Thursday, July 16, 2009

Can there be a common good?

What kind of reform is needed in the UK? According to a liberal think tank, Demos, nothing short of a fresh new politics will do:

The UK is embroiled in major political and economic crises. Now more than ever we need fresh new approaches to increasingly intractable policy problems. But today's uncertainties also require us to rethink our political values and beliefs.

Predictably, though, Demos isn't really offering anything new. The Demos writers want to return to a more classical, less statist form of liberalism, one drawn particularly from the nineteenth century liberal philosopher, John Stuart Mill.

Nonetheless, I found one of their pamphlets, Liberal Republicanism, interesting enough. It sets out a case for liberalism, one that aims to be persuasive but which highlights instead a key weakness in liberal thought.

The pamphlet defines liberalism in terms of autonomy (the individual authoring or determining his own life goals) and equal freedom. There are references to autonomy and the self-determining individual scattered throughout the text:

The ideal animating this essay is that of a liberal republic, in which individuals have the power to determine and create their own version of a good life. The 'good society' is one composed of independent, capable people charting their own course ...

A republican liberal prospectus recognises that a self-authored life requires both independence and individual capability ... Liberals ... do not assume that the conditions for a self-directed life emerge out of thin air ... the liberal state has a special responsibility to ensure that people have the necessary capabilities for autonomy ... (Introduction)

It is precisely because liberals insist that each individual is the author of his own life that they end up as the fiercest defenders of equal liberty for all. (p.16)

This is the all too familiar liberal autonomy theory. The authors even sign on to the idea that autonomy is what defines our very humanity. They quote with approval Isaiah Berlin who believed that paternalism is dehumanising because:

it is an insult to my conception of myself as a human being determined to make my own life in accordance with my own ... purposes. (p.25)

Similarly, the authors themselves write:

Permament reliance on others for money, ideas or life plans deprives people of the most human attribute: the ability to choose. (p.27)

It's all inevitable?

The really interesting part comes next. The authors argue that liberalism is inevitable. We have no choice but to accept it. People are always going to disagree about values and the proper ends of life. Therefore, there can be no common good, but only tolerance for widely diverging individual wants and life plans. What's needed, then, is freedom from other people trying to define our lives for us:

There can never be agreement about the values and purposes of life ... Individual people will disagree fundamentally about the ends of life. The gay bohemian atheist and the fundamentalist Christian husband are unlikely ever to approve of the other’s lifestyle or views.

They may be made unhappy by the other, and a liberal does not assume that a more diverse society will necessarily be a happier one. But diversity of opinion ... is both inevitable and valuable.

A republican liberal society is the best possible response to the irreconcilability of different points of view. The liberal good society is not based on a forlorn appeal for everyone to share the same values, but on the assumption that people do not, and will not, share a specified conception of social justice, the good life or the ‘common good’. Diversity is a fact of life, and a ‘good’ society is one governed by rules and procedures that recognise this fact, rather than wish it away. One of its key values, therefore, is tolerance.

The idea that it's all inevitable is hammered away at here: there is a repetition of terms such as "never be agreement", "unlikely ever to agree", "inevitable", and "fact of life". This sense of inevitability, combined with the fact that such divergences in values really do exist, might make the argument sound persuasive to some. We might then be willing to follow John Stuart Mill in thinking that,

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way.

But there's a sleight of hand trick to the argument. The argument is framed so that only some aspects of a common good are ever considered, such as those relating to lifestyle or religious beliefs. If it's impossible to establish an agreed common good in such matters, then it might seem reasonable that we can only orient ourselves to our own discrete, divergent individual lifestyles and ambitions.

What isn't considered is the overarching common good that continues to exist, even when there are divergences in personal values and lifestyles. That is the "social good" - the good of the distinct human society that we identify with and value. To act for the continuation of this society requires a working concept of a common good as well as a framework of governance for making decisions about this good.

Take, by way of analogy, a school. Schools, just like societies, do not hold together by chance. They are subject to competitive pressures and if they fail to perform adequately they will be merged or closed.

Schools, therefore, do function on the basis of a common good. There will not only be some kind of vision statement about what the school aims to achieve, but there will be decisions taken about how best to organise the school and to design the curriculum to achieve these aims.

If there are signs of failure, such as declining enrolments or poor results, there will be debate about causes and responses. Most schools have a complex structure of committees and positions of responsibility involving all the staff and some of the parents and students in making these decisions, although responsibility lies ultimately with the principal.

So the discipline of keeping a school afloat requires that we recognise and work toward a common good, and establish the means of governance to do so.

It's the same when it comes to working toward the continuance of a distinct human society we belong to - except that we are dealing with a more significant and meaningful common good.

If you want this society to continue, then you won't limit yourself, as John Stuart Mill did, to pursuing your own good in your own way. If we take the "life" of our society as a starting point of a common good, then other common goods follow. You will need, for instance, a replacement birth rate. How do you achieve this? What is required to encourage people to commit to family life and parenthood? You won't want your best and brightest to emigrate. What might encourage them to feel attached to their own country? You will want, in a national emergency, your young men to be willing to fight for their country? What could draw this kind of response from them?

There are significant benefits to individuals in recognising such common goods. It means that the sacrifices we do make take on a larger meaning. The sacrifices of parenthood become part of our contribution to a larger entity, as do our sacrifices at work. We feel ourselves to participate in, to have a share in, the achievements of the larger society, whether these are cultural, sporting or scientific. We care about, and therefore feel connected to, the standards of life for others in our society and for future generations.

Liberals don't place the individual within a society in this way. Individuals do still have material needs in a liberal society, so there is a strong sense of individuals existing within an economy. But there is little concern with what is needed for the upkeep of an existing society. Signs of decline draw only a muted response from most liberal politicians. How vigorously, for instance, have liberal politicians reacted to falling birth rates? Or to disrupted family formation?

When we consider these basic facts about the life of a society, the liberal formulation of a scattered, arbitrary, individual good rings false. What room does Isaiah Berlin leave for a living society when he writes of his "conception of myself as a human being, determined to make my own life in accordance with my own (not necessarily rational or benevolent) purposes".

At least some of our purposes aren't just our own - they flow from what the society we are committed to needs from us for its existence.


  1. Nothing new, the pamphlet presents its solution to the problems of Liberalism: more Liberalism. They are boxed in and cannot find a way out.

    There can be a common good (as there used to be), but not with our current population. Israel wandered the desert for 40 years while those over 20 dropped dead--they were unfit for the promised land, too tainted by growing up in Egyptian slavery. We will need to wander in a wilderness for 40 years while those over 20--tainted by total immersion in liberalism, unfit for any common good--die off.

  2. This essay is something for me to think about.

    I tend to put the word liberal into quote-marks; the reason being that I've long accepted that idea that what we in America call conservativism is far closer to "classical liberalism" than is what we currently call liberalism.

    At the same time, I do see that while modern liberalism is more a thing of the collectivist left than of the individualist right, some of its pathologies, particularly its atomizing of human selves (which seems a necessary step for the collectivism to work), do seem to go back to Mill's autonomous self.

  3. @Jaz
    Liberals are not looking for a "way out" from their box : that's not their perception of their predicament.

    They see a progressive road ahead. Their goals, if achieved, will bring an end to history in the sense that the universalization of Western liberal democracy is expected to be the final form of human government. While a few societies might linger in reactionary mode ("stuck in history") for a time, they will eventually see the light, abandon their tiresome cultural baggage, and reform themselves into atomized individuals.

  4. Alex, my wording suggested that liberals feel stuck and want to get out, but I agree with you that they don't want to, and actually think it's all good. We might see our problems as being in a labyrinth and we're trying to find our way out. Liberalism, though is like being in a simple circular path, and you go around and around and keep getting back to the start point: "more liberalism ahead; brace yourself for vibrant excitement!" The liberal excitedly says "yes!"

    That's good news. Liberalism is destroying itself, and it must destroy itself. They're going to try to drag us down into hell with them. The real difficulty is in how do we let them fling themselves into destruction without pulling us down with them.

  5. That's the rub, isn't it? "Liberals" have for generations controlled the "commanding heights" of our Western cultures: all of us have, to one degree or another, been affected (or, infected, if you will) with "liberalism."

    Under pressure, and even though they don't want full leftism, the vast majority of our peoples automatically parrot leftist talking-points and chichés.

    I seems to me that if leftism is to burn itself out without destroying our societies in the process, that that vast majority, which just isn't that into thinking about the issues, is going to have to be made to see and understand.

  6. Making the majority see and understand. I keep reading the phrase, "how long before people will wake up?"

    I don't think the masses are ever going to wake up. They never do, they just follow the leaders. That's just the way it's always been. The Total Awareness of the Masses is part of the liberal utopion dream, nothing to do with conservatism.

  7. We are living in the Epoch of Liberalism. Whatever aspect of modern society you choose to examine, whether education, politics, law, religion, history, the media, the arts, etc., it will be thoroughly infiltrated and even dominated by liberal opinion.

    Without liberal currency it is almost impossible to buy into the circulation of ideas at the present time.

    Intellectual resistance to the Spirit of the Age is to be found (largely) on the internet - at sites like this.

    It's inevitable that the multitude will not question the status quo, I think.

  8. Jaz said,

    “I don't think the masses are ever going to wake up. They never do, they just follow the leaders. That's just the way it's always been. The Total Awareness of the Masses is part of the liberal utopian dream.”

    Jaz, I can not find any evidence in history other than a fantasy book written by Thomas More, that debunks your statement. People like Mr. Richardson and yourself are the leaders. I rejoice in the evidence of the few that give with out compulsion, work without reproof and love without reward. But I feel like you Jaz that these people are few and they are know true leaders. However I do agree with Alex post regarding the internet and how its effects are much like the invention of the printing press. But even with the internet I believe the sheep will always out number the leaders; therefore unfortunate you need the man behind the curtains.

  9. If I'm one of the leaders, I am in a Siberian exile, waiting for the collapse.

  10. Jaz said, “If I'm one of the leaders, I am in a Siberian exile, waiting for the collapse.”

    Yes, according to scripture the collapse is inevitable; however when you say waiting, I think you mean you are waiting while fighting the good fight? Not just waiting right? We can’t stop the weeds from growing, but we must try to stop them even to the very last precious fruit! And if that last precious fruit so happens to be me, then I guess it’s safe to say that I am just waiting in exile.

  11. Mark wrote "But there's a sleight of hand trick to the [Liberals'] argument..."
    "What isn't considered is the overarching common good that continues to exist, even when there are divergences in personal values and lifestyles. That is the "social good"

    Good post, Mark. I'm not sure I follow though, so I hope I might ask a few questions.

    Are you saying that the classical liberals ought to value the social good but do not? But why? All of your posts indicate that our elites are perfectly happy to destroy us. If that's so, then their actions make perfect sense, right?

    Am I understanding your correctly?