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.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!!

Happy Birthday, John Locke!

John Locke, lithograph by de Fonroug after H. Garnier, image public domain via the Library of Congress

John Locke, born August 29th, 1632, is probably the single person most responsible for our United States political form of government, or at least its philosophical underpinnings. (Montesquieu can be credited as most responsible for its form, but that’s a story for another time.) The ideas of this Enlightenment, empiricist philosopher and political theorist included arguments in favor of liberal government of and by the people centered on natural rights, including property rights and rights to freedom of thought and belief; an emphasis on reason inspired and restrained by evidence; and the so-called blank slate theory of the human mind, which postulates that experience entirely determines what we think and the kind of person we become.

Learn more about the great John Locke:

‘John Locke’ ~ by William Uzgalis for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

John Locke (1632—1704) ~ by Patrick J. Connolly for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

John Locke, English Philosopher ~ by Graham A.J. Rogers for Encyclopædia Britannica

John Locke Part One and Part Two ~ by Stephen West for Philosophize This

John Locke, 1632-1704 ~ Dr. Rachael Kohn discusses Locke’s life and ideas with Perez Zagorin for The Ark, a program of Australia’s Radio International

The Social Contract ~ Melvyn Bragg and guests Melissa Lane, Susan James, and Karen O’Brien discuss this foundational question of political philosophy, the impetus for Locke’s political theory, for In Our Time. 

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

O.P. Recommends: The Many Deaths of Liberalism, by Daniel Cole and Aurelian Craiutu

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

I read an excellent essay this morning on the nature, history, and purported death struggles of liberalism. It clarified many things for me, reminded me of others, and provided a renewed sense of hope and strength in what I believe is a treacherous political period, especially in my home country.

Here are a few excerpts to pique your interest:

“…[T]he meaning of ‘liberalism’ has always been ambiguous. As Montesquieu noted nearly 300 years ago: ‘No word has received more different significations and has struck minds in so many ways as has liberty.’ The same might be said about its close relation, liberalism. According to the legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron writing in 1987, ‘liberalism’ does not describe a unified, coherent political theory but serves as an umbrella for a large family of theories created over the course of several centuries by diverse authors with disparate notions of its meaning, and harbouring no intentions of creating a fully fledged system of governance.

The name ‘liberalism’ has been used to describe systems of governance as distinctive as the French physiocrats’ laissez-faire, the libertarians’ ‘night watchman state’, Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, the law-ordered state of German Ordoliberals, including Walter Eucken and Wilhelm Röpke, and Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’. Today, ‘new’ liberals criticise ‘neoliberalism’ as a cause of increasing inequality and declining social mobility. At the same time, ‘classical’ liberals denounce the excesses of the social welfare state for its encroachments on individual liberty and the state-dependency it creates.”

– and –

“…[L]iberalism creates a big tent for many different conceptions of the ‘good life’, in accordance with its commitment to individual choice. Some have seen this feature as a weakness of liberalism. The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset could not have disagreed more. Writing at a moment when liberalism’s death was being widely proclaimed in the Western world, he argued in The Revolt of the Masses (1930) that liberalism should best be defined as ‘the supreme form of generosity’. In liberal regimes, he argued, the majority, which has power on its side, concedes to weaker minorities the right to live on their own terms, thus announcing the determination to share existence with – and respect those – who have a different view of the good society.

That such ‘generosity’ can be a source of real strength is attested by liberalism’s real successes. Late in his life, Popper, a self-described liberal ‘optimist’, named several liberal achievements as undeniable facts. At no other time, and nowhere else, he pointed out in 1986, have human beings been more valued, as individuals, than in liberal societies: ‘Never before have their human rights, and their human dignity, been so respected, and never before have so many been ready to bring great sacrifices for others, especially for those less fortunate than themselves.’

Popper was no Dr Pangloss. He did not believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Nor did he overlook social problems that persist in liberal societies. But he appreciated that modern liberal societies are the best political systems we fallible humans have managed to create. He believed that such societies create the best conditions for individual development and social improvement”

– and –

“Success itself is a highly ambiguous and contingent concept. It would be inappropriate for the members of a liberal society ever to expect more than a partial success. Given what Immanuel Kant in 1784 called the ‘crooked timber of humanity’, liberalism’s ambitions and hopes will always exceed its actual achievements. Moreover, liberal democratic societies remain congenitally unstable and imperfect, in part because of liberalism’s conflicting demands for both more individual autonomy and greater equality. Because of that inherent tension, liberalism carries the seeds of its own destruction.

At the same time, it might be short-sighted to see liberalism’s alleged failures as anything more than partial and temporary ones. Even if liberalism does not provide a telos or supreme good toward which we should strive, it helps us avoid greater evils, the most salient being cruelty and the fear it inspires. As Ortega y Gasset reminds us, it was no mean accomplishment ‘that the human species should have arrived at so noble an attitude, so paradoxical, so refined’ in the course of a long history marked by bloodshed, intolerance and violence.”

– and –

“For all its progress, liberalism is inseparable from the doubts we feel about it. Those doubts should cause us to heed, even celebrate, liberalism’s critics for pointing out its real flaws. Less attention should be paid, however, to the loud prophets of liberalism’s demise, who declare the entire liberal project dead or fatally flawed. To the extent that liberalism is about solving problems, if only incrementally, we must continue to conjecture, experiment and refute hypotheses about the best means of maintaining and improving our coexistence on Earth.blockquote

Declaring the ‘death of liberalism’ might trigger alarm bells in the media and help to sell books. But it will not solve any of the real problems that modern liberal societies confront, including the real threats to liberal values about which nearly everyone cares and agrees.”

I hope you enjoy and are as enlightened by this essay as I am!

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

O.P. Recommends: Speaking Ill of Hugh Hefner, by Ross Douthat

‘No doubt what Hefner offered America somebody else would have offered in his place, and the changes he helped hasten would have come rushing in without him.

But in every way that mattered he made those changes worse, our culture coarser and crueler and more sterile than liberalism or feminism or freedom of speech required….

Now that death has taken him, we should examine our own sins. Liberals should ask why their crusade for freedom and equality found itself with such a captain, and what his legacy says about their cause. Conservatives should ask how their crusade for faith and family and community ended up so Hefnerian itself — with a conservative news network that seems to have been run on Playboy Mansion principles and a conservative party that just elected a playboy as our president.’

Read this article in full in the New York Times‘ Opinion Page for Sep 30th, 2017

~ One thing I’d like to make clear: I don’t at all endorse the ageism I discern in many of the articles I’ve read that are critical of Hefner, including this one. So many of these writers imply that Hefner’s sexuality was distasteful, at least in part, because of the physical attributes associated with aging. For example, Douthat mocks Hefner’s ‘papery skin’ and ‘decrepitude’ as if they were among those things the reader should be disgusted by. I don’t believe it’s any more justified to stereotype older people as it is to stereotype women based on narrow conceptions of what desirable or likable people should look like.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, John Locke!

John Locke, lithograph by de Fonroug after H. Garnier, image public domain via the Library of Congress

John Locke, born August 29th, 1632, is probably the single person most responsible for our United States political form of government, or at least its philosophical underpinnings. (Montesquieu can be credited as most responsible for its form, but that’s a story for another time.) The ideas of this Enlightenment, empiricist philosopher and political theorist included arguments in favor of liberal government of and by the people centered on natural rights, including property rights and rights to freedom of thought and belief; an emphasis on reason inspired and restrained by evidence; and the so-called blank slate theory of the human mind, which postulates that experience entirely determines what we think and kind of person we become.

There’s an excellent, very approachable introductory short biography of Jonn Locke written by Patrick J. Connolly for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy which I recommend. And Locke’s ideas are explored often here at Ordinary Philosophy as well.

Learn more about this great and oh-so-influential thinker at:

‘John Locke’  – by William Uzgalis for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

John Locke Part One and Part Two – podcast episodes by Stephen West for Philosophize This

John Locke 1632-1704 – Dr. Rachael Kohn discusses Locke’s life and ideas with Perez Zagorin for The Ark, a program of Australia’s Radio International

The Social Contract – Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss this foundational question of political philosophy, which was the impetus for Locke’s political theory  – ‘By what authority does a government govern?’ for In Our Time. 

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Behind the Veil: Rawls, Locke, de Tocqueville, and Human Connection in a Liberal Society

People in a Public Square, cropped, Image Creative Commons CCO Public Domain via PixabayI’ve been listening to this excellent series from a favorite podcast of mine, the Philosopher’s Zone on Australia’s RN (Radio National), hosted by Joe Gelonesi. There’s this recent series called Political Philosophy in the World, hosted by guest host Scott Stephens, which considers and critiques seven important topics in political philosophy. I just listened to the last one, Political Philosophy in the World: Liberalism and the End of the World as We Know It.

In it, interviewee Patrick Deneen offers a series of critiques of liberalism, his own and others’ over its roughly five century history. (We’re speaking here not of liberalism as commonly understood in the U.S., as political positions on the left of the spectrum, but of classical liberalism, a political philosophy which focuses on liberty and the primacy of the individual.) From the beginning, liberal philosophers and their critics have identified and described possible contradictions in the system itself, and ways in which it may end up being self-defeating in the real world. For example, John Locke, a founding father of liberalism, recognizes that it would require a strong state to protect the autonomy of the individual from competitors and from the ‘querulous and contentious’, and that individual autonomy in a marketplace, unfettered by other constraints, will lead to conditions that foster inequality, discontent, and revolution (at about 4:40 and 14:40, then 10:30). Alexis de Tocqueville observes that though individuals enjoy this autonomy at the beginning, they are left weakened and alone by the erosion of those institutions that create bonds of loyalty and affection in a society, such as family, tradition, and belief (at about 15:00). Deneen, in sum, describes these and various other ways in which liberalism can fail to achieve its end of liberating the individual to achieve their potential to the fullest possible extent.

The discussion in its entirety is absolutely fascinating, but my attention is caught particularly by Deneen’s observation of a problem with the great liberal political philosopher John Rawls’ famed ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment (starting at about 19:00). Rawls’ veil of ignorance is a beautifully elegant method of envisioning and crafting a just society. Imagine you’re looking at a society from the outside knowing you’ll be placed in it with no idea what you’ll be: rich, poor, or middle-class; tall or short; intelligent or not; of which gender; outgoing or shy; of which race; employed or not and at what kind of job; and so on. Given this hypothetical situation, what cultural practices, laws, policies, governmental system, economic system, and so on, would you put into place? Behind that veil of ignorance, you’d be motivated to to design a society that’s just and fair, that benefits everyone to the greatest degree possible, since of course, you could be the one who suffers the ill effects of any injustice built into the system.

8694d-justice2bet2binc3a9galitc3a92b-2bles2bplateaux2bde2bla2bbalance2bby2bfrachet2c2bjan2b20102c2bpublic2bdomain2bvia2bwikimedia2bcommonsAs Deneen points out, Rawls, like other liberal political philosophers, recognizes that people in a liberal society may, over time, act not out of true freedom, but as slaves of their individual desires and passions. Since liberalism promotes the idea that society is and should be made of up autonomous individuals freely pursuing their own ends, the values of individuals in that society may become self-serving to the point of destructiveness. This destruction can be of social institutions that provide support and meaning, such as family, tradition, and belief, of liberalism’s own key institutions such as the free markets of goods and ideas, and as we now recognize, of the very environment from which all of this is derived. Rawls posits the veil of ignorance as a way to free ourselves from this trap, by transforming ourselves, in thought, into benevolent, self-effacing avatars of justice. But, Deneen points out, Rawls never really provides an explanation of why we we’d all want to go behind the veil of ignorance in the first place. After all, Rawls’ entire theory of justice-as-fairness as described in his magnum opus A Theory of Justice, which the view from behind the veil reveals to us, depends on the participation of everyone. If even one person remains aloof, that person’s interests and motivations aren’t considered or checked by those of others, which, in turn, is not fair.

From within the thought experiment, the motivation to go behind the veil makes sense: since liberalism is meant to promote the liberty and well-being of all individuals, it makes sense to envision and design a society where some individuals are not allowed to enjoy advantages that limit or even destroy the liberty and well-being of others. But this still doesn’t account for why we’d all want to go behind the veil in the first place. In a liberal society in the real world, only those suffering its ill effects will be motivated to do so, since those who have found relative success within its parameters will be ever more motivated to keep the pursuit of their own interests free from the demands and constraints of others until it serves them otherwise.

With the disconnection from other people which liberalism can tend to foster in mind, as described by de Toqueville and Rawls, I picture a whole society of people behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance. Then something in this picture strikes me: behind this veil, all the people are looking in the same direction, encircled around the society they must share. They are united, not separated by competing interests nor from the bonds of family, tradition, and belief. They are cooperating as equals, with a shared goal and a shared ethic: the liberty to achieve the fullest degree of perfection that an individual is capable of, with others’ interests as much in mind as their own so far as possible. These interests can and invariably do include family, tradition, and belief. Those with a narrow view of liberalism often speak only of individual interests as involving the individual pursuit for food and shelter, money, comfort, wealth, and prestige, and dismiss family, tradition, and belief as impediments to human liberty. But of course, this is not necessarily so, as we observe their lasting power and meaningfulness in the real world throughout history and to this day, even where liberalism as an institution is most robust. Material comfort and prestige are not and have never been the only and or even, for many, the primary motivators of thought and action in any society.

Behind the veil, then, is that deep need for human connection fulfilled in the context of an idealized liberalism, that the institution of liberalism in the real world can undermine if uncorrected by the state or by an ethic such as Rawls’ justice-as-fairness. Does Rawls have this picture of a united humanity in mind as he devises his thought experiment, though he doesn’t describe it per se? Perhaps Rawls does recognize this motivation for going behind the veil: our realization that while the pursuit of our own individual interests can be fulfilling, it can also undermine our potential of fulfilling our deepest humanity, not only tied to the destinies of others but with a deep emotional need for deep and lasting connections with one another. Behind the veil of ignorance, we are thus united, connected, bonded, sharing a vision, in a state of equal humanity, of a good and just world for all of us.

*Listen to the podcast version here or subscribe on iTunes

~ Also published at Darrow, a forum for culture and ideas

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and Inspiration:

Alexis de Tocqueville‘, in Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Gaus, Gerald, Courtland, Shane D. and Schmidtz, David, ‘Liberalism‘, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Political Philosophy in the World: Liberalism and the End of the World as We Know It.’ from The Philosopher’s Zone Podcast, Sun May 15 2016, Radio National, Australia. Host: Joe Gelonesi

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Uzgalis, William, “John Locke“, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

New Podcast Episode: Communitarianism, Writ Large

Listen to this podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes

I listened to Bill Moyers’ discussion with Michelle Alexander recently, about her book The New Jim Crow and her activism against the over-incarceration of black people here in the US. Something she said really struck me, as it relates to a problem I’ve been mulling over for some time. She said:

‘…I realize that as well-intentioned as all that work was, it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking… Ought I not care equally for all? And that really was Dr. King’s insistence at the end of his life….’

Alexander’s reflection on her own work illustrates our need not only to grow more expansive in our thinking in order to achieve a more just society not just locally, but globally: we need to witness and internalize the sufferings faced by other human beings who are not like us in appearance and culture, so that our instincts for empathy and for justice expand as well… Read original essay here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!