The first chapter sets out to define liberalism. Kekes views liberalism as arising during the Renaissance:
it began during the Renaissance as a reaction to religious orthodoxy, gained strength during the Reformation, and became one of the main political forces in the Enlightenment (p.2)
Kekes identifies three key figures in the development of liberal thought, namely John Locke, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. From his brief outline of these three thinkers, it appears that much of modern liberalism descends from Immanuel Kant, in particular from his development of the idea of autonomy.
And this is where I got a pleasant surprise reading the book. Professor Kekes comes to a very similar conclusion to myself when attempting to define liberalism. He sees the aim of autonomy as being the organising principle:
The basic liberal values may then be identified as pluralism, freedom, rights, equality, and distributive justice. What makes them basically valuable is that they enable individuals to live autonomously. The aim of liberalism is to create and maintain political institutions that foster these values and, through them, autonomy. (p.4)
Kekes also identifies a basic disagreement within modern liberalism, similar to my distinction between right and left liberalism. He distinguishes between a classical and an egalitarian liberalism:
The core of egalitarian liberalism continues to be autonomy. The autonomous life, however, is seen as requiring both freedom and welfare rights. It requires that individuals should be guaranteed certain basic goods that are needed for living according to any conception of a good life. (p.15)
The trend, it seems to me, is to increasingly look on the state as a "welfare state" in the above sense. Not just in terms of handing out welfare to, say, the unemployed. But in the larger sense as being the instrument by which society equalises the conditions for autonomy. Because equal conditions for autonomy is such a utopian aim, the state cannot help but grow steadily in its ambitions and its influence on society. As long as "social justice" (in the liberal understanding) depends on the intervention of the "welfare state", the trend to extend the role of the state is likely to continue.
The core of liberalism
Professor Kekes then reiterates his point about liberalism having a core principle. He notes that liberalism promotes values such as pluralism, freedom, rights, equality and distributive justice. But why, he asks, should these be considered so important? Why not promote other important goods? And do the liberal values necessarily lead by themselves to a fulfilled life?
A third way of raising the same issue is to suppose that the citizens of some liberal society are in full possession of the basic values and then to ask whether this possession is compatible with living empty, wasted, misdirected, miserable, boring, or pointless lives. And since the answer is clearly in the affirmative, it becomes obvious that however important these basic values are, something needs to be added to them to explain why they are so highly valued.
This something is the true core of liberalism, the inner citadel for whose protection all the liberal battles are waged: autonomy. (p.15)
Professor Kekes gives a variety of quotes from liberal writers in support of this argument. For example:
- I am free because, and in so far as, I am autonomous. (Isaiah Berlin)
- The essence [of liberalism] is that individuals are self-creating (Alan Ryan)
- The core of this [liberal] tradition is an insistence that the forms of social life be rooted in the self-conscious value affirmations of autonomous individuals (Bruce Ackerman)
Many of the quotes seem to suggest that what matters is not so much adopting principles that are good or true, but adopting principles autonomously. What matters is that you control the process of adopting your principles, that they are thereby authentically "yours", rather than what these principles amount to. So the value lies in the self-directed, controlled act of will and reason - that is the good that is being pursued - rather than in the outcome.
This seems to me to greatly underestimate the significance of the principles that individuals do choose to follow. It's not just the process that matters, but the quality of the outcome. A man who instinctively recognises the good in fighting courageously to defend his family is to be preferred, in my opinion, to the man who self-consciously reasons about his situation and who comes to the authentic and self-determined opinion that he should run away from the danger.
To give you a better idea of the liberal attitude I'm criticising, here once again is Professor Kekes:
The essential feature of autonomy is a specific form of control that individual agents exercise over their actions. "By autonomy," states Stanley Benn, "I understand a character trait amounting to a capacity to act on principles ... that are one's own because one has made them so by a process of rational reflection on the complex principles and values that one has assimilated from one's social environment"; and according to Gerald Dworkin, "A person is autonomous if he identifies with his desires, goals, and values, and such identification is not itself influenced in ways which make the process of identification in some way alien to the individual." (p.16)
So for Benn what matters is that one's principles are "one's own", rather than that they are virtuous, truthful, wise or good, and for Dworkin the key thing is that we "identify" with our desires, goals and values.
Professor Kekes goes on to outline some of the criticisms of the liberal attitude to autonomy made by communitarians. I'll leave that to a future post.