The Cognitive Dissonance of the Cultural Warriors

Well, this post is quoting me as an example, but the same blogger never really bothered to respond to my 2-month old post that addressed the distinction between the libertarian and communitarian versions of liberty.

Our blogger denies the liberal/libertarian definition of liberty, “do as you want, constrained only the harm to others,” on the grounds that we cannot individually define “harm.” Or to be more accurate, “harm” can only carry an agreed upon social definition. This, of course, is the bromide of the communitarian. And our blogger expresses this communitarian version quite clearly:

The voluntary institutions of society (civil society) inculcate and enforce a society’s moral code (1), foster mutual trust and respect (2), and help to preserve cultural similarity (3)

But notice how our blogger suddenly switches gears with this next post, The Intolerant Left, regarding the liberty of Chick-fil-A to sell chicken sandwiches. In this instance, the left-wing communitarians are making the same social argument against the liberty of Chick-fil-A that our blogger employed against the liberal/libertarian definition of liberty in his preceding post. The exact same argument. But to our blogger, the appeal to “Chicago” or “Boston” values is suddenly a cause for a vitriolic spew of viscous hatred regarding the intolerance of the left. It is quite an entertaining rant:

Left-wingers march in lockstep like wind-up toy soldiers. And all it takes to wind them up is to propose a governmental intervention in social or economic affairs — preferably one that flouts a social tradition that is based on decades and centuries of of experience. Why do leftists have so little respect for the wisdom that accrues in social norms? Because leftism is rooted in two psychological tendencies. One of them is adolescent rebellion, which can persist for decades past adolescence. This explains the left’s hatred of conventional authority figures who (usually) represent conservative (civilizing) values (e.g., parents, police officers, military officers, members of the clergy). The other psychological tendency is the urge to dominate others, an urge that leftists project onto conservatives.

But, to repeat, the left-wing communitarian social appeal is the exact social argument that our conservative blogger employed against my libertarian definition earlier. Of course, in one instance, the social argument is perfectly legitimate and is expression of the ultimate meaning of liberty. In the next instance, the social argument is an expression of social dominance rooted in psychological perversion.

Which is the correct interpretation of the social argument? If there is a “correct interpretation” of the social argument among competing social views, then I would dare say that “the harm principle” can likewise be adjudicated outside of the blanketing constraint of any supposed social context.1

The American political dialogue–the culture war– primarily consists of right-wing and left-wing communitarians accusing one another of being liberal2. But, of course, neither group is. The liberal rejects the social argument in favor an epistemological principle of the presumption of liberty. It is a simple principle: claims of harm can be falsifiable and the constraints against liberty have to be demonstrated. Simple. This is the epistemological bulwark against appeals to the authority of the cop, the military and the church. This is the bulwark against the communitarian presumption of social authority asserted by both the communitarian right and left.

1 Any attempt to establish “the more correct” social view among competing theories would have to rely on a scientific method of falsifying the others

2 The right-wing communitarians accuse the left-wing communitarians as “liberal.” The left-wing communitarians accuse the right-wing communitarians as being “libertarian.”


2 thoughts on “The Cognitive Dissonance of the Cultural Warriors

  1. There is some merit in discussing the ambiguity around the term “harm”, but resorting to nationalism (and borderline racism) is not necessary to resolve that ambiguity. I won’t even get into the “realism” of segregation.

    Harm does have a variety of definitions, particularly when we treat hurt feelings as “harm” (as both conservatives and progressives do). I think the solution there is not so much to fret over what is “harm”, but to look for parallels between the nature of the offense and the appropriate response. Symbolic offenses should be met with symbolic responses. Material offenses should be met with material responses (and in both cases, I would err on the side of caution and try to de-escalate the cycle of mutual offense if possible).

    I suspect that the need to exclude symbolism from the definition of “harm” is only relevant when the response is delegated to a special actor (the state) with a limited range of options available (i.e. fines or arrest). Instead, regular people have the power and responsibility to respond (with oversight), the full range of options are open and it is more realistic to match the response to the offense.

    A good definition for a libertarian community is that “all rights are individual rights”, and consequently “harm” is defined by however the community has decided to define rights (which leaves space for meaningful differences between left and right libertarianism). It’s just a set of convention that each community needs to arrive at by negotiation. It doesn’t require cultural totalitarianism. It doesn’t even benefit from cultural totalitarianism, since those policies produce their own conflicts.

    1. Hey, adam:

      I wouldn’t dispute your above characterization. Of course, the referenced blogger was arguing for cultural totalitarianism(“one culture”) legally enforced.

      Usually, my reference to the term is usually a more narrow one–a legal one–where violations would have to be corrected/squared with some form of restitution. I wouldn’t argue that “harm” only applies to such a narrow scope. I might, however, argue that libertarianism proper is only concerned with the narrow, legal scope. Otherwise you will end up with something like the “libertarian theory of marital harm.” But as you perhaps hinted at, there really can’t be any single “libertarian theory” of such a thing. it would be largely by convention and conventions would differ for, say, a devout Christian couple versus marital swingers.

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