Posted by: captainfalcon | June 9, 2010

Did someone say RAYMOND GEUSS!?!?!?!?

Chris writes: “The common assumption is that liberalism and democracy are co-dependant.  The world’s people all want liberal, peaceful, and benevolent governments, democracy gives voice to these assumedly universal desires and, these ideal governments flourish…This dissonance seems to me to stem from what Geuss might call a Platonic worldview.”

Geuss got there ahead of Chris. In his paper “Liberalism and its Discontents,” he supplies a more case-specific explanation –compatible with (indeed, undergirded by) one that cites the widespread acceptance of the Platonic worldview – for the assumption that liberalism and democracy are co-dependent. Essentially, his claim is that liberalism presupposes, or is motivated by, the view that social consensus is attainable. Or, as Geuss puts it, “What is distinctive about liberalism [is] its view that all societies should be seen as capable of attaining consensus, despite a lack of homogeneity in the manners, beliefs, and habits of their members.”

Geuss admits that liberalism’s commitment to consensus distinguishes into (what Geuss calls) an empirical and political variant (the former: that there is a consensus in every (functioning) society; the latter: there is in principle a consensus in every (functioning) society). He thus allows for the possibility of a liberal who does not think that democracy – a process of partial consensus – will actually yield liberal policies. In point of fact, however, such liberals are few and far between. Geuss notices that:

One standard line of liberal argument tends to run the notions of “consensus” that are prominent in these different cases together. Effective coordination of action is highly desirable if humans are to survive and live a life any of them will find worth living, but coordination of action requires that some kind of at least minimal and tacit agreement in values and normative conceptions exists between the cooperating parties. If the parties did not share a large number of such values, cooperation would break down. Therefore, it is claimed, there exists in every society a basic consensus that can serve as the basis on which further agreements could be reached, thereby expanding further the human social sphere in which freedom and normativity peacefully intertwine.

This seems to me exactly right. From a highly plausible assumption about minimal shared concerns (which, in turn, is articulated in such a way – as “tacit agreement in values and normative conceptions” – that the dice is loaded in favor of regarding these concerns as generally worthy), is derived a totally unsupported conclusion about the extent of consensus that can be achieved. (The conclusion, notice, makes sense if you are in the grips of the Platonic worldview.) Because this “can” is derived from an actual, existing consensus, it is too easy to read it as actually can be achieved, as opposed to can in principle be achieved. Thus does liberalism’s commitment to consensus become a commitment to presently attainable consensus.

There are two further questions. First, why do liberals think that the consensus they optimistically assume to be attainable will favor liberal policies? Second, why do liberals value consensus in the first place? Geuss has fairly plausible answers to each question.

Liberals think consensus will favor liberal policies because they are individualists – they regard individual well-being as an obviously relevant political consideration. Or, as Geuss puts it, “liberals are committed to individualism: a society is good only to the extent to which the individuals in it are well off.” The hallmark of liberal policies is that they aim to further individual well-being. Consensus among people who regard individual well-being as (self-evidently) important (by liberal lights, this is all of us) will, quite obviously, tend to favor policies that promote individual well-being. Thus do liberals think consensus will favor their policies.  (It is, of course, extremely dubious that all of us are individualists – theocrats are not individualists, nor are nationalists, who tacitly endorse some “organicist” conception of the State.)

That is the answer to question one. Question two, however, remains unanswered. Indeed, the previous paragraph amplifies it. If the point of government is to promote individual well-being, why care about consensus – why not just concern yourself with well-being? A possible answer, of course, is that consensus is useful to the development of policies that promote individual well-being. But this does not explain the centrality of consensus to liberalism. Liberalism treats consensus as valuable in its own right. Liberals are, with equal passion, democrats.

Geuss’s explanation is that liberalism began as a (putatively) non-moral doctrine, and has retained those connotations through today.

Classical [i.e. early] liberalism is best understood as a negative phenomenon, a reaction against certain events, theories, and social and political tendencies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that early liberals identified as especially dangerous…In one direction, as it were, vis-à-vis the past, liberalism opposes absolutism and also the cameralist idea that the state has the duty and the right to care for the positive well-being of its members in an extensive sense. In the other direction, facing the future, classical liberalism strongly rejects the exaggerated moralization of politics that it sees as propagated by the French Revolutionaries.

Because liberalism “rejects the exaggerated moralization of politics,” it cannot directly cite the goodness of policies as a reason to adopt them. It needs, instead, a justification for policies that is only latently moral (i.e. that doesn’t require moral reasoning to see, but that itself needs moral grounding) – consensus (an empirical notion) fits the bill. Consensus also satisfies the “backward looking” desideratum; because it is (ideally) a difficult criterion to meet, it constrains the state from being the primary caregiver of its citizens. (Though, of course, the state is still supposed to concern itself only with individual well-being; its concern is just not supposed to be extensive.)

So there you have it. Liberalism and democracy are thought by liberals to go hand-in-hand because liberalism assumes (a) that consensus is attainable, and (b) that individual well-being is obviously important to policy justification. If attainable consensus will be among those who value individual well-being, it is no surprise that polices directed at promoting individual well-being (i.e. liberal policies) will be favored. And why care about what consensus favors? Because legitimizing policies by citing their moral desirability directly introduces moralizing into politics – doing so by adverting to their being the product of consensus does not.



  1. Perhaps we are not describing the exact same phenomenon, but I find it hard to imagine liberalism as explicitly antimoral, even when using a more broadly construed definition of liberalism (like in my classifications post). Liberalism (and classical liberalism especially) is grounded in the rights of the individual and it is hard not to rise to moralizing when dealing with inviolable rights. Indeed, the weight of our political experience confirms this response. Perhaps Geuss is using the “moralization of politics” as an elliptical for political conflict/intensity (which would also make better sense of his reference to revolutionary France). Otherwise, his line of reasoning is quite convincing.

  2. […] Chris on Geuss Chris writes: “I find it hard to imagine liberalism as explicitly antimoral, even when using a more […]

  3. […] [Liberalism has] a view of politics as the offering of alternatives to rational individuals who then make choices for which they are morally responsible. Right politics is offering the right values to individuals and if they reject them, then we are entitled to condemn them unless they were disabled by invincible ignorance. So the liberal view of politics is indeed precisely ideological in that it conceals from view all those social facts which have to do with ideology. It turns out to be no accident that liberals should turn to something like the end-of-ideology thesis. […]

  4. […] text I have bolded highlights the presupposition in whose grips S&M – good liberals, I am sure – are caught: that fighting smart reduces to thoughtfully articulating genuine […]

  5. […] particular sectarian conception of the good, but, as any non-sectarian grounding for politics is a liberal pipe-dream, this fact can at best be a source of existential malaise, not a consideration against it (and in […]

  6. […] Politics remains a mired in dissensus; who’d've thunk. […]

  7. […] be taken without developing new evils requiring new remedies.”  I suspect our old friend Raymond Geuss has something to say about […]

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