“A gross error it is to think that regal power ought to serve for the good of the body and not of the soul, for men’s temporal peace and not their eternal safety; as if God had ordained Kings for no other purpose than to fat up men’s souls like hogs and to see that they have their mash?”
–Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity
I’d like to call attention to one of liberalism’s most cherihsed yet most mind-bogglingly moronic convictions: that public discourse should be unbiased. (By the way, by liberalism I mean a long-standing political tradition hegemonic in modernity, not just Democrats. So-called contemporary “conservatives” are really just conservative liberals.)
As I wrote in a previous post, “The Importance of Being Biased”, the secularizing Enlightenment notion of an unprejudiced reason that deals in value-netural “facts”, a notion that unfortuantely informs all modern Western political discourse, rests on an extermely shaky theoretical foundation. The political implications of the Enlightenment theory is that all questions of morality and of the Good should be privatized and the political realm should be a value neutral sphere. As MacIntyre writes in After Virtue, “Liberal political societies are characteristically committed to denying any place for a determinate conception of the human good in their public discourse, let alone allowing that their common life should be grounded in such a conception”. This is the unarticulated philosophy behind the liberal worhsip of tolerance and diversity. To frame political life around a specific conception of the Good is, on the liberal view, to exclude those who disagree with such a conception. Tolerance demands that troublesome religious questions of the Good be banished from the public square.
The unfortuante consequence of liberalism’s commitment to a value-neutral tolerance is the enforcement of a bizarre and inhumane anthropology that forces citizens to leave the irreducible substance of thier being, thier very self, in a privatized closet never to see the light of day.
On this point, the work of Charles Taylor is essential. Taylor has convincingly argued that morality is inextricably intertwined with selfhood and hence, to have no firm convictions about the content of the Good is to have no firm identity. In his acclaimed book, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Taylor argues that “Selfhood and the good, or in another way, selfhood and morality, turn out to be inextricably intertwined”. Against much of modern moral philosophy that seeks to suffocate morality within the confines of a very restrictive mode of inquiry, one where utilitarian calculations and formalist templates rule the day, Taylor seeks to carve out a conceptual space “for a notion of the good as the object of our love or allegiance”. This has the effect of “enlarging our range of legitimate moral descriptions” so as to encompass “the whole range of issues involved in the attempt to live the best possible life”. For Taylor morality deals not only with what is the right thing to do but what it is good to be. This insight sheds light on why Taylor believes moral questions to be profoundly connected to personal identity.
Moral convictions provide the self with what he refers to as “moral frameworks” or “moral horizons” which provide a determinate conception of the good that helps the individual self make sense of his life. Taylor clarifies what he means by a framework when he writes: “…when we try to spell out what it is that we presuppose when we judge that a certain form of life is truly worthwhile, or place our dignity in a certain achievement or status, or define our moral obligations in a certain manner, we find ourselves articulating inter alia what I have been calling here ‘frameworks’”. Our frameworks are defined by what we take to be of ultimate importance in our life. They are not some optional extra that only the philosophically inclined possess but are foundational for all. Without a coherent framework that provides identity and stability to one’s life the self is left in a state of listless torpor.
Taylor’s conviction that morality deals not only with rule and law and calculation but also with these foundational ‘frameworks’ illuminates why he believes selfhood, identity and morality to be inextricably intertwined. He writes:
To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand… What this brings to light is the essential link between identity and a kind of orientation. To know who you are is to be oriented in moral space, space in which questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what not, what has meaning and importance for you and what is trivial and secondary.
Morality as understood by Taylor is a far more expansive discipline than the majority of modern moral philosophers would be willing to concede. Morality is intertwined with identity to the point where “To know who you are is to be oriented in moral space”. Morality provides answers not only to the question “what should I do” but “what is it good to be”. In order to make even minimal sense of our lives, to know who we are and what are the most important commitments and factors shaping our life, human beings simply require an orientation to the good.
Applying Taylor’s critique of the reductionist understanding of morality found in most modern philosophy to political debates about the legitimacy of liberalism, it becomes clear just how bizarre is liberalism’s attempt to separate morality and religion from politics and privatize the Good. In attempting to forge a neutral, value-free politics, liberalism demands that its citizenry leave their selves behind when they enter the public square. Liberalism’s price for a value-free “tolerance” is the amputation of personal identity from the human person. Liberalism claims that public assertions of troublesome religious questions about the Good are the very origin of intolerance, violence and repression.
Its solution is far worse than its imagined problem: bio-political experimentation to create citizens without selves.
Liberalism’s citizens are forced to behave as if they were little more than dogs, mere animals without eternal longings or insatiable desires to know the Truth and bask in the glory of the Good. What we need is not a tolerant, value-netural polity but an ecclesial polity as it is only when the irreducible religious dimension of man is respected that there can be truly humane political life.