By Thaddeus J. Kozinski
In spite of the good things modern liberalism has given to the West, such as individual rights and freedom of speech, the problematic character of the public debate surrounding Marquette University’s decision to rescind its offer of an academic dean position to a Seattle University sociology professor, Jodi O’Brien, a publicly lesbian scholar, gives us good reason to put liberalism in question. The irreconcilability of the interlocutors in this controversy illustrates the fundamental problem of our secular, pluralistic, liberal social order—the privatization of the good—as well as the irrationality, force, and fraud that are its political concomitants.
Part I: Are some preferences more equal than others?
Decrying the problematic state of public debate in America, the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre writes:
Liberalism is often successful in preempting the debate . . . so that [objections to it] appear to have become debates within liberalism. . . . So-called conservatism and so-called radicalism in these contemporary guises are in general mere stalking-horses for liberalism: the contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question.
“Putting liberalism in question.” Should this be done? And what would it entail? Do we really want neo-Nazis and proponents of human sacrifice to have a public, influential voice in our deliberations? Do we want to bring back inquisitions and crusades? What good reason is there to question liberalism?
I think that MacIntyre’s characterization of contemporary public debate in America as surreptitiously restrictive and intellectually homogenous is quite accurate, and, in spite of the good things liberalism has given us, such as individual rights and freedom of speech, there is a good reason to put liberalism in question. An exemplary illustration of this reason is revealed in the debate surrounding Marquette University’s decision to rescind its offer to Seattle University sociology professor, Jodi O’Brien, a publicly lesbian scholar, for the position of academic dean.
To see why liberalism itself, and not just its accidental “conservative” and “liberal” stalking-horses, as MacIntyre describes them, merits serious skeptical interrogation, we must first examine what liberalism means. Though it is a notoriously slippery word with a complicated historical and conceptual genealogy, I think what liberalism boils down to is this: the privatization of the good. In political practice, this privatization entails the unimpeachable and unexceptionable priority, theoretically and practically, privately and publicly, of individual autonomy. In liberalism, as MacIntyre explains it:
Every individual is to be equally free to propose and to live by whatever conception of the good he or she pleases, derived from whatever theory or tradition he or she may adhere to, unless that conception of the good involves reshaping the life of the rest of the community in accordance with it.
And thus the “good” becomes a private matter:
We are presented, that is to say, with agents as if detached altogether from any conception of or perception of the good or goods. . . . All preferences of all individuals are to be weighed in the same balance and accorded the same respect, no matter whose they are or what their grounding.
Since liberalism is predicated on the privatization of the good, it must function to render unintelligible, irrational, and impolitic any public discussions suggesting that there might be an objective and non-private human good to which human nature is teleologically or intrinsically oriented, that this good might have a definite, knowable nature transcending idiosyncratic preference, and that it thus might have public and even political relevance. Consequently, any public interlocutor in a debate who holds that human sexuality as an integral aspect of human nature bears some determinate relationship to this human good, and that since religious educational institutions are charged with attempting to express and embody this human good in a communal way, they should be permitted to discriminate in their hiring practices according to the exigencies of this human good is destined to lose any public debate before it even begins—or even be debarred from participation.
Moreover, due to the emotivist cast of all moral discourse in liberal society, where assertions of moral truth are immediately translated into expressions of private preference—akin to one’s favorite color—moral opinion can never have public, legal, or political relevance. Thus, in public debate, sexuality must be considered nothing more than an expression of arbitrary preference, impervious to moral evaluation, and with no determinate, objective relation to the human good—whatever that might be; in short, all goods or values must be seen as freely determined by autonomous, individual choice, and thus action in accordance with chosen goods or values—as long as it doesn’t interfere with another’s action—must be permitted; no communal or institutional restraints or pressures on individual free choice should exist, in the ideal liberal community. So, since all preferences are a priori equal in value because purely idiosyncratic, for an institution to deny a candidate a position due to her particular sexual preference must be seen, with the public eye, as akin to denying a candidate a position due to her particular favorite color.
Now, though it might seem unfortunate that morally robust, truth-oriented, good-relevant debates do not occur publicly in liberal societies, should this lead us to put liberalism in question? After all, since there is no public consensus in liberal societies on the good-for-man, let alone on a normative and determinative understanding of the nature and purpose of human sexuality, what else can a liberal political order do but remain neutral on such questions to ensure fairness to all sides?
The truth, however, is that such neutrality and fairness is illusory. It is liberalism’s opinion, and liberalism’s alone, that the non-existence and/or non-knowability of the human good renders it a private matter, and thus that all individual opinions about the human good are a priori equal and politically non-authoritative, that is politically privileged above all other opinions and given public authority. In other words, it is liberalism’s quite debatable opinion that has somehow become the unimpeachable, self-evident truth presupposed in public debate. Of course, this kind of privileging of one human opinion above all others is, in a word, illiberal.
Thaddeus J. Kozinski is assistant professor of humanities and philosophy at Wyoming Catholic College and the author of The Political Problem of Religious Pluralism: And Why Philosophers Can't Solve It.