04 November 2003

Freedom of choice as the only good

Here is Orthodox theologian David B. Hart on the nihilism threatening a society where choice takes priority over all other social goods:

We live in an age whose chief moral value has been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the absolute liberty of personal volition, the power of each of us to choose what he or she believes, wants, needs, or must possess; our culturally most persuasive models of human freedom are unambiguously voluntarist and, in a rather debased and degraded way, Promethean; the will, we believe, is sovereign because unpremised, free because spontaneous, and this is the highest good. And a society that believes this must, at least implicitly, embrace and subtly advocate a very particular moral metaphysics: the unreality of any “value” higher than choice, or of any transcendent Good ordering desire towards a higher end. Desire is free to propose, seize, accept or reject, want or not want—but not to obey. Society must thus be secured against the intrusions of the Good, or of God, so that its citizens may determine their own lives by the choices they make from a universe of morally indifferent but variably desirable ends, unencumbered by any prior grammar of obligation or value (in America, we call this the “wall of separation”). Hence the liberties that permit one to purchase lavender bed clothes, to gaze fervently at pornography, to become a Unitarian, to market popular celebrations of brutal violence, or to destroy one’s unborn child are all equally intrinsically “good” because all are expressions of an inalienable freedom of choice. But, of course, if the will determines itself only in and through such choices, free from any prevenient natural order, then it too is in itself nothing. And so, at the end of modernity, each of us who is true to the times stands facing not God, or the gods, or the Good beyond beings, but an abyss, over which presides the empty, inviolable authority of the individual will, whose impulses and decisions are their own moral index.

This lopsided focus on choice has concrete political consequences, as I have pointed out in chapter 2 of Political Visions and Illusions in discussing the fifth and most recent stage of liberalism, which embraces the choice-enhancement state. Here the state claims a benign neutrality amongst all personal preferences in a variety of areas.

Because the individual citizens are sovereign and because, further, individual preferences differ from one person to the next, the state must refrain from favouring one person’s preferences over another’s. It must simply establish the broad procedural framework within which individuals are enabled to pursue their chosen goals. In a political community containing Christians, Jews, theosophists, agnostics, golfers and sado-masochists, the state refrains from passing judgement on the goodness of any of these worldviews and/or proclivities and acts simply as referee. . . .

This means that what is conventionally called “legislating morality” is not to be admitted in the liberal state. Though not all professed liberals wish to see prostitutes and pornographers allowed to pursue freely their respective trades, there is a pronounced inclination in most to leave such matters to the workings of the market and to refrain from legislating a particular moral conception of, say, proper sexuality. . . .

But at this point fifth-stage liberalism encounters a dilemma. While the liberal state is supposed to refrain from judging the goodness of people’s choices and while it claims a benign neutrality towards the various options lying before its citizens, it cannot overlook the unequal consequences following from the exercise of these choices. . . .

When these undesirable consequences do indeed occur, rather than acknowledge that the quest to validate all lifestyle choices equally is a utopian one doomed to failure, fifth-stage liberals increasingly call on government to ameliorate, if not altogether eliminate, such consequences so they can continue to engage in this fruitless quest. This inevitably leads to an expansion in the scope of government that is difficult to contain within any boundaries whatever. As George F. Will observes, “The fundamental goal of modern liberalism has been equality, and it has given us government that believes in the moral equality of appetites. The result is a government that is big but not strong; fat but flabby; capable of giving but not leading.” This is the liberalism so often castigated by self-styled conservatives in the United States and Canada. Rather than calling on citizens to live up to their commitments and to fulfil their responsibilities throughout the range of communal contexts, this final stage of liberalism demands that government effectively subsidize irresponsible behaviour for fear that doing otherwise risks making government into a potentially oppressive legislator of the good life (pp. 61-64).

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