In Search of Progressive Morality
As I demonstrated above in part one of this series, progressives’ appeal to the Freedom Principle cannot sustain their agenda apart from auxiliary principles that exclude anarchic, amoral, and destructive impulses from the scope of freedom. I will argue in this essay that progressives cannot admit such auxiliary principles without giving up the central tenet of progressivism and that every other principle that progressives invoke is a disguised form of the Freedom Principle. It is all they have.
First, we need to get clear on the types of moral principles to which contemporary progressives will never appeal openly. Contemporary progressives are self-consciously secular.* They will not acknowledge the moral force of divine law, creation, or any other principle that depends on the reality of a moral order transcendent of humanity. They will not appeal to traditional wisdom as normative or grant genuine authority to any teacher of morality. Indeed, progressives declare that relegating all these antiquated moral sources to the trashcan of history is a defining mark of progress. On what principles, then, do progressives exclude those behaviors of which they disapprove and include those they like?
If you ask progressives why they do not celebrate freedom to traffic human beings, engage in racist behavior, make a living as a child pornographer or an assassin, or any other behavior they consider evil, their first impulse will be ridicule and insult. They do not want to admit that their philosophy of freedom raises such prospects, and they accuse you of making an unwarranted and vicious association motivated by animus toward progressive causes.
But if you can get a progressive to take your question seriously, they may invoke the notion of human dignity. Such evils as human trafficking and racism treat human beings as things to be used rather than as persons of worth for their own sake. Sounds like a good answer…until we remember that progressives reject all transcendent principles. Progressives cannot ground human dignity in the notion that human beings are created “in the image of God,” that they are God’s beloved children, that they are responsible to God for their actions, or that they possess an eternal soul with an eternal destiny. In what then does human dignity consist? The only answer that makes sense within a progressive framework is this: human beings possess the power to determine their own destiny in what we call freewill. They know best how to attain their own happiness. Therefore we should not interfere with their free actions.
The first thing to notice about the progressive view of human dignity is that dignity is a quality attributed only to beings with freewill. Hence respecting a person’s dignity is identical to respecting their freedom. Using the word “dignity” adds nothing of substance to the concept of freedom. The progressive concept of dignity, therefore, shows itself beset by the same problems as those that plague the Freedom Principle, that is, self-contradiction and reduction to absurdity. If the dignity of a person is grounded in the power to act freely, I may have to refrain from acting in keeping with my dignity to make room for others to act according to their dignity. And, if dignity is grounded in human freedom, then to treat a person in keeping with their dignity may mean allowing them to exercise their freedom in ways I consider evil.
At best, progressive appeals to dignity draw deceptively (and illegitimately) on the traditional association of the idea of human dignity with God and creation. But such resonances do not fit within the progressive worldview. Hence, the progressive conclusion drawn above (Therefore we should not interfere with their free actions.) does not follow from the argument that preceded it. Simply because a person has the power to act freely does not obligate others not to interfere. Everything depends on what they do with this power! Are their actions good or bad, right or wrong, rational or irrational? We are no closer to answering this question!
Progressives often appeal to human rights. Human rights are contrasted with constitutional or legislated rights. Such rights are supposedly given along with human existence and therefore trump all legislated rights. One can appeal to them without having to cite a law. It is similar to appeals to justice in criticism of an unjust statutory law. In both cases, one appeals to a law higher than legislated law. According to contemporary progressives, however, there is no law or principle that transcends the human reality. So why appeal to human rights? As in the case of the progressive appeal to human dignity, appeals to human rights draw deceptively (and illegitimately) on the resonance of the term human rights with the traditional concept of natural rights. In the natural law tradition, there is a certain normative order given by God in the fabric of nature and reason. The very notion of a right calls up the idea of a right-granting authority. Of course, because progressives deny that there is a moral law rooted in the divine will or the order of creation, they can do no more than assert gratuitously and arbitrarily that there are human rights. If there is no right-granting authority higher than humanity, from where do human rights come and how can they preempt legislated rights? Am I able to grant myself a right? What an absurd conclusion!
If progressives attempt to justify their appeal to human rights at all, they invariably return to the concept of freedom. A right is a designated area for the exercise of freedom. So, we return to the Freedom Principle with all its problems: Do we have a human right to do anything we please? Must I curtail my human rights so that you can exercise yours? May I interfere with your rights if I believe you are acting destructively and violently? As is the case with freedom, the concept of human rights by itself contains no limiting principle that specifies what we are and what we are not permitted to do.
The secret of contemporary progressivism is that it can do nothing but destroy. It possesses no principle of order. It views order as oppressive and alienating. Its appeal is its promise of greater and greater liberty from oppression, and to deliver on its promise it must constantly seek new areas of order to destroy. It is not architect but arsonist. It cannot stop until nothing is left, nothing but nothingness, death.
*You cannot be consistently progressive and Christian (or even religious) at the same time. But this is a topic for another occasion.
To be continued…