Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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Basic postulates

There is another, parallel and partially separate, world of liberal thinking and theorizing, one that takes place almost wholly within the walls of academe. Liberal political philosophy is a particular sub-set of liberal language. Though with strong roots in English philosophical traditions, its more recent manifestations have, broadly speaking, been American. They resonate with the constitutional arrangements peculiar to the USA and, assisted by the worldwide power of American publishing and the opulence of its leading universities, have often, and mistakenly, been thought to represent liberalism as a whole. More to the point, liberal political philosophy now constitutes the major creative and probing instance of current liberal theorizing even as, ironically, the vernacular connotations of liberalism are under frequent attack in broader American political discourse. The previous period of liberal flourishing took place a century ago among the new and left liberals in the UK, but it was far more immersed in actual political life and reform and served as an apposite example of what action-oriented and group-supported political ideologies are like. If engaged with liberalism as a set of discontinuous, overlapping, and reinforcing concrete and politically engaged histories, the political impact of philosophical liberalism is partly disabled by its fundamental premises. It is largely an abstract and ideal-type normative approach invoking an ostensibly supra-political, universal, and decontextualized social ethics towards which all right-minded individuals should aim. Admittedly, there has also been another 20th century flourishing of ideas claiming to be liberal, neoliberalism, but those claims are questionable, as we will see in .

Philosophical liberalism presents arguments for the construction of legitimate and ethically attractive social arrangements, focusing on a number of central areas. It is, first, predominantly preoccupied with the shaping of a just society. Second, it assumes individuals to be rational, autonomous, and purposive agents and it is designed to promote those attributes. Third, it seeks out justifications for a decent society that all its members can endorse. It does so by emphasizing large-scale involvement in decision-making, and it holds out the prospect of outline consensus on communal policy based on an appeal to human rationality and fairness. Fourth, many of its articulations have a specific take on the state, to which it entrusts the securing of the political end of neutrality among the different conceptions of the good held by its citizens.

All this means that people must be offered the opportunity to express their preferences through a threefold process. First, individuals should be given not only the vote but a voice. They should be encouraged to articulate their views clearly, without hindrance. Second, they should be persuaded to play a role in public life so that they can control their own fates. Hence active political participation has to be promoted. Third, they should respect others in the same manner in which they wish to be respected—that is called recognition. Recognition has symbolic value in accepting the uniqueness, dignity, and worth of individuals, but it also has material consequences for the allocation of possessions and benefits. All those liberal principles are there to be discovered through the exercise of reason and ethical intuitions.

Philosophic liberalism is strongly universalistic and unafraid to postulate moral truths. It does not see itself as one amongst many ideological creeds competing for primacy but as a prescription for the good life of individuals and a civilized life for a society, in essence above the contingencies of the political fray. It is in effect a system of high-minded morality—indeed, on that view liberalism is simply identical to a social ethics that is insulated from politics. It has, however, impressively developed a persuasive force of its own that has often overtaken more vernacular expressions of liberalism and—at least among the more cerebral liberal aficionados—put those expressions in the shade.

Not all of this is new. For centuries such analytical-philosophical models have anchored liberalism in a frame of desirable human conduct with instant, universal rational appeal that ostensibly decontextualizes it and detaches it from the vagaries of life. Social contract theory established grounds for founding a political society anchored in certain ideas about human nature as reasonable and conflict-averse. Psychological approaches to human flourishing stipulated that the maximizing urge to self-benefit could be harnessed to a society useful to all. But liberal political philosophy has undergone an extraordinary flowering in recent decades as a minor intellectual industry. It is particularly adept at generating thought experiments to initiate schemes for the fair distribution of crucial goods. Those experiments hypothesize what risk-averse individuals would want for themselves and others if they were originally ignorant about their social circumstances, and about most of their capacities.

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