book cover imageAgainst Liberalism,
by John Kekes.
Cornell University Press, 1997,
287 pp., $30 cloth.

Before one can be “against” something, one has to have a fairly clear definition of what that something is. Thus, John Kekes’s new book, Against Liberalism, begins by trying to list several essential characteristics—“basic values,” he calls them—at “the core of liberalism.”

To define liberalism can be as difficult as Socrates’ attempt to define virtue in Plato’s early dialogue the Meno. Socrates has two chief complaints for his young interlocutor. First, rather than a definition of virtue, Meno gives many examples of what he thinks are virtues (a whole swarm of them, Socrates complains). And second, Meno’s attempts at definitions are like the famous statues of Daedalus: beautiful as they may seem, they are of little use because they keep running away.

Kekes’s attempt to define liberalism starts better than Meno’s run at virtue. While liberals may quibble about emphases, the suggested five basic values of pluralism, freedom, rights, equality, and distributive justice are a useful taxonomy of the essential commitments of liberal political theory. Moreover, Kekes’s contention that these values are at the service of autonomy, the summum bonum of liberalism, strikes the reader as correct. In any species of liberalism, the right precedes the good, and Kekes artfully categorizes this liberal impulse as an unswerving commitment to the final end of the maximization of individual autonomy.

Even if one could name others, these are enough to carry off Kekes’s chief aim, which is to show that liberalism is inherently self-contradictory: that some of its basic values are not compatible with others, and thus that liberalism is an incoherent political philosophy.

The purpose of autonomy as liberalism’s telos is to secure and preserve the right of the individual to choose and follow whatever view of the good he or she deems rational. Of course, such a political philosophy begins with the presupposition that there are as many possible versions of a good life as there are autonomous moral actors (or, at any rate, that public affirmation of a single version is not permissible).

Thus, liberalism’s stated intent is not to suggest any particular substantive vision of the good, but rather to create and sustain the proper procedural institutions that will safeguard a variety of claims of autonomy and rights. The goodness of a political arrangement is thus measured by this single canon. The only rule of the goodness of a human action is its relative lack of any kind of impediment (legal, cultural, social, familial, and so on), consistent with the same for everyone else. Obversely, the category of evil actions is exactly coextensive with those actions that impede the autonomy of another person. Liberalism prescinds from making judgments about the use to which one puts one’s autonomy, with the single exception of condemning the use of my autonomy to abridge yours.

But, of course, here is the rub. At least two fatal contradictions lie at the heart of such a conception of politics. First, there is no binding moral principle that transcends the agreement we make not to impede each other’s autonomy. The only basis for our mutual agreement to respect and even defend the other’s autonomy is the “rational” expectation that you will keep your promise in the hope that I will keep mine. But if I decide not to respect your autonomy, the liberalism to which we are committed has no moral principle to which you can appeal for redress. The radical individualism that accompanies this pursuit of autonomy merely exacerbates the problem. A radically individual conception of the good cannot be reconciled with a principled respect for the autonomy of someone who interferes with my pursuit of the good.

Thus, against one of liberalism’s most basic claims, it must import some sort of public morality into its laws in order to protect the autonomy it seeks. And in so doing, of course, it necessarily impedes that autonomy.

Second, this regime of procedural autonomy is itself a substantive view of politics. To say that politics ought to be nothing more than the architectonic protection of the pursuit of individual private goods is itself the establishment of a thickly substantive view of the good. The political philosophical position that politics should not be about substantive views of public good is a substantive view of public good. And thus it is contradictory both on its face and in the political world it constructs. As Kekes puts it, “Liberals cannot consistently appeal to some . . . basic overriding value and simultaneously deny that any value is overriding.” To impose the overriding value of liberalism necessarily contradicts the values of liberalism. “Given that liberals are committed to regarding some values as basic,” Kekes explains, “their commitment is either arbitrary, because it lacks justification, or it is inconsistent.” Or both. To employ the author’s terms, liberalism is a “monism” of “relativism.”

But despite these insightful diagnoses of the inherent contradictions of liberalism, Kekes’s book falls short on a few counts, the most important of which is that the position he tentatively defends is itself a species of the liberalism that he refutes. Within liberalism there are liberal liberals, conservative liberals, communitarian liberals (though there might well be a non-liberal communitarian tribe), and, with Kekes’s book, “pluralist” liberals. And just as all but the liberal liberals declaim the title, Kekes does not acknowledge the liberalism at the heart of his own “pluralist” prescription.

Kekes claims that the “pluralist alternative” to liberalism “is the assumption that values can be conditional and still have context-independent rational and moral authority.” His point is that this vision of pluralism preserves the good things that liberalism seeks, but does not contain the self-contradictions of liberalism. Principled pluralism respects the “conditional values” of other visions of the good life, but can still make judgments that are not so conditioned—that are “context-independent.”

But this is a rather dubious proposition. Take the following sentence as an example: “The argument for this pluralistic assumption must take the form of identifying the conditional values that possess context-independent authority.” The following modification does not in any way change the meaning of the sentence: “The argument for this pluralistic assumption must take the form of identifying the conditional values that possess conditionless values.” Kekes wants a politics that recognizes and respects a plurality of context-dependent values, but thinks that he can find some context-independent authority by which some of those values can be judged. But if values are context-dependent, then so too are principles of judgment, which necessarily are the function of some conditional values. Even if it were true that, as Kekes asserts, “some values have rational and moral authority . . . outside of the context in which they are held,” and that “not all values are context-dependent,” how does one extricate oneself from one’s context in order to recognize these alleged values? And how does one know that one has not extricated himself from one context, only to move into another one? Kekes wants the same mythical, epistemologically privileged position of judgment he rightly claims is at the heart of the contradiction of liberalism.

Or take Kekes’s claim that “moral traditions may reasonably be judged to be better or worse on the basis of how well or badly they do in guaranteeing those . . . values . . . which all human beings need to live a good life.” But why? Who is in the position, on Kekes’s pluralist terms, to make the judgment that a moral tradition oughtto provide those values which all human beings need to live a good life? Even the claim to be in such a position is already the product of particular terms and conditions that render it incapable of the universal judgment Kekes thinks it can make. In short, Kekes’s “pluralism” would be no less an imposition of a particularism than the liberalism he decries.

Another important shortcoming of Against Liberalism is its contemptuous dismissal of the possibility of theological answers to the questions liberalism raises. Kekes enthusiastically accepts the “fact” that “as Nietzsche put it, ‘God is dead . . . we have killed him.” But he ignores Nietzsche’s judgment of those who so blithely receive the news of God’s demise. They are the “last men,” says Nietzsche, who, thinking they have invented happiness by killing God, are too despicable to despise themselves. Kekes’s primary complaint against liberalism is its conceptual failure to deal with evil. But lacking any theological reference, his own definition of evil is utilitarian, as open to critique as a liberal accounting.

Many criticisms of liberalism have been offered in recent years. And while Against Liberalism has some virtues to recommend it, others have done the job better, from various points of view. Ronald Beiner’s What’s the Matter with Liberalism?, Michael Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, Bernard Williams’s Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Charles Taylor’s Ethics of Authenticity, Alasdair Maclntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, and Stanley Hauerwas’s continuing work are all much more fruitful sources for a rigorous, more coherent, critique of the shortcomings of liberalism.

And perhaps the most acute current critique of liberalism comes from Stanley Fish. In a brilliant article, “Liberalism Doesn’t Exist,” Fish is much more successful at what Kekes tries to do, by showing the radical incoherence of liberalism. Liberalism, Fish explains, “does not have at its center an adjudicative mechanism that stands apart from any particular moral and political agenda,” as it claims to have. “Rather, it is a very particular moral agenda.” Thus, liberalism is not different from other self-consciously particular traditions. But since it “defines itself by that [alleged] difference . . . in the absence of that difference one can only conclude . . . that liberalism doesn’t exist.” Kekes’s principled pluralism, with its mythical “context-independent” judgments, is no less vulnerable than other sorts of liberalism to this summary argument.

Kekes performs a useful task in identifying the contradictions in liberal political theory; but he does not seem to recognize the contradictions in his own positive agenda.  

Kenneth R. Craycraft, Jr. teaches moral theology at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. He is the author of The American Myth of Religious Freedom.