Chris writes: “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.”
The situation vis-a-vis the modern liberal attitude towards the role of morality in politics (and towards natural rights theory) is more complicated than Chris makes it out to be, because modern liberalism has been influenced by (at least) two different traditions: (a) the early liberal tradition of Wilhelm von Humboldt and JS Mill (to use the representative thinkers with whom I most familiar), and (b) various pre-liberal thinkers such as Montesquieu, Locke and Adam Smith. Each of these groups (the latter hardly qualifies as such) were responding to different problems-of-the-age. As a consequence, their ideas don’t always fit together perfectly. This adds to the instability of the modern liberal synthesis.
The term “liberalism” first emerged circa 1810 in Spain. It was then applied to Humboldt, Mill, Benjamin Constant and others who were motivated in their politics by an anxiety about the effects of untrammeled state power, and who regarded “exaggerated moralization” – Robespierre’s “Republic of virtue and terror” – as one of the main underpinnings of tyranny. “Ex post, a legitimizing prehistory of liberalism has been constructed in which Spinoza, Locke, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and others are made to feature prominently as theoretical precursors” (Geuss).
However, the pre-liberals’ starting point was very different from the liberals’ preoccupations with the nature of state power. The pre-liberals, instead, focused mainly on the nature of individuals. Reflections on their nature led to Locke’s natural rights theory, and, thereby, to a “moralized” conception of the proper limits of state power. But the concern was always primarily with individuals. That is why opposition thinkers in Walpolean England – who drew heavily (if selectively) from Locke – had fairly attenuated complaints against the State. When they objected to State tyranny, or the slavery to which they’d been reduced, they meant not that they were actually being coerced, but that the State had the ability to coerce them if it so chose. (“Slavery,” I learned from Bernard Bailyn, was a technical term in opposition Whig thought.) Their complaints against the (fairly benign) State followed from their understanding of the nature of individuals. It was this that motivated their politics; unlike the liberals, their politics were not a reaction against actual exercises of state power.
When we see modern liberalism as the fusion of these two, quite different, traditions its schizophrenia makes sense. That is, we can make sense of modern liberalism’s simultaneously being concerned to protect individual rights (Lockean element) and concerned not to protect individual rights at the expense of infringing on democracy (the liberal, keep morality out of politics, element). The further liberal commitments to (a) individual well-being as the (blindingly obvious) criterion of good policy, and (b) the view that consensus is attainable and (initially because it served as a bulwark against radical state action in the name of God or the Good) desirable explain why this schizophrenia never gets out of hand. It is generally assumed that democracy will tend to protect individual rights (along the way to promoting individual well-being). By alternately blinkering our conceptions of individual rights, individual well-being, and democracy, we are able to sustain this assumption / delusion (and, thereby, the modern liberal synthesis).
That, at least, might be something like what someone like Geuss would say.