The Myth of Liberal Individualism

The Myth of Liberal Individualism

The Myth of Liberal Individualism

The Myth of Liberal Individualism

Synopsis

Colin Bird mounts a powerful and original challenge to the traditional view that the ideas associated with the liberal political tradition--the meaning of political freedom, the notion of inviolable human rights, the idea of privacy--cohere around an "individualist" conception of the relation among individuals, society and the state. He argues that by taking this conception for granted, theorists have exaggerated the unity and integrity of liberal political ideals, and limited our perception of the issues they raise.

Excerpt

In the introduction, I suggested that the network of ideas that constitutes the received view of 'liberal individualism' is organized around a dual conception of 'individualism'. On the one hand that view claims that liberal values embody a recognizably individualist political ideal. On the other, it has been supposed that the philosophical integrity and unity of that ideal consists, in part, in a dependence on some individualist theory or method. I believe that it is only in the first sense that the term 'liberal individualism' has any determinate meaning, and the next chapter is devoted to refuting the idea that liberal values and ideals alike depend on some discrete theoretical doctrine about the 'priority of the individual' over society as a whole. With that familiar assumption out of the way, we will be in a position to make a fresh assessment of the individualist ideal. But before we do any of this, we need to give a preliminary account of what that political ideal involves, and of its significance and role in recent theoretical debate. This is the task to which this initial chapter is devoted.

Below, I list several individualist values. These values combine to form a familiar and apparently coherent individualist ideal, one that is distinctive of the kind of philosophical liberalism that has nourished since the publication of Rawls's A Theory of Justice. It is important to stress that I do not equate liberalism (historical or contemporary) with this individualist ideal (though this is not meant to imply that I have a clear definition of 'liberalism'). In fact, few self-described liberals claim that liberalism should be committed exclusively to the individualist ideal that I will set out, although a vociferous and growing group of libertarian theorists have indeed insisted on this. On the contrary, the majority of liberal theorists have been prepared to concede that a fully adequate liberal theory should recognize a variety of other less obviously individualistic values. They acknowledge that taking these other values seriously requires that the pure individualist ideal be qualified in a variety of ways. Nevertheless, whether or not particular theorists have urged local departures from it, I do maintain that the individualist ideal set out . . .

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