Posted by: captainfalcon | June 10, 2010

RE: Chris on Geuss

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.



  1. Oh snap!

  2. CF, I know you are taken with Geuss’s synthesis at the moment, but it is hardly the majority interpretation of the early history of liberalism. Thinking of Locke (whose freaking epigram is “the Father of Liberalism”) or the Declaration of Independence* for godsakes as “pre-liberal” simply because they predate the adaptation of the word “liberalism” into English (but, of course, not “liberal” or “liberty”) seems to me to be a deliberate excersize in putting the cart before the horse to flatter a peculiar interpretation of Millian utilitarianism. Mill himself did not subscribe to such revisionism, considering the Lockean conception of liberty a predecessor to his own in his introduction to On Liberty. Thus Geuss’s allegations that “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” seem more than a little suspect.

    I will refer you to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on liberalism(, a layman’s source to be sure, but one you have repeatedly used on the Lure when it suits your ends. According to it, the most fundamental, unifying premise of liberalism is the cause of individual liberty, which “is normatively basic, and so the onus of justification is on those who would limit freedom, especially through coercive means.” The “concern for individual rights” is not a “Lockean branch of liberalism” but the foundation of the word itself.

    Also, though you/Geuss have read far more Mill than I have, but it seems quite inaccurate to characterize a writer who had as one animating purpose protecting the rights of the individual against the “tyranny of the majority” (not to mention gave guarded praise for beknighted or compassionate despots) as being the primarily “concerned not to protect individual rights at the expense of infringing on democracy.”

    Some preemptive lengthy quotes from On Liberty ( for the general Lure to digest before the Geussian reinterpretation gets thrown back at us:

    “They consisted of a governing One, or a governing tribe or caste, who derived their authority from inheritance or conquest…Their power was regarded as necessary, but also as highly dangerous; as a weapon which they would attempt to use against their subjects, no less than against external enemies. To prevent the weaker members of the community from being preyed upon by innumerable vultures, it was needful that there should be an animal of prey stronger than the rest, commissioned to keep them down…

    “A time, however, came in the progress of human affairs, when men ceased to think it a necessity of nature that their governors should be an independent power, opposed in interest to themselves. It appeared to them much better that the various magistrates of the State should be their tenants or delegates, revocable at their pleasure…But, in political and philosophical theories, as well as in persons, success discloses faults and infirmities which failure might have concealed from observation. The notion, that the people have no need to limit their power over themselves, might seem axiomatic, when popular government was a thing only dreamed about, or read of as having existed at some distant period of the past…The “people” who exercise the power, are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised, and the “self-government” spoken of, is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals, loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein.”

    “Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.”

    Finally, of course, is the fact that consensus building and democracy are not synonymous in the least. Democracy, in both ideal and practice, is about building majorities, which involves winners and losers and of course by consequence the insertion of morality. There is a strong positive correlation between political moralizing and democratization (which is why California, for example, has been attempting to peel back democratizing reforms in order to simmer political passions). There is a school of thought that does prize consensus seeking and anti-moral technocracy( and it should come to no surprise that it is anathema to both individual liberty liberals (which is to say all liberals) and democrats. On the other hand, Jonah Goldberg does cite corporatism as the key element of “liberal fascism,” so Geuss via CF might finally have a point, but only by serially misusing of every political science term employed.

    Remember, its fun to have our quirky intellectual crushes (I know I can hardly criticize people for this). Lets not take them too far now…

    PS: Two programming notes. Nick has complained about the readability of not keeping threads within one comment chain and splaying a prolonged argument across the Lure. I am inclined to agree. The blog’s chief initial aim was exactly to keep email threads condensed. We should all strive not make replying to comments with threads a regular feature.

    The second is to grant “mad props” to MM on his enlightening contribution. Perhaps he will soon graduate to scrambling out the first “first!!!” in each comment thread.

    *A perfect symbol, BTW, of the moralizing tendency of liberalism borne from concern for individual rights, to get back to my still valid original post.

  3. 1. I like MM’s comment. I suspect it helped to provoke you into combat-bitter-mode. I like Chris when he becomes Beatrice, because it means victory for the good guys. I also like MM’s comment because, notwithstanding your outburst, “Oh snap” is appropriate – I destructored you.

    2. I will adhere to your and Nick’s wishes regarding the blog’s aesthetics, but, because the comments appear in such a narrow column, lengthy ones are annoying to read. Plenty of blogs (e.g. The Volokh Conspiracy) make a habit of extra-thread, intra-blog disputes (normally when the responses are lengthy), so it also seems likely that your and Nick’s preferences are a bit idiosyncratic. (Just FYI.) Also, your invocation of originalism – The blog’s chief initial aim was exactly to keep email threads condensed – is a non sequitur. And also opportunistic, given that you disparaged considerations of “initial purposes” in conversation (about the Electoral College).

    3. As for the substance of your complaint, it is misplaced insofar as it attributes to me blind faith in a minority interpretation of intellectual history. This is cheap: “Remember, its fun to have our quirky intellectual crushes (I know I can hardly criticize people for this). Lets not take them too far now.” One takes them just far enough when one honestly explicates their point of view, and then acknowledges that it is not the Word. This, explicitly, is what I did (see the last sentence of the post).

    But don’t think you’ve persuaded me that Geuss’s interpretation is false. My attitude towards it – that it is plausible, yet defeasible – remains. With some difficulty, I discern two threads of objections, both of which are adumbrated in paragraph one. Your first paragraph (wrongly) attributes to me-cum-Geuss the view that the reason Locke and the Whigs are pre-liberal is that the term “liberalism” had not yet been applied to their political thought. (As you put it: thinking of Locke, etc. as pre-liberal “simply because they predate the adaptation of the word “liberalism” into English” is what you do.) You imply this is (a) wrong – Locke’s “freaking epigram is “the Father of Liberalism” – and, anyway, (b) irrelevant, because what matters is that their political thought is (in some way) continuous with the thought of Mill and Humboldt.

    As far as (a) is concerned, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Sure, “liberal” was a word, but (as you concede) “liberalism” had yet to be coined. But the sense of “liberal” that is pertinent to the present discussion is he who subscribes to liberalism. So, without the idea of liberalism, earlier uses of “liberal” were quite different.

    You do, however, suggest that “liberalism” was a term in Locke’s era (this business about Locke’s frigging epigram). But wtf? An epigram is a pithy saying (e.g. “Whether I die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease depends on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress”), the “Father of Liberalism” is not. Are you saying its his epitaph, i.e. that on his tombstone it read “the Father of Liberalism?” I looked his epitaph up, and that’s not what it is. Maybe you’re alleging that it’s an epithet that is applied to him? That is certainly true. But was it applied to him, or is that an anachronistic move (in Geuss’s terms, a “legitimizing prehistory”)? On Wikipedia (your source) it says he is “widely known as the father of liberalism,” and cites, as evidence, his “A Letter Concerning Toleration.” That is evidence because toleration is one of the preoccupations of liberals (though why they are preoccupied with it is, right now, an open question), not because he alleges in that work that he is the “Father of Liberalism.” The other two pieces of evidence Wikipedia cites were written in 2005 and 2002. In other words, all that the evidence you cite in favor of (a) goes to show is that Locke has been appropriated by liberals ex post.

    Turning to (b), you have a few arguments for why Locke et. al. should be included in the liberal tradition of Mill and Humboldt. One (your second paragraph) is an argument from authority. But, surely, it is not surprising that there exist sources – including sources like the SEP – that disagree with Geuss’s revisionist interpretation of the history of liberalism. If there didn’t exist such sources, there wouldn’t be a “legitimizing prehistory” of liberalism, and Geuss’s interpretation wouldn’t be revisionist! Further, given that the SEP is comprised of contributions from analytic philosophers who aren’t historians (and are, as a general rule, famously uninterested in history), I don’t think it’s a particularly authoritative source on this question. It is true that I have used SEP on (and off) the Lure when it suits my ends, but it suits my ends when it is discussing questions (of technical philosophy) on which its contributors are experts. So – to head off a potential line of objection – there’s no contradiction in regarding SEP authoritative on some questions, but not on others. But the essential point is that noticing that mainstream source A disagrees with source B when source B books itself as a reasoned alternative to the mainstream is not a convincing argument against source B.

    A second argument (in your third paragraph) seems to be that Mill and Locke were alike in favoring individual rights, and that I belie my familiarity with the tradition of which Mill is a part – the early liberal tradition – when I attribute to him a concern “not to protect individual rights at the expense of infringing on democracy.” In fact, you say, Mill had as one of his “animating purposes” the protection of individual rights, and gave guarded praise to “beknighted or compassionate despots.” (Do you mean to say he praised despots who were also knights, or that he gave praise to benighted despots? Both seem highly improbable to me, especially the latter, given that a benighted despot is the worst kind of despot. Look the word up.)

    I begin by noticing that I did not attribute to early liberalism any concern about democracy. I (again, channeling Geuss) attributed that to modern liberalism, and argued that it’s a concern that emerges naturally from the presumption that consensus (of a certain sort – on values) in society is attainable and achievable. (Earlier, you agreed with this observation, now you seem keen to emphasize the difference between consensus building and democracy. I’m not interested in consensus building – only in the view that the modern liberal concern for democracy emerges from the combination of a blithe presumption about the possibility of a more or less latent consensus on values, and early liberal anxiety about untrammeled state power – so I’m happy to grant you the difference.) I further argued that the modern liberal fixation on achievable consensus (on values, not on particularistic policy proposals) is a natural outgrowth of the early liberal desire to find a non-moral criterion for legitimate policy (a desire that is motivated by a reaction against the French Revolution). That, along with the view that individual well-being is self-evidently pertinent to policy justification, combine to yield the modern liberal’s presumption that democracy and liberalism (qua the view that individual well-being is a primary aim of policy) go hand-in-hand.

    To doubt my understanding of early liberalism, then, you have to doubt that the early liberals either (a) wanted to find a non-moral criterion for legitimate policy or (b) were individualists. You choose to doubt (a) by attributing to Mill – a utilitarian – a concern for natural rights. This is crazy. Further, the overriding theme in On Liberty is about how individuals know what’s best for themselves. On Liberty is strikingly anti-paternalistic (there’s an essay by Gerry Dworkin on it in our Philosophy of Law textbook, if MM still has that), and against anyone who’d introduce programs on the basis of a robust conception of what people ought to do or how they ought to live. Toleration, likewise, strives to be a “non-moral virtue,” that’s why it is so puzzling to people (Cf. my post from a while back on Nagel’s essay (titled something very close to) “Moral Conflict and Political Legitimacy”). So (a) stands.

  4. One other problem with comment-threads is that you have to use html formatting, so, if I write my comment in word (because wordpress’s comment-field is so small) and am suckered into making use of the full range of its functionality (italics), the formatting is lost to the detriment of clarity.

  5. […] (Which, if you were an optimist, could also serve as this blog’s epitaph (to riff on a notorious theme).) New York once had a law requiring jurors to be “intelligent.” In 1896 an […]

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