This essay is part of a series on Liberalism. See the full collection here.
I am honored that my friend and colleague, Phillip Muñoz, would deem my recent First Things article, “Unsustainable Liberalism,” to be worthy of reflection and critique here at Public Discourse. It is this kind of serious colloquy among colleagues that has made my first months at Notre Dame delightful, stimulating, and a model of what university life should be.
Muñoz acknowledges that my critique of liberalism is correct—or, at least, of liberalism’s pathologies. He points to my explicit critique of Hobbes’s voluntarism, and what he regards as my implicit critique of Rawls’s political liberalism, as the true sources of liberalism’s pathologies—particularly its inevitable tendency to render all relationships tenuous, fungible, and based upon preferences of the individual will, as well as its deep ontological premise of human antipathy to nature. He then proposes the “principles” of our first Revolution, and particularly those articulated in the Declaration of Independence, as the source of a “healthy and proper understanding of liberalism.”
It’s puzzling, but perhaps revealing, that Muñoz does not mention by name the thinker I spend most space criticizing—John Locke. This is a convenient omission, since by jumping from Hobbes to Rawls, Muñoz gives the impression that my critique focuses on the thinkers responsible for proto-liberal state authoritarianism and high liberal state redistributionism—that is, thinkers whose work can be understood as distinct from America’s founding principles.
Muñoz recommends the liberal thought between these extremes, to be found in the “principles” of the Declaration—without mentioning that those principles are animated by, and indeed, at numerous points draw explicitly from, the arguments of John Locke. That is, he pretends that I have not considered this other option, when in fact the brunt of my critique addressed precisely the adoption of Lockean political theory as America’s founding philosophy.
While Muñoz rightly summarizes my arguments, his defense of the founders responds to a different charge against liberalism: its relativism. My critique focused particularly on the way that political voluntarism eventually pervades all human relationships, including those of family, locality, and religion, as well as the baleful consequences of a philosophy that grounds the attainment of human freedom on our ability to master and conquer nature. By “voluntarism,” I mean a philosophic claim, arising especially in the social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke, that political arrangements can only be deemed to be legitimate when they have been voluntarily chosen by the citizenry. My argument—fleshed out in more detail in the First Things article—submits that this basic political insight cannot and was not intended to be limited merely to political arrangements, but eventually colonizes all human relationships. Under liberalism, our basic outlook becomes one in which all relationships are subject to the perpetual calculus whether they will redound to my personal benefit. We come to prefer “exit” over “loyalty,” the experience of the novel over commitment, “hook-ups” over binding love.
Muñoz appeals to the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration as proof that the founders rejected relativism, and thus that their views are distinct from those of Stephen A. Douglas and John Rawls. His is a valid response—to a different critique. In fact, Muñoz altogether avoids responding to the core of my argument, because to do so would force him to admit that there is no way to avoid the Lockean (and founding) sources of these pathologies. Better to respond with a valid critique to an argument that I did not make.
He notes that the founding principles offer an inviolable defense of all people’s rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” I do not disagree: liberal theory is premised on the definition of persons as rights-bearing owners of their own selves. This assumption clearly rules out slavery, and the contradiction between principle and practice in our early history eventually led to a crisis of American liberalism and a decisive rejection of slavery. This assumption also suggests that liberalism can be at least a partial resource in the opposition to abortion, at least insofar as an unborn human can be admitted by liberals to be a rights-bearing person—a conclusion over which, inescapably, liberalism is conflicted.
Of course, liberalism is not the only way to arrive at a criticism of these practices. Biblical sources also provide justifications against slavery and abortion (though, admittedly, the Bible was used on both sides of the first question). Abraham Lincoln frequently appealed not only to the principles articulated in the Declaration, but to verses found in the Bible. As evidence of God’s disfavor toward slavery, Lincoln was fond of citing God’s punishment upon humankind for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil—“you shall earn your bread from the sweat of your own brow”—and pointing out that slavery was a sinful effort to avoid this basic fact of the human condition ordained by God.
Lincoln often portrayed slavery as a form of sinful temptation toward self-aggrandizement, or the sin of superbia, and noted that the Bible consistently taught otherwise. He saw our tendencies to act selfishly and to satisfy our base appetites as the deepest sources of the practice of slavery. His assertions can also be extended today to the choice to abort a child when the arrival of a baby would disrupt or inconvenience our personal life plan, when self-serving choices trump our willingness to recognize the inviolable dignity of another human.
The sources of an admonition to act otherwise lie not merely in liberal theory, but in a pre-liberal Biblical tradition. Muñoz points only to the liberal tradition as an argument against slavery and abortion, neglecting the likelihood that it was Lincoln’s appeal to the Bible that had at least as widespread an appeal among the American public at that time, and that the movement against slavery was not, in the main, animated by appeal to liberal principles, but had its greatest impetus and inspiration in the churches—much as is the case with opposition to abortion today. His is a Whiggish story that neglects America’s longstanding inspiration from pre-liberal sources (ones that do not begin, and in fact reject, the notion of humanity as radically individuated, autonomous self-owners), and instead paints us as being consistently and exclusively inspired by liberal principles.
What Muñoz neglects is that the liberal invocation of individual rights, voluntarism, and self-ownership—while useful as an appeal against practices such as slavery—unavoidably also undergirds the tendencies and practices that are at the heart of my critique, namely the tendency toward the expansion of voluntarism into all spheres of life and the effort to conquer nature so as to satisfy all human appetites and intentions that arise from an unconstrained human will. It should also be pointed out that liberalism invites the pro-choice conclusion, inasmuch as its basic understanding of the human person as “self-owner” leads to the conclusion that a fetus can be regarded as an intrusive “other” that impinges upon a woman’s sovereign self. Liberalism does not help in this debate as much, and is not as analogous to the slavery example, as Muñoz supposes.
Biblical injunctions against human willfulness, the fundamental assumption of human relationality embodied in the Trinity and the model of Christian love, and encouragement toward human stewardship are profound alternatives to the liberal impetus toward self-aggrandizement, individualism, willfulness, and liberty defined as the absence of constraint achieved through the conquest of nature. There are other, non-liberal resources to combat the evils that rightly concern Muñoz—slavery and abortion among them—but that do not, as a result, positively encourage individual viciousness and social pathology—ones that inevitably require a growth in state power that liberalism purportedly comes into existence to limit.
While Muñoz does not dwell on the subject of his title, I think it’s fair to conclude that he seeks to admonish me that I ought not be such a hostile critic of our own inheritance, that it is not fittingly conservative, grateful, and patriotic so radically to question our own patrimony. It is at once an appealing corrective to which I have a deep sympathy, and a deeply problematic one insofar as the very tradition that he would have us regard with gratitude as our patrimony is based on a deep hostility to inheritance, gratitude, and tradition.
Ought one to be a “conservative” and a “patriot” toward our liberal inheritance? The contradiction is breathtaking. The liberal tradition institutionalizes mistrust of the “ancestral” or the inherited, asking each of us to assess whether or not it is in our individual interest to accept the inheritance of our patrimony, and if not, to make our own choices as free and independent individuals. This basic impetus is the ground condition of liberalism—by accepting its basic premise, one begins as a liberal, no matter whether one accepts one’s patrimony or not.
Every human relationship and institution comes under liberalism’s radicalizing and disruptive logic, requiring every aspect and moment of our lives to be subject to the logic of choice based upon calculations of individual advantage. This logic shapes our marriages, whether we are open to the birth of children, whether we remain with our families, whether we accept the teachings and remain members of our church, whether we remain loyal to our places and people, and even whether we continue to view ourselves as Americans. Ironically, it is in the nature of liberalism finally to undermine the very notion of patriotism, inasmuch as our patria—our fatherland—is one of those memberships that is subject to our constant reconsideration as free and independent individuals. The modern move toward trans-national, borderless cosmopolitanism is not a contradiction of Lockean liberalism—it is its culmination.
I consider myself a grateful patriot, but not to the abstract liberal principles of America. America has historically been much better than its principles. Alexis de Tocqueville recognized this fact with great acuity during his visit to America in the 1830s. In a passage in his masterpiece Democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote that
Americans enjoy explaining almost every act of their lives on the principle of self-interest properly understood. . . . I think they often do themselves less than justice, for sometimes in the United States, as elsewhere, one sees people carried away by the disinterested, spontaneous impulses natural to man. But the Americans are hardly prepared to admit that they do give way to emotions of this sort. They prefer to do more honor to their philosophy than to themselves.
Americans talked like Lockeans, but they acted like Christians. But Tocqueville worried that over time, Americans would begin to conform their actions to their words—and I cannot but conclude that his fear has increasingly come to pass. Almost all my students today like to describe themselves as “social liberals and economic conservatives.” That is to say, they favor self-gratification and individualism in their personal and economic lives, even while surmising that they are sophisticated and original by holding inconsistent political views.
We are becoming more consistently Lockean, and less Christian, with every passing year. I am a patriot for what Americans have been, not for what we are becoming. I increasingly fear that Americans will have to break with America, and seek to re-found the nation on better truths—ones that have perhaps never been self-evident, but rather hard-won, and which are far better than our philosophy and increasingly better than ourselves.
Patrick Deneen is the David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies in the department of political science at the University of Notre Dame.