February 13th, 2016
IN THE PREVIOUS POST I explained why liberalism is by design ineffective to cope with rising moral conflict. In short, liberalism was crafted to avoid moral conflict, not to resolve it. The whole point of liberalism is to stop moral conflict in its tracks by highlighting the coercive nature of attempting to impose one’s moral views on others. The exigencies of a plural society of free and equals actively discourage morality from entering public discourse. From a liberal perspective, when I insert my private moral views into public debates I betray freedom itself as I violate the moral autonomy of others by trying to coerce them into my own worldview. As powerful and philosophically sound as this argument is, in practice it relies on people’s capacity to self-police morality out of the public realm. The fundamental problem (highlighted in Part 1) is that with the advent of the digitally interconnected society, this self-policing is simply unrealistic. Once a global public medium for morality is established and some start venting their own core beliefs loudly, the nice equilibrium of liberalism is broken and moral conflict breaks loose—propelling the rise of fundamentalism.
If the above sounds familiar is because this is exactly the condition where we find ourselves today. Moral conflict has clearly permeated our public discourse and the only options we seem to have against this perilous situation is either to kiss liberalism good bye and embark on a full-throttle fundamental defense of our own world view or try to salvage liberalism by desperately attempting to roll back morality to private lands. The way I see it, the former strategy leads to unacceptable fundamentalism while the latter one is unattainable. Is that it then? In a world where liberalism is impracticable and moral conflict is unavoidable is fundamentalism really the only game in town?
Of course not. There is indeed another way for us to embrace moral conflict without sacrificing our freedom or falling victims of fundamentalism. But here is where we need to part ways with liberalism. Let me explain.
Liberalism is absolutely correct in identifying moral conflict as a threat to one’s autonomy. Liberals rightly highlight that to conceive of others as free and equal requires us to respect their moral jurisdiction and to refrain from demanding that they endorse beliefs that they do not have reasons to support. Full autonomy in our choice of moral outcomes is constitutive of what it means to be free and liberalism is correct in mobilizing to protect it. Now, it is the way in which liberalism goes about protecting our autonomy that is problematic—particularly in our current interlinked environment—as the wall erected to keep our moral autonomy in a conflict-free private sphere has crumbled. What liberalism failed to see is that moral conflict, when rightly channeled, has the potential to be autonomy’s greatest ally instead of its natural adversary.
In order to position my central argument that moral conflict and autonomy can in fact go hand in hand I first need you to see that liberalism’s idea of autonomy is quite limited: our cherished capacity to privately select our moral beliefs is, I will argue, an incomplete form of autonomy. To protect our moral jurisdiction from the inquisitive power of others is certainly a step in the right direction, but is it sufficient to consider ourselves truly autonomous? I do not think so. As the young Karl Marx brilliantly foresaw, liberalism enables political freedom but fails to unshackle the individual from its own fundamental—and now privatized—beliefs. In our liberal societies we might have indeed acquired freedom from external moral coercion, but we remain hostage to our own beliefs. As such, where we thought we had actualized autonomy, we only carved out ourselves a sphere where our own unaccountable beliefs enslave us. In Marx’s words, we gain political emancipation but fall short of “human emancipation”. Now, although I agree with Marx’s diagnostic, I disagree with his eventual solution (i.e., communism). The revolution that we need is in the mind: we need to revolutionize the way in which we set moral beliefs in order to achieve a degree of autonomy that deserves the name. And here is where moral conflict enters the picture.
Moral conflict is usually seen as a zero sum confrontation amongst irreconcilable doctrines that is to be avoided in the name of autonomy. As we are painfully experiencing today, clashing moralities lead to radicalization and fundamentalism as each one tries to impose its evaluative standards in a war of all against all. Now, what I want you to notice is that this is the case precisely because we have mistaken the capacity to privately select our moral beliefs with autonomy. In our current moral practices, we have sacrificed the social quest for truth—the sound practice of exchanging reasons to justify our beliefs—in the name of autonomy. What we need to see—and the internet is playing a crucial role here—is that our privately held core values are but one amongst a multitude of ways in which we humans answer the question on how should one live. If we were to embrace this question as a collective effort on how to continuously meliorate the human condition, we could transform moral conflict from the zero sum game it is today into a fruitful ongoing social conversation on how should one live.
In short, moral conflict leads to fundamentalism precisely because we remain incapable of conceiving morality as responsive to reasons, as a pragmatic truth-seeking enterprise. We grew accustomed to the practice of collecting moral beliefs in the unaccountable world of the private, and as the wall crumbles and the internet reconnects our private beliefs into a new public moral space, we seem incapable to engage in proper, consensus-building, reasoned exchange. To be able to dismantle fundamentalism’s key driving force, we first need to accept that liberalism’s ring-fencing of morality in the name of personal autonomy is an outdated strategy, a strategy for a disconnected world. Once that is done, we need to reconstruct the way in which we acquire and hold moral beliefs, unpinning them from our private “butterfly collection” and reinserting them in the open field of deliberative and accountable reasoned exchange.
From the perspective I offer, moral conflict should become an open and ever-going social quest for better ways to live together in mutually beneficial and cooperative social orders. Moral conflict in the public arena should not be viewed as a war of irreconcilable standards trying to conquer and coerce each other, but as a forum for morality to constitute itself, as a forum that generates accountable moral beliefs through an open and ongoing dialogue. Skeptics will argue that what I propose is wishful-thinking and that we lack proper incentives to renounce the privilege of privately setting our own moral beliefs in exchange for a world where morality becomes an open and collective deliberative enterprise. But as I pointed out already, what most have failed to see is that by doing so, we replace an egoistic and self-centered view of autonomy for a responsive, socially constituted and accountable one that expands our freedom. And who does not want to be freer? Understanding the limited access to freedom that we have under the privatized world of liberal autonomy should be the key driving force pushing us to harness the liberating power of moral conflict. Properly constituted moral conflict allows us to go beyond the complacency of private autonomy that Marx deplored by regarding ourselves as free individuals only when our beliefs have been appropriated through social discussion—when they are viewed as cleansed from fundamentalism through reasoned exchange.
Summing up, my key proposition is that in an interconnected world like ours, moral autonomy can and should be constituted socially. Neither concealing our deep commitments as liberalism recommends nor trumpeting our own unyielding beliefs as fundamentalism mandates will bring a sustainable solution to the problem of interconnected pluralism. Only an amplified idea of autonomy as constituted through ever-going social discussion can truly reap the benefits of our new interlinked reality. If we are all committed to keeping the conversation open, we can allow moral conflict to bloom and fundamentalists will eventually learn the liberating benefits of listening to dissenting views.
Let me finish by going back to the original question I mentioned in Part 1 and offer my own contrasting solution: 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? As I explained previously, Kant’s solution (which became liberalism’s backbone) was that 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. Kant recommended that if we abstract from our moral divisions and legislate as universal beings we will all coincide in a “realm of ends” where we all keep our freedom while subjecting to each other. In contrast, what I propose is an idea of freedom conceived as a “realm of aims”: to be free is to continuously aim at a moral order where my reasons are constituted through an open social conversation. What makes us free is not the right to hold on to a set of unmovable beliefs but the continuous and never-ending quest for truth. Once we stop aiming for better beliefs, we lose our freedom and become prisoners of our own static and unaccountable dogma.
 Marx, Karl; On the Jewish Question; 1844