Liberty Matters

Response to Daniel J. Mahoney: Classical Liberalism, Neither Anti-political nor Morally Neutral

I thank Daniel Mahoney and Helena Rosenblatt for their fine commentaries on the lead essay “Meanings of Liberty: Aron, Constant, Berlin,” discussing the polysemy of “liberty.” I’ve interacted with them and opt for first names. Here I reply to Dan and next time to Helena.
Reading Aron’s essay on Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty which Dan assigned for a seminar prompted the lead essay. It is unsurprising that Dan and I disagree little. Dan’s commentary, “Ennobling Liberal Liberties: True Freedom for Political Animals,” brings out some important points. Here I riff on what Dan says, eager to know whether he approves.
Dan suggests that classical/conservative liberalism—CL, cheerfully equivocating on the “C”—inescapably contains an appeal to “the good life and the good society.” He says, “Liberty can never simply be freedom from, with no positive articulation of the shared goods inherent in civilized life.” I agree that the presumption of liberty, the spine of CL, is not self-justifying. Justification must lie in a higher ethical plane, in a justice beyond commutative justice. One such realm of justice will indeed involve the estimating of objects presented in a “positive articulation of the shared goods inherent in civilized life,” as Dan put it.
Dan also cautions CL votaries against the fancy for “fundamentally depoliticizing human and social existence.” Again, I concur. Human beings are fundamentally political animals. Dan’s point about the political nature of human beings, and of CL, leads him to highlight Benjamin Constant’s call to engagement in “public liberty,” that is, political discourse, opinion, and civic affairs, including voting. Were Yoda to express Constant’s call, he might say: Prevail more easily the greater evil does when people shirk support for the lesser evil.
A rub in urging engagement, however, is that someone heeding the urge may as a result transition from disengagement to supporting the greater evil. So long as one’s readers tend to agree with one’s ordering of evils, it makes sense to urge engagement.
I like the metaphor of higher/lower for the objects of a person’s life, call him Jim. By “higher” I mean higher in Jim’s moral sentiments, which might be rather stunted. The chimney of a short building is not high compared to the chimneys of other buildings but it is the highest part of that building. Jim’s higher objects are the ideas, beliefs, sentiments, affections, personal relationships, practices, customs, aims, plans that are central in Jim’s selfhood, identity, and lived experience, and in that sense sacred to Jim. Lower objects are not so sacred, such as what kind of car Jim drives or food he eats. I think Dan agrees that the person’s political sensibilities tend to sit in the person’s higher space and hence to be sacralized.
Moreover, I think Dan would agree that, irrespective of what one’s political sensibilities happen to be, they cannot be entirely neutral about other people’s higher things. If a libertarian or classical liberal thinks that her politics are neutral in the matter of favoring or disfavoring what others make sacred, she is kidding herself. Her politics oppose the sacralizing of the governmentalization of social affairs—one of the major quasi-religion of our times, warned of by Tocqueville. CL is not entirely neutral in the higher-things space. Rather, it tries to cordon off, as morally unworthy, certain areas of that space.
CL urges Jim away from the anti-CL space. What Dan and I might disagree on is the posture of CL regarding the rest of Jim’s higher-things space. Like Dan, I affirm moral duty in everything, everywhere. But what are Jim’s duties? That is a conversation most suitable to trusted familiars of Jim, including Jim himself.
Dan might think me too pluralist in the higher-things space, as he does Isaiah Berlin. In one sense, I am perhaps more pluralist than Dan. In another sense, however, I am monistic. I follow Adam Smith in thinking of the whole of justice as a matter of what a supreme benevolent super-knowledgeable beholder finds beautiful. In a sense, every consideration on every matter for every human being is but a part of that single whole. Given how little access we have to that whole it is no surprise how much we disagree in all those considerations. In fact, appreciation of that inaccessibility is a principal consideration, a principal point of virtue. Liberalism is, in spirit, about learning to expect, live with, even enjoy the disagreement. Death, taxes, inflation, the nation-state, and higher-things disagreement are five things we must get used to and work to make less bad than they otherwise would be.