The Liberal Dialectic

This is a work in progress, etc.

Suppose the relationship between liberal practice and the moral justification of liberal institutions works something like this:

  • Liberal practice comes first. In order for J.S. Mill, Locke, etc. to formulate and publish their ideas, an “atmosphere of liberty” must already exist — whether it’s de facto, or enshrined in law.
  • Liberal theorists take notice of liberal practice. In On Liberty, Mill writes that, “In England, from the peculiar circumstances of our political history, though the yoke of opinion is perhaps heavier, that of law is lighter, than in most other countries of Europe.”
  • But liberal practice is haphazard, unprincipled. As Mill writes, “There is, in fact, no recognised principle by which the propriety or impropriety of government interference is customarily tested. People decide according to their personal preferences.”
  • The task, then, is to ground liberal practice: liberal practice must be put in terms of a scheme, which relates the different liberties that happen to be protected to each other.
  • In the process, liberal practice is also justified. At the center of the scheme, there is a principle, or a value, or at least some central, organizing idea, which according to the theorist we all have reason to accept.
  • Once the principle is adopted, the current scheme can itself be criticized: it may not include all the liberties it ought to include.
  • Or the scheme may not formulate the liberties in a robust enough fashion; there may be exceptions (obscene speech is prohibited, even though people generally have the right to speak. The organizing principle “irons out” these exceptions.
  • This process does not happen instantaneously; it takes a while for liberal practice to catch up. Even the theorist who initially formulated the scheme may not be able to see its outer limits.
  • At the same time, new liberal theorists may notice flaws in the central principle: it may simply not be as obvious or simple as its originator, e.g. Mill, thought. Hence, a new principle (e.g. the principle of neutrality) may come to replace the old principle at the heart of the liberal scheme.
  • In this way, the cycle can begin anew, and new liberties may come to be incorporated in the liberal scheme.
  • What propels this dialectic is the publicity condition. We abandon a central principle when we believe that it could be reasonably rejected by other citizens.
  • The ultimate end of the liberal dialectic is a liberal scheme in which the central principle is literally acceptable to everyone.
  • However, if we accept radical value pluralism, then this end can never be reached: some reasonable people will have reason to reject any scheme.

I believe this description of the liberal dialectic both explains and undermines liberal practice. At any given time, liberals will point to their central principle as the principle that best fulfills the publicity condition. At any given time, other forces in society will seek to modify liberal practice precisely because they do not accept the principle.

This process, this jostling between interest groups and ideologies, has no natural stopping point. The justification of liberal practice is an ongoing project, which can never be completed.


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