In a response to two defences of classical liberalism, Ernst Roets fails to resolve important criticisms.
I must admit, I was surprised when Ernst Roets, deputy CEO of AfriForum, characterised my response to his broadside against liberal democracy as being filled with name-calling, insults, hysteria and vitriol.
I have re-read my article twice, and I cannot find any instances of name-calling or insults. At worst, I described Roets as ‘very confused’ about a particular point, but I’m not convinced that meets the level of ‘vitriol’.
‘Vegter responded with the passion of someone whose religion was publicly ridiculed’, he writes, with a distinct lack of self-awareness. Unlike Roets, I do not have a religion that can be, or was, ridiculed.
Dismissing my article as a pile of hysterical insults is a craven evasion of the substance of my criticisms, including that he quoted a far-right homophobe who claims people have neither natural nor human rights; that liberal democracies have never attacked Christians, closed their churches or forbidden their worship, despite their persecution complex; that religion, and particularly Christianity, is not an essential element of enlightenment civilisation, unlike the separation of church and state; that liberal individualism is not equivalent to libertinism; that to be free in obedience to Roets’s favourite God is not freedom; that liberal individualism does not preclude voluntary membership of and participation in communities; and that being forced to exercise one’s freedom within the constraints of religious or other community standards of which Roets approves is not individual freedom, but collectivist tyranny.
Roets continues to contradict himself, such as when he says: ‘A political system in which individuals do not have the freedom to organise their lives would indeed and obviously be an oppressive system.’
He immediately follows that with an explanation of why individuals ought not have the freedom to ‘do what they want’, but that their freedom ought to be limited by ‘an agreement within the context of the community of what constitutes acceptable behaviour’.
Well, which is it? Freedom to organise their lives, or ‘freedom’ to have their lives organised for them?
Roets’s reformulation fails to answer Martin van Staden’s pointed question: who decides?
How is that ‘agreement’ concluded? Does one’s mere presence in a geographical location constitute agreement to abide by some unwritten set of rules and regulations imposed by the community? Must one leave one’s own neighbourhood, or town, or country, if one does not agree with some or all of the rules of ‘acceptable behaviour’?
What if one is a non-Christian in a Christian-majority country? Should one be expected to follow Christian mores or laws, despite not believing them to be legitimate? Must one abstain from homosexuality, abstain from sex before marriage, and abstain from working on a Sunday?
(And to all those who argue that I’d never attack Muslims the way I do Christians, that is nonsense. This argument was specifically couched in terms of Christian mores by Roets. This country is majority Christian. Muslims make up 1% of the population. If Muslims were trying to impose sharia law upon me, you can be sure I’d be equally vocal about and critical of their religion.)
Good and bad
Roets appears to labour under the misconception that the individual freedom to make choices ought to be restricted if or when those choices are not good, by some standard of good. He cites some examples, such as drug addiction, being a bad father (whatever ‘bad’ means), or cheating on one’s wife.
If, however, all ‘bad’ choices, by some standard of bad, were prohibited by some external power, we arrive back at the same question: who decides?
It is clear that Roets still does not distinguish between individual liberty and ‘mere licentiousness’. He makes no argument as to why one person’s licentiousness is particularly harmful to him or others, provided that the person does not include non-consenting others in their pursuits.
He doesn’t even define ‘licentiousness’. He quotes the conservative philosopher Edmund Burke: ‘To strip our conception of freedom from a higher purpose and to reject virtue and the pursuit of the good as a component of freedom is to present freedom as nothing other than mere licentiousness.’
What higher purpose? What about people who don’t acknowledge one, or believe in a different one? What is virtue? What is good? Who decides?
By reducing liberty to licentiousness, Roets diminishes the far more important role that freedom plays in an individual’s life, and that is exercising agency over their own actions and subjective value judgments, without being forced to comply with the judgments of others.
Is God good?
Roets again points to the Bible as offering an answer to the question of what is ‘good’: he says ‘God is good’.
I don’t dispute that many people believe this, or that there are many perfectly good and decent Christians.
However, Roets does not deal with the view that even if one supposes that out of several thousand candidates, his preferred god is both real and the sole true God, then that God, it could be argued, has made himself guilty of, or ordered, or condoned, a myriad acts that call his claimed goodness into grave question.
The God Roets calls ‘good’ has, at one time or another, been perfectly okay with slavery, permitting his people to take slaves and instructing slaves to obey their masters even if they are cruel.
He’s all for genocide, having both committed it himself and ordered his people to commit it on several occasions, including for merely having a different religion. (He is a jealous God, and definitely is not okay with religious freedom.)
Roets’s God is perfectly fine with slaughtering all men, women and children of the enemy, except the ‘women children’ who are virgins, which his people were permitted to ‘keep alive for yourselves’. (Nod, nod, wink, wink, say no more!)
Both ethnic cleansing and sex slavery are considered war crimes by classical liberals, although if you deny the validity of human rights, as Ryszard Legutko (upon whom Roets relies heavily in his original argument) does, I suppose you can justify anything.
God heard a prophet curse 42 children who were making fun of the prophet’s baldness, and thought, hey, I know, a good bear mauling for the lot of them would be an appropriate and proportional punishment.
He kills not only sinners for infractions both major and minor, but also their wives and children, entire tribes and cities. For one Pharaoh’s alleged stubbornness, he killed all the first-born children in Egypt.
The same Paul that Roets quotes with approval also preaches that women ought to be silent and subservient to their fathers and/or husbands.
These are just a few clear-cut cases that, to a reasonable mind, might call the goodness of the Christian God into question.
The point, however, is not that I consider religion as deeply suspect and a poor yardstick for morality (although I do suspect Roets felt personally attacked merely because I attacked his religion).
The point isn’t even whether or not I’m right about religion.
The point is that we do not all agree.
All people do not believe in the same God. Some people do not believe that God exists. Some people believe that if God did exist, he would be objectively evil. Roets has no proposals for how to deal with such disagreements in his ideal community-based society.
Do we punish dissenters? Do we silence them? Do we expel them?
The classical liberal has an easy answer: let everyone be free to propound, and act according to, their own moral convictions, provided that their actions do not harm the equal rights and liberties of others.
Voluntary, not coerced
This doesn’t preclude people from being members of a community, or behaving appropriately in public. It merely makes community membership voluntary, instead of coerced.
It does not preclude social standards. It merely says that, in the absence of voluntary agreements, nobody has the authority to uphold those standards by force, or force them upon the unwilling.
It does not preclude personal morality. It merely makes people responsible for their own lives and actions, as opposed to behaving well only because some book or poster on the wall tells them they’ll be punished if they’re not.
In short, Roets has merely restated his original argument for a conservative, collectivist morality based on some arbitrary set of mores and values (which he would prefer to be Biblical), without addressing any of my own or Van Staden’s criticisms.
Van Staden perfectly summarised those criticisms with the question at their core: who decides?
Well, Ernst, who decides? A democratic majority? As a member of an ethnic minority, be careful what you wish for.
[Illustration: the Destruction of the Armies of the Ammonites and Moabites, by Gustav Doré, from La Grande Bible de Tours(1866).]
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