On liberal metaphysics

As my previous entry suggests, liberal and libertarian thought is oddly rigid and one-dimensional. Everything is what it is, without regard to anything else, Many things follow from that atomizing view of reality. In the ethical realm, for example, it follows that wills are either coincident or opposed, and the only way to deal with the opposition of wills is the dominance of one will over another.

Liberals and libertarians respond to that situation by attempting to establish rules that make the active conflict of wills impossible or at least illegitimate. Thus, liberal PC and “tolerance” forbid us to pursue desires that conflict with the (tolerant) desires of others. In the alternative, the property rights libertarians prefer attempt to assign all decisions to the arbitrary choice of some private party, thus preventing conflicts in which each of the opposing parties has a legitimate claim.

What such a view leaves out is the multileveled and participatory nature of reality. Things are constituted in part by their relation to other things and their membership in larger wholes. That’s obviously so in the case of wills: people enjoy friendship, they sometimes want to please others, and it’s a pleasure to work with one’s fellows toward a common goal. All those are cases in which what I want is constituted in part by what others want or even larger structures that go beyond any of our wills. It’s obviously legitimate to want such things even though they cut against the universal mutual independence that is a basic principle of liberalism and libertarianism.

The nonhuman world is multileveled as well, in spite of the modern attempt to reduce it all to one level of phenomena and their relations. You can’t wiggle out of the need for some sort of metaphysics. The phenomena physicists discuss and the theoretical entities they use to organize their discussions, whatever their nature may be, don’t exhaust reality. There are mathematical objects and qualia for example, both of which are evidently related to physical phenomena in some way but nonetheless quite different in kind. To discuss such things and how they relate to each other is to bring in metaphysics.

Such issues are not off in space somewhere but are directly relevant to human life. One obvious consequence of the attempt to do away with metaphysics and put everything that exists on one same level is that the concept of God becomes incomprehensible or useless. He can no longer be the most real being, the source of all that is, He whose will gives order and purpose to all things. Instead he becomes some big strong clever guy who acts in incomprehensible and often amazingly brutal ways, and whose existence, even if proved, would have no evident religious implications. To be holy is to be other, so the abolition of otherness in modern thought is among other things the abolition of God, with all the effects that has had on life and thought.

1 thought on “On liberal metaphysics”

  1. metaphysics
    Without researching your writings, I seem to recall that your analysis of liberalism includes the observation that one of the first principles of advanced liberalism is the banishment of transcendence.

    If that is true, it’s hard to find room for metaphysics. We’re left with a strange combination of British empiricism, some sentimental pseudo-Christian ethical bromides, and Marxist levelling. This sterile brew is usually summarized as “American pragmatism.”

    My view of modernity accords with your description of the “one level.” Modernity conceives of a world of unrelated objects (human beings are also objects in this view), which are classified, analyzed, and utilized according to phenomenological description, and for utilitarian purposes.

    A person may be a voter, a consumer, a taxpayer, an employee, or middle class, or poor, or urban, or Middlewestern, but never a human being.

    But remember, we live in a sophisticated, advanced society.


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