Shining a light on liberalism’s pathologies

Dominant ideologies have powerful self-reinforcing mechanisms. One of them is that they get to ask most of the questions and to subject rival points of view to ferocious criticism and interrogation. The dominant ideology of our time is what is sometimes called ‘expressive individualism’. What this means is giving people the freedom to live the lives they wish to lead without outside interference. This is very appealing at a certain level, but it has huge weaknesses as well which are rarely properly exposed.

Quite aside from the scandals, the Church’s view of morality was subjected to harsh criticism once again in the run-up to, and during the papal visit. Secular, liberal morality was not in the dock at all.

Expressive individualism is often set against traditional morality. Traditional morality (represented here in Ireland mainly by the Catholic Church) is condemned as repressive, as preventing people from living as they please, especially in the sexual sphere.

The defects of traditional morality have been hugely highlighted in recent years. Traditional morality can easily tend towards authoritarianism (arguably, most systems of morality do), and that authoritarianism has often centred on the family and childbirth. Marriage was held up as the only place to have children (and therefore sex), and having children outside of wedlock was severely punished. This fell disproportionately on unmarried mothers and their children. A desire to protect land in a very poor, rural society also played a role in the punitive attitudes.

Expressive individualism arose (partly) in response to this here as elsewhere. ‘Choice’ is the rallying cry. I must be allowed to have children as I wish, divorce if I wish, marry who I wish, use contraception if I wish, have an abortion if I wish, end my life via assisted suicide (the coming issue) if I wish.

But this kind of individualism, like traditional morality, has its own pathologies and so far there is very little debate about them because, as mentioned, dominant ideologies are so self-reinforcing.

The chief pathology resulting from over-emphasising personal freedom is we can easily give ourselves permission to cast aside unchosen burdens. In the past, we also had ways to disposing of the ‘burdensome’. They were put in various institutions. But no-one justified this in the name of ‘freedom’.

What happens in the case of abortion? A child is not wanted by someone – it could be the mother, or the father, the mother’s parents – and the child is aborted.

The mother may have the child, but the father may not support that choice. His choice is to remain free and so he walks away.

Someone may now find their marriage burdensome and so they seek a divorce, even when their spouse wants to save the marriage.

Then we may find our own lives burdensome. We have become very old, or very sick, or simply ‘tired of life’, and we seek to die by assisted suicide. Or we find the life of a very elderly or sick relative to be burdensome to us and we find ways of suggesting to them that they ‘choose’ to die. (Involuntary euthanasia is a phenomenon in Belgium and the Netherlands).

Thus, in the name of choice, we find ourselves killing the unborn, ending our marriages, walking away from our children after they are born, killing ourselves and others deemed too much of a burden by lethal injection.

This is why liberal societies generally have high rates of abortion, high rates of divorce, high rates of fatherlessness, growing acceptance of assisted suicide.

The problem is that we see no real problem in any of this. In fact, we are tempted to see them all as good things, no matter how widespread, because they are exercises of freedom. And that is part of the pathology. Sooner or later we will have to confront it, just as we confronted the pathologies of traditional societies.