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Put Down That Copy of Political Liberalism Before You Hurt Yourself

July 20th, 2004 · No Comments

There’s a badly confused piece by Edward Feser over at TechCentralStation.  It’s basically an attack on the idea that libertarianism (better than egalitarian liberalism) captures well the ideal of liberal neutrality.  I’m not up to cataloging all of the ways it goes off the rails, but for starters…

  • Feser aims the non-neutrality critique at folks like Ayn Rand, who wouldn’t have pretended to liberal neutrality in the first instance, and John Locke, who wrote a couple hundred years before John Rawls was a spermatozoa.  Then he calls out the theological basis for Locke’s views, which just about every modern Lockean (A.J. Simmons comes to mind) has jettisoned.  Pointing out that a teleological natural rights theory doesn’t meet the criteria set out by a Rawlsian framework is like pointing out that Plato’s theory of knowledge doesn’t deal with the Gettier problem.
  • He confuses libertarianism with its justificatory ground, concluding we need to talk about “libertarianisms,” as though somehow the people who self-describe as libertarians because they share the same policy program hadn’t noticed they got there in a variety of ways. But conflating those two things defeats the purpose of taking a political-liberal approach to political philosophy.
  • Feser notes that contractarian theories (and, for that matter, any that take the fact of reasonable pluralism as a starting point) won’t embed in the overlapping consensus of any one religious or otherwise comprehensive conception.  This, apparently, is supposed to count as evidence of non-neutrality.  But of course, by that standard, “neutrality” is a chimera, since no principles of justice can possibly embed every comprehensive conception’s full content.  But if that’s your view, then your problem is with the ideal of liberal neutrality as such, not with any particular libertarian view of it.  And if that’s the case, why are we wasting our time on these subsidiary cases?   
  • He harps on obiter dicta from Hayek and others, as though Hayek’s view on the importance of traditional practices had any bearing on the neutrality of the political program he endorsed.  More generally, he acts as though the fact that all citizens have comprehensive doctrines from whose perspectives they endorse a political conception of justice somehow taints the neutrality of the conception about which there’s an overlapping consensus. For folks who aren’t familiar with the argument of PL, it’s difficult to emphasize just how mindbogglingly this misses the point: The whole reason to have a neutral political conception is that citizens hold such incompatible doctrines.  On Feser’s account, apparently, if I endorse a political conception from the perspective of a background picture that regards theological doctrines as in error, then somehow the doctrine itself becomes non-neutral.  This gets coupled with the weird assertion that non-traditionalist libertarian views “entail” a social marginalization of those with traditionalist or bourgeois views.  “Entails” in what sense?  Your guess is as good as mine.

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