February 13th, 2016
IMPOTENCE towards growing intractable moral conflict has to be one of the most characteristic intellectual feelings of our era. What is so particular about the new millennia that has turned us all into unyielding defenders of our own moral views? Why all of the sudden everyone that does not share our private ends seems like a bigoted fool or an immoral libertine? And why have all our moral conflicts developed into paralyzing political battles? We are all rushing to align with the political party and the media outlet that carries our “values” while we fortify the walls separating us from those whom we disagree with. We can all sense that the balkanization of our moral landscape is a hazardous phenomenon threatening the stability of our growingly interconnected world, yet we seem to be paralyzed in the face of growing fundamentalism. My goal in this post is to shed some light into why moral conflict has become intractable and fraught with peril. Then, in the following post, I will offer some reconstructive ideas on how to turn moral conflict into the transformative positive force it should be.
The main argument I want to present now is that our liberal political organization (and I will expand on what I mean by that in a second) has become ineffective at performing the central task it was set up to do: to reconcile freedom with moral order in a plural society. Before I plunge into explaining why liberalism has become inefficacious, let me sketch what liberalism was conceived for to begin with.
From day one, liberalism’s laudable goal has been to craft a system of free and equal individuals that, despite their diverging conceptions of the good, agree on a set of political rules that respect their freedom while guaranteeing a just and stable society. One should note that this is a monumental task, both philosophically and practically: How can one come together with people that do not share one’s values, agree on a set of rules that would seem to coerce one’s liberty yet remain free when all has been set and done? Kant proposed the most elegant solution to this quandary: if we act as our own legislators and if the laws we give ourselves are universal we will all end up agreeing on common rules. If we abstract from our moral divisions and legislate as universal beings we will all coincide in a “realm of ends”. And in this realm of ends, the rules we give each other reflect our freedom, rather than coerce it. Those rules we agree upon will be my rules—so my freedom has not been compromised—yet they will also be your rules, since they are universal and from that vantage point we cannot but agree. Whatever it is that you believe in private will be checked at the door when you enter the realm of universal laws; there, your personal values will give way to the all encompassing realm of ends where we are all bound to agree.
In the late twentieth century, the american philosopher John Rawls took Kant’s ideas and presented the most compelling version of how to put this all into political practice. Rawls updated Kant’s ideas and in his lexicon, the lofty “realm of ends” became the worldly “public reason”, the place where, just as with Kant, we check our private doctrines at the door and agree on political principles that can only be justified from an impartial vantage point. These public reasons respect my freedom (just as Kant’s universal laws) because they are to be justified politically i.e., without reference to my own private set of values.
The key thing to notice is that in both Kant’s and Rawls’, or in any other liberalism for that matter, the political consensus is agreed by abstracting our own personal values and establishing a sanitized public sphere. In practice, liberalism depends crucially on this separation between the private realm—where our dissonant moralities are kept—and the public sphere—where we argue impartially. This separation between private and public reasoning which was the genius of liberalism has become, as I will argue, its greatest flaw. The fundamental problem is that under a liberal system we lack, by design, a proper mechanism to solve moral disputes. Liberalism vacates morality to the private arena and purely relies on politics to control the stable and free society it went on to build. But the stability and freedom we gained are only as strong as the wall separating our private and public reasons. And it turns out that the rise of new global interlinking technologies is eroding this barrier between our private and public personas, which is leading us into an era of over-politicization of moral issues and heightened fundamentalism. By construction, we are unable to solve the moral disputes that now flood our political agenda. The internet and the rise of instantaneous global communications have suddenly birthed liberalism’s bête noire: a public medium for morality. Liberalism’s sanitized public sphere has all of the sudden got ‘contaminated’ with strident and clashing moralities that laid dormant in our private realm for centuries, leading to the recent rise of fundamentalism. The way I see this, there is no way to put the genie of morality back in the bottle of the private. That liberalism will succumb to unchecked moral conflict is to me a matter of when, not a matter of how.
The rise of the internet and global communication channels is indeed lifting the ‘veil of ignorance’ (to use Rawls famous expression) that kept our private moralities secluded and allowed for an impartial political arena to thrive. What we are experiencing now is the crisis that follows as liberalism looses its grip on freedom and order and fundamentalism arises. As Kant’s and Rawls’ solution becomes impracticable—since our private moralities can no longer be left out of the public discourse—we have no option but to look for new solutions for the old problem on how to reconcile freedom with moral order in a plural society.
How can we appease the rise of moral of conflict in this digitally interconnected society without compromising our freedom? If liberalism is no longer the answer, what can be? These are the two questions I will develop in the next post.