Liberalism. One of the major political ideologies of the modern world...Liberalism first emerged as an important movement in Europe in the sixteenth century. Today...it is the dominant ideology in many parts of the world.
Excellent. It is recognised here very clearly that liberalism is not only a political ideology, but that it dominates in many countries. It is effectively the state ideology in countries like Australia.
What we then get are two different explanations for the rise of liberalism, one favourable and one critical. The favourable one is that liberalism arose as a way of settling the religious conflicts of the Reformation:
both Protestants and Catholics accepted that the state could not impose a common faith ... Liberalism has simply extended this principle from the sphere of religion to other areas of social life where citizens have conflicting beliefs about the meaning of life. A liberal state does not seek to resolve these conflicts, but rather provides a 'neutral' framework within which citizens can pursue their diverse conceptions of the good life.
I've heard some liberals advance this kind of belief about liberal neutrality. It's not a view that's easily made coherent. First, it's not possible for a state to be neutral when it comes to conceptions of the good life. Second, the demand for neutrality undermines some key conceptions of the good life and privileges others (i.e. it pushes society in particular directions). Third, the reality is that the liberal state has imposed a set of liberal values on society, transforming society in radical ways, rather than remaining neutral.
The Oxford Companion also provides a more critical explanation for the rise of liberalism:
Liberalism's critics, however, argue that liberalism emerged as the ideological justification for the rise of capitalism, and that its image of the autonomous individual is simply a glorification of the pursuit of self-interest in the market. Liberalism replaced the web of mutual obligations which bound people together in ethnic, religious, or other communities with a society predicated on competition and 'atomistic' individualism.
It might well be true that the rising commercial classes found liberal ideas attractive because they tended to dissolve the older precapitalist order of society. But the connection to capitalism doesn't seem sufficient to me to explain why liberalism came to dominate.
The next criticism of liberalism is this:
A major challenge for liberal philosophers has been to explain why individual freedom should have priority over competing values such as community or perfectionism.
The phraseology here takes liberalism on its own terms. What liberal philosophers argue for is a particular understanding of freedom, one based on individual autonomy. So what needs to be asked is why liberals believe that individual autonomy should have priority over competing values such as community.
According to the entry, liberals give two main defences for prioritising individual "freedom". Kantian liberals believe that we are defined as humans by our autonomy and therefore to restrict autonomy is to treat people as being less than fully human:
Kantian liberals, for example, argue that the capacity for rational autonomy is the highest capacity humans possess, and so is worthy of inherent respect. To restrict someone's freedom of choice, on this Kantian view, is to treat them as less than a fully mature and responsible human being, and this is wrong, regardless of the desirable or undesirable social consequences that might follow.
As I've pointed out at this site many times, the undesirable social consequences of making autonomy the overriding good are many and severe. So severe that it would make a lot more sense instead to balance autonomy with a range of other goods. The Kantian approach is not without its critics:
This Kantian view has been very influential in the liberal tradition. However, it rests on a controversial claim about the nature of moral value and moral respect...many critics argue that using the state to promote the Kantian ideal of rational autonomy is as 'sectarian' as using the state to promote Protestantism.
Indeed. The modern liberal state, as noted above, is radically and intrusively ideological.
Critics of the Kantian approach argue that liberals should therefore avoid appealing to the value of autonomy, and instead defend liberalism simply as the only viable basis for peaceful coexistence in culturally and religiously plural societies.
Kantian liberals respond, however, that without appealing to the value of individual autonomy, there is no reason why coexistence between groups should take the form of guaranteeing the rights of individuals. Why not just allow each group in society to organise itself as it sees fit...
The Kantians have a point. If the underlying value of a society is "peaceful existence" then why would you adopt liberalism in the first place? Australia was a relatively unified society one hundred years ago. There weren't great schisms in society. If you had wanted a peaceful society, then it would have been best to let Australia develop along non-liberal lines.
Peacefulness doesn't catch the underlying dynamic of liberalism. After all, it's not as if liberals argue that society has unfortunately become so diverse and multicultural that peaceful existence is threatened and liberalism is required as a remedy. The liberal argument is very different. Liberals tend to argue that a traditionally unified society is boring or illegitimate and that such a society should be transformed by a deliberate policy of diversity or multiculturalism and that this more diverse society will add vibrancy etc.
There's one more criticism of liberalism that I'll finish on:
critics argue that the unfettered exercise of individual choice will undermine the forms of family and community life which help develop people's capacity for choice and provide people with meaningful options. On this view, liberalism is self-defeating - liberals privilege individual rights, even when this undermines the social conditions which make individual freedoms valuable.
In particular, what happens if making individual autonomy paramount dissolves communal institutions and identities? Is the freedom to be an atomised consumer as valuable as the freedom to live as a man, or as an Englishman, or as a husband and father?
In other words, there is likely to be a more significant freedom for the individual if autonomy is balanced with a range of other important goods, including those relating to family life and communal identity.
The Oxford Companion does make one last criticism of liberalism. It's a very good but lengthy one, so I'll leave it to a future post.