Liberalism, Choice and Compulsion

Social liberals consider traditional moral restrictions cruel in their very essence. Each of us, they believe, should be as free as possible to pursue his happiness as he sees it, consistent with the equal ability of others to do the same.

To reject that position, as Catholics and other moral traditionalists do, is either intentionally to block happiness or to substitute the judgment of the powerful for that of the individual with regard to his own most basic concerns. And that, progressives say, is cruel, oppressive, or both.

It’s easy enough to find situations that seem to support the argument. If marriage is a specific sort of arrangement that imposes binding obligations backed by social authority, some people will find themselves caught in difficult situations that don’t get better. So in a morally traditional society some people will have enduring problems they could have gotten out of in a more liberal one.

An easy counter argument, supported by the facts, is to point to ways in which the socially liberal approach has evidently decreased happiness, for example by weakening family connections. A fallback argument for liberals is to say that regardless of how well traditional arrangements might work in theory, any attempt to restore or even preserve them would be tyrannical as well as ineffective.

This fallback is important and deserves discussion. The idea seems to be that an attempt to promote things like cultural coherence or functional sexual roles and standards would have to rely on social policies involving supervision, control, punishment, and exclusion. People would resent the meddling and wouldn’t go along. If traditionalists thought it would be good for young men and women to put more emphasis on getting married and starting families, for example, doing something about it would involve things like stigmatizing gays and singles, bed checks to prevent fornication, and telling women they can’t have demanding careers. How could such an effort be organized, and why expect it to work?

The question, then, is how a society that is morally more traditionalist could come about: if it’s not an option, or the means that would be required seem intolerable, we might as well forget about it. The answer to that question, not surprisingly, depends on the same issues regarding what people are like and how society works that are behind the culture war in general.

That war reflects the liberal view of man and the world. On that view what makes us what we are is that we are independent individuals who make choices based on our own values. Accordingly, the key to a good society is for everyone to have as many choices as possible and maximum freedom to choose among them without regard to social pressures, money problems, or other conditions pushing us this way or that. So the ideal society would be a sort of lifestyle superstore in which the customer is king and can choose freely from an endless variety of goods at reasonable and often subsidized prices. In liberal political theorist Judith Shklar’s words, it would be a society in which “every adult [is] able to make as many effective decisions without fear or favor about as many aspects of her or his life as is compatible with the like freedom of every adult.”

When that vision is reduced to practical institutional form, the result is a commercial and bureaucratic society with various welfare benefits and anti-discrimination and other rules that make us independent of each other and of traditional standards and connections like the family. Institutionally, then, the culture war is an effort by the left to get rid of natural and traditional arrangements, like inherited morality and the family, in favor of commercial and bureaucratic ones, such as formal education, professional childcare, pop culture, psychological therapy, and various social services. Where the older arrangements are retained in name, it’s an effort to redefine them as optional individual pursuits rather than authoritative institutions. “Marriage,” for example, is to become whatever particular individuals decide to make of it.

Such arrangements correspond to the liberal conception of man, so they are accepted as the natural form of society, and every other form is viewed as a variation that should be judged by its expected effect given liberal understandings. Those understandings tell us that individual preferences are the guide for human life, so a movement toward a society that views some preferences as better than others would mean imposition of a regulatory scheme involving constant attempts at thought control and meddling in private life.

The line of thought seems plausible in a society in which liberal ways of thinking prevail. Nonetheless, it’s based on illusions:

•  Man is fundamentally an individual who makes choices based on values of his own choosing.

•  There can be a society that maximizes free choice.

•  That society, which is liberal society, arises naturally out of the nature of man, while other forms of society must be imposed by force and a detailed system of control.

In fact, contemporary liberal society is no more composed of people who live by their own chosen values than traditional society. Like all societies, it promotes a particular way of life in a particular setting that (from the standpoint of pure choice) involves some forms of suppression and control but not others. It tells people to treat support for traditional sexual norms rather than homosexuality as anti-social. It pushes women out of the home and into formal employment, freeing them from husbands but making them dependent on employers and Uncle Sam. And it protects minorities from institutional rejection, but exposes them to ruptured family ties, the depredations of criminals, and incarceration.

No society can maximize free choice. Choices conflict, some must give way to others, and there is no neutral standard to determine which should count more. A society in which people make marriage what they want and end it when they wish is one thing. A society in which people can choose permanent marriage that gives them a definite and respected social position, because it is seen as a basic and necessary institution, is something different and incompatible. People say the former society offers more choices, but the choices can be more numerous because they mean much less. Why is that more choice?

Like other forms of society, liberal society has elements of both freedom and compulsion. It arose out of a conception of man, reason, and the world that was once new but now seems to have reached its limits. That conception, pioneered by figures like Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, seemed to give answers where earlier attempts had failed, and led to new and extremely effective institutions like modern natural science, the modern bureaucratic state, and the global industrial economy. Those forms of thought and society have maintained and extended their dominance in a variety of ways, some of which have involved freedom and some violence and suppression (consider, for example, the French Revolution and European laws against homeschooling and “hate speech”).

The reappearance of a more traditional, natural, and Catholic approach to thought and social relations would no doubt come about in a similar way, through acceptance of a different understanding of man, reason, and the world, together with institutions that correspond to that understanding. That will happen to the extent a more traditional, natural, and Catholic outlook provides better answers to pressing human questions, and institutions such as the Church, the family, and traditional culture and morality meet needs liberal institutions do not. When that happens, and the new or revived outlook and way of living spreads and becomes generally accepted, a morally traditional society will seem no less natural and inevitable than a morally liberal one does to our governing classes today.

Such a society would of course involve compulsion, since all societies involve compulsion. Education would continue to inculcate accepted doctrine. Denial of fundamental truths and violations of whatever is taken to be politically and morally correct would continue to carry formal or informal sanctions. The issue, though, is not how to bring about some state of ultimate freedom and equality that can’t possibly exist, but what truths and goods should orient our common life, and how it makes sense to bring about and maintain that orientation. Catholics have their answer—Catholicism and evangelization, including self-evangelization—as others have theirs. Which will prevail, to what extent, and how long only the future can tell.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared September 15, 2014 on Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. Pictured above is an illustration of Michelle Obama in her self-chosen role as America’s food policeman.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    No one spelled out more clearly than Rousseau the contradiction that lies at the heart of Liberalism between popular sovereignty (the general will) and individual freedom.

    “Each man alienates, I admit, by the social compact, only such part of his powers, goods and liberty as it is important for the community to control; but it must also be granted that the Sovereign [the People] is sole judge of what is important.”

    Hence, “In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence. In this lies the key to the working of the political machine…”

    • DE-173

      Robert Nisbet’s “Rousseau and Totalitarianism” is an effective antidote, or better, prophylaxis against Rousseaphilia.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        Nevertheless, the conflict between liberalism and democracy remains, as Scalia J explained in a well-known interview. “The whole theory of democracy, my dear fellow, is that the majority rules, that is the whole theory of it. You protect minorities only because the majority determines that there are certain minorities or certain minority positions that deserve protection. Thus in the United States Constitution we have removed from the majoritarian system of democracy the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, and a few other freedoms that are named in the Bill of Rights. The whole purpose of that is that the people themselves, that is to say the majority, agree to the rights of the minority on those subjects — but not on other subjects.” He summarises his position, as follows, “The minority loses, except to the extent that the majority, in its document of government, has agreed to accord the minority rights.”

        Rousseau would have agreed.

        • DE-173

          Rousseau is dead, the persistence of the intellectual retro-virus he loosed upon the world not withstanding.

          I’m not sure why you insist on treating an arrogant misanthrope as a prophet. Like Marx and the rest of the foul detritus, he needs to be washed away.

  • Daniel P

    I don’t think we get a switch back to a more traditionalist society unless what I would call a “seminal event” occurs — an event that is historically unique and causes ripples of effects far beyond its local context. So, for example, the dawn of Christianity (Jesus’s resurrection) was the seminal event that moved Rome in the direction of tradition against license. Luther’s break from the Church was the seminal event that led to the rise of liberalism. I’m not sure what chance there is for a seminal event to occur these days, but I wouldn’t argue with one.

    • Trazymarch

      Maybe if economy (globally) will stop growing or go negative for prolonged time status quo will be shaken. While this is chance for more traditional society its also chance for yet another revolutionary wave which will drift society even further away from traditional siociety.

    • bonaventure

      For liberals (like you), the absolute only seminal event is the total acceptance and celebration of homosexuality, and homosexual “marriage.”

      • Daniel P

        You have repeatedly accused me of being a liberal (which is false, but not particularly offensive) and an advocate of sin (which is false, and particularly offensive). Please stop.

        • bonaventure

          You have repeatedly come out in favor of homosexuality in previous posts, until you were called on it (by myself and other users). Then you subtly “switched” sides, from flat out approval of homosexuality to trying to make believe that your position was theologically balanced and orthodox, which it isn’t. Because no matter how you (or anyone else, for that matter) phrases it, what you (and other liberal Catholics) call “orientation” or “same sex attraction” is, at the end of the day, a grave sin that one needs to repent from, however tempted they may be.

          • Daniel P

            Can you tell me what you mean by “come out in favor of homosexuality”? Or give some examples — all my posts on prior articles are publicly available.

            I never switched sides. I have always been orthodox. My thinking on various prudential or pastoral issues changes when someone convinces me I am wrong.

            I do claim that same-sex attraction is not a sin. In that, I speak with the Church. See the pastoral letter on the care of homosexual persons, and the FAQ section of the Courage website. Same-sex attraction is not a sin, although it is a “more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.”

            But I have NO idea what any of this has to do with the topic of the article we are supposed to be commenting on.

            • bonaventure

              (1) Okay, I will re-read your posts when I have time.

              (2) Prudential pastoral changes are precisely the problem here, as they blur the doctrinal lines all too often — and sometimes on purpose. Just see Walter Kasper’s recent writings & pronouncements on “pastoral changes.” If it weren’t Walter Kasper, I would say they are amateurish at best. Considering Kasper’s position and experience, however, they are an embarrassment.

              (3) The Church teaches repentance from sin, of which homosexuality is a grave one. Liberal Catholics, on the other hand, purposefully refuse to distinguish between same sex attraction and homosexuality, while holding only to the Church’s teaching on the former, while rejecting her teaching on the latter.

              (4) The reason why we’re discussing this, is because you suggested the need of a “seminal event” to bring society back to a more traditionalist society. I thought it was ironic that you would even suggest that, considering your, er, “openness” to homosexuality, which has no place in a more traditional society. So I make a sarcastic remark that the only “seminal event” that a liberal hopes for today to change society, is the acceptance of homosexuality and, of course (duh!), homosexual marriage… which, btw, I do not recall you ever condemning.

              • Daniel P

                I think that the notion of homosexual marriage is morally outrageous, exactly as morally outrageous as the notion of marriages with no-fault divorce and “open” marriages. None of these should be legal.

                • bonaventure

                  Earlier, you challenged me to read your posts… as a proof that you never supported homosexuality nor homosexual “marriage.” You shouldn’t have, because I always take up a challenge.

                  So I checked your posts, and it appears that you wiped out you previous Disqus account, and your new account has only 80 posts (as of today, Wednesday October 1st, 2014 at 6:20 PM ET), going back to only two months ago.

                  And it gets better: MY only replies to your posts are from the last few days only — while we both KNOW that we’ve replied to each others’ post for over 6 months now (I recall first coming across you earlier this year, at the beginning of 2014, on the Crisis forum about the New Homophiles).

                  You’re a liberal troll who’s been caught trolling in favor of homosexuality and homosexual marriage. So you wiped out your account and started anew, using a “softer” approach to your agenda — more cryptic and deceitful — while pretending to be an orthodox Catholic “pastorally concerned” for “gays.”

                  While in reality you’re just preying on the morally and theologically weak to gradually bring them to your lies.

                  You’ve been exposed.
                  I will expose you every time I see you on Crisis.

                  • Daniel P

                    Disqus did not require people to have accounts until two months ago. Before that, I always posted as “Daniel P”, but I did not have an account. All that is on public record too. You have yet to substantiate the claim that I support (or have ever supported) homosexual conduct or homosexual marriage.

                    To be fully transparent here, there was a time when I thought that one could still be an orthodox Catholic and support *civil* gay marriage. Even then, however, I myself did not support civil gay marriage, which I always felt was harmful to children. And over the past year, I changed my mind about my prior opinion anyway; I now believe that any support of civil gay marriage is clearly impossible for orthodox Catholics.

                    To summarize, (1) I did not delete any accounts, (2) I am not a liberal troll, (3) you continue to slander me. I ask you now to either substantiate your claims, or stop pestering me.

                    • bonaventure

                      I can only concede and give your reason on the Disqus part. You may be right. You may have posted independently from Disqus, and therefore your past posts are difficult to find, unless one goes back directly to every article where you posted a reply. How convenient, right?

                      Anyway, your enthusiasm for the so-called new homophiles is on record, as is your claim that one can have “SSA” without shame and be Catholic. And I remember from our previous exchanges that my constant objection was that, if that’s possible and commendable (i.e., to “have SSA” and be Catholic without shame for the sin), then why isn’t it possible and commendable for adultery, polyamory, pronography use, pedophilia, etc.?

                      You and other liberal Catholics were never able to answer that objection — because at the end of the day, there are no differences between these sins: they are all sexual perversions of grave depravity, freely chosen and freely engaged in. Yet somehow homosexuality gets a pass. And not only a pass, but also a cheer. And now it appears that some Catholics also want to attach to it a mystical aura — something to be desired for the sake of “suffering,” etc. Despicable.

                      And let me add this about the “SSA” abbreviation. This is definitively a favorite of all liberals who claim to be orthodox: how convenient to use politically correct abbreviations to take away from the gravity of the sin, just like using the lie of the term “gay” (how could a grave sinner, engaged in such depravity, be possibly gay? We might a well start calling pedophiles and adulterers “gay” as well).

                      As for pestering you, just do not reply. That does not mean, however, that I will not react to your posts. Your freedom to not reply to my posts does not limit my freedom to reply to yours, and to call you out.

                    • Daniel P

                      I *certainly* never said it was possible to engage in homosexual sin (whether sex or porn or whatever) without being ashamed for one’s sin. I certainly did say that it’s possible to experience homosexual temptation without being ashamed of the temptation. I stand by that comment. And I think that people tempted to adultery, polyamory, porn or pedophilia need not be ashamed of their temptations, only of their sins.

                      For evidence I haven’t done any bizarre editing of the record, please see

                    • bonaventure

                      You changed your narrative from attraction (such as “SSA”) to temptation. But there is a immense difference between the two.

                      A normal sexual person does not sin when attracted to a person of the opposite sex, unless the attraction turns to lust and leads to sin (whether physical sin, or simply mental sin).

                      A person attracted to the same sex sins already, by the very fact of being attracted in a perverted sexual manner (and at this point, the genesis of that attraction doesn’t even matter). The very attraction is a sin — and it is already a step beyond temptation.

                      A “non-sinful homosexual” is only an ex-homosexual. In other words, his/her mind and soul have been healed and are no longer attracted to the same sex.

                      And that’s why there are no forums about “New Adulterers” or “New Pedophiles” or “New Pornography Users,” as there are on the “New Homophiles.” Because while most everyone agrees that the former are sinful attractions even if not acted upon, liberals are claiming that homosexuality is an exception.

    • reddog44

      To describe Luther’s break from the Church a seminal event totally misses the mark. To accuse Luther for the rise of liberalism is totally devoid of reason, as his intent was to reform a corrupt Church and set it on the path of a moral foundation.
      Luther’s mark is being felt markedly today, as the Catholic church has finally recognized who Jesus was, and what His role in offering grace and forgiveness of sins.

      • Daniel P

        I’m not impugning Luther’s motives. I believe he had generally good intentions, and I believe that the Church really did need to be reformed. Indeed, I largely agree with your comment about grace, and that Luther’s reading of Romans is much more in keeping with the Christian tradition than the practice of indulgences as it was used in the late medieval period.

        However, Luther’s action in breaking with the Church was a fundamentally divisive action. It set the pattern for many, many other “reformers”, whose ideas became more and more marked by individualism. Community became subordinated to individualism. I’m not “blaming” this all on Luther. I think he was a pawn that the devil used to make a key play in the game — sadly, despite the fact that the pawn himself was a rather good theologian.

        • slainte

          Did the Catholic Church really need to be reformed in the 1500’s or did certain clerics who were engaged in abusive practices inconsistent with Church teachings need to be rebuked and tossed out?

          A similar situation confronts us today.

          • reddog44

            You are right about your analysis, but there is also a very important “Theological” reform that needs to take place. Yes even today,

            • slainte

              What kind of theological reform?

              • reddog44

                Well for starters, the sale of indulgences and the false sense of buying your salvation, and negating/minimizing the work of Jesus on the cross.

        • reddog44

          You make some excellent points, and thanks for keeping the dialogue civil, but I do take exception to the comment “he was a pawn that the devil used”. I would emphatically state, he was a tool of God that reformed the church, and as I mentioned in a previous post, is vibrating throughout the Roman Church today. Luther, has indeed influenced the Roman Church in the “right” direction.

          We will all see in the final judgement, when all this comes out in the wash, who was right, and who and what was evil.

          • Daniel P

            I don’t dispute that Luther’s influence on the practice of Catholicism has been positive. Nevertheless, he DIVIDED the Church. He was manipulated by the powers and principalities of his time to do so.

            We are all pawns in the hands of the devil, sometimes — I wasn’t trying to make a slam on Luther. In my experience, Church division almost always involves a person with a valid complaint becoming prideful and leaving the Church (the bishop and the pope often get prideful in this process too). That’s exactly how the devil wants it to happen, sadly.

            • reddog44

              You are correct about the devil’s influence, and if you think Luther was used by the devil, I guess we could say the same for many of your popes, such as Pope Paul IV, who called for reform after Luther’s attempt at changing corruption. BUT, he had 3 illegitimate children, Was he a pawn of the Devil?? History is littered with the evil and corrupt popes who reigned in the early days.

              What does this tell us,t he Devil is trying to destroy the church, but God uses reformers and prophets to call His people to repentance.

              • DE-173

                You’ve confused personal peccability with institutional error.
                Luther’s influence was felt in Germany for hundreds of years.

                • reddog44

                  Oh, you are a mean one indeed! By coming to subjective unfunded conslsuions, you pass judgement on a man of God. God be merciful to your soul!

                  I could list several popes who were far worse, who did more damage to Christianity than Luther. By “peccabiity” are you trying to excuse sin?

                • reddog44

                  What’s the matter DE-173 are you a shoot and run type commentator? Where is your comeback.

            • reddog44

              So your point being, all the old Testament prophets were prideful?
              Come on Daniel, you can do better than that!

              Don’t blame the devil for the human frailties/corruption of the Catholic Church


            • reddog44

              Comment #2. So Luther’s biggest supposed sin was dividing the Church? Well if you study objective history, you will see there were several,perhaps hundreds attempt at reform. What about the Eastern Orthodox, the Nestorians, and many others who split off, not to mention several attempts at reform from within catholicdom.

            • reddog44

              Come one Daniel, don’t be a shoot and run type, answer the critics.

          • DE-173

            You’re lost. “Lutherquest” is somewhere else.

            • reddog44

              Free thought is not welcome?

        • DE-173

          “I’m not impugning Luther’s motives.”
          Why not? Was he impeccable?

      • Trazymarch

        There is saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. I think Luther was genuinely worried and outraged about the state of the Church at the time. However what were the fruits of his effort? I have the same opinion about Sedevacantism.

        • reddog44

          The “fruits” of his efforts are quite evident in the Roman Catholic Church today, as I mentioned, Jesus is given His proper place in salvation history, and most homilies are painted with more grace than works.

          The final judgement will bear this out!

      • DE-173

        “Luther’s mark is being felt markedly today, as the Catholic church has finally recognized who Jesus was,”
        The Church always knew that.
        Of course the world is feeling the wrath of Luther’s fracturing of Christendom and his assertion that marriage was should be regulated by the state.
        Thirtt plus thousand Christian denominations all claiming the authority of the non-Scriptural “Sola Scriptura” and in wild disagreement with each other. Two men “marrying”. I think with every new denomination and every pseudonogamous event, more coals are loaded on Luther’s fire.

        • reddog44

          As I mentioned elsewhere, there will be a long line of popes well ahead of Luther awaiting Hellfire.

  • thebigdog

    “What is liberty without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils…madness without restraint.” – Edmund Burke

  • publiusnj

    Our “liberal society” is destroying itself. The elite and their followers may think that Gay Marriage and the far more prevalent “No Marriage” (a 42% illegitimacy rate indeed) are the very apex of freedom but such results are bringing our political process into disrepute throughout much of the World. How can we ask the World to trust us on “Democracy” (actually unelected judge-led decision-making) when it has results that are so at odds with the wisdom of the World?

  • AlexanderGalt

    It’s been said that Hollywood uses attractive people to sell bad ideas.

    There was another great example last week in the form of Emma Watson’s speech to the UN in her HeForShe campaign. Her speech was greeted with joy as the rebirth of a more man friendly feminism.

    But she spouts all the same ridiculous crap about the glass ceiling and as usual for feminists avoids all the real issues facing (brown) women like “honor killings” and FGM. I guess she’s another feminist whose leftie multicultural credentials are more important.

    There’s a great post on Emma’s poor little rich western girl act called:
    “Cat’s Paw” at:

  • Jdonnell

    Political correctness is certainly a bane on modern society, but so is the lack of concern with justice, which includes social justice. The growing disparity in wealth is a social sin; those interested in traditional morality ought to be vitally concerned about it.