Liberal openness

There’s something admirable in a liberal outlook that maintains interest in new ideas and sympathy with other ways of life. It shows an awareness that the world is bigger than what we think about the world, which is all to the good. It’s not an outlook that can be turned into a final standard, though, since it would lose all definition and become useless. Any answer it gave would have to include the proviso that every other available answer is most likely at least as good, or at least there’s no reason to think otherwise. But then it wouldn’t be an answer at all, it would be an invitation to willfulness or inertia.

Liberalism can be coherent and helpful only if it’s adjectival and not substantive. One must have something else as his fundamental loyalty. Liberalism then becomes a realization that even those whose beliefs and loyalties are fundamentally misplaced have something to say for their position, and may have a firmer grasp of some things than one does himself. That doesn’t prevents a man from accepting his own beliefs fully and acting on them, but it can help keep them from becoming overly mechanical and dogmatic.

These considerations apply to a society as well as an individual. There is no such thing as a fundamentally liberal society, because every society must be based on something that gives definite answers. A society that claims to base itself on liberalism—on freedom, tolerance and so on, understood as ultimate standards—is hiding something. What contemporary Western society is hiding is that it is based on a distinct theory of the good, that what is good is satisfaction of the telos of every being viewed from a standpoint that rejects whatever transcends empirical science. The good of the rain forest is therefore survival and health, while the good of man and the other animals is survival, health and the satisfaction of desire. Contemporary Western society judges all things by that standard and has no interest or sympathy in other views except as examples of pathology that should be eradicated. It is therefore, from the standpoint of traditional humanistic liberalism, utterly illiberal.

The foregoing might seem inconsistent with claims I’ve made that all liberalism is really the same thing. I don’t think so. My claim has always been that once liberalism—freedom and the like—is made the ultimate standard then the present state of affairs eventually follows. That doesn’t mean that freedom, tolerance and so on are not good things when they are subordinate to a higher good they do not exhaust. By the 19th c., however, freedom had become an ultimate standard. Consider Lord Acton, “Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.” And it is freedom as an ultimate standard that defines liberalism as a political ideology.

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