Read Liberalism on Trial Part 1 here

Perhaps the central issue of liberalism is that it very often tries to adopt the attitude of simply being the neutral and objective way of social organization. Liberalism since the days of Locke and the American constitution has pretended that it has rationally derived a few self-evident laws of politics, while avoiding imposing any particular worldview on the nations it rules. Certain liberal factions, like the utilitarians, are more straightforward as they argue that pleasure is the good towards which their system is directed. Indeed, the issue with anyone claiming to have an abstract neutral system is that any concept of rights will necessarily be grounded in some particular understanding of the good.

All rights and constitutions are designed to direct people and societies towards the good as it is understood within a given system. For utilitarians, the ultimate good is pleasure; for Christians, it is God. But whatever one’s understanding of the good, one cannot actually legitimately participate in the politics of a nation without possessing some understanding of the good, some vision for society. Pretended neutrality and objectivity does not work philosophically or logically: there is no standing above or outside the moral argument, and we should not tolerate anyone who claims otherwise.

For utilitarians, the ultimate good is pleasure; for Christians, it is God.

In the spirit of this view, I would like to present why it is that we reject modern theories of liberalism, as a coherent foundation for rights. However, in order to be constructive, the final part of this series will put forward an alternative view of the necessary ethical foundations for rights, duties and laws. In this part I will put forward a critique of utilitarianism. The first criticism of utilitarianism is that from the beginning, Jeremy Bentham predicated the implementation of utilitarian ethics on the development of the Hedonic Calculus, a mathematical equation that would allow one to calculate which choice among several will maximize pleasure. Of course, such a calculation was never developed and does not exist. Bentham certainly provided the general guidelines which this calculus would have to follow, but no one has so far actually been able to actually calculate pleasure in the way the Hedonic Calculus requires. Bentham specified that such a calculation would be measured in units of pleasure and pain known as hedons and dolors. As long as we do not have a Hedonic Calculus, any decisions taken within a utilitarian framework will be based on assumptions and approximations of what we believe will maximize pleasure.

Secondly, while utilitarians claim that our goal should be to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number of people, utilitarianism itself provides no justification for this. In John Stuart Mill’s book Utilitarianism he argues that people are only motivated by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, that any other motivations like honour or love can be reduced to these two considerations, and that since these are the only things we want, our ethics should be based in seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Even if one were to grant this premise, it does not actually then lead one to conclude that we should care about the pleasure or pain of other people in and of themselves. One could argue that helping others gives us more pleasure, but this makes the value of all other people contingent on our own pleasure, so in fact the only thing we fundamentally value is our own pleasure. Mill offers no justification for valuing other people themselves, and if we wish to take this stance we would have to appeal to non-utilitarian principles. While this is certainly an option, it means that utilitarianism would not be our ultimate moral foundation, but only a contingent aspect of a more fundamental morality.

The fact that utilitarians want to count all people’s preferences equally points to the fact that they hold equality as something they value in itself. Indeed, a belief in equality is an implicit assumption that is required to make utilitarianism work. But this conception of equality means that equality is being held alongside pleasure and pain as a silent third value. As legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin notes, the premise of equality requires that utilitarianism chooses equality when equality conflicts with the preference of the majority. If the majority of people want to limit someone’s rights to benefit the majority, egalitarianism requires that the majority’s preference be ignored. This of course brings back the old moral problems utilitarianism was meant to overcome. Once again we are in the realm of discussing metaphysical ethical principles, which supersede simply pleasure and pain and the will of the majority.

For the last two criticisms we will need some context as to different branches of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism can be divided into two groups: act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism. Act-utilitarianism is in line with the hedonism of Jeremy Bentham, which basically just seeks to maximize the amount of pleasure produced for each individual act. Rule-utilitarianism is in line with the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, which seeks to establish a system of laws and norms in a society that will overall in the long-term maximize pleasure.

The most salient issue with act-utilitarianism is that with every single political course of action , we would have to choose pleasure above all other considerations. For example in a choice between justice and maximizing pleasure we would have to choose pleasure every time. Consider a murder trial that has received significant public attention. The accused is innocent, but for whatever reason found guilty (the accused is part of an unpopular minority group, the accused is an unpopular person himself, the real murderer is a highly respected member of the community and condemning him would shake the public’s faith in their own society, etc.). Whether we are talking about a judge in the southern United States during segregation condemning a black man for a crime he didn’t commit, a judge in current-day South Africa condemning a Boer farmer for a crime he didn’t commit; or Pontius Pilate choosing to pardon Barrabas (a condemned murderer) and crucify Jesus Christ because the crowd wanted it to be so, we all intuitively understand that it is deeply wrong to discard justice in the name of pleasure.  In the case of utilitarianism our intuitions are highly important. The basic premise of utilitarianism suggests that all moral questions should be analyzed in terms of pleasure and pain. This logically follows from the utilitarian belief that everything people care about is pleasure and pain. However, we clearly care about justice in itself, even when it is opposed to maximizing pleasure.

The issue with rule-utilitarianism is that any system of laws and norms we implement would be arbitrary. John Stuart Mill came after Bentham, realizing that mere act utilitarianism was incapable of maintaining a good society he developed rule-utilitarianism as a way to justify more consistent social structures and laws. Early on in his book On Liberty, John Stuart Mill explains to us how it is that different societies develop historically. As he himself notes, it would not make sense for every single society throughout history to adopt utilitarian liberalism. Indeed he argues that if a society is too primitive and undeveloped it is actually better for it to be ruled by a chieftain or a king. He gives the example of how Charlemagne’s kingship, in the early middle ages, was a much better government for the Franks than attempting to impose 19th century liberalism on them. Nevertheless, he argues that once a society becomes sufficiently developed  for liberalism, then utilitarian-liberalism becomes the optimal system. So how do we know when a society becomes developed enough for liberalism? John Stuart Mill simply states that it is clear that 19th century Britain was enlightened and developed enough to adopt utilitarian liberalism.

The historical development of liberalism contradicts Mill’s claim. Historically liberalism was imposed through great instability and violence (the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, the Revolutions of 1830, the Revolutions of 1848, etc.). Were any of these societies ready for liberalism when it was imposed upon them? Clearly, many people thought they weren’t—enough people to man several counter-revolutionary and monarchist armies. Consider also that most people during the period of the liberal revolutions were peasants who were highly religious and conservative (in the sense of supporting monarchy).

In the 1848 French elections (more than 50 years after the French Revolution), the vote was extended to include the masses of rural Frenchmen. As a result, Louis-Napoleon, the leader of the monarchist “Party of Order” won the presidential election, and a few years later declared himself emperor of France to popular acclaim. Surely if Mill thought people in the 19th century were ready for liberalism then people in the 20th century were. Yet Germany after World War I adopted one of the most liberal constitutions in the world at that time. The so-called “Weimar Republic” brought in by this constitution ruled Germany throughout the 1920’s and brought in extremely progressive changes. The Weimar era saw the beginning of feminism and even the development of the ideology of gay rights and transsexualism. Yet in 1933, Adolf Hitler and the National-Socialists came to power after winning the largest share of votes of any party in an election a few months earlier. Did Germany become ready for liberalism, and then become unready again?

Moreover, consider the 19th century english society Mill regarded as developed enough to adopt liberalism. If someone were to read out loud the opinions of the average Englishman in 1870, he would be considered a fascist. This was a country that was proud of its Anglo-Saxon heritage and would have rejected any idea of bringing in racial diversity through immigration. Homosexuality was illegal and considered to be a mental illness. England in the 19th century was at the peak of its empire, and built vast wealth and industry by subjugating vast swathes of Africa and Asia. Would a modern liberal consider this a society that was enlightened and rational? John Stuart Mill’s attempt to justify the implementation of liberalism historically by appealing to its degree of social advancement is subjective and arbitrary. Moreover it ignores the real historical processes that actually lead to social transformation.

Utilitarian-liberalism is not something that rational people just come to inevitably accept. It is a transformative, revolutionary social force that is motivated by specific ideological assumptions. Of course a liberal like John Stuart Mill believes that utilitarian liberalism was the best system to maximize people’s happiness. He is a committed liberal: he would be most satisfied if his society reflected his deeply-held beliefs. Mill’s liberalism is not drawn from neutral historical analysis. His ideology, just like any other, rests on an interconnected web of presuppositions which give rise to it. In the same way his overall worldview gives rise to his political views, it also conditions his emotional responses to the society in which he lives.

Mill’s liberalism is not drawn from neutral historical analysis. His ideology, just like any other, rests on an interconnected web of presuppositions which give rise to it.

But conservative would be most satisfied if their society followed their ideology, so does a truly commited communist and so does an Islamist. If most people in a country are conservatives they will support a conservative system. If the majority of people in a country are Muslim they will support an Islamist system. Just look at the opinion polling for sharia law in Muslim countries. Sharia law receives massive support in many countries, 91% in Iraq, 83% in Morocco, 84% in Pakistan. People in those countries are open about the fact they are satisfied with sharia law. Would a liberal accept that sharia law maximizes pleasure and so is the optimal system?

Since any system that we establish will need to be enforced, and will radically transform the lives of the people living under it, attempting to choose which system to establish on the basis utilitarianism is arbitrary. Trying to say that one system does better at maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain can only be done by appealing to the subjective perspective of the masses of the people. The thinking and experience of the average person will be contingent on whatever hegemonic system they inhabit, so it makes no sense to treat the pleasure and pain of the masses as some sort of neutral ground that can be used to judge between systems.

During the vast majority of human history, the only result of posing this question would be to conclude that the current system is best because the general population supports it. Because they think within the parameters established by the system, they will be conditioned to understand and experience their own pleasure and pain within those parameters. The only possible counter-argument to any established system a utilitarian could give is to tell people that they really don’t support the system, even though they think they do and will tell anyone who asks that they do.

Certainly it may be the case that a system is not working correctly and so people are dissatisfied with its performance. However, this is not an argument to change systems, but rather to reform the current system to make it more efficient. For example, if we consider the failings of an Islamic state that has implemented sharia law with the support of the people; from the perspective of rules utilitarianism we will not be able to present a justification for becoming a secular-liberal state. The only conclusion from this perspective would be to better an Islamic state with sharia law, more efficient government, less corruption, better enforcement of laws, etc.

As long as people think within the paradigm of the system they won’t be willing to change it. Their best bet for maximizing utility is to improve the current system without threatening its central components. One could argue that liberalism would increase pleasure and minimize pain better than sharia law, but that wouldn’t be supported by asking the people what they would enjoy more. And if liberalism were forced on them they would strongly oppose it, and this would lead to great pain and very little pleasure. Consider the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. One could say “well, Americans seem to enjoy liberalism very much”, but the natural response is that of course they do: Americans believe in liberalism, they believe in equality and individualism. They like these things, so a system that provides these things will give them pleasure.

One might bring up examples of revolutions that overthrew old systems to bring in new ones. But the transformative moments of history were not led by 51% of a population deciding they wanted a systemic transformation. When we consider the successful historical revolutions it was always small, tightly-knit groups of fanatical men who were willing to give their lives to their cause. This is true for the early Christian church, the French Revolution and the Communist Revolution in Russia. Therefore anyone seeking to make a fundamental change in their society is taking a distinctly anti-rules utilitarian position, and must appeal to higher universal principles than just what people happen to like at the time. This includes liberals, who originally argued that the very laws of nature themselves required Christian peasants to support a total transformation of their society, whether they liked it or not.

In the final part of this series, I will critique contemporary liberalism’s attempts to resolve the contradictions in utilitarian liberalism.