Washington Post Piece On A Limitation of Classical Liberal Discourse

Washington Post Piece On A Limitation of Classical Liberal Discourse September 27, 2021

This is an unfinished piece by Jeremiah Traeger, who used to write here, that I just found in the “Drafts” section. This is obviously somewhat out-of-date and not wholly topical, but it may be of some use. Who knows where he was going with it, but here it is as far as he got it… Over to JT:

I came across an opinion piece by Elizabeth Bruenig in the Washington Post recently that struck a chord with me. It brought to light something I had regularly had a vague sense of, but became much more apparent once spelled out for me. As someone like myself that tends to defend leftist and social justice politics, it seems like something we have failed to articulate, yet is fairly substantial in the underlying philosophy. This loss probably causes more grief than necessary.

While the title is fairly generic and related to the Kavanaugh hearings, it gets to something that is more socially universal. It is framed around many of the suppositions that parties on the other side are lying, which the author posits is a necessary outcome of the American system.

The reason for all the lying is, at least in part, nonpartisan, and it has to do with the limitations of classical liberalism, meaning the philosophy that underlies our entire system of government. Because liberal democracies aim to be tolerant and inclusive of multiple conflicting versions of the good, they have to find a way for people with vast philosophical differences to talk to each other intelligibly about politics. So we have a language of public reason, as political theorist John Rawls called it, which is a rhetorical universe in which we supply reasons for our political desires that don’t really have anything to do with what we believe or want — or at least, they’re not the primary reasons for what we want. Instead, we supply reasons that we think will be persuasive to people who don’t necessarily have anything in common with us philosophically.

I believe, for example, that our society should distribute wealth differently because I think God made everything for the flourishing of all of humankind in common. I can say this because I’m just writing a column, not running in an election. If I were running in an election, I would say something about general fairness, probably, or a featureless and vaguely defined justice, “translating” my actual beliefs into something I think other people would like. In this case, the translation would be pretty faithful to the original. In many cases, it isn’t.

And everyone already knows this. This is why so much of our political discourse is about unearthing the real reasons that politicians and political movements are doing what they’re doing: Are welfare reform and union-busting really about independence and freedom, or are they about animus toward the poor? Is hawkish foreign policy really about spreading liberal democracy, or is it about enriching our tiny corner of it? Are #AbolishIce and #MeToo about limited, specific issues — correcting a particularly heinous agency, prosecuting sexual assaults even if they don’t fit the usual stranger-rape mold — or are they about dismantling larger forms of white, male hegemony? Less plausible conspiracy theories abound in the Infowars universe, but what all of these questions share in common with the panicky conjurings of Alex Jones and Co. is that they all presume politicians are not being transparent about why they do what they do.

Let’s be clear, lying and distrust will always exist within any political system. Any reasonable person shouldn’t hold the utopian view that we can construct a social system where deceit is eliminated entirely. I think a healthy reading of the piece suggests that Rawlsian discourse does not account enough for deceit, and at its worst it relies too much on good faith and honesty.

Bruenig’s point is bolstered by the way many moderates have proposed solving issues of disagreement. Jonathan Haidt is a public figure and psychologist who is well known for his moral foundations theory, where he posits that most political conflict comes as a result of differences in moral underlying values. One of his solutions for solving disagreement is that if we care about a particular outcome and we are arguing with someone of a different political bent, we should try and make an argument based on their moral values and not our own. By engaging in this reframing, we can theoretically work towards a common goal despite disagreeing on the reasons for that goal.

This seems like a nice way to compromise, since, after all, we both get what we want! Of course, this progress could be superficial. It may only be localized to the situation. Furthermore, the compromise itself may not even be a true compromise.

How many readers here think they are truly agreeing with an Evangelical when both the reader and the Evangelical claim to be loving a gay or a queer person? Even if both of us claim to “love” a gay person, we know that this manifests in radically different ways. For me, loving a gay person means more than accepting who they are, it also entails making sure to the fullest of my capabilities can that they are accommodated and have access to society to the same extent than I do. To an evangelical preacher, this may mean sermonizing a young person, shunning them from the community, and even potentially violence as long as it spurs the queer person away from eternal torture.


[I  don’t know where he was going with that – perhaps we will never know… – JP]


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