The Origin of Liberal Values

Within western society, popular morality has converged increasingly upon a kind of cultural liberalism. Within this article, I will be considering the nature and origin of liberal values. I will begin by demonstrating that liberal values are unusual, that they stand out as an anomaly when compared with other moral systems. I will then try to account for their recent popularity within western culture and make some tentative suggestions about what the future might hold.

Inner Workings

What exactly is distinctive about liberal values which set them apart as a value system? The first aspect worth considering is individualism. Namely, liberal values tend to prioritise the individual over the group. Take for instance the issue of divorce. Many moral systems will seek to place restrictions on divorce, in order to uphold social ideals about the value of marriage for society. Those advocating liberal values, by contrast, will always prefer a situation in which the individual is free to go against society if they wish, and thus will tend to favour easy divorce in most situations.

Another aspect worth considering is self-expressivism. What I mean by this is the notion that a person should be free to express themselves however they please and that others should respect this self-expression. An obvious contemporary example of this is the casual attitude towards swearing and profanity in modern society. More traditional moral systems tend to discourage such expressions, outside of certain exceptional arenas (such as comedy).

Together, these two aspects represent what we have in mind when we speak about liberal values. And for better or worse, western society has increasingly embraced such values, at the expense of more traditional cross-cultural values such as loyalty or respect for authority.

Moral Foundations

Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has identified five moral foundations which together form the pillars of most traditional moral systems.[1] These are:

  • Care
  • Fairness
  • Loyalty
  • Authority
  • Sanctity

One of Haidt’s most insightful observations is that unlike more traditional moral frameworks which tend to reason in terms of all five pillars, social liberals tend to only use the first two in their moral reasoning. Haidt found through extensive interviews that social liberals were often unable to understand conservative arguments, whereas social conservatives were able to understand liberal arguments. This is explained by appeal to the five pillars above. If social liberals are only using two of the above pillars in their moral reasoning, it makes sense that they wouldn’t be able to construct an argument which uses all five.

What’s notable about the first two values (Care, Fairness) is that they tend to be oriented around the individual, whereas the last three values (Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity) tend to be oriented around the group. This fits with our earlier observation about liberal values being more individualistic in character.

Technology and Society

So we’ve noted that liberal values are unusual when compared with most other moral frameworks. But none of this explains how it is that western society has increasingly drifted in a liberal direction. Some have suggested ideological influences as the reason for the shift, with appeals to neo-Marxism or Postmodernism being prominent. The problem with such an approach is that it’s based on a view of history which prioritises ideas over environmental influences.

A far better approach would be to consider the ways in which modern technology has shaped society. Two main technologies which have undeniably been a factor in driving society in a more individualistic direction are modern transport (especially the car) and screens (especially the television and the personal computer).[2]

The reason why modern transport had such a significant influence on our culture is the fact that it caused sprawl. In the past when it was hard to get to different places, people needed to have everything around them. So you had houses, shops, workplaces and so on all grouped together into small towns or villages. In the new world created by cars and buses, people could now travel much further for work, shopping or leisure and so large complexes were created in different locations, such as residential complexes, shopping malls or industrial units. This is sprawl – the re-organisation of space into differentiated units.

There were several effects caused by this fragmentation of place. The first was the lack of a sense of belonging. Once these various spheres of life are separated out, people have less of a sense of identity in a particular place and less of a personal investment in it. The second is the increased time spent commuting to work, to college and so on. This saps away time from people’s lives which they might have previously spent invested in their local communities.

The second key technology which I have alluded to is screens. With the introduction of televisions into most people’s homes, people have spent less and less time involved in their local communities. With the advent of video games and personal computers, these trends have continued to develop. And with the growth of the internet and social media enabled by tablets and smartphones, people have become even more disconnected from their communities than ever before.

This also plays into the second aspect of liberal culture mentioned at the start, namely self-expressivism. Without the sense of a place or a community to which a person belongs, they need some other form of identity which can transcend their various social contexts. Instead of being able to rely upon an identity which is given from outside, identity has to become something which is constructed and expressed from within. This is particularly the case on social media, in which a person’s profile is a carefully crafted and highly customised form of identity. This is a very different understanding of personal identity than that of more traditional societies.

The Future

What implications do the current Covid-19 restrictions have for the future of cultural liberalism? Considering the first technological factor, transport, there has already been an enormous shift, and one which will have a significant impact in the years ahead. With many working from home and being more restricted in their travel, people are already experiencing freedom from the commute, with the success of a remote working culture made possible through newer technology. Given this, I expect that there will be a slight drift away from the prior fragmentation of place brought about by the creation of modern forms of transport.

However, much of the extra available time has been soaked up by other, screen-based technological innovations, such as television streaming services, video games and social media. The screen probably has more dominance in western culture today than it has ever enjoyed before. So in the short to medium term, a radical shift away from the current cultural consensus appears unlikely.

How should the church respond to all of this? One way would be to conform, to rebrand Christianity as just another kind of self-expressive identity designed to appeal to the individual consumer. Another way is to retreat, to become like the Amish in resisting all forms of modern technology and to live a separatist lifestyle. Clearly the only realistic approach is some kind of middle way, a way which embraces the benefits of modern technology, but is not unaware of the affects that it can have upon not only the wider culture but also the lives of believers.


[1] See the following TED talk by Jonathan Haidt, in which he discusses the moral foundations and their relevance for modern political discussions: https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_the_moral_roots_of_liberals_and_conservatives?language=en

[2] See this excellent four-part series, drawing on the work of political scientist Robert Putnam, which considers the various ways in which technology has transformed society, from the perspective of church decline: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2018/05/09/death-of-the-church-4-todd-dildine/

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