The Baby and the Bathwater
National Affairs, Number, 41, Fall 2019
13 Pages Posted: 7 Oct 2019
Date Written: September 20, 2019
Among the most prominent lines of argument in political theory in the past several years has been a sharp critique of “liberalism” as essentially incompatible with pre-liberal ideals of human flourishing. Scholars advancing this critique object to the notion commonly asserted by progressives, usually in the name of “liberalism,” that liberal ideals require laws that are “neutral” — by which they mean laws that do not embody and are not predicated upon any substantive view of what is humanly and morally valuable or what is right and wrong — and that only laws that elevate unlimited personal choice in matters like abortion and sexuality can pass that test. Any political arrangement that insists on such neutrality is misbegotten and harmful, the critics argue.
Such arguments are right about what many influential progressives have made of “liberal” political and social theory. But could it be that an order that might be called “liberal” — namely, the sort of thing sometimes described as “liberal democracy” — is morally defensible? We believe so, while agreeing that “neutralist” liberalism is misguided. Indeed we think that the contemporary critique of neutralist liberalism itself points toward a defense of a certain (very different) sort of liberalism, or at least to a defensible social and political order in which certain “liberal” principles and institutions are key parts of the picture. The supposed neutrality or (to use John Rawls’s term) “anti-perfectionism” of contemporary progressive liberalism is indeed illusory. Appeals to moral neutrality, however sincerely offered, have functioned in practice as smoke screens to disguise the smuggling in of a certain controversial conception of the good — one that progressives hold and just about everyone else rejects.
Rejecting anti-perfectionist liberalism need not commit one to rejecting all forms or aspects of what might legitimately be called “liberalism,” even if one judges — as we do — much of Enlightenment liberal philosophy, including its most influential contemporary forms (e.g., Rawlsianism), to be misguided. As two scholars who have deployed and sought to contribute to the development of the Aristotelian-Thomistic moral tradition, we see no reason to view Lockean liberalism — or Kantian or Rawlsian liberalism — as philosophical advances (whatever might be learned from them). Indeed, we have good reasons to judge them unsound in fundamental ways. And yet we are prepared to defend, for our own reasons, what are sometimes labeled “liberal” political institutions. (Of course, there is no magic in the word “liberalism,” and it need not be used if one regards it as so bound in common social usage to neutralism that its use risks misleading people.)
Many “liberal” political ideals and institutions predate liberal philosophy and, more to the point, have proven effective at promoting the common good. Some such ideals and institutions have much stronger (in the sense of more credible) justifications in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition than in Lockean or Rawlsian liberal theory. None of them rests upon or presupposes the necessity, desirability, or even possibility of neutrality about the human good. Representative government, separation of powers, constitutionalism, limited government and respect for the autonomy and integrity of institutions of civil society (beginning with the marriage-based family), jury trial, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and other basic civil liberties all pre-date John Locke. They are more than defensible (and are indeed better defended) without invoking Lockean philosophical ideas.
We should not do away with any of them, for they are the political ideals and institutions that, compared to the alternatives, best promote and protect the common good — even when we conceive of the common good in a manner quite alien to some central principles of Enlightenment or contemporary progressive liberalism.
It is good for conservatives to once again think about which institutions and policies truly and effectively promote the political common good. We should be aware of the demons in democracy, as philosopher Ryszard Legutko points out, and be sensitive to negative trajectories built into the logic of Lockean and other forms of Enlightenment liberalism, as Patrick Deneen argues.
But to suggest, as Rod Dreher’s summary statement of Deneen’s thesis does, that “classical liberalism strikes out” goes too far. While classical liberalism (or important elements of it) may not have hit a home run, it certainly hasn’t struck out. Politics is a practical discipline aimed at effectively promoting the common good. Noting the philosophical defects of liberalism (as we ourselves have done) and recognizing the limitations of even morally defensible and desirable “liberal” institutions is important. But by itself, it does not tell us what in effect will best promote the common good of any particular community.
That judgment requires practical wisdom as well as a steady grip on foundational philosophical truths. Our “liberal” institutions deserve better than to be dismissed a priori based on abstractions. They deserve to be admired when they enable the common good, and improved (or in some cases replaced) when they don’t.
Keywords: Liberalism, natural law, common good, neutrality, perfectionism, rights, private property, free speech, religious liberty, religion, Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Kant, Rawls
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