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Liberal Theory, Encumbrance, and the Antihero

The following paper was presented at the Eighth Annual Telos Conference, held on February 15–16, 2014, in New York City.

In the perspective of many, the prime criticism of liberal theories of democratic politics is that such theories proceed with a certain false and idealized individual in mind—these are great theories, elegant or hubristic, but at bottom, theories and not “real politics.” Political liberalism wrongly imagines the citizen to be a rational individual, sure of his will and life plans—or is this imagining wrong? The deeper critique holds that liberalism describes a peculiar individual, and that this individual really exists, but looks strangely like the liberal theorist and his class. Thus, for example, John Rawls’s theory of justice is suggested to fail women and the profoundly disabled. My critique today follows in this vein; I wish to add to this characterization of liberalism’s presumed political actor by showing him to be antiheroic.

I want to begin by suggesting a way in which this presumption might be obscured; I believe the terms of the liberal-communitarian debate are responsible. The critique of Rawls’s original position exercise, anticipated by Rawls and readdressed in his later essay “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical,” is that, while “agreements in everyday life are made in some more or less clearly specified situation embedded within the background institutions of [what Rawls terms] the basic structure,” contractualist politics works from “some point of view, removed from and not distorted by the particular features and circumstances of the all-encompassing background framework” (235). And isn’t this unacceptable? Mustn’t we acknowledge our situation, our embodied, encumbered nature? Sure, the liberal might say, but the point here is that justice depends on not favoring our class, or those with similar situations and similar bodies. This is certainly true, and I believe Rawls that the original position is helpful even if it simply a “device of representation.” Ethics often finds such thought exercises useful. For example, the Golden Rule has us discovering the right action through imagining others’ actions toward ourselves. Perhaps our sympathy is most fully stretched and developed when we prepare ourselves to be generous precisely to an unknown other. Our ignorance behind Rawls’s veil may be good moral training, and more than just a restraint on pettiness.

But this has taken us off track. The complaint was that contractual hypothesizing failed to account for our encumbrances. The response was that ethics proceeds in this way. And contracts are abstract moments; they are made to govern and rationalize real life, which is of course lived by embodied, situated, encumbered individuals. But are all individuals encumbered? No; at very least, not willingly so. What is obscured by Rawls’s (honest and accurate) claim about the original position being a thought exercise is that the liberal theorist very often understands himself as little-encumbered. He thinks of himself as an antihero.

I will now turn to examine this imagined figure and suggest how such imagining is revealed in liberal talk regarding religion.

While we might also speak of his ordinariness or his moral weakness, for our present purposes, I wish to speak of the antihero as one whose values are muted and whose actions are seen as exercises of will rather than principled action. In his book The Outsider, Colin Wilson describes Meursault, the narrator of Camus’ The Stranger, as having an indifference based on “his sense of unreality.” Meursault has been “wakened” up and experiences freedom only in “intensity of will.” The outsider, according to Wilson, has had an experience of seeing through the little plays of everyday life and confronts an abyss. For some of these characters, the question becomes whether to continue living; for others it is how to live if there can be no values; yet others struggle to assert control through the values they discover. Wilson’s outsider is the nihilist, the absurdist, or the existentialist.

A picture of this outsider disposition is on display in Stuart Rosenberg’s film Cool Hand Luke. Luke is without the values that others hold to. He rejects the deadening authority of his jailers—attempting escape, or, conversely, taking joy in what ought to be the drudgery of laying asphalt. He doesn’t share the religiosity of his fellow prisoners: on his mother’s death, he mourns ironically with the humorous song “Plastic Jesus.” As the film ends, he reveals to his heroic foil that his defiance is motivated by no principle, and that “I never planned nothin’ in my life . . .” Luke has had the antihero’s experience of the unreality of the given world; there are glimmers of meaningful action; mostly, there is willed action.

Now, it is a long way from Cool Hand Luke to John Rawls, and I admit that the element of charisma drops out (though Rawls has become the hero of a recent musical.) However, I believe this outsider’s disposition can be found, if not in Rawls, then in the attitude of the committed liberal. At root, liberalism proceeds from an experience of unreality; its voluntariety—and that word need not be a slur—is less the product of a heroic desire to reshape the world, than an awakening to the fact that there is no deep meaning in the arrangement of our societies. The liberal’s optimism, vis-à-vis the radical or critical theorist, is that he has faced this abyss and has chosen not suicide nor resignation, but the construction of a world with what values we might have found. (Here we might think of Rawls, and his acceptance of the priority of democracy to metaphysics.)

Given this abyss experience, the tenor of the consequent construction of a liberal order can easily become “do this or be damned.” Apart from our social contract, we will, with Hobbes, remain in fear. I am struck by a quirk in the language of some liberals: that the person not subscribing to liberal arrangements or theory is not described as non-liberal, but as il-liberal. Of course, “illiberal” is a distinct term, with connotations of bigotry, and an etymology relating to stinginess. This fear of such bigotry prevailing, save for liberal politics, is hinted at in a passage from Rawls:

As we have seen in the case of the intolerant [sect], the legal order must regulate men’s pursuit of their religious interests so as to realize the principle of equal liberty. . . . If a religion is denied its full expression, it is presumably because it is in violation of the equal liberties of others. In general, the degree of tolerance accorded opposing moral conceptions depends upon the extent to which they can be allowed an equal place within a just system of liberty. (A Theory of Justice, revised edition, 325)

Note that we can expect the legal order to need to regulate religion. Further, we are to presume that curtailments of religious expression will be for reason of religions’ intolerance. Rawls admirably confronts a potential irony head-on and uses the language of choosing to tolerate or not to tolerate various religions. (Granted Rawls does explicitly address the problem of whether to tolerate the intolerant; I do not see that he uses the term critically, however. His claims about what constitutes dogma and whether religious claims can be publicly debated are also naïve.)

This, of course, is part and parcel of Rawls’s whole system: once the principles of justice have been determined, each party finds principles within her comprehensive doctrine that support the overlapping consensus. However, there is the possibility that one’s comprehensive doctrine will be found to be unreasonable and unsuitable for a democratic society. If this is a likelihood, there is the need for one to bring one’s encumbrances into line with the liberal contract. However, this demand seems always to be made of the other. ‘”The religious person must go to their sacred texts and find a way, any way, to support the principles of justice,” as I’ve heard it put. What strikes me is that there is no demonstration of this process, nor a suggestion that the committed liberal will have any encumbrances that need shearing or shaping.

Rawls states that liberalism taken as a comprehensive doctrine risks becoming a sect, and that his justice-as-fairness is simply an element of political justice (“Justice as Fairness,” 245–46). And despite allusive comments about preference for the liberal moralities of Kant and Mill, Rawls remains tacit about his own comprehensive moral commitments. It seems that this is a demonstration of what he takes to be the appropriate liberal attitude, a demonstration that gainsays his claim that an overlapping consensus supported by various religious parties “appears far more stable than one founded on views that express skepticism and indifference to religious, philosophical, and moral values” (ibid., 250).

One might suggest that Rawls is attempting to speak for universal reason, without a standpoint. On this reading, the liberal is the bold man who can look down from above at the encumbered, the religious. This posture would emphasize the heroism of the antihero, finding the “anti-” in his status as an outsider. The liberal has left tradition behind, he has thought for himself, he realizes himself and achieves his society.

But more than this, we can read political liberalism as not simply smuggling an aesthetic preference for this anti/heroism, but as requiring such a figure. The liberal speaks as one who has had the outsider’s awakening experience. Perhaps liberalism lends itself to a reading as not a Promethean supplanting of an already existent order, but as an assertion of order and value by one who has experienced the unreality of this order. To conform this characterization, the liberal would need to account for his values, and, rather than speaking from above, or democratically speaking for all, speak from this vital experience of having seen the abyss. Perhaps the frustration of many critics of liberalism stems from its defenders’ preference for adjusting and refining its putatively rational prescriptions, rather than offering an honest account of the experience of becoming unencumbered, of awakening to a rejection of their fellow-citizens’ comprehensive moralities as unreal. Then again, perhaps this polite demurral is precisely the value the liberal has retrieved from the abyss. The liberal is, at root, an antihero whose values are muted and whose actions are marked by will.

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