Why everyone needs to be a liberal if we want to live in a moral society

Govts are least moral and are incapable of remorse but have all powers. Corporates for profit are also not guided by morality or remorse. That is why, for a moral society, people must be more liberal

Why everyone needs to be a liberal if we want to live in a moral society

Sonali Ranade

Governments go to great lengths to claim the moral high ground for their actions.

In the current farmers agitation for instance, claims abound about freeing them from the clutches of rapacious middle men at APMCs.  But what is moral for one government is not necessarily moral for the next.  Secularism was the highest moral principle not long ago.  Now it is a dirty word.  So, are Governments really capable of moral action consistently?

What agents exist in a polity for driving moral action?  A moral action needs memory, a moral principle or morality and capability for remorse when a moral principle is ignored.  We must examine where these three determinants of moral agency are situated in a polity, and how to empower them to general moral action for a moral based polity to exist.

In this brief piece, I will lay out a paradigm to show that it is liberalism alone that creates the necessary agency for moral action in a polity. And that liberalism is a must, regardless of one’s underlying anthropological assumption regarding human nature.


There are two basic assumptions about the nature of a human being.  The ontology at two opposite poles of human existence is best captured by the anthropological assumptions one makes.  The poles are Conservative at one end of the spectrum, and liberal at the other.

No human is actually at one extreme or the other, with most falling in between the two polar opposites.  Nevertheless, to understand the nature of basic assumptions we make about other humans, including ourselves, it makes sense to examine the two extreme views in either or terms, ignoring stuff in the middle.

“The liberal sees outer, removable institutions as the ultimate source of evil, sees man’s social task as creating a world in which evil will disappear…. The conservative sees the inner unremovable nature of man as the ultimate source of evil.”: Peter Viereck, The Unadjusted Man: A New Hero for Americans (1956)

Peter Viereck explains the anthropological assumptions we make about humans explicit.

The Conservative view is that humans are intrinsically evil at their core - like animals - and if you want to make them behave as moral agents, then an external force has to be applied to induce moral behaviour.

The liberal on the other hand assumes, humans are more than mere animals.  They are intrinsically moral, and can be expected to behave morally provided we get the institutions that govern & regulate behaviour right.  If evil persists, it is because we set up perverse incentives for them.  The trick is to get the institutions right.  A general realisation that if one behaves immorally, others will retaliate, ensures moral behaviour most of the time.  You don’t need a police state to induce moral behaviour.

We noted that in reality, most people are normally distributed around some median in any given population.  As long as you create institutions to deter extreme predation, people generally embrace enlightened self-interest.  And this is also the point where the cost of setting up and maintaining institutions of supervision, such as Government and police, are at a minimum.

So why must one be a liberal?

The answer in this paradigm lies in the realisation that in most cases, the cost of ensuring optimal behaviour, where an individual is guided by enlightened self-interest, and kept in check by the threat of retaliation by others in case of a transgression, is at a minimum.  It is the optimal point regardless of what anthropological assumption you prefer.

This basic paradigm can be recast in another paradigm for greater clarity, where the relationship between power and morality is made explicit.  For that we will need a diagram.

There are three basic components to moral behaviour.  These are memory, morality, and remorse.  Moral behaviour is maximal where these three factors combine to guide behaviour along a moral axis.

When you take away, from the three, you get progressively less moral behaviour; and when all three are absent, the institution or individual is incapable of any moral action at all because it lacks the apparatus to determine & feel what it is to be morally compliant.  An individual without, remorse, morality or memory would be insane.

With this background, we place the individual in a cross-grid with morality along the X axis, increasing with increasing distance from the origin, and power, along the Y axis, with power decreasing with the distance from the origin.

Why everyone needs to be a liberal if we want to live in a moral society

The diagram puts the individual, on the top right-hand corner, where power is minimal, but morality is maximum, since an individual has capability for memory, morality and remorse.  In fact, in the diagram, the individual is the only “institution” with all three.  In a sense, an individual is the only one capable of a complete moral position and agency.

As we move down to business firms or corporates, remorse goes away from the capability.  This is easy to understand for a firm with clear profit goals.  Every other consideration becomes secondary to profits.  And if you cut corners, without getting caught, there is no remorse even if you realise the immorality of your action.

Lower down we go to Government, where even morality disappears, and only memory remains.  This may seem strange at first sight because Governments go to extreme lengths to claim the high moral ground.  But governments itself change. What is moral under one becomes immoral, nay criminal, under another.

The same is true when a Minister is replaced by another, or civil servants, judges, cops change etc.  Moral consistency over time is not something that a Government is capable of.  Remorse for any change in the moral principle is even more remote.  Govts even suffer from memory loss at times.  But by and large, Government is left only with an institutional memory, and is incapable of consistent morality over time or any feeling of remorse.

By the time you get to a nation, the mass of people whom government is supposed to serve, you are left with nothing.

Why?  Until there is a Govt. in place, the inchoate people as a whole are incapable of any action that demonstrates either memory, moral principle or remorse.  The nation is a primordial mass of people that becomes capable of any collective action only when you have a Govt.  Else, it is just individuals in nature or Hobbesian state.

However, when you look at the power, defined as the capacity to coerce compliance from others, the least power goes to individuals. Corporates have internal cohesion and more capital and power.  Governments have the most power that answers to the people at large.

So, we see the most moral agent in the matrix, has the least power.  Conversely, the least moral agent has the most power.  Indeed, totalitarian governments have total power and zero moral agency.  This absolute divergence between power on one hand, and capability for moral action on the other, is why we need liberalism.

Without liberalism, capacity for moral action disappears completely.  Liberalism is the one philosophical principle that empowers the individual against all forms of collectives above him or her.  Unless you do that effectively, the individual is crushed by the power of the collective; and with that capacity for moral action in the public where gets enervated.  In fact, it disappears to be replaced by many other goals.

Do note that regardless of your starting assumption regarding nature of a human being in terms of intrinsic capacity for evil, the distribution of power vs the prerequisites for moral action means that morality is maximised when the individual is empowered because the collective has less capacity for remorse, moral agency and direct memory of harm caused or virtue earned.

So, if one wants a moral society, as most theological or civilisational states claim, then you need more liberalism, not less.

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