Justifying Liberalism
Essays Politics

Justifying Liberalism

Ryan Frant

How can liberal theory survive within a tradition?

A perennial issue for political theory is how a polity can be justified. Justification in this sense asks how a political society can have any legitimate authority over its citizens. Do we, like Filmer centuries ago, appeal to the divine right of kings? Do we, like Locke, tell ourselves a story about God and how “we are born in common?”[1] Or do we tell ourselves a story about an imaginary social contract?

The social contract tradition has managed to outlive these other ideas through thinkers like John Rawls. Rawls’s A Theory of Justice revived normative theory in the Anglo world and spelled out a liberal system where “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.”[2] In this view, citizens can form their own comprehensive doctrines—a set of answers for how a person wants to live their life, thinks about the good, &c.—but they must first agree on the principles of justice. Tomes have already been written criticizing and defending this project; I do not wish to add to the debate. Rather, I want to explore the very possibility of any philosophical system to adequately justify a polity.

The Kantian Tradition

The Enlightenment project as epitomized by Kant dealt with finding universally accessible truths through reason. Kant’s goal was in part to justify the moral system inherited from religion while deflating some of the Enlightenment’s most grandiose claims. His twentieth-century disciples, however, have devised their own methods of justifying liberal democracy. Most prominent among them, Rawls and Jürgen Habermas—despite their disagreement on a number of issues—have aligned on this cause: the early Rawls of A Theory of Justice invented devices such as the original position and the veil of ignorance, while Habermas has established the device of the ideal speech situation. While these two projects share the same goal of defending liberal democracy through Kantian methods, they also receive similar criticisms. First, many have rightly pointed out that these systems are more metaphysical than they let on. Indeed, Rawls so strongly felt the need to respond to this criticism that it became the exigence for his book Political Liberalism. Second, these devices employed by Rawls and Habermas can act as intuition pumps, whereby these tools reinforce their moral intuitions (in Rawls’s case to the welfare state). Rawls’s original position, for instance, abstracts away the inherent, irreconcilable moral disagreement present in political society to yield his favored results while Habermas defines communication in a restrictive way to fit his theory of communicative action.[3]

While these are important criticisms, most writers fail to frame them into a deeper, foundational problem that is at the heart of this Kantian tradition: attempting to theorize outside of history, contingencies, and tradition. Liberal theorists as a result have expected their work to do more than is possible, which includes the project of justifying liberal democracy. The work of Alasdair MacIntyre delineates this problem while the work of Richard Rorty provides us with a solution.

MacIntyre’s Critique of Liberal Theorizing

Alasdair MacIntyre is typically placed within the communitarian movement, which argues against the individualism of liberalism in favor of a more communal sense of self. This characterization of MacIntyre has its merits—indeed he writes often about his Aristotelian commitments—but, unlike other communitarian writers, MacIntyre accepts the challenge of discrediting liberalism and the broader Enlightenment project from which it draws.

In After Virtue, MacIntyre shows how the Enlightenment project differed from ancient philosophy in that it unmoored itself from history—it sought to find ahistorical truths that could justify historical predicaments. This created a uniquely modern problem: the fact-value distinction. There are facts and values, and propositions such as “this chair is black” are characteristic of the former while propositions such as “this chair is good” are characteristic of the latter. Obviously, there is a conceptual leap between these two propositions, but this was not a problem to ancient philosophers. Before the Enlightenment ancient philosophers employed the notion of a telos—an end or purpose of an action—to surmount the hurdle between facts and values. For instance, if the telos of a chair is the act of being sat on, then we can compare matters of fact about the chair (perhaps one of the legs is broken) with its telos to obtain a value judgement of that chair. Thus, it is possible to normatively evaluate things in the world. The Enlightenment project, however, abandoned these notions of a purpose.

In the wake of this, Macintyre observes that:

“Up to the present in everyday discourse the habit of speaking of moral judgments as true or false persists; but the question of what it is in virtue of which a particular moral judgment is true or false has come to lack any clear answer. That this should be so is perfectly intelligible if the historical hypothesis which I have sketched is true: that moral judgments are linguistic survivals from the practices of classical theism which have lost the context provided by these practices.”[3]

In other words, modern liberal theory has aspired to a goal that cannot be accomplished with the philosophical tools available, and this stems from our appropriating language of the ancients for a modern project that seeks, to use Nagel’s phrase, a “view from nowhere.”[4]

The best illustration of this phenomenon is MacIntyre’s analogy between liberal theorizing and the mores of Polynesian culture. When Europeans first came in contact with the Polynesians, MacIntyre explains, the European sailors did not understand the natives’ word taboo. Upon further investigation, the natives could not explain this concept to the Europeans. The loose, culturally private nature of taboo allowed King Kamehameha II to get rid of taboo and the practices it described with relative ease some forty years after the Europeans first entered. From this historical narrative, MacIntyre takes away the following lesson: “Why should we think about our modern uses of good, right and obligatory in any different way from that in which we think about late eighteenth-century Polynesian uses of taboo? And why should we not think of Nietzsche as the Kamehameha II of the European tradition?”[5]

In other words, MacIntyre believes political theorists have lost the true meaning of the concepts they use and the resulting disconnect has brought nothing but confusion. How does this reflect itself in political theory? Regarding liberal theorizing MacIntyre shows how debates among liberals—such as Rawls and Nozick—have been futile and will always be futile. Though both liberals, Rawls and Nozick ground their conceptions of justice in wholly different, incompatible first order principles. On one hand, Nozick grounds his theory in a Lockean schema of just acquisition and entitlement where resulting inequalities, barring historical injustice, can coincide with justice.[6] On the other hand, Rawls picks principles from the original position to define a just distribution of primary goods where justice may require external redistribution by the state—which is forbidden in Nozick’s system. The conclusions of these two different arguments are radically different, and because they are derived from two different, mutually exclusive first-order principles, how can the difference between the two be resolved? Regarding this dilemma, MacIntyre remarks that “these two types of claim are indeed, as I suggested, incommensurable, and the metaphor of ‘weighing’ moral claims is not just inappropriate but misleading.”[7] Of course, these principles are so different in kind, that in a theoretical sense one cannot weigh them as one might weigh two physical objects. Liberal theorizing leaves us at a crossroads. In wake of this the very possibility of a rational settlement between these different theories is nonexistent.

The Pragmatist Response

MacIntyre locates this modern problem in the Western, individualist culture of emotivism. Without going too far into moral philosophy, this was the culture inspired by logical positivists like A. J. Ayer, whose book Language, Truth and Logic codified this philosophy. Its goal was the elimination of metaphysics through the use of the controversial (and now debunked) verification principle, whereby a proposition has meaning if and only if it can be empirically verified. In terms of morality this meant that moral propositions—“this is good”—were reduced to emotive propositions—“I approve of this”.

One offspring of this school of thought began in America, MacIntyre argues, as the pragmatist movement, composed originally of John Dewey, Charles Sanders Pierce, and William James. Even though MacIntyre dismissed pragmatism along with emotivism for the reasons mentioned previously (namely the discussion of the fact-value distinction) American pragmatism actually solves MacIntyre’s conundrum about liberal theorizing—albeit in a way similar to how Alexander solved the Gordian knot.

Specifically, pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty shows one method to address MacIntyre’s concerns. Rorty shares MacIntyre’s same skepticism towards the Enlightenment project, writing that “[justification] can only be something relatively local and ethnocentric—the tradition of a particular community, the consensus of a particular culture.”[8] Thus, both Rorty and MacIntyre recognize the inherent historical and circumstantial nature of justification. Rorty, in fact, takes his historicism so far that he even questions the objectivity of science, arguing along the lines of Thomas Kuhn that “the fact that Newton’s vocabulary lets us predict the world more easily than Aristotle’s does not mean that the world speaks Newtonian.”[9]
Rorty departs from MacIntyre, however, in his tendency to dissolve philosophical problems. In this way Rorty borrows from Wittgenstein’s philosophical methodology in the Philosophical Investigations in that he seeks to pacify our philosophical urges rather than offer an explicit solution to those philosophical problems. What, then, is Rorty’s solution to MacIntyre’s dilemma? The answer Rorty gives is that we should double down on liberal democracy.

Rorty invokes Judith Shklar’s Liberalism of Fear to outline his own kind of liberalism fused with irony:

“I use “ironist” to name the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires - someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance. Liberal ironists are people who include among these ungroundable desires their own hope that suffering will be diminished, that the humiliation of human beings by other human beings may cease.”[10]

Already we can see that, unlike MacIntyre, Rorty does not emphasize the issue of justification; for him, this is not a necessary condition to advancing his political theory. As we will see, Rorty believes that philosophy serves democracy—not the other way around. But what might a community of liberal ironist look like? Rorty answers this very question:

*“The citizens of my liberal utopia would be people who had a sense of the contingency of their language of moral deliberation, and thus of their consciences, and thus of their community. They would be liberal ironists—people who met Schumpeter’s criterion of civilization, people who combined commitment with a sense of the contingency of their own commitment.”[11]

From this quotation, John Stuart Mill’s influence on Rorty is apparent. Mill, in fact, was listed by pragmatist founder William James as an influence upon his theory. This makes sense because Mill’s On Liberty delineated themes from pragmatist thought such as the fallibility of human thought and the indeterminacy of truth; as Mill remarks, “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”[12] Rorty, therefore, takes this classical liberal doctrine and turns it to address MacIntyre’s observation of the incommensurability of different traditions. Indeed, while MacIntyre sees this incompatibility as an end to rational inquiry, Rorty sees it as something we ought to gauge while we rationally deliberate as democratic citizens:

“[The liberal ironist] does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself. Ironists who are inclined to philosophize see the choice between vocabularies as made neither within a neutral and universal metavocabulary nor by an attempt to fight one’s way past appearances to the real, but simply by playing the new off against the old.”[13]

With this in mind, we can understand how Rorty saves liberal democracy from MacIntyre’s criticism. Rorty attacks communitarian writers, among which he places MacIntyre, for “the view that liberal institutions and culture either should not or cannot survive the collapse of the philosophical justification that the Enlightenment provided for them.”[14] For Rorty, democracy is prior to philosophy, so to the extent that philosophy cannot help or advance democracy, Rorty advises, we ought not philosophize. This is why Rorty argues that democracy “may need philosophical articulation, [but] it does not need philosophical backup.”[15] According to Rorty, as long as democracy can support liberalism, it is fulfilling its job—as opposed to MacIntyre’s message that without the firm foundation offered by the Enlightenment, liberal institutions are no more preferable than other institutions.

Confronting Metaphysical Desires

In the midst of Rorty’s arguments, former Kantians like Rawls have amended their theories to account for this problem of multiple, incompatible theoretical traditions. In a line that Rorty could have written, Rawls states:

“What justifies a conception of justice is not its being true to an order antecedent and given to us, but its congruence with our deeper understanding of ourselves and our aspirations, and our realization that, given our history and the traditions embedded in our public life, it is the most reasonable doctrine for us.”[16]

Still, others, like Habermas, are reluctant to accept the full scope of this historicist argument. Perhaps this reluctance stems from a worry that too much historicism will jeopardize the accomplishments civilization and liberal theorizing have made. Indeed, it is unsettling to think that there is no one, final place to appeal—that we are unmoored from any steady guidance and left to run amok as history and time progress. But this worldview, while tempting, makes the world seem worse than it is. From Rorty’s argument we can learn that these metaphysical problems of justification only run so deep and do not threaten our liberal institutions. Isaiah Berlin’s ending to his famous paper “Two Concepts of Liberty” is also a fitting ending here: “To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.”[17]

  1. Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Hackett Publishing, 1980, p.18 ↩︎

  2. Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 3 ↩︎

  3. MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. University of Notre Dame Press, 2007, p. 60 ↩︎

  4. Nagel, Thomas. The View from Nowhere. Oxford University Press, 1989. ↩︎

  5. MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue, p. 113 ↩︎

  6. C.f. Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Blackwell, 2017. ↩︎

  7. MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue, p. 246 ↩︎

  8. Rorty, Richard. Objectivity, Relativism and Truth. Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 176. ↩︎

  9. Rorty, Richard. Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 6. ↩︎

  10. Ibid., p. xv. ↩︎

  11. Ibid., p. 61. ↩︎

  12. Mill, John S. On Liberty. Hackett Publishing, 1978, p. 16. ↩︎

  13. Rorty, Richard. Contingency, irony, and solidarity, p. 73. ↩︎

  14. Rorty, Richard. Objectivity, Relativism and Truth. Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 177. ↩︎

  15. Ibid., p. 177. ↩︎

  16. Rawls, John. “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory,” Journal of Philosophy, 1980, p. 519. ↩︎

  17. Berlin, Isaiah. Two Concepts of Liberty. Oxford University Press, 1958, p. 32. ↩︎

Featured Image: La Liberté guidant le peuple painting (1830) by Eugène Delacroix via Wikimedia Commons.

Ryan Frant is a student at Brown University.