Courts, Liberalism, and Rights: Gay Law and Politics in the United States and Canada

By Jason Pierceson | Go to book overview

4

Toward a Better Liberalism

IN CHAPTER 3, I critiqued opponents of liberalism and examined why their approaches may not be useful for gay rights claims. In this chapter, I outline the version of liberalism most able to sustain a full range of gay rights claims. I will present an alternative approach to liberal thought grounded in the strain of U.S. political thought articulated by Abraham Lincoln. I also discuss the liberalism of Andrew Sullivan, arguing why his approach to liberal politics is limited and is an example of the need for a richer view of liberalism in this context.


TRADITIONS OF RICHER LIBERALISM IN AMERICAN
POLITICAL DEVELOPMENT

The negative/positive freedom distinction has been a prominent part of U.S. political discourse. Although freedom in the United States has generally been conceived of in negative terms, a distinct strain of thought that includes more positive conceptions of freedom also has been present, as David Greenstone noted. According to Greenstone, two strands of liberalism have been present in the United States: humanist liberalism and reform liberalism. The former emphasizes negative freedom, since it holds that “the satisfaction of self-determined preferences is central to human well-being.”1 Hence, for the most part, humans should be free from external restraint to fulfill their own preferences. The latter type of liberalism, reform liberalism, emphasizes a concept of positive liberty. This is a strain of liberalism “rooted in the New England Puritan tradition and according to which individuals have an obligation—not just an option—to cultivate and develop their physical, intellectual, aesthetic, and moral faculties. Importantly, the obligation extends to helping others to do the same.”2 Reform liberalism places individuals in society and closely links them to it. The community sets the standards for excellence, while the humanist liberal's community merely provides for the equitable pursuit of individual preferences.

Although Greenstone acknowledges that humanist liberalism has been dominant in the United States, he argues that it has never achieved complete dominance. He illustrates this incomplete hegemony by discussing the views on slavery of dominant eighteenth- and nineteenth-century political figures. Whereas the humanist liberal Thomas Jefferson was generally tolerant of slavery near the end of his life, John Adams, with his Puritan background, became highly critical of the institution.3 The humanist/reform distinction also was reflected in the differences between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Douglas's doctrine of popular sovereignty was grounded in humanist liberalism. Indeed, Douglas “believed in

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