Lincoln’s unprincipled exception to racial equality

In a liberal society, where the only legitimate principles are liberal principles, no principled opposition to the onward march of liberal freedom and equality is possible. The only way opposition to liberalism can manifest itself is as a series of holding actions, in which the holdouts, who generally accept the prevailing liberalism, will nevertheless resist it on some particular issue without opposing liberalism as such. These unprincipled exceptions to liberalism take the form of appeals to established habits and traditions, or to majority opinion, or to common sense, or to social utility, or to inertia, or to some undefined feeling that we shouldn’t go “too far,” or even to some supposed beneficent fate that will keep the unwanted liberal victory from occurring without our having to do anything about it. A liberal who adheres to one or more such exceptions to liberalism is called a conservative. [Correction: There are both “liberal” and “conservative” unprincipled exceptions to liberalism. For conservatives, unprincipled exceptions to liberalism are the only permissible way in liberal society to oppose liberalism; for liberals, they are the only way to go on living and functioning despite being liberals.] The conservative’s appeal is to what exists. At any given moment in time, there is present in a society an inchoate body of sentiments, habits, traditions, and understandings that liberalism has not yet challenged and which seem, as far as anyone can tell, unquestionable and authoritative. But the apparent authority of these values and beliefs is only based on the fact that they have not yet been questioned. Because no anti-liberal principle has been articulated to back up these values, as soon as they are seriously challenged, they begin to be abandoned, if not immediately, then through a prolonged process of foot-dragging. To liberals, of course, the failure of conservatives to come up with principled arguments against liberalism only proves that there is no principled position other than liberalism.

Perhaps the most interesting example of the unprincipled exception in American history is Abraham Lincoln’s stand against Negro social equality prior to the Civil war, as set forth in his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas. Let me make it clear that in discussing the issue of racial equality I am not taking a stand for or against Lincoln’s earlier endorsement of social inequality between the races, or his later, progressively more liberal views on race; I am trying, rather, to understand the dynamics by which a highly intelligent and articulate politician, who initially supported racial inequality, was moved—by the seemingly irresistible force of events and by his own evolving views of the matter—to renounce the racial inequality he had once ringingly affirmed.

Lincoln’s unprincipled exception consisted in this, that he subscribed to the liberal belief in a universal equality of human rights, while making an exception with regard to political, social, and physical equality. He did this by interpreting the principle of equality in the Declaration of Independence as both universal and narrow. As he saw it, the phrase, “all men are created equal … with certain unalienable rights,” meant that men were equal, but only in respect of those unalienable rights, not in any other respects. In the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, in Ottawa, Illinois, Lincoln, fending off Douglas’s charge that he was a race leveller, stated outright that he did not believe in the social equality of the races. I’ll quote this famous passage in full:

[A]nything that argues me into his idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro, is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse. … I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects——certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man .”

In the fourth debate, at Charleston, Illinois, he said:

While I was at the hotel to-day an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people. While I had not proposed to myself on this occasion to say much on that subject, yet as the question was asked me I thought I would occupy perhaps five minutes in saying something in regard to it. I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

In sum, Lincoln’s position (and I’m assuming for the sake of this discussion that he was being sincere in what he was saying and not merely positioning himself for political purposes) was that blacks could have complete equality as to their natural rights, i.e., to the rights pertaining to their life, liberty and property, while they would continue to have no political rights and would be kept in a markedly subordinate social sphere. The first question that arises is, how did Lincoln imagine that such a scheme could ever be sustainable in practice? Once the Negroes ceased to be slaves and became free, free to work where they wanted, free to travel where they wanted, and so on, did Lincoln actually envision that they would not be citizens as well? And once they were citizens, would they not have political rights—the right to vote and the right to hold office? And once they had those political rights, how could social equality and social intermingling not follow? In Chicago that same year Lincoln said: “Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man—this race and that race and the other race being inferior. [Instead let us] unite as one people through this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.” But how could Lincoln, whose logical faculty was the equal of anyone’s in American history, think that ending slavery in the name of such a ringing ideal would leave blacks forever deprived of citizenship and political rights?

At bottom, Lincoln seemed to assume that mere social prejudice, the desire of whites that blacks not be their political and social equals, could stop any further application to the black man (beyond the ending of slavery itself) of the universal, shining principle that “all men are created equal.” His belief in continued political and social distinctions between the races was thus an unprincipled exception to his principled belief in equality. It could not stand, neither in practice, nor in logic. And, as we know from 140 years of experience since Lincoln’s time, once the liberal principle of equality was adopted, all the other, ever more progressive forms of equality followed—first equality of citizenship, then political equality, then social equality, then moral equality, and then, as we have today, guaranteed group equality of results, not only for the descendants of black slaves, but for newly arrived non-white immigrants. We have thus traveled, step by step, by the abandonment of one unprincipled exception after another, from Lincoln’s narrowly tailored interpretation of the Declaration of Independence to an outright system of racial socialism.

My point here is not to argue that the slaves should not have been freed or that blacks should not have citizenship rights. My point is that in the absence of any non-liberal principle of social order, people who apparently oppose the next, more progressive plank of the liberal agenda will inevitably end up yielding to it.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 04, 2003 11:26 AM | Send


Mr. Auster says, rightly, that “in the absence of any non-liberal principle of social order, people who apparently oppose the next, more progressive plank of the liberal agenda will inevitably end up yielding to it.” We might ponder the fact that the process can also work in the opposite direction. That is, in the absence of any such principle, how might traditionalists induce an ordinary, follow-the-crowd, liberal to make an unprincipled exception to the liberal social agenda? After all, if such a person has no principled ground on which to resist the liberal slippery slope, neither has he a principled ground on which to resist some traditionalist tenet or policy that might for some reason appeal to him. What might that reason be?

Here we might recall a remark that Irving Kristol made many years ago: that Americans are living off the spiritual capital left them by previous generations. But that means that, before the time comes when that capital has been all used up (since we aren’t adding to it), the residue can be appealed to.

We might ponder which public policies still evoke discomfort because the principles behind them resonate, albeit more faintly with every passing year, among our fellow Americans.

I nominate education. It goes to the heart of family structure, race relations, homosexuality, the need to transmit our ethnic heritage, the essentiality of literacy to membership in a civilization, and everything else. And it’s in worse shape than any other institution (the majority of marriages are still of the traditional sort, which can’t be said for the schools). For example, this morning’s news carried a report that the superintendent of schools in Lawrence, Massachusetts, who had suspended 24 teachers for having failed a required exam in basic literacy, himself flunked it three times. His assumption that his critics would buy his excuse—that English was his second language (the first is Spanish)—merely compounds the horror.

So far I haven’t seen any reports of parents’ reactions. Is there any of Kristol’s moral capital in the town of Lawrence, or if not then somewhere else in Massachusetts that can finally recognize that liberal nihilism in educational policy is resulting in a new generation who are not fulfilling the dreams of the liberal theorists?

Posted by: frieda on August 4, 2003 12:49 PM

Frieda writes:
“…if such a person has no principled ground on which to resist the liberal slippery slope, neither has he a principled ground on which to resist some traditionalist tenet or policy …”

That isn’t true though. A liberal isn’t a person with no principles at all. A liberal is a person with an alliegence to liberal principles (that is, freedom and equal rights in the political sphere). He of necessity makes unprincipled exceptions to them, but by default he is going to try to be consistent when he advocates policy.

Now there is an oddity to the situation that goes right to the heart of basic rationality: liberal principles are logically self-contradictory. That means (among other things) that given any choice between policy A and policy B there is ALWAYS some argument from liberal principles for either choice, and a different (but equally valid rationally) argument against. In practice though some arguments (though just as rationally sound as others) will be dismissed as “silly” or as lacking in common sense, etc; or the argument against will seem more obvious, even though the argument for is just as abstractly rational.

The net result is that it is always necessarily possible in any particular instance to turn the argument from freedom and equal rights against itself, but in practice that doesn’t work all that well, at least for an obscure writer like myself, for two reasons. One is that you get dismissed as a quack (John Derbyshire’s latest column on the value of not thinking too much, although the column does have some merit, is also an example of this sort of dismissal - “stop thinking so much” is one of the best ways to disengage from a discussion). The other is that in order to argue that way you have to stipulate the validity of liberal principles in the first place, which in the end undoes whatever you have argued for specifically since liberal principles are self-refuting.

Now it may be possible in discussing political loyalties with liberals to shift their alliegence away from liberalism itself and toward their own unprincipled exceptions. I’ve attempted to do that on occasion with perhaps some small success, especially when dealing with right-liberals whose unprincipled illiberal alliegences are exceptionally strong. Maybe Frieda is encouraging that sort of approach. It is an odd situation that we are in, though, in that we have to argue against something that is intrinsically rationally incoherent. Rather than weakening liberalism, though, that incoherence gives it great freedom of intellectual movement to avoid criticism. Whatever we insist that liberalism is, liberals insist that it is not — rightly enough, oddly, because an ideology that is rationally incoherent implies both every particular policy and every particular policy’s negation at the same time.

Posted by: Matt on August 4, 2003 2:14 PM

It’s worth noting that Mr. Lincoln, in the last speech of his life, did call for Negro suffrage — specifically for the Negro Union veterans.

The challenge I feel in reading what Mr. Auster has said here is to find how a principled position should have been applied in that period on this subject. Most of us here understand the matter of racial inequality. But Mr. Auster doesn’t offer a clear alternative to show what path Mr. Lincoln might have taken.

I would have assumed that Mr. Linoln’s views on _equality_ as they evolved were closer to an unprincipled exception. But on the other hand, a person’s views do evolve and mature (not the word I want to use here) given plain and unalterable realities. That reality was that blacks were here, and they weren’t going away. Unless we can show how the inequality principle might have workably and consistently been employed, there’s little value in this history as a lesson for how to address present concerns in like manner.

Mr. Auster is not willing to assert that slavery should have been retained. But in fact Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, certainly articulated a clear, and seemingly unyielding principle, in his famous Cornerstone Speech:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”

So where exactly should the principle of racial inequality have led us under the circumstances Mr. Lincoln faced? THAT is the difficult question. Resorting to analysis and criticism of Mr. Lincoln without dealing what that question leaves us knowing what might have been wrong, but sheds precious little light on what a better path might have been.

Posted by: Joel on August 4, 2003 3:38 PM

I knew I was treading into unresolved issues and dangerous waters in this article, and Joel’s criticisms and questions are understandable. However, my intention here was not to present an alternative to Lincoln’s course on race, but rather to use Lincoln’s statements as a particularly vivid instance of the unprincipled exception in action, and of the consequences that it had in undermining the very position that most whites including Lincoln had believed in prior to the war. The paradigm I describe with regard to Lincoln applies to many issues, not just to race. Also, I deliberately did not take a substantive pro or con stand on Lincoln’s policy, but only looked at it in terms of its own internal contradictions. Further, I didn’t venture to say what exactly the racial policy should have been. One could speculate on alternatives that would have been both just and more racially realistic than what we ended up with. But that would have required leadership that had some principles other than the liberal principle of individual equality. I might attempt at some point to address what those alternatives might have been, but it’s far too big a subject to get into now.

I hope my answer is satisfactory to Joel, at least for the moment.

Also, just to avoid any possible implied link between Alexander Stephens’s views and mine, I condemn the Cornerstone speech.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on August 4, 2003 4:07 PM

I agree with everything that Matt wrote above, including the following: “A liberal isn’t a person with no principles at all. A liberal is a person with an allegiance to liberal principles (that is, freedom and equal rights in the political sphere). He of necessity makes unprincipled exceptions to them, but by default he is going to try to be consistent when he advocates policy.”

But the person I had in mind isn’t what Matt and I would label “a liberal.” He is the far-more-numerous American who doesn’t think in large patterns. He’s like those people who execrate Hanoi Jane but see nothing wrong with buying her exercise tapes. Such people are influenced by thought-leaders around them but mostly to feel comfortable among their friends.

They’re the people who caused the recent shift in public opinion against abortion. They don’t see themselves as inconsistent; they have a gut feeling that that Court decision was wrong. Where did that gut feeling come from? Why didn’t it manifest itself until the Supreme Court violated some deep conviction that they perhaps hadn’t been aware of? I don’t think we should write them off as liberals. (They’re never going to become traditionalists either, because, as I said, most people don’t ponder the large philosophical questions as vfr’s posters so happily do.) The overwhelming majority of people (not just Americans but everywhere—it’s a type of personality) are not systematic thinkers. So I repeat: where did that gut feeling come from? I was suggesting that it may have come, in part, from an unacknowledged residue of the values handed down at school, in houses of worship, and in the family a generation ago, what Kristol called the moral capital that we’re dissipating now. And that’s why we should hurry up and cure our sick education system; what’s left of the moral capital isn’t being transmitted there, and the schools are actively opposing its transmission within the families of the children.

To sum up: I see no incompatibility between what I wrote and what Matt wrote.

Posted by: frieda on August 4, 2003 4:09 PM

“I hope my answer is satisfactory to Joel, at least for the moment.”

Indeed. I shouldn’t have inferred that the analysis wasn’t worth making without a clear alternative on the ready. Your article just made me hunger for more. ;-) But that’s good — it was a helpful first step to more hard thinking on the matter.

And a lesson in patience can’t hurt either. ;-)

Posted by: Joel on August 4, 2003 4:43 PM

Of course I wasn’t equating your views with Mr. Stephens’s. ;-) I presented his as an example of holding to a principle that had a tangible political application, albeit as an extreme opposite to the liberal view of equality that Mr. Linoln moved toward — what he have today.

You have been very effective in showing “a moral middle way” (as you phrased it in the VNN thread.) I mentioned Mr. Stephens’s infamous speech to show what the other side of that way represented. I expect your own views would navigate successfully between these two extremes.

Posted by: Joel on August 4, 2003 5:40 PM

Frieda writes:
“But the person I had in mind isn’t what Matt and I would label “a liberal.” He is the far-more-numerous American who doesn’t think in large patterns.”

I think Frieda and I may have different and possibly even incompatible perceptions of the teeming masses. Liberalism is the default political ideology in the modern world. Rare intellectuals may dissent from it, but the teeming masses embrace it because that is what respectable people do. It is true that the average person hasn’t thought for more than ten seconds about political philosophy, but if you scratch him you will find the following:

1) He has an iron-hard loyalty to political freedom and equal rights, democracy, etc.

2) He views his political enemies as misinterpreting or deliberately misrepresenting the implications of political freedom and equality. He does not see any problems with freedom and equal rights as such; and indeed…

3) …he feels that political freedom and equality is one of the few things still worth killing people over and dying for.

That is, I think the non-intellectual teeming masses are for the most part firmly committed liberals (right- or left- , it matters not to me). What makes one a liberal is not his intellectual understanding of politics. What makes him a liberal is his firm *loyalty* to liberalism, that is, freedom and equal rights as fundamental political principles.

Posted by: Matt on August 5, 2003 11:43 AM

For the past couple of hours I’ve been debating the pros and cons of Matt’s argument (Aug. 5, 11:43 AM) with myself. I’m not sure if I agree even yet. It seems to me that the thesis that the default political philosophy of “the teeming masses” is liberalism needs to be reconciled with two other sets of data.

First, there’s Mr. Auster’s complex definition of American ethnicity—what it defines is still real, although weakening, and what’s real in it certainly does elicit the allegiance of most white Americans. And second, there’s the necessarily dynamic quality of any description of the way “the teeming masses” think: one must specify whether one is describing the default philosophy of today’s parent generation, or that of the young, subliterate victims of the educationists, who have produced a generation of hedonists who have no default philosophy (not even liberalism) because they can’t conceive of loyalty to anything or anyone but their self-esteeming selves (egoism and nihilism aren’t political philosophies). Does the thesis describe what is or what is likely to be the case in 20 years if current trends continue?

Can Matt (author of many valuable little essays on this site) show how his thesis, as stated in that post, accommodates these data?

Posted by: frieda on August 5, 2003 3:00 PM

Frieda asks:
“Can Matt (author of many valuable little essays on this site) show how his thesis, as stated in that post, accommodates these data?”

First, let me acknowledge the validity of Frieda’s point about the difficulty in pinning down “the teeming masses” on anything in particular without necessarily embracing her corrollary requirement for greater specificity. It is possible (and even necessary!) to make generalizations that have legitimate consequences, as e.g. the discipline of marketing demonstrates concretely. Here we are certainly dealing in the domain of useful (or not!) generalizations with quantifiable and definite consequences that nonetheless don’t represent categorical rigor.

Second, let me be more specific about my characterization of liberalism as the default political philosophy of the teeming masses. Everyone — well, at least most people — cares about some things, usually relatively few in number, a great deal. Those things he will necessarily not want to treat equal to other things that would conflict with it. These are his small-c conservative issues — the values that this particular individual would treat as legitimately authoritative and discriminatory, that is, as unprincipled exceptions to liberalism. When others are in conflict over things that he does not care about, however, he will take the side that appears in his own perspective to be treating individuals politically as free and equal. Thus in any particular political conflict there will be committed partisans on both sides and a teeming mass of (indifferent to the particular question) liberals. So whatever is successful at appearing the most liberal automatically wins with our putative fellow, as long as it doesn’t encroach on his small-c conservative issues, in which case he will be outnumbered by his ideological enemies combined with the mass of indifferent liberal defaults. This has been the case for at least two centuries and is not a new phenomenon that arose in the 1960’s or the late 1800’s.

Really, how many people on the street are likely to agree, without discussion or argument, with the proposition “political freedom and equal rights were a bad idea and ought to be eradicated utterly from our politics”? Most ordinary people are horrified, appalled, scandalized by the notion. If they were not liberals by default they would not be scandalized.

Posted by: Matt on August 5, 2003 7:04 PM

The more I’ve thought on this, the more difficult it becomes to hold this thesis.

Part of the problem lies in how the word ‘equality’ is so generally and broadly applied, blurring its meaning. For Mr. Lincoln to gradually arrive at a place where he regarded Negroes as entitled to being “equal before the law” is not the same as believing the races were equal, nor does it need imply an _exception_. It could be simply facing reality as it became clear that complete colonization was not a workable goal.

Mr. Auster’s thesis presupposes that Lincoln began with a view of racial equality, from which he made gradually fewer exceptions. But I don’t see the historical basis for this at all.

Less than 3 years before his death he told a group of Negroes at the White House, “You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races … Even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with white people. On this broad continent not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours. Go where you are treated best, and the ban is still upon you. I cannot alter it if I would.” Is this the language of an equalitarian?

When we affirm that all men should be equal before the law are we making an Unprincipled Exception when we speak of racial IQ differences and their significance? Aren’t these really 2 different things? We don’t accept that the races, strictly speaking, are equal in abilities — which affects among other things the degree of political power one or the other might have. Is this an exception to our view of equality before the law? I hope I’m stating the analogy correctly.

Posted by: Joel LeFevre on October 31, 2003 4:11 PM

I wrote at the end of the article:

“My point is that in the absence of any non-liberal principle of social order, people who apparently oppose the next, more progressive plank of the liberal agenda will inevitably end up yielding to it.”

As reflected in that statement, I don’t think I said that Lincoln believed in social equality of the races from the start and that he made unprincipled exceptions to that belief. Rather, he did not believe in social equality. But his belief was not based on any principle. It was based on the received order of things, the way things were, the way people felt, and so on. Notice the way he puts it: “On this broad continent not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours.” He’s not referring to an inherent inequality, but to a social inequality imposed by whites on blacks (not one black “is made the equal” of one white), and adding that he has no wish to change that deeply engrained social custom. But such inherited, customary beliefs are in themselves unprincipled exceptions, not to Lncoln’s beliefs, but to a general principle of equality. And as circumstances moved forward, the unprincipled exceptions lost their force and Lincoln more and more adopted racially egalitarian positions he once would have shunnred.

The unprincipled exception is not necessarily to one’s own principled beliefs; one might really believe in the unprincipled exception, and use it as a hold-out or foot-dragging operation against a general progress, which progresses so successfully because it is based on principle while its opposition is not.

Alternatively, we could approach it like this. Let’s say Lincoln believed that all men have the same basic rights. That’s his principled belief. But he also believed, based on custom and habit and common sense and a view of how different the races are from each other, that the races should not be socially equal. The second, unprincipled, belief gradually ran up on the rocks of the first, principled, belief.

Responding to another of Joel’s points, I don’t think I said that a belief in racial differences is an unprincipled exception. But it certainly COULD be. Let’s say a white person, not through any thought process, has imbibed from his social environment the view that blacks are “a lesser breed.” If that view is not based on a rational perception of reality, but on received notions and feelings, it will eventually collapse in the path of rational liberal progress.

I think I’ve previously used the example of changing attitudes toward homosexuality. I knew people who decades ago would utter dismissive and disapproving comments about homosexuality, not based on any religious or philosophical belief, but on a kind of social distaste. These people no longer speak that way. Today, they would probably side with the gay liberation side in any debate. Their critical view of homosexuality was not based on principle.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on October 31, 2003 5:05 PM

OK, I may finally be ‘getting it’ here, and I think I’m seeing the cause of my confusion.

All along I had taken your thesis to mean that Mr. Lincoln’s views on natural rights suggested some deep-seated notion of complete racial equality from which he was deviating here and there in a way that contradicted that core principle, deviations that eventually gave way.

But apparently you’re not suggesting that he was at root an equalitarian, only that his opposition to such was not founded on a sound, rational basis and therefore couldn’t stand in the face of external trends.

Part of my misunderstanding was because sometimes when the Unprincipled Exception is cited, the former case appears to be in view, i.e. someone holds to a position but doesn’t take it to its logical conclusion in situations where it would clearly be untenable — yet still holds to the position overall.

But apparently this needn’t be the case when the concept is invoked. The position against which the exception is made need not be one that the person making the exception actually holds to. (Your example of the white person above helped.) This is a significant point to keep in mind which the term doesn’t immediately convey.

So in our case, we recognize racial differences in abilities, based on solid scientific evidence, that have to be taken into account, while affirming a belief in equality before the law as a sound moral principle. Neither represents an exception to the other, nor are they in contradiction.

I’m a little slow at times, but hopefully I’m at least getting closer. ;-)

Posted by: Joel LeFevre on October 31, 2003 6:20 PM

The misunderstanding is understandable. :-) The U.P. can consist of liberals making unprincipled exceptions from their own liberalism in order not to destroy themselves, or of conservatives holding on to the only form of resistance to liberalism that liberal society allows. See, for example,

Common sense—The only permitted non-liberal concept

Now I suppose that the liberals are being more “unprincipled”—i.e. being more inconsistent with their stated beliefs—than the conservatives, but in fact the conscious relationship of the person to the belief is not the key thing here; the key thing is that in liberal society no explicit non-liberal principles are allowed. This forces _everyone_ to be incoherent in order to keep the system going, because the most important things in life cannot be formally stated.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on October 31, 2003 7:38 PM

Remember, however, that the U.P. is not just a clever or idiosyncratic angle on things; it expresses the fundamental nature—the _mysterious_ nature—of liberalism. Liberalism denies transcendent truth, and therefore denies the basis of human society. How, then, does liberal society continue to function so well? By means of allowing unprincipled exceptions to itself. It is like a Communist government allowing one city to keep a market economy, so as to keep the whole system afloat.

Liberalism has also been defined, by Fr. Serafim Rose, as that which denies truth while still keeping the traditional outward forms of truth. Those outward forms are another manifestation of the unprincipled exception.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on October 31, 2003 7:58 PM

The nonliberal belief in racial set asides is denying people equal treatment. This seems explicit and contradicts the liberal belief of equality. So how can it be said that liberalism does not tolerate explicit nonliberal beliefs?

Posted by: P Murgos on November 1, 2003 1:58 AM

I meant to say “The liberal belief in racial set asides….”

Posted by: P Murgos on November 1, 2003 7:59 AM

Mr. Murgos wrote: “So how can it be said that liberalism does not tolerate explicit nonliberal beliefs?”

But no one has said that liberalism does not tolerate LEFTIST beliefs. And racial quotas are a leftist (not a conservative) position. While they are not liberal in the old sense of the word, and in fact contradict liberalism in the old sense, they are nevertheless liberal in the post-sixties, LBJ, sense: equality as a fact and as a result. If you define liberalism as the belief in progress toward ever greater substantive equality, then equal treatment under the law can be seen as one stage of liberalism, racial quotas another stage. That’s certainly the way contemporary liberals see it, though in reality contemporary liberals are leftists.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on November 1, 2003 8:15 AM

Is this accurate? Racial set-asides are a liberal unprincipled exception that liberals believe they one day can discard once the races are proportionately equal in intelligence and income or once there is only one race. The set-asides are a liberal commonsensical, unprincipled, end-justifies-the-means way of achieving their ultimate liberal principle of equality.

Posted by: P Murgos on November 1, 2003 8:22 AM

To the extent that racial set-asides are ‘nonliberal’ — I’ve never thought of them that way — wouldn’t this be an Unprincipled Exception practiced by (non)conservatives?

Posted by: Joel LeFevre on November 1, 2003 8:23 AM

Unprincipled exceptions are to be understood as a weak form of conservatism. They are exceptions to the liberal demand for complete equality and peace and unity and to the onward march of liberal progress. Thus Einstein was against all war, but when Hitler came along, he said, Hitler is so bad we have to fight him. He was against all nationalism, but when the existence of the Jews in Palestine was at stake he supported Israel. Thus the columnist Carl Rowen was for gun control, but kept a gun for his own self-defense. Thus the Declaration of Independence calls for complete freedom and equality and the overthrowing of all authority, but the Constitution establishes order and authority. Unprincipled exceptions are the way liberals and conservatives maintain a modicum of sanity and order which is denied by explicit liberal principles. The exceptions are not unprincipled in _themselves_, they are unprincipled in terms of _liberalism_. But because liberalism allows no non-liberal or non-leftist principles, the exception is deprived of any principled non-liberal sanction as well as of any formal liberal sanction. So, in the case of liberals, the unprincipled exception is a hypocritical violation of liberal principle; in the case of conservatives, it is the only permissible way under the liberal order that they can resist liberalism.

The unprincipled exception is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. It could be seen as the only form of good that is permitted in liberal society, though a weak and inadequate form to be sure, which in the long run cannot stand against the onward march of liberal equality, until each exception is gobbled up and civilization is destroyed.

By contrast, racial set-asides represent a further advance of egalitarian agenda, a move from liberalism toward leftism. They have nothing to do with the unprincipled exception.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on November 1, 2003 8:42 AM

Sorry, my browser was slow in catching up. Mr. Murgos is assuming that liberals are sincere in their belief that racial set-asides are temporary. But these ‘equalizing’ methodologies are really just a means for moving government further in the direction of complete socialism.

When Justice O’Connor’s arbitrary 25-year limit is reached, and the ‘equality’ sought for isn’t, they will be continued. Liberals have no intention of it being otherwise.

If it seems like an Unprincipled Exception (shouldn’t that be U.E.?) it is only in reference to ‘principles’ that were temporary steps toward the Left Turn at Albequerque. The whole civil rights movement reflected this — individual rights in colorblind fashion, then group privileges using white racism as the bogeyman.

This is the danger of the equality trap — extending the meaning to beyond ‘equal before the law.’ It is a way of increasing government intrusion into places it has no business involved in with a view toward asserting power over areas formerly moved by organic market forces or determined by free individuals. See the essay Equality Versus Liberty: The Eternal Conflict, by R. Carter Pittman —

Posted by: Joel LeFevre on November 1, 2003 8:47 AM

But it seems racial set-asides are explicitly allowed by liberals, are officially approved of by liberals such as Mr. Bush and all the Democratic candidates.

Posted by: P Murgos on November 1, 2003 10:15 AM

This renewal of the discussion of the unprincipled exception makes me realize that the U.E., far from being an idiosyncratic concept, casts light on every important aspect of liberalism. It shows:

- How liberalism keeps functioning despite its denial of truth and its internal incoherence;

- How liberalism keeps destroying more and more of the social order as each successive unprincipled exception is challenged and toppled;

- How conservatives resist liberalism while still functioning within the liberal order;

- How ordinary conservatism is an inadequate opposition to liberalism, namely because it is not based on any non-liberal principles;

- How liberalism and its destructiveness can only be stopped by non-liberal principles.

In sum, the unprincipled exception is a window into liberalism that shows the nature of liberalism, its operational structure, its development and evolution, its ultimate fate, and the only way to stop it.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on November 1, 2003 12:08 PM

To Mr. Auster’s list I would add:

- How liberalism destroys traditional forms of discriminating authority only to replace them with new nontraditional forms of discriminating authority.

The new forms of discriminating authority are neither traditional nor are they liberal strictly speaking, since liberal principles deny the validity of all forms of discriminating authority. Mr. Murgos’ example of racial set-asides is this latter sort of unprincipled exception - it is not a traditional authoritative discrimination because traditional authoritative discriminations based on race (e.g. the “right of free association”) have been replaced by new authoritative discriminations based on race (set asides, quotas, AA, antidiscrimination law, etc).

In reality of course no government functions without asserting discriminating authority. That is pretty much what we mean by government: that social institution which authoritatively (that is, backed by police, courts, etc) discriminates. So there are two phases of unprincipled exceptions to the liberal denial of discriminating authority. In the first phase the UE is a traditional discriminating authority that has not yet been eradicated by the ever-leftward dance. In the next phase it is not traditional, but is something new invented by liberals in a self-contradictory attempt to eliminate discriminating authority by asserting discriminating authority (which is necessary because in the end no society functions at all without a government, that is, discriminating authority).

A principled liberal always ultimately ends up an anarchist. Most actual liberals are teleological anarchists: they believe that once all the oppressor-untermenschen have been eliminated that the free and equal new man will reign supreme standing aside happy nature, both now unfettered by the slavish servitude to tradition that infects the untermenschen.

Posted by: Matt on November 1, 2003 10:29 PM

There is a caution of sorts embedded in my last comment:

There is a danger that conservatives will view today’s liberals as the oppressor-untermensch and fall into liberal modes of thought (I have argued elsewhere that this is precisely what happened to the Nazis). That is one reason why all kinds of assertions of equality ought to be eschewed, including assertions of “equality before the law”. Whatever someone happens to mean by “equality before the law” can *always*, if it is valid, be expressed in a way that does not invoke equality. I recommend that discipline to conservatives: forget about political equality entirely. Shake the dust off your boots!

Posted by: Matt on November 1, 2003 10:34 PM

“There is a danger that conservatives will view today’s liberals as the oppressor-untermensch and fall into liberal modes of thought (I have argued elsewhere that this is precisely what happened to the Nazis).”

I understand this part of what Matt wrote, the liberal-Nazi connection, perfectly — it’s what people mean when they caution conservatives who seem to teeter on the brink of genuine anti-Semitism to not fall into the general leftist ideology of Victimology, in this case with “the Jews” cast in the role of “oppressor” who needs to be eliminated and the gentiles in the role of poor helpless victims who will take over and live happily ever after once the oppressor is gotten out of the way.

But the next part I don’t quite get yet:

“That is one reason why all kinds of assertions of equality ought to be eschewed, including assertions of ‘equality before the law.’ Whatever someone happens to mean by ‘equality before the law’ can *always*, if it is valid, be expressed in a way that does not invoke equality. I recommend that discipline to conservatives: forget about political equality entirely. Shake the dust off your boots!”

Posted by: Unadorned on November 1, 2003 11:20 PM

Matt’s repudiation of equality makes sense to me up until he gets to the part about casting aside “equal before the law.” (I hope Matt will check out the essay I linked to above.) In this I agree with Unadorned.

This really needs to be explained more thoroughly. To me the concept reads that each citizen of a country is entitled to the same basic rights — freedom of speech and association, freedom of religion, trial by jury, against self-incrimination in a criminal case, to keep and bear arms, to acquire and defend property…

Obviously certain of these rights can be taken away if a person breaks certains laws, but that too applies to all.

It would be helpful if Matt could clarify the criteria he would use to grant these rights to some but not others — or whether he is referring to something different altogether, and if so what?

Posted by: Joel LeFevre on November 1, 2003 11:48 PM

Thanks to Matt for correcting me on something I missed. The U.E. does not just consist, as I said earlier, of non-liberal or traditional forms of authority; it consists of the non-traditional forms of authority with which the liberals replace the authorities they’ve destroyed. So, for example, liberals destroy the authority of parents and teachers over children, but then they come up with draconian “zero-tolerance” regimes. “Zero-tolerance” certainly isn’t traditional; it is, nevertheless, an unprincipled exception to liberal equality that is needed to prevent chaos. Various forms of politically correct tyranny are not traditional, yet, insofar as they represent a principal of discriminating authority, they remain an unprincipled exception to liberal equality.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on November 2, 2003 12:04 AM

To Unadorned and Mr. LeFevre I would point out that in the places where they are using the word “equal” it is superfluous.

Lets take Mr. LeFevre’s example of trial by jury. I could say “everyone has an equal right to a trial by jury”. Or without losing any meaning whatsoever I could say “Everyone has a right to a trial by jury” or even “in every criminal trial the authority to determine the facts of the case will reside in a jury”.

Tossing the word “equal” in there does not add any meaning that is not obtained without using it (and indeed it is not necessary to frame the principle in terms of “rights” at all). Furthermore, people don’t like what they say to be empty of meaning. This “equal” assertion has great social import and is viewed as being very important; so using it in a place where it adds no meaning is discursively unstable. People will naturally look for ways to assert a unique meaning to it. They will naturally try to find a way to differentiate “every criminal trial shall be decided by a jury” from “everyone has an equal right to a trial by jury”. “Equality” cannot be both meaningless and important at the same time.

So again, I assert two things in order to help flatten the leftist slippery slope back to level:

1) Whenever there is something valid to say, one can always and without exception say it without invoking “political equality”, and indeed without ever using the word “equality” or a synonym; and

2) Conservatives should self-consciously do exactly that: completely and comprehensively shun the use of the word “equality” in political discourse always and everywhere.

#2 will require a little work, though less than it seems at first. But it is work well worth the effort.

Posted by: Matt on November 2, 2003 8:58 AM

In regard to Matt’s “anti-equality argument, here is an excerpt from a useful discussion started by Matt when he criticized me for appealing to “equality under the law” as the value that was being destroyed by Grutter v. Bollinger. After going back and forth on the issue, I came to agree with him that there are better phrases than equality we should use. Equality feeds into the whole liberal dynamic that created the problem in the first place. We should just say, “same rules for everyone, period,” or “in this country, we reward people on the basis of abilities and accomplishments, period.” I don’t know that that approach would be adequate in all circumstances, but it is worth thinking about and worth attempting.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on November 2, 2003 9:16 AM

I concede pace Mr. Auster that my belief that the word “equality” can be shunned entirely in political discourse (other than when it is being criticized) is not something for which I have absolute proof. I’ve just never encountered a circumstance in which I couldn’t say what needed to be said without the word. Not-saying it tends to make us focus on particulars - e.g. “black citizens may not be explicitly excluded from elections based solely on their race” is what is sometimes meant by “everyone has the equal right to vote”. The latter, however, has a meaning-gradient that attempts to assert _more_ than the former even when it is invoked only to mean the former, and as a result of this meaning-gradient we end up with “one man, one vote” court decisions and racial gerrymandering. Note too that “explicitly” is a necessary qualifier because otherwise you are going to strap on skis and head down the disparate impact hill at full speed.

So every time you feel like you want to use the E-word out of discursive laziness it is better to step back for a moment and find a different way to say more precisely what it is that you want to say. I don’t always manage to do it even myself, but nevertheless I recommend it to everyone. If you are asserting something political (other than a criticism of equality) that _requires_ you to use the word “equality” then what you are saying is almost certainly invalid.

Posted by: Matt on November 2, 2003 10:29 AM

This discussion and these commentators (not me)are big reasons why this site is so valuable.

Posted by: P Murgos on November 2, 2003 3:36 PM

To Mr. Auster and Matt: After thinking on this further I conclude, thus far, that I can’t go along completely with the exclusion of the words “equal” or “equality.” I agree in general that the words should be invoked primarily in criticism — that is, of the Marxist/liberal concepts the words are now typically used to denote.

The problem here is that we have allowed another word to be seized upon and perverted. Equality in the abstract is something that the Founders, and nearly all of America, rejected until less than 50 years ago. It is now, since Gunnar Myrdal, considered ‘the American Creed.’ This we have to oppose, and can simply by affirming the true history.

But we cannot concede the words to liberals and simply retreat every time another term is misappropriated. The original phrase, which Mr. Jefferson misapplied, was that “all men are born equally free and independent.” George Mason wrote those words in his draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Nearly every one of our State constitutions — in fact 50%+ of the national constitutions of the world — draw from this document, using ‘equality’ according to Col. Mason’s wording. Only a small few (mostly Marxist) national constitutions affirm the concept of generic equality, (none of whom really practice it.)

The phrase, “equal before the law,” is from Aristotle. My point here is that the words are already present in a long legal history and tradition, and there’s nothing we can do about this. Matt’s insistence that we abandon them is simply not workable for this reason alone. The fact that they have been expropriated for reprehensible ends is cause for us to _reassert_ the true meaning, in the appropriate context, in a manner defined by us, consistent with how it was intended in ages past.

Matt suggests other phraseology to use in their place. But surely we should acknowledge that liberals are eminently capable of twisting and contorting ANY turns of phrase we employ! So do we then subsequently retreat from those as well and move to another and wait for a fresh assault? No. We should hold our ground and maintain the correct meaning and application of the words and phrases we use.

We don’t use “gay” to refer to homosexuals, but do we stop singing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” or “Deck the Halls”? The deadly march of liberalism involves an attack even on the meaning and application of words themselves! The modern ‘education’ system attempts to move away from Noah Webster’s classical definition of a word as having a fixed and precise meaning toward a view of words as being relative in their meaning and open to interpretation. There is then a battle over how we even understand the most fundamental units of communication, and THIS is a battle we dare not lose.

Traditionalists cannot be ostriches. We know what we mean when we talk about legitimate equality, and we know what we mean when we join John Adams in saying: “For honor’s sake … for truth and virtue’s sake, let American philosophers and politicians despise it.” It is essential that we hold our ground in BOTH cases.

Posted by: Joel LeFevre on November 30, 2003 11:39 PM

The presumption seems to be that political equality of all citizens is a good concept, or that there is a good traditionalist concept of equal rights that has been corrupted by liberalism. If that were the case then naturally an appropriate effort would be to recover and restore that good equality - perhaps Aristotle’s proto-equality, which doesn’t assert the equality of _all_ men but merely the peerdom of _some_ men within their own tier in the sociopolitical heirarchy and within certain particular contexts.

I don’t think that works. Flattening the political heirarchy to the single tier of “citizens” and insisting that all citizens have equal rights isn’t a liberal corruption of something good; it is liberalism itself. To be clear: if you believe that all citizens ought to have equal political rights then you are a liberal, full stop. If we want with Aristotle to acknowledge that formal peerdom exists that is all well and good, but once we make the existence of peerdom-qua-peerdom into a good to be pursued it is only a small step from that to demanding a form of universal political peerdom.

If we don’t want to be dominated by liberalism, we have to reject liberalism utterly. That means rejecting abstract political equal rights in all of their forms, everywhere and without exception. Legitimate peerdom is always a particular - and often temporary - arrangement, and cannot be - literally cannot rationally be - a basic principle of political organization.

Many patriotic Westerners do not want to acknowledge that just as original sin has been with any particular human being since birth (even the most innocent babe), liberalism - or at least the primordial origins of it - has been with Western civilization since the ideas of the Greeks met William of Ockham. Liberalism is the original sin of Western civilization. That is why when speaking of what to do next, the language of repentance is every bit as appropriate as the language of restoration.

Posted by: Matt on January 8, 2004 9:43 AM

Matt’s response is sounding more workable — slightly — at least if I’m understanding him correctly. He at any rate is apparently understanding my point at least. ;-)

But again, I am using the term in a very restricted and delimited context. (Aristotle also said that “Equality may exist only among slaves.”) I refer to ‘equal before the law’ as, for example, when any Citizen of our country is accused of a crime, he has the right to be tried before an impartial jury of his peers before an emancipated judge, regardless of who he his, how much money he has, and who his family connections are. (We all know that in practice this doesn’t always work out the way it’s supposed to, but it’s the goal we strive for and the baseline by which we judge a given particular.)

Does Matt disagree with my example? Should some Citizens enjoy this right but not others? If he agrees, then I don’t see how my definition is incompatible with his overall point; it comes down merely to semantics. (If he does NOT agree, then I think an explanation is in order.) ;-) But I argue that the term, for better or for worse, (but mostly the latter,) is too entrenched in our legal and civilizational history for a complete abandonment of it to be entirely workable.

If we abandon any long-standing term that can be corrupted or misused, what’s next? How about ‘rights’? That term has taken a beating. We hear of a ‘right’ to an abortion. But whether the law grants the ability for a woman to commit fetucide doesn’t make it a ‘right.’ It is, inherently, an act of usurpation. I would not acknowledge a ‘right’ to contraception or any number of things — but that does not mean that humans do not have rights! Rights that deserve to be acknowledged and protected.

Matt and I may not be as far apart as it might seem, though I can’t claim to understand all his points fully. Perhaps we have at least narrowed and identified the point of disagreement?

Posted by: Joel LeFevre on January 8, 2004 12:50 PM

Mr. LeFevre writes:
“I refer to ‘equal before the law’ as, for example, when any Citizen of our country is accused of a crime, he has the right to be tried before an impartial jury of his peers before an emancipated judge, regardless of who he his, how much money he has, and who his family connections are.”

This business about a very limited “equality before the law” always seems to be the sticking point in these discussions, inasmuch as most people appear think that it is a coherent concept and ought to be included in a traditionalist understanding of politics. Mr. LeFevre provides some details about what it means to him: basically a single procedural right to a trial by jury irrespective of social status or connections; a consistent applications of fixed laws and procedures in all law enforcement.

And it is here that “equal” and “consistent” are conceptually blended, as if “equal before the law” might simply mean “consistent, objective, and just”.

I don’t think that works, though. I’ve explained a number of times why, with little success because of either the obscurity of the concepts involved or because of my writing style, but I’ll give it another go.

First, lets acknowledge some things that Mr. LeFevre’s “equal before the law” proposition requires:

1) Criminal trial by jury as a universal procedure for all citizens;
2) The law always consistently applies whomever you may be as long as you are a citizen; and
3) No ex post facto legislation: the law at the time of your act is the law that applies in determining innocence or guilt.

What is more interesting, though, are some of the things that it does NOT imply:

1) The law itself need not treat people equally;
2) The law itself can define who has what specific rights, and indeed no two people will ever have the same specific rights;
3) The process of making the laws need not be equal.

So, for example, a dictatorship in which there was only one citizen, the dictator who makes all the laws and owns everything including his mass of slaves, can legitimately be said to embody that sort of “equality before the law”. This isn’t some sort of postmodern trick, an “oh you know what I mean stop being pedantic” moment. It is simply the intellectual truth about what formal equality does and does not entail.

So “equality before the law” has to mean something about the substantive arrangement of who is substantively the peer of whom in order to mean something that has consequences. As soon as one starts to think that equality demands something substantive about who is the peer of whom, though, it becomes incoherent; in fact it becomes that incoherent ideology which we call liberalism.

Mr. LeFevre asks:
“Does Matt disagree with my example? Should some Citizens enjoy this right but not others?”

I guess the problem is that I deny the legitimacy of the question: there are trials and there are trials; there are juries and there are juries; there are lawyers and there are lawyers. The requirements for a jury trial and an impartial judge who applies the law consistently are a limited sort of good some of the time; but not enough of a good, nor a universal enough good, to summarize with the word “equality” and act as though it is a basic principle of social justice. Basic principles of social justice have to apply to more than just outward appearance and formal procedures. To say “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” and then state that this equality means nothing more than a procedural right to a trial by jury is to equivocate; indeed it is the basic equivocation of political liberalism.

Conservatives who love America are always trying to find a minimalist way to interpret “equality before the law”; to find a way to avoid fundamental repentance from liberalism. They feel as though loving America and being loyal to her requires one to be just a little bit liberal. But as the Hegelian Mambo and the Unprincipled Exception show, being a little bit liberal is like being a little bit pregnant. You are either going to have the baby or have an abortion (see modern leftists and modern neocons, respectively).

To answer Mr. LeFevre’s pointed question quite directly: No, I do not think that justice demands equivalent procedures across all social classes in enforcing the law. If nobles are held to a higher standard that commoners that is, in my mind, to the good. A commoner thief might lose his hand whereas a noble thief his head, the former tried by jury and the latter in front of the king, without a fundamental violation of justice occurring.

Posted by: Matt on January 10, 2004 12:01 PM
Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember info?

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):