[Paleopsych] TLS: John Gray: Autonomy is not the only good

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John Gray: Autonomy is not the only good
The Times Literary Supplement, 97.6.13

    practices of politics By Austin Sarat and Dana R. Villa, editors
    345pp. Princeton University Press; distributed in the UK by Wiley.
    Paperback, £14.95. - 0 691 02596 7

    REQUIEM FOR MODERN POLITICS. The political tragedy of the
    Enlightenment William Ophuls 320pp. Westview, 12 Hid's Copse Road,
    Cumnor Hill, Oxford OX2 9JJ. £21.50. - 0 8133 3142 0

    AGAINST LIBERALISM John Kekes 244pp. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
    Press; distributed in the UK by Plymbridge. £23.50. - 0 8014 8400 6

    A particular liberal hegemony in political philosophy is nearly over.
    For more than twenty years after the publication of John Rawls's
    Theory of Justice in 1970, English-speaking political philosophy was
    dominated by a single variety of liberalism. This American liberal
    doctrine understood political philosophy to be a branch of legal
    theory. Its goal was to state the principles of an ideal liberal
    constitution. As it was practised by Rawls, Dworkin, Ackerman, Nozick
    and their unnumbered followers in this school, the subject-matter of
    political philosophy was not politics. It was law. Its final product
    was a theory of justice and rights which specified the basic liberties
    held by citizens in a liberal state.

    The voluminous literature spawned by this school consisted of
    protracted discussions of a small range of themes. These were dictated
    by the legalist agenda of Rawlsian theory rather than by the
    historical experience of liberal states. They had to do with the
    neutrality of a liberal state regarding specific ideals of the good
    life, the fair distribution of social goods that were owed to
    exponents of all acceptable ideals, and the derivation of principles
    of social justice from the rational choices of individuals. The
    exchanges that surrounded these themes had two noteworthy features.
    Firstly, the possibility that political philosophy might have other,
    non-liberal agendas was rarely entertained. It was almost as if there
    could not be a coherent political philosophy that was not a variety of
    liberalism. If Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes or Hume had anything of
    interest to say, it was as unwitting precursors of a late
    twentieth-century American liberal consensus.

    In the second place, the liberal theory that Aristotle and others had
    laboured, unknowing, to make possible was liberalism of a singular
    kind. Its continuities with liberal thought in the past were few. No
    liberal philosopher before Rawls made moral neutrality a desideratum
    of a liberal state. Liberal thinkers from John Locke to Isaiah Berlin
    have advocated toleration, not neutrality, as the central practice of
    liberal institutions. Equally, few thinkers in the history of liberal
    thought have ever understood political philosophy to be a branch of
    legal theory. John Stuart Mill did not see himself in On Liberty as
    drafting an ideal constitution, in which basic liberties were fixed
    once and for all. He understood himself to be giving guidance to an
    ideal legislature. The principles stated in his essay do not specify
    basic liberties. They protect different freedoms in different times
    and places. Mill's main principle about the restraint of individual
    liberty, allows such liberty to be exercised fully only where there is
    no question of harm to others. Otherwise it requires legislators to
    make a reasonable, on-balance judgment about which mixture of freedom
    and restraint will best promote general well-being. Mill recognized
    that this judgment will vary according to circumstances. Today, Mill's
    principles would plausibly mandate far-reaching decriminalization of
    drug use in the United States; in Britain, probably, they still do
    not. This open-endedness remains a central feature of liberal thinking
    in a Millian tradition, as we find it today in the work of
    philosophers such as Joseph Raz. It is striking that, because many of
    its practitioners were innocent of the longer and larger history of
    liberal thought, the recently dominant Rawlsian school failed to
    notice how novel and how local its view of the agenda of liberal
    philosophy was. Yet its conclusions were meant to be authoritative for
    all liberal regimes.

    George Kateb is a liberal thinker; but in his writings even the most
    familiar liberal themes are thought anew. In Liberal Modernism and
    Democratic Individuality, sixteen friends, colleagues and critics of
    Kateb's consider the highly distinctive variant of liberal theory that
    he has spent a lifetime developing. It is one that is no less
    indigenously and peculiarly American than Rawls's, but it articulates
    a far more deeply deliberated understanding of American traditions.
    For Kateb, the American constitutionalist tradition is not - as some
    might suppose - a flaking monument to legalism. It embodies a
    particular, modernist understanding of the individuality of human
    subjects. Kateb finds this understanding in writers hitherto neglected
    by contemporary liberal thinkers - notably Emerson, Whitman and
    Thoreau. In these American scholars and poets, the relationship of
    individuality with the finitude of human life, stated canonically by
    Augustine and reformulated by Kierkegaard and Heidegger, is denied.
    Kateb follows these American thinkers in refusing to identify the
    human subject with its limits. Instead, he advocates an estrangement
    from all fixed identities as the understanding of individuality that
    best supports the practice of rights. He is an unrelenting critic of
    those - notably anti-modernist republicans such as Hannah Arendt and
    some recent communitarian theorists - whose nostalgia for a condition
    in which human beings are at home in the world has led them to become
    enemies of the modern culture of individuality.

    In Kateb's thought, a Nietzschean ideal of individuality is wedded to
    an American understanding of democratic equality. The marriage is
    inevitably problematic. In one of the most memorable contributions in
    a very rich collection assembled in Liberal Modernism and Democratic
    Individuality, the late Judith Shklar comments on the sentimentality
    and religiosity which mars Emerson's The American Scholar. Her
    criticism might be put more sharply. When reading Emerson, one cannot
    help being reminded of T. E. Hulme's observation that the romantic
    sensibility is infallibly revealed by the repeated use of the epithet
    "infinite". But a romantic rejection of the finitude of human lives is
    not the best departure point for thinking about politics. Emerson's
    advocacy of a culture of untrammelled individuality lacks a sober
    sense of the social hazards of any such ideal. It may be true that
    Americans, more than most other peoples, are ready to trade off
    security for individuality. The self-realization they seek may well be
    an illusion; but that does not render the exchange they have made any
    less real. Nor does it lessen the costs of a culture of
    self-realization for the losers in American society.

    The trouble with the Emersonian freedom of unencumbered self-creation
    that Kateb celebrates is that it must be exercised in a world
    cluttered with other human beings. As Tracy Strong notes in his
    intriguing contribution on "Politics and Transparency", Emerson's
    account of the self-defined, "transparent" individual can be usefully
    contrasted with Hawthorne's view of human beings as opaque creatures
    whose identities are always partly accidental. The contrast tells in
    favour of Hawthorne and against Emerson and Kateb. In his
    contribution, William Connolly argues in similar terms that the
    self-confident assertion of democratic individuality must unavoidably
    be played out against a background of repressed cultural differences,
    while Benjamin Barber defends multiculturalism against Kateb's charge
    that identity-defining communities are inherently repressive. For
    American liberals, the final lesson suggested by these criticisms must
    be deeply discomforting. It is that unabridged individuality
    inescapably involves serious losses of democratic equality. This
    conflict of goods is endemic and universal. It has not been overcome
    in American constitutionalism, but instead embodied in it.

    Like classical Marxism and its Leninist posterity, liberal theory has
    largely denied the reality of environmental limits on the achievement
    of its hopes. In both cases, this is due partly to the continuing
    power of the Enlightenment. Nearly all Enlightenment thinkers have
    followed Christianity in thinking of the earth as a resource to be
    used in the service of human purposes. In this anthropocentric
    perspective, the other animals and forms of life with which humans
    share the earth have no value in themselves, but only as instruments
    of a project of human emancipation. If the natural world proves
    obstructive to this ambition, then human resourcefulness is invoked to
    subjugate it. In Requiem for Modern Politics, William Ophuls indicts
    this Enlightenment project as the source of the twin modern evils of
    statism and environmental degradation. He finds in the thought of
    Hobbes the starkest expression of the modern-ist, Enlightenment
    world-view - individualist, rationalist, instrumentalist and radically
    subjectivist in its understanding of values - to which he ascribes our
    unbalanced relationship with the natural world and each another.
    Ophuls's book is refreshingly unconventional in recalling the limits
    imposed by natural scarcity on modern political ideals and in its
    critique of standard conceptions of economic development.

    Ophuls's conclusion - a call for a shift in world-view, a
    transmutation of human consciousness, as the only viable response to
    ecological danger - is nevertheless unconvincing. A people that
    converted to a new, environmentalist world-view would still have
    somehow to survive in a dirty and dangerous world. Moreover, the chief
    threat to the human and natural environments does not come today - as
    perhaps it did during the totalitarian period, earlier this century -
    from the hubristic ambitions of states. It comes from anarchic market
    forces and from the absence in much of the world of anything
    resembling a modern state that might control them. In these
    circumstances, Hobbes's thought is a repository of a vital truth. For
    us, an effective modern state is a precondition not only of commodious
    living but also of environmental conservation. There is an instructive
    paradox here. Cultures shaped by the Enlightenment cannot hope to
    escape ecological catastrophe through a re-enchantment of the world.
    The cure for their ills - if there is one - can only be homoeopathic.
    Moderating the dangers to the environment that modern institutions and
    technologies have created will demand all the resources of rationality
    of contemporary societies. There is no way back from modernity.

    An oddity of much recent liberal thought is its fetishization of
    individual autonomy. It is elevated beyond every other good as being
    in some way the precondition of all moral and political virtues. One
    of the many merits of John Kekes's Against Liberalism is its careful
    argument that the priority attached to individual autonomy in such
    liberal philosophies is unreasonable. On any sensibly pluralistic
    view, autonomy is only one among the necessary conditions and
    ingredients of human well-being. Others - such as peace, social
    cohesion and a healthy environment - are just as important. Further -
    and here Kekes rehearses and develops the argument of his seminal
    book, The Morality of Pluralism - these other components of the human
    good cannot always be made compatible with autonomy. On the contrary,
    often their demands conflict with those of autonomy, and sometimes
    there is no one resolution of such conflicts that can command the
    support of all reasonable people. Kekes's central, unanswerable
    argument is that in unreasonably emphasizing the good of autonomy,
    recent liberalism evades the reality of such conflicts of values. This
    argument is fatal to the Kantian liberal project of a pure philosophy
    of right, and its corollary, the notion that political philosophy is
    the attempt to specify an ideal constitution.

    Kekes's other arguments against liberalism are not nearly so
    demonstrative. His critique of liberal benevolence follows a path in
    conservative discourse that has lately been trodden pretty heavily. In
    truth, value-pluralism has no essential affinity with conservative
    political thought or practice. Like Isaiah Berlin's, Kekes's
    value-pluralism destroys the spurious harmonies of doctrinal
    liberalism, because it entails that where freedoms conflict, there is
    no one set of basic liberties that all liberal states are bound to
    respect. Yet it does not thereby support any kind of conservatism. A
    pluralist affirmation of the irreducible diversity and rational
    incommensurability of human goods can as well inspire an ambitious
    programme of reform as buttress a stoical defence of present

    Kekes's imaginative and provocative book is only one of many
    unmistakable evidences of the passing of the Rawlsian regime in
    political philosophy. The ongoing dissolution of that liberal hegemony
    is a sign that pluralism is at last reaching into intellectual life.
    As a result, political philosophy may be able to reconnect with the
    world that it was once supposed to be about. With the passing of the
    singular and aberrant liberalism that has dominated the subject over
    the past quarter-century political thought may once again be free to
    engage with political practice. Such a development would be a hopeful
    augury, not least for liberalism.

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