Liberalism Without Principles

Liberalism Without Principles

“[M]y hunch is that Western social and political thought may have had the last conceptual revolution it needs,” Richard Rorty wrote. “J.S. Mill’s suggestion that governments devote themselves to optimizing the balance between leaving people’s lives alone and preventing suffering,” he went on, “seems to me pretty much the last word.” This curious passage has mostly been dismissed as typical of Rorty’s flamboyant style—anything to raise an eyebrow.[1] In a footnote to that passage, Rorty clarifies that “this is, of course, not to say that the world has had the last political revolution it needs.”[2] As with most things with Rorty—who some think, including myself, hasn’t been given his day in the court of liberal theory—there’s more substance beneath the surface of rhetorical flair. 

Under the hood of liberalism—that is, when we look at liberal political philosophy—we encounter a lot of things that just don’t seem to make sense: paradoxes, conflicting commitments, dead ends, unexamined assumptions, things that just don’t add up. In part, this is due to the fact that the things that previously undergirded liberalism—concepts like reason, universality, autonomy—have been dealt, at the very least, a serious blow. Add to this the fact that populations previously excluded from the conversation on account of their “inability” to reason now flood the landscape and literature, bringing a diverse range of perspectives to issues that were previously the territory of relatively well off white males.

One response to the apparent inconsistencies and dashed hopes of liberalism is to claim that no tradition, especially one as capacious as liberalism, is without serious issues. This is the quiet confidence of the liberal who simply says, sure, liberalism has its issues but it’s the best thing we’ve come up with so far. A related response is to simply restate the core principles of liberalism—individualism, liberty, universality, equality, and pluralism. But conflicts immediately arise: Would respecting individualism be defending the businessowner who denies service to a gay person or making the businessowner serve them? If equality takes precedence here and you think business owners shouldn’t be able to refuse service to customers on account of their sexual preferences, why? Is there some kind of lexical priority to liberal principles? Rawls thought there was, but how far he got us is still the subject of much debate—if indeed philosophy has the ability to get us anywhere at all in practical matters—and he certainly received glares of disapproval from those who didn’t share his background assumptions.

Like Rawls’ work, much of 20th and 21st century political theory has dedicated itself to the project of finding some bedrock set of principles or a theory on which we can build or at least feel confident about our relatively liberal society. In recent decades, the steady onslaught of critics has led many liberals to go on the defensive, offering increasingly minimalist theories of liberalism in order to tolerate the widest range of pluralism. But these minimalist theories weren’t the product of internecine debates between liberals trying to find better versions of their philosophies, but rather came from the attacks of decidedly anti-liberal thinkers injecting themselves and their views into the conversation.

But any attempt to try and make sense of the core of liberalism, even a minimalist one, by offering sophisticated philosophical justifications is bound to fail, because the lip service we pay to liberal principles can only ever be just that: lip service. From Rorty’s perspective, Mill pointed to a tension in liberalism that will never be solved by doing more philosophy, which is just to say that much of political philosophy after Mill really just serves to put his point—that political disputes, both in theory and practice, come down to the conflict between reducing suffering and leaving people alone—in slightly different ways. Most debates today fall between the two poles Mill laid out for us: depending on what one chooses to focus on, you can come away from Mill a libertarian, a socialist, or somewhere in between.

Many have viewed the projects of thinkers like Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish as largely negative and deconstructive, and so, somewhat understandably, they come away from their work saying, “Okay, now what?” with a shrug. But if one looks closer at their work, one finds intimations about what liberal politics looks like after the demise of principle, or universality, or Reason, or the invisible hand of “the marketplace of ideas”—a politics that strikes a balance between the optimism of the Enlightenment and the seeming cynicism of postmodernism.

From epistemology to embeddedness

“The trouble with principle,” Stanley Fish writes, “is, first, that it does not exist, and, second, that nowadays many bad things are done in its name.”[3] The second half of this statement is difficult to deny: both history and the contemporary political landscape present us with countless examples of people doing nasty and terrible things in the name of principle. History is replete with movements, revolutions, and regimes who are, from a public relations perspective, commited to the equal dignity of all people, but are no sooner eclipsed by mass atrocity, murder, and genocide.[4]

But the first half of the statement—that principles don’t exist—is a bit harder to make sense of. We’ve already seen problems with respect to the conflict between principles, but take, for example, the principle of neutrality.[5] Fish comes from a long line of philosophers who question the usefulness or even the possibility of the completely disinterested knower—of trying to stand outside of our current practices and ways of talking in order to view those practices and ways of talking objectively, that is, with the world on your side. In other words, Fish questions whether given our human situation genuine neutrality is possible. How, these philosophers ask, would we ever know if we stumbled upon an objective piece of knowledge or some completely neutral judgment? Not only is it a misguided adventure, one in which we wouldn’t even know if we reached the end, but even to attempt to transcend our current practices and achieve some universal perspective is to strip ourselves of everything that enables us to make judgments in the first place.

A mind so open that it was anchored by no assumptions, no convictions of the kind that order and stabilize perception, would be a mind without gestalt and therefore without the capacity of keeping anything in. A consciousness not shored up at one end by a belief (not always the same one) whose negation it could not think would be a sieve. In short, it would be empty.[6]

The conclusion is not that no knowledge is possible, but that no transcendent knowledge is possible—the kind of knowledge that floats above any particular practices—because we are, at the end of the day, embedded beings.

To be embedded means to be always acting from somewhere, from some set of background beliefs that we, knowingly or not, think are rock-bottom, and so they largely go unquestioned. In response to the question, “Is the American dream at the expense of the American Negro?” James Baldwin replied that it was “a loaded question.” “Our reaction to it, and our response to it,” he wrote, “are bound to be determined by the most private inaccessible assumptions—in other words, by our sense of reality.” One’s response to the question, and really all questions, “has to depend on … where you find yourself in the world.”[7] It was always a fantasy to think we could, as Rawls wanted us to do, step behind a veil of ignorance where we are stripped of the very things that give our judgments force and direction in the first place. And it doesn’t do any good to say that this or that assumption need be retained behind the veil since any candidate for that role immediately generates disagreement over why that assumption was chosen and not some other one.

And so on Fish’s account, it’s difficult to make sense of being completely independent of some belief or practice or prior assumption; if we were to try and remove ourselves from our situation or strip ourselves of our beliefs in an effort to be more open-minded or achieve some kind of critical distance from our beliefs, there would be nothing left of us.[8] The critical distance people think they are achieving is really just a matter of swapping one set of backgrounds beliefs for another as opposed to finally freeing oneself from any background beliefs at all. To go from being a God-fearing Christian to a “free thinking” atheist is to simply go from being someone embedded in a context in which faith was the animating and foundational background belief to one in which something like reason was, but neither set of background beliefs can rise above the other. Neither reason nor faith can transcend itself to look down upon the other or achieve a neutral view of the entire landscape. Saying that one is committed to reason rather than God is just another way of saying that you are committed to a certain set of background assumptions about evidence and argument which are different than the person of faith. To put it in philosophical terms, you simply have a different epistemology.   

There are a couple of things to take away from this. The first is that we can never achieve the distance between something called our self and our beliefs in a way that some like to think we can. To say ‘criticize beliefs, not people’ is to fundamentally misunderstand the fact that “[t]he operations of my consciousness and the shape of my beliefs are not two entities somehow ‘relating’ to one another but one entity called by different names.”[9] Rather than saying people hold beliefs it would be better, and more accurate, to say that beliefs hold people—background beliefs make thinking about anything possible. So in a sense, criticizing one’s background assumptions is to criticize the very things that allow that person to think or have an identity at all. Perhaps treating people’s ideas more delicately is in order.

From embeddedness to politics

The second takeaway is undoubtedly more uncomfortable, and it’s the idea, often lampooned by critics of the catch-all term “postmodernism,” that it’s politics all the way down. Fish summarizes:  

[N]ot only is there no one who could spot a transcendent truth if it happened to pass through the neighborhood, but it is difficult even to say what one would be like. Of course we would know what it would not be like: it would not speak to any particular condition, or be identified with any historical production, or be formulated in the terms of any national, ethnic, racial, economic, or class traditions. In short, it would not be clothed in any of the guises that would render it available to the darkened glasses of mortal – that is, temporally limited – man. … Since none of us occupies that view (because none of us is a god), the truths any of us find compelling will all be partial, which is to say they will all be political (emphasis mine).[10]

This is the context in which Fish says that principles don’t exist. Since we are all embedded beings and none of us have access to objective reality, then principles—these things that are not only supposed to stand over and above the fray but also guide us in that fray—don’t mean anything unless we fill them in with some kind political content. By political content, Fish doesn’t mean partisanship. Unlike partisan politics,

The fact that politics is everywhere has no normative or anti normative implications; it provides you with no program, nor does it take any away from you; it points you in no direction but only tells you that, whatever direction you find yourself taking, politics will be there, not as a byway or a danger or an impurity but as the very condition of action.[11]

In other words, our background commitments themselves are not the result of being in touch with some objective reality or neutral and rigorous argument and logic; rather “the particular local commitments that occupy this background position do so because they achieved success in a competition with other commitments. There was nothing necessary or natural or inevitable about this success; it was the contingent result of persuasion, ideology, force, economic or institutional power, demographics, etc.”[12]

So principles—or more accurately, the way we interpret them—will always be hostage to our background assumptions. We have political visions and agendas first and then, and only then, do we grope around for principles and theories in order to make those agendas look like they have something like a supernatural force on their side. To revisit the example from the beginning, first we say that business owners should have to serve the gay person, then we say equality demands it, the latter being a rhetorical move that adds force to our belief and helps to convince others of the soundness of our belief. But saying “equality demands it” is really just another way of saying “God wills it.” And the primary reasons for thinking the business owner should serve them are due to “the contingent result of persuasion, ideology, force, economic or institutional power, demographics.” Or to put it a different way: the reasons for believing this instead of that are due to a number of things, mostly inaccessible and unquestioned.

But say that someone wants to hold us to our principle of equality and goes on to assume we are against affirmative action policies since on the face of it, it does seem like giving preferential treatment to certain populations based on skin color does violate the principle of equality. In our current political discourse, people tend to think accusations of hypocrisy exact a heavy toll, but the discussion above should make clear why these very same accusations almost entirely miss the point (which is not the reason these accusations are so easily shrugged off, oddly enough). Since no one is ever really operating from neutral principles, then no one can ever really be accused of hypocrisy except in the rarest of cases. It’s not inconsistent to say that equality demands businessowners to serve everyone regardless of sexual preferences and also equality demands we have affirmative action policies, because the principle of equality isn’t actually doing any of the work (just as the word “equal” in the Declaration at the time it was written and in the mind of Jefferson really wasn’t doing what it does now).

In the the case of affirmative action, you have to do a bit more work to show how the principle of equality recommends affirmative action policies since on its face it looks like unequal treatment, but what will be doing that work is not the principle but your belief that we should remedy serious past and continuing injustices as best we can, and that this is one way to do it. Sometimes this move is accompanied by “the heck with principle,” but more likely it’s either followed up with some more expansive definition of equality, or “here’s the principle—justice—that justifies that policy.” In practice, a highly individualized lexical ordering of principles is just doing politics—saying “I think we should do this”—under cover from something that supposedly rises above the political fray.

A commitment to not just specific principles, like justice or equality, but to principlism—the idea that we should be guided by principles because anything else is wishy-washy and lacks guts—mostly just serves to muddy the political waters and keep people from genuine engagement. It stands that if partisan agendas and substantive visions give principles their shape (by necessity), we should see invocations of principle as little more than rhetorical cherries on top of people’s individual ideas about what constitutes the good life. Furthermore, the habit of wrapping all our substantive visions in principle-talk, and not really going any further, makes it increasingly difficult to see what people are really trying to say. Sometimes this is purposeful.

The “Lost Cause” pseudo-history of the Confederacy is a good example here. In an effort to try and make the defeat of the Confederacy look more noble or heroic, some southerners decided that it would probably be a good strategy to talk about their on-the-ground agenda—defending slavery—in a way that didn’t explicitly talk about defending slavery. To do this, they realized, all they needed to do was wrap it up in good old American principle talk: states’ rights and the preservation of one’s way of life. Stated this way, of course, who could have an issue?[13] And that’s precisely the point: stated that way, at that level of generality, it doesn’t really mean much of anything. One immediately wants to ask, and should ask, “Well what is your way of life?” or “Why are you so concerned with states’ rights all of a sudden?”

The point is that this game can be played by anyone anytime the invocation of principle is near, so Fish offers a piece of “advice.”

[C]onsider the source. I know that this advice goes against the assumption, so strongly embedded in liberal thought, that ideas are to be evaluated on their merit and not on the basis of the historical condition of their emergence, but that assumption itself assumes that ideas exist in some eternal realm or depoliticized marketplace of ideas, and that assumption seems to me to be wrong: ideas are only intelligible within the particular circumstances that give rise to them, and, it is within those circumstances that ideas are put to purposes and do work.[14]

In other words, the abstract ideas of states’ rights or defending one’s lifestyle are “only intelligible within the particular circumstances that give rise to them,” and those particular circumstances happened to be that Southerners wanted to keep slavery around, or at least institutionalized white supremacy if they couldn’t have slavery itself. I can invoke the very same principle of defending my way of life with respect to not wanting to tear down all the libraries and this will be seen, I hope, as a relatively unproblematic or even noble fight, but there’s nothing inherently noble about defending one’s way of life as such.

As Fish points out, the same game is being currently being played with respect to affirmative action, though the intensity has died down in recent years. Typically, there are full-blown racists who don’t support affirmative action policies, liberals who don’t support it, and liberals who do support it. The problem is that the first two groups can and often do appeal to the neutral language of liberal principle but the second group “believes that it can reject affirmative action on principled grounds, while simultaneously rejecting the substantive racist beliefs of the first group.”[15] William Buckley Jr. and his ilk at National Review had a similarly hard time promoting a conservative commitment to federalism, small government, and states’ rights while trying to distance themselves with the George Wallace’s of the country.

Fish’s analysis of these kinds of situations brings out the idea of embeddedness even more. “There are no cynics in my scenario,” he says, “only persons whose strongly held beliefs and commitments lead them to understand, and understand sincerely, notions like equality, fairness, and neutrality in one way rather than another.”[16] In other words, the second group of liberals who are against affirmative action aren’t racists, they just think equality is straightforwardly about equality before the law regardless of skin color or creed, even if this commitment to equality is aspirational. “With this egalitarian and meritocratic narrative forming part of the assumed background,” Michael Robertson writes, “liberals could, without any bad faith, naturally see the color-blind principle as requiring the rejection of affirmative action.”[17]

On the other side are liberals who think that “the local and particular context that is crucial for understanding the color-blind principle in America is the history of the involuntary transportation and enslavement of black people by white people in that country.” Robertson goes on:

If that historical context is kept firmly in mind (or, more accurately, becomes a part of the assumed background that enables the mind), then the color-blind principle will not lose its grip on concrete situations, because it will be understood as working to remedy the systematic and institutionalized racism that for centuries allowed white Americans to oppress and demean black Americans.[18]

This picture seems bleak. You have your background assumptions, I have mine, and we will never have any common ground since everything I say begs all the important questions for you and everything you say begs all the important questions for me. It is from this rather depressing picture that liberalism is born.

The evasion of politics

Fish is right to point out that “Liberal thought begins with the acknowledgment that faction, difference, and point of view are irreducible.” But in the same breath that liberal thinkers acknowledge this irreducibility of conflict they are no sooner trying to come up with “procedural mechanisms that are neutral with respect to point of view and therefore can serve to frame partisan debates in a nonpartisan manner,” and so we run into the same problem as earlier.

I put the matter in this way so as to point up what seems to me an obvious contradiction: on the one hand, a strong acknowledgment of the unavailability of a transcendent perspective of the kind provided by traditional Christianity (against whose dogmas liberalism defines itself), and on the other, a faith (curious word to associate with liberalism) in the capacity of partial (in two senses) human intelligences to put aside their partialities and hew to a standard that transcends them.[19]

But just as the search for neutral procedures and principles fails, so too do the projects of thinkers who offer minimalist versions of liberalism as an attempt to side-step this search for neutral principles. John Gray, in his influential The Two Faces of Liberalism, offers a vision of “a multicultural society in which diverse groups are permitted to live according to their unique worldviews without interference from the state or other groups,” and where “the liberal state ideally plays a fairly passive role as peacekeeper.”[20] On its face, then, Gray’s modus vivendi liberalism acknowledges that we will never have neutral principles to adjudicate each and every clash between groups, so the state, and presumably citizens, should hang back as much as they can—live and let live—and only get involved when substantial things are at stake. But just what those substantial things are and when they should be thrust into the public sphere is always up for debate.

As Bill Curtis rightly points out, minimalist theories like Gray’s modus vivendi and Rawls’ political liberalism often use words like “respectful” or “reasonable” as a way of smuggling in more ethically demanding standards, which, of course, then seem to contradict their commitment to minimalism. Put another way, even if thinkers like Gray and Rawls dial down the commitment to formal liberal procedures and principles, they still have fairly strong views about what it takes to participate in their political systems. As Curtis puts it, “the parties to the modus vivendi order must possess the qualities and ethical wherewithal to engage in civil political deliberation with each other to ‘respectfully’ resolve disagreements over the terms of the modus vivendi.”

Both modus vivendi liberalism and political liberalism fail on their own terms: in order for their respective political arrangements to be successful and sustainable, they require citizens to develop an extensive set of ethical traits that have a deep impact on our private conceptions of the Good. … When push comes to shove, the ethical “thinness” that both political liberalism and modus vivendi liberal theories attempt to achieve is necessarily a mirage.[21]

Gray and Rawls smuggle in liberal neutrality in the form of supposedly minimal background commitments, yet these background commitments turn out to be fairly demanding and would, in practice, rule a lot of people in our society out of liberal bounds.

It is in this spirit that Rorty says we’ve probably had the last conceptual revolution we need. Coming up with new and different ways to reframe “Mill’s suggestion that governments devote themselves to optimizing the balance between leaving people’s lives alone and preventing suffering” isn’t doing the work we think it is, especially if these new theories come to us in the form of philosophy and principles since, again, how we implement or spin those things will always be a matter of our background assumptions and prior political commitments, which themselves might be informed by principle. But that principle will still be colored by one’s embeddedness, so even if you think you’re coming from a place of pure principle it’s more likely you’ve just adopted a bunch of baggage from some other person who spun the principle this or that way. Even minimalist theories don’t do the work we need them to, since they merely replace neutral principles with notions like “reasonableness” and “respectful,” thereby substituting the impossible for the ambiguous.

When we leave the philosophy seminar and enter the political arena, we find that principles and arguments do have an effect on arrangements, but it’s far less straightforward than people imagine. There is no direct line from political argument to political practice, which is just another way of saying: it’s complicated.

Once everyone has dug in, armed with their principles—usually packaged in catchy slogans and talking points—the fire of the marketplace smolders. It’s not that either side is less passionate about their positions, but only that there’s only so much that can be said or accomplished with argument alone. As Fish says, “The career of argument is incalculable; there is no formula either for advancing it or for determining where it is likely to go next. There are, however, procedural moments that mark the end of argument much as a bell marks the end of a round in a boxing match.” These bells are the more formal democratic and legal processes: elections, judicial rulings, and changes in policy.

Returning to the wedding cake situation, the point is that there is no principle that would cut Mill’s gordian knot of reducing suffering on the one hand while leaving people alone on the other. Both sides at this point have already grabbed one one of these horns and framed it in what they see as the strongest principles and arguments.

“On those occasions when a political argument is won,” Fish says, “it is often because an event enters the argumentative arena sideways and produces an unexpected resolution to a dispute that promised to go on forever.” Note here that it’s not the principles or arguments that are doing the heavy lifting, but something tangential to the situation that either moves the arguments into the formal political process or knocks it out of consideration for the time being.

Currently, whether we should force bakers to bake cakes for ceremonies or events that go against their religious beliefs is still unresolved, and the arguments have taken a back seat to other concerns. Still Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the majority in the Masterpiece Cake Shop case clearly lays out the Millian tension at the heart of every clash of principles:

The case presents difficult questions as to the proper reconciliation of at least two principles. The first is the authority of a State and its governmental entities to protect the rights and dignity of gay persons who are, or wish to be, married but who face discrimination when they seek goods or services. The second is the right of all persons to exercise fundamental freedoms under the First Amendment, as applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.

To put it in Mill’s terms: the case presented difficult questions as to the proper reconciliation between reducing suffering and leaving people alone.

The courts didn’t really decide anything outside of this specific case. They ruled that the owners of cake shop were treated with anti-religious hostility by the state’s civil rights commission, but dodged any larger questions of religious freedom and anti-discrimination—though both sides find in Kennedy’s opinion reason to be hopeful about future rulings, which is itself telling about the opinion. Regardless, Kennedy wrote, “The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts…” But in what form that elaboration will come is for now a mystery and likely relies on factors outside the realm of ideas and argument: a new policy or law, the treatment of LGBTQ people in the future—whether it gets better or worse—or, more likely, the makeup and political leanings of the Supreme Court.      

There’s just no argument, at least no principled argument, that has the ability to do what Kennedy wants future courts to do: to resolve these disputes “with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”

We’ll have to see what happens in this case, but coming up with increasingly sophisticated ways to reframe this fundamental tension won’t push the argument one way or another once and for all, and will do little to make the decision—whenever it comes—any easier about which way to slice it up. But this is the problem that confronts us whenever a conflict of principles, which is to say a conflict of visions, is called upon to answer a specific question in a specific case.

[1] At least among academics.

[2] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

[3] Stanley Fish, The Trouble with Principle

[4] I owe a great deal of gratitude to Michael Robertson’s book Stanley Fish on Philosophy, Politics and Law: How Fish Works. In this book Robertson gives an overview as well as a much-needed defense of Fish’s ideas against lazy critics who dismiss Fish as an unserious sophist or crank. It was instrumental in bringing together some of the ideas in this essay.   

[5] The principle of neutrality seems to be the liberal principle that undergirds the rest of them. Everytime we utter the words “equality” or “justice” we are, in a sense, assuming we can get some accurate picture of what those things look like from an objective or neutral point of view.

[6] Stanley Fish, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too

[7] Baldwin quotes taken from Nicholas Buccola, The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate Over Race in America

[8] This kind of critique of the autonomous, free-floating liberal individual has been made by a range of thinkers, from Gadamer to the pragmatists to the feminists in the mid-twentieth century. 

[9] The Trouble with Principle

[10] There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech

[11] The Trouble with Principle

[12] Michael Robertson, Stanley Fish on Philosophy, Politics and Law: How Fish Works

[13] If you do have an issue with this statement, it’s because you probably already associate (or are at least suspicious)  states’ rights with slavery and the Lost Cause.

[14] There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech

[15] Michael Robertson, Stanley Fish on Philosophy, Politics and Law: How Fish Works

[16] The Trouble with Principle

[17] With Buckley it’s different because he very clearly was racist even if this racism didn’t necessarily motivate his conservative federalism. If Buckley had his way, he would have disenfranchised close to 70% of the southern vote, both black and white. The important point here is that had we not had someone as prolific as Buckley writing about everything, it’s possible to be a staunch defender of states’ rights and federalism without being a racist. Certainly, anti-racists would take issue with this, but there still needs to be an attempt to discriminate on the basis of what people actually believe rather than, through their own ignorance or shortcomings, what their beliefs ultimately amount to. Guilt by association (to ideas) usually is warranted, but we nonetheless still have to be careful.

[18] Michael Robertson, Stanley Fish on Philosophy, Politics and Law: How Fish Works

[19] There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech

[20] William Curtis, Defending Rorty

[21] Defending Rorty

Featured image is Statue of John Stuart Mill, Victoria Embankment Gardens, by Irid Escent