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Coffee & Wisdom 02.67: The Holes in Liberalism Part 3

David Breeden is speaking all week about the issues with liberalism.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden and the senior minister of First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, and this is Coffee and Wisdom. This week we’ve been looking at “liberalisms” and I’m calling it “The Holes in Liberalism”. And then I added an “s” because we’ve been discovering that there are lots and lots of different kinds of liberalisms that goes all the way from an ultra-rightism to an ultra-leftism and all points in between. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy points out that there is no one form of liberalism and the fractures, the different kinds of liberalism occur, well, when we think about what it means to have liberty, which is what liberalism is all about, and at least in its classic form. Classic liberalism is freedom “from”, we discussed this is Isaiah Berlin, a famous 20th century philosopher who said the basic liberalism is about freedom from regulation, government interference, etc. Contemporary liberalism tends to be a freedom “to”. This is not entirely a U.S. invention, but it tends to be more so here in the United States. So if you begin to look at other definitions of liberalism from Europe and around the world, you’re going to see very different takes on this. And then I mentioned that there is a theological liberalism that can be a little bit confusing because it is based in classic liberalism all the way back to the Enlightenment Era of the 16- and 1700s. But it’s now moving toward a contemporary liberalism as time passes. Well, one of the ideas here and one of the difficulties is sussing out exactly what liberal means and where it fits on a larger chart of different political and social systems, because we are talking about both political and social, and then we’re adding back in the religious or theological.

One way of doing this is putting authoritarianism at the top, libertarianism at the bottom, and saying that we’re going to go from the most despotic and controlling down to complete anarchism and all points in between. When we do this, what you’re going to notice is that, yes, we have Social Democratic Authoritarianism, Marxism, Leninism, Fascism. Over here, Social Democracy, which is much this is a much more at a European type of type of politics. Liberalism, then, falls somewhere half in half and then we have conservatism. So where does the U.S. fall into this? Because then you see, this is above the line is the democratic, both left and right, and then socialism, and as this diagram calls it, the vast sea of libertarianism. So where does your particular political views fall on this continuum? And where is the U.S. electorate in this in this kind of diagram? It’s a very good question. As I discussed yesterday, one of the confounding factors of all this is, again, liberal theology. Where is that going? And recently, a couple of weeks ago, I was talking about the the idea that New Age shamanism has now become a right wing QAnon idea. So how has New Age, especially ideas, permeated American culture? We used to think of that as a kind of a very educated, well-off person who was able to make some distinctions due to education and money and just the ease of their privileged lives.

But nowadays, that’s not exactly what’s going on with New Age belief systems, and they are spreading into a wider culture. So where are the political factions in the United States? What is liberal about liberalism? And one of the things we have to look at is consequentialism and deontology. These are ethical, moral systems. And I note here that nothing is personal. This is collective ethics. There are more complex and nuanced ethical systems that personal, personally you can have, people have, such as virtue ethics (that’s the most famous one and it goes back to Aristotle), but also the ethics of care, which is a more contemporary, feminist idea of ethics. But really in politics, especially here in the U.S., we have to deal with these very broad categories. And the broad categories are deontology and consequentialism, that tends to be the divide between people we consider liberal and people we consider conservative politically here in the United States. Studies have found that religious individuals and political conservatives consistently invoke deontological ethics. For example, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” comes from the Ten Commandments, which the assumption is that comes from God. Therefore, you must obey this God’s command because of our belief in a hierarchy here of deontological ethics. “God said it, I believe it, that ends it”, tends to be one of the ways to look at this. So the Ten Commandments, we’ve got to put them up in the courthouses because that is the basis of law, according to deontologists. Deontology is a Greek derivative, it comes from a term and deon, meaning obligation or duty, and the study of what is our obligation or duty. And it means that action should be based on whether that action itself is right or wrong under a series of rules rather than based on the consequences of an action. So we can look to authority, then, to tell us what is right and what is wrong: deontology. But what about when authority requires an evil action? This is where deontology begins to break down. We do know that Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for the death of millions of people, said “I was just following orders” in his court trial. Famously, “Eichmann in Jerusalem”, a report on the banality of evil by Hannah Arendt, the European philosopher who later moved to the United States. That’s what she’s talking about with this banality of evil, as when we have a whole system in which people simply follow orders and believe that their responsibility is not theirs, then this is how evil can be perpetrated. She said under conditions of tyranny, it is far easier to act than to think. So that’s one place where deontology causes a few little problems. “I was only following orders.” Now we have political liberals who tend to invoke a consequentialist ethics. That means we’re judging the morality of actions based on the positive or negative outcomes. In “Coffee and Wisdom”, we have discovered and discussed where this comes from.

It is a early 19th century idea at that time called utilitarianism. It has been expanded by various kinds of philosophical nuances over the time. But we really it’s easiest to grasp this by we want to look at the consequences of the actions rather than “God said it, and therefore I will do it” or “My boss said it, and therefore I will do it”. Consequentialism is a class of normative, teleological ethical theories that holds that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct. This definition coming from Wikipedia. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act is one that will produce a good outcome. We’re looking at the consequences. We remember that in utilitarianism in any way, the saying is the greatest good for the greatest number. We need to look at that as the consequence. Well, so one of the problems with deontological ethics is who is your authority figure and what does that authority figure want? Who is interpreting the authority? So maybe you don’t want Adolph to be your authority hierarchy, but what about God? And then where are you getting the ideas of what God has to say? And that’s a good question and not as easy as it might at first appear, since many different religious traditions have many different interpretations of what those deontological meanings are. Again, “God said it. I believe it. That ends it.” The problem with consequentialism is how can we know the consequences for sure? That’s the first one.

We know that many laws have consequences that we didn’t think would be there. It takes five years, ten years down the road, but suddenly a consequence appears that was an unintended consequence. We hear that phrase quite a bit in American politics. So that’s one thing we can’t see all of the consequences, that’s a problem. And also what if someone wants the consequence to be what others would consider immoral. Who gets to decide which consequences are moral and which are not? Now, again, utilitarianism itself, when it was focused on personal ideas of ethics; well, we all have a personal moral compass, don’t we? Theoretically, anyway. But what about social issues? What about the larger issue of politics? When this is being decided by a large number of people, then things become a little bit more complicated. And indeed, hierarchical figures may have some kind of consequence in mind that the electorate does not have. I showed you that square as a way of thinking about political where you are on a political spectrum. This, a lot of theorists have struggled with this. How do we talk about where people are politically and socially? In this one, this is the Nelsyvian Political Triangle, an alternative to the right left spectrum, it says. Here we have subjective morality down at the bottom and absolute morality. So we have this idea of consequentialism on one side and deontology on the other. And you see that totalitarianism, communism, fascism comes on one side, theocracy, that is doing what Sharia law, what the Ten Commandments, and that kind of thing.

And as we work it up from more collectivism, fascism, communism, theocracy, to a more individualism, we get then into socialistic ideas of various varieties and then neo-conservatism and then libertarianism. Minarchy means an absolute minimum government only to to protect private rights and to have a standing army, for example, and then complete anarchy in which all individuals are making all of the decisions all the time. So where does American politics fall within this and where do liberals fall within this particular idea? And as you see, it does problematize what conservatism and liberalism means in American politics, especially since most of us are in the American political cycle. It’s very difficult to map this out, as you see. And one of the reasons is that we have all kinds of liberalism. Well, we’re going to talk some more about that tomorrow. Looking back at some theorists who have tried to put their finger on that tonight at seven o’clock Central Time, we will be having “Bibles and Beer”. Today, it’s Moses won’t ask for directions. Why is it that the Hebrew children are wandering in the desert for 40 years after they leave Egypt? What’s up with that? Because it’s just not that far. So we’ll be looking at that idea tonight. And at First Unitarian Society all month long, we are talking about our theme of becoming. So we’ll see you again tomorrow when we’ll be talking about how do we put our finger on the idea of liberalism in a social and political context. Thank you.

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