Hold the Irony

Michael Lynch has a terrific article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed – about liberalism and passion and communitarianism, and truth, commitment, relativism, Rawls and comprehensive liberalism, and the fact that liberals do in fact have actual commitments, that they can argue and defend with passion.

Social conservatives have long argued that progressive liberals, in trumpeting individual rights, ignore traditional communities as a source of value…But as the neocons are well aware, traditional family values frequently clash with liberal values…Some traditional communities are rife with intolerant oppression — precisely the sort of thing that enlightenment liberalism is presumably meant to combat. Surely liberals needn’t tolerate intolerance.
Walzer valiantly attempts to deal with that concern. But in the end, his principle argument is resistible. Consider a hypothetical local religious community that does not value equal education for boys and girls. According to Walzer, if we are to compel our traditional community to educate its girls, we shouldn’t appeal to individual rights; we should appeal to the pragmatic demands of citizenship.

No thanks. I don’t want to defend my right to read any books that men read on the basis that I’m more useful to the state that way, I want to defend it precisely on the basis of individual equal rights. I want to defend it on the same basis I used to defend my rights as the youngest of three children: ‘It’s not fair!’ Fairness, and the sense of it and of its lack, is not some kind of gilding or cake frosting; it’s central to having a reasonably healthy sense of how we fit in the world. If we’re systematically and formally given inferior treatment, we either think we deserve it, or become twisted with rage, or both.*

In my view, the reason that liberals are sometimes perceived as passionless isn’t because liberal values are in need of a communitarian correction. The reason is that some liberals misunderstand, and therefore misrepresent, their own values. In particular, they misunderstand their values in a way that has made them wary of describing their own moral position as true. And that is bad. For once you cease thinking of your values — your fundamental moral beliefs — as objectively true, it is hard to even think of them as values at all. And without political values, there simply is no place for political passion.

The worry is that if you think your values are true you immediately turn into Bob Jones III, or perhaps Pope Rottweiler.

In recoiling from that position, some left-leaning thinkers have argued that liberals need to adopt what the philosopher Richard Rorty calls an “ironic” attitude toward our own liberal principles. If we want to be truly tolerant, the thought goes, we need to stop seeing liberal views about equality and tolerance as objective moral truths. Instead, we should see them as morally neutral. Otherwise, we risk being intolerant about tolerance.

Yeah. I don’t want to be truly tolerant. I have no desire to be tolerant of people who throw petrol bombs at marathons because women are allowed to run in them. I want them to stop doing that, and go away and stop telling women what to do. Sometimes tolerance just isn’t the right tool for the job in hand.

As philosophers like Joseph Raz have argued, liberalism isn’t value-neutral, nor should it be. Liberal values like tolerance and equality are just that — liberal values, neither merely “true for us” nor ethically inert. Rather, they are part of a particularly liberal ideal of the good life — an abstract ideal but an ideal nonetheless.

Yup. Ideals are good things. Funny, I just dug up a quotation a couple of hours ago in which Franz Boas called himself (in a letter to his sister) an ‘unregenerate idealist.’ I like unregenerate idealists. Boas’ idealism led to some unfortunate epistemic consequences in anthropology, but he was a mensch. Not an ironic mensch, just a mensch.

*This doesn’t apply to the treatment I received as the youngest of three children. Such gross injustices as not being allowed to put my feet on the sofa, and not getting to sit in the front seat of the car, when my brother and sister were and did, were gradually rectified over the years. I got over it.

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