Bleeding Heart Liberalism

Another installment in my ongoing posts about liberalism.

I am continuing here my discussion of liberalism as a sensibility—as contrasted to a set of principled, non-contradictory, propositions or policy commitments.

The term ‘bleeding heart liberalism” was embraced by Richard Rorty in order to emphasize the liberal response to suffering.  For Rorty, liberals are most easily recognized as those who wish to use the political order to alleviate suffering.  It is sympathy with those who suffer and the willingness to understand that suffering comes in many forms—from economic deprivation to various kinds of social humiliation—that marks someone as “liberal.”  Conservatives, by way of contrast, will excuse suffering as “inevitable” or “necessary”—or, even worse, will look to identify reasons why the sufferer deserves his or her fate.  Conservatives at their worst are eager to inflict pain; at their best, they are mostly indifferent to the pain of others.  As someone recently said in the comments section of Brad Delong’s blog, the amazing and upsetting thing about current conservatives is that they are not happy with the rich in this country garnering more and more of the nation’s wealth.  Getting the lion’s share is not good enough for them.  They have to go out of their way to make the poorer 50% suffer.  It’s as if they cannot enjoy their own prosperity unless they know that others are in dire straits.

William James, in the first lecture of Pragmatism, famously distinguished between the “hard-headed” empiricists and the “tender-hearted” rationalists when he was arguing that “temperament” (a good synonym for “sensibility”) is the chief determinant of one’s philosophical outlook.  (He proposed pragmatism as a way to split the difference between the two.)  The empiricist looks to the facts, and does not believe that values are underwritten by the world.  It’s a jungle out there—and the chips fall where they may.  So buck up—and eat or be eaten.  James, with his obsession with “striving” and “zest,” could be attracted to this masculinist version of Darwin, even though James was also appalled by its more extreme embodiment in Teddy Roosevelt.  The rationalist, on the other hand, asserts that the universe itself is just—and thus guarantees that human dreams of justice will bear fruit.  Reason will prevail (in some long term) and reason is on the side of the angels.

The pragmatist alternative (at least as Rorty portrays it) is to say the universe is neither for nor against human desires.  Suffering is not inevitable—except in so far as we are creatures who die.  We are also creatures who are vulnerable to pain (the very basis of the problem of violence as Dustin Howes so crucially reminds us).  The issue is how we, as social beings, respond to that vulnerability.  The liberal ideal is to use human collective action and the institutional arrangements of human society to minimize suffering.(I will take up this theme in a subsequent post.)  Non-liberals exploit vulnerability to augment their own power and their own share of resources.  Non-liberals dress up their appropriation of more than their fair share with various kinds of appeals to “merit” or “desert”—or by the demonization of those who end up with a lesser share.

At the end of the day, a liberal like Rorty and a liberal like Martha Nussbaum end up in the same place.  But Nussbaum, like Kant, is a rationalist insofar as she believes that reason will lead us to take a liberal position.  (Rawls is also a rationalist, but of a rather different strips.  I am going to stick to Nussbaum for the moment.)  Nussbaum wants to ground her liberalism on universalism, on a version of Kant’s categorical imperative.  Only on the pain of self-contradiction (a pain that seems to bother very few in fact) can I gather to myself benefits that I deny to others.  And Nussbaum believes, following Aristotle, that she can identify as indelible features of human nature the “needs” that all humans share as well as the requisites—beyond need—of full human “flourishing.”  In this way, she can list the requirements a just society, a truly good society, must meet.  It’s an attractive vision, at least to this liberal.  But I am with Rorty when it comes to the foundational issue.

Rorty basically says that you can’t derive (in that rationalist, Spinoza-like, way) the lineaments of a just society through a rational thought process.  Rather, our sense of justice, of what a good society should provide, is an historical development, a set of responses to specific events and crises.  So, just like our various political institutions and our laws and notions of rights, are ad hoc expedients developed in response to various ills and opportunities, so our notion of what each citizen should receive has developed over time.  The very notions of parental leave or of homosexual marriage were unthinkable (quite literally) 150 years ago.  And the “rational” basis for advocating either of them is different from the “rational” basis of trial by a jury of one’s peers.  It doesn’t all hang together in some grand vision.

That doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, that we should not attempt to define for ourselves what “human flourishing” means.  But we shouldn’t expect that our definition of flourishing will be endorsed by the universe or will be so “right” that it is valid for all time and all places.  Instead, we should fully expect “flourishing” to be a moving target, for new “needs” and “goods” to come to the fore.  Our understanding of flourishing is as fallible as any other piece of human knowledge—and the effort to identify some core “human nature” is misguided and vain.

Furthermore, Rorty is saying the appeal of liberalism is not to our reason.  It is to our sympathies.  So Rorty is on the side of Hume and Adam Smith, not with Kant and Nussbaum.  (Admittedly, the case of Nussbaum is complex, since her rationalist universalism is joined uneasily by her emphasis on the emotions.)  What liberals should aim to do is to expand the circle of those for whom we feel sympathy, those to whom we feel an obligation to alleviate their suffering.  The biggest obstacle to liberalism is parochialism, the seemingly stubborn tendency of humans to only care about the well-being of those fairly closely connected to them.

So, against the conservative scorn for bleeding heart liberals, Rorty says we would all be better off if the number of bleeding hearts were much greater—and if those hearts bled for more and more people, with the goal of finally embracing every member of the species.

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