THIS IS PART II OF A 3-PART SERIES.
In Part I we explored how politics is always an expression of morality, and how morality is based in ideas of value and purpose.
Moral Principles of Liberalism
Liberals often object to using religion as a basis for politics or morality, so let’s take some time to consider what the moral foundations of a liberal politics could be. Liberal political philosophers argue that reason leads us to an irreducible set of natural rights held by individuals. They say that before there was any government, there were individuals who were sovereign in their own right, and they willingly consented to create a government to secure for themselves certain rights and benefits they could not obtain on their own.
In this framework, consent–or the ability to choose freely–is the ultimate principle. Value (or morality) is ascribed by each person’s consent, and the only restriction is that we cannot restrict anyone else’s right to decide what is valuable. So I may say government is good for my flourishing, and so I will consent to join with others and form a government. Importantly, it doesn’t matter if you choose to do something that others think is worthless or self-destructive, such as drinking yourself to death, so long as you have chosen that path of your own volition.
And herein lies a problem for liberal thinking. If political action is an expression of morality, and morals boil down to values, and values are determined by purposes, where do purposes come from? Can the purpose of humanity really just be to have choice? Or is unfettered choice the only way to achieve human flourishing?
So let’s revisit human flourishing. The problem is that liberal philosophy does not actually aim at human flourishing. Rather, it aims to let each person seek after flourishing however they define it – the “pursuit of happiness.” And yet we all recognize the absurdity of this when we consider concrete situations. We all realize it would be better (i.e., more moral) for an individual to be put into rehab (even not of his own volition) to save his life, even if he is pursuing happiness in his drink. Life is more valuable than pursuing happiness from something that cannot deliver happiness. That is, consent cannot be the ultimate purpose of humanity, and thus the foundation of morality and politics.
If we take a moment to consider, there are in fact many moral duties and obligations in life that we do not consent to, and many actions that are immoral that do not impinge on anyone else’s right to choose. Furthermore, there are certain moral truths about humanity that we all hold that cannot be derived from reason or consent. Let’s consider a few of these.
Scientists may be able to eventually describe the complete physicality of who you are, but scientists will never be able to reason out why you have value as a human. Can you explain why you have more intrinsic value than rocks or avocados or the wooden cabinet across the room from me? What about other forms of life?
Liberal theory works backwards through reason to the beginning of society to see what it tells us about the natural state of humanity. But why stop at humanity? There were things before humans. Shouldn’t we look back further still to understand what has rights and what they are? Yet most reasonable people agree that you and I are of more worth than a chimpanzee. Without some higher authority backstopping our intuition that humans are inherently valuable, liberal frameworks allow the possibility of devaluing human life. After all, reason does not suggest that humanity is anything special. It is just the next step in the purposeless force of evolution. Perhaps one day something more evolved will come along (aliens?) and we will be rightfully exterminated (though I’m sure Will Smith will have something to say about that).
For instance, there are those among the Deep Ecology movement who argue that human value is essentially equal to the value of other living things. While this movement has not explicitly said human life should be valued beneath other life, Deep Ecology is a step in that direction, and this step is perfectly at home within liberalism. There is no reason in logic alone to suggest that we should be so enamored of humanity, because there is no reason to suggest we are the pinnacle of evolution. We are just one more step on the road.
Similarly, without something greater than nature upholding human dignity, logic may lead toward eugenic theories that place higher inherent value on certain humans with desirable traits than on other humans. This view easily flows from a system of thought that says our purpose is merely to exist, as certain extreme evolutionists argue. In that situation, adaptive fitness is equivalent to moral value, and so the ultimate good is achieved by weeding out weaker portions of the population. For we agree that all humans have natural rights, but what is human anyway? From a rational viewpoint we should be focused on the species and its fitness, not individuals, right? This obviously has huge implications for all of us, since none is perfect, but especially for those with physical or mental disabilities.
While most liberals see intuitively that humans have intrinsic value, there is no particular reason to hold this view based on logic alone. This is a serious flaw of liberal philosophy.
Moral Obligations and Restrictions
Liberal theory not only fails to support basic moral truths about humanity, it also fails to justify moral obligations that exist despite our lack of consenting to them or moral restrictions that exist even when all actors consent:
I discussed this in a recent post but will briefly rehash the point here. It is easy to find examples of things we all intuitively feel are wrong where consent is operative and logic does not explain our intuition. One such case is consenting sexual relations between a parent and adult child. We agree that it is wrong, and have since ancient times, even if all actors are consenting. Similarly, you don’t desecrate the remains of the dead, even if no one would ever know about it. We all agree that such acts are wrong, but there is not a reason in either the theory of consent or rationality to make that judgment.
Pre-existing Duties and Obligations
You do not choose to be born into a given family, and yet you acknowledge you have certain duties to that family. These are given to you not because you have consented to them, not because in your individual right you have chosen to take them up, but just because you have been given life into an existing context, a context where there are pre-existing duties and obligations.
For example, if you have a sibling who is struggling to maintain the necessities of life and you have been blessed with a good job and financial resources, you have a moral obligation to help your sibling (though of course, not to encourage profligacy or entitlement). Similarly, if your parent grows ill or senile in old age, you have a moral obligation to help and support them. There are of course limits to this sort of thinking (as there are limits to nearly everything), for instance in cases of abuse, but most people can recognize that you have a moral obligation to your family not because of any choice you make, but simply because they are your family.
Similarly, if I walk out of my front door in the morning and find a naked man sick and dying on my doorstep, I have a moral obligation to help him. Even if it costs me money and time, and even if there is no payoff to me personally as a result, I am obliged to help him, simply because I am there.
Our lives are full of such moral duties of context which are handed to us without our consent, but which we all still recognize as valid.
And so, we can see that neither the basic framework of liberal thought, focused on consent, nor the accompanying standards of rationality can effectively explain important moral realities. Since all political questions are moral, the core bedrock of liberal thought, in my view, is not an adequate guide to politics. Reason alone cannot create a full moral universe.
As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre points out in After Virtue, his authoritative study of moral theory in the modern era, this has been a persistent problem of philosophy since the 18th century. Every significant attempt to render moral judgment using Enlightenment ideals ends up reverting to previously existing ideas that are not founded in logic. As he puts it: “At the foundation of moral thinking lie beliefs in statements the truth of which no further reason can be given.”
Liberal political philosophy emphasizes the use of reason to arrive at first principles, and the overarching principle it endorses as the just basis of political action (and thus moral action) is consent. Unfortunately, neither consent nor reason is sufficient to explain the many moral realities that we all admit are present in our lives, including:
- The intrinsic value of humanity relative to other life
- Moral restrictions even when actors are consenting (such as consenting incest, desecration of the dead, etc.)
- Moral obligations that are not freely chosen (such as duties to one’s family, to those in need around you, etc.)
The reason I have focused on liberalism is because my goal is to show how faith works into moral and political frameworks, and liberals are more likely to question the validity of such a move. Conservative frameworks are diverse, but in general they recognize that morality is founded in things like religion, tradition, and the like, which are not focused purely on logic. In Part III, we will move on to discuss faith explicitly.