Thursday, January 30, 2003

The Conservative Philosophy of John Kekes (#1)
The book, Against Liberalism (post A)

This is the first in a long, numbered series of posts on the contemporary philosopher John Kekes. I will very concisely present the ideas in five of his books: Against Liberalism, A Case for Conservatism, Facing Evil, The Art of Life, and Moral Wisdom and Good Lives. I hope you will read them. They are quite readable.

Against Liberalism is a painstaking critique of liberal philosophy. Kekes usually targets left-liberals, rather than libertarian liberals (classical liberals), but he offers a conception by which both may be encompassed. Liberalism is the belief that we should take as our highest values the promotion of liberty, equality, and autonomy of the individual, and the allowance of a plurality of good ways of life. The liberal ideal is a society in which everyone is allowed and enabled to act autonomously. The left-liberal and the libertarian deeply disagree about whether forced redistribution of wealth makes sense as a way of achieving this goal. But they are both liberals in sharing an ideal of equal entitlement to autonomy. The conservative argues that we ought to value many other things at least as much as autonomy, and liberalism runs aground in the midst of this criticism.

The shoal upon which liberalism runs aground is evil. Evil is prevalent. It should be inhibited. Maximizing autonomy and liberty would promote evil, rather than inhibit it. The liberal offers the proviso that in addition to maximizing autonomy, we should also act to inhibit misuses of autonomy. But this action would require severely curtailed liberty (law enforcement, military) and a strong social commitment to enforcing morality, including the inculcation in youth of moral character traits. The egalitarian aspiration of liberalism is inconsistent with the recognition of widespread evil. The vicious should not enjoy economic equality or equal opportunity, and people should not be left alone, free of paternalistic pressure, as if in a private and autonomous vaccuum, to determine what is good. Since there are many vicious people, what remains after instituting mechanisms for combating evil is hardly recognizable as liberal. It would be a system in which freedom, pluralism, and equality were not higher values than prosperity, order, civility, peace, security, happiness, and law-abidingness. Good lives require that these and other values be treated as just as important as liberalism's preferred values.

Liberals may argue that evil doers are often psychologically corrupt and unable to act autonomously, and that the liberal program of increasing autonomy will eliminate this evil. If people could only be made to understand right and wrong and to learn how to make decisions rationally, they would be virtuous and not vicious. But this premise is the belief in the fundamental and overriding goodness of human nature. And there is no evidence for it. Rather, the plenitude of evil but autonomous actions refutes it. The liberal faith that human nature is good is hopelessly naive and utterly undermines liberalism.

The liberal predicament is that the great measure of evil in human nature is inconsistent with the liberal doctrine that liberty and autonomy are the highest values.