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Who Makes the Call?
What liberalism does, and doesn't, say about individuals' choices
Recently, I served a tour on my university's grade grievance committee. The committee’s charge is to evaluate and respond to student complaints of unfair grading. In our most recent case, a student was upset with a failing grade she received on her final exam. It was a take-home exam that students were supposed to submit electronically by a certain deadline. The student claimed to have completed and submitted the exam on time. But apparently, and unbeknownst to her, it didn’t go through. When she saw that she had received an “F,” she reached out to the professor to find out what happened, and what could be done. The answer to that last question, it turned out, was “nothing.” The professor was unwilling to let her make up the exam, to complete an alternative assignment, or to offer any partial credit for her late submission.
To me, that seemed a bit harsh. Sure, it was the student’s responsibility to make sure her submission actually went through. And she failed to do that. But still, assuming she’d completed the rest of her coursework responsibly, my inclination would be to offer her at least some credit for the late assignment. Not just a big, fat zero.
That, at least, is how I would have handled the situation. But as a member of the grade grievance committee, the relevance of my own personal inclinations is precisely zilch. My job on that committee was not to apply my own standards of fairness to the case. It was to determine whether the professor had acted within or exceeded the bounds her authority as determined by university policy and the professor’s own syllabus. And in this case, she clearly had. If she had wanted to, she could have been more lenient with the student, as I might have. But she also had the right to enforce a harsh, zero-exceptions policy. Whether I agreed with her decision or not, it was her call to make.
I thought of this experience recently while reading David Brooks’ recent Atlantic piece on “The Outer Limits of Liberalism.” In that essay, Brooks argues that Canada’s recent experience with legalized physician-assisted suicide reveals a fatal weakness of the “extreme” version of liberal political philosophy. That form of liberalism, which Brooks traces back to John Stuart Mill, holds that “[i]ndividuals…have the right to be the architect of their own life, to choose whom to marry, where to live, what to believe, what to say.” For liberals, according to Brooks, individual autonomy is paramount. And respect for state autonomy requires the state to mind its own business: “[t]he state has no right to impinge on a citizen’s individual freedom of choice, provided that the person isn’t harming anyone else.”
The problem with physician-assisted suicide, according to Brooks, is that it has evolved in ways that are incompatible with basic human dignity. In its original 2016 form, Canadian law limited the availability of physician-assisted suicide to people suffering from a terminal disease, for whom natural death was “reasonably foreseeable.” In 2021, however, the criterion of reasonable foreseeability was dropped. And Brooks recounts several tragic, heartbreaking stories about relatively healthy people who have decided to end their lives under the law. Life-and-death decisions, Brook worries, are now being made on the basis of “materialist cost-benefit analysis,” with little room for the idea that “life is sacred.”
Rates of physician-assisted suicide are increasing, according to Brooks, now accounting for one in 30 for all Canadian deaths. And the vast majority of applications for the procedure are accepted. In 2021, only 4% were deemed ineligible.
And this, for Brooks, shows the problem with extreme, autonomy-based liberalism. “If autonomy is your highest value, these trends are not tragic; they’re welcome. Death is no longer the involuntary, degrading end of life; it can be a glorious act of self-expression.”
But it is here that Brooks reveals a profound misunderstanding of the nature of liberalism. The liberal commitment to individual freedom doesn’t require us to celebrate every choice that people make. Liberalism doesn’t require us to believe that every use to which freedom is put is equally good, or noble, or beautiful. It simply requires us to acknowledge that, in most circumstances, the way in which other people live their lives isn’t our call to make.
This line of reasoning is obvious in the case of the liberal commitment to free speech. Nobody thinks that those who defend free speech are thereby committed to believing that all speech is equally enlightening or worthwhile. Free speech is important not because all speech is equally important, but because it would be both a disaster and a grave injustice to imbue government with the authority to determine which speech is important.
Precisely the same logic underlies other core commitments of liberalism as well. Take, for example, the liberal commitment to robust rights of private property. According to one persuasive account, the essence of what it means to have a property right is to have jurisdiction over a certain domain. To own some thing - whether that thing is your house, an idea, or your own physical body - is to have the right to make decisions about what happens to that things, and to exclude other people from doing so without your consent. Given such a right, some people will inevitably misuse or abuse it. But the liberal’s point is that this is their decision to make. Not yours.
Liberals like John Stuart Mill have offered lots of reasons for why individuals should be able to call the shots regarding their own lives. Individuals generally - though not always - know themselves better than anyone else does. They also tend - though again, not always - to have a greater interest in getting questions about their own lives right than anybody else. And while it’s true that sometimes individuals will use their freedom in ways that we think is a mistake, this doesn’t give necessarily give us the right to interfere with their decisions. After all, we might very well be wrong. As Mill put it, “the strongest of all the arguments against the interference of the public with purely personal conduct, is that when it does interfere, the odds are that it interferes wrongly, and in the wrong place.”
Now, to be clear, Brooks claims that he doesn't want to reject liberalism. He just wants to reject the idea that liberalism is fundamentally rooted in an idea of human autonomy. And he wants to replace it with what he calls “gifts-based liberalism,” an idea based on the conviction that “our individual choices take place within the framework of the gifts we have received, and the responsibilities to others that those gifts entail.”
But whether we look at life as a gift or a burden or an opportunity to rack up as many pleasurable experiences as we can before we kick the bucket is entirely orthogonal to liberalism. Liberalism is not a philosophy of life. It is not a set of views about what has ultimate value, or what modes of living is best. It is a set of rules for determining who gets to make the call about the important questions of life, and that is all.
You can be a liberal and think that physician-assisted suicide is a tragedy and a great moral wrong. You can be a liberal and think that pornography is a symptom of toxic cultural decay. But what you can’t do is be liberal and think that your views about these matters ought to be binding on others who reject them. If that’s what “gifts-based liberalism” amounts to, then it’s not really liberalism at all. It’s simply a plea for authority by another name.
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