Wednesday, February 05, 2003

The Conservative Philosophy of John Kekes (#5)
The book, Against Liberalism (Post E). 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.]

Liberals tend to be egalitarians, believing that justice requires that everyone have an equal share of goods. Liberalism rejects desert as a basis for determining justice, instead believing that people's sameness is the basis. They think that all people have a certain characteristic in common which entitles them to equal treatment. This characteristic is people’s capacity for autonomy. The problem is that liberals think that asserting this bedrock moral principle is enough to ground justice. They hope then to go on to assign distributions of goods on the basis of it. But in fact it is hardly even relevant, let alone sufficient. Liberals fail to explain why people’s common capacity for autonomy is morally relevant or why the basis for justice must be some common characteristic. To assume that any such common characteristic must be the basis is to beg the question of whether the egalitarian conception of justice is correct.

Kekes doesn’t diagnose the liberal’s confusion fully. What would make liberals say such things as the following? “Some theories, like Nazism, deny that each person matters equally. But such theories do not merit serious consideration” (Will Kymlicka); and “In attributing human worth to everyone, we [are]...expressing an attitude of respect toward humanity in each man’s person. That attitude is not grounded in anything more ultimate than itself, and it is not demonstrably justifiable.... If none of this convinces the skeptic, we should turn our back on him and examine more important problems” (Joel Feinberg).

The answer is that liberals confuse the trivial claim that “Everyone is to be treated equally unless there is a morally relevant difference between him and others” and the contentious leftist claim that “Everyone is to be treated equally.” Of course, anyone who rejects the first claim is not to be taken seriously in matters of moral deliberation. But the first claim is not the second and, given certain obvious truths about the world, is inconsistent with it. In fact, while the egalitarian liberal philosophy professor gnashes his teeth at right-wing anti-egalitarianism, in fact it is he who is not to be taken seriously in matters of moral deliberation.

Kekes also describes what I think is the Paul Wellstone-type of liberal who holds that in a just society no one has misery he doesn’t deserve but instead has it removed by the institutions of justice. This sort of liberalism is at least able to see that justice is based on desert, and it is not even committed to egalitarianism. The problem with it is that it overlooks that the need to generate the wealth required in order to maximize justice requires that some people’s undeserved misery go unremedied. Moreover, many other values can override desert in certain cases (family ties, private property, mercy, etc.).

It is really very bad that we lost Paul Wellstone; the Democratic Party needed him. (Did you see the Democratic response to the State of the Union address?) Wellstone made judgments as conservatives do: on the basis of desert, undeserved suffering and not on the basis of leftist ideology about equality. Contrast this with the nonsense of Rawls, who, as Kekes mentions holds that desert is no basis for justice, since no one can help it if he happens to be inclined to vice. A Democratic party with Wellstone liberals in it would be keen to discern and represent particular, plausible government programs that might do a lot of good and therefore be worthy of consideration, to make the case for pacifism when it needs to be made, and to remind us of our duty to the undeservedly destitute. Such a Democrat would join Republicans in the center and argue as a valued and loyal opposition about where the sweet spot lies. He’d be wrong more often than not, but we need two parties, in order to hit the sweet spot reliably. Instead, we have enshrined the nonsense of John Rawls, settled for Gary Locke, and lost Paul Wellstone.