An interesting discussion has been occurring in First Things over the past two weeks. It started with this article written by Sohrab Ahmari criticizing the conciliatory approach David French takes when addressing the left and problems of modern society. Ahmari says that French is a political liberal at heart and places individual freedom as the core value that society must defend.
Ahmari hits the nail on the head when he writes:
“Here is the problem: The movement we are up against prizes autonomy above all, too; indeed, its ultimate aim is to secure for the individual will the widest possible berth to define what is true and good and beautiful, against the authority of tradition.”“Against David French-ism”, Sohrab Ahmari
For David French the issue is not so much the changing culture but the aggressive attacks of the left to purge traditional and conservative thought from the public sphere. He wants to “live and let live” and wants the left to tolerate conservatives, the fact that we disagree with each other doesn’t mean that we can’t live alongside each other civilly? Or does it?
French’s take is an appealing one. It takes the high road and extends a hand to those who are willing to engage in civil and good faith discussion about the problems of modern society and how to overcome them. The problem is, as Ahmari points out that what the world is dealing with is not an opponent that is interested in good faith discussion. It’s the political ideology French himself holds twisted and warped to it’s logical conclusion. If individual freedom to act as we wish is the most important thing that society needs to establish and protect then suddenly you lose the guide for the shared values that makes society work. After all political liberalism was birthed by European intellectuals casting off the restrictive dogmas of Christianity in favor of following their own reason, the state of the west today and Christendom is only the logical progression of what began back then.
R.R Reno, the editor at First Things responded to this with his own article “What Liberalism Lacks” that supports Ahmari’s take and has many good points I agree with, particularly:
“The liberal end game is easy to formulate. Ideally, we would reach a state of affairs where people would feel no loyalty to non-economic goods such as family, community, or nation. This would free them for the liberal dream of complete autonomy (the final end of cultural deregulation). It would also make them more available as mobile, productive workers and eager consumers unhindered by disciplines or compunctions that have no utility value, thus fulfilling the liberal dream of non-coercive market coordination of all aspects of life (the final end of economic deregulation). ““What Liberalism Lacks”, R.R Reno
Ultimately the problem with modern western society is an overemphasis on liberal ideals like individual freedom at the expense of the real obligations that are required for every individual to uphold in order to maintain society. We owe a duty not only to ourselves but others around us. This sentiment has gradually become less and less popular to the point where JFK’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” quote would seem almost fascistic if it was uttered by a politician today. In addition we can take the sentiment of placing others before yourself and extend it into the realm of considering generations that come after us. If our duty is not only to ourselves, but also to the people who surround us today and also the future generations then things start coming back into clearer focus. The the society we live in isn’t just a tool for us to mold in order to create a political order that gives us the maximal individual autonomy, but we should be concerned with taking what we inherited from our forebears and carefully preserving it so that we can pass it down to our children and the generations to come. Society, as Roger Scruton puts it, is a trust. We are the beneficiaries of enormous cultural and scientific achievements of those who came before us and it’s our duty to ensure that those achievements are built upon and handed down to generations to come so they too can benefit from the same accumulation of culture and knowledge that we have.
Loyalty, duty, honor. These are values carefully taught to each generation as being of upmost importance to uphold society. Individual freedom is good, but it can become a destabilizing factor when individual freedom is promoted to such an extent that the right to an individuals freedom of action and choice overrides the collective good of society. The problem is when you place individual freedom on such a high pedestal it starts becoming difficult if not impossible to enforce the shared moral values of the community, indeed the shared moral values themselves are wont to change as the people who hold them find them too restrictive and a burden on their right to self actualization through freedom of action.
The continuing fragmentation of society into multiple groups that share little in common with each other is a huge issue. If the “common good” is nothing more than the right for each individual to do as they please so long as it doesn’t directly harm anyone else then that “common good” only exacerbates the problem. The European intellectuals who kicked off liberalism would be quite dismayed with what it has led to. It turns out without a guiding principle to lead people that is more than just “Do what thou wilt, so long as no harm is caused” it inevitably causes a breakdown of the social fabric as the long held traditional and cultural beliefs of one section of that society become intolerable burdens and unfair restrictions on the freedom of other individuals to act against those beliefs. With no shared value system to guide people apart from cold utilitarian calculus we find we actually have very little in common with each other.
The discussion has been ongoing but in general I agree with the criticisms of the Frenchian approach to the modern moral crisis. To claim that the issue is that conservatives are not getting enough respect and being allowed to exercise their own individual freedom is to reinforce the very problem causing it in the first place. The left and right now see each other not merely as political opponents but as existential threats to each others way of life, and they’re mostly correct with that assessment. If we cannot come to a shared agreement about what the core values of our society are beyond individual liberty than what could be more damaging to my sense of liberty than my political opponents having their ability to enforce their views on myself and the communities I belong to when they hold political power. This gap is wide, whereas before it may have been an issue of “Should we have socialized healthcare? Some say yes, some say no but we both agree on the core Christian principles of the nation” now the discussion is whether Christianity even has the right to exist in and influence the public sphere.
To the modern left such things as tradition, culture and religion are outmoded concepts that have little relevance to the contemporary world except to be used as quirky fashion statements. They’re nice to look at from time to time but they have no place dictating the behavior of individuals. It’s becoming sickeningly clear though that without them the tether that anchors ourselves to our past and our identity is severed and we’re being led into a future of consumerist nihilism where everything is relative and the only thing the State stands for is to promote the individual autonomy of the fungible economic units that populate it. Perfectly interchangeable blank slates.
As Christians we know the value of subordinating ourselves to something higher than ourselves. By keeping God at the center of our lives we find the freedom that so many people search for and never find in ever increasingly extreme ways to individualize themselves and stand out in some way. But the truest expression of individual freedom isn’t in doing what you want, it’s in having the choice to do what you want and choosing not to because you serve something greater than yourself.
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
It’s time for people to stop using their individual freedom as an opportunity for the flesh but utilize their freedom for a higher cause, that of God and peace in Jesus Christ.