The unprincipled exception defined

Recently, VFR readers and others have been introducing the concept of the unprincipled exception into online forums. While there are many articles by me that touch on the subject from a variety of angles (the key articles are listed here), there is a need for a short definition and reasonably concise explanation of this sometimes difficult concept.


The unprincipled exception is a non-liberal value or assertion, not explicitly identified as non-liberal, that liberals use to escape the inconvenient, personally harmful, or suicidal consequences of their own liberalism without questioning liberalism itself.

Alternatively, the unprincipled exception is a non-liberal value or assertion, not explicitly identified as non-liberal, that conservatives use to slow the advance of liberalism or to challenge some aspect of liberalism without challenging liberalism itself.


Modern liberalism stands for principles of equality and non-discrimination which, if followed consistently, would make a decent life in this world, or any life at all, impossible. But modern liberal society does not permit the public expression of non-liberal principles, by which rational limits to equality and non-discrimination, or indeed the very falsity of these ideas altogether, can be articulated. This fact forces liberals continually to make exceptions to their own liberalism, without admitting to themselves and others that they are doing so. Such exceptions must take inchoate, non-conceptual, pre-rational forms, such as appeals to brute self-interest, to the need to respond to a pressing emergency, or to common sense. For example, liberals who want to escape from the negative consequences of their liberal beliefs in a given instance will often say that the application of a liberal idea in that instance “goes too far,” without their indicating by what principle they distinguish between an idea that has gone “too far” and one that hasn’t. In fact, it’s purely a matter of what suits their own comfort level and convenience.

Conservatives also must have recourse to the unprincipled exception, but for a different reason than the liberals. Liberals are seeking to escape the negative consequences of their own liberalism. Conservatives, of course, actively oppose liberalism, or, rather, they oppose some aspects of liberalism. But, because the conservatives live in modern liberal society, where principled opposition to liberalism is not allowed, and also because the conservatives themselves subscribe to liberalism and are not prepared to think outside its concepts, the conservatives’ only available means of opposing some aspects of liberalism is by unprincipled exceptions, such as appealing to common sense, or to the shared unreflective habits of society, or saying, “That’s just the way things are,” or asserting that a particular liberal belief is “silly” or “stupid” or “extreme.” These methods allow conservatives to find fault with various symptoms of liberalism, without attacking liberalism per se.

For example, a conservative might advocate the exclusion of Muslim jihadists from U.S. immigration, or the ethnic profiling of Muslims in airport security checks. But he will not challenge, or, indeed, even mention, the underlying liberal belief in non-discrimination that compels us to admit Muslim jihadists in the first place and that requires us to avoid ethnic profiling of Muslims. Instead he will make a non-conceptual appeal to common sense: we’ve got a really serious problem here, we can’t continue admitting these people into America, we can’t continue checking babies and old ladies in airports instead of focusing on young Muslim men, we’ve got to do something. And if there arises a social consensus at that point that the problem is indeed great enough to warrant an exception to the liberal rule (and such a consensus began to emerge regarding ethnic profiling of Muslims in the aftermath of the foiled attack on trans-Atlantic airliners in August 2006, when even liquids and books began to be banned from planes), then this opinion will become an accepted position, without the principle of non-discrimination that led us to the absurdity of admitting jihad-supporters into the West and of prohibiting ethnic profiling of Muslims in airports ever coming into view. Thus the excesses of liberalism that are intolerably costly and dangerous can be corrected, without the liberalism that led to those excesses being criticized or even becoming an object of consciousness, and without the conservatives who carried out the act of correction appearing as anti-liberal.

The above does not apply to all conservatives in all situations. There are many instances where a conservative argues against a liberal position on the basis of principle. But even these relatively more serious conservatives will tend to oppose only some particular aspect of liberalism, not liberalism as such. For example, there are conservatives who make good arguments against putting military women into combat or quasi-combat assignments, but they never challenge the underlying sexual integration of the military of which the placing of women in combat is the inevitable result. There are conservatives who make good, articulate arguments against same-sex “marriage,” but they never question the general idea of equal freedom that has led many people to support same-sex marriage.

What the above suggests is that the unprincipled exception is only a holding action against liberalism, a form of foot-dragging. This is because liberalism, with its principled demand for the elimination of all discrimination, keeps becoming more and more comprehensive and extreme in its goals, sweeping aside the remaining unprincipled exceptions to itself until everything non-liberal has been prohibited and the society is destroyed.

Under the rule of modern liberalism, both liberals and conservatives must resort to the unprincipled exception to contain the excesses of liberalism, even though the UE, being non-rational and lacking a principle, is ultimately impotent and cannot save them. They will go beyond the unprincipled exception only when they are free to express non-liberal concepts. To put it another way, liberalism, an all-encompassing belief system that prohibits any rationality other than its own insane rationality, forces people to be irrational in order to fend off liberalism’s intolerable consequences. The mission of traditionalism is to engage in and legitimize rational opposition to liberalism, its ultimate aim being the end of liberal rule over society and the restoration of our humanity.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 14, 2006 11:00 AM | Send

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