Monday, February 03, 2003

The Conservative Philosophy of John Kekes (#3)
The book, Against Liberalism (Post C). 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.]

Whole groups can be held responsible for evil (or for good) done by only some of their members, whenever the action flows from the values shared by the group. Upholding a group's values is a way in which a member of a group counts as a supporter of evil (or good) done by another member in service to those values. The bloodthirsty denizens of Jenin and Gaza are somewhat responsible for killings they do not do. (I've blogged on a related issue before.)

Kekes argues that the trouble with (left-)liberalism is that it is inconsistent with these facts about collective responsibility, and also it likes to hold a group collectively responsible when these facts - necessary conditions - do not obtain. Liberalism attributes responsibility only to autonomous actions (actions done after full evaluation of the alternatives and in full understanding of their moral status and implications). But many cases of collective responsibility are cases in which many of the blameworthy (or praiseworthy) members of the group are not autonomous, but merely hateful (or merely kind). And liberals like to hold rich people or white men collectively responsible for injustice caused by rich people or white men, even though those they hold collectively responsible have never shared the values of the wrong doers and have on the contrary fought to abolish those values. Collective responsibility is important to moral life. Not only does the concept of it elude liberalism, but also liberalism misapplies it.

Throughout the book, Kekes makes it clear that left-liberals have a tendency to ignore morally relevant properties of actions and characters and procede to judgment merely on the basis of gaps in wealth. This tendency is why I maintain that envy (or guilt in the face of envy) is a plausible explanation for someone's maintaining left-liberal values.