Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Liberalism and Moral Selfhood

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Liberalism and Moral Selfhood

Article excerpt

Historically, liberal theories of justice have presupposed certain metaphysical assumptions concerning the self that increasingly and rightly are falling into disfavor in many contemporary philosophical circles. The human subject has traditionally been conceived by liberals as possessing an underlying and determinate nature-a deep core of being-that is describable in the language of either materialist or idealist metaphysics. Whether conceived as the transcendental subject of Kantian idealism or the materialistic homo economicus of contractarian and utilitarian accounts, the liberal self has been held to be ontologically prior both to the practices and forms of life characteristic of the community to which it belongs, as well as to its own autonomously chosen ends. Liberalism's traditional conceptions of subjectivity are thoroughly metaphysical and essentialist in a time when essentialist theories of the self increasingly are on the wane. 1 While some of its proponents periodically have sought to rid liberalism of its more dubious metaphysical underpinnings, critics of liberalism (in particular those on the Left, including a wide variety of Marxists, socialists, feminists, and communitarians) have often been inclined to suppose that rejecting classical liberal conceptions of the self entails a further renunciation of liberalism in its entirety, including its chief doctrine concerning the primacy of justice, or the priority of the right over the good. Liberal justice, it is often alleged,2 is logically wedded to particular conceptions of selfhood which can no longer be taken seriously, thus entailing that liberal morality must either be wholly rejected or, at the very least, radically overhauled.

Theories that underscore the social character of the self have essentially carried the day in recent years, forcing liberalism to modify much of its classical posture and to concede either a total or partial victory to the Left, which so often is thought to be alone in awarding proper recognition to the factical and social character of the self. Taking a broadly Hegelian stance, liberalism's critics frequently take it to task both for overemphasizing the antagonism between individuals (as well as that between the individual and the state) and for ignoring the pervasiveness in subjectivity of intersubjectivity. Authors from Martin Heidegger to Michael Sandel have viewed the self as an inheritor of a wide variety of social involvements and conditions, including everything from its tacit understanding of the world to the practices and roles it takes up, the values and moral categories that it appropriates, the practices, customs, and relationships that are all constitutive of moral identity. The self, it is rightly argued, is a social being not only in the sense that it is not self-sufficient, and must form associations within a community in order to meet many of its basic needs, but more fundamentally in that the identity of the self, including its identity as a moral agent, is inseparable from its participation within a network of social practices, traditions, and communal associations. Such considerations are central to the manner in which we understand ourselves as subjects of moral action and as persons in the most fundamental sense. Our moral being-not only the values and principles that we explicitly hold, but our fundamental mode of comportment as moral agents-is in large part an inheritance from a particular historical community.

Intending this view as a key premise in the critique of liberal morality, it is frequently maintained that properly acknowledging the social character of the self requires not only that we renounce classical liberal theories of subjectivity, but further that we must reject the theory of justice with which they have been traditionally aligned. Accordingly, liberals who wish to preserve commitments to the primacy of justice, state neutrality, and the full range of individual freedoms that liberals have traditionally defended will need to confront directly the question of whether the failure of metaphysical essentialism (notably in its more individualistic forms) undermines liberalism as a theory of justice, or whether the latter is amenable to a reformulated conception of subjectivity. …

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