Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Liberalism vs community?

I've just begun reading Liberalism & Community by Steven Kautz. He is an Associate Professor of Politics at Michigan State University.

The book is a reply to those who have criticised liberalism for undermining community. Admittedly, I've only read the first chapter, but so far I've been more disconcerted than persuaded by the way Kautz puts his argument.

I'm going to quote some sections of the text and then briefly comment underneath, beginning with this admission by Kautz:

We have been taught by our classical liberal ancestors to think of ourselves as free individuals above all, rather than as children or parishioners or citizens, or as members of a racial or ethnic group - or, indeed, as members of any other communities. (p.19)


I'm still astonished that people can think this way and build a politics on such an understanding of life. Kautz is happy to support a liberalism in which we become "free" to the extent that we diminish the role in our lives of communities. Kautz thinks of "freedom" as the highest good, and he identifies communities as a threat or hazard to this freedom.

Such a perspective makes no sense if you think of people as social creatures, whose lives are naturally embedded in distinct communities. In this view, freedom is something that is achieved within a society and not against it.

Kautz is aware of such objections. He goes on to quote some communitarian critics of the liberal outlook:

But this idea of the free individual is based on a confusion, say its critics: one's deepest attachments to other human beings are not freely chosen, adopted, and then discarded like articles of clothing, but are given prior to such choices and "partly define the person I am" ...

Indeed, the human being who overcomes such "constitutive" attachments is not liberated, but is rather, says Sandel, "wholly without character, without moral depth"; an honorable human being must surely "feel the moral weight" of these primary loyalties.


The criticisms here are quite good. Liberalism holds that to be free we must be self-defining, self-determining individuals. But much of what is most significant in our lives is unchosen, including our communal identity and a great part of our family commitments. If we lose this unchosen aspect of life, then we will be poorer in our sense of ourselves and our place within a community.

Kautz seems to take this criticism seriously. He therefore sets out to prove that the asocial, "free" liberal individual can also stake a claim to "moral depth":

All of this is undoubtedly partly true: the liberal idea of the free individual too often, in liberal practice, produces eccentric, passive, lonely individuals. But it is perhaps not exhaustive.

Even for contemporary admirers of community, praise of the loyal and devoted citizen is commonly tempered by an awareness of the moral gravity of those who contributed to liberalism's past and present victories over intolerant and oppressive communities: moral freedom may require rebellion against moral community.

Those free individuals who secured for themselves, and for us, the blessings of liberty, even at the price of rebellion against a father or a priest or a prince, are perhaps not wholly "without moral depth," but deserve both our admiration and our gratitude: the truly free human being possesses a moral dignity that at least rivals the dignity of a human life that is animated by love or piety or patriotism.


Once again, Kautz, the defender of classical liberalism, writes of community as a kind of natural competitor against, or even enemy of, freedom. He even contrasts the "truly free human being" with the human being animated "by love or piety or patriotism".

I don't like Kautz's radically individualistic "truly free human being". I don't even think he is all that free - what, after all, is his freedom for, once he becomes asocial and discards membership of a distinct community and tradition, and once he steps aside from a life animated "by love or piety or patriotism"? Isn't it better to be free to participate in the greater aspects of life, rather than to discard them in order to be an autonomous loner?

7 comments:

  1. I know I'm going only by what you've excerpted, but he's trying to manipulate non-liberals (how many of us are there, really?) into liberalism. He makes a concession:

    "All of this is undoubtedly partly true: the liberal idea of the free individual too often, in liberal practice, produces eccentric, passive, lonely individuals. But it is perhaps not exhaustive."

    so that non-liberal readers will, out of politeness of civil discussion, be inclined to make a concession in return. That's when he slips in the gnostic bit about the "truly free individual"--having secured for us the "blessings of liberty" (pulling on our patriotic American heartstrings)--having a "moral dignity"

    Hmm, yes, I'm convinced. I, too, would like to be a rootless nihilist. And I can maintain my moral depth! Sanctimony is more likely...

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  2. Why not apply Kautz's sensible "moral freedom may require rebellion against moral community" to the established modern liberal code and start there?

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  3. There's a community better than your pathetic white enclave, and it's based on workers.
    You are impoverished when it comes to identifications, so much so that you look to pathetic nationalist and ethnic stereotypes.

    There are other categories. When you learn of them, and develop some kind of moral compass in the meantime, then please start expressing your extremist views.

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  4. Thr, it's curious to be told by a Marxist to develop a moral compass. The line taken by Marxist leaders in the twentieth century was that whatever served the interests of the revolution was "moral".

    Bayonet the children of the Tsar? Declared to be moral as it served the revolution. Shoot the wives and family of deserting army officers? The same.

    Trotsky justified such measures on the basis that,

    "moral evalutions ... flow from the inner needs of the struggle."

    It's not difficult to understand why Labor leader Normal Thomas, in 1938, criticised "that strange communist amorality in which nothing matters but the party and its power".

    Thr, you have been led to a strange place in which you think Marxism to be moral and membership of a nation or ethny to indicate a lack "of a moral compass". Your ideology is working overtime here.

    If you really do believe this, though, I have a challenge for you. Why not approach some Aborigines and tell them that they too lack a moral compass for identifying as Aborigines and not as members of an international proletariat.

    And here's another challenge. Let's find some Australian workers and see which view, the Marxist or the traditionalist, is closer to their way of thinking.

    Thr, it is still your Marxist ideas which will be held to be extreme by the average Australian worker. Having a positive view toward membership of a nation or ethny will be considered mainstream.

    There are not too many Australian workers who wear the beret, Thr.

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  5. Thr writes:

    There's a community better than your pathetic white enclave, and it's based on workers.

    So the abstract concept known as the international proletariat provides more rootedness and social nourishment than our immediate community of a shared culture and history?

    Mark writes:

    Thr, it is still your Marxist ideas which will be held to be extreme by the average Australian worker.

    Oh come on, Mark!! Don't you realize they are just suffering from false consciousness?!! They need only hear the Good News of Marxism from the likes of Thr to throw off their reactionary ideas!(or just throw out Thr)

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  6. "Based ON" the workers.

    But who is a worker and who is a capitalist? Do Marxists really have a proper definition of either? They'd better do, since they want to oppress one group in oder to liberate the other!

    Here's a thought: maybe the whole thing is a subterfuge to mask the communist project for labour conscription. If we can judge the intentions of a political order by its consistent results, what else are we to conclude?

    Let's not be too harsh on Thr, though: he's probably some highschool kid who's been brainwashed by Resistance or Socialist Alternative.

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  7. "Why not approach some Aborigines and tell them that they too lack a moral compass for identifying as Aborigines and not as members of an international proletariat."

    Pwned.

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