[Paleopsych] CHE: Where Is Liberal Passion?

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Mon Apr 18 14:42:30 UTC 2005

Where Is Liberal Passion?
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.4.22


    The day after the presidential inauguration, a coalition of
    progressives carried a 70-foot replica of a human backbone to the
    headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington. Their
    point was well taken. The self-appointed party of the American left
    could learn from the opposition: Be more upright, less spineless.

    Yet you might think that the backbone metaphor begs a question. You
    can't find the courage of your convictions if you lack real conviction
    in the first place. And as a group, blue-staters have been accused by
    friendly and not-so-friendly critics alike of being less than red-hot.
    They typically prize reason and deliberation; they are not gung-ho.
    They don't shout "bring it on"; they are suspicious of the blind
    emotion of tent revivals and military parades. They encourage thinking
    things through, getting a second opinion, and acknowledging the
    possibility that one can always be wrong. And that, some liberals
    worry, is just the problem.

    The issue is consuming not just Democratic Party strategists.
    Political theorists, too, have begun a major rethinking of liberal
    theory. Take a look at this year's book catalogs, and you'll see the
    "L" word in numerous titles. Like as not, it's accompanied by words
    like "passion," "purpose," or "vision."

    In different ways, liberals are asking: Could the very values they
    hold dear rob them of the requisite fire in the belly that
    conservatives, particularly social conservatives, seemingly have in
    abundance? Most liberals believe in equality of opportunity and
    resources, freedom for individuals to pursue their own vision of life,
    and tolerance toward those whose vision of the world is different from
    their own. Some of them, however, complain that in their eagerness to
    venerate their ideals, they too often undercut their ability to be
    politically effective. To put it in a nakedly partisan way, some
    liberals worry that Yeats was right: "The best lack all conviction,
    while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity."

    No one wrestles with that dilemma more than Michael Walzer. In his
    intriguing and intelligent Politics and Passion: Toward a More
    Egalitarian Liberalism (Yale University Press, 2005), Walzer takes
    Yeats's warning as his touchstone as he presses his point from the
    left. Standard liberalism, he writes, is "an inadequate theory and a
    disabled political practice." It is inadequate, in part, because its
    values are not conducive to real conviction. It is disabled "because
    the social structures and political orders that sustain inequality
    cannot be actively opposed without a passionate intensity that
    liberals do not (for good reasons) want to acknowledge or

    As one of the most distinguished advocates of the communitarian
    critique of liberal theory, Walzer thinks that liberalism has a
    problem with passion because it ignores the politics of community. A
    typical picture of a liberal society is one formed on the basis of a
    rational contract, where social arrangements are made from the
    standpoint of enlightened self-interest. That, communitarians like
    Walzer point out, overlooks the fact that human beings' primary
    sources of value emerge from the communities to which we belong.
    Moreover, even in the shifting whirl of mobile Western economies, we
    don't choose most of our communities -- our family, our ethnicity, our
    religion; we get them handed to us.

    By overlooking those facts, standard liberalism not only overplays the
    role of reason and autonomy in our lives, Walzer thinks, but also ends
    up being less egalitarian. If an individual's passions and values are
    formed in a community, then it is not just individuals who deserve
    equal respect and opportunity, but the communities themselves. Only by
    providing such respect -- and in some cases, actual financial support
    -- to traditional communities can we hope to encourage their members
    to fully participate in liberal civil society. In short, if it takes a
    village to raise a tolerant liberal citizen, then villages, not just
    villagers, deserve the support and the protection of the state.

    Lefty communitarians are not alone in making that critique of
    liberalism. Social conservatives have long argued that progressive
    liberals, in trumpeting individual rights, ignore traditional
    communities as a source of value. That, after all, is the reasoning
    behind the president's faith-based social-services initiatives. The
    thought is that by supporting programs run by churches and synagogues,
    which are by nature embedded in communities, the community itself is
    better supported.

    Maybe so. But as the neocons are well aware, traditional family values
    frequently clash with liberal values. That is not a problem for social
    conservatives, who often argue, for example, that we should ban
    same-sex marriage on the basis that it offends traditional morality.
    But it does present a problem for liberal communitarians like Walzer.
    Some traditional communities are rife with intolerant oppression
    -- precisely the sort of thing that enlightenment liberalism is
    presumably meant to combat. Surely liberals needn't tolerate

    Walzer valiantly attempts to deal with that concern. But in the end,
    his principle argument is resistible. Consider a hypothetical local
    religious community that does not value equal education for boys and
    girls. According to Walzer, if we are to compel our traditional
    community to educate its girls, we shouldn't appeal to individual
    rights; we should appeal to the pragmatic demands of citizenship. If a
    community wishes to participate in an egalitarian state, it must
    ensure that its members can be full citizens; among other things, that
    means that all of its children must read and write.

    That argument makes sense as far as it goes. The question is whether
    it goes far enough. For one thing, it is not clear that the
    "pragmatic" demands of citizenship -- such as voting -- do absolutely
    require education, even if they are inestimably enriched by it. But
    even putting that aside, there are surely harms that an intolerant
    community can bring upon its members that are independent of the
    demands of citizenship. Even if we grant that citizenship requires
    equal literacy for the sexes, it doesn't obviously require that the
    sexes (or races, or ethnicities) be given equal opportunity to all
    levels of education -- or that communities recognize same-sex
    marriages, or that children be taught the theory of evolution instead
    of creationism. Those sorts of requirements only make sense when one
    sees the state -- as the liberal does -- as being in the job of
    ensuring that its citizens are free from explicit harms suffered when
    a community forces its values upon them. That doesn't deny that our
    values are shaped by our communities. It just rejects that such values
    justified by their origin.

    In my view,
    the reason that liberals are sometimes perceived as passionless isn't
    because liberal values are in need of a communitarian correction. The
    reason is that some liberals misunderstand, and therefore
    misrepresent, their own values. In particular, they misunderstand
    their values in a way that has made them wary of describing their own
    moral position as true. And that is bad. For once you cease thinking
    of your values -- your fundamental moral beliefs -- as objectively
    true, it is hard to even think of them as values at all. And without
    political values, there simply is no place for political passion.

    Two important liberal values, for example, are equality and tolerance.
    Liberals believe the state should treat its citizens with equal
    respect and therefore that the state -- and the individual citizens
    within that state -- should tolerate, as much as possible, a wide
    range of different ways of life. It is largely that emphasis on
    tolerance that sets liberals apart from social conservatives. Social
    conservatives believe that treating people with respect means treating
    them as they should be treated given the one true way people ought to
    live. If that is the Christian way, for example, then treating people
    with respect means treating them as equally subject to the values
    inherent in Christianity.

    That point was most recently echoed in conservative commentaries on
    the Terri Schiavo case, but it emerged even more explicitly in the
    Rev. Bob Jones III's now-infamous open postelection letter to
    President Bush. As Jones wrote, "In your re-election, God has
    graciously granted America -- though she doesn't deserve it -- a
    reprieve from the agenda of paganism. You have been given a mandate.
    We the people expect your voice to be like the clear and certain sound
    of a trumpet." The letter went on to urge the president to pass
    "legislation that is defined by biblical norm(s)," "to appoint many
    conservative judges," and "to leave an imprint for righteousness upon
    this nation that brings with it the blessings of Almighty God."

    In recoiling from that position, some left-leaning thinkers have
    argued that liberals need to adopt what the philosopher Richard Rorty
    calls an "ironic" attitude toward our own liberal principles. If we
    want to be truly tolerant, the thought goes, we need to stop seeing
    liberal views about equality and tolerance as objective moral truths.
    Instead, we should see them as morally neutral. Otherwise, we risk
    being intolerant about tolerance.

    Tempting as it may sound to some, that line of reasoning is a mistake.
    It undermines liberalism's ability to galvanize passionate intensity.
    That is most obvious when liberal tolerance is defended, as it
    sometimes is in the popular news media, on the basis of naïve
    relativism: If different ways of life deserve equal respect, then all
    ways of life are equally good. The just state must remain neutral with
    regard to questions of how to live because there are no objectively
    true or false answers to such questions. So we should live and let

    But relativistic liberalism is clearly a rational and political
    failure. It is a rational failure because its key inference is
    invalid. From the fact that many different forms of life deserve equal
    respect, it doesn't follow that we can't criticize some as being worse
    than others. It is a political failure because if every way of life is
    as good as any other, then what motivation does the liberal have for
    opposing the conservative's and trumpeting his or her own? It is hard
    to stand up and fight for a view that sees itself as no better than
    the opposition's. Passion has no foothold.

    Bloodlessness is also the result of more philosophically sophisticated
    attempts to understand liberalism as morally neutral. The preeminent
    architect of contemporary American liberal thought, the late John
    Rawls, argued over the last decade and a half that tolerance demands
    that liberalism should be understood as a "political, not
    metaphysical" doctrine. That is, we should not defend liberal
    principles, such as the principle of tolerance itself, by asserting
    that they represent fundamental moral truths. Rather, Rawls said, in
    defending those principles and whatever follows from them -- for
    instance, a right to abortion, the constitutionality of same-sex
    marriage, etc. -- the liberal must appeal only to the uncontroversial
    popular consensus -- that is, "public reasons" that every reasonable
    person implicitly accepts. In short, since the liberal state must
    remain neutral among different conceptions of morality, liberal
    principles must themselves be justified in a way that is morally
    neutral and that all reasonable points of view can accept.

    Rawls's position was complex, and he was certainly no relativist. But
    his understanding of tolerance was motivated by a related desire: to
    make liberal values somehow "float free" from any particular moral
    outlook. And that is troubling, for at least two reasons. The most
    obvious problem is that the idea that liberal principles are neutral
    among all "reasonable" points of view only makes sense if "reasonable"
    is defined in a distinctively liberal way. The less obvious problem is
    that were I to believe that my foundational liberal principles were
    already held by all reasonable people -- whether they know it or not
    -- it is difficult to see why I should bother to vigorously defend my
    principles. The battle, in effect, would already be won, so there
    would be little point in getting worked up about it. Again, passion
    drains away.

    If we want to rediscover an intellectual foundation for liberal
    passion, then we need to forget about the beige of moral neutrality
    and favor the red of moral conviction. We need to remember that moral
    convictions are just that, beliefs that some political ideals are
    objectively better for society than others.

    It is also worth remembering that lots of Americans already view
    liberals as full of passionate conviction. Take last fall's fight over
    gay marriage. Eleven states, it turned out, passed bans against
    same-sex marriage. Liberals -- rightly in my view -- protest that such
    bans treat citizens unequally and privilege one way of life over
    others. But to many, it is liberals who are pushing their values into
    other folks' faces. In the endearing language of talk radio,
    conservatives across the nation rally to prevent "activist liberal
    judges" from "imposing liberal values" and "special rights." In short,
    far from seeing liberalism as value-neutral -- Rawls's "political, not
    metaphysical" account of fair play -- those on the right see
    liberalism as a rival comprehensive morality, a rival way of life.

    Conservatives are right about that. And there is no need for liberals
    to apologize for it. As philosophers like Joseph Raz have argued,
    liberalism isn't value-neutral, nor should it be. Liberal values like
    tolerance and equality are just that -- liberal values, neither merely
    "true for us" nor ethically inert. Rather, they are part of a
    particularly liberal ideal of the good life -- an abstract ideal but
    an ideal nonetheless. The progressive liberal believes that other
    things being equal, the state should respect our individual rights and
    tolerate different ways of living that don't violate others' rights.
    That means that progressive liberalism is not neutral among all ways
    of life. The progressive liberal is committed to opposing ways of life
    that value racial and sexual discrimination or collapse the separation
    between church and state. The progressive liberal believes that
    societies that sanction torture, or are intolerant toward gays, or
    allow their citizens to be economically exploited are, in those
    respects, worse societies.

    As much as possible, liberals need to argue for their case, as Rawls
    has emphasized, by appealing to reasons shared by all. But they cannot
    assume that all of their liberal values will be so shared, even if
    some are. And that is not surprising -- democratic politics, after
    all, is aimed at getting others to see things your way. So, much as
    social conservatives do, we liberals need to stand up for our values
    and persuade others to share them. And we must do so by defending our
    theory in the way that one defends any theory: by arguing for its
    worth on its own terms and for the beneficial consequences it brings.

    But what of passion? Walzer rightly claims that standard liberal
    theory has too often ignored the role involuntary associations like
    family, race, and religion play in shaping our identities and stirring
    our blood. But we wouldn't share emotional bonds with other group
    members if we didn't also share values. I've argued that liberals do
    share a set of values, and that passionate commitment to them
    -- including the values of equality and tolerance -- requires seeing
    them as objectively worth defending. But it is also worth remembering
    that values are not just crystalline principles, sparkling under the
    light of reason. To talk about my values is to talk about what I care
    about, what I admire, what I aim for, and what I want others to aim
    for as well: tolerance for a wide array of lifestyles, compassion for
    those less fortunate than we, and the moral courage to stand up for
    our rights and the rights of others. So far from being a cold theory
    of rational neutrality, progressive liberalism is a theory of value
    -- and theories of value are theories of what we care about.

    Liberals favor reason and evenhandedness; they are tolerant; they
    believe in autonomy, individual rights, and equality. But they can and
    should be fervent in defending the truth of those ideals. Liberals
    have no inherent problem with passion. They just need to remember to
    keep passion alive, and not to waiver in the face of spirited
    opposition. They just need to remember their backbone.

    Michael P. Lynch is an associate professor of philosophy at the
    University of Connecticut and author of True to Life: Why Truth
    Matters (MIT Press, 2004).

More information about the paleopsych mailing list