Monday , December 4 2023
It is thus that modern day liberalism, has long since acquired the distinct flavor of being a knee-jerk reaction, nothing more.

Hobbes and Locke Revisited, A Postscript

A cautionary word or two concerning these essays. For didactic reasons and in the interest of time, I took certain liberties with respect to presenting the subject matter and constructing a counterargument. For instance, I thought it would be more illuminating to focus on a number of key concepts which lie at the heart of the liberal-democratic theory, more illuminating than any systematic exposition of the theory itself. The notion of “possessive individualism” is one such concept, and I believe it goes a long way to elucidate the gist of the liberal-democratic thought; the notion of empathy, springing as it were from what I termed “moral impulse,” is another. Naturally, the exposition itself had suffered from having taken a back seat. It’s the express purpose of this postscript to rectify this seeming defect while reassuring the reader that not much has been lost; that inattention to the systematic exposition of the theory, or its derivation from the ground up, is not as grave as it might appear.

Let me illustrate. In the concluding part of the series, I spoke, for instance, of John Stuart Mill, the presumptive father of modern-day liberal thought, while apparently discounting his so-called “utilitarian streak,” my term. By encouraging the reader to look instead to Mill’s polemical writings concerning the many injustices prevalent in the early days of the industrial England, I may have created the impression that Mill’s liberal/libertarian bent was mostly, if not solely, a by-product of his moral impulse, that his “utilitarian streak” was more or less coincidental or beside the point.

Well, one just can’t do that. Mill was first and foremost a philosopher, not an ordinary mortal. It stands to reason that his political philosophy would be a direct offshoot of a coherent thought-system, including his picture of Everyman, rather than a mere consequence of being “touchy-feely” or however acute his personal sense of empathy. Which isn’t to say that empathy cannot play a part or serve as a legitimate basis for political philosophy – say, a philosophy of love, as evidenced, for instance, by First Corinthians 13, the writings of bell hooks, or the life and acts of Jesus Christ – only that this wasn’t so in Mill’s case. Consequently, we can’t divorce Mill’s political thought and his liberalism from their utilitarian underpinnings: they’re inextricable.

It’s also of no account that utilitarianism, the thought-system which gave rise to and ultimately shaped Mill’s political philosophy, happened to be a system of ethics then in vogue. Every political philosophy must, in one way or another, derive from some conception of what it means to be a human, a moral agent, more succinctly, no matter how obscure the connection with the ethical system which underlies it or whether the terms of that system are well- or ill-defined. What does matter, however, and it’s the only thing that matters, is that the underlying account of our moral comings and goings and our specifically moral type of motivation be a sound one, which is to say believable. This certainly isn’t the case with the utilitarian version of ethics, whether Bentham’s or Mill’s. In any event, empathy wasn’t an integral part of their political or moral theory even though, for argument’s sake, they may have been the most empathetic persons to have ever walked the face of the Earth.

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.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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