The following dialogue is intended to clarify the basic arguments for philosophical liberalism and problems regarding those arguments. Since I’m not a liberal, it seems fair to me that liberalism should lose, but since it’s a dialogue it should present the liberal point of view as forcefully as possible. The liberalism I’m concerned with is mostly the kind now usual that calls for comprehensive state adminstration of social life to guarantee particular outcomes for individuals, but most of the arguments should apply to other forms such as libertarianism. All comments, criticisms and additional arguments are welcome.
[The time is next year, the place is a conference room in Geneva, and the characters are John and Ed, special rapporteurs to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights.]
Ed: What are we going to do? The UNHCHR wants us to draft model constitutional provisions that make international human rights law concrete so people can apply it. I think human rights law is a mess that can’t be fixed. It guarantees the right to work, grants people paid vacations and social insurance, insists on rehabilitating the disabled, creates a right to the continuous improvement of living conditions, demands support for the family, eliminates cultural patterns based on stereotyped sex roles, guarantees 12-year-olds freedom of expression while educating them for universal tolerance and in accordance with their parents’ religious and moral views, and much, much more. It also says government has to be based on the will of the people and involve electoral and judicial systems of particular kinds.
Even if we can make all that consistent, what sense does it make to try to force it on everyone everywhere? Conditions differ, people settle on arrangements based on what makes sense to them, and you can’t know in advance what’s going to work. How can we write a form of constitution to impose a particular kind of society on the whole world? Why would anybody tolerate that kind of intrusion? I think we should tell the UNHCHR to pack it in.
John: I think we can go forward based on the nature of politics. When you bring things down to the basics, politics is a matter of discussing what you want, and I want, so that we can understand each other, identify differences, find common ground, and work out ways to accommodate each other and live together peacefully. That’s what it should be, anyway. If you take that approach seriously you’ll find it has a lot of specific implications and a lot of the particulars will fall into place.
Ed: But why should the people to whom all this is supposed to apply take that approach? Instead of trying to give everyone what he wants why shouldn’t they try to understand what it’s good for them to do, so they can live together peacefully that way? If we’re worried about “rights” why try to force some understanding on everyone that’s different from the way they actually look at things?
John: The world needs something that works, and you won’t get that unless the standards can be made clear. People call different things “good.” What do you mean by the word and why should anyone accept your interpretation?
Ed: The good is whatever it’s most reasonable for us to want and try to achieve.
John: That suggests that desire and reason are connected, so that some desires are just more reasonable than others. That’s a pretty controversial view. A lot of people would say it’s intolerant. Even if it’s right, though, people don’t agree on what desires are reasonable, and they’re not likely to agree on the point as a result of dialogue. So if someone insists on what he thinks is good instead of taking the approach I suggest there’ll be conflict instead of peace.
Ed: But you’ve just presented an argument for the goodness of treating what people want as the standard, at least in public life. I don’t see why that definition of what it’s good—most reasonable—to do in politics should be exempt from the rule that no one can insist on his own definition of what’s it’s good to do. More to the point, I don’t see how any common effort can go forward without a common idea of what’s good.
John: We both in fact want peace. Everybody who’s not evil or crazy wants peace. The people of the world want peace. Why not try to get it in the most likely way?
Ed: But if the issue for me is getting whatever I happen to want, and the issue for you is getting whatever you happen to want, how are you going to show me that accepting your principles, going through the discussion, and sticking by whatever comes out of it is going to do it for me? Why shouldn’t I just go for what I want, directly or deviously depending on circumstances? Also, why should I trust you? It seems to me you can’t just appeal to what people actually want. You have to show that what you propose is what they should want—that what you call good is better than what someone else calls good.
John: But it’s not a matter of what I call good. I’m not saying my opinion on the matter is better than someone else’s. The point is that even if arguments about what’s good are put aside, action still has a rational component. As human beings we need to think of our actions as justified. If we can’t think of them that way we can’t understand our own lives or have any idea how to cooperate with other people. Each of us wants his own goals respected, and if we can’t insist our own goals are special—which we can’t, if we can’t insist on our own definition of goodness—the only basis for a system in which our own goals can be understood as reasonable and have a right to respect is agreement that all goals get treated that way.
Ed: That’s still an argument for the superior goodness of accepting and abiding by your system. You’re saying it’s the most reasonable thing for people to want, which is just saying that it’s the best thing. And anyway, a lot of people don’t believe that the goals they happen to have must be respected simply because those are their goals. They believe their goals must be respected to the extent they comply with what’s good—they’re in accord with human nature at its best, God’s will, or whatever. So they have no reason to accept your logic.
John: The bottom line is that if people don’t accept principles like the ones I describe there won’t be peace. Avoiding catastrophe trumps logical quibbles.
Ed: How do we know you have the magic key to avoiding catastrophe? There would also be peace if people accepted something else as the common standard of what’s good. There would be peace if everyone became a Catholic and did whatever the Pope said. Why listen to liberal academic theoreticians or whoever instead of the Pope?
John: The Pope isn’t a real possibility. He has his followers, but the popes weren’t able to maintain the unity even of Christendom. If you look at who’s signed human rights treaties—which is what we’re working with—the views I’m proposing have a lot more followers, and they’re spreading. Everyone today feels he has to talk the liberal language, even the Pope.
Ed: So is it the argument from power that you’re presenting?
John: That argument doesn’t hurt, since we’re talking about politics, but to be reliable power has to be based on principle. The advantage of the views I’m presenting is that they minimize the principles we have to agree on. They assume next to nothing in advance. We all have things we want, and that’s something we can recognize in each other and work with. To the extent my theory involves a definition of the good, that the good is giving people equally what they want, it’s the most minimal and tolerant definition possible. Everyone gets something and everyone gets the same. All it requires is that each show equal deference to the other’s judgment and accept that it’s reasonable for people to go for what looks good to them. Why isn’t that the best approach? It’s a big world, and we can’t force our own ways on other people.
Ed: But if just going for whatever looks good is what’s reasonable then it makes no sense to ask whether what looks good really is good. People do ask that question though. Just because I want something or think it’s good doesn’t make it good. What you’re doing is forcing a view on people that they in fact reject. Why is that better than when someone else does the same thing? Most people believe that some judgments are right and some are wrong, so it doesn’t make sense to defer to them all equally. That view is absolutely central to their understanding of the world, their sense of who they are, and the way they live. You’re demanding they give it up. A lot of people think treating what is desired as the same as what is good makes it impossible to make sense of human affairs. How do you propose to give that judgment equal deference? Or do those views just get shut out?
John: I can’t give those views equal deference. But the problem with them is that they don’t lead to a practical way to do politics. It’s easier to find out what people want than what’s good, if “good” means something other than what people want. Also, as a practical matter what people want is what they think is good. So if we identify the two and just look at what people want it simplifies the discussion so it can get somewhere. We’re not going to have peace unless politics is manageable and deals with things that can be easily identified and discussed on a common basis.
Ed: Ignoring what’s good and just looking at what people want sounds like a wonderful way to deal with relations between independent sovereign states with radically opposed systems. Maybe you can avoid war that way and maybe you can’t—after all, there’s no reason to expect that the parties will have enough in common for an agreement to be worked out. Maybe they’ll decide that the best thing is to avoid each other or settle things on the battlefield. But what does that have to do with an established order within a settled society? That isn’t possible unless there’s a common understanding of what life is and what goals make sense. You can’t renegotiate those things every day for every citizen.
John: I’m not demanding a common understanding of what goals make most sense. I’m just saying that when participating in public life each should show equal respect for the goals of the other and not try to get preferred treatment for his own.
Ed: And that’s because you claim that setting up politics that way is the goal that makes most sense. Look, you’re assuming that conflicting goals can be treated equally, and then you’re taking the supposed absence of a common basis for preferring one understanding of what is good to another and turning that absence into the positive demand that in public life all understandings of the good be treated as equally worth favoring. Assuming for a moment that conflicting goals can really get equal treatment, why isn’t insisting that all goals be treated equally the imposition of a standard for how good each one is? You can’t move from the lack of a basis for saying what goals make most sense to a statement that they are all equally worth protecting and forwarding. Saying A and B should be treated equally is just as much a statement how good each one is as saying A should be required and B forbidden.
John: Saying they should all be treated the same is a pretty minimal statement as to their merits. Besides, I’m only saying it should apply to public life.
Ed: It’s a minimal standard in the sense that it imposes compulsory moral minimalism on everyone, at least in public. The effects of that aren’t at all minimal. No one but an ideological liberal accepts the moral minimalism that insists that we treat every goal as equally worthy, at least if the goal itself is tolerant, and it’s radically at odds with every social system that’s ever existed. So it means that all aspects of how people live together have to change in ways that don’t make sense to anyone. Read the treaties we’re talking about—that’s what they demand. Why is that something everyone is supposed to accept as a neutral basis for peaceful social coopertion? If it’s so neutral, and treats everybody so fairly, why does it put experts, judges, bureaucrats and liberal theorists in charge of everything?
Also: how do you tell the difference between public and private? We’re social beings, so it’s not obvious that anything is all that private. It’s public authority that decides where the line should be drawn, and public principle always ends up treated as supreme from a moral standpoint because it has to justify obedience, sacrifice, and killing. So when there’s a question, why wouldn’t the public authority responsible for distinguishing public from private always come down on the side of public principles like compulsory moral minimalism? Isn’t that why we now have international treaties that tell people how to live their family life?
And besides, the claim that all goals can get equal respect is absurd. The whole point of government is that goals conflict so some have to give way to others. Why not be honest and admit that what government is doing is deciding that some goals are better than others and forcing the other goals to give way?
John: This is all pretty far-fetched. The kind of view I’ve been presenting has been successful and evidently beneficial, and it’s spreading, so why not stick with it? [What else should he say in response to the objections?]
Ed: Are those views, and human rights, really so reliable? Why expect more from them than other views that claim a universal key for resolving all conflicts? Liberalism promises total freedom and equality but it gives us functionaries who decide everything. It promises us freedom of conscience and tells us that everyone except a liberal have to give up what he actually believes. Why should that work for anybody? If you look at what’s happening in Western countries it’s not so clear your approach to things will be able to reproduce itself, intellectually, culturally, or even biologically. Isn’t it obvious that there are problems that are going to catch up with it?