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The Politics of Liberty: Meaning in a Postmodern Age

The Politics Of Liberty: Meaning In A Postmodern Age

The Politics of Liberty

The summary essence of a liberal political order, which has re­mained fairly stable up to the present, sounds astonishingly spare. Generations of liberal thinkers have themselves wondered if their construction contained enough in the way of a substantive core to hold it all together. Was it, for example, merely an arrangement of convenience destined to come asunder as soon as individuals no longer found their interests served by it? How was it possible for governments to promote even the minimum virtues required to sustain their order, if they could no longer play a formative role in moral and spiritual affairs? How could we be sure that individ­uals would not misuse the power, especially the power of the ma­jority, to extort and burden members of minority factions? If they entered into a contract to create society, what was to prevent them from contracting to commit injustice? What indeed was to preserve fidelity to their word so that they would not simply cut and run at the first sound of trouble? Clearly, a great deal more needed to be said about the foundations of liberal democracy. It was particularly necessary to find a way of connecting the essen­tial public principles with broader moral and spiritual sources that alone could justify and animate their application.

The liberal concentration on the core elements of self-government was a brilliant solution to the problem of pluralism. The religious fragmentation of the early modern period had pre­cipitated a political crisis as profound as any we have historically known. Indeed, we often fail to appreciate the depth of the cleav­ages opened by the collapse of the authority of the Church. Our own pluralist conflicts are by no means more radical, and we enjoy the inestimable advantage of a model of successfully re­solving the divergences. Liberal democracy worked as a means of containing conflict because it relegated most such disputes to a private realm. Agreement was limited to the principles indispens­able for lawful self-government. That provided a way for men and women of different theological convictions to remain faithful Christians without having to kill one another. Tolerance was pos­sible within the framework of agreement on the essential politi­cal principles. But both tolerance and pluralism, while broad and destined to become broader, must always acknowledge their own limits. In the final analysis tolerance cannot be extended to the intolerant, those who wish to work for the destruction of the agreement that keeps the peace.

The need to sustain the convictions behind the liberal con­struction itself has become the major challenge. It is never merely enough to formulate the principles, for no contract can stand on its own. It must always be backed by the inner conviction of its rightness or fairness if it is to be sustained. The history of liberal political thought is largely the history of the efforts to make the justification for its order transparent. By persuasively articulating the rightness of the liberal construction we will have found a means of educating ourselves in the virtues that sustain the order we enjoy. Of course, the task of finding a compelling justification was rendered enormously difficult by the condition that the ex­planation must share the same neutrality as the liberal principles themselves. If it was to be a publicly available justification, then it could not reach into the vexed sphere of theological and philo­sophical questions that the liberal consensus had sought to avoid. Needless to say, the experiment has not been an overwhelming success.

Even thinkers of the genius of David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, and John Stuart Mill have been unable to satisfy the critics of their interpretations. What is indeed striking about the whole project is the sheer di­versity of justifications provided and the inability of any of them to win enduring consent. The problem is one that continues all the way up to the present. In our own time, John Rawls has at­tempted such a comprehensive Theory of Justice (1971) to under­pin a liberal constitutional order. Now a quarter of a century later even he has largely abandoned the effort as a failure.

The prevail­ing wisdom is that the task was impossible and that a liberal po­litical order is merely the accidental fruit of a fortuitous historical convergence. It can have no theoretical defense because either such defenses are impossible or they are impossible under the limitations imposed by the requirements of a liberal society. The problem of liberal meaning parallels the broader crisis of meaning in the postmodern age, but it leads to more immediate practical consequences. If we cannot explain to ourselves why a liberal order of rights is worth preserving, it will not be possible for us to persuade ourselves and our children to retain it much longer. The theoretical crisis is reflected in a social crisis.

It is no wonder that the nature of the liberal democratic con­sensus is the number one subject of philosophical discussion. Discussions and books proliferate, continuing a rich historical pattern of reflection, because none has succeeded in defining its core. Why is it that a political arrangement of such worldwide popularity, and with such a demonstrable record of success, should be so uncertain of its justification? Why is liberal democ­racy unable even to explain itself to itself? Once we get beyond the level of political generalities about freedom, self-responsibility, and human dignity we find ourselves tongue-tied. The reason is, of course, not hard to find, as many contemporary observers have concluded. Departure from the most general formulae requires us to acknowledge that a liberal order is not neutral between com­peting moralities. Sure, the point of the liberal construction is to maximize individual freedom. But even that core cannot be artic­ulated without presupposing some view of the human good to­ward which freedom must be exercised. What is the point of free­dom if it does not enable us to realize what is good? That unfortunately is the question on which the whole liberal consen­sus comes apart.

The point of the liberal abbreviations of rights and liberty, we recall, was to remain silent about the different worldviews we re­garded as important. Controversy was to be removed from the public arena and corralled safely within the private domain of in­dividual choice. What was significant and what was compelling was up to us individually to decide. Public space was to be consti­tuted by the purely formal arrangements that made this maximal exercise of private freedom possible. Constitutional and legal arrangements were to be value-neutral with respect to varying as­sessments of the human good. These were the sources of plural­ism, of the social fragmentation that went all the way back to the theological cleavages that fractured the early modern period. Our disagreements have not lessened. How, then, can the liberal cen­ter hold if the divergences have invaded even its appearance of neutrality?

Transcendent Dignity of Person

The challenge is considerable but not insuperable. Most im­mediately we can admit that the game of neutrality is up. Liberal democracy is not neutral with respect to all conceptions of the good, only in relation to a certain range of moral and religious disagreements. It presupposes a more embracing moral order that the respective traditions within it are capable of recognizing. Among these are the convictions that human life is precious, that personal freedom is to be respected as the means by which indi­vidual responsibility is developed, and that ultimately it is the struggle to live in accordance with the moral intimations within us that constitutes the highest life for human beings. But how can we articulate this sustaining background to a liberal order with­out jeopardizing the peace between divergent philosophies? That is the nub of the difficulty. Clearly the answer does not lie in the direction of uncovering some ultimately neutral formulation without any presuppositions.

That is the rock on which all of our contemporary philosoph­ical hopes have foundered. We never get beyond presuppositions. This is the limitation of our condition: we are already embedded in positions before our philosophizing begins. From another per­spective, this is also our liberation, for we are relieved of the bur­den of the quest for the presuppositionless beginning. Instead we can begin where we are, immersed in a reality already structured by the pull of a mysterious meaning of which we are in search.

Respect for inalienable individual liberty embodies that tran­scendent openness as its political expression. Even more, it reso­nates with the experience of human beings who may have very varied capacities or inclinations to make their transcendent final­ity explicit. In other words, it evokes a practical response long be­fore it wins theoretical approval. That is why liberal democratic politics has been such a runaway success. It does not depend on convincing people in principle of its rightness. They sense its ap­propriateness through its continuity with the never ending un­folding of their own experience. Within the context of that prac­tical resonance all discussion of presuppositions and arguments pales into insignificance. The appeal of a liberal order is primar­ily existential.

It has long been recognized that the practice of self-government is the principal means of inculcating the virtues that make self-government possible. This was Tocqueville’s major in­sight into the importance of the associational life of society as well as of the American federal arrangement. Through the dan­gerous exercise of liberty, he remarked, Americans had found a way of obviating those dangers. Nor is this insight lost in the con­temporary scene. Within the awareness of the limited moral re­sources available to government there is a clear perception that one of the few effective means available is to encourage the exer­cise of self-responsibility. Governmental initiatives may waste more than financial reserves; they may drain the moral initiative of society. The Tocquevillian insight into the indispensability of individual exercise of self-responsibility now occupies the center of our attention. We cannot afford to jeopardize the dignity and self-worth attained only through liberty itself.

What is less well recognized are the existential dynamics in­volved in taking up that challenge. When we freely bend our ef­forts to promote our common good it is not simply that we more efficiently accomplish our goals. We actually become different. The effort is one that has its greatest effect on the persons in­volved rather than on the policies enacted. Tocqueville alludes to without dwelling on the enlargement of soul that takes place in the strenuous exercise of liberty. It is a topic that deserves much more attention than political commentators are willing or able to give it. The change effected is not merely incidental or peripheral. In fact, it is central to the whole project of a self-governing soci­ety, for it brings into view the clear intuition of the enduring real­ities toward which the whole arrangement is constructed. Even without naming the transcendent goal, the straining of our ef­forts toward what is good and right renders the whole justifica­tion of liberty transparent. We see clearly what was only dimly intimated at the beginning: that human beings are made to stretch their efforts toward what is independently good, that this is the higher life toward which we are called and the route toward our participation in a reality that transcends all others.

Liberty and choice are no longer empty words once we have acquired a concrete sense of the direction in which they must be unfolded. Such a growth of the soul occurs without philosophical artic­ulation. It later comes to recognize philosophical formulations as more or less adequate accounts of its immediate convictions, but it does not in any way depend on the validity of such justifica­tions. That is the secret of the liberal constructions. Its philo­sophical abridgements have been just sufficient to call forth the resonances required to undertake the adventure of liberty. Once the process is initiated, it reveals a dynamic of its own that carries us forward toward heights of self-realization we could only dimly intuit in the abstractions with which we began. For this reason the inadequacies of the theoretical elaborations appear as inci­dental to the living movement of growth toward which they point. They can be accepted as approximations rather than as blueprints because the existential movement does not depend on their guidance. It is enough that they are available to give the enlargement of feeling and intelligence some fixity of definition. Theoretical articulations are necessary if the experience is not to dissipate into forgetfulness. There will be a recurrent need to re­suscitate it. But that is a far cry from insisting that the theoretical difficulties must be resolved in advance or as the condition of en­gaging in moral growth.

Within this light the evident historical failure of the liberal po­litical tradition to provide a coherent self-articulation must be re­garded differently. It is no longer a failure. Now it must be viewed as part of the broader process by which a liberal political order recurrently awakens consciousness of the reality that draws it. The search for foundations is the theoretical counterpart of the existential practice of liberty. Despite the failure to reach any fully satisfactory account of foundations, the effort to do so keeps the consciousness of foundation alive. It is not a futile exercise. On the contrary, the rich history of liberal philosophical reflection from the seventeenth century up to the present is testament to the enduring character of the search in which it is involved. If it were fruitless, then there would be nothing to sustain it. In contrast, each generation begins with the same faith in the goal for which it seeks and struggles to explain its inspiration to itself. The fact that none of the accounts becomes definitive does not signify failure. In each of them living contact is made with the source of the movement that underpins them. By straining toward the tran­scendence out of reach we gain a greater sense of its reality.

It is at this point that the appropriateness of liberal incom­pleteness and tentativeness becomes clear. How else can the transcendent goal of human existence be represented except through the consciousness of our failure to represent it? Liberal silence about ultimate reality may now no longer be viewed as a regrettable failure of consensus and articulation, but as its great theoretical contribution. Far from being an absence of meaning, it can now be seen as arising from a fullness of meaning that transcends all symbolization. The insistence of many liberal thinkers that there is no highest good in terms of which all other goods must be ranked and that the liberal toleration of diversity reflects this irreducible plurality must be viewed in this sense. It arises from the conviction that any highest good, once it is named, becomes suspect as an illegitimate contraction of the full reach of the human spirit. The latter can only be answered by a good that transcends all names. But whence comes that conviction if not from the living sense of its presence? Liberal silence about the transcendent is the one that pays its respect most profoundly.

To avoid the other danger of lapsing from silence into forgetfulness, however, it is necessary to keep the struggle toward artic­ulation alive. Both the practical and theoretical reaching of a lib­eral political tradition are the indispensable means by which we actualize the resonances it contains. The incompleteness and provisionality of all attainments is not the last word. Liberal political practice and reflection is simply a way in which we work out our participation in the meaning of the mystery that guards all of human life. The appropriateness of liberal evocations must be as­sessed within this context. Only then does it become apparent that two correlative processes are at work within the liberal con­struction. There is first the concentration on the consensus nec­essary for moral and political order. Much of the resonance nec­essary for sustaining this consensus is preserved in the silence respectfully observed before the transcendent mystery of the goal of human life. That resonance, we have seen, cannot be ade­quately articulated, but it can be evoked through the practice and reflection in which it is pursued.

Dignity as Moral Advance

The second process at work in this liberal concentration on es­sentials is a heightening of awareness of the transcendent moral worth of each individual. This is perhaps the most overlooked dimension in the contemporary preoccupation with our short­comings. But it is the key both to the inexorable moral pressure within liberal societies and to the inescapable tendency to debate moral issues within liberal terms. Human rights are not just a shorthand for the moral code of our relationships to one an­other. They also direct a spotlight on the central dimension of re­spect for the inner person that ultimately is at the core of our moral convictions. Any proposed moral order that fails to en­hance the inviolable dignity of each person cannot stand before the liberal scrutiny directed at it. Liberal order heightens our sen­sitivity to that inescapable dimension. The point of all moral and political conventions, we have learned, is to enable the inner growth of the person toward the goal that is beyond all finite characterizations. Any preimposed limitations on the full dy­namic of the human soul can no longer defend its legitimacy.

We see this dynamic working itself out in the moral contro­versies that widely beset us today. Invariably the most powerful arguments on either side of the abortion, euthanasia, genetic and behavioral engineering, affirmative action, and capital punish­ment debates are all derived from the core of the liberal concep­tion of rights. Despite the confusion that also prevails in the use and misuse of the liberal vocabulary, we cannot afford to forget that these issues are being fought out largely in liberal terms. And that is so not simply because such terms are the only publicly available medium of discourse. It is much more because they are the most morally authoritative formulations we have. A liberal tradition heightens our awareness of the moral dimensions of human relationships that cannot be jeopardized. It focuses our attention on what is of transcendent importance, that which can­not be lost without losing everything. We recognize that what is at stake in each of these issues is not just the rightness or wrong­ness of a particular action, but the whole way we understand who we are and how we treat one another. If we fail to respect the fundamental reality of the person in one of these instances, then it calls into question the seriousness of our commitment in all others. Nothing is more important than the irrefragable dig­nity of the person.

Euthanasia, for example, is presented to us as an issue in which the freedom of self-determination is at issue. Does it not enhance the dignity of human life to be free to choose the time and man­ner of our departure from it? What could be more inhumane than to refuse the relief of suffering to those in the terminal stages of an illness? One of the reasons why voluntary euthanasia has made such headway is that it seems to appeal directly to the same liberal sentiments. All that seems to matter is that we take care to ensure that the necessary safeguards against abuse are fol­lowed. So long as a truly informed consent has been given, we need have no scruples about accommodating the wishes of the terminally ill. It is only when we reflect on the consequences in practice that the darkness contained in the suggestion becomes evident. Voluntary euthanasia means that some human beings will be deciding who will live and who will die. Surely we will ex­ercise some discrimination among those who request the ser­vices of euthanasia professionals. How will they in turn make that decision?

Meaning in a Postmodern Age

They can make it in the only way that any of us would. We will have to decide which lives still have some sustaining merit and which are no longer worth preserving. Even if the patient has al­ready decided that his or her quality of life has slipped below an acceptable level, we cannot avoid entering into the same judg­ment if we are to facilitate their wishes. What criteria will we use? We can think of none that do not involve a process of measuring and weighing the value of human life. We will inevitably be in­volved in the process of defining what a person is worth. What pain or inconvenience costs too much? We can no longer use the standard of every person as an end-in-himself or herself, since they must now be assessed in terms of their aggregate contribu­tion to themselves or others. The euthanasia situation compels such a finite reduction of the value of human life.

Once we have entered into that process we cannot appeal to safeguards to prevent abuse. Now we will recognize that the limits we impose on the practice are entirely our own. There are no longer any absolute barriers on the way in which we can treat one another. The only barriers that exist are ones that we have chosen to adopt. We might shift to different criteria, and inevitably dif­ferent people will interpret the different criteria differently. Some will err on the side of life, some on the side of death. Either way we will have no way of distinguishing the abusive from the non-abusive because there are no fixed limits. We cannot say when evil has occurred. It is only then that we realize the abyss opened up by the euthanasia suggestion. The extension of the liberal prac­tice of rights to the very parameters of human existence itself does not constitute a true expansion of liberty. It opens up the loss of all rights if our fate is to be decided by other human be­ings determining who will live and who will die, based on noth­ing more than their own subjective goodwill. We have lost all rights if there are no fixed limits. Once everything becomes a matter of choice we have become totally subject to the whim of others. They are the ones who decide the limits since none are al­ready pregiven.

What is interesting about this argument is that it reaches its conclusion without appealing to any larger theological or philo­sophical presuppositions. It has emerged from within the liberal framework itself. Strongly resonant, of course, is the opening to­ward a transcendent order beyond human life, and it no doubt appeals most to those who are in touch with more robust and ex­plicit spiritual traditions. Behind the liberal debates larger con­flicts of spiritual orientation are being worked out. Clearly, the deepest resonance of those who support euthanasia is the rebellious spirit of human self-assertion. It is the secular mentality that wants to dominate reality independently. Opposing it is the countervailing submission to an order whose source lies mysteri­ously beyond us. That is the attitude of trust in the goodness of the cosmos in which we find ourselves. But the debate itself can be fought out in largely, if not strictly, liberal terms. This is be­cause the liberal language of rights is both a compressed expres­sion of what can be more elaborately unfolded as the transcen­dent openness of human nature and because it represents a moral heightening of the core moral issues within that orienta­tion. That is why we can have faith in the eventual resolution of the debates.

Just as Lincoln observed of the slavery crisis, conflicts over rights cannot be settled until they are resolved rightly. Permanent incorporation of any settlement less than the morally appropri­ate one would cause too much of a disruption to the whole lib­eral framework. Such controversies will continue inexorably under their own internal moral pressure toward a resolution. In their refusal to go away we see perhaps one of the most signifi­cant dimensions of the heightening of moral consciousness in­volved in the liberal concentrations. There is simply no way to avoid the recognition that the elimination of the rights of one group or one area of life infects with uncertainty the whole struc­ture of rights everywhere. If it is a matter of governmental or popular determination in one case, why not in all others? An order of rights is too deeply embedded in the transcendent order of reality for it to be swept aside by the prevailing pressures of convenience and confusion. Such deformations do and will occur, but they cannot get a permanent foothold within the au­thoritative expression of what is right. The formidable strength of the language of rights is that it has, for all its peremptory com­pression of order, made the abuse of fundamental rights more difficult to sustain. One has only to look at the impressive use to which liberal moral language was put by the dissidents of the communist era.

At the same time we can never afford to forget that the author­itative account of order constitutes only a part of the publicly available world of meaning. By far the largest part is occupied by broader cultural issues. It is a grave mistake for politics to forget this larger cultural context within which its own struggle for order takes place. The literary, artistic, and philosophical debates between competing worldviews are worked out within the arena of civilizational meaning. Ultimately the liberal moral and polit­ical order depends on those wider resonances beyond itself. It is not enough to rely on the compressed illumination of the debates about rights to resolve the issues. A liberal order cannot stand alone. It depends on a wider context of spiritual traditions, intel­lectual vitality, and civilizational meaning that it cannot create. Even to say that liberal democracy is largely a secular expression of Christianity is not to say that it can be sustained without the presence of the more robust spirituality of the world religions. The heightened intensity of liberal public language is likely to be­come shrill, unbalanced, and confused if it is not sustained by the kind of broader faith in a transcendent order of grace and for­giveness represented by the revelatory traditions. That is why the question of cultural meaning, the effectiveness of the appeals of cultural movements, cannot be a matter of indifference from a political perspective. It is within the cultural arena that the life and death of a civilization is largely determined.


This excerpt is from Guarded by Mystery: Meaning in a Postmodern Age (Catholic University of America Press, 1999); also see “Cultural Transparence: Meaning in a Postmodern Age.”

David Walsh

David Walsh is the Chair Board Member of VoegelinView, President of the Eric Voegelin Society, and Professor of Political Science at Catholic University of America. He is the author of a three-volume study of modernity: After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom (Harper/Collins, 1990), The Growth of the Liberal Soul (Missouri, 1997), and The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence (Cambridge, 2008). His latest book is Politics of the Person and as the Politics of Being (Notre Dame, 2015).

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