Disclaimer: Most of this initially appeared as a thread on my Twitter, but considering I was suspended and may not be returning to Twitter anytime soon, I have decided to consolidate the thread and some other thoughts into this post
Acknowledgment: Much of my discussion regarding this language is attributed to the influence of Safranek and his work The Myth of Liberalism, as well as the blogger ZippyCatholic. I thank them and admire them immensely.
There are a series of words that I will consider to be “Liberal Language”. When I refer to “Liberals” or “Liberalism”, I am not referring to the Democratic Party in the United States or to Social Democratic Labor movements elsewhere in the world. Rather, I am referring to the philosophical project of Liberalism (ya know, Locke -> Jacobins -> Mill -> Kant -> Rawls ->…etc)
There are a series of “Liberal” terms which must be deconstructed. Notably, “freedom”, “autonomy”, “equality”, “dignity”, and “privacy”.
Why is this the case though? This is the case because it is important to understand how to challenge someone’s argument whenever they use these terms and uncover their underlying ethical principles. All politics are driven by ethical frameworks. The most pernicious element of language in the political realm is the ability to impose your own ethical worldview on others while claiming that you are not doing so (this tendency is strongest, or at least most pronounced/sociopathic, in “libertarians”).
Some Introductory Thoughts on Political Language
“Freedom” as a word has become so overused it’s useless. So let’s define some terms with more precise language:
The material ability to command action from others = Power
The moral right to command action from others = Authority
Power without Authority is tyranny. Authority without Power is impotent.
The material ability of an individual to do something = Capability
The moral duty of an individual to do something (or refrain from something else) = Responsibility
The desire of an individual to do something = Will (this is a fuzzy term, but just go along with it for now)
When we act (when we do something we are capable of doing and desire to do), if our action is morally relevant, then we judge whether or not it is a Good act by its adherence (or lack thereof) with Responsibility.
Herein lies the issue: the application of the concept of “freedom” to the political sphere.
“Freedom” is a veneer individuals use to evoke a positive emotional response wrt to their particular theory of the Good.
In other words, there is no such thing as “political freedom”. There is only morality. Only alternative theories of the Good.
When I say “I believe in freedom” I am saying “I believe in a particular state of affairs, responsibilities, and allowances that I think are Good and therefore people should be able to live that way”.
For clarification, there may be a variety of “Good lives”. Individuals would then have the capability to choose amongst them as they please. But they would still have a responsibility to choose a Good life and not a Bad one.
“Freedom” by Another Name
A potential way people attempt to weasel out of this issue with political freedom is instead to invoke “autonomy”. Unfortunately for the defender of “autonomy”, Safranek has demonstrated in his wonderful work The Myth of Liberalism that in fact all Liberal Language (freedom, equality, dignity, privacy, etc) can be reduced to autonomy.
“But this is great! I can invoke autonomy and now defend all Liberal principles!” claims the defender of “autonomy”. And there are many, many, many such defenders.
Professor John Kekes:
“the true core of liberalism, the inner citadel for whose protection all the liberal battles are waged [is] autonomy … Autonomy is what the basic political principles of liberalism are intended to foster and protect.”
Professor Joseph Raz:
One common strand in liberal thought regards the promotion and protection of personal autonomy as the core of the liberal concern.
Professor Bruce Ackerman:
The core of this tradition [Liberalism] is an insistence that the forms of social life be rooted in the self-conscious value affirmations of autonomous individuals.
Clearly, the concept of autonomy is central to Liberalism. And how could it not be? The definitions of autonomy given by these theorists and others are tantalizing.
Professor Joseph Raz again:
A person is autonomous if he can become the author of his own life
Autonomy is an ideal of self-creation, or self-authorship
Professor Alan Ryan:
The essence [of liberalism] is that individuals are self-creating…
And there are plenty of others. While certainly it is fundamentally absurd to consider individuals to be truly self-creating (I will return to this concept in later posts, especially with regards to Neo-Absolutism), there is some colloquial understanding of “autonomy” which is meaningful, even if no one definition appears to satisfy everyone.
Thankfully, we don’t need to define autonomy quite specifically in order to demonstrate how silly it is to attempt to apply it in the political realm.
Let us first define autonomy as broadly as possible: autonomy is the ability to do whatever you are capable of doing, regardless of consequences to others.
All of us are *capable* of making certain choices. At this moment, there is nothing stopping me (besides perhaps a fear of financial and social repercussions) from driving to the bank, withdrawing all of my money, and giving it all away. There is also nothing stopping me (besides a fear of law enforcement and my own moral conscience) from driving to the bank and withdrawing everyone else’s money (I’m a robber, get it….okay fine, it wasnt that funny) and keeping it for myself.
There would be something fundamentally absurd about a genuine right to such a definition “autonomy”. That would become nothing more than “you have a right to do whatever you want”. It wouldn’t even be limited, even just prima facie, by any kind of asinine Harm Principle or pseudo-Harm Principle (we’ll come back to Mill’s …. “contribution” to philosophy in a later post). It would devolve into nothing more than brute force and Power controlling everything. Power without Authority. Pure tyranny.
A way to demonstrate this is that a genuine right to “autonomy” in the sense of a genuine right to act in whatever way you would like and are capable of would mean that you would have the right to kidnap, rape, and murder a child. Anyone who unironically believes in such a right probably needs to be reported to the authorities.
Everyone knows that there are limitations on autonomy. This is where ethics comes in. We must decide between Good and Bad choices. And even if we acknowledge that certain immoral things may be legal, we are still engaging in moral reasoning to determine which choices should be protected by the government (and there is always a government — again I will return to this later when examining Neo-Absolutism and its relevance to a Post-Liberal Left).
The question is never whether or not someone has a choice (that’s a question of capability) but rather whether or not someone *should* have the choice. That is the question that ethics must answer. Invoking autonomy or choice in any situation is, by definition, a non-argument. Autonomy in and of itself cannot justify anything.
Furthermore, this is not the post for it, but I will be returning to the concept of “self-ownership” and the various ways different schools of Liberalism try to define and defend it, and demonstrate how none of them succeed.
Equality is one of those tricky concepts. First, it is perhaps the most easily operationalized. In other words, trying to operationalize (aka define an ambiguous word within a particular context like a specific discussion with your friend) a concept as embedded in ethics as “freedom” is more difficult than trying to operationalize “equality” since it’s a much simpler framework.
At its core, equality is a relationship, usually tripartite between two things and a standard. It asks if those two things both meet a standard and are therefore “equal”.
The question is not whether or not you believe in equality. Not believing in equality is the same as not believing 2+2=4. (I’m sure some wacky mathematician somewhere out there will go “ACKSHUALLY” about this but they dont matter)
If I have a 6'2 Black female Olympian Gold Medalist runner and a 5'3 White paraplegic man and I ask, “are these people equal”, the only valid response is “according to what standard?”
Are they equal as humans? I, and most others, would say yes.
Are they equal as runners? No
It’s far easier to operationalize a standard for comparison than it is to operationalize “freedom” with a thick moral framework.
But the entire point here is: “equality” in the abstract is no more or less meaningful than “freedom” or “autonomy”. It must be embedded within an ethical framework in order to select standards that are meaningful to make political decisions.
Perhaps one of the more egregious offenders of the “language should have substance when used” rule is “dignity”. Dignity is perhaps the emptiest of all Liberal terms, for it is meaningless without an attachment to an ethical worldview. It would be nonsensical to refer to something as “dignified” if it was bad.
We see this especially in the fact that Liberalism adopted the very Christian concept that is “human dignity” and decided to hold on to it while rejecting much of the metaphysical framework that justified human dignity as a value to Christians. Instead, we reach some odd emotionally driven moral reasoning where individuals begin with this abstract ideal of “human dignity” and reason backwards to find ways to justify it.
Liberalism inevitably fell into the trap of connecting “dignity” to choice and “self-determination”, reducing the concept (at least in its definition) to mere autonomy. But Liberals do not believe in empty concepts (no one does). Instead, Liberals tend to use Dignity as a concept that determines our rights and is the basis for a kind of respect and reciprocity. This is a blatantly ethical argument (i.e. “this is an attack on human dignity”). And when Dignity is used in an emotionally potent sense, it is used simply to defend autonomy, and therefore collapses into mere autonomy. You see this most prominently in debates on abortion and gay marriage. In many ways “my body my choice” and “love is love” are non-arguments that are simply meant to win people over by power of emotional reasoning. This is not to say gay marriage and/or abortion are impossible to defend through other arguments; it is simply a commentary on the Liberal arguments for them (put yer damn pitchforks away).
To recap, saying “I should have autonomy wrt X b/c not having autonomy wrt X is not dignified” only makes any sense if “dignified” = “Good”. Furthermore, I would like to post a brief discussion I had using Safranek on Dignity:
The final part of this post will be to examine “privacy”, the last weapon in the Liberal’s arsenal of emotionally potent rhetoric. It is perhaps the term that has the most potential for being salvaged.
Privacy has been defined by the Supreme Court in 2 manners; the first is morally substantive and not problematic. the other, not so much.
The morally substantive definition of privacy = “zonal privacy”. It emerged in Poe v Ullman and Griswold v Connecticut as a defense of the *use* but NOT the *sale* of contraceptives. In other words:
“The State invading the *zone* of the bedroom to check for contraceptive usage is wrong”
The justices in Griswold v Connecticut argued that restrictions on the sale of contraceptives did not violate the zonal privacy of the bedroom. Hence, they were still legitimate.
But then the Supreme Court screwed it up. In Eisenstadt v Baird it invalidated a Massachusetts statute that restricted the distribution of contraceptives to singles on the grounds of “equal protection”.
In the decision it was written:
“If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the **decision** to bear or beget a child”
Let’s try to break this down:
1. Question begging in the sense that the Court did not actually justify why the intrusion is “unwarranted”
2. If we assume it’s unwarrented because it is a “fundamentally affecting” matter well ho boy…
“Fundamentally affecting” means literally nothing. The only way to give it substance is by attaching it to a moral doctrine. Otherwise, it can’t distinguish between fundamentally affective decisions protected by privacy from those important decisions that are not, like murder (which pretty fundamentally affects someone’s psyche).
Finally let’s examine the importance of the use of the word “decision” by the Court. While I am in debt to Safranek for much of this post, here in particular I would basically just like to share his argument, albeit in paraphrased form. It’s better formulated than my own:
The Performative Contradiction of Liberalism
And so here we are. We have reached the end of our examination of Liberal language, demonstrating how each is empty without a moral justification. And now comes the kicker: due to the fact you need a moral justification in order to make any of these Liberal values substantive, Liberalism ends up refuting itself. As I explained in a post on another forum:
Thank you everyone if you ended up reading this far. I may end up returning to Twitter, not sure. I will keep you all updated if so.