A Partial Apology for Liberalism, or, A Partial Criticism of its Critics

Before I begin, a note is warranted: I will be dropping a lot of names in this piece and I want to put you at ease before you have to deal with them. I don’t expect that any of my likely readers will be familiar with most of the people I mention and I am trying to write specifically so that you can still understand what’s going on without knowing who they are. Anything I need you to know about them, I will tell you myself. I will also provide links should I fail in this endeavour or should I succeed in piquing your interest, but I do not intend for you to rely upon them. That said, let’s begin.

A statue of the Godd of Democracy, holding a torch aloft, behind whom are evergreen branches.

The Goddess of Democracy at UBC. Source: Carl Mueller at flic.kr/p/5cNvQY

A few weeks ago I found Love of All Wisdom, the philosophy blog of Amod Lele. There’s a lot going on with Lele’s work that I find interesting and compelling. An academic philosopher with a PhD in the subject, he describes himself as working in the Aristotelian, Buddhist, and historicist traditions and his work is wide-ranging, bringing a huge variety of both Western and non-Western philosophers to a problem. (His header has pictures of his major influences: Santideva the Indian Buddhist philosopher, Aristotle the ancient Greek empiricist, Hegel the German historicist, Confucius the traditionalist communitarian, and Martha Nussbaum the contemporary academic philosopher.) He also uses a few different categorization schemes for philosophies, two of which he’s organized into a quadrant system that I am thinking of adopting: integrity vs. intimacy and ascent v. descent. (If I was still at my old blog, I’d add it to my Taxonomies of Religions list.) His thought is new to me, but I admire his precision, erudition, creativity, and seriousness–a rare combination of traits in a thinker.

Although I would love to just list the things I’ve learned from Lele, what I want to focus on for this post is where his ideas intersect with those of other people whose thought I’ve encountered lately, who explicitly reject the anthropology, and therefore politics, of liberalism.*

Elizabeth Breunig (nee Elizabeth Stoker) is perhaps the best example of such a person: economically leftist and socially conservative, she’s a socialist and a Roman Catholic who dropped out of a Theology PhD program to, among other things, be a mom. (Jane, her daughter, is almost as adorable as my own nephew and that’s a superhumanly high bar.) She is asked to attend various conferences and is widely considering an up-and-coming star of Roman Catholic ethics. Mostly she studies the economic and political theology of people like Augustine of Hippo, and she writes a lot on Twitter about classical liberalism–specifically, against it. You can see some of that in my annotated bibliography on libertarianism. Through her I also see a bit of the red Thomist Twitter: authoritarian-leftists who adhere to the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Among my friends, too, there are strong anti-liberal sentiments. These people are often secular socialists (perhaps even Marxists) and usually articulate their animosity as against neoliberalism, not simply liberalism… but the difference is negligible for my purposes here.

I am very sympathetic to these critiques. I agree with all of them that the atomistic individualism of the European Enlightenment is incorrect, metaphysically and anthropologically speaking; the moral and political visions that emerge out of that individualism are inherently flawed as a consequence. And although I strongly disagree with some of the religious conservatism that Breunig espouses, I am sympathetic to an attitude common to the traditional Christians that I read (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), that Western secularism lacks the tools to create the thick communities necessary for our psychological and sometimes physical well-being. (I’m not sure I can attribute this last concern to Breunig, however.)

Lately this sort of observation appears in relation to the Benedict Option. Eastern Orthodox Christian Rod Dreher believes that Christians have lost the culture wars and that liberal values have destroyed deep community relationships; he advocates that Christians therefore retreat into church-centred intentional communities to preserve Christianity during the coming Dark Ages. (The hyperbolic rhetoric is entirely Dreher’s.) While I, again, am skittish about the Ben Op’s religiously conservative pedigree, I share some of Rod Dreher et al’s concerns about social isolation and lack of community and I think non-liberal intentional communities are one place to begin. A great article about Rod Dreher and his Benedict Option appeared in the New Yorker; I think it does a good job of showing the attraction of the Ben Op while remaining skeptical of some of Dreder’s specific claims and calls.

Altogether then, to recap, I’ve been seeing a rejection of liberalism from a few different angles recently and I tend to agree.

But I read something in Amod Lele which articulated quite well a concern I had about these rejections of liberalism (one I think shared by Voltaire Panda based on the last time we met, but I can’t say for sure). I am going to block-quote a huge chunk of it because I think the whole thing is worth engaging:

The vast majority of us are liberals […], including the conservatives. With the intellectual resources currently available to us, to reject this ubiquitous liberalism in toto is difficult; it typically requires either turning to some form of Marxism as a move to a future beyond liberalism (as MacIntyre has at various times been tempted to do), or innovating through conservatism and fully embracing a pre-liberal tradition, such as the Thomistic Catholicism that MacIntyre himself embraced.

There are two problems with MacIntyre’s rejection of liberalism. First, how much of liberalism is MacIntyre really prepared to give up? Elections of chief government officials? Toleration of differences of belief and opinion? Women’s equal participation in public life? Aquinas supported none of these things, after all. It is disingenuous to advocate a pre-liberal view without either proclaiming why you have embraced these elements of the liberalism you profess to disdain, or biting the bullet and publicly admitting you accept views that most of those around you would deem horrific.

Alisdair MacIntyre, with whom Lele is arguing, has also been a strong influence on Lele recently if Love of All Wisdom is anything to go by; MacIntyre is also the one who wrote the book from which Rod Dreher took the phrase “the Benedict option,” so I hope you’ll see that the connection between these ideas precedes me.** As you can probably tell Alisdair MacIntyre (the leading living proponent of a school of philosophy called virtue ethics and from what I can tell a current darling of intellectual Catholics) rejects liberalism. His reasoning is probably sound. And yet Lele is right: MacIntyre and those who agree with him need to explain whether, and (I hope) why, they endorse ideas like electoral democracy, freedom of conscience, and women’s role in the public sphere, even though those ideas appear to be liberal and not Thomist ones.

Dreher might have an easy out: he says conservatives have lost the culture war and so there’s no way for them to dictate politics and policy anyway. That’s why they are going to live in their enclaves. But anyone who’s trying to influence politics and policy had probably better explain why they hold any liberal ideas they still hold. At least, I’d love it if those red Thomists would put my mind at ease about their “tbh burn all Protestants” jokes; I’d also love it if the more respectable Roman Catholic socialists would clarify what they mean when they advocate against the separation of religion and politics. Of course we should stop pretending religious convictions don’t inform political ones, but the official separation of church and state is a liberal ideal: in rejecting liberalism, would someone like Breunig prefer to see Roman Catholicism become a state religion in her home country, one to which the Presidency is perhaps answerable?

I can anticipate an answer of sorts from someone like MacIntyre or someone like Breunig: liberalism is the child of Christianity. Those various elements I’d like to preserve–democracy, freedom of conscience, women’s suffrage–are children of Christianity as well, they might say. This idea is well observed, I think, but the most salient example is Lele’s own discussion of the matter in the post I quoted. Still, this isn’t a good answer: even though liberalism is a child of Christianity, MacIntyre rejects it. What’s to say he won’t also reject democracy, say, or freedom of conscience, even if they emerged first from Christianity, not liberalism? Again, he advocates a return to Thomist Christianity in particular, which didn’t endorse suffrage at all, let alone women’s suffrage.

Neither do I think I can let the secular socialists, whether communist or anarchist, off the hook on this account. They do have the advantage of being post-liberal; those rights and freedoms are at least part of their genealogy. But in rejecting liberalism it would be best to explain what parts of liberalism are being rejected and what parts retained. I’m not sure it’s any less disingenuous to advocate a post-liberal view without either proclaiming why you have embraced these elements of the liberalism you profess to disdain, or biting the bullet and publicly admitting you accept views that most of those around you would deem horrific, to barely rephrase Lele.

Now, I can’t rightly expect anyone else to do what I haven’t done myself and my excuse (that I’m still working these ideas out) is one I need to extend to others. But a) it seems that some people, like MacIntyre, have had plenty of opportunity to work their ideas out and might be fairly held to a higher standard and b) it seems that some people, whether they’ve had the opportunity to work their ideas out or not, are much more vocal and specific about them and might be expected to explain these things in proportion to their ambitions for public persuasion. I’ll have to leave it to you to figure out who counts where, but I’m pretty sure I fit under neither.

I’m pretty sure I fit under neither category, but I will still provide a brief sketch:

At bottom, I do value people as individuals, and I do value the good of people over the good of the community (or the nation or the class). Of Haidt’s moral foundations, I would identify most strongly with Care, Fairness, and Freedom; while I value them in that order, it is a near thing. So perhaps I am in some sense an individualist–but I am not, in any sense, an atomist. I believe that we can attain these three goods only in well-ordered communities, that ordering a community well involves curbs on various freedoms, and that relationships are not only a component of a person’s well-being but are also a component of a person’s agency. Therefore humans are not, and cannot be, isolated actors. However, although I think certain freedoms must be curbed, that can only be done in service of greater freedoms, fairness, and care. Epistemologically, we can make some generalizations about freedoms that inhibit all other goods (ie. private ownership of land, private use of automotive vehicles) and so we can abolish those freedoms broadly, but in most or many cases these decisions are best made locally or by the individuals involved. I say this because the harms and benefits are finely balanced in most situations: the best answer may be different even in situations which look superficially similar so whoever makes the decision must be familiar with that situation. Perhaps this is properly post-liberal: liberalism’s internal contradiction (atomistic actors who can affect one another) can only be resolved by something alien and perhaps horrible to liberalism, but nonetheless that system is derived from the same fundamental concerns as its parent. Some of the features of liberalism are therefore lost (freedom to own property, for example, though I’d argue private property is intrinsically a curb on freedom and not the maintenance of one) while others are maintained (freedom of conscience). Enshrining a small number of these freedoms as rights is the best way we have of preventing decision-makers from curbing freedoms too much; these rights are a political and legal fiction but they must be respected as much as possible because the temptations to ignore them are too high.

At least, this is how I’ve usually explained it to myself; I may be more a product of my environment than I know, of course.

In summary, as a critic of liberalism, I would like to see other critics of liberalism explain which features of liberalism they maintain and why they maintain them. If nothing else, I could rest assured they do not want to install a theocracy or to abolish freedom of assembly for political enemies.

* By liberalism I mean the intellectual tradition following the Enlightenment which prioritizes the individual, enshrines a system of rights and freedoms, and typically insists on the validity and necessity of private property; it includes most small-c conservatives as well as most small-l liberals, but it doesn’t usually include socialists, and it is probably best exemplified by the Western literary and film genre. Lele describes it like this:

I take liberalism to mean that modern political philosophy which takes the concepts of liberty, equality and democracy as among the highest values a state can aspire to – probably with some degree of support for a capitalist economy with varying elements of government intervention (at least preferring it for the moment to any other form of economic organization that has been tried).

** The post I’m quoting from is called “The methodological MacIntyre and the substantive MacIntyre,” but don’t let that title scare you away; Lele’s on to something when he says he finds MacIntyre’s way of doing philosophy valuable and true even when he finds MacIntyre’s actual answers to problems unconvincing. I haven’t read a word by MacIntyre so I should be careful when approving this idea; still, I’ve read lots of words about MacIntyre and they always seemed to be about the substantive MacIntyre’s love of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. I’m really glad to have this opportunity to read about the methodological MacIntyre’s ideas.


One thought on “A Partial Apology for Liberalism, or, A Partial Criticism of its Critics

  1. Thank you! I appreciate the kind words about my work, and it’s always a pleasure to see others enjoy it and spread the word.

    Alasdair MacIntyre (three As, by the way) is well worth your reading. After Virtue, his best-known book, is not the one whose arguments I am most in sympathy with, but it’s a good one to start with because it’s engagingly written, with a sometimes biting wit. If you like what you find, pick up one of the later books, which are drier but at some level more profound. (I am currently reading Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, which just came out last year, and am finding it actually goes some ways toward answering the criticisms I made in the post you’re referring to.)


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