Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

21 July 2005

Feser on liberal tribalism

Given the topic of my last two posts, it would seem appropriate to call attention to this trenchant review by Edward Feser of Amy Gutmann's Identity in Democracy. Some years ago I wrote a review of Gutmann and Dennis Thompson's book, Democracy and Disagreement, so I know something of the flavour of Gutmann's argument. She is a proponent of what I have labelled the choice-enhancement state, the fifth, and thus far final, stage in the historic development of liberalism. In Feser's words, here is the dilemma posed by this brand of liberalism:

Liberals are, accordingly, criticized both for promoting too much freedom and for allowing too little. In particular, they are accused of attempting to impose, in the name of equal freedom for all ways of life in modern democratic societies, a radical egalitarianism that effectively allows no one to disapprove of anyone else’s way of life. But since almost any way of thinking and acting with any substantial content involves disagreement with some other ways of thinking and acting, this requires that the only point of view that can be allowed to flourish in a polity informed by the liberal-egalitarian ethos is the liberal-egalitarian ethos itself. Modern liberalism thus seems to its critics to be an incoherent mess, and to entail in practice the negation of liberty and equality as those terms are understood by everyone but liberals themselves.

Sound familiar? We just read something of this incoherence in Ferguson's CBC commentary. Gutmann tries to find a way out of this mess, but Feser judges that she has failed miserably. In fact, she flirts with the same sorts of measures Ferguson advocates. Feser's conclusion is to the point:

So should we conclude that the Catholic Church, say, ought to be forced to ordain women and that Catholic schools should be forced to teach children that there are alternative paths to salvation, regardless of what 2,000 years of popes have taught?

If we fear we know already how a frank and consistent liberal would have to respond, that is because liberals seem to have become exactly what they claim most to despise: a narrow-minded tribe of bigots, merely one “identity group” alongside others eager to impose their own idiosyncratic and highly contestable scruples on everyone else. Why the rest of us ought to regard such liberal tribalism as any better than the other kinds is a question to which Gutmann gives no answer.

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