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I.: THE MORAL CHARACTER OF LIBERALISM - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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THE MORAL CHARACTER OF LIBERALISM
to many of its critics, liberalism is a thin and bloodless rationalism. The list of such critics is extremely varied. It includes many theologians, continental idealists, and artists like D. H. Lawrence whose battle cry is “Life!” In sophisticated conservative circles, it has been criticized as substituting the anonymous and antiseptic new town or suburban development for the warm, natural cohesion of the slums. And these charges have all been compounded by the fact that liberalism has attracted its full share of humorless prigs, people who love humanity, as the charge goes, but cannot stand their neighbors.
It is possible, especially with the help of the interests argument, to regard this line of criticism as no more than sentimental romanticism. Liberals can point to suffering as the reality of the slums, and ask pertinently whether such conditions are not an excessive price to pay in order that rich and jaded palates may enjoy the variety of the world.
We may begin to disentangle the issues arising from such an exchange of sentiments by considering the uses of a term which is an interesting example of the tactical realignments undergone by certain ideas. “Materialism” in philosophy indicates a metaphysical doctrine holding that the single ultimate constituent of reality is matter. One of the implications of this doctrine— though one which may also be held by people who are not materialists—is that at death, both body and soul (if such a thing is admitted) are dissolved. This implication, however supported, is clearly anti-Christian. Materialism has in the last few centuries been one of the main targets of attack by all the Christian Churches.
But materialism has also, in a manner typical of such philosophical words, gained a weaker meaning unrelated to metaphysics. It has come to describe a life devoted to the pursuit of material objects and advantages. The main use of this meaning has been to criticize those forms of capitalist behavior summed up in the concept of economic man. The Christian Churches have attacked this kind of materialism on two grounds: partly that it is ruthless and uncharitable, a selfish trampling over the interests of the powerless; and partly on the ground that it is a way of life which refuses to take seriously the religious mystery of the universe. Among the clearest examples of such criticism will be found in the two Papal Encyclicals devoted to the question of social justice, De Rerum Novarum and Quadrigesimo Anno.
Liberalism has on most occasions paid little attention to this kind of attack. It has done so for several reasons. For one thing the attack on materialism and what the Encyclicals refer to as “individualism” is largely directed at liberalism itself. The anti-materialist generally opposed natural rights and government by popular consent. The liberal response was to regard this attack as a manifestation of entrenched hostility and to reject the anti-materialist argument on grounds which were best stated by Marx: that anti-materialism is utopian rather than scientific. It appeals to employer and employee to get together in a friendly and Christian spirit to work out the practices of a just order. But this leaves the unjust order itself untouched; it relies upon fallible human goodwill: and eventually it came to be associated with the Fascist practices of the corporate State. For most liberals, then, the attack on materialism looked like nothing so much as a thin camouflage by which the privileged castigated demands for reform as “merely envious.”
In recent decades, this situation has been changed by the extensive introduction of socialist measures in the working of most capitalist States. The consequence of these measures has been to bring many proletarians within the range of a more acquisitive way of life. The heroic, victimized proletarian has turned into the television viewer in the council house, and his enthusiasm for the class struggle has waned accordingly. A similar development has taken place in the Soviet Union, where the pursuit of material things has developed to a point where it threatens the working of the Soviet régime. The ironic consequence of this new situation is that Mr. Khrushchev, modern liberals, and the Christian Churches, are all aligned in calling for a more spiritual and dedicated attitude to life and work, and an end to materialist apathy.
We may make two observations about this chain of events, one intellectual, one political. The intellectual point is that the doctrine of materialism, as we find it in this propagandist use, is misconceived. The point cannot be that materialists are pursuing actual material objects as material objects and nothing else. The whole point about “keeping up with the Joneses,” the acquisition of refrigerators and central heating, and the yearning to join the ranks of the two-car family is that these things are spiritual endeavors; each material object stands for something. We may not like what the objects stand for; we may reject this spirit and talk of empty lives devoted to nothing more than the maintenance of respectable appearances. But that is another matter.
The political significance of the attack on materialism lies in its attempt to stabilize a weakening internal situation. The message of the Encyclicals, and indeed of the Churches generally, is to accept the present status-structure of the community, turn away from a preoccupation with changing relative status, and concentrate on making the system work. What Mr. Khrushchev wants is a Russian populace which accepts the system and whose effort is turned “outward,” concentrating upon the building of a Socialist future. The great political advantage of a single national objective such as war or industrialization is that it achieves exactly this effect. When such an objective either does not exist or loses its force, then exhortation, a poor substitute, is the only thing left.
The presence of modern liberals in this alignment is on the face of it not susceptible of the same explanation. For while Mr. Khrushchev and most Churches are to be found defending an established political order, modern liberals are not similarly committed. Yet their position is in fact exactly the same; for they belong to a movement which will collapse if the spirit of compassion should desert it. The sin of apathy is a version of selfishness; the apathetic lose their taste for reform, and become increasingly preoccupied with the advancement of themselves or their families.
If we observe that this passion for personal status is a kind of ambition, we shall recognize that materialism has always been a manner of life on which those in authority have wished to keep a tight rein. For it is their task to guide their followers away from the competitive preoccupations of status towards “getting on with the job.” A faculty of professors will do little research if they are constantly struggling for position; and officers in an army are unlikely to achieve victory if their predominant interest is in competing with each other for promotion. Ambition has always been regarded as morally ambiguous; if it refers to the eagerness of those in the lower ranks then it has been thought to contribute to progress and widely encouraged. But if it is merely a thirst to enjoy the rights of the higher office, then it has been feared as destructive.
The impression that liberalism is a thin and narrow doctrine cannot therefore be attributed to materialism; partly because materialism itself is a confused description of an acquisitive way of life, and partly because modern liberals themselves are among its most relentless opponents.
We may, perhaps, come closer to explaining this impression if we distinguish, following T. E. Hulme,1 between the classical and romantic views of life. This is a distinction capable of bearing very little weight, and we are concerned less with its usefulness than with its currency. For Hulme, the classicist was a man who believed that the capacities of man were limited, and that human development was the product of careful nurture by social and political institutions. It followed that, if we wish to maintain and advance civilization, we must treat established institutions with great care, and in particular control our own passionate impulses so that they do not weaken the social and political bonds which alone prevent a relapse into barbarism. The classicist believes that the institution of marriage, for example, must take precedence over the romantic involvements of particular married individuals. The consequences of this doctrine are conservatism in politics, and absolutism in ethics. Society is seen to be based upon a fairly rigid kind of differentiation. The sexes, for example, are functionally differentiated and must therefore expect to live different kinds of life. But each society also contains different classes of people, and for each class, a different range of experiences is appropriate.
In contrast, the romantic might be described, since Rousseau, as one who believes in the rights of feeling. Romanticism includes the belief that the capacities of men are unlimited—comparable, in Hulme’s image, to a well rather than a bucket—and that they must be unchained from the bonds of social institution in order that each man may be truly himself—exactly what the classicist is afraid of. The romantic doctrine is appropriate to the young, and to those extraordinary individuals who run away from home, endure poverty, collect a mistress or two, get married, make fortunes, and travel extensively— those who lead, as the saying is, a full, rich life.
The most likely political consequence of romanticism is liberalism; Hulme believed this, and, within the wide limits defining the two sets of ideas, he was largely right. For, as we have already observed, liberalism is implacably hostile to any notion of permanent natural differentiation between individuals. Women may be different from men, but, being equal, they must have as much access to the same experience as possible. Individuals may differ in skin color or racial membership, but must be allowed to live a decent (i.e. approved) life as soon as possible. And there can, of course, be no question of significant differences of life experience between aristocrat and laborer. All of this is simply another way of expanding the sentence “All men are born free” and elucidating the program implicit in “but everywhere they are in chains.”
We may thus see one development of the rights of man doctrine in a new light. As first formulated, it was defended as a statement of those social conditions without which men would be unable to live the sort of life they wished. How exactly they did wish to live was not, short of criminality, of great concern to anyone. The doctrine was all rights and no consequences.
But, given the growth of a romantic view of experience, these rights might be seen as the necessary conditions of living “a full life”; and then, indeed, they would almost certainly seem deficient. For all of the victim classes, by definition, were being prevented from living this kind of life.
And if the romantic doctrine of a full life were to be brought into politics, then it would have to be standardized. Its specifications and general limits would have to be described. The experiences of individualists, and in general of the rich who supplied individualists in the largest numbers, must be abstracted so that they might be advanced as political demands. Nor could this ambitious project stop short at describing floorspace areas and the nutritional minima of the full life. It must also standardize spiritual experiences, like love, marriage, intellectual cultivation, and friendship. The vocabulary required for this set of specifications was to hand, in utilitarian doctrine. Friends satisfied social needs, marriage partners satisfied sexual and procreational needs, schools satisfied educational needs—which were the necessary conditions of many further installments of the rich, full life.
The romantic view of experience thus provides us with a generalized standard of the kind of life which ought to be lived by every human being upon the planet. It is a kind of life which is, in fact, lived by a minority of people mostly situated in the western world. Further, it is a kind of life which was not originally developed by those people in the pursuit of a general end, but which grew up out of the kind of people they were and the kinds of activity in which they happened to be interested. They happened to become interested, quite spontaneously, in science, logic, philosophy, technology and religion in such a manner as to produce western civilization.
The standardization of the notion of a full life cannot but result in a concern with comparative status. The individual is described, as it were, in the answers given on a form: What rights does he have? What kind of consumption does he enjoy? Which of his needs are satisfied? What experiences has he had? One can tick off the answers to these questions, and the blank responses supply a program. But any action taken in response to this kind of analysis is something which will be done for the wrong reasons; it will be done as a means to the end, which is the filling out of the form of the full life. This is a procedure which has both intellectual and practical defects.
We may take the practical defects first. The result of thinking and acting in this way is very frequently disappointment. Foreign travel, when undertaken as a status exercise, is no adventure and brings none of the promised “broadening of the mind”; it turns merely into a sterile exercise in tourism, endured at the time as an investment to be expended in conversation and boasting at a later date. Sexual experiences similarly undergo an instrumental transformation which renders them joyless; they are merely the materials of prestige. But these romantics do not merely seek prestige in the eyes of their neighbors. They suffer from a deep suspicion that they “haven’t really lived.” They want to feel the earth move, like Hemingway’s heroine in For Whom the Bell Tolls. But meanwhile, as the various required experiences are undergone without quite yielding up their promise, they nourish the hope of possession by an ultimate experience. It may be anything from an acte gratuit to a religious conversion; from a sentimental love affair to a political passion in the midst of a crowd. What happens to actual individuals of course varies enormously, and some abandon, temporarily or permanently, this pursuit of spiritual status because they become genuinely involved in something else. But for many there remains a continual nagging anxiety, which is the only certain result of the conscious pursuit of prestige.
The intellectual defects result from the fact that human life is misdescribed if it is seen in terms of function, end, satisfaction, rights, and the rest of the rationalist vocabulary. The impression that a life seen in these terms is thin is therefore a sound apprehension that this account of human behavior is simply false. It is not true, for example, that a friendship between two people is fully described as a relationship in which each fulfills some need or needs of the other. In trying to understand this there is a strong temptation to become almost mystical; to point out that the whole is more than the sum of the parts, and that in listing the various functions fulfilled mutually by people is not to exhaust the subject matter. This at least makes us more aware of the subtleties of the question, but does not greatly advance our understanding. The mistake lies in subsuming all human relationships under the proprietorship of generic man, so that all human intercourse looks external.
A further consequence of self-consciousness about comparative status is the emotion of self-pity. Like all terms which rest upon the conception of “self,” this emotion is difficult to define and its moral characteristics have seldom been deeply explored. The “self” involved in self-pity may concern an individual, his family, or, in any sense, his people—those for whom he weeps. Self-pity concentrates the mind upon those elements of the comparison which show the self at a disadvantage, and the cause of this disadvantage must in some way be externalized. Each supposed cause is praised or blamed; irrelevant moral characterization runs wild. The result may even be animism: rainstorms or other natural phenomena become “just the sort of thing that would happen to me.” Self-pity is sentimental and passive, and it necessarily distorts our understanding of our own nature and that of our environment. It is an extremely common emotion, and in popular folklore is thought to be healed if one follows the injunction to “count your blessings.”
Self-pity is clearly an important emotion in modern political life, for few groups are entirely prepared to accept and make the best of their current situation. It will be found in colonial peoples blaming their troubles on the colonial power. It will be found in any of the victim classes of the suffering situation—though its presence, of course, is not inevitable, but is the result of acceptance of certain moral and political views. It is also to be found currently among adolescents blaming their parents for their troubles; and among middle classes who feel their status threatened because manual workers are paid more or domestic servants hard to come by. It results in a persistent, dogged clinging to some conception of the status rights of the group, and in a considerable lack of realism in understanding social and political affairs.
In a world which is loud with the cries and arguments produced by self-pity, those who are receptive to the arguments will undergo the related emotion of self-reproach. And it is self-reproach which is an important determinant of many liberal points of view. For one thing, just as the self involved in self-pity may be a collective self, so also may the self in self-reproach. Thus one may reproach oneself not only for acts which one chose oneself to commit, but also for acts which were done in one’s name by more or less representative political bodies; or for acts done by people long dead.
An example of the latter case would be the European anti-colonialist who reproaches himself for the entire colonial policy of his country, a man fruitlessly concerned to reproach himself with what “we” once did to “them.” The result of this kind of feeling is the creation of a curious intellectual entity which we may call category guilt. Thus, as a political pamphlet put it, the concern of British policy (towards Jamaica, in this instance) should be “to repay the debt we owe them for long years of exploitation by now helping to develop the economies of their countries, and make possible a decent life for them there.” There may indeed be good reasons for following such a policy, but they are not to be found in conceptions of moral credit and moral debt.
A similar kind of self-reproach arises out of the various classes to which British liberals consider themselves as belonging. Examples of such classes are the white race, Britain as a political entity, the Commonwealth, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the Free World. Each of these classes includes political authorities or social groups which act in an illiberal manner. Whites in South Africa maintain apartheid; American money supports Chiang Kai-Shek and similar Asian régimes; NATO toys with the idea of admitting Franco’s Spain and provokes Russian hostility; Britain engages in the Suez operation. All of these political acts invite liberals to feelings of self-reproach. They belong to these groupings, and they wish to dissociate themselves from them. They are the innocent part of these guilty entities.
The development of this particular complex moral sensibility appears now to have coalesced into a distinguishable political movement in Great Britain, a movement which we may describe as moral nationalism. This movement gains most mass support from the program that Britain should abandon her independent nuclear strength in order to give a moral lead to other nations; it is found in the political views of Sir Charles Snow, and has been summed up in the conviction that “our country’s role is to be exemplary rather than powerful.”2 Like many moral movements, this one involves a withdrawal into inner moral certainties, with a consequent refusal to take external events seriously. As a political policy, for example, moral nationalism assumes that politicians in other countries will be moved to imitate the example which has been given; if this factual assumption were to be proved wrong, however, moral nationalists would not hesitate. They would still be concerned to do the right thing anyway. Moral nationalism is thus one more maneuver in the long tradition of devices which are thought to do away with politics, seen as the selfish exercise of power.
Moral nationalism extends far beyond the emotions of self-reproach in which it is grounded. But both self-reproach and moral nationalism arise out of a desire for a kind of purification—a repaying of moral debts and the wiping clean of a very dirty slate. It is the desire to begin anew, and in a world loaded with vengeful passions and bitter, unreasonable conflicts of interest, the only way to begin anew is to make concessions.3 One thing especially is important: the principle that one must not act except for motives which are both pure and known to be pure. Now, as far as actual political life is concerned, this is a quite impossible principle, one which, if taken seriously, would lead first to total inhibition of political action and very quickly to the dismemberment of the inhibited State. It is simply not a possible way of carrying on in the world. We can find the effect of influences of this kind in the British attitude towards Nazi Germany during the thirties, when many were strongly disposed to justify Hitler’s policy as the legitimate response to the victimization of Versailles. Similar emotions arose in connection with Nasser over the nationalization of the Suez Canal, and they still arise in liberal attitudes towards the Soviet Union—moving from a legitimate attempt to discover what the Russians think and why, to a remorseless determination to accept blame for the situation and thus exculpate others. This may perhaps be regarded as a generous moral attitude; but it is the product of a moral fantasy which from many points of view is politically dangerous. For it constitutes the use of moral terms as a device to evade certain facts; an attempt to cloud the significance of what has happened by attending to whether or not it ought to have happened.
We arrive, then, at something which looks like a contradiction. For we have argued that liberalism constitutes an evasion of moral understanding; and yet in moral nationalism we find that liberals have constructed a world which is fastidiously moral in the sense that everything in it is subject to the rigorous application of praise or blame. The way out of this contradiction lies in the notion of the suffering situation. Liberals have discarded moral judgment and substituted technical thinking when they consider the victim classes; but on “us” they have concentrated the full battery of moral examination. It is, indeed, a false and misleading kind of moral understanding, but it is undeniably moral.
[1. ]T. E. Hulme, Speculations, London, 1924, p. 111.
[2. ]Christopher Martin in a talk in The Listener, 5 April 1962.
[3. ]Cf. Freud’s analysis of the Jewish superego in Moses and Monotheism.