Editor’s Note: This is part of Law & Liberty‘s series of Faultline Essays, in which we publish different perspectives on a given topic, allowing authors an opportunity to read and respond to each other’s work before publishing them together.
The relationship between conservatism and the liberal tradition in political theory is increasingly fraught. A variety of “postliberal” critics link classical liberalism with woke progressivism, with individual autonomy as the common denominator. Defenders of liberalism have sought to distinguish between varieties of liberal political philosophy and to show that conservatism coheres with at least some varieties. The dispute concerns whether or not a tradition devoted to individual liberty can sufficiently appreciate the common good, the natural law, and moral virtue.
A foray into contemporary liberal thought reveals that liberalism is closely connected to value pluralism and, ultimately, moral relativism. Value pluralism is the idea that there are many different “values,” none truer or better than another. Values can be moral (ex. veganism) or non-moral (ex. botany). Pluralism contrasts with “value monism,” which states that there is an objective ranking of values, or perhaps even a single value, which all humans must follow.
Modern liberalism tends toward relativism. Liberals often appeal to value pluralism to justify a state which remains “neutral” between competing moral values and limits itself to providing people with the means to pursue their values. Yet liberal pluralism ironically produces hostility towards allegedly “illiberal” values, such as traditional views of sex or family. The only intolerable values are those which question the freedom to set one’s own values. Unless conservatism recaptures a more robust conception of liberty, it will stand open to critique from traditionalists worried about moral relativism.
A Sketch of David Johnston’s Liberal Theory
To illustrate the pervasiveness of relativism in liberal political thought, I will use David Johnston’s The Idea of a Liberal Theory. Johnston is representative of liberal thought because his work interacts with several prominent liberals, especially John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, to produce a theory of “humanist liberalism.” This theory espouses a three-part definition of “philosophical liberalism:”
- Only individuals count
- Everybody counts equally
- Everybody counts as an agent
Crucially, he defines an “agent” as a “being who is capable of conceiving values and projects,” in contrast to a mere “sentient being” who acts only on impulse or in response to its immediate environment. Agency requires higher mental powers, such as foresight, planning, and creative imagination, and gives meaning and direction to human lives. As an example, Johnston imagines a woman who values the colonization of Mars by human beings regardless of whether she herself participates in it.
The concept of human “agency” grounds Johnston’s value pluralism and ultimately even his liberalism. The capacity to devise and pursue projects literally gives human beings their value. He defends his first two principles on the grounds that humans “equally can claim to have an interest in realizing their projects and values.” The entire political structure should be arranged to facilitate the exercise of agency. Even liberty and individual rights are valuable only to the extent that they provide people with the means to pursue and to realize their values and projects.
Value pluralism flows naturally from this view of human agency. A free society—that is, a society committed to the view that humans are agents—will allow “diverse conceptions of the good life to arise and flourish.” Following John Rawls, Johnston invokes the “assumption of reasonable value pluralism, the assumption that individuals reasonably conceive different and conflicting values.” He elsewhere describes this “assumption” as a “pragmatic implication” of his theory of the value of human agency. Respect for persons entails respect for their values and choices.
Johnston rejects attempts to rank values on the grounds that philosophy has failed to establish objective moral norms. The “dominant view” in the ancient and medieval periods, he comments, was that political theories should be tested for their adherence to “objective moral norms,” a view which presupposes that “moral norms exist independently of human consciousness and reflection.” In the modern world, however, work by philosophers “has tended to undermine” the “notion of objective moral truths,” such that the theory “no longer possesses the general credibility it once had,” although we “cannot say” it has been “disproved.”
The refutation of objective moral norms leads naturally to relativism. Johnston baldly states that we cannot “discover the ‘correct’ value” of anything because “there is no such thing as the correct values of things.” We cannot rationally judge between two people’s projects and values, in other words, because there is no external standard by which to judge the rightness or wrongness of these competing projects and values. On this view, all choices are equal.
The move towards value pluralism is mirrored in liberal theory generally. Since at least John Rawls, liberals have tended to embrace some version of “political liberalism,” which avoids invoking “comprehensive conceptions of the good” which all citizens must share. Political liberals instead appeal to a (supposedly neutral) “overlapping consensus”—a set of beliefs which all humans can embrace without abandoning their own philosophical opinions. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, pluralistic liberalism has become so dominant that it is often simply assumed rather than defended by scholars. It is perhaps no surprise that liberal theory has become increasingly inward-focused and relatively unconcerned with its own metaphysical justification. Some liberals ultimately even neglect to supply any rational justification for their theories (including, explicitly, Johnston, but also Richard Rorty in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, among others).
Contemporary liberalism brushes away centuries of deep reflection on philosophy and ethics in order to prioritize the diverse “projects” and “values” generated by free agents. But if objective moral norms do not exist, then why shouldn’t we conclude that all projects and values are equally worthless? Why, in other words, does the collapse of moral philosophy lead to celebratory individualism rather than to nihilism? We are never told.
Pluralism and Liberal Intolerance
Ironically, pluralistic forms of liberalism inevitably tend to promote a hostile posture towards those who allegedly accord insufficient respect to other people’s diverse projects and values. As social creatures, humans have a strong desire for affirmation from other people. Liberal pluralists worry that judgmental criticism of others’ life choices or identities causes the targets of criticism to lose “self-respect” and “erases” them from society. Everyone, it follows, should enjoy not only legal protection from interference but also “acceptance” and “recognition” from others, without which they cannot lead a full life.
It follows, of course, that purportedly “illiberal” forces—anything that impedes or disparages free choices—must be opposed. Liberals disagree over whether government force or social pressure is the appropriate means to achieve this end. Some argue that the state’s role in distributing respect is limited. Nevertheless, liberals generally share the view that social institutions should strive to remove attitudes inimical to people’s “self-respect.”
Hence the constant invocations of the dangers of racism, sexism, homophobia, and (increasingly) transphobia from across the ideological spectrum. These conflicts are especially pronounced in areas, such as sexuality, where the contrast between traditional and liberal moralities is greatest. They manifest in increasingly fraught debates over, say, the scope of religious liberty or what to teach about gender in schools. The hostility towards traditional moral norms appears to be a feature and not a bug of contemporary liberalism.
The trend toward relativistic pluralism in contemporary liberal philosophy is undeniable. But is it inevitable? Some think that pluralism can be divorced from the valorization of self-creative agency described above. Pluralism is touted as a way to minimize governmental interference with individual liberty and to reduce tensions between groups. This sort of “political” pluralism, it is said, does not imply skepticism or nihilism; rather, it respects the equal right of all to defend and live out their own values. The government in turn will refrain from obstructing these diverse ways of life.
Human psychology, however, renders this option untenable. “Live and let live” may sound good in theory, but it is hard to put it into practice. Humans naturally tend to approve what is publicly allowed and, correlatively, to disallow what they cannot conceive of approving. All societies have blasphemy laws, whether formal or informal. One cannot express racist beliefs in public, for instance, without losing one’s job, losing one’s friends, and perhaps receiving death threats.
Given human nature, it is unclear if a radically divided polity can endure for long. As Aristotle recognized, true friendship requires that people share the same conception of virtue. The same is true, to a lesser extent, even for shallower civic friendships. Competing groups tend to either relax their moral views to accommodate each other—thereby eliminating pluralism—or else separate from one another. Minority groups face an especially overwhelming temptation to modify their beliefs. A genuinely pluralistic society is difficult to sustain.
The canonical example of pluralism—religious toleration—is not a good analogue to current debates. It is easier to tolerate offensive dogmas than offensive moral behaviors. A true believer may be pained psychologically by the presence of a heretic, but the pain ends there. As Jefferson said, “It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are 20 gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” And the state can happily remain neutral between abstract theologies, since public policy need not hinge on them.
Not so when it comes to actions. Human behavior must be regulated according to some or other conception of morality. Some moral rules, such as those against murder or rape, enjoy near-universal approval. But in cases where worldviews diverge, neutrality is impossible, and one party inevitably feels disrespected and mistreated by the outcome.
Consider same-sex marriage. A same-sex marriage does not physically harm any specific person (whatever its alleged effects on society). But should businesses that provide wedding services be forced to help celebrate same-sex marriages, or not? This is a classic conflict of rights. Someone will be harmed: either the same-sex couple will suffer psychological harm, or the businessowner will suffer physical harm (i.e. losing his business). It is hard to see how pluralism can resolve this controversy. The state is required to take sides, and the loser will feel marginalized.
A second example is the use of “inclusive” transgender language. The push to mandate such language stems from a legitimate desire to recognize the equality and dignity of all citizens. Nevertheless, doing so forces people to affirm the metaphysical principles of gender theory (i.e. “this person is a woman”). Here again, either the transgender person will suffer psychological harm or the dissenter will be fired and shamed. This case is even trickier because two worldviews are competing to inscribe their views on sex into the very language of everyday life. And universal enforcement of “inclusive” language regarding transgenderism will subtly nudge people towards acceptance of gender theory because the former reflects the philosophical commitments of the latter. Neutrality is impossible.
Returning to the case of America, religious and political pluralism arguably has worked so well precisely because America has not been pluralistic in morality. I owe this insight to Alexis de Tocqueville. Observing America in the 1830s, Tocqueville remarked that “in the moral world, everything is arranged, coordinated, anticipated, and decided in advance. In the political world, everything is agitated, contested, and uncertain.” Each of the “countless sects … worships God in his own way, but all preach the same morality in God’s name.” In any case, he continues, “all sects in the United States are encompassed within the overarching unity of Christianity, and Christian morality is the same everywhere.” He observed, consequently, that some actions, such as publishing anti-religious or obscene literature, were legal but carried such great social sanctions that no one performed them. Nineteenth-century America comes to sight as a sort of informal, nonsectarian Christian nation, not a pluralistic free-for-all. But, when a real moral division over slavery erupted, one which allowed for no compromise, conflict ensued until one side carried the day.
Value Pluralism and the Future of Conservatism
How should conservatives respond to the dominance of a relativistic liberalism that is hostile to traditional worldviews?
Above all, conservatives must consider the close connection between state neutrality, value pluralism, and relativism. The declaration that the state will remain neutral between different ethical codes inexorably seems to promote a version of moral relativism in which the only sin is to “judge” others’ choices. Even if a “fusionism” of libertarianism (or classical liberalism) and conservatism is possible in theory, in practice the former’s commitment to unrestrained liberty grates against the latter’s appreciation of an objective moral order. Only by committing themselves to a substantive moral theory as the groundwork for politics can conservatives hope to combat creeping hyper-individualism and relativism. Such a commitment does not entail that dissenters should be punished. It is more symbolic than effectual. But symbols matter.
It should be stressed, however, that conservatives ought to resist autocratic or theocratic temptations. It is often said that rejecting pluralism and state neutrality promotes majority tyranny by removing restraints on state action. Tragically, majorities have mistreated minorities in every age and part of the world. But it is mistaken to assume that a non-neutral politics leads to tyranny. Even if laws must rest on a particular moral philosophy, the state need not (and indeed ought not) try to eradicate all opposition to its decrees. Critics of relativistic liberalism can affirm the right to worship, to speak freely, and to enjoy every other protection afforded by decent societies. (Of course, questions regarding the nature and extent of rights are themselves contested.) While no one has a right to have their views “affirmed” by others, neither does the majority have a right to mistreat or dehumanize anyone. Certainly, no one should be forced to affirm or deny any religious, philosophical, or moral proposition.
Instead, conservatives ought to recapture a more vigorous sense of “liberty.” Whereas liberalism sees liberty as contentless—the freedom to choose one’s own (undefined) “projects and values”—the classical tradition understands liberty to be the condition of being free to pursue what is right and good. On this view, liberty serves as a means to virtue and human flourishing. This sort of thinking has a long history in America. It is expressed, for instance, in John Winthrop’s “Little Speech on Liberty,” and scholars such as Barry Alan Shain have identified it in America’s founding principles. Conservatism ought to recover and build upon this foundation. Too often, conservatives adopt “neutrality” or appeal to a libertarian view of liberty on issues such as vaccine mandates, free speech, or gun rights. By further entrenching liberal values, this move hurts more than it helps. Conservatism will only thrive when it ceases accommodating or doubling down on the reigning liberal orthodoxy.