The Trouble with Liberalism

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The Trouble with Liberalism
Discovery or Invention?
Reason, the Good and Righs


Marc Stier

Summary of the Book

This book is a critique of the main forms of contemporary liberal political and moral thought. I give most attention to two views of great importance in the history of liberal thought. The first, naturalist liberalism, aims at discovering rationally justified, universal and general principles of political morality. Naturalist liberalism takes either a deontological or utilitarian form. The second, historicist liberalism holds that political and moral principles are human inventions and that reasoning about these principles can only take place within a particular cultural tradition. I then turn to two more recent versions of liberalism, perfectionist liberalism and political liberalism. Despite their differences, all four conceptions of political and moral thought can be used to justify similar substantive political and moral claims, claims that are broadly liberal in nature. And, except for some forms of liberal perfectionism, they all presuppose that there are relatively few common human ends and that reason cannot discern the nature of a good human life. I offer two criticisms of each form of thought. These criticisms are meant to lead to a broader conclusion, that no satisfactory political philosophy is possible if we deny that it is possible to reason about the human good. First, I argue that no version of liberalism provides a sound defense of the central substantive liberal ends. None of the four views view enables us to develop a compelling defense of civil liberty or representative democracy. Nor do they give us a conception of distributive justice that is widely acceptable. My view is that the only successful arguments for these ends illegitimately smuggle in some conception of the human good. The second problem with these liberal theories is that they do not show us how rational thought can help us deal with some of the central political and social concerns of our time, many of which revolve around issues of the human good. Debates about our relation to the environment; the character of work; the best form of community life; the proper relationship between men and women or how our children should be educated all raise questions about the human good. But none of conceptions of political and moral thought can give us rational guidance about these questions. The book concludes with a sketch of what political and moral thought would look like if we again took the notion of human nature and the human good to be at the center of reasoning about politics and morality. Such a view would build on, but move substantially beyond some of the ideas of the defenders of perfectionist liberalism and political liberalism.

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