Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Secular liberalism and social theocracy

Aidan Nichols, a Catholic theologian, says that secularism is detroying the fabric of society and that Christianity is vital to make us behave morally. I might have just let this go, but I’m starting to really worry about how much power and influence a Conservative government would give these people, what with David Cameron arguing that “public morality” is the answer to poverty, as he plugs the role that faith groups could play in public service provision, and in turn the C of E making doe eyes at this Tory rhetoric.

Nichols does not, at least not in this article, call for fully theocratic government, nor does he deny religious freedom. But he does insist that the key purpose of the state is “to guard the spiritual civilisation of its own society” – that spiritual civilisation being Christian. I’m going to describe his view as ‘social theocracy’.

He says:

Typically, secular liberalism finds it impossible to base rights discourse on anything other than the parity of each and all as they choose the way of life they prefer to follow, whether their preferences be well-founded in the objective moral order or not.

Well, no: if “the way of life [someone] prefer[s] to follow” involves causing undue harm to someone else, then secular liberalism decries it. And if the social theocrat thinks that his scriptures are a “well-founded” guide to “the objective moral order”, then good luck to him in convincing the rest of us..

Inevitably, this is a recipe for irresoluble quandaries in matters social: how should one adjudicate the preference of a feminist employer not to accept a polygamous employee?

These are clearly the comments of someone who has failed to think properly about liberalism. If polygamy is OK, then there are no grounds for discriminating against polygamists in the workplace. So is it OK? To judge that, we can look at the power relations involved – are the wives being coerced into accepting a husband’s dominant status? Through most of history, marriage has given husbands greater advantage than wives, which is a noxious condition – however many people are involved. Notably, most polygamy in the West today is religiously motivated.

If a group of people are, freely and equally, happy to join in a many-sided relationship – whether this involves a formal contract or not – then, if they injure no more than anyone else’s sensibilities, so be it.

(A libertarian, by contrast, would insist that any employer has the right to choose employees on any basis; the difference between that and liberalism is that the latter has more capacity to take note of power relations.)

Nichols says:

The human poverty of secular liberalism can already be inferred from the results of contemporary secularisation. In modern England, moral discourse is in danger of becoming a parody of infantile egoism. What I want becomes what I need, which in turn becomes my 'right'.

A vicious and preposterous lie. We all know of selfish people who feel entitled to all sorts of things that they merely happen to want – or rather they feel frustrated when they don’t get it, and may rant using the language of rights and entitlements – but liberalism, because it must apply equally to all, places no burden on anyone to satisfy anyone else’s mere wants. Likewise, Catholicism per se places no burden on choirboys to satisfy the wants of a priestly paedophile. Bad people will exploit the customs and practices of whatever culture they find themselves in.

It is true that the moral life begins with desire. But such desire, as Plato argued, is not the desire that leads us to pursue “enlightened” self-interest, in the form of the hedonistic calculus that asks how I can maximise pleasure. The desire that impels the moral life is, rather, desire for the good because it is beautiful.

And who gets to say what is beautiful? Most of us atheists find homophobia for example, a source of very little beauty indeed. Unless we accept that a necessarily human authority should tell us all what is right and wrong, then we must grant that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We must let each other be free to live as best we can. And of course we can learn from each other about what makes a life good. That’s part of – if I may say – the beauty of secular liberalism: social theocrats such as Nichols are free to make their case, and the rest of us are free to take as much or as little as we think worthwhile from it.

But truly, if you want “human poverty”, then social theocracy won’t let you down. Key to the wealth of humanity is our diversity, and a moral outlook that denies this, preferring Bronze-Age dogma to the intricate business of finding mutually rewarding ways to live with each other, is impoverished indeed.

He goes on:

Too much modern human-rights talk elevates freedom over virtue, not realising that any significant freedom – as distinct from my indifferently choosing a vanilla rather than a chocolate-flavoured ice cream – is always freedom for the good.

At this point I start to wonder whether he’s writing such drivel as part of a bet. Because if his Church gets to say what counts as “the good” for all of us, then that’s not “freedom” at all. Can it really be said, for instance, that Zimbabweans have the “freedom” to support Robert Mugabe? Giving people freedom allows them to show and develop and share their virtues. It’s the opposite of telling them what’s virtuous and then corralling them into a pen where they’re “free” to do just that.

And liberalism prevents no one from discerning the difference between more and less “significant” choices. Say you see a man clutch his chest and fall to the ground: you could walk on by, you could take his wallet and run off, you could stop to help as best you can. Does anyone imagine that this is far more morally freighted than vanilla vs chocolate?

And ponder this: how wrong would it be for the state to ban an arbitrary flavour of ice cream, with stern punishments for those found in possession? Some freedoms may seem trivial, but their denials are always serious.

But on one count I agree wholly with Nichols: “secularisation is not an inevitable process”. Indeed it is not. It is fragile and must be defended from its enemies.

The Guardian has recently been running a series of pieces on liberty. I’ll just quote a few as a contrast to Nichols.

Richard Reeves:

"The only freedom which deserves the name," according to John Stuart Mill, "is that of pursuing our own good in our own way". …
Equality before the law, and rights to fair trial were important precisely because they allowed people to live the way they chose, even if eccentric or even disgusting to the majority, so long as they did not actively harm others in so doing.
For Mill, liberty could therefore be threatened as easily by peer pressure, majority opinion and social intolerance, together creating "a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression". The state could coerce and oppress: but so could the citizenry. Society could "issue its own mandates" and when it did it left "fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs also protection against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling."

Shami Chakrabarti:

As we are essentially social creatures, our rights and freedoms are not isolating or selfish but protect us within the social units in which we thrive – family, trade union, faith community, democratic society, etc.

AC Grayling:

Liberty – individual liberty, the autonomy of the human – matters because no one has the right to dictate to others how they should live, what they should choose, whom they should love, or what goals they should pursue, except if any of these things threaten harm to others, where harm includes limiting others' freedoms to choose. …
Only in a pluralistic dispensation can all [human] variety express itself, and pluralism needs liberty because it is impossible without it.
No one should be the property of another, or of a system. We should each be volunteers in society, and should choose our place in it.

And Martin Bell:

Freedom is a secular state of grace which exists in permanent tension with tyranny and which we can claim for ourselves only if we never, ever, seek to deny it to others.


Richard said...

When making the leap from a quoted statement to your opinion, please make the right leap. "we" don't "all know" this is a lie - you might believe this is a lie, but you don't know "we" and whether or not "we all know" it is a lie. Some of us might disagree with you. The "we" comment destroys the credibility of your argument. Please try and do better next time. Be a man, when you have an opinion, state it as your own. Bring out the big guns of "I" and "me". This is not an academic paper nor is it related to truth - it is Op Ed.

Tom Freeman said...

Hello Richard.

As you'll know, because you read my post properly before commenting (sorry, that's presumptuous; maybe you didn't), what I followed the quote with was: "A vicious and preposterous lie. We all know of selfish people who feel entitled to all sorts of things that they merely happen to want..."

So, as you can see, the accusation of lying was made very baldly and did not claim anybody else's opinion in support. Where I did choose to speak on behalf of other people was in saying that we all know of selfish people etc.

(I stand ready to be corrected if you have never heard rumour of such people.)

The statement about it being a lie was, I think, very clearly my own. I suppose I could begin every sentence with "It is my opinion that", but it'd be a bit of a drag, and frankly the fact that my name appears at the bottom of the post, which was published on a blog bearing my name at the top, ought to cover that.