Monday, March 2, 2009

Is Liberalism Neutral?

There's been some debate (collected in this post) about the proper role of dogmatic communities, like the Amish or the evangelicals, in the politics of a liberal democracy. The heart of the argument is about whether it's possible for a liberal state to be value-neutral, and to leave people entirely free to pursue their own notion of the good life. Noah Millman argues, and I agree, that the only way to achieve this sort of neutrality is for the state to shrink to something much smaller than it currently is.

I'd go further, in fact, and say that the abortion issue suggests that this might not be enough. After all, the state is -- even on a minimal account -- responsible for enforcing the rule of law; murder is against the law; therefore, if you consider abortion to be murder -- which I don't, btw, in case you stumbled upon this by accident -- abortion is against the law even if you're a principled libertarian. (Similarly with dependent vegetables, Terri Schiavo, etc.) The sensible way to draw a line in all these cases is to make a judgment about what constitutes a valuable life. As far as I can see, the only "neutral" possibility is to treat all (enforceable) potentially "alive" cases as being actually alive, which is the hardline fundamentalist view.

And of course education is value-laden. As Millman says:
Now let’s look at education, which is, I think, the best ground on which to make my argument. Every modern liberal state that actually exists provides for universal public education. And the content of that educational program is regularly contested, because it is impossible to educate in a value-neutral fashion. Education is, first and foremost, about building character, and you cannot set out to build character with no notion of what makes for good or bad character. [...]

Most people’s notions of a “liberal education” imply a very different set of virtues than a purely instrumental one; indeed, a “liberal education” is all about inculcating liberal virtues – inquisitiveness, objectivity, skepticism, etc. But once again, precisely because these are, indeed, virtues, they say something about what constitutes “the good life” and not merely about “mere life” questions. And a liberal education will necessarily rankle those who hold to metaphysical commitments that they do not want to see challenged.

I agree with this, and it doesn't bother me. The thing is, I disagree with what Millman says later:
Families are ontologically and chronologically prior to the state.

This is part of why I'm not a libertarian. I agree with the Dawkins view that homeschooling your kids or sending them to religious schools ought to be unacceptable. I believe that the state is ontologically prior to families: however, the state is even worse at rearing kids than most families are, so as a matter of convenience parents get to rear their offspring, and one has the (mild relative to the alternative) evil of religious indoctrination at home. If you start out with this sort of view, Millman's arguments about education don't apply -- the responsibility for schooling kids belongs to the state; if the state requires public schooling, it isn't outsourcing this responsibility, but it isn't encroaching on anything either -- but it follows that the state is necessarily engaged in value-laden enterprises.

In general, the "your freedom ends where my nose begins" attitude runs into trouble whenever you have to think about dependents. Either it's unacceptable to let them starve/choke/run about illiterate or it isn't; if it is, then they're theoretically wards of the state, and the state has to take care of them, which generally involves some degree of making value judgments.


Grobstein said...

I agree with you, but I think that the my-freedom-your-nose thesis breaks down long before you get to the question of how to deal with dependents. There's just no simple, neutral way to define the boundaries between my freedoms and your nose. To say, government should allow me complete freedom up to where I impinge on your rights is question-begging. To say my freedom extends exactly up to where it impinges on your vision of the good life is even more obviously problematic, since there's no reason to believe that people's respective visions of the good life are jointly satisfiable.

Ugh; I'm being obscure and probably off point. I might try again later.

Zed said...

I think kids pose a particularly difficult problem for people who want a value-neutral government because, short of giving parents absolute control (which is repugnant), nothing the govt. can do is value-neutral. I would distinguish between weak value-neutrality (a state that interferes in private life in a small number of mechanical ways) and strong value-neutrality (the claim that it's possible to come up with a maximal set of rights without reference to our personal values). Your point deals with strong value-neutrality and I agree that you don't need kids for that. Education's one of the relatively few cases that address the _weak_ version as well: public education requires the govt. to use its discretion, no public education leaves kids at the mercy of their parents, which appears to violate even a minimal notion of kids' rights.