The Good Old Liberal Consensus

by Daniel A. Kaufman


The editors have invited us to “examine a single philosopher or school, maybe a movement,” so that we might “consider how what passed for wisdom then may or may not help us now.”†  Undoubtedly, there are many areas in which we have surpassed the wisdom of our predecessors, but one in which we decidedly have not is in the conduct of our political lives. We would do well, then, to reacquaint ourselves with – and recommit ourselves to – the wisdom underlying what I will call “the liberal consensus,” distilled largely from two great classics of English political philosophy: John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1689) and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859). Indeed, so dire has the current political situation become in the United States that I am convinced that should the liberal consensus finally disintegrate, as its current trajectory suggests it may very well do, we will find ourselves in a political environment more hostile, more divided, and more unstable than that of the United States in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when the myriad forces comprising the counterculture clashed with Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority” and the (then nascent) political Right.

In a recent interview with Richard Marshall, over at 3:16AM, I described the liberal consensus as follows:

(1) That the main purpose of the state is to make it possible for people to pursue their respective conceptions of the good; (2) that people should be able to think, speak, and act as they like, without interference either from the government or their fellow citizens, constrained only by a narrowly and concretely defined harm principle; (3) that we should err on the side of unconstrained speech and association, especially for those with whom we most strongly disagree or disapprove; and (4) that our engagement with those with whom we most strongly disagree or disapprove should remain in the realm of discourse and should never involve attacks on their reputations or livelihoods.

That we should expect people to have clashing interests and aims and that the purpose of the state is to provide a neutral referee for the inevitable conflicts that will arise is one of the central themes of the Second Treatise of Government, and the idea that in pursuing their conceptions of the good, people should be left largely unmolested, unless their pursuits concretely and negatively impact the capacity of others to do the same is, of course, the primary thread running throughout On Liberty. The reasons for my enthusiastic promotion of the liberal consensus, beyond the quality of the philosophical work from which it is derived (which is substantial, though certainly open to criticism, as we will see in a moment), are ultimately prudential and can be distilled down to two basic considerations: (a) In a large, modern, heterogeneous country, we must accept that people are never going to agree upon a single conception of the good (an understanding that led John Rawls, in the 1970’s, to seek a conception of justice that does not presuppose any such common conception); and (b) in a large, modern, heterogeneous country, one can never count on one’s political allies – those who share one’s conception of the good – to gain political power or if in power, to retain it in perpetuity. At some point, those whose values you do not share are going to come into power, and how you treated them while you were in power is going to have a profound effect on how they treat you, when the tables are turned.

Locke and Mill thought that one could count on peoples’ (natural) rational self-interest to secure and sustain the liberal consensus, and in this regard, perhaps, they were too optimistic about us, which brings us to the current day, in which the liberal consensus is being abandoned with gusto, by people from every side of the political spectrum. The dismantlement that we are witnessing today is an entirely non-partisan affair, pursued by the Left and Right alike, which means that regardless of party or persuasion, our political class and citizenry currently suffer a catastrophic deficit of political wisdom, the likes of which we haven’t seen in generations.

On the Right, the call to abandon the liberal consensus is manifested most clearly in the writings of Sorab Ahmari, currently the op-ed editor of the New York Post, who has said explicitly that the Right should work to impose a Catholic conception of the good on the nation; that the aim of conservative politics should be “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good,” as Ahmari put it in a now-infamous essay for the magazine, First Things, entitled “Against David Frenchism.” The title refers to David French, a columnist for National Review and one of the few lonely souls on the contemporary American Right who continue to believe in and advocate for the liberal consensus and who confronted Ahmari, recently, in a memorable debate. Ahmari, unsurprisingly, is a fan of Donald Trump, who wears his contempt for liberalism on his sleeve, while French is one of a handful of “never-Trumpers” on the Right who have been consistent in their refusal to abandon the liberal consensus for the short-term political gains promised by a Trump presidency.

On the Left, the abandonment of the liberal consensus can be seen most clearly in the movement’s “social justice” wing, the members of which seem especially eager to control how others speak and with whom they associate, and where no-platforming, purity rituals and purges, character and career assassination, and so-called “cancellation” are employed alongside all other manner of dirty tricks, not reluctantly but with glee. It is telling that these tactics routinely involve abuse of the harm principle, to the point that claims of harm are applied to whatever one’s political opponents have said or done that one dislikes. Worryingly, there appears to be a generational dimension to this mounting illiberalism on the Left, with multiple surveys indicating that the largely progressive younger generations are less committed to both liberalism and democracy than any generation before, at least for as long as generational attitudes have been measured.

I don’t want to suggest that there are no earnest, principled, non-dictatorially inclined anti-liberals or that there are no good arguments against liberalism. One of the better ones that I have heard came from my friend and dedicated feminist, the philosopher Jane Clare Jones, who suggested to me in a recent discussion on BloggingHeads.TV that there can be no politics without some operating conception of the good; more specifically, that one cannot even articulate a harm principle without presupposing that something is fundamentally good. And indeed, many on the social justice Left will argue for their expansion of the harm principle to include non-inciteful or libelous speech on the grounds that not being made to feel bad is as valuable as not being materially injured; that psychic well-being is as significant and fundamental a good as material well-being is.

The trouble is that even if this is true, it runs aground in purely practical terms. The harm principle is too powerful an instrument and justifies too serious a curtailment of peoples’ liberties to be engaged based on nothing but the claim that one has been harmed. It is too easy to abuse, and the cost of its abuse is worse than the cost of some genuine incidences of harm slipping between the proverbial cracks. (There is a parallel, also ultimately prudential idea that we apply in the criminal law, where we have deemed the cost of erroneously imprisoning innocents greater than the cost of some criminals getting off, which is why there remains such a strict standard of proof for demonstrating guilt in criminal court.)

Jane’s first point is also intellectually sound. My account of the liberal consensus does presuppose a conception of the good, namely, the good of people being “able to think, speak, and act as they like, without interference either from the government or their fellow citizens.” But I don’t think this provides any real ammunition for the anti-liberal. The good presupposed here is formal or procedural, rather than substantive: it is the good of allowing people to pursue their substantive conceptions of the good, without interference. And it is the one idea of the good that I think we can reasonably expect others to accept, precisely because it is so formal, so minimal and so prudential. I should mention that in our conversation, Dr. Jones indicated that as a practical guide for day to day life in a liberal democracy, she too is inclined to embrace the liberal consensus, which demonstrates that participating in it need not commit a person wholly to a liberal political philosophy.

In the British House of Commons, Winston Churchill remarked that “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” and I think in much the same way about the liberalism I’ve described here. Philosophically it is somewhat thin. The kind of citizen it imagines is likely doomed to remain an abstraction. The politics it offers is rather un-inspirational. It begs any number of difficult questions. And yet, it is the only politics that render it even possible for a large, modern, heterogeneous society to exist and function in a relatively peaceful state. In a sense, the liberal consensus is an expression of maturity in politics, in that it recognizes and is respectful of the limitations of the political enterprise, which are a function of the limitations of human generosity. And to the extent that the more strident forms of anti-liberalism refuse to recognize or accept these limits – to the extent that an anti-liberal thinks that he can persuade everyone to accept his values or that his side can win and remain in power forever – I think it is fair to characterize him as at least temperamentally juvenile, such attitudes being reminiscent of the romantic utopianism and black and white thinking that we typically associate with the adolescent disposition and which, for its imprudence, we commonly deem the opposite of wisdom.

This essay first appeared in The Philosopher’s Magazine, Issue 87 (Winter 2019)


12 responses to “The Good Old Liberal Consensus”

  1. Excellent analysis!

  2. Parallax

    There are other prominent figures who hold the same views as Ahmari. For example here is Adrian Vermeule from Harvard Law School giving his account on liberalism’s inherently unstability:

  3. I think this is the best thing I’ve read on the current political situation. One of the reasons for this is that it is comprehensive. You even enter into the views of anti-liberalism while at the same time defending a kind of liberal consensus. I have two things to add. One of the basic critiques of liberalism is not only that it lacks a conception of the good but that, even if it can be said to have such a conniption that it places the good second or secondary to what is called Right or rights. But this of course presupposes that right and good are in some way distinct. In other words how can a right be justified as a right if not for the fact that it too is a good. Just my two cents.
    Unlike you I find some things to criticize and mill and cannot follow him in all areas, mainly for reasons having to do with technological and social change that make a Mill program essentially unworkable today. That is very different, however, that a normative evaluation of Mill. Looked at normatively, Mill might seem right and unimpeachably so. But we live in history which is always discontinuous and offers the case that anything can be a live option or not, utterly separate from justice or rightness. I think the strongest feature of liberalism is its belief in a necessary neutrality in a pluralist society. That is the one area where liberalism is, to put it most bluntly simply superior to all competing contenders.

  4. There are a number of motivations that theorists of liberalism failed to remark or account, and which remain largely unspoken even today. Indeed, one of the reasons Trump’s rhetoric appeals to his fans is because he unashamedly expresses some of these motivations. So let’s look at them realistically: Most importantly in the present context, given the importance of the Harm Principle: The desire to cause others harm; the delight in the pain of others. This is not only a pleasure incidental to the achievement of other ends, it is an end in itself. Although unaware, we all have it to some extent. Preferably it is satisfied incidentally, for instance as part of enjoyment of sports or the arts. And parents do and should spend considerable effort and art in raising children to minimize, control and redirect such impulses. But certainly some, perhaps many, remain so motivated, and are quite comfortable with that. Ahmari’s encouraging his readers “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy” is implicitly a call to cause pain and suffering =- and on some level, he knows it, and his readers know it, and he knows his readers know it, which is why he’s willing to ise such rhetoric. Further reference to any ‘higher good’ is simply exculpatory window dressing, and on some level he and his readers know that too. Aquinas wrote that enjoyment of the pain of the damned was a benefit of being saved. Certainly the pain and suffering of the slaves was a continuing pleasure for their masters.

    There is a related but even darker motivation – the urge to see others destroyed, to violently enact the destruction of others. If “to the extent that an anti-liberal thinks that he can persuade everyone to accept his values or that his side can win and remain in power forever” – then, failing to persuade others, there’s only one thorough way to “win and remain in power forever” – genocide. Usually, this motivation is placated verbally – we say of someone, ‘I wish he were dead,’ or less obviously, ‘I hope I never see him again.’ which implies that I wish he were no longer in the same universe – preferably in no universe at all. Or damned to hell, the ultimate destination of all we wish destroyed. (It is looking more and more as if Ahmari’s “Highest Good” amounts to damnation of one’s enemies – Jesus become Shiva, destroyer of worlds.)

    There’s one other motivation worth noting in the present context: The denial of defeat. We all know the sting we fell, say, when losing at chess or cards. The frustration we feel when a plan or stratagem fails. We handle this as well as we can to preserve our sense of self and repute among others, and hopefully learn to deal with defeat gracefully, to say we made our best effort, it wasn’t enough, but we have learned from it and can not only move on, but do better.

    Even writing that makes me feel better, increases my sense that I have acquired wisdom over the years. However, not only might this feeling be delusional, in fact many clearly are not interested in it.

    I noted above ” the pain and suffering of the slaves was a continuing pleasure for their masters.” This was not an abstract remark, but a report on the culture of the South before the Civil War. And denial of the defeat the South suffered in that war is a principle reason why racism has continued to stain American history ever since, and explains much of the cynical and abrasive behavior of certain Republican members of our Congress.

    Again, these are real motivations, which we all share to a (hopefully )lesser or (unfortunately) greater extent. They are embedded in our being as a certain kind of animal. All cultures, however primitive or refined, develop ways to deal with them. largely through practices of education. But as noted earlier, much of our entertainments – sports, arts, etc. – are also developed as means to express, release, sublimate, redirect these motivations. And other social structures contain or redirect them. For instance, economics can satisfy our basic needs or harmless desires; but it can also be manipulated not only to satisfy our greed and baser desires, but to situate ourselves as socially superior to others, whom we can then watch suffer. (This proved as true in Stalinist Russia as it is proving in Trumpist America.) In this regard, social institutions present us with a double-edged sword – mitigating against our these violent motivations, but oft merely organizing them and providing them witha grammar and rhetoric that assuages our sense of self.

    Not adequately accounting for these motivations has been the single greatest failure of liberal theory and philosophy. Anti-liberal theory doesn’t need to since such theories presume such motivation as somehow inherently good. But before we say goodbye to liberalism once and for all, we should remember that these motivations unleashed lead inevitably to violent action, pain, suffering, and destruction. In a “war of all against all” nobody wins.

  5. Well, EJ, I would argue that built into liberalism is recognition if the emotions you describe. Liberal political philosophy largely comes out of social contract theorizing, grounded in a conception of the State of Nature. The belief however was that self-interest would be tempered by reason to produce the rational self-interest on which the Social Contract is based. Now, liberal thinkers may have been wrong about the extent of human rationality or its capacity to temper self-interest, but that is a different problem from failing to recognize or engage with it.

  6. In her book, A Good Look at Evil, (now retired) former Brooklyn College philosophy Professor Abigail Rosenthal analyzed evil as the motive (or action prompted by it) to cause suffering of the undeserving solely for the sake of the joy caused thereby. I suppose there’s a spectrum here, such that a notch away from this is desiring suffering that exceeds desert, and thus shares an element of evil. I wonder if Aquinas’s heavenly schadenfreude—even of an amount of suffering that is precisely deserved—is not also partly tainted by this otherwise evil psychology. I imagine that we sometimes fabricate rationalizations for the belief that our opponents deserve to suffer, thereby falsely assuring ourselves and others that we are not evil. Most participants in cancel culture and the oppression Olympics seem not to care about the threat of engaging in these motivations and actions, and the incredibly hyperbolic polarization on both sides seems to make engaging in these evil motives justified in both sides. That the average person is easily lured in by the propaganda about “them” only makes it worse, perpetuating the evil exponentially thanks to the average person’s addiction to social media and its endlessly upping the ante on outrage and clickbait, snarky attack-them memes, and the increasingly shrinking echo chambers as folks cancel each other informally, by blocking each other. I suspect it is naive, but I retain faith in free speech, dialogue, and liberalism.

  7. Animal Symbolicum

    A couple of thoughts:

    (1) I’m not sure the wokescenti truly share among themselves an explicit understanding of just what the relevant psychic harm is or of just how we are to recognize cases of it. This state of affairs makes it too tempting to claim psychic harm. This is one reason it makes sense to point out, as Professor Kaufman does, that one’s claiming psychic harm does not make it the case that one has been so harmed.

    The wokescenti might reply that when everything’s running smoothly, you enjoy some kind of authority when it comes to your own psychic state, and so it will often make sense for me to at least take into consideration your reports of your own state, as I would if you said you were in pain. But there are two things to say here.

    First, I can take your reports into consideration and grant them some kind of authority without thereby granting them absolute authority; again, as Professor Kaufman notes, your having claimed harm does not amount to your having been harmed.

    Second, you might have some authority when it comes to knowing whether you’re in pain, but do you have the same kind of authority when it comes to knowing whether you’ve been harmed? Causing pain is different from causing harm; indeed, many cases of training involve suffering pain at the hands of yourself and others, but we would be hard pressed to also say you are being harmed. I wonder whether these two concepts are being adequately distinguished, whether an ill-founded analogy between pain and harm is covertly informing the discussion.

    (2) Now, I’ve been more of an observer of these conversations than a participant and would happily be corrected. But I’m pretty sure the wokescenti think that in many important cases, harm is thought to be a result not so much of someone’s uttering something as of the “attitudes” or “institutions” or “cultures” that the uttering is thought to “contribute to.” The idea seems to be that in saying certain things, one contributes to or perpetuates an attitude or way of thinking or comportment that itself is thought to be harmful, psychically or materially. Insofar as this idea invokes some concept of harm, it’s subject to all the problems already outlined. Nonetheless, I would like to hear more about this purported mechanism of harm, if anyone here has any suggestions.

  8. I recently read an interesting book related to this matter. In “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics” Mark Lilla, Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University, gives a brief history of how (in his view) we got here and where to go next. It’s only $1.99 on Amazon right now. Here’s a link for those interested:

    (Dan, I hope it’s okay to post that here. Please let me know if not. [I have no connection to the author.])

  9. Huge fan of Lilla.

  10. Varun Soontornniyomkij

    Although I agree with you that the current situation in the today’s world is lamentable, I cannot agree with your view in support of the second part of the liberal consensus. On a planet only this big with limited amount of resources, it is impossible for there to be no conflict between each individual’s various interests whatsoever. Because of this, different rights and liberties often conflict with each other, rendering the claim of their inviolability unworkable, a fact that most laypeople do not acknowledge. In other words, some amount of harm is unavoidable, and a harm principle that involves weighing of consequences would be better referred to as consequentialism. Indeed, it is surprising to me that Mill, a utilitarian, wrote ‘On Liberty.’

    There are two ways of dealing with the problem surrounding public justification (see the SEP entry):

    1. Debate normative ethics and challenge one’s opponents to give a coherent moral theory that, among other things, either discard or justify the legal recognition of intellectual property such as copyright, why it should be recognized, why should it expire after certain period of time, why only certain things can be protected, and why should we have the fair use exception at all.

    2. Propose a social contract among the population to agree pragmatically on a moral guideline (a conception of the ‘good’) as a basis for laws without any side having to embrace it as a correct moral theory. Appeal to risk aversion, such as discussing what happened a lot in the past (ethnic conflicts, civil wars, revolutions, religious persecutions, the bloody religious wars of the Protestant Reformation, persecution leaders getting assassinated, etc.) Making every side know that if anyone would engage in a ‘might makes right’ attempt The deal would be off, and those who make such an attempt has open themselves to persecution by the ‘might makes right’ attempts from other sides.

    Both choices are possible but #2 is more practical. I wonder if Rawls had realized that a person’s utility is diminishingly marginal. then he would not have rejected utilitarianism in favor of his two principles. #2 would ideally result in a consequentialist basis of law being adopted with every person’s diminishing marginal utility in minds. But, natural rights and liberties must go. Justice can now be deflated to morality. They have outlived their usefulness (causing reforms and revolutions against the inheritance-based aristocracy).

  11. davidlduffy

    Mills was aware right from the beginning that some harms are allowable if they lead to a net gain in aggregate welfare – consider that the harm of economic loss arising from competition (his example was competitive entry into the professions) is regarded as worthwhile (as opposed to that due to treachery, fraud or force).