A Liberal Metaphysic

May 31, 2012

An interesting challenge over on Crooked Timber: given the willingness of liberals to dismiss the religious metaphysic of morals through the likes of the Euthyphro dilemma, are they able to provide a metaphysic that justifies their moral claims?

While the instinctive response of a liberal may be to dismiss such requests as irrelevant, or metaphysical requirements as the exclusive domain of those making religious claims (which is broadly what CT does), such a response would be intellectual cowardice. If nothing else, it is always an interesting puzzle to attempt to derive one’s position from first principles; indeed, it helps to illuminate those parts of our thought about which we are not quite as certain as we would like to be.

So let us begin. The first step is to reject the moral requirement placed here: liberalism does not necessarily make overt moral claims, but rather ethical claims.

These two terms are often used interchangeably, but this is incorrect: a moral claim relates to whether a particular action is good, while an ethical claim relates to whether a quality of character is good.

This distinction is important, because it allows us to illustrate what some traditional philosophical problems are really about. Consider the classic problem of who one saves from a burning bus: a child, or a middle-aged doctor on the brink of a cure for cancer? Such a question reveals our moral intuitions, but it does something beyond that: it allows us to contemplate and refine them.

This is crucial, because in a real-life situation one would not have time to weigh up the pros and cons of either action; one would simply have to act. What we want to do then, if we are looking to act morally, is to train our moral intuitions to respond correctly when under pressure – to cultivate our character so that the responses we provide when decisions are demanded of us are the right ones. Our response to the requirement to choose whether or not to kill the fat man is not determined by our split-second decisions at that point, but rather by our ethical character. The ethical act lies in the consideration of the decision, rather than the decision itself.

The problem, of course, is that we do not know which decisions are correct, and so we do not know what sort of character we should cultivate. Religion, in general, attempts to short-circuit this process by claiming that a range of decisions are correct, and so we should develop our characters in particular ways. It does this by making metaphysical appeals to features of the world which are not accessible to any of our traditional five senses. Liberalism, the argument goes, does not appeal to these ‘external’ features, and so makes ethical claims which are, in a sense, wholly arbitrary.

This may seem unfair, but it is a claim which can withstand some consideration. We are thrust into the world in possession of goals, whether they be simple aims to satisfy desires or more complex ethical and moral objectives. These goals are a precondition of our encountering the world – we perceive the world through them along with our other categories. It is useful to refer to Heidegger here – we encounter, say, a hammer through the nexus of our goals that a hammer can help us achieve. No object is outwith a use-value in terms of our objectives, as it is those goals which help bring it to life.

The problem is that use-value is fundamentally uncertain. So, the use value we ascribe to a hammer could be wrong. When we think our goals are best served by using the hammer to build a treehouse, those goals could be best served by using it to bludgeon to death a passing squirrel. The squirrel-killing use is not given to us by the hammer, but by the relationship between the hammer and everything else in the world, only part of which will be accessible to us at any given point.

Any decision we make in pursuit of our goals is therefore arbitrary, in the sense that it is made without any certainty as to whether it is the absolutely correct decision or not. This applies to any goal, whether it be religious or otherwise in nature. We do not know whether our aim of not killing is best served by cultivating a passive disposition, or whether a seemingly threatening disposition will preclude us from ever having to kill. The religious can, at least, be confident that not killing is the right thing to do. How they go about ensuring that they do not is still up for grabs.

How, therefore, does this provide us with a metaphysic of liberalism? It does so not by appealing to metaphysical features that are inaccessible to us, but rather by appealing to the features that provide the conditions for the possibility of accessibility: our goals. Despite the impossibility of certainty around their resolution, they remain goals, because they are a requirement of the way in which we encounter the world. It is impossible to have no wants while remaining alive and conscious. They bring meaning to the world, because things in the world only have meaning in the context of our goals. A beautiful view only has meaning in the context of beautiful views being something we seek out for the pleasure to be gained from them.

With this in mind, we need to consider how we best seek to achieve our goals in a context in which absolute knowledge is impossible, but relative knowledge is not. We can make claims that a given quality of character is more likely to respond usefully in a given situation than another, in much the same way as we can make the claim that a hammer is relatively better than a sponge at bashing nails into bits of wood. We can do so based on our experience and a broad range of exemplars of different goals and different approaches to reaching them that we can call Other People.

As long as we don’t do anything to excessively upset them, Other People will go about their lives trying out lots of different ways of achieving practically any goal we can possibly think of as a consequence of their enormous range of different characters. We can talk to them and compare notes, co-operate to achieve goals we can’t achieve ourselves, and increase our relative understanding of how we achieve our goals. If we try to control them, then we’ll cut the amount of useful information we can receive, because instead of trying out their own ways of reaching their goals, they’ll be using ours.

The absolutely uncertainty with which we encounter the world makes the freedom of everyone else crucial to our own objectives. Murder, control and other constraints upon other people serve to diminish our potential pool of information. Regardless of what our goals are, our approach to the Good, if there is such a thing, is always best served by liberalism. Without learning from the character of others, we can only cultivate our own in a small, niggardly way. Deprived of the richness of the other, our own characters are lessened.

We approach the world in such a way as to enable others to have freedom not because some metaphysical feature of the world says that freedom is a good thing, but because the freedom of others is necessary to discover how to achieve the goals we necessarily possess as a consequence of being in the world. This is a transcendental basis for liberalism, a metaphysic which says that the beginnings of our ethical character are not given by an external feature of the world, but an internal feature of the way in which we encounter it – which, in itself, is beyond the world, as it constitutes it for us.

Official lawyer to the Twitterati David Allen Green asks us whether it was necessary that a polity – a concept of political power, such as that bound up with kingship – arose amongst our forebears, or whether a more primitive form of organisation such as that represented by silverback gorillas could have continued to hold sway.

The answer to this question is given by public choice theory and what it tells us about the role of incentives in politics. There are a range of incentives to be in charge in a primitive society, ranging from mating rights through to allocating food to favoured members of the group. These are advantages that, in evolutionary terms, would be useful to pass on to offspring. As a group grows larger, with more members, the dominance of a single individual is difficult to sustain without allies. Securing these allies involves providing incentives, including – for example – exclusive access to a female. This can result in offspring in the group that are not the descendents of the silverback. In order to maintain privileges for its offspring, the silverback will seek to incentivise allies to protect its offspring, as well as maintain its dominance. Allies whose incentives are reliant upon the silverback will, henceforth, be reliant upon maintaining the position of its offspring following its death, in case the winner of a power struggle following its death does not regard them as allies.

This is something of a just-so story, but there is an important point. In the wild, gorillas actually have multiple forms of social organisation, including groups with a single silverback, a silverback and several male descendents, and indeed all-male groups. Groups compete for resources just as much as individuals, and a group that can leverage more members as a result of a form of political organisation that permits more members to live side by side without conflict will be more effective at competing for resources.

Spreading resources round creates the incentives necessary to form larger societies, and it is through the polity that this is achieved. There is an interesting lesson here for the present day.

Over on City AM, Eamonn Butler, the Director of the Adam Smith Institute, has written an article about what he calls the ‘powerful moral arguments’ against taxation. It’s fairly standard Randian demagoguery about taxation being confiscation through force, the use of force being necessarily evil; clearly, no-one should ever try to section a libertarian even if they’re a danger to themselves.

Butler also argues that people who disagree with what the Government does with their money are being forced to pay for things they don’t agree with. This is absolutely true, and a good thing too: if Government had refused to collect taxes during World War 1 because conscientious objectors didn’t want their taxes to be used to fight the dastardly Hun, we’d be part of the Second Reich. One of the downsides of living in society is that you’re prevented from doing absolutely everything you want, because other people have opinions about how things should be done. Adults realise this and figure out how to work with others to achieve the majority of what they want while comprising where necessary; children join the contemporary Republican Party.

This is because, quite fundamentally, moral claims are not relative when you’re the person making that moral claim. If you think doing a particular thing is good, then you think it’s good regardless of whether someone else thinks it’s bad. If you and that other person have to get along, then you need to find a way of compromising over this. If both of you think your moral claim should be privileged, then you’ll compete to find a way of implementing it. In a democracy, this often takes the form of competing over the right to implement a moral claim as part of law. In this context, the compromise is that you both sign up to a system that adjudicates the competition: democracy.

However, Butler seems to be saying that because all claims are relative to the person making them, allowing one moral claim to win out is bad. This is classic moral relativism, but in itself it involves a moral claim: that any form of non-individual moral adjudication is bad. Luckily, for those of us who disagree with this claim, it’s repeatedly lost out in the competition we run to determine who gets to implement their moral claims. By pushing it in the pages ofCity AM, Butler seems to want to get into this competition.


Butler also goes for the now classic claim that higher taxation means people give less to charity, based on two data points: the US and the UK. This has been repeated so many times it’s almost become a trope, but is it really the case?

Let’s map out this by using the Heritage Institute’s figures for percentage of GDP made up of Government spending in 2012 and the comparative data of the John Hopkins Centre for Civil Society Studies from between 1995-2002. While the distance between these two dates is a factor, comparable data for 1995-2002 is not readily available. The length of time the JHCCSS study covers should provide a useful average that we can extrapolate, however, especially as the relative figures for the US and the UK are broadly in line with the figures that Butler uses.

This is Government spending as a percentage of GDP against share of GDP made up by charitable giving:

It should be immediately obvious that there’s no relation, and indeed the correlation between the two is 0.13, implying if anything a tiny positive effect. However, the relationship between Government spending and volunteering as a percentage of GDP is more interesting:

The correlation is relatively higher at 0.44, implying that people in countries with a higher share of Government spending as a percentage of GDP are more likely to spend more time volunteering. This would imply that voting for a higher tax take by the Government is related in a positive way to people being willing to spend their own time working for society.

A rival to liberalism

May 17, 2012

Flip Chart Fairy Tales has put up an interesting post entitled ‘A post-liberal future‘. In it, they argue that economic and social liberalism has been the dominant force in our politics for the last quarter century, exemplified in both Thatcher and Blair. Both of the large parties have represented an alliance between liberal and illiberal political objectives, with the liberal objectives of both parties winning out over the illiberal. FCFT summarises this thusly:

“As it reached out to the increasingly powerful middle classes, the old Tory Party of army, church and king adopted economic liberalism to appeal to business interests. The Labour Party fused middle-class radical liberalism with working class socialism and trade unionism, attracting prominent radicals, like the Foots and Benns, away from the old Liberal Party.”

FCFT then covers the reasons why this dominance may be coming to an end with the resurgence of anti-individualism in our politics. Certainly, one can see this at opposite ends of the traditional political spectrum – Blue Labour was in essence a call for the privileging of the working-class community over the success of the individual, while Conservative back benchers with a focus on pro-marriage legislation and law and order have a similar bent. It is in essence a debate over what society should prioritise: individual freedom or social capital, John Stuart Mill versus Karl Polanyi.

It is, however, still a debate which is hopelessly confused. UKIP, a party that takes most of its votes from tradition-bound Tories, is lead by a libertarian. The new economics foundation, a thinktank that focuses on bringing in Polanyi-esque solutions to social problems, has a workstream focusing on providing the individual with tools to participate in democratic decision-making. The majority of the UK’s political discourse still focuses on the question of the distribution of economic resources, rather than the moral focus of society.

However, this has not always been the case. The resurgence of social capital in our political discourse is not new, but rather an old thing come again. The political division at the start of the last century between Liberals and Conservatives encapsulated that distinction. For liberalism to no longer become the dominant political ideology would require a realignment along the same lines as the one which originally led to the ‘strange death of liberal England’. To put this in graphic form, it would require a shift of political alliances from this:

To this:

Such a dramatic realignment of our politics seems unlikely. However, there are signs that it is happening. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the No2AV campaign was the willingness of Old Labour and the more regressive Conservatives to sit down together in order to secure the existing voting system. Indeed, we saw Cameron share a platform with John Reid, something almost unprecedented. John Cruddas, one of the architects of Blue Labour, is rumoured to be in favour of an in-out referendum on Europe – something which would put him in bed with the Tory backbenches.

A real political realignment would not be an overnight affair, judging by the experience of the old Liberal Party. Rather, it would involve coalitions, insurgent new parties, and a willingness shown by parliamentarians to hop the benches to a place that suits their political goals more effectively. The first two are taking place. We have yet to see any significant evidence of the third.

The lovely folk of Occupy have finally put together a list of policy demands, which have been perhaps unfairly compared to the demands of every student union for the last century. It’s true that they are long on rhetoric and short on actual research on how their world would actually work in practice and why it’s different to the forms of socialism we’ve already tried. It’s also true that they haven’t stopped to think about how the words in their manifesto cash out once they’re translated into their underlying components. For example:

“The economy must be put to the service of people’s welfare, and to support and serve the environment, not private profit. We want a system where labour is appreciated by its social utility, not its financial or commercial profit.”

What is ‘the economy’? The economy is the labour of everyone, the products of the effort of everyone in our country and on our planet. Translated, this means that everyone must be forced to labour for people’s welfare, which while it is a noble end is hardly a noble means. Slavery in the service of virtue remains slavery.

Unless the Occupy people can find a way of reconciling this fundamental problem, their manifesto will pass into history as yet another attempt to claim socialism works. History has already had other ideas.