Give Peace a Chance


Against Liberalism, by John Kekes, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 244 pages, $29.95

Well, yes: against liberalism. But which liberalism: the ragtag package of nostrums, slogans, and mea culpas snatched from the wreckage of McGovernism and tended unto this day by the most feckless of the Kennedys; the egalitarian liberalism whose contemporary theorist of greatest renown is philosopher John Rawls; or the etymologically ancestral liberalism predicated on respect for the liberty of individuals to lead their lives according to their own lights? John Kekes, a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Albany, hasn't quite made up his mind, and that contributes to the disorder of his latest book.

Early on, he identifies the liberalism under discussion with "redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor; graduated taxation; mandatory participation in the social security plan…multiculturalism; affirmative action…and the aggressive pursuit of these programs by the federal government." In fact, however, these prevailing fashions of the American left receive scant subsequent attention. Kekes has bigger targets in his sights, and the biggest of all are the three philosophers he presents as emblematic of the entire liberal tradition: John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill. What is common to them (and their various liberal successors) is allegiance above all else to an ideal of personal autonomy.

Within a liberal political order, Kekes contends, autonomy--literally "self rule"--is given a clearer meaning and promoted by assigning paramount status among potential human values to freedom, equality, rights, pluralism, and distributive justice. For Kekes, the problems alleged to plague liberalism arise from two related structural sources. First, these liberal values can and often do conflict with other similarly weighty values--for example, security, prosperity, and health. When such collisions arise, he says, there is no good reason to suppose that the preferred liberal values shall automatically take precedence. Second, Kekes contends that liberalism is internally inconsistent. He rightly notes that liberals espouse value pluralism, meaning thereby that there is not some one way of life or package of goods that always and everywhere takes precedence over all others. Yet by insisting on a liberal order as the uniquely optimal basis for civil life, Kekes argues that liberals enshrine their own set of canonical values (freedom, equality, rights, etc.) as regulative for all societies. Professed pluralism thus collapses into absolutism: a contradiction.

This is too abstract to carry the day, so Kekes attempts to buttress his case by spotlighting specific anomalies. Liberals, he says, are woefully naive concerning the prevalence of evil in human affairs. The moral landscape we jointly inhabit is disfigured by all too many people who, acting from very bad characters, perpetrate manifest evils. Quashing the toxic designs of these evildoers requires severe encroachment on their freedom to perpetrate harms, argues Kekes, yet liberal veneration of autonomy precludes such a course. Rather, liberals' theoretical blind spot leads them to maintain that all moral evils are the product of non-autonomous choices. The liberal prescription for combating evil, then, is to render people more autonomous by educating them, affording them an ample supply of welfare goods, and making readily available to them a range of constructive choices. Such liberal naiveté Kekes maintains is not only implausible; it is contemptible.

With that assessment I heartily concur. But just who are the liberals who fall under such an indictment? I suppose that within the far-left precincts of the Democratic Party there are a few who qualify--though even in those musty caverns the number is diminishing. But it surely does not apply to those whom Kekes himself identifies as the prototypes of liberal philosophy. For instance, in his Second Treatise on Government, Locke notes the sad but inescapable fact that some individuals will choose to act as rights-violating predators. Against such threats to pacific coexistence, Locke argues, every person in the state of nature possesses an executive right of punishment, including authorization to kill or enslave enemies of the peace. With the coming of civil society that right may be centralized in the state apparatus, but it neither disappears nor is in any way diminished.

Kant is notorious for his insistence on an indefeasible duty to punish lawbreakers, holding capital punishment not only permissible but mandatory. And as is well-known, Mill limits his "one simple principle" of liberty to "self-regarding" actions, stating that encroachments on the well-being of others are legitimately proscribable. In short, the liberal naiveté that Kekes identifies is the creation of his own far-fetched reading of this tradition. Equally unsubstantiated is his identification of a "liberal faith" in the goodness of all human beings. "From the crooked timber of humanity," Kant famously wrote, "no truly straight thing can be made." Locke and Mill offer similar cautions. So much for alleged liberal "Pollyannas."

Another flaw of liberalism, complains Kekes, is that its egalitarian message is not sufficiently attentive to morally relevant differences between good and bad persons. If each citizen is to be guaranteed the same amount of what Rawls calls "primary goods"--those all-purpose resources such as opportunity, income, and wealth that are valuable whatever one's particular conception of the good--then tawdry or vicious designs will enjoy the same level of state support as do morally worthy ones. In this respect too, says Kekes, liberalism is blind to the fundamental ethical divide separating better from worse. This criticism has some bite against egalitarian liberals.

But Kekes's charge has no force whatsoever against the classical tradition of liberalism, within which all men are proclaimed to be equal with regard to their basic rights, not their bank account balances. Classical liberals do not insist on redistributing from good to bad individuals. Kekes may respond that neither do they insist on redistributing from bad to good. That is correct, but to infer from such restraint an obliviousness among liberals to distinctions between good and evil is blatantly fallacious. Liberalism is a theory not of "value-free government" but of limited government. More specifically, it is founded on a conception of a division of moral labor within which the state occupies the narrow but crucial role of upholding the rule of law, thereby vindicating persons' basic rights. The task of formulating and pursuing conceptions of the good is decentralized to individuals acting in their private capacity. This division of labor is meant not to diminish the magnitude of the gulf between good and evil but rather to mark it off as too portentous and too personal a concern to be consigned to the broad brush of a one-size-fits-all centralized apparatus.

I believe this to be the single most important respect in which liberalism represents a genuine advance over older theories of political governance. Plato and Aristotle took for granted the pedagogical function of the polis, the idea that it is the job of the state to inculcate and enforce across the populace a unitary ethical norm. So too, in their respective ways, did the Grand Inquisitor, Robespierre, Stalin, and the Ayatollah Khomeini. Liberals from Spinoza and Locke to Berlin and Rawls have announced themselves opposed to this tradition of totalizing politics. Kekes may coherently (though not, I believe, correctly) claim that this is a defective politics, but to decry it as inattentive to differences between good and evil is itself an instance of remarkable inattentiveness.

Kekes's primary error, from which most of the rest follow, is his supposition that the central preoccupation of liberals is autonomy. Although the contemporary literature of moral philosophy is awash with devout invocations of a vaguely specified ideal of autonomy--it is the profession's equivalent of mom and apple pie--this is only one corner, and by no means the most fruitful, of current liberal theory. Despite autonomy's vogue, it is of no more than marginal relevance to the tradition of liberalism. For the founders of liberal theory it is not autonomy but peace that occupies the philosophical focal point.

Locke, for example, knows nothing of autonomy. Rather, in his conception, civil order remedies the manifold "inconveniences" of the state of nature which ever tip it in the direction of the state of war. For Kant, autonomy is indeed the sine qua non of moral worth, but its pursuit is not the business of the state. So little is politics the soil on which autonomy is sown and moral goodness harvested that, proclaims Kant in one of the most striking passages in the entire literature of liberalism, "As hard as it may sound, the problem of setting up a state can be solved even by a nation of devils (so long as they possess understanding)." His proposed solution is a civil order in which individuals enjoy maximum external freedom consistent with a like freedom for all others. This structure is designed to ensure only that people--and devils--don't bump into each other too hard or too often, but it is on that modest foundation that all the excellences of social existence are grounded.

Mill's stance is similar. He is a great enthusiast for autonomy (the term he uses is individuality), but he repeatedly insists that individuals enjoy perfect liberty to order their affairs to their own liking so long as they do not thereby usurp the prerogatives of others. Mill loathes conformism, but he nonetheless defends the rights of individuals to select for themselves lives of submissiveness or superstitious obeisance. He cites Mormon polygamy as an example of a manifestly inferior "experiment in living" in which, however, individuals ought to be left at liberty to enroll themselves. (The U.S. Congress saw things differently, requiring polygamy to be outlawed as a condition for Utah's statehood in the late 19th century.)

Kekes is not a philosopher devoid of talent, and from time to time his discussions repay the reader's attention. The best section of this book is his brief for the seemingly unpromising concept of collective responsibility; liberals would do well to mull over the considerations adduced there. Unfortunately, few will be willing to pay the price of wading through the stylized demolitions of straw men that precede and follow it.

In an afterword, Kekes mentions that he intends a sequel in which he will advocate the cause of a pluralist conservatism. That announcement places Against Liberalism in a familiar genre. Willful misrepresentation of liberal ideas has been a conservative growth industry over the past several decades, so this volume and its successor may be graciously welcomed by The Weekly Standard and mincing denigrators of the l word. But those whose tastes run more to accurate, dispassionate political philosophy will perforce look elsewhere.

Contributing Editor Loren E. Lomasky (llotnask@opie.bgsu.edu) is a professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University.