The essential heresy of freedom

It is thus tolerance that is the source of peace, and intolerance that is the source of disorder and squabbling.

Pierre Bayle

In the history of human civilization, no large society has ever come close to achieving consensus, be it on values, life styles, or standards of taste. Yet there have been many that have tried. Today, they are known as theocracies.

By theocracy I do not mean a strict religious society, at least not in the usual sense of religious. Rather, I define theocracy as any society with a strong commitment to moral and political perfectionism. Perfectionism is a term that refers to any attempt to prescribe a theory of what constitutes “the good life,” as it was known by Aristotle. Perfectionism comes in many shapes and sizes, from suppression of so-called sexual deviants, to the soft paternalism of Michael Bloomberg.

Classical liberalism is in essence the repudiation of perfectionism. That’s why advocates of “libertarian paternalism” are still properly understood as illiberal even though they abstain from direct coercion. When policy has the aim of shaping our lives based on a bystander’s substantive theory of how one ought to live, be it who to love or how much soda to drink, it runs the principle of liberal neutrality through the shredder.

Liberal neutrality is essential for ensuring legitimate laws don’t discriminate against adherents with irreconcilable conceptions of the good life. This does not mean liberal neutrality is itself value neutral, in the sense of amoral. Rather, liberal neutrality is better thought of as embodying a Paretian or win-win standard—a norm which transcends the depths of human particularity—and in turn makes classical liberal constitutions minimally controversial. As Joseph Heath puts it:

The normative intuition underlying the Pareto standard is essentially contractual. Pareto improvements are changes that no one has any reason to reject. Making these improvements therefore means making some people better off, under conditions that everyone can accept. Recalling that the purpose of these normative standards is to permit cooperation, efficiency as a value permits social integration while requiring very little in the way of consensus about basic questions of value.

The alternative is a world with perpetual unanimity around inscrutable disputes, and the imperative that any deviation in the form of dissent be crushed. In that sense, free expression in theocracies is despised not due to the particular content of the speech, but due to the subversiveness embodied in the volitional act itself—what G.L.S. Shackle referred to as the “cause uncaused.”

This is why striving for perfect consensus around the good life leads invariably to moral and cultural stagnation. Without a “cause uncaused” the pursuit of happiness comes to resemble seminary. Theocracies are like a static equilibrium, a Walrasian box from which there’s no escape. That includes Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also the Stalinist regimes of Cuba and North Korea which, without irony, enforce their impoverished status quo by banning unsolicited expression as “counter-revolutionary.”

New ideas are transmitted by equally novel acts of speech. When speech is unbounded and permissionless, new ideas can diffuse, ear by ear, through the rest of society, disrupting a closed system from within. Take the free thinking Athens of ancient Greece, and then contrast it with its monolithic and Spartan neighbor. One fostered innovations in philosophy, mathematics, science, arts and culture.  The other is synonymous with militarized asceticism, and a laconic rationing of thought.

Freedom of thought and life-pursuit are therefore engines of creative destruction as well as inescapably heretic. Today, however, we are forgetting how tightly the two roles are entwined. We desire the benefits of a flourishing society without exposure to words and concepts that challenge our eudaemonic preconceptions.

That’s why the Enlightenment concept of toleration did not require one man or woman to endorse the views of another. On the contrary, classical liberals defended free expression as a matter of mutual respect, not mutual acceptance. Toleration contains the seeds of disagreement and argumentation, and doesn’t sacrifice human flourishing for false consensus.

Modern proponents of universal acceptance have a natural affinity with traditional theocrats. Both prove themselves by their piety to an immutable creed, conveyed through zealous displays of righteousness. And both endeavor to inquisition any who depart from the flock.

The culture war demonstrates how much the ink on our Paretian contract has faded. But if traditional theocrats continue in their attempts to regulate virtue they cannot justly complain when proponents of universal acceptance force them to acquiesce in other settings, and vice versa. Defection from liberal neutrality opens a perfectionist Pandora’s Box that cuts in both directions.

There is no way around it. The essential heresy of freedom means we either live with imperfection or all burn at the stake.

burned at the stake

( PS: This is apparently Sweet Talk’s 500th post. Here’s to 500 more. )


21 thoughts on “The essential heresy of freedom

  1. Perfectionism is a term that refers to any attempt to prescribe a theory of what constitutes “the good life,” as it was known by Aristotle.

    This doesn’t seem right. You begin by defining theocracy to be literally synonymous with eudaimonism, but the rest of your piece appears to argue against governmental paternalism. Isn’t this a bit of a package-deal? Is it possible to think that you shouldn’t cheat on your spouse, but but not to think that doing so should be against the law? Is a moral precept really no different than a law?

    1. Liberal neutrality is a political or constitutional constraint. It’s what allows people with differing conceptions of the good life to co-exist. Classical eudaimonism is one perspective on the good life. Just don’t legislate it.

      1. Yes, believing in a religion is also different from instituting a religious state. It just happens eudaimonists are some of the worst for being political perfectionists, because they’re convinced their particular view of the good life has metaphysical foundations.

  2. Paul Crider

    It’s a little unclear to me if you’re restricting your comments to official policy or not. To what extent does liberal neutrality apply to individuals in their private interactions?

    1. Liberal neutrality is a political constraint. Not an individual one. We can’t help but have our own conceptions of the good life. There are religious communities that practice one understanding, and secular communities that practice their own. We can judge them all we want, but insofar as “society” equals institutions of inter-community cooperation, being formally neutral between the two sets of practices is paramount.

  3. Paul Crider

    The Paretian standard is well and good for free and equal persons, but it runs into a problem in the case of systemic inequality (of rights, powers, respect, etc). The Pareto criterion in such cases, by the requirement that no one be made worse off, tends to entrench the status quo. I.e., if some folks (e.g. slave owners) have unjust powers, then the Pareto criterion will protect this unjust power from ever being taken away.

    1. As Kant would put it, slavery violates basic human dignity – i.e. it treats people as means rather than as ends in themselves. That’s actually what liberal neutrality is about — respecting human dignity. But the question of who deserves dignity is of course analytically prior to what dignity entails.

      1. Isn’t the question of who deserves dignity (and what dignity means) simply smuggling in a “idea of the good”? Slave owners presumably think it’s “good” to have slaves – otherwise they wouldn’t own them, and hence that slaves, for whatever reason, don’t have the dignity that non-slaves possess. Paul Cider’s criticism still stands – pure Pareto entrenches the status quo.

      2. I don’t think there’s any external or a priori justification for who does or doesn’t deserve dignity. Dignity itself emerges because two groups realize the risk of being enslaved by the other, so they forge a mutually beneficial ceasefire, as it were. To the extent that I believe we can make moral arguments, we have to use norms that are we already implicitly committed to in practice. Those norms can then be formalized or idealized, and only then extended to other domains. That’s basically my view of the master-slave dialectic. I hope I would have been an abolitionist in the 1800s, not because I had access to an external moral point of view, but because I recognized the normative commitment underlying the mutual respect afforded to my European compatriots was radically inconsistent with anything other. This actually tracks closely with how liberal abolitionists thought and argued about the issue.

      3. I have no issue regarding that description of the abolitionist viewpoint. My issue is that I don’t see how Pareto allows a state or monarch to prioritise the abolitionist viewpoint (this is inconsistent) with the slave holders (no it isn’t because reasons). So no state could outlaw slavery.

      4. If you’re looking for a gods eye view answer you won’t get one from me. When the slave holders say “because reasons” they’re engaging in a discourse around norms. There’s no guarantee that the abolitionists will win. However, I think there are presuppositions in discourse that lead concepts like human dignity to be universalized. That’s a kind of bias to cultural evolution, not a definitive statement. For more on this read the paper Rebooting Discourse Ethics by Joseph Heath, or my article here called Theory and Practice Reconciled, where I discuss (somewhat esoterically) the process by which norms are updated in favor of coherence with our broader commitments. I recommend reading Heath first, as most of my writing is just me grappling with his ideas.

      5. Why muddy the water by talking about God’s eye views? You agree, why not just say that? A law against slavery is impossible if we use Pareto as the standard. Talking of norms just means people may change their minds in the future about slavery and decide to abandon it, and make an end to causing other people to suffer. Or not.

      6. You equate liberal neutrality with “a Paretian or win-win standard”. You also say this standard is not amoral. But a Paretian standard has a status quo bias. This allows existing injustices to perpetuate/existing harms to continue, which means it is at least amoral.

  4. jimmy t

    you lose your thread when you fail to accept that, as in the case of Cuba, outside influences seek to destroy the gains achieved by casting off the prevailing oppressive regime, which in this instance is parallel with a theocratic society in that there was, until armed revolution became possible, no escape from the dominant forces. You should read up on Cuban history, with a mind toward getting a balanced perspective that actually takes into account the lives of the people who were there when the change occurred, before you start to include examples that are outside of your frame of reference.
    I am fairly uneducated in philosophy, but I think Paul’s comments regarding the Paretian standard apply in this case. When the enormous economic power of the United States is levelled against a tiny island nation, talk of “counter-revolutionary” forces becomes something other than “banning unsolicited expression”.

  5. John Fisher

    >Take the free thinking Athens of ancient Greece, and then contrast it with its monolithic and Spartan neighbor.

    Now do Rome

  6. Andrew Fitzandrew

    Do people not have a legitimate interest in the culture and norms that would support them in their eudamonist goals? If discourse is biased towards particular forms of practical reason, do those who find themselves on the wrong side of that bias have a legitimate reason to try and shape public discourse in non-neutral ways?

    1. Supporting liberal neutrality is a good way to start, since it means you’ll be left alone to pursue your definition of flourishing. That’s why Christians use to be defenders of the separation of church and state. The religious pluralism in the US made any space for perfectionism dangerous.

      On public discourse, and liberal neutrality, ie. the prohibition of perfectionism, is a political constraint. It doesn’t tell you how to raise your kids, and it doesn’t tell you what sort of discourse to engage in. In facts, that’s the point. When I say discourse has inherent biases it’s about the way it tends to universalized our moral commitments, stuff like that. This is because imperatives like ‘don’t do X’ are turned into assertions like ‘it’s wrong to do X’ that create the impression that the imperative extends across all people in space and time. The content of X is a separate question.

      I think his whole conversation needs some practical examples. Liberal neutrality doesn’t says, for example, that religions shouldn’t be tax exempt or not. But it does say that if religions are tax exempt, they all should be, including secular and anticlerical organizations, and so in that light not giving tax exemptions is more practical, because you avoid the tricky business of what counts as a religion, which if not defined broadly could lead to minority persecution and de facto perfectionism.

      1. Andrew Fitzandrew

        I’m not sure that complete neutrality is possible in that way. There is a separation of church and state, but if Churches want to be tax exempt they must still organize themselves into the structures provided by 501(c). Uber and it’s drivers get forced into taking the shape of an employee/employer relationship because that’s what the regulatory structures can understand, even if the regulators are indifferent to content of Uber’s services. Communes are extremely difficult to form, because the laws governing liability for property and responsibility for the care of children and so on. The state can be indifferent but not neutral in that way.

        But all my original comment was getting at was the role of practical reason in public sphere discourse. Given that we share a culture, is it unreasonable for people to attempt to use formal authority to shape what is and isn’t acceptable as an exit move, in furtherance of their eudamonist goals?

      2. Neutrality is both an ideal and a criterion for judging different ways of doing policy. I also think that, as a kind of contract, motivation matters. Laws that incidentally discriminate against new forms of economic organization violate neutrality, but not if its unintended it doesn’t give other groups license in quite the same way. But that’s a nuance that I can do without with, since monolithic corporate and liability laws, regardless of their intent, do harm to freedom of contract. Sometimes it’s explicitly perfectionist too, like sin taxes or zoning away undesirables. It’s precisely because we don’t have a shared culture that liberalism matters.

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