Liberalism: Some Key Definitions

All liberals start off from the principle that liberty is the primary political value. After this, liberalism fractures along a spectrum of views: positive, negative and republican liberty. These are fundamentally to do with differing conceptions of liberty.

i) Humans are in a perfect state of freedom to order their actions (Locke); the burden of proof is on those who are against liberty, the a priori assumption is in favour of freedom (Mill); contemporary liberal thinkers (Feinberg, Benn and Rawls) agree.

Basic normative assumption = those who would limit freedom are under the onus of justification, particularly if they would limit freedom through coercive means

§ Political authority, its laws and policies, must be justified because they limit human freedom

–       Social contract theory (Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant and Locke) is usually viewed as liberal even though the political prescriptions of each thinker have distinctly illiberal features. Nevertheless, all take as their starting point a state of nature in which humans are free and equal and so argue that the limitations imposed must be justified in terms of the social contract theory § expresses the fundamental liberal principle

ii) In addition to the fundamental liberal principle, paradigmatic liberals such as Locke argue that justified limitations on liberty are fairly modest i.e. only a limited amount of government can be justified because the basic task of the government is to protect the equal liberty of the citizens.

Negative Liberty

Disagreement about the concept of liberty has led to different conceptions of the task of government. Isaiah Berlin, for example, advocated for a negative conception of liberty:

‘If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved. Coercion is not, however, a term that covers every form of inability…Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act. You lack political liberty or freedom only if you are prevented from attaining a goal by other human beings’.

§ Liberty = the absence of coercion by other human beings. The government’s role is to ensure that citizens do not coerce each other without justification in order to protect liberty. Negative liberty is an opportunity concept: being free is a matter of what we can do, regardless of whether or not we actually do it.

Positive Liberty

British neo-Hegelians such as Thomas Hill Green and Bernard Bosanquet developed a positive conception of liberty that acknowledges freedom as the exemption from compulsion by another. However, the other might not be human; someone can be unfree if he is subject to an impulse that cannot be controlled. Thus a person is only free if he is autonomous. In the sense that a free person’s actions are said to be his own, positive liberty is an exercise concept.

§ Freedom consists in the degree to which a subject has effectively determined and shaped his own life, apart from compulsions and unreflectively following customs, to the overall benefit of his short and long term interests.

As well as this concept of freedom as autonomy being present in Rousseau, Kant and Mill, contemporary theorists such as Benn, Dworkin and Raz also enshrine this liberal principle in their political theories.

Another concept of positive freedom is freedom understood as the ability to act on or pursue one’s own ends; freedom is ‘the ability act’ (Tawney). Positive freedom as effective power to act closely ties freedom to access to material resources: I cannot become a member of a Country Club because I am too poor to afford the membership though in principle I could become a member if this resource was available to me.

Republican Liberty

In the Roman, republican usage (Cicero and Machiavelli), the opposite of the liber was the servus and so the dominant connotation of freedom was not having to live in servitude to another § freedom is the opposite of domination. The ideal government ensures that no agent, including itself, has arbitrary power over any citizen, in order to ensure that every citizen’s liberty is protected. The method by which this principle is enacted is equal disbursement of power; by according each citizen power, this offsets the power of another citizen to arbitrarily interfere with his or her activities.

Unlike positive liberty, republican liberty is not primarily concerned with rational autonomy, realising one’s true nature or becoming one’s higher self.

Unlike negative liberty, republican liberty traces the mere possibility of arbitrary interference to a limitation of liberty, rather than the actual occurrence of interference.

Classical Liberalism

As well as fracturing over the conception of liberty, a more important division concerns the place of private property and the market order.

Classical liberals insist upon the close relation between liberty and private property for it is through the ownership of private property that a citizen is able to live her life as she sees fit. Thus, private property is consistent with individual liberty. Some people (Gaus, Steiner, Robbins) argue that liberty and property are the same thing thus a market order based on private property is the embodiment of freedom. A secondary argument from classical liberals claims that ownership of private property is the only effective means of protecting liberty, because the individual is protected from encroachments by the state.

Even within classical liberalism there is a spectrum of views on the relationship of private property to a free society, ranging from near anarchists to left leaning views that allow for a modest social minimum. Although today classical liberalism is portrayed as extreme libertarianism, the tradition’s central concern was bettering the lot of the working class. As Bentham put it, the aim was to make the poor richer, not the rich poorer. As such, liberals reject redistribution of wealth as a legitimate aim of government.

New Liberalism

New liberalism challenges the link between private property and individual freedom. New liberalism emerged out of a period in which the sustainability of a prosperous equilibrium was being questioned (c. late 19th/early 20th century). At the same time as losing faith in the old market order, faith was increasing in the government as a means of supervising economic life partly due to the First World War and partly due to more sophisticated democratisation in Western countries. For the first time, elected officials could truly be representatives of the community, or so it was thought. Thirdly, the growing conviction that property rights generated an unequal society to the detriment of the working class’ liberty. The first suggestion of this is found in Mill, later developed by Rawls, both of whom believed that it is an open question whether personal liberty can flourish without private property.

New liberalism is deeply concerned with developing a theory of social justice, a consequence of the impact of Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. Rawls’s ‘difference principle’ claims that a just basic structure of society arranges social and economic inequalities so that they are to the greatest advantage of the least well off group in a particular society. For Rawls, only inequalities that enhance the long term prospects for the least well off are just. The difference principle constitutes the principle of reciprocity, whereby no group of people is allowed to advance at the cost of another. In contemporary political thought, followers of Rawls are committed to cashing out the difference principle in terms of equality (Dworkin) hence the development from ‘welfare state’ liberalism to ‘egalitarian’ liberalism.

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Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind

Mike Fuller discusses the liberalism of Richard Rorty.

I have to admit that I find Richard Rorty one of the most interesting contemporary thinkers. I like his easygoing, conversational style (although as Norman Geras observes it can sometimes lead Rorty into being evasive and fudging over some key issues). I admire him for being one of the few contemporary philosophers with the ambition – and also the talent and the scholarship – to force a dialogue between Analytic and Continental philosophy. Perhaps most important of all, I find, provisionally at least, his epistemological conclusions immaculate, although hispragmatic arguments for a thoroughgoing naturalist metaphysic (his so-called ‘non-reductive physicalism’) I can’t help regarding as a temperamental bias (and one very at odds with William James’s pragmatic arguments in the other direction inThe Varieties of Religious Experience).

Rorty’s explorations of the post-Kantian era in both Analytic and Continental philosophy are exceptional, whether he is following Immanuel Kant’s legacy through the Anglo- American philosophers James, Peirce, Dewey, Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Quine and Davidson, or whether he is following it through the Continental route of Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Habermas, Derrida. Rorty’s conclusions, which are summed up in his oftquoted slogan that it is systematically impossible to decide at what point humanly ‘making’ the truth ends and objectively ‘finding’ the truth begins, are compelling.

Geras, correctly it seems, says that all Rorty’s views (for instance, about human nature or about his ‘ungroundable liberalism’) follow logically from this basic scepticism about distinguishing ‘making’ from ‘finding’.

Rorty frequently names Donald Davidson as the inspiration behind this, saying that Davidson’s arguments against the ‘scheme/content distinction’ (and so against the tenability of either realism or relativism) lay to rest a third Dogma of Empiricism – so completing Quine’s earlier attack on the two other Dogmas of Empiricism: the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements (and so between necessary and contingent truth) and the tendency to reduce wholes to their constituent parts as the ultimate buildingblocks of knowledge. Quine argues, against this view, that it is whole, coherent bodies of knowledge, rather than isolated terms or propositions, that ‘face the tribunal of reality.’

It is easy to see that Rorty could – and does – equally use the ideas of Continental thinkers to underpin his ‘making/finding’ scepticism, as he could – and does – utilise their ‘attack on binary oppositions’. This is as old as Hegel’s dialectic, and as new as Derrida’s deconstruction, and culminates in casting doubt on whether there is any clear distinction between nature and culture.

To get down to more specific cases, Geras accuses Rorty of being evasive when he comes out with provocative statements like “there is no such thing as human nature.” Geras argues that Rorty means different things at different times by this assertion, some of which are obviously false and some of which are not false, but are innocuous and quite compatible with grounding universal human rights in a foundation of shared human nature (such as is to be found, for instance, in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Geras says: “That there is no human nature may appear to mean that [1] there are no commonly shared traits among human beings; or [2] it may appear to mean that there are none which are distinctively human; or it may [3] appear to mean that there are none which are of universal moral import. Sustainable in the end is something rather more modest: like [4] that all people do not aspire, and nor should they, to one very narrowly specified kind of goal, activity, or character.” (pp.140-141).

Geras further argues that he is happy to grant Rorty meaning [4], but that this is quite compatible with some minimal notion of human nature in terms of shared traits and needs. Geras argues that meanings [1], [2], and [3] are false – and further points out that Rorty, while maintaining each of these theses at some point in his writings, contradicts them at other points. Rorty says in one place that there are no traits that humans share that they do not also share with animals, only to write elsewhere that all human beings share the ability to be humiliated, an ability which other animals do not appear to possess.

While I agree with Geras that Rorty is evasive about what he means by ‘There is no human nature’ (and that, when he does spell out what he means in the above four senses, he can seem to contradict himself), I still wonder if it is possible to offer a coherent defence of the three theses about human nature which Geras seems to regard as false. Although I have never been entirely happy with Rorty’s apparent airy dismissals of human nature, it seems that the three theses can be made to convincingly chime with each other and with Rorty’s general epistemological position. That position is that there are no neutral facts (about human nature or anything else) that do not come ‘under a description’, and that the vocabulary which offers the description can never be justified as true in a neutral way but can only be justified as true in a circular way from within. THESIS 3 ‘There are no commonly shared traits among human being which are of universal moral import’.

This is not obviously false. Even if one grants that there are common traits and needs based on those traits, it does not follow with any necessity that those needs should be respected. If pushed, Saddam Hussein might grant that Kurds have the same needs as himself, but fail to agree that he should respect them. Similarly, many people would no doubt agree that Rwandans have the same needs as they do, but nevertheless declare that Rwandans’ needs are not their problem. In short, needs based on common human traits only carry ‘universal moral import’ – only become rights – within a particular metaphysical and moral vocabulary. THESIS 2 ‘There are no common traits that are distinctively human’.

One might argue that this is true for those who employ a naturalistic, biological, evolutionary vocabulary, and who would claim that what appear to be distinctively human traits – like language or humour – can be found in germ in many animals. On the other hand, this thesis is false for Christians, Kantians, and Aristotelians, whose vocabulary insists that humans have certain distinctive traits – a soul, a ‘moral personality’, rationality, and so forth.

In short, could it be argued that the truth or falsity of the description will finally depend on the vocabulary adopted? THESIS 1 ‘There are no commonly shared traits among human beings’.

Of all Rorty’s ideas, this is the one with which I have felt most uncomfortable. It seems to me that it is hard to get around Hume’s position that all human creatures, by dint of their biological make-up, must share common traits and needs. Any vocabulary would have to concede that all human beings need food in order to survive and will freeze to death without shelter in extreme cold. Of course these may be traits which do not carry ‘universal moral import’ outside of certain kinds of metaphysical and moral vocabularies and may be traits that humans share with other animals.

It could be that I am being parochial in regarding as obvious common-sense fact that which is really the product of our modern biological vocabulary, and it is this vocabulary which makes the description seem so compelling. By analogy, moderns are amazed that Cartesian-inspired vivisectionists could seriously believe that an animal howling with pain was not really feeling anything because it had no soul and so was no more capable of feeling pain than a machine or a vegetable.

Perhaps the assertion that all human beings share common traits could be claimed to be a function of ‘the vocabulary in which the description is offered’. It is, after all, logically possible to conceive of a vocabulary which produces descriptions solely consistent with there being no commonly shared traits among human beings.

We can push this point even further. History offers us many examples of groups who held views like the following: “The poor (or the lower orders, or the dusky races, or the Jews) are less intelligent and sensitive than us and do not feel pain as much as or in the same way that we do.”

Rorty would consistently hold that there is no neutral way to dissuade Nazis from their beliefs that Jews are irredeemably different and perhaps not fully human. If they resist what liberals regard as rational argument and empirical evidence (or, better put, if they reinterpret the evidence in the light of their own standards of rationality), then the only remaining options are either to ignore them, bribe them, or dissuade them by force.

The fact that there are and have been many such groups who believe that the poor, the lower orders, the blacks, etc., are irredeemably ‘different’ is evidence that there are many who deny common traits. As, on Rorty’s basic premisses, belief and fact (scheme and content) cannot be clearly separated, this provides justification for the claim ‘There are no common traits in human nature’ that we can conclusively prove in a neutral way.

Presumably Rorty’s own liberal beliefsystem (with its emphasis on Freedom, Equality, and Rights) does not allow him to subscribe to the ‘no common traits’ sort of view. He, as a member of the liberal community, while believing that all humans do share common traits and needs fundamentally (i.e., the poor, blacks, and Jews feel as much pain and humiliation as the rich, whites, and Aryans) still has no neutral way to persuade those who do not subscribe to liberal views. All he can do is to offer them the carrot or the stick (i.e., “Try being a liberal and see how much nicer the world is” or “As far as we liberals are concerned, you’ve overstepped the mark and deserve a good slapping”).

Geras proceeds to his most central attack on Rorty’s ‘ungroundable liberalism’ in the last chapter of the book. He holds that, although Rorty may be congenial enough as a personality and may even share some similar values with a Marxist like himself,nevertheless Rorty cannot serve humanity well because by denying any universal dimensions to human nature, truth, and justice, he must systematically be committed to a position where ‘anything goes’

Geras attributes, rightly, I think, to Rorty the view that you cannot justify the vocabulary and values of liberalism (or Marxism, or anything else) in a non-circular way. There is no neutral ground on which to stand.

Geras answers:

“An alternative line of thought is that vocabularies and language-games are commensurable. I hope so … If there is no truth, there is no injustice. Morally and politically, anything goes. There are appaling language-games always in preparation, now as much as ever. They will be ‘played’ by those looking for the chances of it in deadly earnest. It remains to be shown that, amongst our defences against them, we have anything better than the concepts of a common humanity, of universal rights, and of reasoning together to try to discover how things are, in order to minimise avoidable suffering and injustice.” (p.143).

I don’t think this does full justice to Rorty’s position. Rorty believes that while different metaphysical, moral, and political vocabularies are theoretically incommensurable (incapable of non-circular justification), nevertheless it is a contingent possibility that they may be pragmatically commensurable.
He holds something like this:

‘We liberals like our way of doing things and think it is the best way of doing things. We would urge you to try it. But, if we are to be intellectually honest, we have no right to urge you to become liberals because liberalism is God’s way of doing things (the religious justification) or Nature’s way or Reason’s way (the Enlightenment justification) or ‘History’s inevitable lesson’ (the Hegelian/Marxist sort of justification). All such justifications are ideological armlocks, so many ways of trying to bully dissenters and make oneself feel good by unprovable appeals to impartial non-human authorities. They are rhetorical devices.

The only honest justification is this: liberalism is perhaps pragmatically the best way to rub along with others, due to its central belief in tolerance. As such, it may be the best hope for the the human race, especially in a nuclear age. It is capable of learning from other views and so developing itself and them in the ‘ongoing conversation of humankind’.

However, if you infringe on our liberal community, or if you do things that outrageously flout our beliefs, we may have to fight you, if all diplomacy and haggling fail (and even though we cannot justify our cause in any absolute way, since there is no neutral place to stand theoretically). We urge you, for pragmatic reasons, to join our experiment in Liberty, Equality, Democracy, Human Rights, and Tolerance. See for yourself if it is satisfactory.’

To which it has to be added that a number of people, from Islamic fundamentalists to Marxists, looking at some of the actual manifestations of the ‘liberal experiment’, are going to reply: “No. It isn’t satisfactory.”

Nevertheless, Rorty’s achievement remains that of showing how, and to what extent, talk of human rights still makes sense even after the ‘crisis of Enlightenment’ and subsequent hard to get around doubts aboutproving anything as universally true. Geras’s achievement in this book remains that of showing how Rorty could spell out some of his complex arguments rather more clearly for his readers.