12 December 2016

Liberalism or Pluralism? Part 1

(Trigger warning: undefined terms; very much thinking out loud.)

A couple of days ago I posted here about Kenny Chings new article Liberalism's Fine Print: Boilerplate's Allusion to Human Nature. Drawing on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, Ching concluded that the ever-inconclusive arguments about the legitimacy of contractual boilerplate was consistent with the Liberal tradition in which autonomy and efficiency (freedom vs. net gains in social welfare) are played off against each other. Indeed, Ching argued, the contemporary debates over whether boilerplate generates net consumer gains or instead amounts to a degradation of democratic values was rational as Liberalism defines rationality. 

Initially I thought Ching's conclusion was absurd: how could an interminable debate between autonomy and efficiency be rational? Isn't the point of reasoning to arrive at the truth of a matter? Well, as it turns out, not necessarily.

By excluding from its version of rational discourse any discussion of human nature (anthropology) and human ends (teleology), Liberalism renders impossible any conclusion to the argument about boilerplate. In other words, per MacIntyre, Liberal reasoning is not designed to get us to the truth but rather to keep us occupied while we buy stuff.

At this point I could continue about the weaknesses of MacIntyre's conception of tradition-bound notions of rationality and his tendentiously prolix prose. But I won't. Instead, I'll pick up with something about which MacIntyre writes in the final chapter of Whose Justice? Which Rationality? that has helped me clarify the difference between Liberalism and the pluralism of the sort advocated by Abraham Kuyper.

MacIntyre's account of Liberalism finds in that 17th century phenomenon an impetus to set forth a neutrally rational account of human social and political life. Forgoing appeals to the Classical and Christian traditions, Liberalism sought an Archimedean point by which to establish forms of human life (e.g., justice) and thought (i.e., rationality) that would overcome the problems apparent in the leading 17th century alternatives.

Purporting to embody neutral reason, one not in service of a tradition-based teleology, Liberalism started off strong but has ultimately found it impossible to resolve its internal--and unending--antinomies such as the priority of autonomy or efficiency, freedom or welfare. Rather than admitting that Liberalism itself is no more than another tradition, Liberalism inculcates a political order where appeals to a specific conception of the human good are recharacterized as expressions of attitude and feeling rather than as subjects of argument and counterargument. A conception of the human good, which might resolve the problem of autonomy vs. efficiency, is thus the only resource to which appeal cannot be made in the world of academic discourse.

By reducing principals to preferences, Liberalism places all its participants in a Matrix-like world of shadowy appearances. Liberalism forces followers of other traditions to keep their thoughts to themselves or face exclusion from public discourse by forcefully bracketing questions of human nature and human good from rational discourse. Liberalism's economic order, market capitalism, teaches us the same; everything we want is an irreducible and irrational preference (and that the more we want, the better)

But it's important to recall that the Liberal tradition wasn't imposed on the West by an alien conqueror. Other traditions had dominated life and thinking (i.e., justice and rationality) for thousands of years. MacIntyre spends much ink explaining why Liberalism largely supplanted its Western rivals but certainly among them was failure of the Medieval and early-modern Christian synthesis of Classical thought and practice to deal with the rise of technology, the market economy, and intense inter-national violence. As MacIntyre observes:
What most profoundly finally moved the largest part of Europe's educated classes to reject Aristotelianism [as synthesized in both Catholicism and Protestantism] as a framework for understanding moral and social life was the gradual discovery during and after the savage and persistent conflicts of the age was that no appeal to any agreed conception of the good, either at the level of practice or of theory, was now possible.
Fast-forward to the turn of the 20th century. Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper believed that repristinating a pre-Revolutionary (i.e., pre-Liberal) Dutch society was out of the question. By the late 19th century it was too late to reverse the effects of either the Right-Liberal (market-oriented) form of economic life or the Left-Liberal (socialist) response. With his program of verzuiling ("pillarization"), Kuyper sought an alternative form of social life in which there was neither a single, national, agreed-upon conception of the good nor sublimation of individual conceptions of the good to a pretense of a singular conception of rationality. In pillarization Kuyper anticipated what he thought was a non-Liberal answer to the question McIntyre would later ask:
What kind of principles can require and secure allegiance in and to a form of social order in which individuals who are pursuing diverse and often incompatible conceptions of the good can live together without the disruptions of rebellion and internal war?
Kuyper's approach stipulated that substantial numbers of citizens in any modern nation state would have different understandings of what it means to be human and thus different forms of practical reasoning about subjects like justice. They would, in other words, be participants in various traditions. But rather than forcing into a single straitjacket all such incompatible forms of thought and practice, each would instead be allowed its own "pillar" within which to live according to its own forms of rationality and, to the extent possible, its particular understanding of justice.

The Dutch experiment with pluralism permitted secular liberals, Reformed Protestant Christians, and Roman Catholics each to have its own system of education and non-governmental social organizations. By combining pluralism and subsidiarity at the local levels, Dutch political Liberalism functioned only at the highest level of the state. For a while, anyway.

Dutch pillarization largely collapsed over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. Notwithstanding pillarization, Liberalism has worked its leaven throughout Dutch society.

Next time some thoughts on whether the collapse of pillarization was inevitable and what might be done to limit Liberalism's reach without returning to the 17th century wars of religion.

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