Even if nothing else survives from the age of the democratic revolutions, perhaps our descendants will remember that social institutions can be viewed as experiments in cooperation rather than as attempts to embody a universal and ahistorical order. It is hard to believe that this memory would not be worth having.—Richard Rorty, “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy”
It cannot be denied any longer: liberalism is in serious trouble. From powerful left-wing and right-wing supporters of authoritarianism around the world and now also from seeming anarchists, there are serious challenges to the liberal order. In itself, this is not new—liberal democracy has always been a precarious achievement, constantly besieged by opponents. This time around, however, it has lost not only a large part of its muscle memory—that is, the will of intellectuals and academics to defend the spirit of liberty against all odds—but also, as Yoram Hazony has recently pointed out, its traditional weapon: the viability of the philosophical doctrines that once underpinned it.
In the work of Locke, Paine, Kant and Mill and many others, the underlying assumption in liberal thought has always been that the application of reason by autonomous individuals will yield a moral order that guarantees to all individuals certain innate, natural rights. The dispute, so far as there has been any, has pertained to the content of these rights, and how the state can balance them. The methodology that would enable us to come to these answers, however, was never in question: individuals and society were to shed received dogmas and found their morality and politics on reason. The trouble, however, as Hazony correctly sees it, is that the Enlightenment has finally answered the questions it was called upon to answer, and the conclusion is that the philosophical assumptions of traditional Enlightenment liberalism are highly unlikely.
Following Darwin and the research programme he spawned, it seems increasingly clear that even our most basic moral judgments—supposedly self-evident truths—are themselves deeply ingrained dogmas from a time when they were necessary for society to face evolutionary and other challenges that no longer exist. Once the concept of the immaterial soul has been done away with and the mind has been satisfactorily reduced to the brain and attached physical entities, the individual person at the centre of the liberal order becomes merely a set of contingent responses of different bodies to each other and to environmental stimuli: something that, as arch anti-liberals such as Nietzsche and Heidegger predicted, supervenes on social and physical interactions, but is neither separate from nor prior to them.
From this point proceed the feminist, critical-theoretic and postmodern critiques on the left. If social norms are not merely propositions people accept or reject, but ways of behaviour that constitute them, then the liberal order may be dismissed as an instrument of oppression whose structure favours the cis-het white men who designed it. The notions of personal freedom and even tolerance then look like a smokescreen that shields oppressive norms and problematic behaviour from political interference. It is this to which the concepts of structural racism and structural sexism refer: because societies—not individuals—are ontologically primary, it is irrelevant whether or not most individuals in a society are bigots: the fact that societies permit differential treatment on the basis of sex or race, or that their institutions yield results that differ by those characteristics, is sufficient to damn those societies as structurally sexist or racist.
On the other side of the divide, the right-wing communitarians and authoritarians hold that the liberal order effectively deceives its adherents into thinking that it is neutral towards different conceptions of the good life. They argue that, by relentlessly permitting people to do as they wish, it prevents the formation of strong social bonds and a communal sense of the sacred. If individual autonomy in moral judgment is metaphysically untenable according to the criteria that modernity accepts as epistemically valid, then the original justification for prohibiting legislation based on morals or religion is gone, and the fact that the liberal order still emphasises autonomy shows that it is actively working against religious, nationalist and other communal values.
From the 1950s onwards, these radicals have agreed that liberal democracies are fundamentally flawed in their assumptions, though they have been able to agree on little else. Conservatives like Roger Scruton have also agreed with this assessment—taking it to mean that liberal societies are doomed to self-destruction unless they embrace social conservatism. Meanwhile, the profession of philosophy had largely given up on the possibility of agreement altogether, holding that questions of moral judgment are either rationally undecidable or essentially meaningless. It was against this background that pragmatist Richard Rorty delivered a lecture that become one of the most iconic statements of a distinctive and increasingly feasible political position that may be called post-Enlightenment liberalism.
Framed as a defence of the work of liberal political theorist John Rawls, “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy” (1991) engages with advocates of illiberalism on their own terms. This is especially significant because Rorty built his intellectual reputation almost entirely on a potent critique of the central Enlightenment notion of the autonomous, rational mind. Yet, according to Rorty, no metaphysical commitment to autonomy or rationality is needed to justify liberalism at all: quite the opposite, in fact.
In order to prove his point, Rorty had to respond to three allegations: first, that the collapse of people’s faith in the traditional metaphysical foundations of liberalism would lead to the collapse of liberalism itself; second, that liberalism produces a fundamentally undesirable form of community that corrupts people; and third, that the lack of a metaphysical basis for liberalism means that liberal orders are left without a rational defence, i.e. they should collapse if they do not have a transcendent moral basis. What Rorty, on behalf of John Rawls and the liberal tradition, was responding to, then, were the same denunciations that liberalism faces today from both the illiberal right and left. In order to defend liberalism, Rorty looks back to its first great political statement and its original motivation.
Secular, bourgeois liberalism was not originally adopted because it was backed by a comprehensive, shared worldview but because such worldviews had previously been taken too seriously and had inexorably led to the Wars of Religion, which left Europe in a state of unmitigated devastation. It was in reaction to this fanaticism that the young nation of the United States of America defined itself. When Thomas Jefferson said, “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty Gods or no God,” it convinced the deeply devout American people not because they truly thought paganism or atheism were excusable, but because they had experienced first hand the consequences of not taking that attitude.
Rawls’ political liberalism, like Rorty’s own ironist liberalism, is an attempt to revive that spirit in an age of unprecedented moral fragmentation. Previous liberal doctrines failed because they depended on the kind of fairly comprehensive agreement on moral and metaphysical questions that is simply not forthcoming in modern societies. Post-Enlightenment liberalism, by contrast, accepts that widespread moral disagreement is real and inevitable, and builds a political programme on that.
It is from this acceptance that Rawls’ famous original position (veil of ignorance) thought experiment arises, wherein he defines a justly organized society as one that rational people would choose if they did not know what role they would occupy, or views they would hold, in that society. Many have wrongly taken this as a “transcendental deduction of American liberalism,” but, as Rorty points out, it is no such thing. Rather, post-Enlightenment liberalism is a political system built upon the desire to minimize the negative consequences of disagreements as to what is morally and economically valuable. By chance, America was the first nation to hit upon and gradually, painfully, systematically perfect the idea that a nation could exist without a common ethnic, ideological or religious basis shared by all its members. The concern that a country could not exist without such a link, Rorty dismisses as merely unnecessary speculation about an ongoing experiment, which only functions to further destabilize it.
To those who challenge liberal orders on the basis that they are intellectually unsupported, Rorty replies, “When the two come into conflict, democracy takes precedence over philosophy.” It is a radically simple view, but there is a deep intuition supporting it: the intuition that political freedom and peaceful coexistence trump all other values. This intuition gives us a compelling reason to act—not, as Rorty points out, because these values have triumphed in a philosophical debate about the “theory of the human self,” but because they have been vindicated by history and sociology—that is, by the lived experience of communities that prioritized other values and were plunged into either warfare or tyranny or both.
Asking for such a radical separation between theorizing and practical politics can come across as shocking and even rude for two reasons. First, some liberals, such as Ronald Dworkin, think that they do indeed have a complete and true account of human nature and the moral order, and are miffed at being denied the opportunity to offer it. And, second, partisans of authoritarianism on all sides might surmise that they have been wrongly side-lined despite having a coherent and even correct worldview, that they have been essentially treated as mad. To this, there may be two replies, and this is where the post-Enlightenment liberal programme breaks its last link with the traditional one.
The Enlightenment liberal tradition, up to and including some later works by Rawls, tries to base the liberal order on the comprehensive moral views of citizens, even when this results in only a very thin overlapping consensus between different moralities. The post-Enlightenment tradition does away with this altogether, asking that citizens adopt a categorically different view towards politics than towards other parts of life, a view that emphasises the primacy of freedom for its own sake. But why should we prefer the second approach over the first?
The reason lies in the flip side of each doctrine. Post-Enlightenment liberalism has no problem with either “Nietzsche or Loyola” living as they wish, so long as they do not try to bring their ethical views to bear on politics. This is not true of Enlightenment liberalism: Locke baldly advocated intolerance towards atheists and Catholics; even Rawls believed that Islam needed to be radically modified in order to be accommodated within liberal democracy, though he does not explain what will happen if Muslims refuse that offer.
Post-Enlightenment liberalism, then, entails moving beyond both social totality and cultural alienation towards a serene reconciliation with the fact that the era of consensus is over in most liberal societies. Why this is so is a complex question, though the creative destruction of the market is the likeliest source. However, as the planned socialist states found out, the complete abolition of the unprecedentedly efficient market system is not a feasible option, just as the establishment of a unified public ideology is no longer possible or meaningful in societies where individuals are already strongly opinionated. What we can feasibly aim for is to rebuild the currently depleted deep foundations of mutual trust that must undergird any liberal polity.
At the broadest level, this begins with changing governmental practices. It is no longer feasible to claim that the fair value of a person’s political rights may be secured without economic support: something that both John Rawls, the egalitarian par excellence, and Friedrich Hayek, the avowed opponent of social justice, both recognised when they agreed that economic institutions must be designed from behind the “veil of ignorance.” Individuals must be allowed to discriminate on any basis—reasonable or unreasonable—but this liberty must not diminish the liberty of others by reducing their opportunities in life. The price to be paid for political freedom, therefore, is a robust system of economic redistribution, and perhaps even an openness to libertarian forms of socialism, in order to safeguard that freedom for all.
Second, there are institutions other than the government, that hold the special, often legally protected, power of conferring, regulating and revoking public recognition. Examples include degree-conferring educational institutes and autonomous professional associations. Because such institutions possess exclusive authority similar to that of the state, they must be held to the same standards when it comes to respecting the freedom of expression of their subjects. This may be codified within law or enforced through internal mechanisms.
Third, this entails a shift in the way that we—particularly those of us who are public intellectuals—think about politics. Too often, political philosophy focuses narrowly on the speculative articulation and defence of systems conceived as coherent totalities, and the critique of existing systems using idealized touchstones, to the neglect of its other roles. It should also be reconciliatory: “to calm our frustration and rage against our society and its history by showing us the way in which its institutions … developed over time as they did to attain their present, rational form.” And, above all, it must be practical: “to see whether, despite appearances, some underlying basis of philosophical and moral agreement can be uncovered, or differences can at least be narrowed.”
Fourth, as post-Enlightenment liberal theorist Gerald Gaus has pointed out, social convention is an ineliminable feature of society, and may take two forms: Bodo ethics, where people hesitate to do or refrain from doing what is not clearly known to be socially permitted; or open society ethics, where people take as prima facie permitted what is not clearly known to be socially forbidden. Because the full consequences of scientific, social and technological innovations cannot be known in advance, totally novel experimentation is inhibited by fear of unacceptable results in a Bodo society, to the detriment of all kinds of progress. On the other hand, the post-Enlightenment liberal order, by assuming no unquestionable truths, necessarily fosters open society ethics, where social convention requires members to seriously consider and engage with as much unorthodoxy as possible.
Finally, although this is not as necessary, post-Enlightenment liberalism both fosters and is helped by a certain Rortyan light-mindedness if and when disagreements turn out to be unresolvable. We hold tight to Kant’s belief that each person must discover the moral law on her own; but we do not place too much hope in his belief that everyone will come to the same conclusions about what that law is, so we do not try to impose our beliefs on others, who may have reached very different conclusions from us.
Thus, the post-Enlightenment liberal society would be constituted by a “social union of social unions.” In this society, individual people, recognizing both the fallibility of their own views and the fragility of peaceful tolerant polities, would seek out circles of similar people with whom to share each important part of their social lives. Politics is not a matter of choosing the best social union for the whole of society, but designing institutions that safeguard the actual freedoms of all. No one should be inordinately disadvantaged simply because she belongs to a social union with poor resources or that enjoys little acceptance because its members’ skills or moral outlook are not valued by the powerful.
You may wonder whether we would lose something important in giving up the traditional hopes of modern liberalism. Indeed, we would: we would have to give up our last chance of reversing the disenchantment caused by modernity. But we would gain something important: an opportunity to acknowledge that, despite our many differences and defects, we human beings are capable of coexisting and serving each other. In a world where intolerance and authoritarianism are rapidly rising, there is perhaps no higher call.