Free-Floating Liberty?

In a previous post, I asked what may strike some readers as an obtuse question. If our society is no longer grounded in Christianity, as it once was, or in the biblical tradition, and if the normative passion of our time– namely, equality– is a not an affirmative ideal or vision so much as a negative and parasitic one, then what sort of society do we live in now? How should we describe the affirmative convictions or commitments (if any) that give meaning and shape to our society?

One possible answer– one that may seem compelling to readers of this blog– would assert that our society is constituted by a central commitment to liberty. We have come to understand, perhaps, that in a pluralistic nation inhabited by people with diverse conceptions of what a good life consists of, the proper course is to allow everyone to pursue the life that he or she chooses–so long, of course, as that life does not inflict “harm” on others. So if we return to T. S. Eliot’s contention that notwithstanding the frailty of Christianity in his time (and ours), “a society has not ceased to be Christian until it has become positively something else,” we might explain to Eliot that our society has become “positively something else”– namely, a “liberal” society (in the classical sense in which “liberal” referred to liberty).

This is an old and familiar self-interpretation. For myself, I find the account plausible up to a point, and not unattractive. Indeed, I wish this description of our society were more accurate than (I fear) it is. But the “liberty” interpretation of our society seems to me subject to at least two smaller objections and then to one more fundamental one.

I will state the smaller objections summarily. In fact, our society’s commitment to liberty does not seem especially robust of late. Tocqueville observed the propensity of equality to stifle liberty; his observation seems wholly cogent today. Second, as I argued in chapter three of The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse (2010), upon examination the “harm principle” which seems essential to keep liberty from dissolving into anarchy is, if not utterly vacuous, at least exquisitely malleable. The principle can be crafted to condemn pretty much any restriction on liberty an advocate may oppose, and to justify basically any restriction that an advocate may favor. The recent solemn invocation by lawyers and scholars of “dignitary harm”– as a justification, for example, for allowing same-sex couples to sue people (such as Christian counselors or photographers) whose services the plaintiffs do not actually want and can readily obtain elsewhere—illustrates the point.

The larger objection is this: I doubt that an attachment to liberty can stand and flourish as an ungrounded, free-standing commitment. Let us stipulate that we live in a world of people with divergent ideas about truth and the good life. As Hobbes and Holmes well understood and in their different ways articulated, it simply doesn’t follow, as some sort of normative principle, that these people should be permitted to believe and live as they choose. If you want to get to that conclusion, rather than to a more Hobbesian one, say, you need some additional normative premise. (Such as Christianity, in some of its versions.)

To be sure, as a purely practical or prudential matter, a policy of liberty may be the most feasible or effective way to domesticate pluralism. It depends. Under some circumstances, that will be true. Under other circumstances it probably won’t be. Either way, we haven’t yet reached any “principled” basis (as they say) for favoring liberty.

In short, a society that says, “Our central and defining commitment is to liberty– nothing more fundamental than that” is, I think, on very shaky ground. Its self-interpretation seems incomplete, perhaps self-deceptive; its commitment to liberty seems fragile. As our current situation may illustrate.