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The Search for a Moderate Liberalism

The following review of Christopher J. Insole, The Politics of Human Frailty: A Theological Defense of Political Liberalism (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005) appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of Telos.

What is liberalism and is it good or bad? Its pervasiveness makes it difficult to gain the perspective needed to decide such issues. Many current writers treat it as relativistic, individualistic and hubristic, and the man who is now Benedict XVI has gone so far as to describe the situation in the liberal West as a “dictatorship of relativism.”1 The author, a lecturer in theology at Cambridge University, disagrees. His academic position has made him quite familiar with the complaints, and he begins his book by observing that recent theological critics have described liberalism as

based upon an illusory human subject who constructs order and denies transcendence. The ‘liberal’ focuses on the will at the cost of attending to reason or order. This focus on the will engenders a fetish for freedom of choice and the removal of all impediments to human liberty; consequently, the notion of ‘freedom/liberty’ is emptied of any substantial historical, traditional or philosophical content. Flowing from this entirely stripped–down notion of freedom, liberalism has a voluntaristic account of values and meaning, with ‘ethics’ being a construction by the subject. This voluntarist meta–ethic fosters a destructive individualism and social atomism. In an attempt to distract from the poverty of the liberal conception of freedom, liberals tend to support a pseudo–Messianic/Pelagian progressivism about history, often finding expression in a fixation with technology and economic growth.2

Against such objections, this book defends a strand of political liberalism said to run from Edmund Burke through John Rawls informed by “the theological conviction that the human person is a creature incapable of its own perfection, although nonetheless called to and made for this perfection.”3 Such a liberalism would thus be rooted not in human self–sufficiency but in our fallibility and vulnerability on the one hand and intimations of divine order and hope for redemption on the other. It would be a very modest and moderate liberalism, one concerned less with this or that particular cause than with a need for general restraint that leaves room for other people and for the divine. The author supplements his thesis with discussions of American distortions of liberalism that have led to global crusades for freedom, democracy and capitalism, and radically communitarian views he attributes to Radical Orthodoxy and finds politically dangerous. He thus presents his political liberalism as a middle way among extremisms that is based on a more adequate, more Anglican, and indeed more Christian, understanding of man, society, and God. <

The importance and interest of the topics and material, and the general clarity of style and moderation of tone, make this book worth reading for anyone concerned with the nature of liberalism and its relationship to fundamental issues that puzzle us today regarding the basis of politics and its relation to religion. Nonetheless, the book is not, in my view, successful, mainly because it fails persuasively to define a tradition of moderate liberalism that includes Rawls as well as Burke and thus carries forward the complex qualified liberalism of the past into the dominant managerial liberalism of today. <

The author agrees that some forms of liberalism fit the critics’ description. Nonetheless, he considers that it is refuted as to liberalism as a whole by Burke’s example, who rejected such views decisively, and whose prominent and apparently immovable status within the tradition is, the author believes, assured by the endorsement of the canonical liberal Lord Acton. The author further considers that Burke’s highly moderate and nuanced—some would say ambiguous—liberalism is carried forward within mainstream liberalism today, as instanced by the latter’s foremost recent theoretician, John Rawls. <

In opposition to extreme hubristic liberalism the author accordingly believes himself able to propose “political liberalism,” a supposedly moderate approach to politics in which he believes both Burke and Rawls participate that he describes as <

the conviction that politics is ordered towards peaceful coexistence (the absence of conflict), and the preservation of the liberties of the individual within a pluralistic and tolerant framework, rather than by a search for truth (religious or otherwise), perfection and unity. The crucial ambition of this sort of ‘political liberalism’ is a refusal to allow public power to enforce on society a substantial and comprehensive conception of the good; driven as it is by its central passion for the liberties of individuals over and above the enthusiasms of other individuals or collectivities. Political authority is wielded on behalf of the people it protects, and is derived ultimately from their consent.4

This political liberalism sounds humble and humane in comparison to the messianic liberalism that critics protest. However, the two are not necessarily different. After all, if hubristic liberals accept social atomism and individualistic and constructivist ethics their politics will most likely be something they view as a search for peaceful coexistence and individual liberties within a tolerant and pluralistic framework that allows the social atoms to construct their individual moral worlds in as complete freedom as possible. In short, they will favor political liberalism. (Rawls of course would agree.) Nor is it so clear why the author’s political liberalism would be “driven” by a “central passion for the liberties of individuals over and above the enthusiasms of other individuals or collectivities”—which in an officially multicultural society would seem to include everything beyond the most stripped–down understanding of human goods—in the absence of something an unfriendly critic might well call “a fetish for freedom of choice and the removal of all impediments to human liberty.”5 After all, it would be possible to eschew the use of public power to “enforce on society a substantial and comprehensive conception of the good,” and thus be altogether tolerant and moderate on any normal understanding of those terms, while sometimes choosing substantive common goods over individual liberties. A passionate insistence on preferring individual liberties in every case to any common good not universally accepted in a radically diverse society suggests extremism. <

In politics, everything depends on how a generality like “political liberalism” is taken. In particular, it is hugely important whether it is taken in a moderate sense, as a general counsel to be applied more, less, or not at all depending on circumstances, or in a dogmatic sense as an ultimate all–embracing theory of political rightness considered “as the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.”6 A dogmatic political liberalism that treated equal freedom as a supreme standard, and insisted that “laws and institutions no matter how efficient or well–arranged must be abolished if they [oppose it]],”7 would give as much ground for complaint as any other dogmatic way of articulating the liberal outlook. In contrast, a political liberalism that divested itself of its “passion,” and lost its inclination to refer to public goods that go beyond liberty, equality, prosperity and absence of conflict as mere “enthusiasms” to be excluded from public life, might well be an outlook of the kind the author praises, “driven by a sense of the frailty and limitations of individuals and a sense of the difficulty and dangers of discerning and imposing order given our fallen and complex situation.”8 Unfortunately, in present–day terms such an outlook would not be particularly liberal, since it would accept that particular substantive goods might sometimes come before equal freedom in public life. <

Whether liberalism is moderate or hubristic is not a question of whether it formulates itself as political. Tyranny, after all, can be political. It is a question of whether it denies public legitimacy and all scope of action to concerns at odds with its particular abstract ideals, and so ends by trying to transform all social life everywhere in line with those ideals. The author sees such an imperialistic and crusading quality among neo–Puritans like the current American president and their mirror images on the counter–crusading Left, but apparently nowhere else among today’s liberals. He seems to go so far as to say that progressivist messianic liberalism is entirely attributable to theological tendencies represented by the Puritans,9 which, on the author’s account, were transplanted to America but rejected elsewhere, in particular by the broader Anglican tradition.

It is hard to see how crusading American right–liberalism, which tends toward outspoken if somewhat vague religiosity, could be the supreme and only serious exemplar of the defects of liberalism, a tradition whose fundamental vice has more often been viewed as a tendency to treat human will as the sole source of order. In any event, the author, whose personal views seem consistent with conventional academic liberalism, appears to see no problem with the managerial politically–correct welfare–state liberalism now ascendent in Britain and the West generally. He rather sees today‘s liberalism, at least as exemplified by its leading theoretician John Rawls, as a continuation of Edmund Burke. So for the author the complaints of critics of liberalism do not seem to touch the actual liberalism now dominant, if one puts aside the Bush administration and a few overly–enthusiastic global free marketeers. To follow the critical formulation quoted at the beginning of this review, it seems that for the author Rawls is not a constructivist, diversity and choice as ultimate ideals do not mean social atomism, multiculturalism is not empty of historical, traditional or philosophical content, current tendencies regarding sex do not represent a fetish for removal of impediments to human liberty, the international human rights movement does not stand for a Messianic/Pelagian progressivism, and the EU is not fixed on technology and economic growth. Moreover, it seems that it is possible for a liberalism driven by a sense of “frailty and limitations” and of the “difficulties of discerning and imposing order” somehow to function as the guiding principle for a state that educates the young, re–educates their elders, defines and re–defines social morality, eradicates sex and historical community as principles of social order, and devotes a very large share of the national income and a huge regulatory apparatus to displacing particularistic, value–laden, and therefore presumptively unjust institutions like family, religion and particular culture in favor of public bureaucracies understood as neutral, multicultural and therefore purified and just. Such a view of the liberalism now established, which seems required by the author’s discussion as a whole, divorces that discussion from reality. <

The specific arguments the author presents for political liberalism as a continuing moderate tendency running from Burke through Rawls depend on interpretations that often seem forced. They also depend at times on an oddly static view of liberalism. It is not persuasive to say that Acton was a liberal, and he liked Burke, so if Burke opposed (for example) abstract universalism it cannot be central to liberalism today. Liberalism is progressive. While a particular liberal may be skeptical about progress, the liberal tradition in general has been decidedly progressive and today quite generally understands itself as such. That self–understanding is correct. Liberalism has featured both enduring basic concerns like equal freedom and changing specific positions determined by current and local conditions and the degree to which basic concerns have developed into concrete standards and demands. As the liberal tradition has gone forward, and institutions and practices have come to reflect its basic principles more and more thoroughly, the implications of equal freedom have become ever more systematic, comprehensive and directly applicable to particular issues. As a result, positions that at one time may have been possible within liberalism—Burke’s attachment to king, aristocracy and established church or Acton’s support for the Confederacy—have long since become utterly impossible as a matter of basic principle. What was true or even fundamental for Burke need have no relevance to the liberalism that now exists. <

Something of the sort applies to Burke’s opposition to “a voluntaristic conception of the human subject; a constructivist meta–ethics; an abstract, universalist, and individualist mode of thought; and a broadly progressivist philosophy of history,” which for the author signals the independence of liberalism from such things.10 Decisively to oppose those things, as Burke opposed the French Revolution that exemplified them, is to oppose today’s liberalism. Rawls’s thought is very much in line with such tendencies, although he attempts to avoid problems by claiming his theory is not metaphysical but only applies to public life,11 so that the human subject becomes voluntaristic, meta–ethics constructivist and so on only with regard to politics. Since Rawls admits man’s social nature and the pervasive effects of public institutions on culture, and gives his public institutions far–ranging responsibility for the nature and consequences of our way of life and relations to each other, it is not clear why such limitations are so important. Human life and thought cannot be compartmentalized in the way they demand. <

The author repeatedly interprets Burke far too categorically as a liberal without giving persuasive evidence for his interpretations.12 Burke’s willingness to give weight to the practical human complexities of politics is treated as readiness to treat politics on contemporary liberal lines as a purely human construction. The author says, for example, that “Burke is explicit that authority derives from consent, expressed over time within a mixed constitution.”13 He does not say where Burke makes that explicit, and in fact observes that “a certain amount of relearning … might be required to see this point.”14 The claim seems at odds with well–known passages in Burke, at least one of which the author himself quotes: <

Each [social] contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.15

So on evidence the author himself provides, Burke understands political authority as subordinate to something primeval, fixed and inviolable. If that is so, authority cannot be a simple consequence of consent. The social contract for Burke no doubt reflects an element of human volition, certainly in its detailed provisions and its practical effectiveness, but in the end it turns out to be valid only if it manifests cosmic order, to reject which (we read a bit later in the same passage) is to be “outlawed, cast forth, and exiled from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.”16 To accept that authority can not exist as an actual social institution unless it is generally accepted over time by the society as whole, which Burke no doubt would, is not at all the same as saying that it derives from consent: the science of medicine cannot exist if no one wants it, but that does not mean it derives from what people want.

The author seems to believe that to recognize complexity is to be a liberal. He thus makes much of Burke’s concern with the complexity of goods and purposes, and believes that concern supports a connection to present–day liberalism: <

Burke fears the way in which the French state ‘is considered as a great machine’ which operates ‘for some one great end’. Burke is more comfortable with the British state, because in his view it ‘pursues the greatest variety of ends, and is the least disposed to sacrifice any one of them to another, or to the whole’.17

It is difficult to square Burke‘s attitude here with that of John Rawls and the present–day liberalism for which he speaks, both of which view the state very much as a machine for continually reprocessing society so it measures up to a very few simple, abstract and comprehensive standards having to do with equality and individual empowerment. Where Burke calls the state “a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection,”18 Rawls limits its goals to equality, liberal rights, certain “primary goods” and the like, excluding from its purview the broader and deeper concerns Burke emphasizes. <

On such points the author consistently interprets Burke as a Rawlsian rather than a Burkean. Thus, he says that according to Burke “the state must be silent about religious truth, not because there is none, but because it is hard to discern, and the attempt to impose it on others leads to conflict and oppression.”19 The basis he gives for that understanding of Burke is a comment on Ireland in which Burke says that while truth may be far better than peace, “as we have scarcely ever the same certainty in the one that we have in the other, I would, unless the truth were evident indeed, hold fast to peace, which has in her company charity, the highest of virtues.”20

It is not clear why such a comment is a general call for silence on religious issues more than other issues involving truth and falsity or for that matter justice and injustice. Truth may conflict with peace, but an official and settled view of truth need not do so, any more than an official and settled view of justice. Peace has often been secured by a particular religious establishment, and it is notorious that Burke had no general desire for the state to keep out of religion. In the Reflections he goes on very eloquently and at great length, in a passage part of which the author quotes for other purposes, about the importance of a religious establishment, and its virtual necessity in a country with free institutions.21

In this case as in others the author speaks (as Rawls often does) as if public recognition of anything beyond a very narrow range of basic multipurpose human goods were the same as universally forcing a single comprehensive view of the good on everyone. The status of substantive goods in public life is not, however, an all-or-nothing issue. The real question raised by Rawls’s position is whether public action in favor of goals that are more substantive than equality and empowerment is sometimes legitimate, or whether public life must be scrubbed clean so no such goals can ever intrude. The former would appear to be the more moderate view, the one that accepts the complexity of human existence and so refuses to force one–size–fits–all solutions on every imaginable situation. A state that does not try to save souls by force might nonetheless recognize virtue, perfection and the like as good things that should be favored rather than obstructed when circumstances present the choice. How, after all, can such things be kept altogether out of something that touches human life as comprehensively as politics? Rawls agrees that the state and other basic social institutions have a profound effect on culture and ethical orientation. How can it be rational to ignore that effect? Why not view it as one of the basic features of social institutions, and take it into account accordingly? Presumably the state should not make certain aesthetic tastes illegal or insist that people must love art, but when it builds public buildings or engages in the education of the young it can hardly avoid taking a position on issues regarding aesthetic values. Why would the same thing not apply to other components of the good life? <

As Burke is less liberal, Rawls is less moderate, neutral and faith–friendly than the author would have him. The two are radically at odds. Where Burke has an “allergy to abstraction, metaphysical generalization, extremism and progressivism,”22 Rawls proposes an extremely abstract and highly rationalized theory intended to lay down principles that comprehensively define which social structures and outcomes are permissible. It is not at all persuasive to portray the two as participants in a common tradition of moderate political liberalism that expresses continuing concerns and understandings. Burke does speak in favor of liberty and other liberal concerns, but as a politician rather than an academic philosopher, writing in particular settings for particular purposes and audiences. Since he is concerned to negotiate the difficulties of his time, conflicting tendencies implicit in late 18th century thought appear in what he says. He feels and tries to accommodate liberal concerns, but what the author calls his “almost nauseating defense of the ancien régime23 shows that those concerns did not trump all others. As his comments on the “social contract” show, when he seems to make use of liberal categories their ultimate meaning need not be liberal at all. <

There is of course a great deal of compatibility among Christianity, Burke, many aspects of Rawls, and moderation, at least when those things are described abstractly. Reciprocity is somewhat like the Golden Rule, recognition of the “burdens of judgment” somewhat like humility, and so on, and such things may all contribute to political moderation. A problem with the author’s emphasis on such commonalities is that the basic themes in Rawls to which he points, such as reciprocity, the burdens of judgment and the original position, are far too general to tell us anything definite unless interpreted by implicit reference to some much more detailed and comprehensive view. In Rawls’s actual philosophy they serve as pegs on which to hang the outlook of the class of experts and functionaries to which Rawls belongs and for which he speaks. In the absence of some such background they say very little and are consistent with almost any non–extreme position. <

In particular, the author’s version of the Rawlsian liberal framework requires civility, a willingness to appeal to reasons one believes others ought to be able to share, but imposes very few substantive limitations. In the case of a religious believer taking part in public life it requires only that “in a pluralistic culture when discussing the use of public power in the case of a stand–off [the believer] be required to introduce non–religious reasons when communicating with citizens who do not share those reasons.”24 It appears that such a framework would exclude beliefs based solely on a strictly private revelation, but not much else, since most intelligent believers can make the case for their beliefs, at least as they apply to public life, using only considerations inferred from non–religious considerations or from general non–sectarian understandings of rationality, reasonableness, human nature and the like. <

Reasons are by nature public. Most people believe there are reasons for what they believe, and that the reasons for their beliefs are stronger than those against them. That view applies to religion as much as other types of belief, and is the basis of apologetics. On the author’s version of the Rawlsian view it is unclear why—for example—Catholic natural–law arguments for moral positions, and philosophical apologetics for Catholicism itself, would not constitute properly public reasons. If so, it seems it would be perfectly legitimate, as long as natural law and philosophical arguments were part of the discussion, for a Catholic to push for the enactment of the Church’s position on absolutely everything.25 Rawls might say such arguments go beyond “reasonableness” as he understands it: they are not simply a matter of cooperativeness, expert consensus, and the higher–order moral goals he is willing to recognize. As Rawls himself observes, however, that understanding is not required by rationality.26 Consequently, those who are not trying to maintain reflective equilibrium between their political theory and the outlook of well-placed academics may well come to a different understanding of what is reasonable. <

So what remains of this book if its central argument for a continuing moderate political liberalism fails? Perhaps more than one might think. The book is best understood less as an argument for the coherence of the real Burke with the real Rawls, or in favor of anything now called liberalism, than as a plea, supported less by any comprehensive argument than by a variety of observations and instances, for the political moderation that the author correctly believes is supported by Burke, by Richard Hooker, by a proper understanding of Christianity, and by some tendencies in Rawls. His concern is not the danger that substantive or perfectionist goals might find a place somewhere in public institutions, as they find a place everywhere else in life, but the danger that some political movement will come to view itself as an adequate embodiment of the absolute and so try to save and perfect humanity by force without the willing cooperation of those to be benefited. In theological terms, the author is worried about the conflation of the visible with the invisible Church and consequent identification of some particular organized political and social force with the hand of God. <

That concern leads him to an appreciation of certain features prominent in an earlier liberalism that represented less an attempt to create a social order fully consistent with equal freedom than an attempt to limit and moderate power within an order largely constituted by non–liberal principles such as religion, family and particular ties and loyalties. His actual condemnations are therefore rather narrow. For example, he rejects the notion of society as a “participatory community,” meaning one “united in affirming the same comprehensive doctrine,”27 because of the oppressive state power required to suppress pluralism and so maintain such a community. He also rejects “strongly communitarian” views that hold “that our thought about ethics, politics and morality should always seek to further rather than restrict the natural priority of the community over the individual.”28 Nonetheless, he seems willing to accept “less strident” views that soften that absolute priority, saying that “it is probably not even helpful to ask … if [such views are] communitarian or liberal”29

If those are his standards, it seems that he should accept views that accept the necessity and indeed inevitability of some particular understanding of man, the world, and the human good as a focus for public life, while paying due regard to liberal concerns such as freedom of conscience. A “theological conviction that the human person is a creature incapable of its own perfection, although nonetheless called to and made for this perfection” ought to be consistent with a political society that combines a commitment to its best understanding of how things are—philosophically and religiously as in other respects—while accepting intellectual and religious freedom for minority views and their adherents. One example would be a Rawlsian society that implements and propagandizes the Rawlsian view of public life while allowing free speech and civil rights to dissenters. Another would be a Catholic society run in accordance with the Vatican II declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, which established “religious freedom” as “immunity from coercion in civil society” while “leav[ing] untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”30

It seems clear that in fact the author would reject the latter possibility because (in supposed contrast to the Rawlsian view) it would make the state non-neutral though moderate on matters of religion. It is not clear from the arguments he offers why that would be the right position. The strength of this book is that it sets out many of the considerations relevant to discussing such questions. The weakness is that it fails to lay out in any perspicuous way the arguments needed to determine where lines should be drawn, perhaps because the author is too much inclined to assume conventional academic political and social views and so is not sufficiently struck by the need for argument.

1Cf. James Kalb, “The Tyranny of Liberalism” in Modern Age 42 (Summer 2000), pp. 239—253.

2Christopher J. Insole, The Politics of Human Frailty: A Theological Defence of Political Liberalism (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), p. 1.

3Ibid., vii.

4Ibid., p. 5. He repeats the definition at p. 41.

5Rawls of course claims that his version of political liberalism can be approved from within any “reasonable” comprehensive view, religious or otherwise, see John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), but the claim’s cogency is far from obvious.

6John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: The Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, revised edition, 1971, 1999), p. 3.

7Loc. cit.

8Insole, op. cit., p. 6.

9“As will become clear in my discussion of ‘crusading liberalism’ (Chapter 3), this progressivist and eschatologically ambitious liberalism is entirely the child of certain theological presumptions.” Ibid., p. 6.

10Quoted ibid., pp. 4-5.

11See Rawls, Political Liberalism.

12And not only Burke. The author cites Lord Acton as an example of a liberal who thought the state should not promote any particular religion, basing that interpretation on Acton’s claim that “Beyond the limits of things necessary to its own well–being, [the state] can only give indirect help to fight the battle of life by promoting the influences which prevail against temptation,–religion, education, and the distribution of wealth.” Quoted at Insole, op. cit., p. 43. Somehow, an explicit statement that the state should promote religion becomes a statement that it should not do promote any particular religion, and putting promotion of religion in the same category as promotion of education and the distribution of wealth becomes, as the author says in the same place, almost something Rawls might have said.

13Ibid., pp. 17-18.

14Ibid., p. 18.

15Quoted ibid., p. 28.

16Quoted ibid., 29.

17Ibid., p. 19.

18Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, Inc., 1955), p. 110.

19Insole, op. cit., p. 17.

20Quoted ibid., p. 17.

21Burke, op. cit., pp. 102-120.

22Insole, op. cit., p. 15, repeated p. 33.

23Ibid., 17.

24Ibid., p. 62. Presumably, “those reasons” should read “the believer’s religious reasons.”

25The author seems to take it for granted that “religion” is normally based ultimately on “irreducibly religious reasons” not accessible to non–adherents. Not every Christian tradition has a high view of reason, and the book may reflect the author’s particular religious persuasion on this point.

26Rawls, Political Liberalism, pp. 51-53.

27Insole, op. cit., p. 126.

28Ibid., p. 125.

29Ibid., p. 126.

30Dignitatis Humanae, Second Vatican Council Declaration on Religious Freedom (1965), § 1.

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