Monday, 24 June 2013

The morality of Liberalism

A thought that's been running around my head recently is about liberalism as a moral philosophy.

Normally we see ideologies like liberalism, conservatism, labourism (I call it that because whatever the ideology of Labour is it's definitely not socialism any more) as political philosophies which make specific recommendations about governmental policies which should be implemented.

But I think this is actually a rather flawed view of these ideologies. Because they're not just political philosophies but moral philosophies as well.

Let's take a look at liberalism, for example. Specifically, let's look at the Liberal Democrat version of liberalism as outlined in the preamble to the Lib Dem party constitution:
The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives. 
We look forward to a world in which all people share the same basic rights, in which they live together in peace and in which their different cultures will be able to develop freely. We believe that each generation is responsible for the fate of our planet and, by safeguarding the balance of nature and the environment, for the long term continuity of life in all its forms. Upholding these values of individual and social justice, we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation and oppose all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality.
Now that's just the beginning of the preamble but already we can see plenty there which is about moral values, not just political ones.

Equality. Liberty. Freedom. Poverty as something wrong that enslaves people. The right to dignity. The right to freedom of conscience - tolerance for different views in other words. A value of good stewardship of our planet. Peace. The importance of protecting the continuity of all life on the planet. Justice. Opposition to prejudice and discrimination. Opposition to entrenched privilege.

All of those are political values. But they are all just as equally moral ones. They involve tolerance and kindness and compassion and helping those in need and the pursuit of peace and of recognising all human beings as equals.

(In fact, a lot of those values sound far from dissimilar to traditional "Christian" values - which is not surprising given the historic links between Quakers and the Liberal party.)

So these are the values of liberalism. This is what is considered to be right on a fundamental level and opposition to these values is considered fundamentally wrong. They're not policies which have a background and require explanation, these are ideals which you either 'get' or you don't.

And to be honest, seeing liberalism in that way as a moral philosophy goes a long way to explaining my own moral values. I'm not a particularly religious person. I have my religious beliefs of course but they don't play a big part in my life. And though I went to schools which had the typical softcore Anglican Christian backdrop (saying the Lord's Prayer and singing hymns in assembly) I never really derived any kind of sense of right and wrong from what I learnt about Christianity, or from what I learned about any other faith for that matter.

Instead, my sense of right and wrong, I would guess, came almost exclusively from my parents and from what I worked out for myself as I grew up. Nothing ground shaking but just simple things like "I don't like it when other people are mean to me so I shouldn't be mean to other people" and "it's unfair that that person gets something more than everyone else when they didn't do anything to deserve it".

And when I became politically aware I ultimately became a Liberal Democrat because I instinctively felt that the values and principles of the party matched what I already believed. To put it another way, I just "got" what liberalism was about without needing it explained. It just seemed obvious to me.

The thing is, no doubt it's the same for devout (and I use that word in every possible sense of it) followers of other parties.

Conservatism isn't just a political manifesto, it's a moral philosophy which is about individualism - you shouldn't expect others to help you or worry about others outside your own group, you should just put your own interests first and if you want something you should earn it yourself. If you don't get what you want or are struggling then it's your own fault for not working hard enough.

Fundamentally, conservatism is about a selfish, self-reliance. And that's something I will never get. I will never be able to agree with the conservative moral view of the world.

Similarly, labourism is about a sense of collective struggle. It's about belonging to a group and struggling to win more for your group against another group who are a threat to you (workers versus employers, progressives against conservatives, etc.) and about solidarity. It's about putting the interests of the group first even if that might mean treading on or occasionally restricting the preferences of some individuals within that group.

Again, that's something which I will never get. I will never be able to get on board with that as I see the authoritarian and controlling aspect of it as morally wrong.

So this, I think, goes a long way to explaining the bitterness and tribalism of political arguments because, on the face of it, they don't make sense. Different political parties can quite frequently agree on the same compromise policy even if they have different reasons for doing so so why are they so aggressive towards each other?

And the answer is that the different parties follow different moral philosophies. Their notions of right and wrong, their views of the world, disagree with each other on a fundamental level.

Bitter vitriol in a dispute over the best way to tackle unemployment might seem inexplicable but when you look at it as a clash between different sets of moral values then it suddenly becomes pretty easy to understand.

As for myself, I guess I'd probably describe my moral values as being about ensuring freedom for every individual to do what they like as long as it doesn't hurt others and to enable them to have this freedom by fighting against obstacles and restrictions they face. That and being about rationality - accepting impartial evidence about reality and not simply rejecting it when it doesn't fit with your prejudices.

Not that this is a claim that I'm morally superior by the way. Obviously I'm going to describe my own views with more positive language than views I disagree with no matter how hard I try to be neutral. And obviously I could be completely wrong.

But thinking about my political philosophy as a moral philosophy as well does probably explain why I can (if I'm being completely honest) get sanctimonious and holier-than-thou when I fundamentally disagree with people in an argument. Intellectually I can acknowledge I might be wrong but on a fundamental level I've got a conviction that my view is simply right while my opponent's is simply wrong.

Which does rather make me a hypocrite, come to think of it, particularly when tolerance is also one of my professed moral values. But, then again, our moral values tend to show up all of us as hypocrites I guess.


  1. I don´t think you are right about Conservatism. As I recall from my undergrad studies in this area, it is about freedom *to a degree* but that it is more about authority and order as preconditions for liberty. Conformity figures highly for them. Also, to me, your separation of moral and political philosophy is artificial - there is a qualitative difference but one flows into the other. It would be interesting to reverse engineer from your/one´s own political philosophy and see what moral judgments and assumptions are being made.

  2. Like mattburrows, I'm not sure you're quite hit the nail on the head on Conservative moral and political philosophy overall. It's much more complex and multi-stranded than your explanation, as I figure you know. Nevertheless, I see where you're coming from; the particular strand of conservatism which seems to dominate at the moment is a curious, even slightly awkward melange of neo-liberalism, post-Disraelian One Nation Conservatism and authoritarian Toryism, and it focuses on an individualism which is decontextualised from society.

    I absolutely agree with your assessment of classical liberal values, though.

    However, I think that the Lib Dems have set aside these values in favour of expediency. As a political philosopher myself, I'll never trust the Party again to genuinely hold to liberal ideals and aim to build policy around them. The sense that the Liberal Democrats lacked a "thick", constructed ideology and were only willing rely on the most uncontentious aspects of basic liberal democracy theory was a key reason why, a good number of years ago now, I decided to plump for Labour over the Lib Dems. The same sense that Labour preffered expediency over principle was a big contributor to me later leaving Labour in disgust. And I shan't get started on where Nick Clegg has taken the Party, and why I don't think he can ever be trusted to lead a philosophical recovery.

    All told, I've been thinking that we need a new centre-left political Party for a while now. Something underpinned by a combination of classical liberal values, civic republican theory and enlightened socialism, with both eyes on the future but educated by history. There are certainly ways to put something like that together, if the will can be found to do it.

  3. I agree with the above - We need a new party. Lib Dems put to one side their values (i believe) and stand by conservatives no matter what - Clegg has done the liberal cause no favours at all by playing underdog to cameron. I for one cannot vote liberal now as i feel stabbed in the back as they havent stood up for my, nor even their own values.

    Cant vote conservative as they are scummy. Labour seem to have lost the plot so it seems that all the three parties are now conservatives. The people are plebs and mean nothing - Everyone seems to be a benefit thief (when the biggest benefit thieves work in parliament giving themselves great handouts whilst stripping the poor of everything including food.

    It becomes worrying when one starts loking towards parties that would never have entered ones head previously.

    What i see is so any MPs taking from 'the pot' for themselves, selling off the country in little chunks to themselves and their friends from eton. 'Great' Britain is no longer great. We are not our own country any more we sold ourselves off into he slavery of the EU and of those who have sold most of what Britain once was off.

    'Britain never never never will be slaves'?

    Well - Britain are slaves - Sold off to all and sundry. And slaves of workfare meaning great companies get to use britains people for free, whilst we slowly starve to death and if one cannot work, you still get put on workfar you cannot do and then get sanctioned and starved to death. Either way it is a slow and sorry demise of what once was a great country to be proud of.
    No more though....... No more


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