Towards a Two-Legged Blogosphere

I did say that Damon Linker deserved more than a one-legged response, so, although I really ought to be doing something else (indeed, even if I’m blogging, I ought to be blogging something else), I’m going to have to give Damon what he asks for, namely, a more detailed argument to sink his teeth into.

To start off: I understand Linker’s argument well enough, and why it is appealing to be able to “bracket” questions about “the good life” and engage in politics only on the level of “mere life.” I understand why it’s appealing – I just don’t agree that it’s possible.

It’s not possible because there is no agreed upon boundary between “mere life” and “good life” questions; because there are liberal virtues the lack of which among the citizenry will make it impossible to sustain a liberal polity; and because propagating those virtues through education necessarily involves the state in conflict with those citizens who radically dissent from liberal metaphysics.

Let’s look at the lack of an agreed-upon boundary between “mere life” and “good life” questions. “Mere life” debates are debates about rights and interests. My freedom stops when my fist meets your face: that sort of thing. Your personal “good life” may involve freedom to beat your purported inferiors with impunity, but the liberal state won’t allow you to pursue it because that interferes pretty fundamentally with the well-being and good-life-pursuit of those purported inferiors. If, on the other hand, you can form a community of sado-masochists to engage on consensual beating activities, the liberal state has nothing to say about that. So far, so good.

But not all injuries are physical. Pornography, blasphemy, hate-speech: all have been alleged to cause real injury to some people’s psyches, and I don’t see the basis on which to dispute the testimony of the injured. How is the liberal state to respond to such allegations?

One approach would be to say: you know, you’re right. Speech can hurt, and your freedom ends where it harms others. Therefore, speech must be regulated. This has been, to one degree or another, a fairly widespread response in liberal polities, and the degree of responsiveness has been pretty clearly proportional to the degree of plausibility with which the injury is alleged (e.g., when failure to regulate speech results in riots).

Now, most people would classify this as an illiberal response, for two reasons: first, because it gives a veto power within a liberal state to the most illiberal elements therein (these are the ones most likely to allege injury from offensive speech of one sort or another), and second, because it hollows out a very fundamental liberal principle: the sanctity of freedom of speech. But listen to those reasons for objection. They both make reference not to some kind of neutrality, but to values and virtues – “good life” rather than “mere life” questions. To a liberal, you are a better person if you can tolerate being profoundly offended, and a worse person if you allege psychological injury and demand state protection from being subjected to profoundly offensive speech. And some kinds of freedom turn out to be fundamental values, not just instrumental ones that enable us all to “get along” as part of the liberal bargain.

Does this mean a liberal state can’t mediate these kinds of disputes? Of course not – I’m not claiming a liberal state can’t function. I’m saying it can’t be neutral. It has a stake in the outcome of where the boundary between “mere life” and “good life” questions gets drawn. That doesn’t mean it can’t negotiate a reasonable compromise that “works” for a given society. It just means that the compromise in question is, in fact, a compromise between different fundamental commitments – a bargain of a very different type than the “liberal bargain” that Linker is advocating for.

Now let’s look at education, which is, I think, the best ground on which to make my argument. Every modern liberal state that actually exists provides for universal public education. And the content of that educational program is regularly contested, because it is impossible to educate in a value-neutral fashion. Education is, first and foremost, about building character, and you cannot set out to build character with no notion of what makes for good or bad character. Even if you start from an instrumental position, you cannot actually develop an educational program without coming to conclusions that are not purely instrumental. If, for example, good character is that which enables the child to grow into an adult well-adapted to his or her social environment, then you need to know something about that social environment, and the education system will proceed to promote precisely the commitments about “the good life” that are already presupposed by that environment.

Most people’s notions of a “liberal education” imply a very different set of virtues than a purely instrumental one; indeed, a “liberal education” is all about inculcating liberal virtues – inquisitiveness, objectivity, skepticism, etc. But once again, precisely because these are, indeed, virtues, they say something about what constitutes “the good life” and not merely about “mere life” questions. And a liberal education will necessarily rankle those who hold to metaphysical commitments that they do not want to see challenged.

The most well-known area where this problem rears its head in our day is the question of the teaching of evolution. There is no material scientific dispute about the fundamental questions here: the diversity of life on earth is a consequence of random mutation and natural selection. There’s a great deal of debate about a great many details, but there’s no debate at all about the fundamental mechanism of evolution, much less the fact of evolution. Nonetheless, teaching evolution is viewed by many sincere religious believers as teaching something contrary to their religious beliefs – as the state imposing its values on their children and undermining their faith.

Is that what the state is doing? Put simply: yes. The state takes the perspective that learning science is good for you and so it teaches science. The state doesn’t teach evolution because of neutrality; it teaches evolution because it endorses a substantive, value-laden judgement about what citizens should know and understand.

This is a big deal. Liberals should be aware that it’s a big deal. Families are ontologically and chronologically prior to the state. Among the core things families are about is self-replication – and that means replicating culture, religion, and values as well as genes. And the liberal conception of the state (unlike pre-modern traditional conceptions and modern organic-corporatist conceptions thereof) explicitly disavows the notion that the state is analogous to the family. A liberal should recognize that the state needs a really good reason to interfere in the family’s core mission by teaching things parents don’t want their kids to learn. But to have a good reason, and defend that reason, the liberal state needs to first acknowledge that it has substantive reasons, not just procedural ones, for the decisions it makes. It needs to acknowledge that it has fundamental commitments of its own.

The alternatives are to cave on those fundamental commitments, or to try to rule out opposition on procedural grounds. Thus: allowing creationism into the schools is a violation of the rules because creationism is religion, and the state must be neutral in matters of religion. But the state’s position in this case doesn’t look remotely neutral from the perspective of the angry religious parent – the parent believes the state is actively undermining their religion, and that’s not neutral. Neutrality would be presenting “all views” or none. And the state could do that; could “teach the controversy” or drop biology from the curriculum altogether. But the first would be corrupting science and the latter would be abandoning it.

That’s my big objection to the whole Linker project: it leaves the liberal state both arrogant and defenseless. Arrogant because it cannot see how its professed neutrality is perceived by those who disagree with the fundamental commitments that the liberal state will not acknowledge; defenseless because it has preemptively ceded the ground on which it could defend those fundamental commitments.

The only way I can see Linker’s project succeeding would involve abandoning the modern state for something far more minimalist. You could, actually, have a neutral state that achieved at least some of what Linker is trying to achieve: it would just have to be very, very small – unrealistically small for a modern bureaucratic state. A state that did not take positions on matters of personal status (and barely needed to because there were no such things as public pensions, health insurance, etc.), or child-rearing (no public education, no social-welfare bureaucracy), or much of anything beyond minimal provision for internal public order, national defense, and that sort of thing – a state like that could probably manage to be truly neutral on questions of “the good life” simply by virtue of the fact that it was so small that questions of how state policy did or did not promote or undermine one or another conception of “the good life” would not be relevant. But as long as we have a modern, bureaucratic state that structures our lives in so many ways, I really think it’s absurd to assert that this state can be truly neutral on questions of “the good life.”

And it doesn’t need to be. That’s the part that I have the hardest time with. Why should questions about the nature of the good life inevitably lead to serious social strife? We negotiate all sorts of things in all sorts of ways. The language question in Canada is emphatically a question of “the good life” as opposed to “mere life” – and because it’s a pretty fundamental question and because Canada is a deeply divided society, the compromises necessary to keep the country together have been ugly and unsatisfying. But they have “worked” in the sense that Canada remains a single polity and, as well, remains basically untroubled by political violence. That’s success. Ruling the question out of bounds would not have been neutral; it would have been oppressive. Why shouldn’t we be able to negotiate our own fundamental disputes in similar fashion – with similarly messy but civil results?

I will happily defend free speech and the integrity of science on the merits, as positive goods. I’ll defend the liberal virtues, in other words. I don’t think I’ll make any greater headway in winning a political argument on these matters by trying to rule the opposition out of bounds because they are “breaking the liberal bargain.” Nor do I think the latter will be any more successful at avoiding acrimony at political defeat – quite the opposite.

The Democratic Party is now considering whether or not to pass the Freedom Of Choice Act that would nationalize abortion rights at the legislative level (and thereby provide an insurance policy against a possible judicial overturning or gutting of Roe). How, exactly, are we to avoid debating this piece of legislation on the merits? And how would the Republic benefit if we did? Linker’s argument that Roe should be overturned can be defended as a prudential compromise about a fundamental commitment – the state should abandon a particular commitment to abortion rights for the sake of civil peace. But that’s it – you can’t generalize and say that the state, to be properly neutral, must abandon all its fundamental commitments. And Linker should realize that what he’s advocating is a concession to the other side – which is exactly how it is being perceived by his fellow liberals. Because that’s what it is. And if that’s what it is, then it needs to be defended on its own merits – which I think it can be – and not by wrapping it in the mantle of some kind of neutrality that will end the culture war. If Linker’s proposals were to end the culture war, it would be because both sides were sufficiently satisfied by the specific compromises that were made that war no longer seemed worth the effort. The search for such compromises is eminently sensible, as (in my view) the culture war is by and large an enormous waste of national energy. But you’re not going to get to these compromises by ruling their substance out of bounds for debate in a liberal society; you’ll get to them by actually engaging in that debate, and doing so in a civil and constructive spirit.