The Promising Animal

Megan alludes to an interesting question about moral foundationalism and bourgeois society.

Call me bourgeois, but I think that when you sign your name to a document promising to repay money you’ve borrowed, you have an obligation to repay the money you’ve borrowed.

[…] the bourgeois belief that an honorable man repays his debts if he is able is one of the unnoticed underpinnings of a stable, prosperous democracy. Countries that believe that one can pick and choose whom one is obligated to repay on the basis of how good a person the lender is, how tight their relation to you, or whatever, are low-trust societies with extremely high transaction costs and underdeveloped markets. If you think you’re only obligated to repay regular folks like yourself, then no one but your close friends and family will lend you money. This makes capital formation tricky.

There are two arguments at work here, and the genius of western liberal democracy has indeed derived in part from its ability to keep certain social conventions going on multiple levels of justification. The first argument holds that the good life collapses and becomes unattainable unless we decide that promise-making and promise-keeping is honorable, and then enforce that code of honor. The second argument holds that, since promise-making and -keeping redound to the good life, we owe it to one another (or ‘everybody’, or ‘society’) to make and keep promises, regardless of whether or not doing so is honorable.

Since these arguments play so nice together in the hubbub of everyday life, it’s hard to recognize that the second argument leads us to discover that, at its root, it denies the relevance of honor to social order. A good social order, that is, needn’t be honorable at all; in Kantian terms, even a nation of devils could govern itself with the right set of information and institutions. One could object here that honor is really just being shifted under a Kantian schema from residing in persons (“I am an honorable man”) to institutions (“Megan honored her debt to Weber Corp.”) But Megan’s claim heightens the tension between honoring people and honoring institutions because it strongly, and correctly, implies that honoring people is really about honoring oneself, rather than honoring others (i.e. “institutions”).

Libertarians often seek to square the circle here by playing up the way in which maximum freedom and maximum equality make a positive feedback loop, as I suggested above. Friendly critics of libertarianism from the right, however, tend to worry that the logic of equality will squeeze out the logic of liberty, such that nobody will tolerate the enforcement of promises by promise-keepers on the grounds that only they, in virtue of their honorable promise-keeping, are entitled to enforce promises dishonorably broken by others.

This will happen for two reasons: one, such a hierarchical dependence of law on personality is repugnant in democratic times; two, and much more pragmatically, in democratic times there will be more promise-breakers, and requiring leaders to be honorable in order to be leaders is too big and too costly a risk. The honor of making promises will, on the account I’m describing, be pushed further and further into relatively more trivial areas of life — politically speaking; and the breaking of promises itself will be reinterpreted as an honorable ‘promise to stop promising’, especially if it is ‘retrospectively consented to’ by whichever party doesn’t think of it first. Public promises, however, will increasingly all become promises to the government, the making and keeping of which will have no relevance to even remotely honor-like concepts. You will make and keep government promises in the name of equality itself, invoked precisely against the notion that the honorable people should rule and the dishonorable should be ruled: democracy over aristocracy.

The result, on this critical telling, will be, simply, liberaltarianism, which purports to make of politics a uniform realm advancing the interest of equality over unequal honor, and to make of non-politics a similarly uniform realm in which all inequalities are inherently trivial and contingent enough to be always respected, revolvingly celebrated, but never honored. At this point, it will no longer make sense to speak of public and private, for the government will intervene regularly in what was once considered ‘private’ life, and what were once considered private acts will regularly take place in what was once considered ‘public’. There will simply be politics and non-politics, which is to say government and non-government. From today’s vantage, when most of politics has been completely captured and defined by those interested in politicizing (that is, getting government respect for) heretofore non-political behaviors, the liberaltarian utopia seems absurd in thinking that the political and the non-political could ever so clearly and concisely be separated. But the contentious hodgepodge and category confusion of today — otherwise known as ‘the culture wars’ — is considered by liberaltarians only an uncomfortable prelude to getting everything sorted.

Whether or not this is true seems to me to come down, at the moment, to whether or not the definition of honor as honoring oneself can get the better of the definition of honor as honoring others.

For a look in on the even deeper (and ‘strangely’ mirror-image) issue of whether honoring oneself is impossible without honoring God, see Simone Chambers at The Immanent Frame (thru Andrew).