Legality, Social Authority and Liberal Democracy

Interestingly, within the realm of social critique liberal democratic societies like Canada, the US and the nations of Western Europe are subject to two seemingly contradictory criticisms. On one hand some traditionalists find liberal democratic societies decadent and troublesome, as liberal democracies often do away with more traditional social goods and give rise to an aimless, meandering freedom. Consequently according to this type of critic liberal democratic societies are too permissive and fail to promote the traditions that are at the core of each nation’s history. On the other hand some on the progressive left decry the authoritarian nature of these very same liberal democratic societies as while these societies proclaim freedom, there is still a great amount of pressure to pursue career success, reproduce, get married and check all the other boxes that society deems to be part of a worthwhile life. Thus for all of the rhetoric of freedom liberal democratic societies are actually quite authoritarian as societies demean people who do not bow to social pressure and reject its values, and honour those who simply mimic what society values. These two critiques are in stark opposition to each other, but I want to say that both point out a significant aspect of social authority, if dimly.

Social authority is the sum of ideas, goods and values through which society expresses what it values and shames or honours its individual members; while the illegal is typically shamed and the legal honoured, social authority does not simply honour what is law, and dishonour what is illegal, as society will often shame legal activities such as adultery, alcohol abuse, or just generally being a jerk. Thus, while there are significant connections between what social authority shames and honours and law, the two are distinct as social authority will often dishonour and shame perfectly legal activities.

The traditionalist critique rightly points out that in liberal democratic societies there is tension between law and social authority, and that this tends to encourage a permissive culture to develop. For example, if we look at the case of abortion we can see how this operates. When abortion is made legal by a state this does not mean that people cannot still think, and a culture cannot still adopt the stance that abortion is bad. It merely means that the requirements of equality require that the state not prevent women from pursuing abortions. But the traditionalist argues that in rendering abortion legal, the state tends to unleash forces that in time will lead to abortion being viewed as something that is not shameful or a necessary evil. And this seems plausible because if we are willing to permit something to occur in our society and give its practise the support of law it clearly cannot be that bad, and it may not be bad at all. Thus, when something that is shameful from the perspective of social authority in a liberal democracy is made legal over time social attitudes towards this practise will begin to accept it validity, and thus a more permissive culture will be created.

So, what the traditionalist gets right is that because liberal democracies tend towards legalizing activities that do not violate the basic rights of others even when these activities are deemed to be shameful, these sort of societies tend to become more culturally, as opposed to legally, permissive over time. In essence, after an activity gains legal recognition as valid that activity will gain validity in cultural or social terms as social authority will tend not to shame the activity. Now unlike the traditionalist I do not decry this development in many cases, but I think the traditionalist is right to notice this tendency in liberal democratic societies.

Similarly, the progressive critique of social authority in liberal democratic societies quite astutely points out that even when there is no law against a particular activity this does not mean that social authority will not shame the activity or view it as less valuable than the norm. There may be a tendency for legally valid modes of activity be barred from the shaming tendencies of social authority, but this is a mere tendency, not an eventuality. Furthermore, it is something that admits of degrees. Certainly attitudes, and consequently the perspective of social authority, towards non-monogamous relationships has become much more sympathetic and accepting since the existence of laws against adultery have been reversed, but attitudes towards it still view non-monogamous relationships as less valuable than monogamous one. Consequently, the process legal change makes to social authority often occur very slowly, and furthermore, there is no guarantee that because non-monogamous relationships are legal that eventually social authority will eventually come to the conclusion that non-monogamous relationships are equally valid to monogamous relationships. Due to the slow pace of change of social authority even after legal recognition of the validity of an activity or way of life has been given, people who engage in these activities or way of life may be still be subject to cultural modes of oppression.

We can see this in the case of LGBT quite clearly. Since the mid 20th century throughout the US and Canada these groups have received progressive legal recognition of their status as equals. But even with this change there is still a great degree of shame that people in this group experience, because elements of social authority still tends to view being LGBT as worse than being heterosexual. This can have severe effects on the self-esteem, emotional well being and the sense of freedom that people in these groups experience. They may have feelings of inadequacy, and struggle to see themselves as possessing dignity as the image of their identity that is represented to them by society is one that tends to be demeaning, superficial or unduly negative. So clearly, in this case social authority has a negative effect on the development and well being of LGBT individuals despite the fact that in Canada and the US legal recognition of equality of status has made great strides. Therefore, the progressive critique rightly points out the way in which social authority can cause harm to human beings, and the way in which liberal democracies do not guarantee the fullest freedom for all through law, as many are still left feeling excluded, alienated, and unworthy.

From the preceding we can see that both the traditionalist and progressive critique get at something important about social authority in liberal democracies, but while they both get an aspect of the situation both fail for reasons that I will get into below.

In the case of the traditionalist critique the problem is that their argument fetishizes whatever social authority currently says, and somewhat blindly opposes allowing individuals to pursue what they deem to be best or most pleasant. The problem with this is that while the creation of a more permissive culture may be problematic if it destroys valuable social goods that are necessary for and constitute the well-being and solidarity of society, there is no reason to think that making a culture permissive will necessarily lead to the decay of valuable social goods in a liberal democracy. Our opposition should not therefore be to cultural permissiveness per se, but cultural permissiveness that can be shown to damage valuable social goods. But the argument then is not about reducing or increasing the permissiveness of culture or social authority, but what kind of social authority and culture best conduce to supporting social goods. And once we accept this argument we must forgo traditionalism, because if what matters is social goods and the way social authority supports them the question is not how to preserve existing social authority to support social goods, but what form of social authority best supports social goods in general.

On the other hand, the progressive critique is equally confused because the logical outcome of it is that we should be creating a form of social authority in which no one feels excluded, marginalized, alienated or unworthy. But given the way in which culture and social authority operate this is strictly speaking impossible unless there are no minorities in a society who have conceptions of the good that are distinct from the majority society. I say that this is impossible because as long as there is a majority culture that majority culture will esteem certain values, goods and ideas and demean others, as valuing something necessitates disvaluing something else. As soon as the majority culture esteems certain goods and values, these goods and values will become the perspective of social authority, because through digital media, literature, education and other modes of social reproduction the superiority of these goods and values over others will be expressed. Now given that we have social authority that esteems certain goods and values and demeans others in this society, people who value goods antagonistic to social authority will feel demeaned, as they will be viewed as the threatening other who is an enemy, threat, or useless to society. In which case we have the exact same type of cultural oppression that we mentioned earlier with LGBT individuals. For example, if a society values career success as its fundamental good, then individuals who balk at this value and instead support the superiority of a life of quiet contemplation and simplicity, these opposing individuals will be demeaned and viewed as a threat to society, and thus experience cultural oppression.

While the preceding shows the impossibility, in a society with diversity, of a form of social authority that does not lead to people feeling excluded, demeaned or alienated it does not show that diversity is required for a just or valuable society. Perhaps the just society is one in which all diversity has been overcome? However, I strongly doubt this, as a society without diversity would be one where no one could learn anything from others because if everyone has the same opinions about what is valuable, there would be no reason to speak to others as they could have nothing interesting, insightful or new to say that you had not thought of. But surely this society would be deeply impoverished as learning from others is a deeply significant value in any society. This imagined homogenous society would only be fit for a beast or a God, as only a beast or a God rather than a human being has no need to learn anything. A mere animal has no need to learn anything from others, because its instinct provides it with everything it needs, and God has no need to learn anything because he is perfect and self-sufficient. However, human beings are always in a quest to discover what is truly valuable, as our instinct does not equip us with what we need for a valuable life. Often times we abandon this quest and distract ourselves, but in the course of our lives we are trying to figure this out, and it is through encounters with others who disagree with us that we can question our existing sense of what is valuable, and move to one that is more satisfactory. This may have been why Aristotle said only a beast or God could live outside the city, because humans unlike beasts and God need to encounter diversity to have full lives. Beasts are fine as long as they procreate and survive and God, as an all-knowing being, has no need for others, but humans call out for more than procreation and survival, but also are not self-sufficient and thus require distinct others to engage with. Therefore, human beings requires society with diversity for their fulfillment, and thus it seems implausible that diversity would not be required for the existence of a valuable or just society.

So the question we must ask when thinking about social authority in liberal democracies is not how to avoid people feeling excluded or demeaned as this is bound to occur as long as there is a majority culture, or how to preserve existing social authority. Instead the question we should be asking is how do we create a form of social authority that at once complements law in supporting social goods and also does so in a way that allows us to engage with others so that we can learn through the conversations we have. This requires us however to both avoid fetishizing already existing social authority, and the attempt to structure social authority such that it does not demean the values of any group within society.

Now some may find it a bit harsh that I am saying that a valuable society should not try to structure social authority so that no one feels demeaned or excluded. However, it should be noted that the fact that social authority should not be structured does not mean that other actions should not be taken to avoid people feeling demeaned or excluded, it just means that we cannot abolish diversity in the name of ensuring feeling of marginalization, exclusion and alienation are avoided.


On Ranking Music

Rob and Alice sit at a café, in a trendy section of downtown Ottawa, enjoying biscotti with their coffee.

Rob: After we finish having our coffee did you want to go to “Make Mine Vinyl” and pick up some records?

Alice: I would be down with that, but I don’t know if I will get anything while we are there.

Rob: Why is that? There are always interesting records to check out. If you don’t have money on you, I can front for you.

Alice: No. That is not necessary. The issue is not that I don’t have money on me, or even that I don’t want to buy a new record. I just find myself overwhelmed by the amount of music I already have; I can’t find the time to truly listen to all of it.

Rob: I guess that makes sense. I have run into this problem myself in the past, but I have a found a way to deal with it.

Alice: How do you deal with it?

Rob: I make sure to set aside a certain amount of time per week to listen to new records, and rate them on Rate Your Music. This way I don’t get behind schedule and find myself in a situation where I have not heard all of the new releases that I want to listen to.

Alice: You rate the records right after listening to them? How many times do you listen to them before you put in your rating?

Rob: I usually listen to them once or twice before ranking them to be fair, and I typically put in the ranking right after I complete my listening. It is kind of part of the process.

Alice: That seems like an efficient approach. How many records have you ranked since starting this?

Rob: I have 1500 records logged on Rate Your Music. How many do you have?

Alice: I don’t use Rate Your Music, but I keep track of my thoughts on each record and have ranked about 300 or so.

Rob: Only 300 or so? I know you have listened to far more than 300 records. Why have you only ranked 300 or so? Do you feel like you have no time for that as well?

Alice: To some degree I feel like I don’t have time, but I also struggle with ranking every record that I have listened to. It feels somehow artificial to put in a ranking for a record just because I have listened to it a couple of times.

Rob: I don’t understand. What feels artificial about it? If you have listened to the record you would most certainly have a judgment on it. Wouldn’t you?

Alice: If am going to rank a record I want to make sure I really understand it, and have given it the opportunity to present itself to me. This will sometimes happen after the first listen, but in other cases the record will seem opaque and I feel I have not really understood what this record is. In these cases, I could just ascribe a ranking to it based on some arbitrary criteria, but that would seem to devalue the record. If I am going to make a pronouncement on a record I want to feel as though I have really figured it out.

Rob: That is interesting, but isn’t any form of ranking of records just selecting a numeric value for the record based on some arbitrary criteria? Some people might attribute more of their rating to their sheer enjoyment of the record, while others might look at originality, musical innovation, lyrical profundity or cohesiveness in order to make their ranking. But in the end, isn’t all of it arbitrary?

Alice: You’re right that people typically rank records in this fashion, but isn’t there something troubling about this? If we rank records just because we can pronounce judgment on them, doesn’t this mean we are ranking records for the sake of ranking records?

Rob: I don’t think so. What do you mean by ranking records for their own sake?

Alice: I mean isn’t music supposed to be something that speaks to us? If our main goal in listening to records is to rank them then aren’t we treating records as objects to be organized into a hierarchy, rather than looking at them and trying to grasp if and how they speak to us? Are records a plaything for our creative amusement in organization and categorization? Or are they unique pieces that call out to be fully grasped and understood?

Rob: I don’t see why records can’t be both. When I sit down to listen to a record and rank it, I do so with an open mind.

Alice: It may be true that you so do with an open mind, but if you are using the method you described earlier and ranking a record after one or two listens what happens when a record does not speak to you after those one or two listens?

Rob: It means that the record deserves a low or mediocre ranking. My view could change if I listen to it again and realize that the record does something well that I had not noticed during my initial listens.

Alice: But how often do you go back to listen to records that did not speak to you upon the initial ranking? If you have to keep up with listening and ranking a bunch of new records where do you find the time?

Rob: It is hard to find time, but I think it is very unlikely that a record would not speak to me on my first couple listens and then somehow speak to me later, so I tend not to go back and listen to them. But I am comfortable with that.

I think the issue is that you don’t like the idea of ranking all of your records because then it might leave you open to ridicule for your rankings and you would have to commit to your rankings.

Alice: Or maybe I am interested in grasping and understanding records, rather than viewing the fact that I listen to them as a badge of my status as a music scholar?

You recognize that you do not go back to records if they do not grab you after one or two listens. Isn’t this precisely viewing music as something not to be grasped and understood, but just to be ranked, organized into a hierarchy and thrown away?

Rob: I am not like that at all! Just because I rank every album I listen to and post it to a website does not mean that I am doing so for the sake of establishing some kind of status as a musical authority, or that I don’t try grasp the record. I just happen to really like to rank records and it is good way to keep occupied when I am not at work, or with friends.

Alice: You know yourself better than me, but I still think my general point holds and that there may be better ways to keep occupied than keeping up with, and ranking, new releases.

What does “liberalism” mean?

The word “liberalism” is a key concept both within the political vernacular of post-industrial societies as well as within the academy. But this word does not seem to have a fixed, singular meaning, rather different groups seem to use this term to refer to entirely different social phenomena and theoretical justifications. In this entry I would like to unpack some of the different ways in which the term “liberal” and “liberalism” is used and show that we ought to explain what we mean by this term when using it in conversation with others because it seems to refer to a disparate set of phenomena and ideas.

In everyday use in North America the term liberal refers to someone who is on the left side of the political spectrum. In this sense the word liberal denotes a broad acceptance of, and enthusiasm for a welfare state that will ensure the equality, and freedom of all, as well as a broad acceptance of difference. Liberalism, in this sense, let’s call it Sense 1 Liberalism, is defined in opposition to conservatism which is understood in terms of adherence to free enterprise, and a general uneasiness with the recognition of difference, whether cultural, racial or sexual. Within everyday political discourse when someone says liberal this is typically what they mean, however there are many other uses of the terms liberal, and liberalism, which display very different meanings.

Another sense of the term “liberalism” is that which refers to an approach to political economy which emphasizes the efficiency of markets and their self-regulating nature as well as the fact that the state should be as minimal as possible as is consistent with ensuring a large degree of economic growth. This is often referred to as neoliberalism; the rationale behind calling this orientation towards the economy neoliberalism is that it is return to the 19th century liberalism of laissez faire capitalism. But for our purposes let us call this Sense 2 Liberalism, as people will still often refer to liberal economics or liberalism to refer to this doctrine that emphasizes the primacy of markets.

One other way in which the term liberalism is used is particularly predominant in the academy among critical theorists (Marxists, Radical Feminists etc) and some Communitarians. In this context liberalism is a pejorative used to describe a mixture of political, cultural and economic attitudes within liberal democratic societies. This term does not describe any particular theory, but the status quo within liberal societies such as Canada, the United States, and many countries within Western Europe among others. Let us call this Sense 3 Liberalism.

One final way in which liberalism is used is common within the Anglo-American academy, especially among Political Philosophers and Political Theorists. This sense of liberalism posits that liberalism is a family of political philosophies that emphasizes that the point of the state is to ensure the equal freedom of all individuals under it. There are of course differing variants of liberalism in this sense that range between more market capitalist oriented interpretations and more egalitarian interpretations that accept as much state intervention in the economy as most socialists would. Furthermore, some variants emphasize that ensuring equal freedom is necessary to support an autonomous life, while others suppose that ensuring equal freedom is not necessary to another end, but something that is required to treat a person with respect, but they all share this broad commitment to equal freedom of the individual. Let us call this Sense 4 Liberalism. The philosophies of Locke, Mill, Rawls, Dworkin and Waldron would all be examples of Sense 4 Liberalism.

Now we can see that all of these meanings of liberalism share some commonalities, in that they all have something to do with freedom and the individual, but beyond that there is not much that unites them at the level of meaning. For example, I would say that I am a supporter of Sense 4 Liberalism, while I am not a supporter of Sense 2 or Sense 3 Liberalism. The fact that I think that the state should ensure that all those who live under it are accorded equal freedom, need not mean that I support the current state of culture, politics, and economics within liberal democratic societies. Societies that are based on principles that correspond to Sense 4 Liberalism do tend to have vices similar to those of Sense 3 Liberalism, but this does not mean that supporters of Sense 4 Liberalism need to support these vices.

The trouble is that often people use one sense of the term liberalism, without explaining what the term means, to either support or critique liberalism. When this occurs the others listening to this person will often be confused because if the person is critiquing Sense 3 Liberalism, and say liberalism necessary leads to a shallow society, and their interlocutor thinks of liberalism in terms of Sense 1 Liberalism then they will be puzzled and confused by the critics comments. Furthermore, if they are a supporter of Sense 4 Liberalism they may get very defensive because this person is suggesting that a mere commitment to the notion that ensuring equal freedom is the fundamental aim of the state means that one is also encouraging the creation of a shallow society. Consequently, using the term liberalism without explanation of what one means is a strategy that tends to lead to confusion. It should be noted that each of these senses of the term liberalism flourishes in differing set of topical spaces, but these spaces often overlap such that if the exclusive user of Sense 2 Liberalism is encountered by exclusive users of Sense 4 Liberalism and neither party is willing to explain what they mean by liberalism than confusion, will ultimately arise. Consequently, we should be very careful when using the term liberalism to explain what we mean, so that they we don’t confuse our interlocutors.

Yet a further difficulty occurs in that liberalism is a word that typically attracts either feelings of condemnation or praise. Whatever sense of the word liberalism is dominant in someone’s lexicon, they ordinarily have strong thoughts about it. Thus, the term liberalism tends to be used less as a device to explain one’s position, than as a rhetorical device that signifies either pure goodness or wretchedness. For example, many critical theorists use liberal or liberalism as a synonym for bad (the badness of late capitalist society). While many market liberals use liberalism as a synonym for goodness (the goodness of the market). Thus, it seems that in the context of the use of the word liberalism at the very least Alasdair MacIntyre is right to suggest that in the modern world concepts that seem to have a distinct meaning are used more to express approval and disapproval than to actually convey a coherent position about the nature of the right or the good. Clearly, it would be problematic for rational ethical/political dialogue if all that we were doing through it was expressing approval or disapproval without conveying a substantive coherent position about the good, but if we continue to use the term liberalism as it is being used then at least in the case of liberalism we would not actually be engaging in a rational exchange about the nature of the good, rather we would be trying to bludgeon one another with our approval or disapproval of an abstraction.

Given the dilemma sketched above, we have to ensure that when engaging in ethical or political dialogue with others we use terms like liberal, that at once refer to disparate phenomena, but also are subjects of condemnation or praise, in a way that recognizes that the other may not just disagree with us about whether the term deserves praise or condemnation, but rather may mean something entirely different by the term. This will require us to avoid using the term as a merely polemical device, and rather require us to explain what it is we are supporting and condemning. In the abstract this may seem like an obvious requirement of rational dialogue, but the dialogue in our society suggests that then we are confronted with opponents we rarely engage in dialogue in this way. Consequently, when engaging dialogue we need to think about what we are doing, and be sure that we are taking the steps necessary to help the other understand our position, rather than merely beat them.

Reason, providence, inspiration and value conflict: Is reason able to reconcile value conflict?

Many people within developed western nations believe that if reason is applied consistently we will be able to create the most perfect society imaginable. I call this idea providential rationalism. From the standpoint of providential rationalism it is through rational speech that we are able to overcome conflict between seemingly opposed values and it is through the application of reason that we will be able develop technology that will enable us to truly be masters of our destiny. For the purposes of this entry I will examine the former facet of providential rationalism, while not considering the latter in detail. In particular, I will show that this facet of providential rationalism, let us call it dialogical providential rationalism, is implausible unless one assumes some form of providence. Furthermore, I will argue that that the alternative view that reason is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for the overcoming of value conflict is more plausible than dialogical providential rationalism.

Dialogical providential rationalism rightly points out that when conflicts between seemingly opposed values are overcome, this occurs through the medium of rational speech. Through an exchange of arguments , we come to either see that the conflict between values was really illusory, or that one value is more important on reflection and consequently should take precedence when the two conflict. For example, it might seem that the value of the family is threatened by having the state intervene in family life where this is necessary to ensure a decent level of well-being for the child, as the family is necessarily based on paternal authority, rather than state authority. But on reflection this conflict is only illusory as it seems more plausible to think that the people, through the state, entrust parents with authority over their children on the conditions that the parents adequately provide for their children. However, if the parents break the element of the social contract that requires parents to adequately provide for their children, then the state may intervene because the entire point of parental authority is to secure the proper development of children. Consequently, while there seemed to be a conflict between the family and the rights of children, this conflict is not really a conflict at all. I am not expecting everyone to buy into this particular interpretation of the conflict between the family and the rights of children, rather it is just an example to show how seeming value conflict can be overcome.

However, the problem with dialogical providential rationalism is that it suggests that reason is sufficient to overcome all conflict between values. This seems implausible as there are many conflicts that do not seem to be reconcilable no matter how much we argue about these values. It seems plausible to think that if some reasonable person committed to the belief that equal freedom is the fundamental end of the state, and a reasonable person who believes that happiness is the ultimate end of the state would never come to an agreement about the ultimate end of the state. It is possible that they will be able to convince one another, or come up with an imaginative solution to reconcile their conflict, but it does not seem to be true that if they spoke for long enough they would overcome this conflict. What makes conflict between values so difficult to overcome is that the only way the conflict can be overcome is if the subjects to the disagreement are persuaded by some solution to the conflict. If one party provides a solution to the value conflict, but the other is not persuaded by the solution, then the conflict has not been overcome.

In consideration of the preceding, it seems to only make sense to think that if two reasonable agents reason for long enough about a value conflict, they will be able to overcome the conflict, if we assume that nature or God has structured reason and humanity in such a way that all conflicts can be reconciled with the application of enough rational speech. Furthermore, what is the belief that God or nature has made it so that reason can overcome all value conflicts, but a belief in a providential universe? Consequently, it seems that dialogical providential rationalism depends on the assumption of providence. Of course it is true that when we look back at history we see that seemingly opposed conflicts between values have been overcome, but this only suggests that reason has overcome some value conflicts, not that reason can overcome all value conflicts. Thus, this fact does nothing to damage the argument I have put forth. It should be noted that I am not arguing that providence is an implausible belief, but that dialogical providential rationalism assumes that we live in a providential universe.

The alternative that I would put forth to dialogical providential rationalism is that reason aids humans in overcome conflict between values, but that reason is a necessary as opposed to a sufficient condition for the overcoming of such conflict. But if reason is only a necessary condition for the overcoming of conflict between values, then some other element is necessary to overcome conflict between values. The other element is inspiration or imagination. This is made clear because in order to overcome conflict one must be possessed by something like, artistic inspiration, or imagination, in that the agents engaged in dialogue must imaginatively go beyond their current understanding of the values to reconcile the conflict. If the agents just reiterate arguments in favour of one value within the conflict, it is highly unlikely that the conflict will be overcome. But, if they are inspired and imaginatively reconcile the insights behind the conflicting values, then the value conflict may be overcome.

In many ways the overcoming of value conflict is like the creation of music, rather than the building of a house according to a blueprint. In creating music one cannot just decide that at 3:00PM one will write a piece of music, rather inspiration strikes and you are able to create something beautiful and unique. And when inspiration strikes is a matter of fortune rather than human control. Likewise, with value conflict simple rational argument is not sufficient to overcome the conflict, rather the agents must be struck by some kind of inspiration that enables them to see beyond their current understanding of the values to an understanding that is deeply convincing to all subjects of the disagreement, but yet overcomes the conflict. Furthermore, like with musical inspiration the imagination required to overcome value conflict is something that one is struck by, rather than something that one controls. Consequently, reason is a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition for the reconciliation of value conflict, and over and above reason what enables value conflict to be reconciled is being struck by inspiration. The alternative that I have put forth seems plausible as it recognizes that reason is the only tool that humans are in control of that can assist them in overcoming value conflict, but it also recognizes the limits of reason in facilitating the reconciliation of value conflict. Therefore, the alternative I have put forth seems to be more plausible than dialogical providential rationalism.

Reason is an amazing capacity of human beings, and it has great value. For example, it can help us to better understand others and learn from them. But we need to clearly understand its limits so that we do not turn reason into an idol that can solve all of our problems. Reason may be a less dangerous idol, than others, but when it is transformed into an idol, it still poses great dangers.

The Hypocrite in Western Liberal Democratic Culture

Within western liberal democracies, the sin of hypocrisy is viewed as particularly pernicious. This is evidenced by the fact that if someone can be shown to have committed the sin of hypocrisy they are condemned and ignored. For example, I have recently ran into people who consider it to be hypocritical to critique Russia’s policy on gay rights, while remaining silent on the situation of gay rights in Saudi Arabia. Surely, this critic has a point that it is hypocritical to engage in such actions as one is not consistently critiquing all nations who fail to meet their standards for human rights, but the hypocrisy of such agents does not invalidate the point that is being made about Russia’s policies. However, in practise legitimately pointing out hypocrisy has the impact of suggesting that the hypocrite’s point is invalid because of his hypocrisy; if one shows that one’s interlocutor is being hypocritical typically the hypocrites arguments will be ignored. Consequently, the charge of hypocrisy, even if not intended as such, acts as a silencing mechanism that can be used to ignore the arguments that the convicted hypocrite is making.

Given the preceding it seems necessary to better understand why we view hypocrisy as such a pernicious sin, and if on reflection it makes sense to view hypocrisy as any more evil than other vices. For the rest of this entry I will examine these questions.

One reason why hypocrisy is viewed as so pernicious is that while western liberal democracies are secular, they bear the history of hundreds of years of Christianity, and Christianity condemns the hypocrite. The hypocrite is a particularly problematic figure in Christianity, because Christianity suggests that we are all essentially sinful, and plausibly suggests that because we are all sinful we should not pass judgment on others. The hypocrite will often pass judgment on others, and thus under a Christian interpretation the hypocrite seems to represent something opposed to the maxims of Christianity, as the hypocrite is not without sin, and yet he engages in passing judgment on others. Consequently, the Christian heritage of western liberal democratic societies certainly would reinforce hatred for the hypocrite. I am not suggesting that the message of Christianity is reducible to what I have disclosed above, but rather that the hypocrite seems oppositional to particular elements of Christianity.

One other reason why hypocrisy is viewed as particularly pernicious is that the hypocrite often offends the pride of other human beings; however, it should be noted that this factor is not specific to western liberal democracies. Due to the fact that we take pride in our lives, and like to think of ourselves as living decent, good lives, we take particular issue with someone who suggests that we are not leading good lives. In many cases such critics have failed to live up to their own standards for the good, so in order to avoid confronting the question of whether we are leading good lives, we point out that this person is a hypocrite, as this will end the conversation and allow us to preserve the image of ourselves as leading good lives. Therefore, our pride also contributes to the condemnation of the hypocrite.

Clearly, hypocrisy is not a positive quality, but it should be noted that within western liberal democracies it seems that it is viewed as one of the worst vices that a person can have. For example, it seems clear that we view the hypocrite as worse than the coward as we do not see people referring to others as cowards as a way of silencing them, but it does not seem to me to be at all clear that hypocrisy is worse than cowardice. If it is hypocritical to preach something, but fails to meet the standards that one preaches, then hypocrisy is a vice, but it is certainly not the worst quality that one could have. And I would say it is better to fail to meet the standards that one preaches, than to be unable to face one’s fears.

However, at this point it might be noted that hypocrisy is more than failing to meet the standards that one preaches, it is rather being duplicitous and presenting oneself as moral and using that image to serve one’s interests, while failing to live up to that image. This is the image of hypocrisy presented in Moliere’s Tartuffe; Tartuffe plays the role of the imposter, or the hypocrite, but his hypocrisy is not a mere failure to meets its own standards, rather Tartuffe presents himself as pious in order to get what he desires. Tartuffe is unconvinced of the truth of religious piety that he preaches. Furthermore, it seems legitimate to view the vice of people like Tartuffe as a social evil that need rigorous condemnation. So there does seem to be a form of hypocrisy that should be viewed as particularly pernicious. However, the trouble is that in many situations the people who are charged with hypocrisy are simply those who fail to apply standards consistently, or fail to meet the standards that they preach, and these people ought not to be condemned severely or ignored, as their vice represents an attempt to better themselves and humanity, rather than an attempt to use pious language to serve their own interests. The evil of the person who fails to meet the standards they believe in, is very different from the evil of the willful imposter, and because within our language we have a single term to cover these two divergent phenomena that carries with it a great deal of social disapproval, we need to be very careful of the way in which we invoke the language of hypocrisy, as we could be suggesting that someone is a manipulator when he is not, and we also could be silencing him, and failing to respond to the actual argument that he has made. This failure to respond to the actual arguments others make is something we should do our utmost to avoid, for we can only enhance our understanding of what is worthwhile, by engaging with the arguments put forth by others.

The Freedom of the Public Sphere and Duck Dynasty: Social Opinion and Capitalism

In the last week or so there has been a lot of controversy over, Ducky Dynasty star, Phil Robertson’s comment to GQ that homosexuality is sinful. These comments suggested that homosexuality was similar to promiscuity and bestiality, and that homosexuality is essentially rooted in anal sexuality which is “not logical.” As a result of these comments A & E indefinitely suspended Phil Robertson. Robertson also made some remarks about the segregated south that suggested that blacks were not mistreated and were happy in this pre-welfare/pre-civil rights condition.

There has been outrage among Christian Conservatives suggesting that Phil Robertson is being unfairly punished for simply expressing his authentic Christian beliefs. On the other side of the political spectrum many on the left have suggested that there is nothing wrong with the suspension of Phil Robertson as he expressed hatred towards gays and therefore, while he has freedom of speech, he has to deal with the fallout that has arisen because of his comments.

I am gay and I want to firstly say that I find Robertson’s comments problematic, but not because they express hatred, but because the reveal an ill-thought out perspective on homosexuality. I am not sure if Robertson is genuinely hateful, as I have no view into his inner thoughts, but I am confident that his comments on race and homosexuality are moronic. That said, the controversy over this issue reveal a couple of problems within North American culture. The first problem is the way in which disagreements are cast in terms of hatred. The second problem which is related to, but bigger than the first, is the way that capitalism is eroding a genuine public sphere in which alternative perspectives can be engaged dialogically, rather than silenced.

In this controversy people have tried to silence Phil Robertson because he has made comments that were deemed to be hateful. The tricky issue with this is that to label someone as expressing hatred is to mark them as not worthy to be reasoned with. The person who expresses hatred can be simply silenced; they are not simply offering an alternative perspective. Rather, they are merely denigrating a group and inciting mistreatment of that group. Furthermore, in many cases it is hard to know what the difference between hatred and objection is. If someone says homosexuality is sinful to my mind this may express hatred, but it could simply express the belief that homosexual desire is an affliction, just like other forms of sinful desire. And this does not necessarily mean that person hates homosexuality or wants to encourage mistreatment of homosexuals. On the other hand if someone says gays are a cancer spreading disease, they are quite clearly expressing hatred, rather than objection. Robertson’s comments fell somewhere between an objection to homosexuality and hatred of homosexuality.

So in this case it does strike me as somewhat problematic that people are saying that he has expressed hatred and on that ground he can fairly be punished with a suspension. Robertson has expressed hatred towards gays in the past, but in this case his comments while mind numbingly ignorant were not necessarily hateful. The problem with labelling people who express unpopular attitudes as haters or as “unpatriotic” as the right often does, is that it symbolically marks the person expressing the belief as someone who does not have to be argued with, and part of having a public culture that is invigorated with a love of freedom is that we confront those we disagree with, with dialogue and debate, rather than trying to silence them. There is something very unfree and authoritarian about a culture that silences those who express unpopular attitudes. Mill referred to such a culture as a tyranny of social opinion, and noted that it stifled individuality and self-development as people conformed to the dominant social opinion for conformity’s sake, rather than because they found the dominant social opinion compelling and accurate. If we silence those we disagree with, rather than confronting them with dialogue and debate we risk moving towards a tyranny of social opinion in which it is only acceptable to publicly disclose a particular set of attitudes and any other contrary attitudes are silenced. This is clearly an undesirable prospect as it would mean losing an element of our freedom. As part of what makes a society free is that disagreement is engaged with, rather than silenced.

The second problem concerns the way in which capitalism stifles free debate within the public sphere. From A&E’s perspective as a business it surely made sense to suspend Phil Robertson as they would have faced severe backlash from advertisers and others who market themselves as gay friendly. Consequently, had they not suspended Robertson they would have likely seen a drop in their revenue. The issue here is that when the public sphere is dominated by corporations and other kinds of business, these businesses often act in way that are detrimental to free debate in the public sphere, but are in the economic best interests of the company. For example, if actors know that they cannot express their beliefs in public they will either choose to pay lip service to the dominant opinion, or not express their beliefs in public and this does not help support free debate within a society. While the adoration of celebrity is problematic in certain ways, when celebrities voice their opinions freely they help to support a more vital and free debate across the public sphere, than if actors do not speak freely because they feel that their career prospects will be jeopardized by speaking freely. Likewise, due to the fact that controversy and spectacle sells much better than mundane debate, media institutions often choose to cover stories in such a way that free public debate is not supported. For example, by covering elections as if they were sporting competitions the media certainly gains revenue by making their coverage more exciting, but they fail to support free public debate by failing to look in detail at the differences between candidates and what is at stake within an election.

The value of a free public sphere that is characterized by vigorous dialogue is extraordinarily fragile. It can be eroded both by the common desire of citizens to silence those who disagree with them, and by the encroachment of capitalism into the public sphere. The current controversy over Phil Robertson’s comments help to reveal the way in which North American society is failing to address both of these problems, as Robertson has not been debated with, but rather labelled and silenced, and A&E took actions that while economically rational did a disservice to the value of a free public sphere. If we fail to address these problems the remnants of a free public sphere that we have today could be further marginalized.