Liberal Values

Reminder: flossing is very important

I think in the West, there is a broad consensus on something like “enlightenment values”. In particular, we want a society founded on democracy, fairness, free expression and secularism. Both historically and currently, there are a lot of people who are for none of these things. ISIS believes neither in fairness, nor in democracy, nor in free expression, nor (obviously) in secularism, for example. So a political identity like “pro-enlightenment” sounds good. But at bottom, every one of these guiding principles contradicts every other one, given the society we find ourselves in today. I think a lack of awareness of this basic problem leads to a lot of auxiliary political and societal problems.

Democracy and secularism are opposed in a most basic way in places where he population is not overwhelmingly secularised. Most people want politics that reflect their values, and in many places, their values are religion-based. So they want a religion-based politics. You can see this in Russia, in Turkey, in the Middle East. This is why George Bush-ian plans to impose “western values” go so awry. Because in a place where most people want religious leadership, democratic, secular leadership is just not going to happen.

You see the conflict between free expression and secularism in places which try to impose secularism on their population. Laicité in France and what Zuuko called the Tea Parti Québécois platform in Québec. The niqab issue in the Canadian election was an example of this conflict as well.

Fairness and secularism needn’t actually be in conflict as long as the fairness we get is one where our cherished beliefs and personal dignity are not involved. But I think most people’s conception of fairness includes toleration of your beliefs and the dignity of your personal identity. Secularism cannot afford to give that tolerance to religious people. You can say that actually everything is fair as all people are free to have their secular opinions respected, but that’s a fairness wherein “the rich as well as the poor are forbidden to sleep under bridges and steal bread”.

Democracy is majoritarian – the majority rules. More to the point, it’s supposed to reflect the will of the people. And the people are often racist, for example, or in some way needlessly agitated by a small minority. So democracy and fairness lead to opposite results. The will of the people was certainly reflected in Korematsu v. United States, for example. And this happens on a smaller scale, as well. Erik Loomis gets at this while commenting on police unions. Or you could take a look at the unfairness of mobs, twitter and otherwise.

In modern US political discussions, the clash between free speech and fairness is ever present. The recent spate of news about happenings on college campuses (e.g. the Yale Halloween costume stuff*) is one aspect of this fight. Another is the opinion of a Black Lives Matter protestor, who commented on politicians: “If they’re not going to be speaking about our issues, they shouldn’t be speaking at all”. Part of the reason this conflict is so prevalent is precisely because of the idea of “western values” – neither side is willing to admit the two values are conflicting. You can see this dynamic at play in an exchange from earlier this year between Amanda Taub (on the social justice side) and Jon Chait (on the free speech side). Notice how neither can admit they are against the other thing, and yet both can easily spot the other’s insincerity on this. Perhaps there is some possible society where both free speech and fairness can exist to their utmost. But in our current world, they can’t.

Nor can free speech and democracy comfortably coexist in our world, as the Citizens United decision shows us. Any limitation on political ads is a limitation on free speech, and yet clearly unlimited political ads subvert democracy.

So is the conclusion here that everything is terrible and we can’t be guided by deontology in our decisions? I think not. I think it’s just that “Classical liberal values” or “Western values” or “Enlightenment values” is not a useful grouping when talking about political issues in our own culture. But the grouping has enough of a positive association, that people want to have the aura of innocence by association. So when Harper was in favour of the niqab ban and Mulcair against, they both wanted the protection umbrella of “supporting Western values”. Who was right? On the issue, I believe Mulcair was, in a very obvious way. But on who is supporting Western/liberal values, they are both right, because “supporting Western/liberal values” is a contradiction. When we talk about what we support, we need to be more precise. Of the four values, “classical liberals” are most concerned with freedom of speech. People in the “social justice” camp are most concerned with fairness. I don’t know a good term for people who care most about democracy (“descriptivists” maybe? Or “populists”?) which is a shame because I think I am closest to that camp. And “rationalists” and “new atheists” care most about secularism.

*about which I think this, by Timothy Burke, is the best thing to have been said.

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4 Responses to Liberal Values

  1. Enjoyed your post! I’m curious how you arrived at the breakdown of liberal values: democracy, fairness, free expression and secularism. Some of these are certainly contradictory, and this is the problem with subscribing to a political spectrum world-view. Politics is not one dimensional, and if you are simply a lefty (or a righty), you’re bound to end up with contradictions.

    In particular, you seem to be especially down on secularism, which I’m confused about. Are there really hard-line secular societies? I can’t think of any. Religion and democracy don’t contradict in a liberal society; you are free to be as religious as you want to be as long as you don’t impose it on others. In a religious society, however, you are much more likely to be forced to take the religion of the state.

    And this is the problem with state mandated religion: it is not liberal. This is the disturbing contradiction between liberty and democracy that is playing out in the middle east.

    I think an interesting, consistent solution to the ambiguity of fairness is a Rawlsian view. I just learned about it today, but have you heard of the Original Position? It’s a rational take on fairness where the best society is one where you would most like to live without knowing what role you will play in it. Following this line of reasoning, I would not be surprised to see liberty rise up as the most important liberal value.

    • zolltan says:

      I confess to lacking any rigour whatsoever in picking those four as representative of classical liberal values. But by liberal I certainly didn’t mean to say they are left-wing values – that’s why I have Mills’ picture and everything. All the same, I deliberately avoided use of “liberty” because that is an extremely vague term. Do you mean free expression, or something else? As you point out, “fairness” is highly vague as well, and that gets at what I don’t like it as an organizing political principle (I wrote about that before: by the way, I’m interested in what you’d get in the moral foundations survey linked from that post).

      As to Rawls, I like that way of thinking of fairness a lot personally as well, but it *is* a way of thinking rather than an answer to what kind of society should be built. An anarcho-libertarian would confidently answer that what he would like is to be born in a society where he was free from government interference regardless of his station. People want different stuff out of society, so I think it’s not the case that if we just think it through, we’ll figure out which guiding principle is most important.

      As for why I’m down on secularism, I’m really not. I also want a society with no established religion. I do think that part of secularism is actively discouraging religiousness (whether it be through bans on headscarves as in Turkey, or compelling Christian conservatives to sign gay marriage certificates as in Kentucky), and while in some cases I am in favour of this, I think it is not fair to pretend that this doesn’t conflict with democracy or free expression.

      • I took the morality quiz, and it basically told me I’m a terrible person. I scored very poorly on Care and Fairness (even worse than Conservatives). My Autonomy rating was off the charts, which I guess is consistent with the whole liberty obsession.

        The quiz seems somewhat tenuous though, since they have a bunch of categories not in the original Also, how is one to interpret the scores? Despite a 4.0 on Care/harm, certainly do not want people to be harmed!!

        I recently read this article, which tackles moral contradictions and definitely simplifies a lot. But still found it interesting: The article focuses on humanism as the key virtue, at the expense of others. I think their take on humanism is quite similar to your take on secularism.

        • zolltan says:

          Hmm, it sounds like the quiz has changed since the last time I took it. Unfortunate, that. It used to be much more straightforward.

          That article reminds me of the five great vows of Jainism which are ranked, and the rule is that you can break any lower vow if you must do so to uphold a higher one. A fun game is to try to think of situations which involve breaking as many of the below vows as possible in order to uphold a higher vow. I don’t think actual moral dilemmas should be thought of in this way, though.

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