By Neuhaus, Richard
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life , No. 79
"Contending for the soul of liberalism." That, I said in "The Liberalism of John Paul II" (FT, May 1997), is what we must be up to. There came in response the usual objections from the enemies of liberalism, both left and right. Don't I know that the liberal regime is more than a political system? It is also a moral-cultural order that systematically destroys the bonds of tradition, community, and virtue. Yes, I know very well the arguments to that effect, and they are partially persuasive. But we live within the tradition and constitutional order of liberalism, and it is here that we must do the best we can. It is both too easy and counterproductive to blame liberalism for the moral shambles of our social circumstance. We ought not let the debilitated liberalism of more recent history control the definition of the liberal tradition itself.
Peter Berkowitz, professor of government at Harvard (though recently denied tenure) and occasional FT contributor, agrees, and sends along his excellent essay published in the Fall 1996 issue of Perspectives on Political Science, "Liberalism's Virtue." Berkowitz examines the teachings of the founding fathers of the liberal tradition -- Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill -- and rescues them from their captivity to both critics and admirers who claim that it is the chief virtue of liberalism that it has dispensed with the need for virtue.
Berkowitz makes a lucid and convincing argument of many parts, including some interesting thoughts on why Mill was so opposed to the idea that government should be in the business of educating the citizenry.
Berkowitz writes: "If one rejects the simple equation of virtue with human perfection and understands virtue also as those qualities of mind and character that support the attainment of a range of ends and the performance of a variety of tasks, then such makers of modern liberalism as Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and Mill come into view as assigning an essential place to virtue in moral and political life. Their differences of opinion about virtue, as well as underlying continuities, can be brought out by examining in the case of each thinker the specific catalogue of virtues put forward, the end or ends virtue is asked to serve, and the means proposed for fostering virtue.... I do not wish to deny that the very idea of virtue in the liberal tradition is marked by basic and destabilizing tensions. …