Thursday, February 06, 2003

The Conservative Philosophy of John Kekes (#6)
The book, Against Liberalism (Post F). Previous post here.

Some of these posts stick closes to Kekes’s text, while some go off on tangents. This post pertains to Kekes’s refutation of Rawlsianism, the quintessential statement of liberal political philosophy. This is part of the book is sizeable list of Rawls’s errors. The list is terse, clear and devastating, so I’ll let you read it yourself someday. (I’ve blogged on Rawls before here, here and here.) Here, I’ll offer not so much a tangent as a general meditation on the nature of liberal philosophy and its errors, as Kekes has exposed them.

Kant and Rawls have inserted a virus into Western moral and political philosophy. It is the idea that we each have selves, wills, which are rational, logical, and free from any particular desires. They are like Vulcans of Star Trek: aloof, not inherently subject to the bio-bestial realm of contingent desires cultural persuasions. Only the determination of such a self counts as impartial, moral, autonomous, or rational. And all of the determinations of such a self will be moral, good, and right. Whereas Hobbes, Butler, and Hume had said that only efficient desire fulfillment is rational and moral, the liberals hold that only ignoring desires is rational and moral. How there can be such a noumenal self is a mystery; that it exists is an article of liberal faith. Without it, we must despair in the debased and selfish existence of beasts.

This self of liberal philosophy always determines that every person is entitled to support sufficient for autonomous living - plenty of food, shelter, leisure, education, security, and medical care. For no one could reasonably choose not to have these things. Further, the self chooses egalitarian equality, since no one could reasonably consent to being left behind. How the self chooses these things when it is by definition without any desires remains a mystery. That it can have preferences as a purely logical Vulcan, free of feeling and passion, is another article of faith. That its preferences are morally right is, too. Liberalism turns impartiality into a cult of self-abnegation.

Finally, liberal political philosophy assumes that its system, in which everyone’s autonomy is sustained by redistribution of resources, is one in which there is no wrong-doing to speak of. Autonomous people, by definition, are rational, and therefore are impartial and moral. That our inner selves are free of evil, as well as desire, that no one does evil in full autonomy, is another article of faith.

Yet, there is the paradoxical fact that, as John Ray and Charles Krauthammer have pointed out, liberals believe conservatives are uniquely evil. The reason is that conservatives have everything they need for autonomous living, and yet they have, in full autonomy, turned their backs upon the light. Only that is real evil. The poor mugger is not evil but merely held back from reaching autonomy. In fact, the mugger is to be assumed to be better than the conservative, since the mugger is likely good deep down, lacking only the conditions of autonomy of which the conservative has deprived him, while the conservative knowingly, autonomously chooses evil.

All of these points form the foundation of liberalism. They are all wildly implausible, a kind of faith, hardly the stuff of philosophy. It’s more akin to an irrationalist cult, or a dementia-inducing virus, at best a dream. Martin Peretz says (TNR, 2/3/03), “In the grand conflicts of the last century, there as always a left-wing structure of Manichaeanism. On the one side: imperialism and capitalism. On the other: a compelling and revolutionary dream. The dreams turned out to be nightmares. But they were dreams, nonetheless. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Che, the Viet Cong, the Sandinistas, always a man and a movement saying they aimed to build a better world, which they actually tried to describe. In the end, of course, the better world did not arrive: In its place were death camps, mass deportations, forced famines, massacres, reeducation programs, prisons of the body and greater prisons of the soul.”

The liberal heart bleeds for human evil and miserable poverty. It develops a fantasy in which evil is erased, poverty no more. It teeters on the brink of nihilism for at bottom it is a failure to accept the tragedy of what is. It’s unlikely marriage to pomo/Marxist nihilism isn’t so strange. Both reflect an inability to accept what is and make the best of it. Kekes says,

“Justice is about maintaining the balance between good and evil caused and received - about people getting what they deserve. One great fault of liberalism is that its illusions obscure this realistic view. Liberalism systematically de-emphasizes contingency, wickedness and moral inequality. The liberal faith is comforting because it is pleasant to believe that autonomy c an minimize contingency, that all human beings are basically disposed toward the good, that wickedness is due to institutions whose defects are remediable, and that because of this basic capacity for autonomy all human beings are morally equal and ought to be treated accordingly. However, pleasant, these beliefs are false, and holding them is inconsistent with justice and good lives.”