Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Liberal Rational Man versus Liberal Good Man

Here's another of those contradictions within liberalism.

When wearing his technocratic hat, liberal man likes to view the human person as being motivated by rational self-interest. And most frequently, especially among right-liberals, rational self-interest means the pursuit of money or career advancement in the market.

We saw this attitude in two of my recent articles, in which liberals envisaged their nations as being multicultural workplaces. The view of man that this assumes is the one I described above - that we are motivated as individuals to pursue a rational self-interest by seeking our best economic advantage at work.

But is this assumption justified? I don't think it is. I don't think that our work commitments are justified by rational self-interest. If I were following my own individual self-interest, then it would be irrational for me to spend 40 years working in an office from early morning to evening.

If men do commit to work it's mostly not out of self-interest, but from their larger commitments to family or country. They are motivated by particular loves which overrule individual self-interest.

That's one reason why I don't think the "nation as multicultural workplace" will succeed in the longer term - it is too dissolving of the particular commitments that motivate people to make sacrifices at work.

But if liberalism only offered the technocratic "rational self-interest" view of man, then its appeal would be more limited than it is. Liberalism also generates a different kind of view, one that commands us to identify with the other.

It seems to go like this. Liberals are pessimistic that there are objective moral standards that can be recognised by a society and they are fearful that a society which does recognise such moral standards will be authoritarian.

So liberals prefer not to recognise objective moral standards. But humans always have an idea of a moral good and of what represents a good person. So if the starting point is that there are no objective moral standards, and that we can only have our own personal, subjective moral views, then what matters is "non-interference" and "non-assertiveness". So the liberal moral goods become qualities like non-discrimination, respect, tolerance and accepting the other (which sets up a problem for liberals that over time there is a trend toward an intolerant enforcement of tolerance and a non-accepting enforcement of acceptance and an interfering enforcement of non-interference).

So if you want to prove you are a good person in a liberal society you do so by proving how much you identify with the other rather than with your own.

So there are two conflicting strands within liberalism: one strand assumes that we are Economic Man, motivated by a rational self-interest to pursue our profit in the market; the other strand assumes that the good person is the one who puts all self-identity aside to identify with the other.

What the two strands have in common is that both dissolve our particular loves and attachments - one wants us to transcend such particular attachments in favour of identifying with what is "other" to us; the other denies them in favour of a view of people as self-interested, individual actors in the market.


  1. I just finished reading Orestes Brownson’s “Convert,” a book first published in 1857. Brownson, you may know, was an American intellectual in the early 19th century, who at various points in his life embraced just about every social philosophy and religion on offer, but whose writing is, nevertheless, almost always trenchant. At one point he discusses William Godwin’s “Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice” (1792), a book that may well have been the source of the liberal doctrine of disinterestedness that you mention in this post. Brownson wrote that Godwin’s book was “inspired by the enthusiasm created by the French Revolution,” and that it contained “nearly all the false and dangerous principles of that Revolution, systematically arranged, developed, and pushed to their last consequence with a merciless logic, and chasteness, vigor, grace, and elegance of language, which I have never seen surpassed.” Brownson described Godwin’s fundamental principle this way. The only law is justice, and justice requires that we treat every man according to his “intrinsic worth,” rather than to show partiality for our kinsmen or countrymen, or to defer to wealth, rank, or station. To be just, in Godwin’s sense of the term, was, in other words, to be what the New Testament described as “no respecter of persons.” In Brownson’s view, this principle of justice served primarily as a social solvent, removing the special bonds that tied a man to his wife, his children, his Country, his Church. Applied to property, “justice declares the property belongs to him who most needs it.” Applied to education, justice demands that parents “have no more right to control the thoughts or the opinions of their own children, than they have the children of others.” In other words, the purpose of the liberal principle of justice was to destroy all personal relationships. (There’s a copy of Brownson’s “Convert” on Google Books, and his discussion of Godwin is on pp. 81-85.)

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  3. Mark,

    You're quite right that identifying with the other implies a degree of selflessness and the idea of the dissolving person, while encouraging self interest, on the other hand seems to encourage the exact opposite. Both as you say dissolves traditional ties but both also put humanity at the centre of the human equation, ie love for self or love for other humans (also today frequently extended to animals).

    The liberal attitudes to self interest in work can be partly explained as a defence of materialism, ie it is in your self interest to work because you want money and presumably you wouldn't do it for free. Here materialism is equated with self interest. Through this understanding there is obvious disquiet when people are motivated by obviously non materialistic concerns, one example being volunteering for charity. This can get explained as a broader form of self interest , ie "You give to others because it makes you feel good, therefore its in your self interest". However, this explanation only gives a partial understanding of why people do it and so such seemingly “altruistic” motivations are frequently relegated to the “irrational” or “loser” realm.

    On the issue of the “dissolving” person who endlessly emotionally identifies with the other, this can be seen as the flip side of personal self interest. That is we’re self interested, we find this state of affairs intolerable, as its potentially isolating as well as terrifying as it enhancing our sense of vulnerability to others and their self interest, so we therefore disown our self interest through identifying with the other. Also if the other is a distant object then identifying with it won’t hugely impact on our lives. In this manner the two motives can continue side by side and can be viewed as not that dissimilar.

    There’s a huge gap in our lives when we don’t identify with concepts such as "country". By degrading concepts such as God for “humanity” we also put ourselves in an unsupportable place where self interest,or vague human sentiment attachments, are expected to replace our broader connections to time, place, our purpose, culture and creator. In such a confused and unstable environment its not a suprise that liberals are inconsistent.