Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Can liberal morality work in reality?

I've presented the following quote from Dr Leslie Cannold, an Australian ethicist, a few times now:
Defining our own good, and living our lives in pursuit of it, is at the heart of a moral life.

It captures an aspect of the liberal attitude to morality, namely that objective goods either don't exist or can't be known to us, and that therefore what matters is a freedom to subjectively define our own good, and not to interfere in others doing the same.

But can this liberal approach work in real life? I'd like to present some evidence that it's not likely to be held to consistently, not even by Dr Cannold herself.

Back in 2005 Dr Cannold had a book published called What, no baby? She herself was married with children at the time, but the book was about the large numbers of Western women of my generation who missed out on marriage and children.

An interesting review of the book, by novelist Joanna Murray-Smith, begins:
"What most women want is actually quite simple. What they want is men. And babies." So writes Leslie Cannold, a researcher and ethicist from Melbourne University, whose book explores why so many women desirous of children fail to have them. The Australian Bureau of Statistics says up to 25 per cent of Australian women of reproductive age will fail to have children, some by choice, others by "circumstance".

So what happened to "defining our own good"? Dr Cannold is suggesting here that there is a good that can be known, i.e. that most women will identify marriage and motherhood as significant goods. Already, Dr Cannold's liberal formula is failing.

It gets worse, because Dr Cannold goes on to recognise that once we identify this good, that a purely individual pursuit of it won't work. There are some goods that require a certain larger context to make them available or achievable: many women, for instance, won't be able to pursue marriage if there aren't sufficient numbers of men willing to marry; the opportunity to marry might also be affected by other values or lifestyles embedded in a culture or society.
Cannold's premise is that the declining fertility rates in Western countries are not due to a lack of desire to reproduce, but rather to circumstances unconducive to baby-having.

Cannold takes a left-wing approach to making society more family friendly, arguing that women didn't marry and have children, despite wanting to, because they would have had to give up professional status, income and security in the workplace in order to do so.

I don't believe that's the best answer (nor does Joanna Murray-Smith), but the point remans that Cannold has been forced to recognise that there are some goods we can know as an aspect of human nature, and that we have to think through the impact of culture and social organisation in upholding these goods (that the framework of society has to be so ordered to allow the most significant goods to be widely achievable).

If we were to stick resolutely to 'self-defining our own good and living our life in pursuit of it' then the possible range of goods would have to be narrowed to those things that can be achieved at a purely individual level, and these things tend to be relatively trivial aims.

Back, though, to Cannold recognising that the framework of society matters. Joanna Murray-Smith doesn't think it adequate to blame women not marrying on workplace organisation alone:
Cannold makes many valid points, but I don't know any woman who allows the unfriendly workplace to win over her maternal desire.

Joanna Murray-Smith thinks the negative effects of feminism should be acknowledged:
While Cannold energetically cites many hazardous influences to (fertile) women's desire to procreate, feminism is the only thing that is excused...

"Waiters and watchers are women who saw when they were young - often in their own mothers - that children threatened all they were being taught to value in life: financial independence, romantic relationships, high-powered careers." Was feminism no part of this?

Which brings me to a comment that any younger female readers should pay particular attention to. In 2003 an Australian journalist, Virginia Haussegger, lamented that she had followed the advice of older feminists in single-mindedly pursuing the goals of a career and independence, but that this had left her childless and unfulfilled.

Dr Cannold's response to Virginia Haussegger is this:
"It is true that feminists urged all women to shed their domestic shackles and seek fulfilment and financial independence outside the home. But what is Haussegger? A brainless puppet? A mindless drone?"

It's another dismissive response to women who were negatively affected by feminism. It's a reminder, too, of the way that some feminists simply expect to make "unprincipled exceptions" to their own beliefs and consider other feminists who don't do this as lacking social skills (it's like they're saying "you should follow path x, that's the belief, but don't blame us if it goes belly up, you really ought to think for yourself").

Finally, notice the phrase that Dr Cannold uses "shed their domestic shackles". That makes it sound as if hearth and home is a kind of prison to escape from. In saying this, Dr Cannold is once again establishing a culture or influence that is likely to discourage young women from committing to motherhood until it's too late.

Joanna Murray-Smith notices the same thing:
There seems to be a complete lack of awareness that her own attitudes may be part of the problem. The author's commitment to mothers is always in tandem with their ability and desire to work. And while there's absolutely nothing wrong with advocating a world that serves both interests, what is missing is acknowledgement of women (and men) of all "classes" who want to parent full-time; choice rather patronisingly described as "misplaced social nostalgia about white picket fences".


  1. There is no such thing as liberal morality. Liberalism is an amoral ideology, more accurately defined as infantile individualism.

    The outcome of the pursuit of individualism is social collapse, economic collapse and totalitarian Government. The ideology of liberalism leads to a society which is trapped in a state of immaturity and perpetual infantilism and devoid of the resources, either spiritual or intellectual, which could produce the leaders who would be its only potential saviours. This is its exact purpose.

    Liberalism is not intended to work. Its aim is to create the totalitarian Police State.

    1. As I wrote in the post, there is a kind of morality involved, in the sense that it is thought moral to self-define one's own good and not to interfere with others doing the same. So there is a permissive morality when it comes to what people choose to do, but a fiercely intrusive procedural morality when it comes to the idea of non-interference (i.e. you cannot be a "fundamentalist" in holding that there are substantive moral truths, nor can you "discriminate" against what others define as their own good, instead you must be tolerant, inclusive etc.)

      This approach does encourage an infantile individualism (as it tells people that what matters are their immediate wants, rather than being self-disciplined to a real standard).

  2. There is no morality. Morality is derived from external sources and is objective, logical and beneficial to the common good of society. The self defining of one's own choices ( not good as this is a different thing from what is actually good for the individual) is a self centred and narcissistic ideology. It is not moral but amoral and in rejecting the external authority is subjective and individual rather then objective.

    Liberalism allows people to pursue selective choices within an increasingly controlled social environment. It allows people to pursue homosexuality, which is not good for the individual in the long term leading in most cases to premature death, but denies the rights of the majority to oppose it. Thus your statement "there is a kind of morality involved, in the sense that it is thought moral to self-define one's own good and not to interfere with others doing the same." is incorrect. Lifestyles of homosexuality, substance abuse, miscegenation are choices which people pursue but they are not good for the people who chose these lifestyle or the societies in which they live. They bring short term pleasures with long term adverse individual and social consequences. One's own destructive choices are therefore not "good". Similarly the right to oppose these destructive behaviours is a choice which the majority wish to pursue but this is dealt with the repressiveness with which homosexuals, substance abusers and miscegenated people were formerly treated.

    In summary liberalism unleashes errant individuals to act in self and socially destructive ways and resists the ability of the majority to oppose it. This is to the benefit of neither the individuals who pursue damaging choices nor the society in which they live. Both are destroyed. The ensuing social disorder, however, does benefit one group of people. The elites who use the social devastation to impose a totalitarian order.

    1. Anon, you seem to be arguing that if we allow that liberalism has a kind of procedural morality, that we are therefore allowing that they are acting rightly.

      It is possible to have a moral theory that is wrong. Utilitarianism is a moral theory. Utilitarians believe that whatever produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number is moral. I believe that's untrue, i.e. that the moral theory is wrong. But it is still a moral theory.

      Liberals do make moral claims. It's better if we address these claims and show where they err, rather than to deny that such claims exist.

  3. You distort my position. I am not arguing that liberalism has a "procedural morality". There is no such thing. Morality is based upon objective truth and creates a civilisational basis. Liberalism is a revolutionary ideology designed specifically to destroy the basis of civilisation.

    Liberal claims to morality are demonstrably false and have to be treated as false. To claim they make moral claims which err gives them credibility and as such is a false position.

    1. Anon, you're encouraging traditionalists not to think about the content of liberalism. That's a mistake when it's liberalism that is running the show. Like it or not, we are subject to a liberal understanding of morality. We cannot demonstrate the falseness of this morality, unless we think about what claims it makes.

    2. Once again you distort what I said. To make it clear, liberalism has to be analysed as a revolutionary ideology which seeks to destroy Western civilisation. To claim it is "an understanding of morality" is demonstrably false and seeks to divert attention to time wasting false discussion rather than rigorous analysis of both the ethical framework (or lack of one) of liberalism and its destructive effects.Forceful opposition is the way to defeat it. In this the French are both correct and effective in getting results.

    3. Well, we agree that liberalism is a radical ideology. But we're going to have to disagree that liberalism doesn't make moral claims. One thing perhaps you're missing is that most people, confronted by a liberal system, are overwhelmed. They don't know where to begin making a criticism and so often end up raging against some of the consequences of liberalism whilst continuing to support the underlying philosophy. There are very few people who break with liberalism in a consistent, principled way. The task of a site like this isn't to rouse the masses to action - it's to set out a coherent critique of liberalism. Whether the inner motives of liberals are destructive or not, what matters is to show clearly what the system is and why it has negative consequences.

    4. That is best achieved by making a critique of liberalism as an ideology and demonstrating that it has no moral basis and no foundation on objective reality. I agree most people are overwhelmed by the system but I think the best way to assist them is to show them that the system is amoral and more accurately immoral and is destroying civilisation. The use of the word moral makes people think there is something inherently good about it.

    5. Well, we're back to where we started. I'll just repeat: saying that someone makes moral claims doesn't mean that they are acting morally. Dr Cannold doesn't even claim to believe in an objective morality - her view is based on the idea of a self-defined good.

  4. Defining our own good, and living our lives in pursuit of it, is at the heart of a moral life.

    One could name any number of monsters who lived a "moral life" by this definition -- Hitler, Himmler, Stalin, Mao, Genghis Khan...

  5. The author's commitment to mothers is always in tandem with their ability and desire to work. And while there's absolutely nothing wrong with advocating a world that serves both interests

    Yes there is -- this world does not best serve the interests of children.

  6. Hello Mark, I'm new to your blog.

    I've been reading quite a bit lately about John Stuart Mill and how, under the influence of romanticism, he reinterpreted Utilitarianism and Liberal morality. He tried to move away from moral prescriptions to an idea of autonomy. What was moral therefore became that which enabled our autonomy; what was moral for my autonomy was not necessarily so for another, and so we have the famous introduction to On Liberty that Himmelfarb and others make much of. The trouble was, though he still made moral prescriptions about what that autonomy would entail, no one was obliged to follow him. We ended up with a vague Romanticist 'individual autonomy' that we see so prevalent today: you can be what you want to be, don't let anyone tell you different. On a more personal level I remember talking to my father about what I should do when I grow up, and he gave me the answer: I don't mind, as long as you're happy. this is the end result of what Mill and others started.
    However, is other hands it becomes a denial of reality: you can be a n y t h i n g you want to be, nothing must stand in the way: men becoming women, men marrying men, women working and having a family, men having a wonderful sex life, etc. On top of this, the moral authoritarianism that Mill was too consistent to suggest comes easily to those who have an idea of what our autonomy should result in. For some it is a free for all, using such loaded terms as 'rights' 'diversity' 'tolerance' and for others it is a means to their own authoritarianism as found in Huxley's vision in Brave New World were 'free' citizens engage in free love, sex, sport, drugs, media, while being controlled by an elite who 'know better'.

    1. Excellent comment, thank you.

      You're right about the influence of Mill. It's not that he was necessarily the founder of the autonomy idea, but he was a very influential thinker by the end of his life (he was taken up enthusiastically by a generation of university students).

      Mill seemed to believe that if you emphasised autonomy as a moral ideal, but combined it with mass education, that people would still end up behaving like gentlemen. He has been proven very wrong.

      I have a similar father story. The one time I attempted a serious conversation with my father about such issues I happened to use the word "duty". My father looked at me as if I were mad, and said "There is no such thing as duty". The conversation never got much further.

      The question of authoritarianism is an interesting one. There are a few possible sources for it:

      a) Liberal autonomy means that I subjectively define my own good whilst allowing others to do the same. That means there is a kind of procedural morality involved: people are to be "equal" in the sense of being equally able to self-define and pursue their own good; and "non-interference" in other people self-defining their own good becomes a virtue. Therefore, qualities of non-interference, such as tolerance, openness, non-discrimination, inclusiveness and so on become the liberal virtues.

      But these run against more traditional virtues that matter to people (sex distinctions, traditional community life etc.); and, also, the traditional structures of society (e.g. the family) are held to restrict or to make unequal the pursuit of our self-defined, individual good.

      And so an "enlightened" liberal elite takes it upon itself to lead society along the lines of progress and to battle "prejudice" etc.

      ii) There is a strand of modernity that is strongly influenced by the scientific revolution and which wants to reorganise society along "rational" lines. By rational they mean "scientistic" (the application of methods used in the natural sciences to the whole of life). In this view, things can only be argued for on technocratic grounds (e.g. economic effects, physical health effects etc.). There are some moderns who want society to be primarily regulated along the logic of the market; but others who put their faith in the ability of a class of neutral, "scientifically" minded, state functionaries to do it.