Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Crisis of Liberalism and The Metanormative Solution

Norms of Liberty
Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl
Penn State Press, 2005

The leitmotif in Norms of Liberty is to defend liberalism—the book investigates the problem that liberalism faces and it offers a metanormative solution. The authors conduct an analytic analysis of both ethical theory and political theory, and they answer the objections of different groups of critics which include intellectuals such as Alasdair MacIntrye, John Rawls, John Gray, Michael Sandel, Robert George and John Finnis.

In their analysis of liberalism, the authors point out that there is a "crisis of liberalism" and there is "liberalism's problem" or task. The former has to do with whether liberalism can be defined and defended or whether it will be supplanted by alternative political theories, e.g., conservatism, communitarianism, forms of "progressivism," etc. Can liberalism defend the claim that liberty is the paramount value for the political/legal order?

Liberalism faces a crisis because it has failed to realize that it is not an ethical theory, but a political theory that requires a deeper foundation and that it has as its task the solution to liberalism's problem. This problem arises from the nature of human flourishing, and it is concerned with finding a way to achieve a political/legal order that is compatible with the individualized, self-directed, and profoundly social character of human flourishing.

The authors argue that liberalism’s problem can be solved by protecting the possibility of self-direction, because “self-direction is the common critical element in all the concrete forms of human flourishing.” This principle of self-direction is used by the authors to make the case that “the basic, negative, natural right to liberty is, together with its corollary rights of life and property, a metanormative principle, because it protects the possibility of self-direction in a social context.”

The authors further argue that “such concepts as “social justice” and “the common good of the political community” are, as normally understood, not metanormative principles and that no ethical principles associated with these concepts, nor any other ethical principles, for that matter, can claim priority over the basic right to liberty as a metanormative principle.”

The normative principles are the norms that directly regulate moral conduct of individuals, while the  term “metanormative” covers the ethical principles which regulate “the conditions under which such conduct could take place.”

The metanormative solution entails that a good society, one in which self-direction is possible, can only be created when the legal codes are based on the ethical code of a human being. Every individual in society may want to flourish in his own way, but the flourishing of human beings requires social cooperation and it is the task of ethics to determine the rules under which cooperation among human beings can take place. In the chapter, “Individualistic Perfectionism” there is an interesting discussion of Aristotelian ethical code.

The focus of the authors is on defending what they call “liberalism’s basic tenet,” which is the idea that the paramount aim of a political and legal order is to protect liberty as it is understood in terms of basic negative rights. The liberalism that the authors have in mind is “classical liberalism” or “libertarianism.” They consider the modern form of liberalism in USA as a “perversion of liberalism proper,” but they believe that it still holds many of liberalism’s central tenets.

In the first chapter, “Liberalism in Crisis,” the central tenets of liberalism are defined as “that political power is not something due anyone by natural right, that progress is possible, that the individual is the basic social unit, that people should have the freedom to pursue their own conceptions of the good life, and that the political/legal order should be limited to protecting individuals in the pursuit of their own conceptions of the good life.”

Liberalism’s problems are an outcome of the fracture between ethical and political principles. Liberalism’s politics is supposed to enable everyone in society to have an equally good life, but such an aim cannot be achieved without infringing upon the rights of the individuals. The metanormative solution to this problem is that liberalism’s politics should not be based on the idea of providing good life to all citizens, rather it should seek to protect their rights.

When the political system is protecting rights, every individual is free to flourish in his own way. The authors emphasize that the protection of rights will not guarantee success of every individual but it will create the social conditions in which people have the liberty to self-direct their own lives and achieve a better quality of life.

Also, the ways of flourishing are not the same for everyone. For instance, financial success or fame are not the necessary conditions for flourishing. A poor man can flourish in his own way. The authors point out that “throughout the world, we find extremely poor people choosing and engaging in various forms of conduct, trying as best as they can to better their situations. The exercise of self-direction is a common and near-universal phenomenon.”

If the political system is directing the lives of the people, then the individuals are not free to achieve their own vision of flourishing—when they are barred from flourishing in their own way their productivity goes down. By protecting man’s rights, the metanormative solution generates an environment in which self-direction is possible and the use of coercion is barred. This is the only way of creating a society in which individuals have the possibility to flourish in their own way.

In the "Epilogue," the authors say that since existence exists, and knowledge is possible to human beings, it is also possible to have a political society in which individuals live well. Here’s an excerpt from the "Epilogue":

"Indeed, there is a basis for metaphysical optimism. Ontologically, we do not live in a “vale of tears” because reality allows, for the most part, ample opportunity for most people to find fulfilment, at least to some extent, if they will but exercise the effort to use their minds and develop the appropriate virtues, and if there are political/legal orders whose structural conditions protect liberty. Protecting the possibility of self-direction is vital; for that is necessary for economic and moral entrepreneurship required for material prosperity, human flourishing, and civil society.”


Roger Bissell said...

Good job, Anoop! Keep up the good work! :-)

Anoop Verma said...

Thank you.