MODERATOR: Welcome back to Clash of Worldviews, the unlikely show in which the philosophical assumptions of popular worldviews are pitted against each other. This week, we bring back Adam the liberal secular humanist, Heather the postmodern skeptic, and Lindsey the conservative Catholic, and we focus the discussion on their social and political disagreements. Adam, shall we begin with you? Tell us about liberalism.
ADAM: Sure, but I should begin by repudiating the ludicrous stereotype that liberals are quasi-communists. That slander was perpetrated by devious conservatives in the US and elsewhere, who are professionals at muddying the waters so that the so-called center of Western political discourse moves ever rightward. Far from being equivalent to anticapitalism, liberalism should be identified with the political side of early European modernity, and it’s that period in which capitalism was first celebrated.
This becomes clear when we reflect on the fact that liberals are also known as progressives. The idea of progress was a defining feature of modernity as it arose in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Recall that Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith, Voltaire, Rousseau, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill were champions of individual liberty. They railed against ignorance, superstition, dogma, and the oppressive institutions of feudalism and the Catholic Church, arguing that humans are equal in their personhood as constituted principally by their ability to rationally control themselves, to express their individuality and to discover the truth in spite of institutionalized myths. Political power should therefore be vested in the majority in some democratic system that respects the greatness of each individual. Progress was opposed to the traditions that rationalized the gross inequality inherent in monarchies and aristocracies.
And so when liberals today speak of civil rights, equal opportunity for minorities, and the need for functional markets and a representative government, they speak first and foremost as modernists, or if you like as secular humanists, that is, as believers in the ideals that took the West out of its dark age. Current opponents of liberalism are best thought of as anti-modern—not, mind you, as patriots or freedom fighters or lovers of Jesus or the Constitution. So-called conservatives today resent the gains of modernity. Their project is to return us to a premodern state of affairs in which only the privileged few are free while the majority are reduced to slaves. Whereas liberals aren’t quasi-communists, conservatives are cryptototalitarians.
LINDSEY: That, of course, is the myth of modernity. Progressives like to think they’ve outgrown the need for myths, that they merely follow Reason where it leads. But modernists, liberals, progressives, or whatever you want to call them are terrific myth-makers. They trumpet the greatness of the individual, but Catholics are upfront about our fallen nature, our inherent tendency to stray from moral principles. “Liberty!” cries the modernist. “Let everyone be free to do what they please!” This is a recipe for hedonism and civilizational decline. Left to ourselves to figure out how to live, we’d spiral downwards into self-imposed conditions of squalor and ruin. Contrary to the modernist’s pretense of positivism, that she bases her beliefs solely on logic and evidence, we devise endless fictions to rationalize our original sin of being more like animals than angels.