Saturday, February 01, 2003

The Conservative Philosophy of John Kekes (#2)
The book, Against Liberalism (Post B). Previous post here.

[This is a 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.]

Kekes’s target is left-liberals. One theme in his argument is the kinds of ascription of moral responsibility that liberalism makes or is precluded from making. Liberals are intent upon designing a society in which autonomy is maximized. They thus lose sight of the goal that any moral system must have, that of reducing evil. It is well known that liberals tend to forget about victims and excuse evil doers. Why? Is there a philosophical flaw underlying this remarkable tendency?

The flaw is the liberal ideology that only autonomous people are subject to moral judgment. “Autonomy” is a technical term in liberalism; it doesn’t just mean free. It means being fully reflective on the significance of various alternative paths of action, understanding the morals involved, and fully weighing their consequences before acting. Such action will almost always be good, according to the liberal faith given us my Kant, but the point here is that many evil actions are not autonomous, and it is inappropriate for us to consider their agents evil. You know the story. We aren’t to blame these people or label them as wicked, since they can’t help what they do. (And, after all, it is the oppression by the wealthy and powerful which deprives them of the necessary conditions for autonomy - wealth, free time, education; to label them wicked would be doubly perverse.)

The flaw in this liberal doctrine derives from a misunderstanding of the principle that people are responsible for, ought to do, only that which they can do - the principle that “ought” implies “can.” Having raised the standard for what counts as genuine human freedom and called it “autonomy,” the liberal infers that what the hoards of non-autonomous people do is all they can do. “Can” is defined very strongly, very narrowly, as entailing autonomy, which most evil doers don’t have. Since they can’t do otherwise, they are excused from moral censure. A man, a thug, who is hateful and greedy, who likes to beat up and rob people, and who never gives much thought to alternative ways of life, is not autonomous and therefore not evil, on the liberal view. (Kekes thinks that the liberal can’t simply renounce this silly view and remain a liberal; see previous post.)

Of course, the principle that “ought” implies “can” is valid in its uncorrupted form. Any intentional action, not forced upon the agent by external forces, and not deriving from insanity, is optional, free; the agent can do otherwise. Autonomy is not necessary. Only plain (Lockean) freedom is. Therefore, if he ought to have done otherwise, and if his action was evil, we can say that he is somewhat evil. The degree of evil which it is appropriate to attribute to him is partly determined by how much autonomy he has. A fully autonomous evil doer (a rare bird, according to the liberal faith in the goodness of human nature) should be judged more harshly than the thug I described. But the thug should be judged very harshly indeed. In other words, lack of autonomy is perhaps a mitigating factor, but not much of one. The disposition intentionally to do evil is all it takes to count as an evil person.

The point is that liberalism eliminates moral judgment of character from a vast area of human life, thus making it impossible to combat much of the evil in the world. Liberals would instead give wealth, rehabilitation, and education to the evil, in effort to make them more autonomous. But there is no evidence that this will reduce evil, rather than, at best, make the evil autonomously evil. Liberalism accepts evil because the ideal of its ideology - autonomy for all - requires this. The defense that there will be no more evil in a society of universal autonomy, that no one would autonomously choose evil, is a mere hope. (I think you can see the Marxism lurking beneath liberal ideology.)