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Comprehensive Liberalism

November 16th, 2004 · No Comments

As someone who’s a big promoter of the Rawlsian project of Political Liberalism, I’ve found myself having some second thoughts occasioned, in part, by this very good TNR essay. I still think we ultimately want a political order that begins with the premise that deep pluralism is an ineradicable corrolary of freedom of conscience, and tries to structure rules and institutions in a way that’s neutral between comprehensive conceptions of the good. But I’m beginning to wonder whether that’s possible until comprehensive liberals are a little thicker on the ground. Because it’s a lot tougher to get the adherents of other conceptions to see the virtues of detente when there still seems to be a live possibility of getting ones conception enshrined in law. It took centuries of bloody conflict in Europe, after all, before religious toleration started to look like a good idea. It eventually came to be seen as a good in its own right (as a “freestanding” principle in Rawlsian jargon) but the practical stalemate needed to come first.

What that suggests to me is that maybe someone like Michael Sandel is right, at least in the current political context, when he stresses the need to draw on a deeper argumentative font than is available to someone committed to making a more strictly formal case for liberal equality or freedom. Maybe, instead of stressing “choice,” we actually need to work on convincing more people that there’s just no good reason to consider fetuses persons. Maybe, instead of merely sounding a “live and let live” note, its important to stress the positive value and virtue of loving homosexual relationships. If younger Americans are far more tolerant of homosexuality than their parents, after all, it’s probably not because they’re generally more liberal (in the Millian sense). From what I can tell, they aren’t. Rather, it’s probably because as taboos have eased up somewhat, they increasingly grow up knowing at least a few gay couples and can see that those relationships are as valuable as their own or their parents’. We may even, God help us, need more evangelists for secularism.

Paul Berman writes, in Liberalism and Terror, that intellectuals—and that means novelists and filmmakers no less than political theorists—have forgotten how to prevent a robust defense of liberalism even as it’s most needed to combat the growing appeal of illiberal fundamentalist Islamism. Something similar, I think, is true domestically.

Mill famously argued against censorship by positing that even if the received wisdom was true, and the speech considered for suppression utterly false, it was nevertheless necessary that truth should be regularly recussitated by conflict with error, lest it become mere dead faith. The argument’s still a powerful one, but it has implication for more than just political censorship: Self-segregation into communties of consensus, whether geographically or in media space, has the same effect. The caricature of the smug, complacent urban elite is based on this kernel of truth: The less we encounter people with radically different worldviews, the less accustomed we become to making the case for our own in a compelling way. If there’s a resurgence in Intelligent Design quackery, it may be in part the upshot of our own victories: Biologists are unlikely to find people in their own social circles, let alone among their academic peers, who doubt evolution, and so the need to explain and defend it is seen as less urgent. (I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the people in my social circle who are not atheists, and the nominal believers are scarcely born-again types.)

One notion current in Dem circles now is that victory requires capitulation, so to speak: Liberals (in their sense, not mine) need to begin wrapping themselves in the shroud of Turin and pitching their preferred policies in the language of “moral values.” Mencken’s injunction notwithstanding, I don’t know that this is likely to fool many people. As an ad flak in the 50s (I think) once said, a picture of the prettiest girl in the world won’t, in the end, sell a bad cigarette. Even the most skillfully crafted packaging will only do so much if people aren’t really interested in the underlying product. And if they’re not interested, it’s precisely because secular cosmopolitans seem to have become more preoccupied with how to package their values than with how to defend and promote them. If they’ve “lost touch” with the rest of America (whose spokesmen sometimes, with a smugness to rival anything in New York, fancy it the “Real” or “Heartland” America), the real harm is not that they’re therefore unable to “relate” in some fuzzy way that would permit them to name-check Nascar drivers or allude to Left Behind novels, but that they’ve lost the habit of arguing with them. Now there’s not much of a common language to argue in, hence all that “shrillness” we keep hearing about.

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