Notes on “Why Liberalism Failed”

Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed was one of the most widely discussed political books last year. In a crowded field of authors addressing the future of liberalism, Deneen stood out like a lightning-rod for his withering, full-frontal attack on the core principles and assumptions of liberal philosophy. And yet, when I recently went back and read the many reviews of Why Liberalism Failed, I came out feeling slightly dissatisfied. Critics of the book seemed all too able to shrug off its most interesting claims, and to argue in stead on grounds more comfortable to them.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that Deneen’s book is not all that well written. His argument is more often a barrage of polemical statements than a carefully constructed analysis. Still, the objective is clear enough. He is taking aim at the liberal doctrine of individual freedom, which prioritises the individual’s right to do, be, and choose as he or she wishes. This “voluntarist” notion of freedom, Deneen argues, has shown itself to be not just destructive, but in certain respects illusory. On that basis he claims we would be better off embracing the constraints of small-scale community life.

Most provocatively, Deneen claims that liberal societies, while claiming merely to create conditions in which individuals can exercise their freedom, in fact mould people to see themselves and to act in a particular way. Liberalism, he argues, grew out of a particular idea of human nature, which posited, above all, that people want to pursue their own ends. It imagined our natural and ideal condition as that of freely choosing individual actors without connection to any particular time, place, or social context. For Deneen, this is a dangerous distortion – human flourishing also requires things at odds with personal freedom, such as self-restraint, committed relationships, and membership of a stable and continuous community. But once our political, economic, and cultural institutions are dedicated to individual choice as the highest good, we ourselves are encouraged to value that freedom above all else. As Deneen writes:

Liberalism began with the explicit assertion that it merely describes our political, social, and private decision making. Yet… what it presented as a description of human voluntarism in fact had to displace a very different form of human self-understanding and experience. In effect, liberal theory sought to educate people to think differently about themselves and their relationships.

Liberal society, in other words, shapes us to behave more like the human beings imagined by its political and economic theories.

It’s worth reflecting for a moment on what is being argued here. Deneen is saying our awareness of ourselves as freely choosing agents is, in fact, a reflection of how we have been shaped by the society we inhabit. It is every bit as much of a social construct as, say, a view of the self that is defined by religious duties, or by membership of a particular community. Moreover, valuing choice is itself a kind of constraint: it makes us less likely to adopt decisions and patterns of life which might limit our ability to choose in the future – even if we are less happy as a result. Liberalism makes us unfree, in a sense, to do anything apart from maximise our freedom.

*   *   *


Reviewers of Why Liberalism Failed did offer some strong arguments in defence of liberalism, and against Deneen’s communitarian alternative. These tended to focus on material wealth, and on the various forms of suffering and oppression inherent to non-liberal ways of life. But they barely engaged with his claims that our reverence for individual choice amounts to a socially determined and self-defeating idea of freedom. Rather, they tended to take the freely choosing individual as a given, which often meant they failed to distinguish between the kind of freedom Deneen is criticizing – that which seeks to actively maximise choice – and simply being free from coercion.

Thus, writing in the New York Times, Jennifer Szalai didn’t see what Deneen was griping about. She pointed out that

nobody is truly stopping Deneen from doing what he prescribes: finding a community of like-minded folk, taking to the land, growing his own food, pulling his children out of public school. His problem is that he apparently wants everyone to do these things

Meanwhile, at National Review, David French argued that liberalism in the United States actually incentivises individuals to“embrace the most basic virtues of self-governance – complete your education, get married, and wait until after marriage to have children.”And how so? With the promise of greater “opportunities and autonomy.” Similarly Deidre McCloskey, in a nonetheless fascinating rebuttal of Why Liberalism Failed, jumped between condemnation of social hierarchy and celebration of the “spontaneous order” of the liberal market, without acknowledging that she seemed to be describing two systems which shape individuals to behave in certain ways.

So why does this matter? Because it matters, ultimately, what kind of creatures we are – which desires we can think of as authentic and intrinsic to our flourishing, and which ones stem largely from our environment. The desire, for instance, to be able to choose new leaders, new clothes, new identities, new sexual partners – do these reflect the unfolding of some innate longing for self-expression, or could we in another setting do just as well without them?

There is no hard and fast distinction here, of course; the desire for a sports car is no less real and, at bottom, no less natural than the desire for friendship. Yet there is a moral distinction between the two, and a system which places a high value on the freedom to fulfil one’s desires has to remain conscious of such distinctions. The reason is, firstly, because many kinds of freedom are in conflict with other personal and social goods, and secondly, because there may come a time when a different system offers more by way of prosperity and security.  In both cases, it is important to be able to say what amounts to an essential form of freedom, and what does not.

*   *   *


Another common theme among Deneen’s critics was to question his motivation. His Catholicism, in particular, was widely implicated, with many reviewers insinuating that his promotion of close-knit community was a cover for a reactionary social and moral order. Here’s Hugo Drochon writing in The Guardian:

it’s clear that what he wants… is a return to “updated Benedictine forms” of Catholic monastic communities. Like many who share his worldview, Deneen believes that if people returned to such communities they would get back on a moral path that includes the rejection of gay marriage and premarital sex, two of Deneen’s pet peeves.

Similarly, Deidre McCloskey:

We’re to go back to preliberal societies… with the church triumphant, closed corporate communities of lovely peasants and lords, hierarchies laid out in all directions, gays back in the closet, women in the kitchen, and so forth.

Such insinuations strike me as unjustified – these views do not actually appear in Why Liberalism Failed– but they are also understandable. For Deneen does not clarify the grounds of his argument. His critique of liberalism is made in the language of political philosophy, and seems to be consequentialist: liberalism has failed, because it has destroyed the conditions necessary for human flourishing. And yet whenever Deneen is more specific about just what has been lost, one hears the incipient voice of religious conservatism. In sexual matters, Deneen looks back to “courtship norms” and “mannered interaction between the sexes”; in education, to “comportment” and “the revealed word of God.”

I don’t doubt that Deneen’s religious beliefs colour his views, but nor do I think his entire case springs from some dastardly deontological commitment to Catholic moral teaching. Rather, I would argue that these outbursts point to a much more interesting tension in his argument.

My sense is that the underpinnings of Why Liberalism Failed come from virtue ethics – a philosophy whose stock has fallen somewhat since the Enlightenment, but which reigned supreme in antiquity and medieval Christendom. In Deneen’s case, what is important to grasp is Aristotle’s linking of three concepts: virtue, happiness, and the polis or community. The highest end of human life, says Aristotle, is happiness (or flourishing). And the only way to attain that happiness is through consistent action in accordance with virtue – in particular, through moderation and honest dealing. But note, virtues are not rules governing action; they are principles that one must possess at the level of character and, especially, of motivation. Also, it is not that virtue produces happiness as a consequence; the two are coterminous – to be virtuous is to be happy. Finally, the pursuit of virtue/happiness can only be successful in a community whose laws and customs are directed towards this same goal. For according to Aristotle:

to obtain a right training for goodness from an early age is a hard thing, unless one has been brought up under right laws. For a temperate and hardy way of life is not a pleasant thing to most people, especially when they are young.

The problem comes, though, when one has to provide a more detailed account of what the correct virtues are. For Aristotle, and for later Christian thinkers, this was provided by a natural teleology – a belief that human beings, as part of a divinely ordained natural order, have a purpose which is intrinsic to them. But this crutch is not really available in a modern philosophical discussion. And so more recent virtue ethicists, notably Alasdair MacIntyre, have shifted the emphasis away from a particular set of virtues with a particular purpose, and towards virtue and purpose as such. What matters for human flourishing, MacIntyre argued, is that individuals be part of a community or tradition which offers a deeply felt sense of what it is to lead a good life. Living under a shared purpose, as manifest in the social roles and duties of the polis, is ultimately more important than the purpose itself.

This seems to me roughly the vision of human flourishing sketched out in Why Liberalism Failed. Yet I’m not sure Deneen has fully reconciled himself to the relativism that is entailed by abandoning the moral framework of a natural teleology. This is a very real problem – for why should we not accept, say, the Manson family as an example of virtuous community? – but one which is difficult to resolve without overtly metaphysical concepts. And in fact, Deneen’s handling of human nature does strain in that direction, as when he looks forward to

the only real form of diversity, a variety of cultures that is multiple yet grounded in human truths that are transcultural and hence capable of being celebrated by many peoples.

So I would say that Deneen’s talk of “courtship norms” and “comportment” is similar to his suggestion that the good life might involve “cooking, planting, preserving, and composting.” Such specifics are needed to refine what is otherwise a dangerously vague picture of the good life.





Does Free Speech Need Boundaries to Survive?


 “Opinions,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “are to the gigantic apparatus of social life what oil is to machines. No one goes up to an engine and douses it in machine oil; one applies a little to the hidden spindles and joints one has to know.” Those defending free speech today may recoil from this advice. The idea of society as a machine, which came naturally to the Marxist Benjamin, is a long way from the ideal of free and creative individuals that many of them cherish. Nonetheless, it strikes me as a useful metaphor, if only because of the image it brings to mind of the era we’ve now entered: an engine drowning in so much oil that it has begun violently shaking, sputtering and threatening to collapse.

It wouldn’t be misleading to say that the greatest threat to free speech today comes from free speech itself. In particular, it comes from the sheer volume and chaotic nature of that speech. The current polarization of politics is rooted in an endless, sprawling argument about values taking place online – an argument that is now spilling over into demonstrations, acts of violence, and other culturally charged spectacles. While it is important to resist the calls for censorship coming from campuses, boardrooms, and the op-ed pages of newspapers, it’s also important to realize that these, too, are symptoms of that explosion in public discourse. For it is precisely the sensation of shaking and sputtering that makes people long for society to be handled like a carefully engineered machine.

Countering this need for order is the real challenge facing advocates of free speech, and their conventional manual isn’t offering much help. It demands that the right to express unpopular, or even anti-social opinions must be defended – but given the Internet’s steady drumbeat of racism and misogyny, this stance is easily portrayed as anti-social in itself. Likewise, it’s difficult to argue that toxic ideas are best heard and examined, or that speech is the final bulwark against violence, when men appear on our screens with a swastika in one hand and a protest permit in the other.

In this desperate position, free speech defenders have come to sound like the resentful father who scolds his son for being too soft. “They’re just words!” they insist, “Learn to argue back! This is about facts, not feelings!” These jibes are aimed particularly at the cultural left, whose attempts to remold science, language and thought carries the unmistakable whiff of puritanism. However, the popularity of this agenda reflects a wider desire, especially among young people, for a Hobbesian authority to step in with a clearly defined notion of what is true and what is right. Nor is this surprising, in an atmosphere of pernicious skepticism that makes meaningful consensus impossible.

Therein, I think, lies the ultimate weakness of the free speech position today. It is similarly anchored in a delusional vision of society: that of the rational, truth-seeking forum for debate. The suggestion that there has ever been such a debate – or worse, a golden age where everyone started with the same facts – appears to be a case of liberals drinking their own bathwater. Before the Internet, as one recent blog put it, “exposure to awkward political views were limited to tense exchanges at Thanksgiving or Christmas, when relatives shared their strongheld offensive opinions over the punch bowl.” The business of public discourse, meanwhile, was handled by established institutions, such as the press and media, popular arts and entertainment, politics and academia.

The way these institutions facilitated discussion is worth considering. Since everyone needed access to them, they developed certain norms – or informal rules and rituals, if you prefer – which provided the common ground for different perspectives to meet on equal terms. Thus, adopting the language and trappings of a print magazine, or of popular cinema, or an academic paper, gave an air of familiarity to even radical views. These norms also included unwarranted prejudices and taboos, of course, so discursive institutions have always had a problem with exclusivity. However, since they enabled a measure of free discussion, they could be reformed. There’s a reason we measure social progress by how successfully our institutions have incorporated new voices.

It is the case that everywhere we can argue and disagree without causing lasting hostility – in pubs, at dinner parties, and in families – there are norms regulating our behavior. On a wider, societal level, these become more like moral and aesthetic frameworks, the likes of which were essential in husbanding the growth of public discourse to begin with. Larry Siedentop has detailed how the principles of reason, equality and freedom of conscience could only emerge as a result of the Catholic Church’s firm grip on medieval Europe. Likewise in the 18th century, when The Spectator was bragging that it had “brought philosophy out of closets and libraries… to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables, and coffee houses,” a new fad was being promoted to make this reading public manageable. It was called “politeness.”

It’s true that social media has its own norms, but they are rather fragile, and generally operate within groups of more or less like-minded people. Indeed, it’s natural that rifts should appear in a space with radically diverse views, and none of the overarching norms that might have made them palatable. In the absence of such common ground, principles like granting your opponent the possession of reason and a free conscience are being eroded. Thus we see a good deal of amateur psychology, with large groups of people being suspected of confirmation bias or motivated reasoning. Even worse, we see paranoia emerging whereby individuals subside into categories of race, gender or social class—and it’s imagined that forces are advancing sinister agendas through ideologically possessed puppets.

Indeed, unfamiliarity and estrangement is the very essence of that machine-like view of society that is so hostile to freedom of expression. Yet there’s little that promoting free speech can do to solve this dilemma, and potentially a great deal it can do to make it worse. John Stuart Mill argued that the whole point of free speech is to interrogate our norms from as many angles as possible, so as to expose any erroneous ideas they might be sheltering. Not all free speech advocates subscribe to this rationalistic ethos, but in the present circumstances, they could end up there by default. At the very least, a commitment to free speech means being skeptical towards normative boundaries, since they are likely to prevent certain viewpoints from being heard. That said, as those viewpoints multiply, you will eventually run out of boundaries to draw.

Ultimately this brings us to a broader problem faced by secular liberalism, whose emphasis on the rights and interests of individuals tends to undermine social solidarity. There have been recent attempts to square this circle, notably by Jonathan Haidt. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt asked those who see society in individualistic terms to “recognise that human flourishing requires social order and embeddedness,” and suggested they acknowledge the “binding” value of beliefs related to sanctity and loyalty. But as the philosopher Thomas Nagel commented, the interesting thing about this theory is where it falls short. Nagel points out that you can’t adopt beliefs simply because they are useful – they are only useful if you really believe them.

There are really no simple answers here. Liberal conventions such as free speech undermine the very social frameworks that they depend upon. But equally, you can’t impose a sense of community on a society from the top down. I’m inclined to agree with Karl Popper, then, when he emphasizes “the effort which life in an open and partially abstract society continually demands from us… to be rational, to forgo at least some of our emotional social needs, to look after ourselves, to accept responsibilities.” In the long run, maintaining freedom of speech will depend on persuading people to make that effort. But it will be a tough sell, and needs to be done carefully.

The article was first published by Quillette magazine on 19 October 2017

Is Empathy Good?

This article was first published by Quillette in February 2017

In 2009, the primatologist Frans de Waal published a bestseller called The Age of Empathy, in which he suggested that humanity might be rediscovering its propensity for cooperation and kindness. No longer would we be fooled by the myths of politicians and economists about our apparently selfish nature. He cited as evidence for this the recent election of a man who seemed to speak about empathy more than any other, Barack Obama. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” How much older and sadder the West seems today — its conversations about politics and ethics bitter and polarized, all basis for rational disagreement evaporating before our eyes.

And yet, de Waal’s claim that we are “pre-programmed to reach out” has not been dispensed with — in fact, many continue to believe that the world is awash with empathy. Only there is now a growing suspicion that this might actually bear some responsibility for our discord. In 2012, a collection of papers entitled Pathological Altruism signalled the start of a new trend of skepticism towards empathy and compassion. Behind it lay the claim, as radical as it was blindingly obvious, that precisely because empathy is an evolved mechanism, it might have unintended consequences in the modern world.

Since then, psychologists and sociologists have been exploring the dark side of altruistic behavior, especially with regards to political and cultural tribalism. Jordan Peterson and Christine Brophy have discovered that so-called ‘Social Justice Warriors’ tend to be high in empathy towards the vulnerable, but draconian towards those perceived to be a threat. Similarly, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning have pointed out that partisanship flourishes in a “victimhood culture,” because people respond to appeals from those they identify with socially.

These seem like lessons for the left especially, but as Donald Trump’s presidential campaign showed, the right has its own sinister uses for empathy. Nationalists have long used the propaganda of victimization to foster in-group mindsets, and to motivate, in Jonathan Sacks’s phrase, “altruistic evil” towards outsiders and scapegoats.

Be all this as it may, the notion that what the world really needs is less empathy still strikes most people as absurdAre these not cases of too little, rather than too much empathy? Is the cardinal definition of empathy not to “place yourself in somebody else’s shoes”? How would our close relationships function without it? And above all, without the capacity to be moved by another’s suffering, how is good supposed to come into the world?

These questions point, more than anything, to an almighty confusion about how phenomena like empathy, compassion, and altruism work and relate to one another. For this reason alone, we should welcome the most direct assault on empathy to date, Paul Bloom’s much-discussed recent book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Let’s take that adage about “placing yourself in someone else’s shoes.” As Bloom points out, it confuses two things that don’t necessarily go together. One is cognitive empathy, or “social intelligence,” which means the basic ability to grasp someone else’s point of view. This is rightly valued. Bloom’s adversary, however, is what he sees as empathy proper: feeling another’s pain as though it were your own.

This kind of emotional or “affective” empathy is not voluntary, of course, but according to Bloom, nor is it a good basis on which to act in public life. This claim is based on two main observations. First, to embrace empathy is often to abandon perspective and rational judgment, meaning that “our interests fail to coincide with any reasonable assessment of where help is needed most.” And second, echoing some of the research I cited earlier, empathy is actually quite picky about which shoes it enters. It conforms to our existing prejudices, and leads people to seek harsher punishments for perceived enemies, finding some of its purest expressions in “us versus them” situations.

That empathy can be divisive should scarcely be surprising. How often do partisans seek “single identifiable victims” — whether mistreated welfare claimants or destitute veterans — to frame a particular agenda in emotional terms? Once a debate has become suffused with empathy, all appeals to the bigger picture are easily dismissed as callous. And worse, the consequences can reverberate far beyond the debate itself.

Arguably the great moral fiasco of our day, the Western response to the migrant and refugee crises in southern Europe, has shown all the shortcomings of empathy that Bloom describes. An image of a dead child washed ashore achieves a greater response than five years of mass-casualty shipwrecks, not to mention figures showing the displaced climbing into the millions. Since this is how we’ve learned to understand suffering, the urgency of the problem ebbs and flows with photogenic tragedies and compassion fatigue, leaving governments unsure of how they should act.

When action did come, it was grand, magnanimous — and shortsighted. Germany’s open invitation to refugees travelling through the Balkans was a balm for Europe’s conscience, but first-come first-served is hardly an effective policy for helping the most vulnerable. Moreover, the episode pushed the entire continent’s politics to the right, meaning that as the German government backtracks, refugees pile up in Greece where they can least afford to be helped. And through all of this, anyone suggesting we discriminate on the basis of need has been met with a bizarre insistence that it’s cruel to distinguish, for instance, between migrants and refugees. It’s almost as if good intentions are worth more than good outcomes.

This last point, however, gets at a deeper problem with the role of empathy in our culture — one that Bloom’s book misses altogether. His critique deals with empathy in and of itself, and makes only passing reference to substantive issues, like police shootings or the caprices of media coverage, that underscore particular points. But there is no such thing as empathy per se. Like any human phenomenon, it doesn’t exist outside of concrete cultural and historical situations. Bloom would not have much material if Westerners did not watch TV, possess more resources than Africans, feel guilt in certain situations, or recognize the worth of people they have never met.

Deep-rooted problems like culture wars and a failure to think practically imply that vicarious suffering, more than ever, is welcomed not as a motivation for good actions, but as an end in itself. In other words, empathy is jealously defended because of its value to the empathizer. This, in turn, might point to an atomized, morally perplexed society, much of whose emotional sustenance comes from an ephemeral stream of online media. The feeling of helplessness that arises from passively consuming distant events is now central to the relationship of the individual to the world. In this situation, expressions of empathy and disgust, with their attendant comforts of tribal solidarity, are often all that stand between you and moral estrangement from reality.

Bloom admits that empathy is probably okay in personal relationships, but harmful in the public sphere. How workable is this distinction when politics is personal, and the ideology is the new family? Before we even start to think about how something like “rational compassion” might translate into a meaningful system of values, we need to consider why empathy is in such high demand.