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. )



Virtue After Abundance

Our sense of virtue evolved in the context of groups living under immense scarcity. Consider the virtue that one shouldn’t be overly self-indulgent (because resources must be rationed). Or the suggestions against taking on debts (r > g for foragers, so borrow wisely). Even honor, that most sacred virtue, seems to work particularly well in environments where “a man’s resources can be thieved in full.”

How should, say, “hedonistic self-gratification” look to a sensibility sculpted by absence? More than a vice, for our ancestors it was solipsistic to the point of immorality. Today still, commentators from religious conservatives to anti-consumerist liberals continue to treat hedonism as an anti-virtue despite economic abundance. Even among the strongest followers of self-gratification, there is a self-awareness that something about hedonism is at least figuratively satanic.

Of course, our virtues and vices needn’t be connected to the facts on the ground of the contemporary environment to be things we still hold valuable. In this sense, modern civilization made all values vestigial and many of them, like the scarcity mindset, potentially maladaptive. At the very least, many of our past vices have lost their edge. Character flaws once thought immoral are now deserving of respect.scarcityCleanliness is next to Godliness” is my favorite example of a virtue as opposed to moral act, in particular for how ubiquitous it is in theology. “Be clean” and “Don’t kill” are both statements of value however hygiene is self-directed while murder is directed at inter-relations between selves. For religious fundamentalists there’s no distinction between virtues and morals, so they happily label homosexuality, masturbation, drug use, blasphemy and so on as equally sinful and dirty.

There are some immediate political implications of this realization (beyond re-branding the “moral majority” the “virtuous majority”). For instance, in this light the Straussian critique of liberalism as leading towards nihilism had it backwards: abundance enabled classical liberalism to enshrine individualism and laws that strive only to abridge human freedom in order to correct interpersonal harms, not individual character flaws or poor showering technique.

Of course, “no man is an island” is still true. There are many personal vices that are apt to spill over into the public domain, which ponces may want to regulate to varying degrees. I could only support this if personal values were not directly imposed on others (piety may be virtuous, but forcing others to be pious is theocratic).

Liberals since Mill and Bentham generally opposed regulating virtue. They said: ingest, do, believe and feel what you will as long as it doesn’t interfere with my ability to do the same. Yet they never said “murder, slander, vandalize” because these are decidedly inter-personally moral in nature.

Our psychology may be social, but the largest unit of psychological consideration is still an individual’s mind – the subject in subjective. Communitarian political systems and puritanical societies aren’t immoral a priori. It all depends on the sincerity of the citizens, how institutionalized the values are, and the nature of transaction cost. If you live in a Buddhist commune but your favorite book is The Virtue of Selfishness, it only becomes illiberal when you’re not permitted to leave.

Meanwhile, the five best scarcity-mindset coping mechanisms according to this psychologist read like they were written by an ancient stoic. Go figure.

A great conversation about this post is happening on Reddit here. This post, and Sweet Talk itself, is about creating conversations, so I’m highly grateful for all the constructive engagement.