Liberalism (Part Three)

I am sympathetic to the notion that liberalism can be considered a temperament or a sensibility.  One source for this idea is William James’s musings about temperament in the first lecture of his series called Pragmatism.  Another source is Richard Rorty’s comments about “bleeding heart liberalism,” about which I will have more to say in my next post.

The temperament (or sensibility) idea is that a general way of responding to the world, a mood or constellation of emotional habits/reactions better predicts one’s attitudes toward specific events or issues than a set of intellectual propositions that line up in non-contradictory fashion. (George Lakoff is the current writer who most fully pursues this line of thought.) A certain set of ideas or a certain ideological position appeals to someone because of that person’s temperament.  At its most extreme, we could even argue that the ideas are a “rationalization” of the more basic feelings.  I am not partial to this kind of debunking move.  For me, “rationalization” is not a dirty word.  Instead, I view ideas as the public articulation of what could be called moral or political intuitions.  We are called upon to justify our intuitions—to ourselves as well as to others.  We try to move from feelings, from intuitions, to inter-subjectively defensible positions.  To make that move requires articulation in propositional form, with supporting reasons and evidence.  Our feelings need to be examined.  They are not necessarily correct, nor are they incorrigible.

Calling liberalism a temperament, then, would be a way of trying to find some commonality in the variety of liberal positions.  And it would allow us to say that liberalism responds to changing historical circumstances, finding ad hoc solutions and stop-gap measures in the face of various threats, without trying to identify some specific ideational content.  Liberalism as a sentiment can be creative, can be making it up as it goes along, while still being somewhat identifiable as a way of being in the world, a somewhat definable sensibility.  I am not insisting that this approach will work, but I do think it more likely to identify what John Locke and Martha Nussbaum have in common than an analysis of their intellectual commitments would.  Still, one would also then have to argue that Nozick builds on certain aspects of Locke’s intuitions, while Nussbaum aligns with rather different ones.  (In other words, I am still resisting any account that would somehow claim that all the differences between Nussbaum and Nozick are insignificant because, au fond, they are both “liberals.”)

One traditional hallmark of the liberal temperament has been the willingness to do the kind of examination of gut-level reactions I described above.  Liberals are open-minded and skeptical of all dogmatisms.  This is what the liberal arts try to inculcate in students.  William James would add that liberals are empiricists.  They respond to evidence—and change their minds on the basis of it.  That’s part of being open-minded.

Of course, it’s easy to say that liberals are just praising themselves when they claim the high ground of open-mindedness, as contrasted to their opponents.  Except that many of their opponents take their own dogmatism as a badge of pride.  And those same opponents scorn liberals for being wishy-washy, for being swayed in public debate, for having no principles that are never to be abandoned, and for taking nothing as sacred.  Liberals are pragmatists, in the everyday sense of those who look for what is expedient, and pragmatism is a dirty word, not something to be admired.

It’s this liberal penchant for compromise that I want to consider now.  Here is where I find the significance of Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay on negative liberty (which Dustin Howes discusses in a very different way in his book).  Berlin’s pluralism comes down to the assertion that there are a variety of public goods: equality, justice, security, prosperity, individual autonomy, freedom from want, clean air, access to health care (the list could go on and on).  We want all of these things—and have good reasons for wanting all of them.  But—and this is the crux—they are not all compatible.  Necessarily, there will have to be trade-offs.  So, to take a famous example, John Rawls accepts that you should expect to have to trade some equality for economic efficiency/prosperity.  To achieve total equality would be to sacrifice more economic prosperity than is desirable.  So the trick in Rawls (the max-min principle) is to find the sweet spot, that place where you have the least inequality while still producing adequate prosperity.

This is what drives the ideological opponents of liberalism nuts.  Liberals are always saying: it’s more complicated than you think.  Or they are saying: on the one hand, yes; but on the other hand, no.  There are no simple solutions.  It’s always about trade-offs and compromises and negotiations among competing goods.

And negotiations among competing stake-holders.  Liberal pluralism asserts not only that there are competing (and incompatible) goods, but also that there are competing (and antagonistic) social groups.  Social conflict is endemic and non-eliminable.  The question is how to manage such conflict in ways that stop short of violence.  [Now we are firmly back into Howes’s territory.  And he relies on Hannah Arendt for his assertion/acceptance on non-eliminable “plurality” as a basic (the most basic?) fact about the human condition.]

So it can seem that for liberals everything is up for negotiation.  I would add that any solution, any achieved way of making the trade-offs, is only temporary.  No agreement, no institutional arrangement, under these conditions is very stable because no resolution is ever fully satisfactory.  Trade-offs and compromises are always imperfect—and hence always generate dissent and efforts to re-arrange the current set-up.  To a large extent, that’s what politics is: the continual, never-ending conflict among various members of a society to establish what they believe is a better set-up than the one currently in place.

Another way to say this: liberals are Aristotelean.  They are non-extremists, who always believe the best position lies somewhere in the middle.  (William James’s term for this was “meliorism,” which—again—was for him a state to be desired, not a dirty word.)  All I am adding to Aristotle is the claim that the middle is unstable; it is ground that will continually be shifting under our feet because circumstances and needs are not fixed.  The extremes are not bad in and of themselves; they can, in many cases, represent desirable things.  But if pursued single-mindedly, those goods can have undesirable consequences.  Their pursuit needs to be tempered by an awareness of the other goods that are jeopardized if I only pursue that one thing.

What is very much needed, then, in order to keep the peace under such conditions is an ability to never demonize your opponents.  Once the legitimacy of their opposition to me (their valuing some goods more highly than I do) is denied, then I have no reason to negotiate with them.  They are beyond the pale—and all forms of excommunication (including violent ones) are now justified.  Jan-Werner Müller’s essay on populism in the December 1, 2016 issue of the London Review of Books (Müller has a recent book on the topic that I have not read) is sobering reading on this score.  He states—and I think he is right about this—that populism is dangerous precisely because, claiming to speak as the authentic voice of “the people,” it refuses legitimacy, a place at the table, to any of its opponents. (Populism as a variant of Rousseau’s “general will”?  Howes worries about Rousseau in his book.)

More to come along these lines.  Rorty’s “bleeding heart liberalism,” and the relation of liberalism to democracy (which does lead to thinking about what liberalism might hold “sacred”—i.e. non-negotiable).

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