kap. ”The Liberal Dilemma”

Texten nedan (som är ofärdig och illa skriven) är preliminärt kap. 2 i min uppsats, och föregår en genomgång av Isaiah Berlins huvudpoänger.

The decision in Wisconsin v. Yoder allowed the Amish parents to withdraw of their children from the last two years of compulsory education.[1] In approving the Court’s decision, William Galston is forced to defend it against two quite different concerns. One is the concern for social unity and the health of public institutions: does not such an education threaten a free society, in the sense that the maintenance of its institutions depends on the future citizens’ knowledge and loyalty to its principles? The other concern is the concern for the children’s development and autonomy as individuals. This second issue is the subject of the present paper. To get the appropriate background, we may read the syllabus of the Yoder verdict:

Respondents, members of the Old Order Amish religion and the Conservative Amish Mennonite Church, were convicted of violating Wisconsin’s compulsory school attendance law (which requires a child’s school attendance until age 16) by declining to send their children to public or private school after they had graduated from the eighth grade. The evidence showed that the Amish provide continuing informal vocational education to their children designed to prepare them for life in the rural Amish community. The evidence also showed that respondents sincerely believed that high school attendance was contrary to the Amish religion and way of life, and that they would endanger their own salvation and that of their children by complying with the law. The State Supreme Court sustained respondents’ claim that application of the compulsory school attendance law to them violated their rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Those who defend the decision press the point that the Amish way of live is legitimate and confer genuine goods upon those living it. Not denying the value of autonomy, the defenders challenge those liberals who would impose autonomy on groups that do not subscribe to this value in their lives. What does the autonomy-liberal reply?

We may here turn to philosopher Harry Brighouse’s account for a useful exposition of the main argument. Promoting autonomy is not necessarily dependent on claiming that autonomous lives are intrinsically better. Such liberals only add that even if a way of life confers genuine goods, a life spent in this way can only be flourishing if the person leading it actually identify with it, affirming the values that guide it. A good life must be ‘lived from the inside’, as the phrase has it. The point is this: To ascertain that a way of life is objectively good is not enough to justify a conscious limitation of education and knowledge of other ways of life. Given the natural diversity of personality types and traits, an insulated upbringing and schooling for a particular way of life will mean that many children will be reared into lives unsuitable to them, and make them unable to live the kind of lives best suited to their dispositions. This fact of “the plurality of personal constitutions” is important, since it means that people will be able to live some lives from the inside, while other ways of life will be unsuited to them. To exemplify:

The starkest case I can think concerns people who experience their sexuality as fixed and unadaptable. A homosexual who experience his homosexuality as unchangeable simply cannot live, from the inside, a way of life in which those who refrain from heterosexual marriage and childrearing are social outsiders. Trapped in such a way of life, he will be alienated from it. It may be a very good way of life, but it is not one that he can endorse from the inside, and is therefore not one that he can live well. (Brighouse 2006, 17)

In this way liberals may argue for autonomy as an aim of education. The parents’ way of life may be genuinely good, and many children may indeed find it suitable. But some children will not. No one can tell in advance, and hence: to narrow the range of opportunities in advance is certainly to deprive many children with the opportunity to live flourishing lives. Such a deprivation may be grounds for the state to intervene on the behalf of children, to ensure that they have “a real opportunity to enter good ways of life other than those into which their parents seek to induct them” (Brighouse 2006, 18).

Returning to Yoder, Brighouse’s reasoning can be said to endorse the State in taking on the role of what is known as parens patriae, i.e that the state may step in as a guardian of the rights and interests of persons unable to press for them. In the Court, Justice Douglas, who dissented with the majority decision, tried to justify such a role for the state.

It is the future of the student, not the future of the parents, that is imperiled by today’s decision. If a parent keeps his child out of school beyond the grade school, then the child will be forever barred from entry into the new and amazing world of diversity that we have today. The child may decide that that is the preferred course, or he may rebel. It is the student’s judgment, not his parents’, that is essential if we are to give full meaning to what we have said about the Bill of Rights and of the right of students to be masters of their own destiny. If he is harnessed to the Amish way of life by those in authority over him, and if his education is truncated, his entire life may be stunted and deformed.

It is the reasoning behind this passage, with its oft-quoted line about “masters of their own destiny”, that William Galston explicitly disagrees with. His article can be understood as an attempt to justify his position that the Court’s decision in Yoder was “philosophically correct”(1995, 516). Let us briefly review his case.

Important here is the relation between autonomy and diversity. Galston defines autonomy broadly as individual self-direction, as this notion has been understood by thinkers like for instance Kant and Mill. It is therefore connected with the ideal of rational examination of one’s own beliefs and commitments. By “diversity”, Galston simply means actual differences “among individuals and groups over such matters as the nature of the good, sources of moral authority, reason versus faith, and the like” (1995, 521).

The liberal optimist view has long been that these two values complement each other. When individuals exercise their autonomy this will naturally lead to diversity within society. And a diverse society in itself enable and nourish individuals seeking to live according to their own lights (i.e. autonomous lives). Galston however does not share this view.

By contrast, my much less optimistic and harmonistic view is that these principles do not always, perhaps even do not usually, cohere; that in practise, they point in quite different directions currently disputed areas such as education, rights of association, and the free exercise of religion. Indeed, many such disputes can be understood as a conflict between these two principles. Specifically: the decision to throw state power behind the promotion of individual autonomy can weaken or undermine individuals and groups that do not and cannot organize their affairs in accordance with that principle without undermining the deepest sources of their identity. (1995, 521)

The promotion of autonomy would in fact reduce social diversity. To exemplify Galston takes the case of habits of food consumption. In the mainstream liberal society such consumption is guided by personal taste and choice alone. But on a religious view, food consumption is to be guided by God’s wishes for man, [and hence subject to religious authorities]. A society that only comprises people with the liberal stance is, on Galston’s view, less diverse than one which also incorporate people with a, so to speak, moral stance on food. And this is the case regardless of whether the actual consumption patterns in themselves are more diverse in a strictly liberals-only-society. This last point is quite important: the diversity which Galston care to protect is not diversity among beliefs and preferences simpliciter, but rather the way one hold such belief, relate to one’s preferences, and so on. His point, then, is that state-led promotion of individual autonomy “tugs against specific kinds of lives that differ fundamentally, not just superficially, from many others and whose disappearance would reduce diversity” (1995, 521).

Kantian and Millian conceptions of the good life — with the ideals of self-direction, rationality, and individual self-expression — should be regarded simply as one legitimate way of life. This liberal way of life, as we might call it, ought to be separated from liberalism as a political doctrine. Liberals should refrain from acting on their bad impulse of, in the guise of protecting the capacity for diverse choices, undermine diversity itself by way imposing the liberal conception of the good life. To exalt the principle of individual autonomy represent a covert demand for uniformity, since some ways of life do not embrace the ideal of autonomy. Here then is the heart of Galston’s liberal theory:

[P]roperly understood, liberalism is about the protection of diversity, not the valorization of choice. (1995, 523)

[1] The previous years the children had been educated in a parochial school quite separated from mainstream society and subject only to negligible state regulation.


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