Can a liberal be virtuous?

I’d like to revisit our discussion about whether, or in what sense, one who has wrong opinions about moral fundamentals be virtuous.  For the most part, I’ll be writing from a conservative point of view, the assumption being that liberalism (defined as autonomy for everyone acheived by tolerance in individuals and neutrality in the state) is a morally pernicious doctrine.  Liberals, of course, face an analogous question about whether illiberals can be virtuous.  While most liberals would tend to dismiss the idea that there are virtuous non-liberals living today, many of them face this issue in an acute form when studying history.  They ask themselves, for example, if they can rightly admire the Founding Fathers even though few of them embraced what we would think of as complete sexual or racial equality.

A while back, I claimed that our enemies, the liberals, are by-and-large decent men who deserve our respect as men.  In fact, my theories about human societies leads me to believe that most of the “best” men in every age support the status-quo.  Since liberalism in one form or another is the reigning ideology, we should expect the most intelligent and best-socialized to, on average, adhere to it more strongly.  Some commenters thought that when I called them “good men” (a phrase I generally object to for philosophical reasons–all men being ontologically good–but I used it here to refer to its conventional meaning), I just meant “nice”, and niceness is really cowardice, in which case these men are not really virtuous at all.  It’s just that their vices are of the convenient sort.  That didn’t seem right to me.  It’s not that my best friends are liberals; it’s that practically everyone I’ve ever met is a liberal, and I’m pretty sure that some of them had some real virtues.  They have real temperance.  (In fact, self-control seems to come unusually easily to liberals.  From the way they dismiss worries about the effects of immodest dress and pornographied-culture on the morals of young men, liberals strike me as oddly asexual men.  It’s as if they can’t imagine lust being a strong force.)  They make real efforts, even at their own expense, to be just in their dealings with neighbors and coworkers.  I expect most have or would make real sacrifices for their families.  While for most of them it’s just posturing, a few demonstrate real concern for the poor.  This is not just “niceness”.

JMSmith granted that liberals have these sorts of virtues, but he still said that, from an Aristotelian point of view, it is deceptive to call them “good men”.

The confusion is caused by the difference between the modern and Pagan definitions of a “good” man.  We moderns think a “good man” is a man who does no harm, is indeed benevolent.  In speaking of a “good man” Aristotle meant something much more like what we mean when we speak of a good horse, or a good knife.  He’s good at doing the things a man is supposed to do, forming just opinions being right at the top of the list.  So a man who has a cockeye view of the world is no more good than a knife that won’t hold an edge is good.  He’s not rotten, just normal.  If liberal atheists are correct, I’m even farther from being good than I think I am!

It is of course wrong to imagine that all liberals are vicious.  Vice takes effort, and like the rest of us the sin they are most addicted to is sloth.  (I sometimes wonder how much of my “virtue” is really sloth.)  The difference is this: when a liberal gets the itch and cranks up the energy, there’s not much standing in his way.  Certainly not his liberal friends.  Is a man who won’t condemn his friend’s sin a “good” man?

These are very good points, and they’ve got me thinking.  It would indeed seem that the ability to form just opinions is a prerequisite for flawlessly instantiating the essence “man”.  Of course, there are obvious qualifications here.  We presumably only mean opinions about moral essentials.  Past generations of men who believed geocentrism weren’t flawed; nor is the half of America who believe O. J. Simpson is guilty (or innocent, whichever the case isn’t).  Presumably JMSmith agrees so far.

I would like to split up the question into two pieces:  1) must a man be morally flawed to fail to acheive correct moral  opinions; 2) if a man has flawed moral opinions, will that necessarily keep him from being perfectly virtuous?

I answer “no” to the first question.  Coming to the truth no doubt involves virtues every man must have to be good, such as diligence, humility, honesty, and a concern for justice.  When a false doctrine is established dogma, though, coming to the truth also involves being able to evaluate and–only if necessary–reject the official opinion.  Is this an ability that a man must have to be virtuous?  It’s certainly a good skill to have, but not all good skills are necessary, i.e. some good skills can be lacking in a man without flaw.  For example, it’s a good skill, involving only essentially human ability, to be able to understand abstract algebra:  group theory, ring theory, and the like.  I can well believe, though, that there are men who can’t do abstract algebra, even if they really tried.  That doesn’t strike me as a flaw, the way an inability to grasp basic arithmetic would be.  Ability to do math at this level seems to be an optional excellence.  One sees the same thing in all sorts of activities:  to be healthy, one must be able to jog around the block, but being able to run a marathon is an optional excellence.  I wonder if ability to question one’s society’s fundamental assumptions is an optional excellence like this.  The average person, who simply takes society’s assumptions as given and carefully applies them to the issues of the day can reasonably claim to have discharged his civic and social duty.  It just doesn’t seem right to say that the average high-school dropout should be able to see what’s wrong with social contract theory.

I want to emphasize here that I don’t mean that we conservatives are conservative because our moral sense is so much more refined than a liberals’ that we in comparison to them are like math majors compared to people who can barely get their minds around long division.  Most often, we don’t deserve our (presumably) superior beliefs.  They came to us by some sort of accident.  Perhaps we belong to one of the groups (e.g. Catholics, evangelicals, Southerners) demonized by liberals; perhaps we were victimized by a group glorified by liberals (e.g. blacks, Mexicans, career women).  Or something else fortuitous happened that made the official positions lose their credibility for us.  We should regard our beliefs as a sort of unearned grace.

To the second question, I incline more toward “yes”, but only for the most extreme forms of liberalism.  One may hold them without fault, but holding them will impede one from acheiving perfect virtue.  To be perfectly virtuous, one must not only do the right thing; one must do it for the right reason.  A faulty conception of the Good can certainly impede the latter.  If one does the right thing for a wicked reason, what we have is a “splendid vice”.  If one does it for a good but imperfect reason, one has imperfect virtue.

It does seem that there are virtues–or at least what a conservative would regard as virtues–that a liberal can’t possess to perfection, because although he may always act properly, he cannot properly conceptualize the reason for so acting.  A liberal may never have an impure thought–in fact, they seem to be unusually free of impure thoughts–but he can’t be perfectly chaste as long as he believes that he must “tolerate” (i.e. approve) all non-coercive sexual acts.  He may, probably because of a genuine but nonconceptualized (and hence imperfect) chastity, find the idea of an “open marriage” revolting himself, but he must affirm his neighbors’ bold “experiment in living”.  If he can’t condemn them for it, logically he can’t believe that he has a duty to be faithful to his own wife.  He can only claim it as his preference–a “bad faith chastity”.  Because a liberal must believe that government holds power by consent, he cannot be perfectly obedient.  Although he may always obey the laws, he obeys them only as the will of the majority, not as the will of a magistrate with authority from God.  Because he may not “discriminate”, and he must fight “the dead hand of the past”, he cannot have perfect filial piety.  He may revere his father as a man, but he cannot see the duty to revere him as his father.  Of course, a liberal reading this will feel no guilt in not feeling such duties, because he believes they don’t exist, just as I feel no guilt for my “sexism” and “intolerance”, because I don’t recognize these as vices.

Fortunately, we may hope that the spiritual effects of liberalism are limited in actual human souls.  While I tend to think that hard-core autonomy-maximalization is the logical endpoint of the liberal tradition, there are many liberals who still occupy the intermediate positions, such as classical liberalism, that don’t vitiate the virtues to the same degree.  We are also lucky that most people give very little thought to the ideology they have been taught and claim to hold, and they fail to consider its more radical consequences for their own lives.  A liberal thinking about the effects of religion/authoritarianism/tradition on past generations might tell himself something similar.

So we see the extreme importance of having the truth established as the official ideology, rather than some falsehood.  If bad beliefs are established, the truth will only be held by the small minority who both hold some optional excellence and have had some unlikely life event that tipped them off.  The majority will hold bad beliefs through no fault of their own.  Yet, although they bear no fault for their beliefs, these beliefs will deform and imperil their souls.

12 Responses

  1. Liberals can pass when you don’t mention “prudence,” which example you gave: “From the way they dismiss worries about the effects of immodest dress and pornographied-culture on the morals of young men, liberals strike me as oddly asexual men.” That is highly imprudent of them, don’t you agree?

    The virtues:

    four cardinal virtues: Prudence, justice, restraint or temperance, courage or fortitude;

    and three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love or charity.

    Just look at what happens to a church when liberalism takes over and the people become liberals. The church plunges into grotesque heresies and deformities.

  2. Aristotle has a very important passage at the beginning of Book III of the Nichomachean Ethics:

    “‘All wicked men are ignorant of what they ought to do, and what they ought to avoid; and it is this very ignorance which makes them wicked and vicious. Accordingly, a man cannot be said to act involuntarily merely because he is ignorant of what it is proper for him to do in order to fulfil his duty. This ignorance in the choice of good and evil does not make the action involuntary; it only makes it vicious. The same thing may be affirmed of the man who is ignorant generally of the rules of his duty; such ignorance is worthy of blame, not of excuse.”

    If, like Aristotle, we think of virtue in terms of human flourishing or well-being, this seems to me inevitable.

  3. Let’s apply the theory of forms here. To get an idea regarding the universal nature of something (say, liberalism), you need to look at its purest and truest instantiation. So if we wish to make a determination regarding the virtuousness of liberals, we need to look at the most liberal liberals. As you yourself note, these people generally are not virtuous at all, and many of them are positively evil.

    Now it may be the case that many or even most less-extreme liberals are quite virtuous people. But I’m inclined to say that this is only because they are better than their ideals. I have a hard time believing that people who are, at least in principle, quite OK with the idea of destroying poor college students’ academic careers over off-hand “sexist” remarks (to give just one example) are anything but (at best) incidentally virtuous.

  4. The traditional teaching of the Church is that “all men are bound to learn, so far as they can, the general principles of religion and morals; and a man sins grievously who remains from his own negligence in the belief that a false religion is true, or that an unlawful course of action that he is pursuing is really lawful” (Addis and Arnold, Catholic Dictionary, 1893). From this it follows that a man in a state of “invincible ignorance,” or what Aquinas called nescience, owing to his education, circumstances, etc., is guiltless in the eyes of God. Obviously “epistemic duty” differs from one individual to the next, on the moral axiom that “ought implies can,” so some liberals fulfill their epistemic duty without overcoming their liberal prejudices. In such cases I suppose the sin accrues to false teachers.

    The really interesting part of this line of thinking pertains to “vincible ignorance,” and the varying degrees of culpability that attach to it. These are traditionally described as “simply vincible ignorance,” “crass ignorance,” and “affected ignorance.” The first two grades result from normal or gross sloth, since men guilty of them have not sought to know as much of the truth as they are capable of knowing. Such men are guilty, not only of the sins they perform in ignorance, but also of the sloth, irreverence, and imprudence (as C.O. notes above) that have caused this ignorance. A man guilty of affected ignorance “has a positive wish to be ignorant, in order that he may sin more freely,” and so intentionally avoids information that would condemn his actions.

    This tends to support Bonald’s statement that one need not be morally flawed in order to fail to achieve correct moral opinion, but it also sets a high bar. Feeble minded men surrounded by liberal opinion can fulfill their epistemic duty without overcoming their prejudices, and so will be excused of whatever sins their liberalism permits them to indulge.

    With respect to the second question, about flawed opinion, I’d suggest some analysis of “bad faith chastity.” I think we are wrong to attribute virtue only to those individuals who exhibit a “will to virtue,” who in other words successfully resist temptation. A woman who is “naturally chaste,” who feels no urge to unchastity, is certainly not less chaste than a woman who successfully resists such urges. The woman who is naturally chaste may have unsound opinions, but so long as she does not in consequence promote unchastity in others, I don’t see the unsound opinions subtract from her virtue. True bad faith chastity is chastity that results from sloth, cowardice, or lack of opportunity.

    Finally, with respect to the basic question, can a liberal be virtuous, I think the answer is clearly yes (although not perfectly virtuous). This is particularly true of the respectable and intelligent liberals you encounter in places like the university. These people have long time horizons and can calculate consequences, so they behave themselves out of enlightened self-interest, consequentialism, and empathy for the suffering of others. Individually they are altogether decent people. However they tend to produce disorderly societies because they wrongly assume that everyone else can calculate consequences, has a long time horizon, and feels empathy for suffering. And I’d add that they preserve this fantasy by some degree “vincible ignorance.”

  5. Maybe I should clarify bad-faith chastity. It doesn’t mean someone who is chaste without a struggle; it means someone who is chaste while refusing to consciously acknowledge that this behavior is one’s moral duty. I think a perfectly chaste person would not only avoid fornication and not only feel repugnance at the idea of fornication as one’s personal “lifestyle choice”, but would also realize that this repugnance is based on a universal moral law that fornication is wrong.

  6. I think I agree. The absence of immoral behavior is not by itself morally creditable. The behavior must be eschewed on moral grounds.

  7. “autonomy for everyone acheived by tolerance in individuals and neutrality in the state”

    See, this is part of the problem in conflating “liberalism” with “the left.” What you describe is a sort of classical liberal position. But the left in America does NOT advocate neutrality in the state when it comes to economic justice or racial and gender equality. They are pretty open about their belief that the state should take direct action in these areas, though what would constitute “justice” or “equality” varies. Some will insist that they want nothing more than “equality of opportunity” but when “equality of opportunity” fails to translate to “equality of outcomes” most on the left assume some discrimination is still taking place and thus demand further state intervention.

  8. Hello Drieu,

    These differences come, I claim, from the fact that autonomy, tolerance, and neutrality contradict each other unless the population is already 100% tolerant (i.e. liberal). No one on the Left would admit that they are trying to impose their beliefs, at least not like I would be willing to straightforwardly say that I want to impose my beliefs. We see this all the time on the Left. They say they’re not imposing feminism; they’re just indoctrinating our children in it and criminalizing any behavior that contradicts it. Why, I wondered, do they bother making such an obviously false claim? Why not just say, “egalitarianism is true; and we are enforcing it society-wide”. That would be a more defensible proposition. Who do they think they’re fooling with their talk about “neutrality” and “not imposing”? I conclude that they say these things because it really is a crucial part of Leftists’ self-understanding that they “don’t impose” and they’re “comfortable with difference”.

  9. The word “impose” was important in the vocabulary of 18th century liberals, for whom it meant to burden someone with a false belief. Keeping with their self understanding as agents of “enlightenment,” they said that they themselves “imposed” nothing. They simply removed “prejudice” and “superstition,” and thereby allowed people to see reality. This self-understanding hasn’t changed all that much. What we see as indoctrination, they see as deprograming. The whole discourse of critical analysis can be seen as a means to make indoctrination look like deprograming.

  10. But that Marcuse essay I showed you proves that some on the Left, especially among the intellectuals, have no problem calling for censorship of opposing ideas (“the Right”).

    Furthermore, the people who most closely approximate the classical liberal ideal of “neutrality of the state” that you cite above in the U.S. are libertarians and libertarian-leaning conservatives (in American parlance), and many of them criticize state intrusion on these very topics (speech codes, affirmative action, etc.) although they obviously would not embrace your theocratic alternative either. They may support certain ideas that can called “liberal” such as freedom of expression and secularism, but they are certainly not on board with the left’s agenda of enforced egalitarianism.

    You simply can’t treat “liberalism” and “the left” as co-extensive without committing a grievous error and simplifying matters.

  11. Rousseau, in the classic exposition of liberalism points out the “each individual, as a man, may have a particular will contrary or dissimilar to the general will which he has as a citizen.” Thus, he concludes that
    “In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free[« ce qui ne signifie autre chose sinon qu’on le forcera d’être libre. »] ; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence. In this lies the key to the working of the political machine; this alone legitimises civil undertakings, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses.”

    In other words, Rousseau, in typically European fashion, is thinking of freedom as sharing in the government, being part of an independent, self-governing community; Americans, on the other hand, tend to think of freedom as absence of constraint, especially government constraint.
    To a European, government is the connsumated result of their own organized wishes

  12. They have answers to that, of course, while still insisting that they are truly on the side of human liberation and autonomy. They are only censoring activity that tries to restrict others’ autonomy, or they are only suppressing choices that aren’t really autonomous, because driven by tradition or religion. They’re not really imposing their beliefs. You know the story. I think everyone on the Left would agree that wills or desires can only be thwarted in the name of accommodating some other wills or desires.

    Surely you agree that there is some distinguishing features of the Left, and that it isn’t just an arbitrary label?

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