O.P. Recommends: Patrick Deneen and Ezra Klein Discuss the Failures (and Successes?) of Liberalism

‘The Liberal Deviseth Liberal Things,’ memorial at St Bernard’s Well on the Water of Leith

I have not yet read the book and it may be some time before I get the opportunity, but as is the case so often these days as I work towards my doctorate degree, I rely on discussions with authors to keep up with what’s happening out there in the world of ideas. This little review is, therefore, of the ideas expressed in the context of this discussion only, not of those discussed in the context of the book.

Yesterday morning, as I walked to a class, I listened to this particularly fascinating discussion on Ezra Klein’s podcast: Patrick Deneen says liberalism has failed. Is he right?

Klein and Deneen base their discussion, in part, around the origins of classical liberal thinking, which include John Locke’s thought experiment regarding humankind ‘in the state of nature.’ This is the state of being prior to or outside civil government, and is a way to puzzle out which rights, if any, human beings have according to nature rather than according to civil law. Deneen points out, rightly I think, that this thought experiment is so artificial, so divorced from the actual reality of human nature, that it might lead to misleading results. Human nature, in fact, is bound up in ties to family, friends, society, the political sphere, and so on. To derive rights from the nature of the rootless individual is to derive them from a nature that is, well, not fully human. Liberalism, as Deneen defines it, is the prioritization of the rights and interests of the individual above all else, and points out that this is the central project of both the liberal and conservative parties of the United States. For the former, the personal and expressive life of the individual should suffer little interference from the state, and for the latter, the economic choices of the individual should suffer little such interference. Of course, this is a very rough characterization of the left-and-right political divide, and I suspect that Deneen would agree with my own observation that many on both sides of the political divide no longer seem to adhere very closely to these general principles.

As Klein points out, though there’s much to critique in Deneen’s views, his discussion of why so many people in liberal societies suffer loneliness, depression, alienation, addiction, suicide, and other ills, is often insightful and timely throughout. Deneen sees these as inevitable results of societal values that promote the rights and interests of the individual without sufficient, healthy checks on the single-minded pursuit of individual satisfaction and fulfillment. Human beings intimate ties to others to be happy and healthy, and it appears that without the corrective of social and spiritual concerns, the thoroughly liberal person (again, as Deneen defines it) may very well end up enslaved to the whims and vagaries of appetites, often unhealthy ones, unmoored from personal values or love and loyalty to others.

I consider myself more of a political liberal in many respects, and I felt myself recognizing that some of my reasons echo Deneen’s sentiments. For one, I believe that inherent to the ethos of personal responsibility, often cited as a core value of western conservatism, is taking individual responsibility for behaviors that contribute to larger problems. Further, if individuals continue to behave in a way that significantly erodes the healthy functioning of individuals, families, and societies, then people might have the right to demand that others change their behavior. For example, the degradation of ecosystems that sustain life, health, and happiness through thoughtless over-consumption is, then, it seems to me as it does to Deneen, at least as important a social issue as it is a moral and spiritual one. This is only one of the many matters on which Deneen, in this discussion, offers a timely and well-considered critique of many of the mores and practices the western world takes for granted.

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