A friend wrote to ask what I thought of various academic attempts to try to avoid objections to liberalism that are based on the liberal tendency, now out of fashion, to claim that liberalism should rule because it’s based on universally valid rational principles of some sort. My response:
The attempts you mention basically claim that liberalism is simply a tradition like any other, so it has a perfect right to rule where it’s the dominant tradition (as in the West). It’s hard for me to take that view seriously, for reasons that include the following:
- I think the outlook is only believable in a setting in which everybody is convinced that liberalism is the only view that can possibly be taken seriously. That makes it a kind of academic hothouse flower. “We all believe this, anything else is unthinkable, so why not just go with what we all believe and forget about justifying it because we’ll all just keep believing the same things anyway.”
- Traditions accumulate all sorts of ideas from all sorts of places. What’s to keep liberalism on track if you give up the idea it’s a simple logical structure based on perspicuous universal principles like the desirability of satisfying desire, means/ends rationality, and Occam’s razor? It’s like talking about a Christianity without God, which has been another academic fad. How do you keep the results of a basic way of understanding the world if you do away with the basic way of understanding the world?
- In fact lots of people even in the West aren’t really liberal. Certainly there are lots of nonliberal impulses and habits that in the absence of some overriding principle will develop and go places. In fact, society couldn’t exist unless there were lots of nonliberal habits and attitudes to keep things going. On the other hand liberalism claims to be a system of free cooperation rather than force. So it has to be able to tell people to shut up and do what they’re told while claiming to be simply protective and therapeutic. It has to use force and suppression while denying using force and suppression. It can only claim to do that if it claims a rationality that precedes any possible legitimate thought and action.
- Postmodern doubts about universal rationality only strengthen and radicalize universal content-free rationality. Postmodernism creates no institutions and answers no questions but something has to be done anyway so the result is a yet more dogmatic scientism and economism. There are zillions of incommensurable diverse goals and understandings of reason so the only way to reconcile them is a yet more content-free formal logic and yet more absolute claims of expertise that nobody can criticize because after all ordinary discourse of ordinary people has no cognitive value.