Damon Linker

A Classical Objection


Before moving on the second part of my examination of liberal neutrality, I feel the need to respond to my old colleague and friend Ralph Hancock, who objects rather passionately to my original post. Ralph's objection is important because it so pointedly and succinctly expresses the classical (Aristotelian and Straussian) dissent from modern liberalism. 

Ralph begins by asserting that the entire liberal tradition -- from Hobbes to Locke to Mill to Rawls -- repeatedly engages in the same act of self-deception (or, perhaps, dishonesty):

what is presented as a non-partisan or “metaphysically neutral” privatization of ends in fact proves to be a privileging of certain ends – certain liberal or liberationist ends – over others.

Ralph then goes on to quote a two-month-old post by Andrew Sullivan that supposedly shows him doing precisely this: championing a politics of metaphysical neutrality while covertly relying on and seeking to promulgate a "moral ontology" of self-expression. Which leads Ralph to his concluding wholesale dismissal of the pipe dream of liberal neutrality on the grounds that all attempts to exclude metaphysics from politics are themselves an expression of a metaphysical commitment. Following Aristotle, he insists instead that politics is always and everywhere a conversation or argument about the common good among individuals and groups explicitly committed to one substantive metaphysical view or another:

Bring your reasons, we say, as they address both the political facts on the ground and your best understanding of connections with larger purposes (no a priori exclusion of religious insights, of course, or of arguments from inherited experience), and we’ll bring ours. And then we’ll talk, and we’ll mobilize interests and claims. That’s why they call it politics. And it’s never “neutral.” 

That's nicely put. But it also misses the point. Modern liberalism does not (or ought not) seek to exclude "ends" from politics. That would be impossible, since human beings think teleologically. What modern liberalism does strive to do is limit the scope of politically legitimate ends to those wrapped up with what Aristotle called "mere life." Ralph would have us believe that it's impossible or self-contradictory to say that politics works better when it excludes considerations of the "good life" (the key liberal claim) because doing so only makes sense on the basis of some prior metaphysical commitment to some substantive vision of the "good life" -- presumably the view that the "good life" is or should be synonymous with "mere life." (That would make liberals into Nietzschean "last men," but I digress.)

But liberalism requires no such prior commitment. The goods of "mere life" (like, e.g., life, liberty, the pursuit of (politically indeterminate) happiness) are intrinsically good by nature; they require no metaphysical grounding. Moreover, they need not be viewed as the final goal of life itself. They are in fact the indisputable precondition of pursuing (or not pursuing) other, higher goods. Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics, and atheists can all agree that their pursuit of the good life as each of them understands it requires life and liberty, including the freedom to believe what they want about metaphysical issues without government interference.

One can also put the point in the terms favored by Michael Oakeshott (which may be what Andrew would prefer to do, though I'll let him speak for himself). Politics, for Oakeshott, does not inevitably involve metaphysical commitments. Sometimes it does -- when it models itself on what he called an "enterprise association" and approaches the ideal type of the "politics of faith." But there is another pole, another option for political life: the arrangement Oakeshott called a "civil association" and the ideal type of the "politics of skepticism." As with all ideal types, these are never fully realized in their pure form, but political practice at any given moment in history leans in one direction or the other. Ralph's Aristotelian politics treats the first pole as the only valid one. Some libertarians perhaps make the opposite mistake of accepting the legitimacy of only the second, which would amount to a realization of Ralph's nightmare of politics conducted without any reference to ends. Neither extreme is sufficient, but at least the libertarians lean (a bit too far) in the right -- which is to say, the liberal -- direction. Ralph, by contrast, wants to hold on to a holistic vision of politics that hasn't matched up with political reality in the West since (at least) the Protestant Reformation fractured the common spiritual life of European men and women nearly five centuries ago.

All of this is terribly abstract, I know, which is one reason why I will soon be posting a follow-up to my original post that continues the discussion of neutrality in terms of a concrete political issue: the liberal defense of a constitutional right to abortion.

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