Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Is Liberalism Really Anti-Authoritarian?

While this post is less explicitly feminist than others, it does deal with egalitarianism, a core theme of this blog. It also relates to the rationalist ideas from the last post.

Liberals sometimes use the term “authoritarian” to describe both conservatives as well as non-liberal leftists (including feminists) and to imply that all who oppose their highly permissive ideology want total control over all aspects of peoples’ lives. They view all their opponents as part of the same totalitarian, “sexually repressive” force.

I believe that it is possible to reject liberalism without buying into an authoritarian world view. In fact, this post will argue that the relativistic, liberal viewpoint, that anything goes with regard to behaviour and that no action (or belief) is ever right or wrong, is just another, highly individualistic, brand of authoritarianism. If the idea that extreme permissiveness is authoritarian seems strange to you, please read on. I encourage readers to consider my arguments and leave thoughtful (though not necessarily uncritical) comments, instead of just dismissing me as a dictatorial monster.

What Is Authoritarianism? 

Authoritarianism is the belief that one should rely on authorities to determine what is right or wrong, with regard to claims about both reality and moral goodness. For now, I will focus on the application of authoritarianism to moral claims (authoritarian approaches to understanding material reality may be discussed in another post). 

Authoritarians believe that there is an entity out there whose moral claims should be believed blindly, due to the entity’s supposed infallibility. Any action that the authority figure disapproves of is assumed to be morally wrong, while those which are not disapproved of are deemed morally acceptable and those which the entity commands are deemed obligatory. When authoritarians encounter rational arguments or experience inner intuitions that tell them not to obey a certain order, they will often force themselves obey it anyway. 

Liberals assume that all moral claims (or at least, all that involve labelling behaviours as “immoral”, “anti-feminist” or otherwise objectionable) are authoritarian and that the more moral claims a person puts forward, the more authoritarian they are. However, if one uses the more precise definition of authoritarianism that I provided above, it becomes clear that not all moral statements are authoritarian. A moral statement (whether it encourages or discourages controversial behaviours) is only authoritarian if it is justified purely through references to an authority (e.g. “you should not do this because the authority figure said not to”.)  

Those who attempt to support their moral statements (or claims about the world) through rational arguments, evidence and a concern for the welfare of humanity are not practising authoritarianism. This does not mean their positions are always right, but they cannot be accused of being unthinking sheep or dictators who command blind obedience (unless, of course, they are arguing for such things.) Nor should those who are perceived as making too many moral claims (or labelling too many actions as “immoral) be labelled authoritarians. The authoritarianism of a person or ideology is not determined by how many moral statements are made, but by how those statements are justified. 

It should also be stated that the strictness of a moral claim does not determine how authoritarian it is. I define a strict moral claim or rule as one that does not have many exceptions. For example, the belief that violence should never be used by progressive movements is a strict moral claim. The recognition that violence is generally wrong, but may be morally justified in cases where its use is necessary to achieve worthwhile aims (e.g. repelling a military invasion) is a less strict claim.  

While stern, difficult to follow rules are associated with authoritarian institutions (e.g. conservative churches) there may be valid reasons for making strict moral claims. I cannot think of a realistic circumstance in which the use of pornography will have significant benefits (either for individuals or society as a whole) thus I take a strict stance against it. I also refuse to make exceptions for milder versions of pornography (e.g. sexualised depictions of women in mainstream media). Though I recognise that milder practices are, in general, less harmful than the alternatives, their prevalence may encourage the more extreme practices. In either case, my strict positions are not justified through references to authority figures and thus are not authoritarian. 

Is Permissiveness always Anti-Authoritarian? 

Being permissive means refusing to lay down rules or moral principles and instead allowing people to obey any whim that occurs to them. Liberals believe that permissiveness is the opposite of authoritarianism. In reality, authoritarianism can be used to justify both excessive permissiveness as well as excessive strictness.  

A dramatic example of this is the “just following orders” defence, famously invoked by Nazi officers during the Nuremberg trials. Nazi Germany is often perceived as a strict society and to an extent this claim is accurate. However, the Nazi state also allowed and encouraged things that modern Western society often does not (such as blatant racism in the mainstream culture and unregulated, physical fighting among young males). In any case, the “just following orders” argument attempts to use the commands of an authority figure (in this case, the state) to excuse actions, rather than condemn them. It is thus an example of authoritarianism in the service of permissiveness. 

Fascists are not the only ones who believe that the state determines right from wrong. Anyone who argues that an action is morally acceptable, because it is legal, is guilty of applying authoritarianism. A non-authoritarian understanding of ethics leads one to realise that laws should be determined by moral principles, not the other way around. Liberals rage against the state when it condemns or outlaws behaviours or institutions which they like (such as the sex industry), but in cases where the state approves of or allows a practice, such approval is perceived as proof that the behaviour is ethical. Since liberals have more political influence than their “sex-negative” feminist opponents, liberals who appeal to the law are to some extent appealing to their own power. Thus equating power with moral rightness is a feature of liberal, as well as reactionary, thought. 

Another example of permissiveness coexisting with authoritarianism is liberal Christianity. The term “liberal Christian” is often applied to any Christian who is not conservative. I use it specifically to refer to Christians who believe that gay relationships, pornography consumption, promiscuous sex and other behaviours (wrongly or rightly) condemned by traditional Christianity are in fact morally acceptable, because their supposed god permits them. They say things like “God does not judge” and “God has forgiven me”. Whatever annoying cliché they decide to invoke, their argument can be summed up as “this behaviour is okay, because God thinks it is okay or, at least, will not punish people for it.”  Many argue that liberal Christians are less authoritarian than conservative Christians. I disagree. The belief that an action is permissible, because an authority said so, is no less authoritarian than the belief that it is wrong, because an authority said so. In either case, the words of an authority are viewed as the standard of moral goodness. 

Thus I do not believe that permissiveness is the opposite of authoritarianism, rather it is the opposite of strictness (as defined above). To reject authoritarianism, is to base all moral claims (including claims about the acceptability of a behaviour) on something other than an appeal to the statements of authority figures, such as concerns about the harms caused by allowing or disallowing particular actions. I do not know of an English word that properly conveys the opposite of authoritarianism (if you think of one, tell me in the comments), but I am pretty sure that “liberalism” and “permissiveness” are not it.  

Is Individualism Anti-Authoritarian? 

Not all liberals worship a god and few would admit to worshipping the government. Does this mean they are not authoritarian? No, they still can be. Conservative Christians accuse less religious people of making themselves into gods. I do not believe that this accusation applies to all non-religious people, but it does accurately describe liberals. While most liberals do not literally believe that they have god-like powers, they do view themselves as perfect authorities with regard to “their truth”. They also believe that any action they practice or permit another to practice upon them is acceptable, because they chose it. Thus liberals perceive themselves as infallible authorities (or metaphorical “gods”) with regard to their choices and their personal, so-called "reality".

One problem with this relativistic approach is that it cannot account for changed minds or regret. If everyone were a perfect authority on what was good for them (practically or morally), no one would ever willingly do something and decide afterwards that what they did was unwise. To change one's views or regret an action is to contradict one’s previous beliefs. If infallible beings actually existed, they would never contradict themselves.  

Liberals respond to this problem by claiming that remorse is always (emphasis on “always”) a product of "hateful", "moralistic", "sex-negative" social norms that infect the mind with “shame”. Of course, when other movements claim that “brainwashing” (or rather indoctrination) occurs in our society, they are accused of “denying agency”. Well, the liberal notion that all regret (or “shame”) is caused directly by social forces and never by a rational assessment of one’s actions (in accordance with common values, like equality and kindness) sounds like an appeal to “brainwashing” to me. That said, I do not belief that all "brainwashing" claims are false. In fact the view that society indoctrinates people into rejecting liberalism or feeling shame might make sense were our culture not dominated with pro-sex and generally individualistic messages. 

Furthermore the belief that every individual is an infallible authority with regard to their own actions, forces people to accept contradictory moral propositions. Two people, in the same exact situation, might make conflicting assessments of an action (one might label it as morally acceptable, while the other labels it as unacceptable.) If everyone were an infallible moral authority, both views would be accurate. Such contradictions can be solved only by employing relativism. Liberals claim that behaviours which may not be right “for you”, are nonetheless right "for him" or "for her" and thus we should not attempt to prevent actions undertaken by others (even if such attempt consists of nothing more than publicly expressing your objections to an act). 

Those who make this argument do not truly understand the nature of a moral impulse. Such impulses usually apply to the actions of humans in general. If a person genuinely believes that an action is severely immoral, they will not want others to carry it out. There is nothing virtuous about passively allowing actions which you recognise as wrong and thus refrain from. While liberals blindly praise “tolerance” and “acceptance” (their new buzzword), the reality is that such traits are only as virtuous as that which is being tolerated or accepted. To tolerate (or “accept”) genuine wrongdoing is to compromise one’s own moral character. Of course, one should tolerate behaviours which are not harmful or immoral (or at least, in the case of gay relationships or marriages, not more harmful than the alternative), but tolerating behaviours, while knowing that they are wrong, is nothing more than cowardice.  


Liberals and conservatives who read this may wonder, “If I cannot trust the government or the god of Christianity (or any religion) or even myself to make perfect moral judgements, then who can I trust?” If so, they have missed my point entirely. There is no being whose moral judgements are infallible. The better question to ask is not “who”, but “how”. How do we determine right from wrong? This is the part that many liberals and conservatives fear, the part where you have to use your own brain, by which I mean the ability to reason and reflect upon what is in the interests of humanity.  

In spite of the “you view yourself as god” accusation (discussed above), I believe it is possible to reason about morality, collectively and independently, without viewing either ourselves or others as infallible. It is important that we critically examine our own thoughts, intuitions and desires along with those of others and devoid dismissing other people’s criticisms of our views and actions as “personal, subjective truths” which are relevant only to them and not to us. As individualistic as relativism and liberalism are, they are no less authoritarian than conservatism. The only true alternative is genuine critical (including self-critical) thought.
While I will continue to write about feminism on this blog, I am considering expanding the focus of this blog to cover topics like rationalism, morality, revolutionary socialism and history. Let me know what you think of this idea.


  1. I always enthusiastically look forward to your next entry. Everything you write is fireworks! Wow! So much falls into place when I read this entry. The connection with brainwashing and "agency," which I didn't realize even though I've written quite a lot about "agency." The distinction between authoritarianism and "strictness." The connection between vulgar individualism and authoritarianism. All great!

    Not sure what the opposite term to authoritarianism is. I would say that a general term might be moral realism or moral reasoning, seeing as moral authoritarianism is basically (often, explicitly) a rejection of the idea that we can arrive at moral truths through reasoning.

    What's your metaethical position, by the way?

  2. I do not think moral realism works as the opposite of authoritarianism. From what I have read it seems like the opposite of moral relativism. A religious fundamentalist can be a moral realist, since they are not moral relativists (they think that some things are objectively right and wrong), they might argue that God is an infalliable source of information about morality or that the definition of moral goodness is pleasing God, in which case they are both moral realists and authoritarians.

    Moral reasoning is a process rather than an ideological standpoint. Authoritarianism is one way of reasoning about morality, though it is not particularly rational. Perhaps the term you are looking for is moral rationalism. I do not know if that is an official philosophy term, but I use the term "rationalism"* to convey the view that we can arrive at an accurate understanding of reality and moral goodness using rational arguments and evidence.

    This way of thinking is definitely opposed to authoritarianism (and relativism as well), but it is not the only way to oppose authoritarianism. It is possible to have a non-rational approach to morality that is not authoritarian, however such approaches usually lead to relativism. So I will tentatively accept "moral rationalism" as the opposite to authoritarianism (as I have defined it.)

    I am not sure if I can sum up my metaethical views in a single word or philosophy term. I might have to write an entire blog on the subject, but from I have read it seems that rejecting moral relativism as I have done makes one a moral realist, in which case I am one. I am also a moral universalist. I do not believe that morality is determined by one's culture or society, nor do I think it is dependent on one's individual traits, except when those traits are part of the situation (I may elaborate on this point later.) I am a situationist (as is pretty much everyone), but not any kind of relativist. I hope that partially answers your question.

    *I understand that "rationalism" sometimes gets used in opposition to "empiricism", but I think I have made it clear that I do not use it that way.

    1. I personally don't call Christians moral realists because they still believe morality is subjective- they just happen to believe that morality is subjective to God instead of subjective to themselves or other humans.

      I agree with your use of rationalism, although, as you noted, the word is already used in a different way. It's a bit confusing, but as long as you specify what you mean, I think it's all right.

      Thank you for telling me what your metaethical views are. Of course I agree on both those points. I'm an intuitionist, myself. Have been for many, many years, but didn't really learn about it until recently.

  3. 'Authoritarian', 'totalitarian', etc. are buzzwords used by liberals and anarchists to denounce stuff they don't understand and/or agree with. Enjoying reading your work, by the way.

    Also might interest you:

    1. While liberals and anarchists do overuse the word "authoritarian", I would not dismiss it altogether. I think it is reasonable to say that ultimate the goal of communists is to create a society which is as free of authoritarian structures as possible (though unlike anarchists we recognise the need for radicals to forcibly take power away from the current ruling class in order to do so in the long run).

      My point is that opposing authoritarianism (defined as blind belief in the claims of authority figures) does not have to mean being a liberal and opposing all moral rules. Anarchists sometimes say that they support rules, but not rulers. I agree with this basic approach, though anarchists (particularly male ones) seem to forget the "support rules" part when there is sex involved. Go figure.

      Thanks for the comment and the link. Sorry it took me so long to reply. Things have been busy for me lately

    2. Your comment is so authoritarian. :)

  4. The liberals are born into a world which "guides" what they find attractive, how they are attracted to it, what they are disgusted by, what they do with their time, how they dress, what foods they eat. When they indulge in these passively acquired traits (greor dude came up with that) they want to say it's their choices and freedom? I wouldn't of thought being taught that sexuality is based on an instinctive reproductive is liberation since that's not true. I wouldn't have thought being taught that dresses are for females is an individually contrived association.
    There's nothing remotely "authoritarian" about seeking to eradicate the sexual indoctrination foisted unto children. This is isn't even a philosophical debate it's more liberal hipster brainlessness and ignorance. Who decided that genitals are sexually arousing, because without clothing to create an air of mystique they probably wouldn't be all that special? I didn't chose that. I was put in clothes. Who got to decide that humans are naturally heterosexual? Because that's what they teach everyone.
    Sexual liberation, authoritarianism, sexual moralism, it's all meaningless tropes and blah blah. You are born into a world that has already decided what sexuality is and what it looks like. Of course they can see this in their indignant liberal rage against 'shame', but in terms of being brainwashed into having genital-focus sex, of thinking of pleasure and body parts as "scientifically" designated for "sex", nope. What they do is eroticize sex-negativity. I call this sex-negativity squared, or sometimes, repression squared after Szasz's Quackery Squared. Like FOucault said, they need authority because the authority is part of the mass sexual game. Sex has been repressed but his repression has not been oppression. People have been getting off on these mass sex games, like teacher student, parent child, shame kink, artificial scarcity of sex to play the you gotta get some game, the you are naive until your first time game, and so on. When they stop getting off on these games then they can complain about how "repressed" they are.