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.
This is the concluding part of a very interesting series by the LMS Chairman Dr Joseph Shaw (Professor of Philosophy at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford University) on Political Liberalism.
I have a great deal of respect for this philosopher, as I do for Dr Peter Kreeft and Dr John Rao. Of course, I pray that the Good Lord provide me with the eloquence, and education to understand half of what they say, but until then, we labour on!
So in my poor layman’s terms I will attempt to translate what Dr Shaw concluded (for those of us less intellectually or educationally endowed).
Dr Shaw describes Political Liberalism as:
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.
The weaknesses are:
- Political Liberalism presents it’s basic moral principles as uncontroversial. Translation: Political Liberalism imposes a set of basic morals, which Political Liberalism considers are not going to give rise to public disagreement in general.
- [Political Liberalism] 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.
In the first case is logical, Political Liberalism percolates it’s basic moral principles into society, deflecting attention away from them by claiming that they are uncontroversial, as desirable to everyone. This is not true. Its basic moral principles are controversial. It requires a close look at the principles, but in doing so it is possible to see how they derive from certain specific moral [philosophical] theories, which are highly controversial.
The second is an empirical, Political Liberalism claims “radical freedom for each person to do what he likes with his life, as long as it does not harm other people” is the ultimate good, however the empirical evidence is the complete contrary. The consequences of people doing what they want, so long as it doesn’t harm other people, are dire. So much so that “even liberal states can only apply it selectively and inconsistently“. The truth is, that people doing what they want, always affects other people. We’re not all hermetically sealed entities.
One of my favourite quotes [paraphrased] from Father Emmanuel McCarthy, in explaining this point, with particular regards to homicide, is “our actions ripple out in time and in space, like a stone thrown into a pond. We are powerless over those ripples, and we cannot comprehend the extent of where our good [or evil] actions will end.”
The error of the neo-Conservatives is “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.” Translation: neo-Conservative argue within the environment of Political Liberalism, rather than attacking the fundamental environment of Political Liberalism itself.
To conclude, Dr Shaw is saying that we need to attack Political Liberalism as a system, logically and empirically. This way we will show that Political Liberalism is untenable.
He does mention in passing one counter as being “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.”
My worry with that, is that Political Liberalism has had such a free reign, and rampant secularism has so repeatedly raped society of any sense of what really makes for a good life, that the vast majority of people will say that what makes for a good life is doing what you want (so long as you don’t hurt others)!!
I suspect stronger medicine than that is needed and like a wayward child, they won’t like it…