Liberalism Against Humanity

In his Blood and Belonging, Michael Ignatieff offers this remarkably frank assessment of liberalism:

“If I had supposed, as the Cold War came to an end, that the new world might be ruled by philosophers and poets, it was because I believed, foolishly, that the precarious civility and order of the states in which I live must be what all people rationally desire. . . . I began the journey as a liberal, and I end as one, but I cannot help thinking that liberal civilization – the rule of laws, not men, of argument in place of force, of compromise in place of violence – runs deeply against the human grain and is achieved and sustained only by the most unremitting struggle against human nature. The liberal virtues – tolerance, compromise, reason – remain as valuable as ever, but they cannot be preached to those who are mad with fear or mad with vengeance. In any case, preaching always rings hollow. We must be prepared to defend them by force, and the failure of the sated, cosmopolitan nations to do so has left the hungry nations sick with contempt for us.”

Liberalism must, in short, be prepared to become illiberal if liberalism is to be saved.

Conservatism aims and claims to go with the grain of human nature. Conservatism doesn’t assume perfectability or altruism. but designs systems that bend ineradicable selfishness and vice toward social goods. Conservatism is realism, but it is also more liberal than liberalism. Or at least, its forms of coercion (or “nudging”) are less overt. 

Which puts me in mind of MacIntyre’s suggestion that modern moral theology is constructed from fragments of a shattered virtue ethic. The main political options are cobbled from shards of the gospel. 

Liberals hope for moral improvement without Jesus and His Spirit. Conservatives get human depravity right, but without Jesus and His Spirit have minimal hope for moral improvement. Both offer bits of Christendom but ignore the central political role of the church, which is the body of Christ and the temple of the Spirit, something a good deal more than a piece of civil society.

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