Liberalism as a Metaethic


Euthyphro Dilemma

The classic form of the Euthyphro Dilemma is that if "good" is defined by God then it is arbitrary, and God could change the definition at any time, and decree, for instance, that it is good to kill your neighbor. The solution proposed to this dilemma is to stipulate that God is purely and unchangeably good, is "the locus of all good." There are two dilemmas that remain:

1)    How do we recognize God, if we do not have a previous definition of good? If good is simply what is defined by God, then anyone or anything can claim to be God, and say, "This is good."

2)    Who tells us what God says? If good is defined by a supernatural agency through supernatural revelation, then we are subject to the conflicting claims of anyone who chooses to claim supernatural revelation, and we have no way to test which of them is valid.


In actual practice, we accept revelations as coming from God when they match our ethical expectations. We reject them if they do not. We do not believe in good because God is good; we believe in God because God is good. Our sense of "what is good" comes before our sense of "what is God."

The Necessity for Moral Judgment

The reason that humans keep getting into discussions about "what is good" is because we have to. In order to survive and thrive personally, we have to know what is best to do and what we should avoid doing. In order to live and work with, and have relationships with, other people -- in order to have a society -- we have to have agreements between us about "what is good," about what we should do and what we should avoid doing. We have to have some grounds that give legitimacy to these agreements, because we will need to hold each other accountable to them. Law is the legitimizing of the use of force to obtain conformity with a social agreement. What gives us the moral authority to use force on each other? Why would we give others the right to use force on us if we break an agreement?

Humans frequently have conflicting claims about "what is good", both in general rules and in specific applications. There are several methods historically used to reconcile those conflicts:

1.     Give authority to one person to make and enforce the decision.

2.     Establish an unalterable standard to which all will refer to reconcile the conflicts.

3.     Physically strongest side wins.

4.     Negotiate until you have a common consensus.

The problem with #1 and #2 is that they require getting mutual agreement on the authority of the decision-maker or the rightness of the measuring standard; since not everyone will trust the judgment of those who write the standard or make the decisions, this still gets down to #3 or #4. The problem with #3 is that it never really satisfies anyone as "just." The problem with #4 is threefold: it takes a very long time, exponentially longer as a group grows in size; it takes a lot of trust in people to have enough expectation of it working to even try it; we still need ground rules, some way of communicating about "what is good" and making decisions, that we can all agree on. We need a meta-ethic; a way of making, and agreeing on, moral judgments.


Each individual social group in history has, over time, worked out its own social agreements, which got passed down from generation to generation and enforced by the group. These always do modify, over time, in the long slow process of social dialogue, and occasionally in sharp jumps due to the need of changing circumstances.

When different cultures collide, however, the process of coming to common agreements by which the two can act as one larger group is not often smooth. As the expansion of human societies brought more and more disparate moral systems into contact with each other, the acceleration of human events and human technology also cut down the amount of time we had to work out such agreements and the urgency to do so before somebody made something go boom.

There were three major responses to this necessity:

1.     Authoritarianism. Deciding on one unchangeable standard and insisting that everyone hold to it. Enforcing this by sheer strength. This was not a personal will to power: adoption of one unalterable authoritative standard is one way of reconciling major conflicts, and it always crops up in the clash of cultures.

2.     Radical skepticism. Abandoning the possibility of working out any common standard. Declare that no objective truth exists, and that everyone should decide for themselves 'what is good' and work it out with your neighbor as best you can. The motivation for this was not hedonism or personal desire for a radical liberty. Radical skepticism is one way of avoiding violence in irreconcilable conflicts, and it always crops up in the clash of cultures.

3.     Liberalism. The process of establishing agreement by critical inquiry between independent equals. Democracy.

There are assumptions required for option 3 that are not accepted by those who choose options 1 or 2.

1.     That there is an objective reality that we all share in common; there is a "good" to be discovered, not just arbitrarily assigned.

2.     We are all equally capable of discovering it. The evidence and reasoning to determine "what is good" are equally accessible to all. We can communicate; we can both point to the same thing and each recognize what the other is talking about.

3.     The majority of humans desire to get along with each other and to do each other good. The majority of humans are capable of doing so.

4.     All of us are equally limited and fallible, therefore none of us has special authority or a privileged viewpoint above question. Nothing is certain; previous agreements can always be questioned again and changed if discovered faulty.

5.     "What is good" morally will be good for us. What is good for us, individually and collectively, will be morally good.

There are both theist and atheist liberals.

#1 can be accepted by atheists who consider 'what is good' to be based on the natural order of the cosmos and what will work within that natural order to increase order. It can be accepted by theists who regard that "natural order of the cosmos" as the nature and will of God, Who desires increase of order and increase of good to all living beings.

#2 can be accepted by atheists who regard order as observable and discernable through the study of natural phenomena, by natural senses and natural reason, accessible to all. It can also be accepted by theists who believe that since God creates the cosmos and desires humans to operate independently and ethically within it, we are so formed as to be able to all observe the order of the cosmos through the observation of natural phenomena, to discern "what is good" through natural reason.

Both #3 and #4 are accepted by most human beings. Being imperfect and capable of doing evil does not mean we are not capable of good; being capable of good does not mean that we are perfect, or not capable of doing evil.

#5 is accepted by atheists as axiomatic. It is accepted by theists who believe that God loves God's creation and creates out of that love, and therefore what God considers "good" will be what is the very best for all concerned, individually and collectively.

Liberalism Is a Meta-ethic.

Altogether, the assumptions of liberalism make possible a social dialogue that establishes order without authority. The major necessity in implementing this is establishing institutions and processes to facilitate the dialogue so that we are not locked up in a national Consensus Meeting from Hell every time we need to make a decision.

1.     The most important factor in "what is good" is what will increase the ability of all concerned, individually and collectively, to survive and thrive. An increase in the total good may require sacrifice, at least in the short term, on the part of individuals, but there is no such thing as a moral good which requires a total increase of suffering and death.

2.     "What is good" can be determined from the observation of objective fact and natural order.

3.     Conflicting claims about "what is good" can be resolved by critical inquiry, referring to mutually observable and testable natural phenomena and universally standard rules of natural reason.


Understanding that liberalism is a meta-ethic helps explain why liberal intellectuals are so hot and heavy about intellectual ethics and react to logical fallacies or deliberate misrepresentation the way a conservative reacts to sexual sin. The only thing that makes possible the establishment of "what is good" by critical inquiry is honesty in the dialogue. Each must be very clear about what we need, what our values are, what our goals are, what our bottom line is, what we feel, what we perceive, and communicate that clearly. Lack of self-awareness, confusion about one's own values, lack of personal integrity, all work to sabotage conflict resolution, and are therefore violations of the meta-ethics of liberalism.

Universality is also an essential in the meta-ethics of liberalism. Justice must be universal justice, equally just no matter where you stand in the equation, or it is not justice. The best interests of all are equally important. Understanding this helps understand why any hint of ethnocentricity, of the special interests of any group being elevated over the interests of others, arouses liberal ire.

Hopefully, this also makes clear that "we are all fallible and no claims are unalterably certain" is not the same as "nobody can ever know truth, do what you want." Both elements -- the acknowledgement that there is an objective reality that we can determine, and the acknowledgment of our fallibility in determining it -- are essential to reconciling conflicting claims by critical inquiry.

Liberalism provides a framework, a meta-ethic, for different cultures, religions, and ethical systems to dialogue together and form common social agreements. Liberalism even provides room for authoritarians to claim special authority or supernatural revelation -- if they are willing to defend it on the basis of universally accessible observation and standard rules of logic, and they can demonstrate that it will result in a common good.