. It is just a pity they don't have the brains to understand how the theory of liberalism actually works.

For heaven's sake, guys, take stock a little and see what idiots you are being! Liberalism is not some kind of perfect theory which cannot be criticised. Of course the liberals will hit back if you attack them, but if you stop to think you will realise that liberalism has grave weaknesses, and you can actually land some punches on your opponents if you stop being a liberal yourself. I will consider some of these in the next post.


Photos: top and bottom, the Oxford Pro Life Witness.


  1. This is quite exciting, it is persuading me I should stop describing myself as "an old liberal", I suppose it is the rejection of liberalism that gives both Islam and extreme LGBT a certain traction and unassailability.
    It reminds me of the truth behind the quip about the difference between a liturgist and terrorist, it is, yes, all to do with the plain on which we choose to 'dialogue'.
    Faith, albeit rational cannot be replaced pure rationalism, this is the great Enlightenment error that many Catholics have taken up.

    1. One could say that Catholicism has also rejected liberalism! After all, thoroughly engaging in "any-which-way-you-like-it" whatevah that is, could land you in Hell.

      In fact, is Free Will really free will? Catholic Free Will doesn't even go as far as liberalism. Liberals seem to twist the Truth-ful meaning of "harm".

    2. Should have added:

      Catholicism's rejection of liberalism gives it a certain traction and unassailability as well. (Well, this is what should be happening...)

  2. You are right to argue that the liberals have certain, but not unassailable logic. Yes we must all be free to pursue our own happiness and the problem of the child in the womb of a raped woman we can get round by declaring it not yet to be a person, and so on.

    The “useful idiots “ after Vatican II are certainly part of the problem, but, personally, having observed the situation over the last 50 years, I think the real problem is our Hierarchy, including some popes. They have simply failed utterly to understand the forces at work. They have, frankly, let us, and the Mystical Body of Christ, down! It’s not probably that they were afraid etc. They were just not up to the job.

    The pendulum within the Church has swung too far and we have to start fighting back. Righteous anger is a perfectly good Christian reaction.

    I look forward to your next article.

  3. Oh dear, there should have been an "a" before certain in the first line.


  4. "There is no parallel between wanting to do something which harms no one else and wanting to stop people doing something which harms no one else."

    I take that in the context of someone arguing the liberal position. For a Catholic of course would (should?) see that fornicating, homosexual relations, and so on have a broader effect: our sins affect other things we do, and the human act gives us moral definition.


  5. Cardinal Luiz Ladaria S.J and Pope Benedict XVI made a factual error : Analysis

  6. {referring to the same quotation from the post as Matthew Roth} we would say that the unmarried couple who want the B and B owner to give them the double room are wanting to do something that will harm someone else; since they want to convince him to give him the room, and he will be harming himself spiritually by thus acting unjustly. So the liberal position to be consistent must define 'harm' in some way that doesn't refer to such spiritual harm, but only to certain obvious forms of bodily harm. This is why I suggested in a previous comment that the liberal view relies after all on a tacit conception of the summum bonum, e.g. as pleasure plus liberty.

    However, I'm not arguing that such arguments would be in practice an effective way to respond to liberalism.

  7. I must not have followed this discussion in other fora closely enough. When did error acquire rights?

  8. Anonymous4:33 pm

    One not only has the right but a moral duty to speak the objective truth. It goes without saying that a person has a natural and inalienable right to provide his services to those he wishes and not to provide them to those he does not wish to. Moreover, a person has a moral freedom and duty to refuse to cooperate in objective evil. To be compelled to provide contraceptives or abortifacients or to provide facilities for persons to engage in perverse homosexual sex acts, is absolute tyranny.

  9. fr Thomas: the way it's done is this.

    The basic principles ('of justice') must be uncontroversial, they must flow from rationality / reason alone. It is from these that we must establish our account of harm.

    Arguments about harm therefore may not appeal to anything from revelation.

    Thanks to Protestantism's rejection of the Natural Law, any appeal to spiritual matters is regarded by the American leaders of the liberal position as 'faith based', controversial etc.. They categorise objections to abortion and contraception in the same way.

    Admittedly there are fallacies here, but that's how they understand the theory. And those conservatives who want to be liberal for the sake of gaining a hearing for the Gospel, do not attempt to change this understanding. If we could appeal to the spiritual harms coming from objective violations of Natural Law, the whole thing would collapse for practical purposes.

  10. I'd be interested to know who originated these ideas and who first tried their receipts.

  11. Now I know why our hierarchy appear to be jellyfish!

    I am convinced we need to teach the Faith, the whole of it, from the bottom up. I hope that is what the Pope meant when he indicated that we shouldn't get tied up in arguments about such matters as same sex marriage and abortion. Unfortunately the liberals have got the upper hand and we were caught napping, so the argument gets reduced to these issues, and we get a reputation for being so very much behind the times and always agin it.

    We need to present the Faith in all its glory and that is a positive thing. Argue against false marriage and we will never convince; present the truth as to what marriage actually is and we might answer the yearnings people don't even know they have. We need to reclaim definitions by teaching the Truth they contain.

    In all this anxiety to be liberal, we are losing our freedom. "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free" We know that truth and we owe it to our fellow-man to proclaim it so that they might be set free.

  12. It is about eight years now since I went non-linear in a Catholic men's group, when one of the men said that the big problem with American society is Fundamentalism.

    Part of my non-linear reply was to say that I consider Ayatollah Khomeini to be one of the great world figures of the second half of the 20th century.

    Certainly, I made the impression of being a raving lunatic, if for no other reason than my tenuous composure.

    But I know what I meant. Earlier 20th century third world heroes include Ataturk, Nasser, maybe Sukarno, (but not Nehru?) What they had in common was the conviction that the road to a better future for their countries must go through secularism. Khomeini said, "No. We will build our future within the context of our own identity."

    In this context, I then began to think of the Christian Democratic movement in Europe. It had some vitality after World War II, but became flaccid over time.

    So while today's world has "traditionally Christian countries," there are no CHRISTIAN countries, except for the Vatican.

    Thus, I confess that I am at a bit of a loss regarding what it is we are hoping to build in the valley of tears.

  13. Mike, just because an individual's main principle can be summarized in an attractive way doesn't mean the principle is correct.