Myths are common features in the landscape of life. At their best, myths fuel our imaginations and illuminate our path, connecting us to enduring truths. But myths can also conceal hazards to our well-being, causing us to lose our way and taking us where we do not wish to go.
So it is with modern liberalism and the secular-progressive program for the good society. Professed ideals of autonomy, equality, rights, and liberty sound principled and appealing, but the realities of implementation are instead leading us toward an authoritarian future that is the antithesis of human flourishing.
In The Myth of Liberalism, Dr. John Safranek dismantles the ideological house of liberalism and reveals its crumbling foundations. In the process, he also exposes some of the particular projects of modern progressive politics, including abortion, sexual expression, and assisted suicide, as preferences of elites rather than the product of neutral principles. As a physician and a philosopher, he blends a deeply lived knowledge of humanity with a sober and reasoned assessment of the inability of the progressive ideology to yield the goods it promises. He also explores the hopeful possibilities of using the values and processes of pre-modern philosophy rooted in the Greeks, but continued in subsequent generations by Thomas Aquinas and others, a foundation for a more sustainable and effective program.
An assessment of modern liberalism should begin with some definitions. What, exactly, do we mean when we speak of liberalism? The fact that liberalism’s modern proponents are not able to answer this question in a consistent manner reinforces a critique of their philosophical problems. If liberty is the animating theme, then what are we to make of individual expressions of autonomy that impinge upon the liberty of others? If rights are the key, where do they come from, which are to be included in the canon, and how do we mediate conflicts among them? If equality, by what benchmark should it be measured, and how should inequality be remedied? And if dignity, what is the measure of humanity by which dignity is assessed?
That self-professed liberals offer conflicting and unsatisfying answers to these questions is not surprising. That liberalism persists as a predominant ideology in spite of these problems suggests other insights into its true nature. According to Dr. Safranek, “Liberalism is not a coherent philosophy but a collection of causes advanced under the rubric of personal liberty by powerful social and political interests.” As myth, liberalism is designed to conceal and mislead, not to reveal and illuminate its true end, which is undermining the traditional ethos of the Western world.
Starting with modern philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, Safranek explains that a focus on desire has become the emergent criterion for judging political and social goods. For Hobbes, the validity of desire ultimately depends on the whim of the ruler, apart from any other conception of morality. To escape the threat of death from conflicting desires in the state of nature, one joins civil society and submits to a morality declared by the ruler.
But Hobbes’s familiar narrative is based on a false anthropology. The state of nature involved isolation and a ceaseless activity to satisfy individual desire, accompanied by a threat of death. Individuals chose to escape the threat of death by forming civil society, ceding some freedoms to gain others. In contrast, the pre-modern philosophers assumed that humans are by nature social and achieve important goods only in relation to civil society, rejecting Hobbes’s pre-political starting point. In pre-modern society, virtues moderated desire and channeled behavior in a manner that allowed those goods to be achieved. Those virtues did not originate in any ruler’s predispositions or desires; they operated as part of human experience.
Civil society can undoubtedly include structures and rules that are unjust or undesirable, incentivizing some to seek a means of escape. Whether political power is exercised by a dictator or a democratic mob, power must be constrained to protect individuals and groups from the rest of the herd. Other philosophers, including Bentham and Mill, built upon Hobbes’s individualistic premises while trying to distance themselves from the pre-political state of nature. But rather than embrace the virtues as a constraint on desire, they ultimately seized on various forms of utilitarian thought to resolve conflicts among desires and the intrusion of law on individual autonomy.
Utilitarianism has its own limitations, including the problem of calculus. If we are to implement the harm principle (i.e., maximize freedom to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, unless that freedom harms another), then which harms count? And if the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure are all that count on the other side of the ledger, can a coherent account of humanity be maintained?
Although they seek to ban morality—aptly characterized by Dr. Safranek as “the surly judge of acquisitive and licentious individualism”—from law and public discourse, liberals face a dilemma whenever competing claims to the good emerge. Affirming one group’s liberty claim, or claim to “equal” treatment, often inflicts harm on others. The decision to grasp one horn of this dilemma, to privilege one group’s interests over another, inevitably expresses a particular and non-neutral understanding of morality, despite anyone’s efforts to call it something else.
Leaving behind the bonds of history and tradition animating morality does not produce freedom because a new morality emerges in its place, raising new demands. We are seeing the consequences of these processes in our public life. Instead of allowing competing truth claims to be aired, we see “safe zones” emerging to protect some from the “harm” of discomfort. The putative right to define one’s own existence and meaning, projected as fundamental by a majority of wise heads on the Supreme Court, apparently now extends to various forms of sexual expression, even at the expense of those who have different moral commitments. And these kinds of decisions that prefer one group’s version of rights over others (including even those explicitly enumerated in the Constitution, such as religious liberty) are expanding. Problems compound as the formulation of rights requires an affirmative duty of governmental and social support, which requires the coercion of others to achieve the good for some.
Government is intruding into the private sphere in ways that would have been unthinkable in American life a generation ago. No one predicted that transgender bathroom access would become a condition for withholding federal funds or that Catholic religious orders would be required to pay for contraception and sex transformation surgeries in their healthcare plans. Political tendencies toward incremental change and social dialogue, familiar to Burkean conservatives, have been abandoned in favor of bold new movements that are detached from constraints of tradition. Judge Posner recently remarked that “I see absolutely no value to a judge of spending decades, years, months, weeks, day, hours, minutes, or seconds studying the Constitution, the history of its enactment, its amendments, and its implementation.” He seeks to avoid the threat of “allowing the dead to bury the living,” but he offers no basis for the living to discern the propriety of these changes apart from their own preferences and beliefs. Apparently, the wisdom of the ages resides in those who wear the robes, who will become our rulers.
Standing in the tradition of the pre-modern philosophers, Dr. Safranek argues that human flourishing is best achieved through living in a community of other virtuous souls in accord with reason and in the light of laws derived from transcendent principles. Desire is a jealous and unsatisfied mistress, which cannot serve as a reliable end for human existence. That desire, which each of us knows intimately, must be formed and channeled through the lens of virtue. It must also be lived in a community that embraces virtue and models it through friendship.
That message resonates deeply with many of us. But we also see the challenge in implementing this vision in a society that has become deeply disordered. Virtue has powerful aspirational and motivational qualities, which ultimately channel behavior toward achievement of liberty, equality, and dignity. Even though imperfect execution is inevitable, the promise of virtue remains because of its enduring witness of the truth. In contrast, the myth of liberalism has blinded many to the hazards that it presents to the liberty, equality, and dignity of those disfavored by the elites. By intruding into family life, private institutions, and religion itself, those elites can mute the witness to the beauty of the good life. We can expect them to try to keep their myth alive despite the emptiness of its claims, as they have no other answer.
Dr. Safranek has done important work in unmasking the progressive vision of liberalism, its philosophical problems, and its tendency toward the ruin of authoritarianism. He has also begun the work of outlining the foundations of an alternative vision based on virtue, which was well-known to our ancestors, but admittedly not always well-executed. Other philosophers, such as Alasdair McIntyre, have also stressed the necessity of recovering virtue. There is more work to be done here in thinking through these problems. Virtue is not an easy path to follow; it is also fraught with peril and hardship.
Like all human goods, the good of a well-ordered society is fragile. Each generation has a duty to maintain it, which is difficult work. One is reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s prescient response following the Constitutional Convention to a query about the kind of government that had been achieved: “A republic, if you can keep it.” Some may have the opportunity to improve the status quo, including a course correction when the society has lost its bearings.
Despite advantages that are evident in the current cultural climate, we should not forget that it is exceedingly difficult to maintain a myth based on false foundations. Eventually the myth is unmasked and its flaws are exposed; structures touted by the elites collapse under their own weight. But we are all affected by the ruins. This work of establishing and implementing the alternative vision rooted in virtue will require more than a shift of outlook sustained by the strength of philosophers’ arguments. It will require of all individuals something even more heroic: becoming living witnesses to virtue and its beauty.