Liberal neutrality and scepticism about the Right (Wonkish).

A quick thought that I want to get down in case I wish to pursue it for an essay at a later date.

The principle of liberal neutrality is predicated on a moral distinction between things that are good and bad and things that are right and wrong. The state is said to have a legitimate interest in enforcing the latter, more serious sphere of morality, but not the former. So it bans murder because it is wrong. But it does not ban drugs because at worst they are only (arguably) bad. So liberal neutrality is seen as a licence to do things that are not necessarily maximally good. That’s the essence of the right to freedom.

But this distinction between the Right and the Good appears to have its basis in some sort of Kantian framework, which claims the existence of strict duties as separate from questions about what a wise way to live is. What I’m wondering, then, is this. What happens if you deny that moral framework, and insist that no such rigid distinction can be drawn?

This could happen in one of two ways. First, if you’re a virtue ethicist, you could follow Anscombe in considering eliminating the category of the Right altogether on the grounds that it is unintelligible in our post-theistic world. You could do ethics only in terms of the Good instead, and make no in principle distinction between virtues like justice, which are traditionally tied to duties, and Aristotelian virtues like wit. If you did, on what grounds could you defend the state’s only making policy to enforce the acts demanded by the virtue of justice, whilst being entirely blind to all other aspects of ethical life as liberalism demands?

Second, what if you’re a consequentialist? It looks to me like Hume and Mill also have no reason to distinguish the Right and Good. For them, acts are to be assessed on a continuum according to how useful they are. The Right and the Good aren’t definite metaphysical categories. So once more, there’s no in principle reason why it shouldn’t be an open question whether the state should legislate in a way which promotes things that liberals would refer to as only ‘good’. If so, however, neutrality once more looks like it may be in trouble.

Now, I know, Mill was a liberal. And he evidently thought neutrality could be defended on utilitarian grounds. And that gives me reason to be more optimistic. But it seems obvious that this could only be a contingent, and thus potentially unrewarding, justification. I think I want to say that liberal neutrality is justified even if it vastly undermines human well-being and happiness could be heightened through the imposition of contentious values. But why? Can we perhaps better account for strong intuitions in support of neutrality on epistemic grounds? That is, by calling for caution on the grounds that questions about the Good face reasonable disagreement in a way that the Right as a concept does not? That looks promising, but it’s not what I naturally invoke when rationalising my convictions, so it would be worth exploring. And I still have no clue how most virtue ethicists could be liberals. Then again, we shouldn’t forget that Aristotle was a perfectionist after all. The state’s raison d’etre, for him, was to make men good. So maybe that shouldn’t surprise me too much. I just fear the day when I may be inclined towards virtue ethics whilst still feeling repulsed by state-driven perfectionism.

Anyway, food for thought.


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