Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Morality

The amorality of faith

Stanley Fish, reviewing Steven Smiths “The disenchantment of secular discourse” in the New York Times:

the “truncated discursive resources available within the downsized domain of ‘public reason’ are insufficient to yield any definite answer to a difficult issue — abortion, say, or same sex marriage, or the permissibility of torture . . . .” If public reason has “deprived” the natural world of “its normative dimension” by conceiving of it as free-standing and tethered to nothing higher than or prior to itself, how, Smith asks, “could one squeeze moral values or judgments about justice . . . out of brute empirical facts?” No way that is not a sleight of hand.

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Wither Freedom?

Via Andrew Sullivan, comes this intriguing comment by his conservative colleague at the Atlantic Ross Douthat

the battle between social conservatism and social liberalism at the moment isn’t a battle between competing utopias, but a battle over which tragic choice is worse: The choice to stigmatize, which can damage and even ruin lives, or the choice to destigmatize, which can damage and ruin countless lives as well….we’ve come a long way down their road, and I think we know enough about the consequences to say that there would be real gains to human welfare available – for downscale Americans, especially, but not only for them – if we were to go some distance in a more conservative direction.

This may seem a basic utilitarian argument: what are the outcomes of each choice, and how best might we shape society for the greatest happiness. But there is one crucial calculation left out here: Destigmatizing human relationships, that is social liberalism, by its mere presence grants each and every one of us the individual freedom to actually make a choice.

We may not like the outcome of some of these choices, but it is superior in almost every way, whatever the outcome, that such a choice has actually been made by the individual. Without such a choice being available we can not expect the individual to accept responsibility for the outcome, nor equally can we praise the actions of those we think made the “right” choice, if they did not feel they had any other option available to them.

Without freedom, no happiness is possible. No figure in history has ever sought to celebrate the happiness of the slave, whatever his access to good food, social stability, or access to pleasure. That is why utilitarian arguments have always been so centrally concerned with individual freedom, and championed by those like Bentham, Mill or Singer who wish to promote as much individual freedom as possible, rather than social conservatives who, (were it not for their love of pre-received authority) would be natural allies of such a strain of thought. If we truly do need such harsh social shame and stigma to produce positive outcomes, then utilitarian calculations would be perfectly suited to justifying it. But instead, for reasons more of history and religion than logic, Conservatives pretend their claim is a moral one, when at heart they would wish to deny all human choice, and thereby cannot claim any more a sense of morality than we may expect our laptop or toaster to be “moral” in doing what they are engineered to do.

Freedom mis-used, is still freedom. As a society we do desperately need to act to try and fix some of the social ills we see, for example:

We[Australia] have 7.8 million households in this country; over 10% of those have experienced a break-in.
We have 16 million people aged over 15 in this country; 5.5% have experienced sexual assault.
191,000 males between 18 and 25 reported being assaulted in 2005 – 44% of those in bars.

But, it would be meaningless to try and solve these problems by first trying to prevent what makes us human, and is the prerequisite for any life worth living: Individual freedom in the pursuit of happiness.