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The Concealed Foundation of Liberal Democracy

In a democratic society, we are often told, the question of who is right and who is wrong ought to be avoided if at all possible. Instead of grounding the political community in a moral framework that provides guidance to public leaders on what moral duties human beings owe to one another and to themselves, the political community instead creates a space where the freedom of individual choice gets free reign (so long as it doesn’t infringe too much on the individual choice of others), leaving questions of moral truth to the private sphere.

A concrete examples will help to make this clear. An evangelical Christian puts a storefront up to lease, and a group that peddles birth control and counsels young women for abortion wishes to rent the space. The owner refuses to lease to the group on the basis that their practices are immoral. We could adjudicate this dispute in two ways.

First, we could ask whether the Christian owner is right in his moral objection to birth control and abortion. In this case, the political community takes a stand on the moral truth that abortion is either permissible or impermissible.

Alternatively, we could suspend the question of truth. We might reverse the situation: what would we say if a pro-choice owner refused to lease to a pro-life group? If we suspend the suspend the question of what is right, then we must formulate a principle that would apply if the situation was reversed. We might say either that a landlord may refuse a tenant if he has a moral objection to the tenant; or we might say that a landlord may not refuse a tenant for moral reasons. Whichever principle we hold, the moral question remains undecided.

John Rawls calls the logic at work here sympathy. That is, in adjudicating such disputes, we do not ask whether the landlord is right, but instead consider what would happen were we the landlord and someone who disagreed with our moral views in the position of the judge. The fear that one who opposes our belief might gain power paralyzes our ability to impose our moral judgments on others. In this way, moral judgments are reserved for the personal, private sphere.

Why should a political community hesitate to make moral judgments? One answer has already been given; that those who believe otherwise might impose their beliefs onto us. While this explains why people don’t wish to make moral judgments as a community, it does not explain why they shouldn’t.

The normative explanation follows from the idea of a liberal democracy: the political community ought to be organized in such a way that the freedom to choose for oneself is maximized. However, this is an ineluctably moral judgment in itself; one the view moral judgments ought to avoided is itself a moral judgment. This has the effect of concealing the foundation of liberal democracy, of preventing its foundational moral judgment from being revealed as a moral judgment.

We must ask on what basis personal autonomy of choice ought to be maximized? Why ought the political community refrain from subjecting the actions of its members to moral criticism? This ought not be shielded from critical inquiry.

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