We are all moralists at heart. We constantly make judgments about our family, friends and even strangers. We may profess that such judgments are merely matters of taste—but there is almost always a moral tinge to them.
The connoisseur of classical music quietly questions the character of the boy-band fan, while the boy-band fan assumes that those who claim to like classical music only like feeling superior to others. The disciplined, sober student looks upon those who binge drink as throwing away their potential, while the binge drinkers assume that teetotallers are repressed spoilsports. We think our polyamorous neighbours are not just weird, but sexually and morally confused. If we are polyamorous ourselves, we think the married couple down the street are alienated by-products of bourgeois society. In these, and a thousand other ways, we all make moral judgments about others.
It is hard to see how it could be otherwise. We humans are moral creatures. We live according to standards of right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly. Our moral frameworks serve as a kind of daily GPS, helping us assess threats, opportunities, risks and rewards. They reflect the communities to which we belong, allowing us to distinguish friends from strangers, the familiar from the foreign. Indeed, moral standards make us who we are. Moralism is a deeply human trait, which it would be foolish to try to wipe out. But if we are all moralists at heart, how can we live together in peace?
Distinguishing Private and Public Moralism
Liberal societies separate the private and public spheres. By private sphere, I mean the area of social life that is not controlled by the government—this includes the family, industry and civil society. The public sphere covers the jurisdiction of the state—the executive, judiciary and legislature.
Prior to the English wars of religion, there was no such distinction. It was assumed that states could penetrate and mould the deepest recesses of individual conscience. Early liberals pointed out that, in a diverse society, this would inevitably lead to conflict, as the more powerful groups would use the arm of the state to impose their beliefs on the rest: this was not only a threat to peace, but deeply oppressive. They convincingly argued that, in order to be free, individuals need a space within which to reflect, criticize and judge—in short, to be moralists.
Thus, the liberal separation between private and public spheres is an attempt to allow individuals in diverse societies to be moralists, while maintaining relative social peace. Unfortunately, this feature of liberalism is one of its least understood and most underrated. Both the political left and right reject the distinction between private and public for their own moralistic reasons.
On the left, a growing faction of progressives demand conformity to Social Justice and condemn any who question this. This is not itself a problem. We should be allowed to voice our moral condemnation in public, to our fellow citizens. That’s an integral feature of democracy. But there is increasing talk of using the state to enforce this particular moral worldview. I find this deeply disturbing—even though I agree with some of the things these progressives endorse—because this is a rejection of the core tenet of liberalism: in a free society, individuals can think whatever they wish.
This progressive tactic has roots in the feminist slogan, the personal is political. While there is truth to this statement, taken to its logical conclusion it can become a recipe for totalitarianism, justifying any encroachment on the consciences of citizens in the name of political goals. Even if the left could successfully get everyone to publicly endorse Social Justice, this would come at too great a cost. As Virginia Woolf understood, real freedom is dependent on having a room of one’s own.
Ironically and troublingly, in recent years, the conservative right has co-opted this slogan. If the personal is political, the only way to achieve conservative political goals is to infiltrate the private sphere. The post-liberal fusion championed by conservatives such as Patrick Deneen and Sohrab Ahmari gestures toward a similar use of the state to enforce a socially conservative morality.
These progressive and conservative strategies are mirror images of one another. If you reject the distinction between private and public, you end up with opposing ideological groups clamouring for power over the state, in order to realize their own moral ends.
Anyone who cares about individual freedom of conscience should be deeply unsettled by this.
A Delicate Balance
While the extreme polarization that characterises the current culture wars may be cause for concern, moral diversity is an inescapable feature of free, liberal societies. There is no problem with different groups battling over public opinion. In fact, it’s what we should want. Our moralism requires an outlet. Liberal societies provide this outlet in the form of discussions with acquaintances and family, art and culture, and public, civil discourse (like this essay). Both progressives and conservatives should have the freedom to attempt to shape public opinion, to appeal to the hearts and minds of their fellow citizens.
Where things go awry is when individual groups use the state to ensure moral conformity, treating its citizens as Pavlovian dogs, programmed to consent to the reigning orthodoxy. Even when successful this is likely to breed resentment. Apparent uniformity of belief is achieved at the expense of sincerity.
All societies require some degree of moral consensus. Liberal democracies institutionalize John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, in the form of constitutions and charters, as the basis of public morality because, unless a person is free from harm and the threat of oppression or violence, she cannot be free. But this definition of public morality is purposefully broad, allowing for a diversity of lifestyles and worldviews. As a result, classical musicians and boy-band lovers, teetotallers and hedonists, the polyamorous and the monogamous can live together in relative peace. They do not have to actively endorse, or even agree with, each other’s choices.
There are limits on what can be verbalized in a liberal society. For instance, nothing is gained by allowing individuals to yell fire in a crowded theatre, or allowing the innocent to be slandered. Treason, conspiracy to commit a crime and incitement of violence form similar limits. There are cases of hate speech that should be banned from the public realm. But the bar determining how to define and when to punish hate speech should be set very high.
Liberal societies allow us to be moralists in the private sphere—forming our own views about what is right, good and beautiful, within the inclusive parameters set by Mill’s harm principle, and voicing these views in civil society—while prohibiting us from using the state to enforce our own moral standards. This is a fragile, precarious balance. But it is worth fighting for.