On what basis, then, can we possibly associate empathy with liberalism, let alone consider the former as the spring of action? We must remember that we are no longer dealing here with Mill’s original conception or his philosophy but with an aftermath, a behemoth that, for better or worse, arose in their wake – a modern-day welfare state with all its accoutrements. Besides, it’s highly unlikely that any of the modern-day liberals, be they intellectuals or the hoi polloi, would continue to subscribe to Mill’s rather antiquated views of human nature, let alone utilitarianism - the only thing remaining being a meme, a mere shadow, a remnant, the long-lost connection to a philosophical system that had once circumscribed liberalism but now arcane.
It is thus that modern-day liberalism, having been divorced from its original bearings, philosophy of human nature and all, has long since acquired the distinct flavor of being a knee-jerk reaction, nothing more. To endow it therefore with a quality of mind akin to empathy, a moral impulse or motive as though the sole spring of action and thought, its current raison d'être, is a gesture, and a generous gesture at that. For indeed, in the absence of any political philosophy of note to govern his or her political agenda, we are justified in saying that the modern-day liberal does in fact behave as if empathy and nothing but empathy were his primary motive. And considering we could easily accuse him of openly advocating statism, it’s the best one can do.
Likewise with conservatism, albeit in reverse: it, too, had suffered in the course of this presentation, mainly due to its juxtaposition with its natural enemy in the purely political (and therefore) meaningless context. But perhaps the true meaning of conservatism, still extant, comes across most clearly in the social rather than in the political milieu, as evident, for example, in the writings of Emile Durkheim or Edmund Burke. Take, for instance, the following passage from Burke:
Society is indeed a contract. It is to be looked on with . . . reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.
What’s at stake here, I say, is “the collective character of social action,” the point of departure for the forthcoming series of essays in which I’ll attempt to carve out a brand-new political paradigm, a paradigm that’d be capable of supporting a political philosophy for the new age, a philosophy beyond liberalism. In that spirit, let me cite an incisive little passage from a thoughtful critique by Robert Paul Wolff:
The collective character of social action is the universal presupposition of the social sciences, and modern liberals, who have wholeheartedly adopted the theories of sociology and social psychology, are accustomed to view society through the eyes of conservative social theorists like Weber and Durkheim and radical social theorists like Marx. Despite their assimilation of collectivist sociology, however, liberals continue to employ the assumptions and models of an individualist politics. The result is a confusion which contributes to the incoherence of contemporary political discussion in the United States.
Meanwhile, I can do no better than urge the more scrupulous of the readers to avail themselves of Wolff’s rather unpretentious and highly-readable volume, The Poverty of Liberalism for proper balance. Though written over forty years ago, it’s still one of the best critiques of liberalism yet.