Progressive Fudge: Rights and Judgment

According to progressive morality, which is really progressive politics, to disagree with or disrespect someone’s choices and attitudes — provided they are the correct choices and attitudes of the moment — is to violate his rights. This is tantamount to saying that rights are essentially protections against being judged. To judge a person’s preferences (in relativist lingo, his “lifestyle”) is thus inherently to violate his rights.

What the progressives are really saying, of course, as is indicated by the selectiveness with which they apply this principle, is that they have already judged certain choices and attitudes to be good, and their judgment is final, such that any disagreement with the new progressive certainty is a challenge to their authoritative judgment, and therefore illegitimate by definition. The entire modern politico-legal category of “discrimination,” as applied today, is nothing in practice but an effort to codify a particular point of view as the officially correct one, thus barring even private actions which seem to imply any disagreement with, or reservations about, the progressively-defined truth. Discrimination laws criminalize being wrong — which in practice often means criminalizing trying to be right against the winds of one’s time.

Scenes from a more liberal (aka less paternalistic) age: Respecting a person’s rights and judging his preferences are two entirely different things, and quite compatible with one another. The first is a basic requirement of living together in a community. The second is a basic requirement of living as a rational adult of the human species. (I want to live in a community in which my neighbor can drink himself silly each night, and also in a community in which I may criticize my neighbor’s drunken behavior and warn others against following his example.) There is no conflict between these two imperatives, for the objective of community is not to reduce human existence to the chaos of incoherence and randomness — which harms everyone in the end — but to facilitate human interaction in ways that encourage individual development and the safe, responsible rearing of new community members. These two aims not only permit, but positively require, in addition to the structural protection of liberty, the kind of social intercourse that leads to a gradual refining and spiritualizing of ends. In short, it requires a vigorous conversation about ideas and principles of right living, grounded in an ongoing exchange of differing (and occasionally irreconcilable) views, and the promotion, through word and deed, of the most reasoned — moderate, life-ennobling — judgments on questions of moral action and social interaction, judgments made in the light of serious considerations of human nature and the wisdom of past experience.

Of course, I have just explained, indirectly, why a truly liberal society, in the non-paternalistic sense of “liberal,” cannot survive in the long run, as the past three centuries of modern effort have demonstrated. Any theory of social development that at its core requires the voluntary maintenance of general rationality is doomed from the start. The early modern philosophers, with their “state of nature,” reduced the meaning and purpose of reason to something so basic — self-preservation — that they believed most men could be expected to at least meet that low standard. Their supposed hard-nosed realism about human nature has proved to be absolute pie-in-the-sky dreaming after all.

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