The Intellectual Dork Web Strikes Again

There is no "Real Liberalism" for you to rescue

So James Lindsay has been doing a stand-up job of pissing a lot of people off on Twitter (serious kudos to him for that, it's genuinely funny), but I suppose he decided to become just another (slightly-edgier) member of the Intellectual Dork Web:

The entire thread is a doozy. Lindsay, Dave Rubin, Colin Wright (Managing Editor of "muh classical liberalism" Quillette), and others appear to make the claim that Liberalism is not the problem, and that it must be "rescued" from "wokeness."

What nonsense.

Let us understand something: Wokeness is not THE necessary end of Liberalism; however, it is one of the logical ends. In other words, wokeness follows coherently from the original claims and values of Liberalism.

Autonomy is the core of Liberalism. Privacy, Dignity, Liberty, Freedom, and Equality are reducible to...Autonomy. This is a deeply felt belief. The vision of the Enlightenment was a society of individuals who took on the responsibility of deciding for themselves what their values and beliefs would be. Who used their own reason to guide their own lives, without deferring to the authority of the past.

The opening paragraph to Kant's What is Enlightenment:

Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage s man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! "Have courage to use your own reason!"- that is the motto of enlightenment.

also, as Charles Taylor describes (in Sources of the Self) the new ideal rising with Descartes and Locke and the socio-historical conditions around them:

What one finds running through all the aspects of this constellation - the new philosophy, methods of administration and military organization, spirit of government, and methods of disciple - is the growing ideal of a human agent who is able to remake himself by methodical and disciplined action. What this calls for is the ability to take an instrumental stance to one's given properties, desires, inclinations, tendencies, habits of thought and feeling, so that they can be worked on, doing away with some and strengthening others, until one meets the desired specifications.

Taylor further describes the notion of "self-responsibility" (which he borrows from Husserl) that ties Descartes and Locke together:

[Self-responsibility] touches on the essential opposition to authority of modern disengaged reason. What we are called upon to do by both of these writers, and by the tradition they establish, is to think it out ourselves. As with Descartes, knowledge for Locke isn't genuine unless you develop it yourself.

Today's "rationalist" community is a chief torch-bearer for this tradition in modern thought.

The problem, of course, is that this concept might present a decent aesthetic, but it completely fails as the core of a political project. Remember: all politics are embedded in morality. When we attempt to delineate what the limits of the State are, what our rights are, what kind of economic system we should put in place, etc. All of these are, primarily, moral considerations. And if we do take the Enlightenment spirit as valid, then we should be starting from these primary considerations, not from what is supposedly "natural" or "always has been.”

One important note: A Liberal may argue that, in fact, an action being immoral does not provide conclusive reason to regulate it. It may provide a justification (a “pro tanto” reason, so to speak), but it does not demand that the State actually regulate it. Instead, it may have to pass something like a utilitarian calculus in order to justify State intervention. While fair, this reasoning still does not allow Liberalism to escape from the fact these considerations are embedded in morality. The role of the State, the limits between State and individual, etc. are all based in moral considerations.

The reason Autonomy completely fails as the core of a political project is because it is incapable of distinguishing between the autonomous actions that we can take (like picking a chocolate chip cookie over an oatmeal raisin one), versus the autonomous actions that we cannot take (like kidnapping and murdering a child). A Liberal must appeal to some notion of morality, some value, outside of autonomy that justifies why certain autonomous actions are okay and others are not. This is also why Liberal claims to neutralism are nonsense. Rawls claims:

Liberalism demands a moral neutrality of the definition of the good

But he is saying nothing of meaning. Neutralism is impossible. The State necessarily enforces a particular vision of the Good. Value-neutral institutions do not exist.

The issue of course, is that every other supposed value of the Liberal collapses to Autonomy:

"Freedom" and "Liberty" are just explicit variants of autonomy. And ways to defend them, like "negative general rights", fail. (Ignoring, of course, that there is no real distinction between "negative" and "positive" rights). As Zippy Catholic put it,

Saying that a society is free, then, is simply to say that in your view that society puts the right people in prison for the right reasons.

"You should be free to do whatever you want*" (*as long as what you want doesn't break the rules).

"Equality"/"Egalitarianism": Nope. Peter Westen put it best:

Equality is an empty vessel with no substantive content of its own. Without moral standards, it remains meaningless, a formula that can say nothing about how we should act.

And when you have no substantive moral vision, when your philosophy demands you be neutral to any stance on the Good, "equality" is meaningless. In practice, it became just another way to describe autonomy. I have explained this before:

Constitutional scholar Kenneth Karst draws on Rawls (who identifies self-respect as "the main primary good" in his A Theory of Justice) and explicitly ties equality to autonomy. In his mind, the substantive core of the equal protection clause is that equal citizenship demands society treats all people with respect and dignity. For Karst, when individuals perceive an inequality as an index of their personal worth, their primary good of self-respect is damaged and diminished. (If this sounds like "Social Justice" to you, well,....yeah). Karst, who wrote on many issues of women's rights, argued that equal citizenship does not contain a specific right to contraceptives or abortion, but rather a "right to take responsibility for choosing one's own future".

The Supreme Court endorsed this rationale in Casey:

"The ability of women to participate equally in the economy and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives."

"Dignity": Charles Taylor stated that dignity had to do with how an individual feels he/she measures up to a notion of the Good Life:

In general, one might try to single out three axes of what can be called, in the most general sense, moral thinking. As well as the two just mentioned - our sense of respect for and obligations to others, and our understandings of what makes a full life - there is also the range of notions concerned with dignity. By this I mean the characteristics by which we think of ourselves as commanding (or failing to command) the respect of those around us...not talking now about respect for rights, in the sense of non-infringement, which we might call 'active' respect, but rather of thinking well of someone, even looking up to him...

Of course, today, "dignity" is wholly indistinguishable from self-responsibility/autonomy:

George Kateb asserts, "One's dignity resides in being, to some important degree, a person of one's own creating, making, choosing." Or as Justice Stevens wrote in Casey, "Part of the constitutional liberty to choose is the equal dignity to which each of us is entitled."

"Privacy": I have already discussed how privacy shifted from a substantive zonal notion to a voluntarist notion that reduces to autonomy in my post yesterday.

You can rescue a substantive notion of many of these concepts (ex: a zonal concept of privacy, as I described in my post yesterday), but that may or may not have any impact on "wokeness", and is also likely to invalidate the supposed moral justification behind many "liberal" rights (most notably the final legs under any argument for contraceptive sales and elective abortion). You would need to generate all new arguments for them, if those arguments exist (without biting too many bullets). Being "anti-PC" or "anti-woke" is not a meaningful stance in any way.

All these reduce to emotionally potent rhetoric with absolutely no substance behind them. They sound nice, but they are ways to hide the fact you are imposing your rules, your morals. "My rules are real freedom." All of this is just fluffy words with nothing backing them up. There is. no. real. freedom. It is a delusion. Anarchism, libertarianism, and every other variant of Liberalism fails to grasp this.

And of course, when the Liberal attempts to engineer some kind of moral principle that supports their adherence to autonomy, it inevitably fails.

"My liberty ends where your liberty begins": Nope. Put succinctly by Zippy Catholic:

Your right to swing your fist stops when your fist comes anywhere near someone else’s face.


In summary, your rights operate only to the extent that your choices have no effect whatsoever on others or on the common good. Deep inside the closet, your choices are between you and God.

Of course if anyone loves you then even that isn’t, strictly speaking, your business alone. Your right to destroy yourself ceases the moment it breaks someone’s heart.

Everything outside of the closet is the domain of the common good. It is here where authority operates: where these “rights” of yours cannot negate the operation of authority.

And there is no closet.

"Bodily autonomy" is as meaningless as any other statement about autonomy. "You should be able to do things with your body...provided they aren't against the rules." Wow, so groundbreaking.

The original position doesn't prove anything.

"I am allowed to do whatever I want with my own property" just tries to weasel out of answering the question

Where does "property" come from? The State. And why does it implement a particular set of property norms over any other? M O R A L I T Y

“The relation between property and sovereignty is contested. The protection of both persons and property are two core government functions. These functions come into conflict when the exercise of a property right harms others. How do we determine when that exercise is legitimately viewed as a self-regarding act that does not affect others, and when such an exercise does harm others and thus comes within the legitimate sphere of government regulation? Property norms help answer this question by orienting us in a moral universe through background understandings that define legitimate interests. Norms orient us, first, by telling us who is an owner with regard to any particular entitlement in a resource, and second, by telling owners when they are obligated to take into account the effects of their actions on others*. In so doing, property norms define which externalities we must pay attention to and seek (if possible) to prevent.”

(from “How property norms construct the externalities of ownership” by Joseph Singer)

So again, you are allowed to do anything you want with your property, so long as it is not against the rules. Appealing to your property rights does not work, because we have to distinguish between things you are allowed to do with your property (hanging the American flag, putting up an effigy of Thatcher, painting your house yellow, etc.) with the things you are not allowed to do (blast music at 2am on Tuesday in a neighborhood full of school children).

The most famous set of responses center around the Harm Principle and its descendants (the Non-Aggression Principle, etc.) The Harm Principle is hopelessly incoherent. Mill contradicts himself within it, and to take it seriously is to bite so many bullets as to barely have a functioning society on the other side. And the NAP and other variants only double down on the delusion.

The Right has given up any real "conservatism" in exchange for "Liberalism" and is shocked at the results. The Left has been entirely subsumed by Liberalism and is shocked when their "rebellions" end up supporting the system that is built on the values they ascribe to. The conservatives have conserved nothing. The leftists are crypto-hypercapitalists. All of them are Liberals. None of this changes until the delusion that Liberalism can be salvaged, that autonomy is a meaningful base for a political philosophy, is completely obliterated. It cannot come fast enough.

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