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10.5.03

(For some reason Blogger was giving me errors when I tried to post that last post, saying "Server Error: HTTP request too long." So here's my comments on the article I quoted in the last post)

This is a pretty standard way of framing the order versus freedom question these days. Any deviation from the traditional is seen (by both opponents and supporters) as the replacement of rules with chaos. But I think this framing is the result of two mistakes. First, it conflates moral order with the particular 1950s brand of American Christian morality. So it proposes a false choice of points along a one-dimensional scale from a specific form of Puritanism to total amorality. But why must this particular morality be the moral code, allowing only for degrees of greater or lesser adherence? Maybe it's just my conservative upbringing, but I think a strong moral code is important. I just don't think the traditional American one is the best one.

Linked to that is the mistake of seeing social liberalism as a form of anything-goes relativism or libertarianism. Certainly that's the image that's most often used to argue for it, as saying "freedom" is a powerful bit of rhetorical strategy in our culture. But just as nature abhors a vacuum, society -- even in the most radical groups -- abhors anarchy. Spend some time in a community with a strong socially liberal bent, and you'll find there's a powerful moral code regulating behavior. In fact, I would venture to say that to effectively combat one moral system, you must have some vision of an alternate moral system. One of the few worthwhile passages in Plato's Republic was, I think, his discussion of why injustice -- which in his formulation had similarities to the kind of chaotic libertarianism at issue here -- in unsustainable in its pure form. To put it in a concrete example, the Mafia is able to show such disdain for the wider society's moral and legal rules because it has a strong moral system operating in its internal affairs.

So our choice is not so much between order and chaos as between two forms of order. What chaos exists is due not to the simple absence of traditional morality but to the coexistence of two (probably more) alternative moralities, neither of which can exercise total hegemony. I'm glad for the degree of freedom that moral pluralism provides, while recognizing that it comes from pluralism, not the breakdown of absolutism.

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