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

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Left-liberalism and ideal-type liberalism

Rawlsian philosophical liberalism shares certain similarities with fourth layer liberalism. Both subscribe to a strong idea of internal harmony and consensus on which all right-thinking people will converge. And both place considerable emphasis on social policies that will work in favour of the marginalized and underprivileged members of a society. But there the similarities end. Philosophical liberalism in its Rawlsian version is based on hypothetical assumptions that model human thought and conduct, and are therefore immediately attainable in a specific, imagined, and context-free thought exercise. Fourth layer liberalism was the outcome of actual and hard-won radical policies, however imperfect, that saw the slow rise of a welfare society in a piecemeal and gradual process. Notably, Rawls’s analysis is based on an individual artificially insulated from the social groups that fourth layer liberals regarded as contributing significantly to individual ability and character, due to his belief that the veil of ignorance can usefully model human conduct and form the basis for social arrangements.

The strong individualism of much contemporary philosophical liberalism has also been put at the service of dichotomizing liberalism and communitarianism. It involves a sharp distinction between the emphasis on rational individuals capable of realizing themselves independently and a focus on the social anchoring of individuals—be that in a small group, a neighbourhood, or society as a whole. That dichotomy ignores the extent to which the liberal tradition, particularly in its social liberal mode—a mode of which many philosophical liberals seem to be unaware—reconciled the two tendencies. The decontextualized timelessness of philosophical liberalism, and its indifference to history, play down the importance of mutating social relationships in constituting the individual. Philosophical liberalism also treats as largely irrelevant the evidence that liberalism is an ideology that has had to struggle with other ideologies for supremacy and impact, and that liberalism undergoes continuous modifications when it emerges in different cultures. Seen historically and politically, liberalism has pursued an elusive universalism (or in more recent language, a globalism) intended to spread gradually—but far from completely—through example and expansion. On the contrary, the neatness of philosophical liberalism lies in its logical immediacy and robust persuasiveness for those who subscribe to its ethical vision. Once you accept its impeccable moral reasoning it simply becomes the correct viewpoint. Space and time offer no boundaries for ideal-type thinking. That is not offered as a critique of the enterprise of philosophical liberalism but as a comment on its different disciplinary allegiances.

What has to obtain for such a conception of liberalism to be workable? First, justice must be a universalizable idea that can be shared by all—there can be no multiple, ideologically competing, theories of justice possessing moral respectability. Second, human beings are unquestionably both moral and rational entities. For a Rawlsian philosophical liberal, there is an inevitability about human rationality that is morally compelling: being irrational is not an ethical option. Third, the sense of justice is based on an assumed overlapping consensus on universal ground rules, otherwise described as a theory of the right rather than of the good, because it over-rides procedurally the substantive religious, philosophical, and moral differences that invariably exist among people. That overlapping consensus is also ‘free-standing’; in other words, it is not dependent on a more comprehensive liberal ideology of the kind this book has investigated—or any other ideology for that matter. However, Rawls does concede that it has an affinity with particular practices that are embedded in current democracies. Put differently, it just happens to be the case that each rational individual on his or her own will arrive at the same justifiable ethical ground rules. And it just happens to be the case that the resulting overlapping consensus is remarkably similar to some Western democratic assumptions. That consensus becomes the vital sustainer of social and constitutional stability, which, for Rawlsians, are also central political ends of liberalism.

The kind of pared-down ‘political liberalism’ advanced by Rawls has been criticized as far too minimal and out of step with other liberalisms purporting to contain radical messages. Two of its features have been singled out as inadequate. First, it does not include individuality, and possibly not even progress, at the centre of its vision. Second, its emphasis on what is uniquely human—a range of mental and moral capabilities—seriously understates the emotional and physical attributes of human beings, which are not necessarily captured on an ethically normative register. It is only when we take all four of those capabilities together as having robust claims on social policy that we can realize the welfare state liberalism that marked the policies of many 20th century European societies. Conversely, it is doubtful whether Rawls’s ‘thin’ political liberalism can be universalized and made compatible with other ideologies or with all major religious belief systems.

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