Friday, November 26, 2010

Some comments by Patrick S. O'Donnell to Patrick Deneen's In Defense of Culture:

The characterization of "liberalism" here is a complete caricature and well-worn strawman (much like that found in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre) and utterly unrecognizable to anyone who has deeply immersed themselves in its literature. It is Liberalism which is (and has historically proven to be) a prerequisite to individual flourishing and the equal freedom to flourish within and through cultures. "Ways of life" require political preconditions of toleration and mutual forbearance, and a legal system that sets the conditions for the equal recognition of rights and liberties, duties and obligations, the very sort of legal system legitimated and justified by works in the Liberal tradition of political philosophy, a tradition that draws upon ideas from Aristotle and the Stoics through Republican thought and even, in some measure, Christianity (especially the Natural Law tradition). Many of its foremost theorists and exponents were Christians (including Hobbes).
Because of its commitment to moral autonomy in the loosely Kantian sense, Liberals are not shy about reflecting upon those aspects of "culture" that may infringe upon or violate our equal liberties, our conceptions of human dignity, and our various cognitive, affective and practical capabilities, hence, culture is not immune or exempt from "critique," in other words, it is a conditional and not absolute good and subject to individual and collective rational appraisal and moral assessment. Indeed, were that not the case, women would not have the right to vote, slavery and segregation would still be with us, and workers would be mere instruments of capital and labor instead of flesh and blood human beings worthy of dignity and respect as minimally enshrined in the law.

The anxiety about "a globalized anti-cultural monoculture, a homogenous way of life that exists in profound contradiction to the basic elements of culture that were once the assumed way of life" should focus on the economic system that is the principal vehicle of globalization, namely, capitalism, be it turbo-capitalism, finance capitalism, post-Fordist capitalism, what have you, as well as the technological dynamic that is its very marrow. To be sure, "capitalist democracy" in some measure has the blessings of Liberalism yet Rawls, among others, has shown how democracy is importantly distinguishable from capitalism as an economic system and there are more than a few conceptual resources in the Liberal tradition that encourage us to imagine alternatives to the current socio-economic system, one that, after all, has veto power over the democratic poltiical system (via private investment decisions, the exercise of capital strikes, etc.). It is Liberalism that prompts us to be individually and collectively reflective about such matters.

Of course much more can be said, and so I hope to reply in more detail in the near future at either (or both) the Ratio Juris or (and) ReligiousLeftLaw blogs.


In addition to Holmes, cogent critiques of MacIntryre's philosophical and historical characterization of Liberalism are also made by Stephen Macedo and William Galston.

Incidentally, or not, MacIntyre rightly argues against moral relativism and for the possibility of the rational evaluation of traditions (at least in his later writings), while at the same time passionately claiming that moral reasoning can take place only within traditions. Perhaps the only way one might make coherent or consistent sense of the three arguments in toto is to appreciate the fact that it is philosophers within the Liberal tradition who provide us with the moral and conceptual resources against (moral) relativism and for the rational assessment (critique) of particular traditions.


While it is no doubt true that some forms of Liberalism, and perhaps most egregiously in its French incarnation (for peculiar historical reasons) are often seen as “privatizing” religious expression and identity, I don’t think this is an accurate description of what canonical Liberals from John Stuart Mill to John Rawls were up to. With regard to “neutrality” I would agree that its pretensions are often unavailing and its meaning too ambiguous to be helpful (in the case perhaps of both Dworkin and Nagel?) but at the same time I think precisely what this has meant in legal terms is not the same as its ambitious philosophical rendering. In any case, not all Liberals are committed to “neutrality,” as we see for instance in the case of Mill, who wrote in Considerations of Representative Government that “The first element of good government being the virtue and intelligence of the human beings composing the community, the most important point of excellence which any form of government can possess is to promote the virtue and intelligence of the people themselves” (for a pellucid discussion of Mill on this score see Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity, 2005) The currents of “perfectionism” in the Liberal tradition (on which see Thomas Hurka’s book) while not always explicit, are certainly adverse to “neutralism,” and we see vigorous defenses of a “non-neutralist” account of Liberalism in the works of avowed Liberals like William Galston and George Sher. And I think Peter Berkowitz ‘s Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism (1999) is sufficient evidence, by implication at least, that the more philosophically ambitious “neutralist” theories identified with Liberalism lack historical warrant.

Obviously if one believes in multiculturalism and wants it to work, one has to appeal to the goods that liberalism promotes and its theoretical justification (rights and an erroneous notion of equality). Still, a liberal can also admit that true multiculturalism, in which one culture conflicts with another (or liberalism's core values) is possible -- and that there must be a core that overrides the rest. So tolerance only goes so far, and other cultures that conflict with liberalism must inevitably be suppressed, in the name of "tolerance."

But the ideologically blind do not see the greater point being made about liberalism and its pretensions of being "rationally superior" and beyond tradition. It is not rationally superior -- it just has different starting points which may appeal to fallen (sinful) man more than the truth.

Ratio Jruis blog
Religious Left Law

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