Shawn’s and Ethan’s posts on radicals and liberals pointed out to me a dynamic that extends to political philosophy. Even in the alleged purity of the ivory tower, liberals occupy a similarly centrist position. To recap, the sort of dynamic I observed in their posts was that radicals accused liberals of pursuing courses of action that inadequately served various lefty* concerns.
While I would grant that liberalism as political philosophy does not map exactly onto liberal as a grouping in contemporary American discourse, I cannot help but note the parallels.
I will like to give a rough outline of what liberalism looks like in academia. This is not to give a normative or linguistic criterion of liberalism, but just to try as best as I can to give a brief survey of the field. Liberalism refers to a range of views ranging from a more right of centre libertarianism and classical liberalism to a more left of centre high or sometimes called left liberalism. These ranges of views all share some central features
They all provide some kind of priority, though not necessarily a strict or lexical priority to some traditional list of basic liberties such as conscience, association, speech as well as freedom of occupation and to some limited private property rights in so far as they concern personal possessions. With very few exceptions, academic liberal theorists are sceptical of group rights, though they do not necessarily subscribe to any substantive underlying individualism. Liberalism also makes a distinction between private and public where it is the latter which is appropriately governed by justice. As a whole, liberalism is only weakly paternalistic. Not all liberalisms are paternalistic, but those that are do not consider it acceptable to coerce people in order to benefit them in ways that they would not count themselves benefited. Thus liberal paternalism limits itself to coercively helping people achieve goals that they themselves acknowledge as worth pursuing, but does not treat coercion of people to achieve goals that they do not accept as being any kind of paternalism at all. Liberalism in general also tends to have a stronger commitment to the rule of law.
This scepticism of group rights and the maintenance of the public private distinction have elicited criticism from both the left and the right. Today, the latter does not really concern us. I will just focus on the former.
One common feminist criticism of liberalism is that it fails to provide a critique of the family. Liberal views tend to give patriarchal norms in the family a pass. Feminists contend that one of the things that prevent women from achieving parity with men is that girls are often socialised to occupy traditional gender roles. Thus, patriarchal family structures are unjust. Yet, liberalism seems to tacitly accept those structures as permissible.
One communitarian complaint is that the liberal insistence on strict separation between state and substantive values undermines the pre-conditions of meaningful choice. The communitarian argues that choices are only meaningful given particular background conditions. For example, if a person is raised being taught that the he or she ought to acquiesce to parental choice over their future spouse, the fact that they are not subsequently coerced does not mean that they meaningfully chose such a way of life. Only if that person has encountered different ways of living and has had to opportunity to adequately deliberate over all options in an informed manner is the choice meaningful. Thus the state should counter-indoctrinate children in ways that makes them conscious of the choices available to them. (Note: philosophical liberalism usually is leery of such state endorsement of conceptions of the good)
The multicultural critique of liberalism argues that a liberal order insufficiently provides for the continued maintenance and support of minority groups. While there are liberal versions of multiculturalism, they do not require enforcement of group rights. Any valid multiculturalist claims are usually subsets of individualist rights claims which everyone shares. Those claims merely take on different a different form due to particular contexts. More radical multiculturalists suppose that there are valid rights claims that people have in virtue of belonging to a minority group which are not necessarily reducible to rights claims that everyone has. Since liberalism does not acknowledge such claims, liberalism is insufficiently multiculturalist.
Some kinds of perfectionist critiques of liberalism charge that liberalism tolerates too much vice among persons. Rights to speech and association permit racist and sexist associations to persist. Perfectionists argue that suppressing hate speech is different from the suppression of anti-racist speech. The latter is liberating whereas the former perpetuates oppressive social structures. This follows from the basic fact that there has been an entrenched history of discrimination and oppression of women and minorities. Thus, permitting such speech as liberal regimes do perpetuates and contributes to injustice.
The argument between civic republicanism and liberalism has to do with their definition of liberty. Civic republicanism traditionally conceived of liberty as non-domination while liberalism conceived of it as non-interference. More importantly, civic republicanism developed their idea of liberty in such a way that coercing someone for their own good was not really coercion. To whit, republicanism sees the political relationships between persons and groups as primary. To illustrate, suppose a slave owner had many slaves whom he could abuse but didn’t. In fact, he pretty much let them do whatever they wanted including own property. Civic republicanism alleges that liberalism which conceives of liberty as non-interference should see the slaves’ situation as very nearly unproblematic. I.e. they are much freer than slaves whose master constantly interferes with them. To extend this to the political realm imagine that a colony that is benignly neglected by its colonial masters. The laws are such that important (non-interference) liberties are protected. Suppose, however, there is a rebellion and the colony attains self rule, but it chooses to institute laws which interfere with people’s rights to speech and association or with their personal liberties. The civic republican wishes to argue that the liberal is obligated to see this as a worse state of affairs than before. However, according to the republican this is counterintuitive. To be clear, the civic republican says that the political liberties are not only intrinsically important, they are more important than the personal liberties. The tendency for liberals to treat political liberties as at most just as important as personal and other civic liberties is seen as a mistake. In addition, civic republicanism does tend towards a kind of paternalism in which coercion is justified if it is in the service of the coerced genuine interests (as opposed to his merely apparent ones) i.e. illiberal paternalism is justified at least some of the time.
Similar to many of the above critiques, egalitarians may see liberalism as insufficiently egalitarian. Because liberalism eschews consciously cultivating and promulgating a social ethos, larger inequalities are needed to provide the kinds of incentives necessary to improve the wellbeing of the worst off. Socialists like Jerry Cohen argue that it is selfish of people to insist on developing their talent only when they can expect outsized rewards. They should be willing to do difficult and complicated work out of fellow feeling of fraternity with their fellow citizens. If the state cultivated such an egalitarian ethos, a lot less in the way of incentives would be necessary to get people to do the required work. This means that the same social product can be distributed in a more egalitarian way.
This gives us a rough picture of where liberalism situates itself with respect to these other doctrines. Thus, we can roughly see why liberalism, even in ideal circumstances is not going be maximally feminist or egalitarian, multiculturalist, republican or for that matter anti-racist.
At this point, many of you may be tempted to say “so much the worse for liberalism”. However, this is mistaken. Even if these are accurate criticisms of liberalism, this fails to understand what liberalism really is about. Of course, what liberalism is really about is itself disputed. The liberalisms of Locke, Kant and Mill were comprehensive liberalisms. They rested on deep philosophical views about the nature of persons or of autonomy or of what were people’s genuine obligations. They didn’t just argue for political autonomy (as in the securing of various rights and liberties in the public sphere) they argued that people should embrace these ideals in their personal lives as well. They thought that over time, free discussion and public deliberation would get everyone to see that those ideals were worth embracing on a personal level as well.
Unfortunately, this has not been the case. The actual practice of human reasoning unconstrained by social and political obstacles does not lead to agreement about such matters, but an even greater and more extensive disagreement. Increased state indoctrination and coercion is required to maintain agreement about conceptions of the good (and for that matter, justice as well) It is this post-modern insight that fuels what I shall call the political turn.
The basic question that political liberals ask is how everyone in a pluralistic society can minimally endorse a conception of justice in spite of their fundamental differences in outlook. The importance of the question becomes clearer once we note that our basic political problems can all be broken down into people advancing mutually incompatible claims on one another and thereby also advancing claims on our basic social institutions. To illustrate, when I advance a claim on what my neighbour is to do, I am simultaneously advancing a claim on the basic structure to have a rule that requires my neighbour’s actions to comply with my wishes. Similarly when my neighbour makes a counter claim over what he is to do, he is making a claim on the basic structure for a rule that prevents me from having control over his actions. But, the rule cannot be both ways simultaneously. The question of what social rules (especially the formal ones) should be like is precisely what theories of justice over at least the past three hundred years are aimed at answering.
The crucial problem here is that it is extremely unlikely that people will agree on fundamental moral values. Telling people to do the right thing is also insufficient as they disagree on what the right thing to do is. As a purely practical problem, we cannot invoke the idea that my conception of the good is correct and true and that yours is wrong and that therefore the rules that favour my conception should be the ones we all follow. Simply by symmetry, the other party may claim the converse: that his conception of the good is correct and that the rules should reflect that. How do we break such a deadlock? To find rules that are second or third best, but still good enough for everyone. One further consideration in favour of rules acceptable to everyone is that these are more stable. If a certain kind of society will not persist indefinitely** even under favourable but realistic conditions, then it is not a possible society at all. If ought implies can, then societies which cannot persist are not the kind which we should strive towards. But what kinds of rules are acceptable to everyone?
The answer (which I will not argue for because the derivation is long and complex) that is given is that there is some set of liberal orders which will be acceptable to everyone regardless of their conceptions of the good and of justice so long as they are willing to accept regimes which do not maximally accord with their values. So long as everyone is willing to settle for “good enough” this set of liberal regimes is jointly a Nash equilibrium. While society may move between different liberal regimes, it will not, absent some external invasion and occupation, become illiberal.
We can even intuitively see why a liberal regime would be good enough for everyone. Firstly, the priority liberal regimes give to the basic liberties ensures that everyone (or almost) is free to pursue their conceptions of the good to some adequate extent. There are few formal limits except on the more murderous and rapine conceptions. At the same time, a liberal regime should be able to offer most people, over their lifetimes, an adequate chunk of resources and opportunities to fulfil a significant amount of their life-plans. In addition, while liberal regimes do not coerce people into following some vision of collective life, it does not prevent people from convincing others to join in such collective endeavours. Feminists for example can convince other people to structure their families in a more gender egalitarian fashion and they can themselves structure their own families in any way they like.
That a basic structure is liberal is a necessary but not necessarily sufficient condition for knowing that it is stable under realistic but favourable conditions. What this means is that illiberal societies don’t even make the cut.
There are a number of implications for politics.
First, of course, we note that those who occupy the centre do not always propose policies that accord with any principled version of liberalism. Clearly holding their feet to the fire is permissible and even obligatory. But this of course requires recognising where the hard limits are and what kinds of regimes are unacceptable and what kind are merely imperfect according to our own view. I don’t have the space to explore further here, but this is not an insurmountable theoretical task.
The second point is that it is going to be the case that some liberal regimes are more suited for some societies while other kinds of liberal regimes are more suited for others. Certainly it is not necessarily wrong to move within the space of acceptable liberal regimes to search for the one that the best suits the society, but not at the cost of an illiberal regime winning out.
The third point is that this search for a widely acceptable regime is a kind of public justification. When radicals are unable to publicly justify their favoured rules, they should perhaps think twice about their goals. If they are impracticable, their moral force disappears. i.e. the automatic assumption that it is the radicals who have the moral high ground is not sustainable.
*I mean this in the most non-pejorative sense. Honest!
**excepting the sun blowing up on us, sudden extinction events, or the heat death of the universe
[edited to correct a typo that made what I was saying the opposite of what I meant to say]