[Paleopsych] CHE: Where Is Liberal Passion?
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Mon Apr 18 14:42:30 UTC 2005
Where Is Liberal Passion?
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.4.22
By MICHAEL P. LYNCH
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
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
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).
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