Nihilism and the Liberal Vision of the Good

Nihilism and the Liberal Vision of the Good

He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision. And these qualities he requires and exercises exactly in proportion as the part of his conduct which he determines according to his own judgment and feelings is a large one. It is possible that he might be guided in some good path, and kept out of harm’s way, without any of these things. But what will be his comparative worth as a human being? It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it. Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely is man himself

J.S Mill, On Liberty

One of the sharpest accusations levelled against liberalism is that it is fundamentally a nihilistic doctrine. The most powerful reactionary critiques have usually taken aim at this perceived vulnerability, with Dostoevsky famously painting secular liberalization as leading to a world where “everything is permitted” and moral standards are levelled down. The “Anti-Christ” Friedrich Nietzsche naturally came at things from a very different perspective, but his disdain for Christian moralism didn’t keep him from proclaiming in Twilight of the Idols that “liberalism is the transformation of mankind into cattle.” A dreary collection of materialistic last men who idly pursued their banal desires and projects, but could be momentarily roused by the latest health fad. Few critics today are quite this scathing (or perhaps just candid), but post-liberals and illiberal democrats are rarely shy about denouncing liberalism for its vulgar permissiveness and lack of commitment to the good life. This is typically associated with big narratives about national decline, brought about by a lack of fortitude in demanding the highest from people and commending the select few who reach the rarefied empyrean heights.

Much of the ammunition for these accusations comes from the fact that liberals have historically been wary of endorsing or even talking about moral virtues and comprehensive visions of the good life. But contra the critics, who often anxiously rush to diagnose this as a symptom of liberalism’s fallenness, from the beginning liberals have offered sophisticated arguments for why an authoritarian politics of the “good life” in the end produces neither virtue nor especially good lives. Beyond these well-worn arguments, I would argue that liberals are also committed to a thin vision of the good life which is no less inspiring for being available to people from a wide variety of cultural and moral traditions. The liberal vision of the good life is one centered around the importance of expressive individualism.

Is liberalism nihilistic?

From the beginning opponents have criticized liberalism for being amoral at best, and nihilistic at worst. Typically there are two prongs to this attack, one metaphysical and the other moral or aesthetic, though the two are often combined and blended in curious ways.

The first prong holds that liberalism is committed to a materialist and individualistic metaphysics which lacks any account of transcendent or “higher” values. An emblematic account can be found in the writings of arch-Catholic reactionary Joseph de Maistre. He famously denounced liberal thought, “what is ignorantly called philosophy,” as “fundamentally a destructive force. This is because its skeptical and critical disposition, wherein liberals sought to question everything, undermined the sublime quality of authority.” For de Maistre one the virtues of antiquarian and Medieval thinking was their insistence that the metaphysical order of the universe was inherently just, and consequently that the socio-political order which had emerged on Earth was both natural and theologically vindicated. 

By contrast liberalism’s Luciferian pride in assuming that the existent order can and should be questioned stripped it of this allure, compelling political authorities to justify themselves to those they sought to govern. For someone like de Maistre this generated the intractable conditions for endless debate and disorder, as each person came to see themselves as an independent legislator who advanced their independent interests without any concern for a shared (and hierarchical) moral order where all knew and understood their place. This led to a kind of cultural nihilism, as there could be no shared consensus on anything.

This accusation has been made by both religious social conservatives and committed atheists. Anti-liberal reactionaries like Nietzsche and Heidegger shared many of de Maistre’s impulses, but rejected his Christian revanchism. Like de Maistre they saw liberal democracy as contributing to the emergence of a nihilistic culture through its corrosive willingness to allow even the most resentful and inauthentic to put forward their slavish values and demand respect. 

But they had little interest in the by then clichéd demand for a return to scholastic absolutism. Something new was required. As Domenico Losurdo observed in his classic Nietzsche: Aristocratic Rebel, what gave these figures their dark brilliance was twofold. The first was the startling claim that, in fact, liberal and for that matter socialist humanism were not some profound break from Christianity. Far from it; they were the continuation of a kind of Christian individualistic humanism through other political means. Their second novelty was a willingness to accept the burden of modernity, and to cease looking for a transcendent source of value that would affirm our sacred qualities from far beyond. Instead Nietzsche and Heidegger accepted the broadly liberal claim that the source of all values must come from within some form of human subjectivity, but rabidly rejected the politics of liberal democracy as swinish, inauthentic, and worst of all English. This brings us to the second main accusation.

In addition to the high order claim that liberal metaphysics leads to nihilistic outcomes, many critics argue that liberalism’s morality and politics are prima facie empty. Sometimes the objection to this is moral, sometimes aesthetic. The moral objection often made by religious authors like Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue is that by allowing all individuals to concern themselves merely with the means to pursue their self-selected ends, liberalism has gutted our capacity to consider what ends are actually right and virtuous to pursue. Over a long enough period of time, the grandiose rhetoric of liberal authors leads to mere emotivism: the bizarre belief that our choice about moral ends is a mere matter of preference, much like one’s taste in ice cream flavors. From an allegedly “neutral” liberal standpoint, there is no sense in trying to arbitrate whether an addict who happened to reach a ripe old age led a less intrinsically good life than Martin Luther King, Jr. At best we could assess who gained more utilitarian pleasure from their pursuits and make a calculation that way. 

The aesthetic argument is more common to authors such as Nietzsche, Allan Bloom, or (in some of his many moods) Roger Scruton. Here the fundamental problem with the levelling impulse of egalitarian liberalism is its destruction of standards of excellence and beauty in our culture. The conviction that beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder leaves it up to the mass of individuals to decide what the highest aesthetic values should be. The weight of their numbers, coupled with resentment at their mediocrity, means that the truly great and inspired are either silenced or compelled to cater to the masses in order to make a living. This leads to a deadened and weak culture where people are neither exposed to sublimated aesthetic values nor have the will to produce them. What we get instead is the pleasant, unchallenging, and ultimately life-denying. In a further twist, emblematic of Albert Hirschman’s description of the perversity thesis in The Rhetoric of Reaction, this could even lead to the collapse of liberal societies as the aristocratic ethos required to demand freedom becomes diluted by its overextension and institutionalization. As Nietzsche put it, again in Twilight of the Idols:

Liberal institutions cease to be liberal as soon as they are attained: later on, there are no worse and no more thorough injurers of freedom than liberal institutions. Their effects are known well enough: they undermine the will to power; they level mountain and valley, and call that morality; they make men small, cowardly, and hedonistic — every time it is the herd animal that triumphs with them. Liberalism: in other words, herd-animalization … Freedom means that the manly instincts which delight in war and victory dominate over other instincts, for example, over those of “pleasure.” The human being who has become free — and how much more the spirit who has become free — spits on the contemptible type of well-being dreamed of by shopkeepers, Christians, cows, females, Englishmen, and other democrats. The free man is a warrior. How is freedom measured in individuals and peoples? According to the resistance which must be overcome, according to the exertion required, to remain on top. The highest type of free men should be sought where the highest resistance is constantly overcome: five steps from tyranny, close to the threshold of the danger of servitude.

The panorama of authors that I’ve discussed are some of the more interesting critics along these lines. One should be under no illusions that most contemporary critiques rise to anywhere near the level set by them. Indeed, most contemporary arguments about liberalism’s nihilism have become notably more superficial and even shrill. Ironically a lot of them reflect the kind of superficiality they read into liberal society. We get post-liberals who assert that because they feel liberalism’s morality is bad so too must be its metaphysics, without making any effort to actually make metaphysically novel arguments. Or we get an endless series of Claremont Review pieces on how our society must be failing if liberal morality has flourished so thoroughly, with scarcely any moral analysis. Many of these seem like caricatures of what they profess to attack, merely asserting loudly and often that they disdain liberalism and assuming this mere opinion is enough to carry them to argumentative Valhalla. In the remainder of this essay I will respond to some of the better criticisms by sketching out the metaphysical basis for liberalisms’ vision of the good life and arguing for its appeal. This would go doubly so in a genuinely liberal and democratic socialist society that enabled all, rather than just the few, to live flourishing lives.

An argument for expressive individualism  

Liberal metaphysics is impossible without the Scientific Revolution, of which it was the beneficiary as well as the benefactor. This is a point acknowledged by both liberals and trenchant critics like Patrick Deneen. The power of the Scientific Revolution came from its gradual stripping away of teleological and theological conceptions of matter, which defined reality in terms of the high ends to which it aspired. Often linked to this were deep value judgments about the intrinsic worth of existence which could be gleaned through an analysis of the physical world, which revealed the deeper teleological or divine order beneath mere matter in motion. The world of physical time became the mere moving image of eternity. The Scientific Revolution became increasingly critical of this outlook, holding that by interpreting matter in terms of ends we were effectively ascribing moral and aesthetic values to our metaphysical descriptions of the natural world. Instead matter was to be understood deterministically, driven by laws which were comprehensible to reason, but whose ultimate source and purpose were forever concealed to us. 

Undoubtedly the most important liberal to systematize this thinking was Immanuel Kant, whose three Critiques made a compelling case that any telos or beauty that we apprehended in the natural world or the nature of human existence was put there by us. Human reason ascribed teleological ends and beauty to the natural world, but we had no way of knowing for sure whether there was any intrinsic telos or beauty in the play of existence. Indeed Kant further argued that the attempt by many conservatives to assert that there simply must be some kind of transcendent and good order which could be known by humankind, served to reinforce unthinking heteronomy. Occasionally the game was given away when these reactionary authors admitted the rationale behind insisting on the existence of such a transcendent order had less to do with its metaphysical plausibility and more to do with its use in maintaining respect for tradition and social authority.

Of course Kant’s “transcendental” rather than transcendent metaphysics has been criticized for many good reasons, but the broad contours of his argument that beauty and the good must come from within remain plausible. As Hamlet would say “there is nothing good or evil, but thinking makes it so.” Yet the lingering doubt remains that even if this is true, where does it leave us in terms of comprehending the good life? Don’t these kinds of arguments, if anything, lead exactly to the belief that mere opinion and taste—really nothing much—is all that props up the conceit that life has value and can be affirmed? 

The answer to this is that liberals needn’t deny that there may well be some intrinsic value to human life that pre-exists human thought, but we are incapable of knowing what that is for certain. Given the limitations of reason this is precluded to us. But this doesn’t mean we can’t take steps toward deciding what the best kinds of human life are. Here J. S. Mill is on point when he argues that, absent the possibility of any kind of certainty on the matter, the best solution is an experimental one. We give individuals as much liberty as possible to engage in different “experiments in living” and then individually and collectively draw on the reservoir of experiences to ascertain what is conducive to human flourishing and what is not. This last point is key since most any liberal outside the crudest hedonist would argue that this qualitative spectrum is why it is wiser to be Martin Luther King marching for freedom than an addict strung out in chemical induced bliss. Better to be “Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” Allowing people the freedom to experiment in the pursuit of the good life also respects their personal autonomy, the infringement of which may actually preclude them from being capable of virtue in the first place. 

This was a point stressed by Charles Taylor in his magisterial A Secular Age when he described the polluting effects of inauthenticity on good acts. The paradox of conservatives trying to compel people to be virtuous is that they cannot in fact be virtuous under compulsion. They cannot show virtue when the pursuit of a given end is not chosen by them, but compelled by political and social coercion. Consequently even if it was the case that the compelled action was right, its goodness would be irreparably tarnished. I say “was the case” since most of us would now see many of the immoral actions condemned by conservatives, such as sexual liberalization, as either no one else’s business or in fact beneficial to human flourishing.

Though Taylor himself has mixed feelings about the term we could characterize this vision of the good life as a kind of expressive individualism. In it we see the development and expression of selfhood through the pursuit of our life projects as part of what gives meaning to life and allows us to flourish. We can be said to have lived a good life if the self we have created through our projects is one which is worthy of respect and admiration. How we can be certain of that comes from the other big part of how one can live the good life as a liberal: through our cooperation with others, with whom we form mutual bonds of recognition and respect as we support one another in the pursuit of these disparate projects. This is an especially important component of the liberal vision of the good life often ignored by critics. While possessive individualist liberals, down to the neoliberals of the current day, can sometimes stress that it is merely the private satisfaction of our personal wants that matters, all but the most myopic of us can recognize that most—if not all—of the meaning we get in life comes from our relations with other people. 

In a post-pandemic world that is more apparent than ever before. Liberals differ from conservatives and communitarians in arguing that cooperation and mutual recognition require our relations to be as voluntary as possible. This is key to the liberal argument for multiculturalism, which holds that expressive individualist experimentalism can be endorsed and carried out in a wide variety of culturally enriched ways. Within a liberal state peoples of different cultures will pursue their experiments in the good life and consequently maintain their distinctive identity, while respecting the same rights for others. While not all of these cultural experiments in the good life will be to everyone’s taste, they should be tolerated and even embraced by liberals to the extent they are predicated on voluntary relations. Indeed even where a cultural experiment is not to one’s taste, it is still valuable in the experimentalist sense of providing data on what kind of projects are worth pursuing. 

Like all political doctrines, there are of course limits to how far this can go. Even the most tolerant liberal state will inevitably have to step in where some experiments become exceptionally dangerous to all; for instance with groups that pose a radical threat to the existence of others. While some critics, like Schmitt, argue this shows liberalism is no more tolerant than its more reactionary competitors, this rabidly overstates the case. Tolerance isn’t an all or nothing ideal. There are degrees of toleration a state can show for ideological and cultural differences; just because a liberal state won’t tolerate fascism doesn’t mean there isn’t a world of difference between it and a fascist state’s demand for complete conformity under threat of liquidation. Liberal states should show the maximal degree of tolerance for different experiments in the good life, and only draw lines where there are few better options. Where the cut-off should be isn’t something that can be solely or even largely determined by theory, since a lot depends on political circumstance. But undoubtedly liberal states perform much better in this regard than most of their authoritarian competitors, even if they should be doing far more to respect difference and acknowledge the failure to do so in the past. 


Of course simply securing the formal conditions for individuals to be free isn’t enough. A truly just liberal state would be committed to the ideal that everyone should have the opportunity to lead a flourishing life through self-development. It would also acknowledge that, since much of this pertains to our relationships with others, the construction of solidaristic bonds and a communitarian spirit entails that resources and capabilities be distributed so that all benefit from them rather than just a few. If it is the case that liberalism has become increasingly popular in recent years, it is in no small part because so many have received so little of what they need to lead a good life. Indeed, neoliberalization has brought with it a competitive and dispiriting ethos that has eaten away at solidarity like acid through a limb. This is why it is so important for liberals to abandon what is worn and tired in the tradition, and rediscover the merits of material egalitarianism long understood by their socialist kin. A just liberal society is indeed one where anyone could lead a good life. So it is time to create a just liberal society.

Featured Image is City Life, by Victor Arnautoff