By John Kekes
Cornell University Press. 244 pp. $29.95
I remember a lecture a few years back, heard when I was in graduate school, that provided one of those rare flashes that illumine an entire universe. The speaker was a well-published political philosopher (and, as I was to later discover, a former Jesuit). His topic was typical for the kind of analytic liberal theory he practiced: how best to interpret, and implement, equality, particularly when faced with the demands of modern feminism. For this philosopher, our intuitions led us inexorably down a single path, at the end of which, once medical advances made it physically possible, men should give birth to children. Only with such a mutation in the species-call it engineered hermaphrodism-would equality between men and women be possible, gender roles rendered a matter of choice, not of destiny.
Much of contemporary liberal political philosophy-the philosophy of John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, and their many followers-is captured in this breathtaking argument: the denial of any intrinsic dignity to the human world; the reconceptualization of moral life along contractualist lines; the elevation of equality and autonomy above all other goods; the dismissal of philosophical analysis of foundations, metaphysical or otherwise; and, finally, a contempt for what most people believe and have believed for most of human history. Our intuitions, for this liberal philosopher, were the intuitions of liberal philosophers, not the moral sentiments of a common humanity.
Reading John Kekes dense, argumentative, and coldly logical Against Liberalism brought this memory flooding back, for it is exactly the kind of empty theorizing indulged in by the former Jesuit that Kekes condemns. Growing out of a series of books and essays Kekes has written over the last several years-on the nature of moral argument, the problem of evil, and the conflictual goods and evils that make up life as we know it- Against Liberalism marks the authors most explicit broadside against liberal theory to date. It is also largely critical, a demolition job clearing the ground for a forthcoming book that promises to provide a more complete defense of Kekes pluralism (an earlier work, The Morality of Pluralism , already moved in this direction).
Kekes argument, in brief, is that contemporary liberal theory is incoherent. The negative goals liberals pursue can be summarized under the heading of the avoidance of evil : to protect the liberty of individuals from dictatorship, torture, poverty, intolerance, repression, discrimination, lawlessness, and other affronts to human dignity. Liberalism throughout its history has been concerned with remedying such evils, and some of the greatest works of the human spirit, from Montesquieus The Spirit of the Laws to Tocquevilles Democracy in America , have been written with the noble conviction that human liberty is worth preserving.
Kekes does not sufficiently stress how the contemporary variant of liberalism is at far remove from the earlier, richer, and more modest liberalism of Montesquieu, Tocqueville, or, in our century, Raymond Aron, Bertrand de Jouvenel, and Isaiah Berlin. But he does correctly show that the positive goals of contemporary liberals-in particular autonomy, distributive justice, and equality-are guaranteed to exacerbate the evils it is the negative task of liberalism to avoid. Were the agenda of contemporary liberalism to be fully realized, Kekes argues, the result surely would be the destruction of human flourishing.
Take, as an example, the contemporary liberal concern for justice. Under the influence of John Rawls, justice has been perceived to entail the redistribution of resources in the pursuit of greater equality, regardless of the merit of present holders or future recipients of goods. On this view, justice as equality must disregard merit, for we do not deserve our genetic or social inheritance. Whether someone works hard, excels at school, or is a fine athlete, in other words, has little to do with them, and perhaps everything to do with the milieu into which they were born or the genetic card they were dealt at birth. Thus we should ensure, institutionally, that those lucky enough to succeed are rewarded only after those unlucky enough to fail are first benefited.
But as Kekes observes, the implementation of this understanding of justice would lead to powerfully counterintuitive-even absurd-results. In the upside down Rawlsian universe, a single mother who managed to improve her lot and that of her children through hard work, thrift, and discipline would find her somewhat greater resources subject to redistribution to another single mother who, say, was addicted to drugs, neglected her children, and refused to work. Where is the justice in that? Indeed, pushed to its limit, this logic would lead to greater suffering, for it would socially reward self-destructive behavior and penalize virtue.
Similarly questionable is the liberal embrace of autonomy-the idea that the imperial self is to be the sole arbiter of its destiny. Kekes sees autonomy as the god to which all other liberal allegiances pay homage. But why should the increase of autonomy lead to the diminishment of evil, as liberals claim? It would only do so were we to understand human nature, in the manner of Rousseau, to be intrinsically good, with evil a mirage of unjust social life that will disappear with the transformation of corrupt institutions. Yet this flies in the face of everything we should sensibly know at the end of our horrifying century about the nature of man-that he is capable of good and evil, that his nature is divided, that he is marked by original sin. To increase human autonomy is therefore to increase the human capacity for evil; to rein in evil might require reining in human autonomy.
Older liberals like Tocqueville and Montesquieu understood liberty to be an achievement, and inseparable from its articulation with a rich world of goods and spiritual bodies that would nourish it; contemporary liberals, Kekes reminds us, embrace an empty freedom, ignorant of evil, devoid of good, spiraling into nothingness. It is a freedom where everything-identity, gender, truth-is up for grabs, and where nothing means anything. The real spiritual father of contemporary liberalism is Jean-Paul Sartre, but at least he faced the implications of nihilistic liberty with greater honesty.
Kekes concludes Against Liberalism with a suggestion that what is worthwhile in liberalism might best be preserved by a conservative pluralism, one that recognized the incompatibility of human ends, the necessity of difficult trade-offs, and the existence of certain goods-among them, security, civility, and peace-not given much time of day by contemporary liberals. Some of the most important work being done in political thought today is being done by post-liberals like Kekes: Alasdair MacIntyre, Pierre Manent, and others. But Kekes belief in the death of God (he describes it as the absence of cosmic justice), along with the unresolved status of human nature in his thought, may prevent him from giving an adequate theoretical treatment to these problems in the future. Any such treatment would necessitate a deeper engagement with the classical tradition-the plural Western inheritance of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome-than Kekes seems willing to allow.
We can be thankful, however, for this patient exercise in criticism-in some ways the most comprehensive yet published-of the dominant tendency in academic political philosophy, a liberalism at once barren and hubristic that mocks the beliefs and hopes of men and women as they are, and celebrates much that they despise.
Brian C. Anderson is Senior Editor at City Journal and author of Raymond Aron: The Recovery of the Political , just out from Rowman; Littlefield.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?