Monday, March 15, 2010

The inner citadel of liberalism

John Kekes is a professor of philosophy and author of the book Against Liberalism. I try to keep up with debates in academia about liberalism so I've begun working my way through the book.

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.


  1. Thanks for another provocative reflection. Placing such high value on autonomy strikes me as an inversion (perhaps perversion) of what conservatives understand as piety. Writers like Richard Weaver and Roger Scruton define this as a grateful acceptance of what is given. It is expressed in things like loving one's mother, not because she is objectively better than all other mothers, but because she is yours, or in loving one's country or culture for the same reason. Liberals feel piety, but it is piety towards their own selves. For them it's not "my country, right or wrong," but rather "myself, right or wrong."

  2. The core of egalitarian liberalism continues to be autonomy

    One wonders what could possibly be egalitarian about stealing from A and giving it to B.

  3. One wonders what could possibly be egalitarian about stealing from A and giving it to B.

    I believe that Kekes very much agrees with you on this.

    In the liberal mind, human dignity rests on our capacity to be autonomous. Being autonomous means choosing from a range of possible life options. If some people have more money than others they have more life options and therefore more autonomy. Some people then have more human dignity than others which is a breach of human equality. Social justice then requires the welfare state to intervene and restore an equality of human status via redistribution of wealth.

    That is the standpoint of egalitarian liberalism on the matter. Philosophically it seems to descend from some of Kant's ideas on autonomy and human dignity.

  4. JMSmith, thanks for the comment. It's difficult for liberals to gratefully accept what is given. What comes to matter instead is what is self-directed or even self-created.

    A love of one's own country and culture cannot therefore matter so much for a liberal. At best, it might be treated as something chosen by particular individuals, perhaps on 'sentimental' grounds, but which has no higher status within public policy.

    At worst, since it is not a product of a self-determining will and reason, it will be looked on suspiciously and fearfully as an irrational bigotry held by the non-enlightened sections of society.

  5. My own view is that the liberal desire for "autonomy" is a function of their need to destroy the existing (or heretofore existing) traditional power structures. Once these structures have been eliminated, then "autonomy" will become a Bad Thing in the liberal worldview.

  6. The foundational philosopher of liberalism is Hobbes. Oakeshotte is the man for Hobbes.

  7. Liberalism is a philosophy that reconciles liberty with legality. That is making institutional authority accountable to individual autonomies.

    There is an obvious sense in which liberalism is foundational to the Enlightenment when industrial modernity hit 18thC Britain, because it would be impossible to decentralised enterprises without some accountability.

    But there is an important sense in which liberalism goes back to the Renaissance when sexual modernity hit 13th C Italy. Female sexual choice is the major driver of sexual selection. And female driven sexual selection is phenomenonly successful at driving Alpha-male status ambition.

    The birth of freedom came when Juliets elopement with the journeyman Romeo.

  8. Liberalism has a nihilistic potential to be a morally empty vessel with loose cannons on its gun deck.

    Modernist liberalism worked alright for a few centuries because individual autonomy can be progressive when individuals have a moral compass based on time-tested values. This was provided by Christianity, and liberalism has been living off the accumulated moral capital of Christianity for centuries.

    But post-modern liberalism has a tendency to consume its moral foundations. It has an inherent tendency to attack larger traditional institutional authorities in favour of smaller, fashionable individual autonomies. So pillars of society like Constitutional regent, Christian religion and Caucasian family have been relentlessly attacked by unhinged liberals.

    The result is what Muggeridge called the Great Liberal Death Wish which reaches its perfect apext in the simultaneous demand to maximize abortion and euthanasia. Of course there are plenty of less pathological forms of feral liberalism such as gluttony and lust.

    The movie Seven provides an excellent critique of the perversions of post-modern liberalism by a somewhat deranged moralist serial killer. I certainly do not endorse the torture and murder of deadly sinners.

    But I think the killer had a point, that the greatest crime of the age is the way we waste our precious freedoms on idle or self-destructive pursuits.