Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education: Reclaiming Liberal Education

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Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education: Reclaiming Liberal Education

LIBERALISM, COMMUNITARIANISM AND EDUCATION To Ken Arner, for his exemplary spirit of inquiry and curiousity and his as

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To Ken Arner, for his exemplary spirit of inquiry and curiousity and his astute analysis.

Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education Reclaiming Liberal Education


© Patrick Keeney 2007 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the publisher. Patrick Keeney has asserted his moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work. Published by Ashgate Publishing Limited Gower House Croft Road Aldershot Hampshire GU11 3HR England

Ashgate Publishing Company Suite 420 101 Cherry Street Burlington, VT 05401-4405 USA

Ashgate website: British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data Keeney, Patrick Liberalism, communitarianism and education : reclaiming liberal education 1.Education, Humanistic 2.Education – Philosophy 3.Social ethics I.Title 370.1’12 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Keeney, Patrick, 1955Liberalism, communitarianism, and education : reclaiming liberal education / Patrick Keeney. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-7546-5397-8 (hardcover : alk. paper) 1. Education–Philosophy. 2. Education, Humanistic–Philosophy. 3. Liberalism. 4. Communitarianism. I. Title. LB14.7.K44 2006 370.11’2–dc22 2006011542 ISBN-13: 978-0-7546-5397-4 ISBN-10: 0-7546-5397-8

Printed and bound in Great Britain by Antony Rowe Ltd, Chippenham, Wiltshire.

Contents Preface Acknowledgements 1 The Nature of the Enquiry

vii ix 1

2 Political Philosophy and Educational Theory


3 The Two Liberal Traditions


4 The Priority of the Right and the Transcendental Subject


5 The Foundations of Right: Liberalism and the Social Contract Tradition


6 Liberalism Without Metaphysics: John Rawls and the Moral Subject


7 Alasdair MacIntyre: Morality After Virture


8 Charles Taylor: Sources of the Modern Self


9 Philosophy of Education and Communitarianism


Bibliography Index

153 157

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Preface This book is an enquiry into the political philosophy of education, one that examines a set of debates in political theory which collectively have come to be known as the “communitarian’’ critique of liberalism. The first problem is one of definition. Anyone confronting liberalism must face the fact that it is a very big and slippery word, betokening a great many things to a great many constituencies, so I had better be clear from the start how I intend to use the word. The liberalism that is of interest to me here is that which descends to us from Kant. The last thirty years or so has brought about a sea-change in how western societies conceive of liberalism; very broadly, we have lived through a time which has witnessed the ascendancy of a Kantian, rights-based liberalism over the older forms of utilitarianism, so that “justice,’’ broadly understood as the pledge of political authority to guarantee the rights of the individual, rather than some form of the aggregate good (as older utilitarian theories had maintained) has come to dominate our political thinking. The proliferation throughout the world of charters, constitutions, and various bills of rights since the second world war all bear witness to the dominance of rightsbased theories of liberalism. Yet one can be deeply committed to liberalism’s central premise—namely, that individual freedom is a central human good, and that political arrangements are best ordered when they promote the flourishing and good of the individual, as opposed to an abstraction like “the nation’’ or “God’’—and still feel somewhat uneasy about the larger liberal project. And this, in large part, is the dilemma that many communitarian thinkers do face. While acknowledging the primacy of the individual over various abstract iterations of “the good,’’ they nonetheless find important and crucial deficiencies in the liberal account of human flourishing and well-being. In other words, what is largely at stake is how, exactly, we are to understand this individual whose good we should promote. For example, liberal conceptions of rights-based justice must presuppose certain truths about the human condition—truths which many find not only both practically and theoretically unconvincing, but a singularly impoverished view of how humans do, in fact, thrive and prosper in the world. The aim of this book is to make transparent for the reader the implications that the liberal account of justice has for our ways of thinking about education. Citing the work of John Rawls as the principal expression of contemporary liberal thought, I want to show how, exactly, there exists certain intractable tensions between the view of the individual given in rights-based theories of justice, and a certain valuable conception of education which we in the west have traditionally termed a “liberal’’ or “general’’ education. The concept of a liberal education continues to provide the ideal template for developing rich, rewarding and meaningful lives for citizens, yet it is an idea which presupposes a much fuller account of community and history than is available to rights-


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based theories. By narrowly focusing on the individual and private at the expense of the communal and public, liberalism fails to account for the necessarily social nature of the educational engagement and thus inevitably erodes those shared understandings and publicly articulated virtues on which a liberal education must, necessarily, rest. In essence, the ideals which undergird a liberal education are only available if we can somehow formulate a political ethic which is capable of articulating a public conception of virtue and the good—a requirement which stands in stark contrast to liberalism’s refusal to take a stand on any preferred way of life, insisting that all talk of ends must be confined to the private sphere. Yet without some unifying conception of the good to guide it, it is difficult to see how schooling can avoid degenerating into little more than a program for technical preparation and skills-training for the labour market, or else simply become an exercise in personal self-aggrandizement. What is required is a political ethic which is capable of rescuing talks of ends from the obscurity of private life. In what follows I want to show that liberal education presupposes a communal conversation of the sort that is difficult to maintain employing the conceptual resources that liberalism affords. Liberalism, no less than other political systems, encourages certain forms of human flourishing, and suppresses others. What needs to be acknowledged is that every political system—and liberalism is no exception—contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. That is, every political system develops its own particular pathologies which express in exaggerated form its underlying character structure. It is a truism that no society can exist for long if its citizens fail to share common values and observe common behaviours. The liberal state, no less than any other, must ensure at the very least that it imbues its future citizens with those common understandings necessary for the continuance of a liberal democracy. But given the breakdown of shared ideals, and a world of autonomous social atoms, each of whom is a center of self-interest and self-validation, it is difficult to know what the sources of such commonalties could be. As much as we might value individual freedom, we have perhaps arrived at a critical historical juncture. What happens to our culture when politics maintains the distinction between separate selves so firmly as to deny the possibility of shared goals and common purposes? What is the fate of individuals when the political culture is no longer capable of capturing the imagination of its citizens by imbuing public life with a shared vision of the good? Given the conception of the self embraced by rights-based theories, what are the social implications of an ethic which emphasizes the individual and private over the communal and public? Can an individualistic rights-based ethic adequately account for those human excellences which can only flourish in the collective? It is of course too simple to lay all of our problems at the feet of liberalism. Yet by examining some of the tenets of the prevailing liberal orthodoxy, we encounter both the promise and the limits of liberalism. The overriding question which informs this debate is this: how does liberalism understand the individual at the heart of the just society? Or, more simply, given the prevailing liberal world view, “what does it mean to be a human being?’’ What unites critics of liberalism is that they find the liberal response to these questions unsatisfactory.

Acknowledgements I am firstly indebted to Robin Barrow, whose disinterested reading of the text raised many well-founded and insightful criticisms. Although he remains wholly unconvinced by the communitarian thesis, his many suggestions doubtless made this a better book, though not quite the book I had originally envisioned, nor certainly the book he would like. I am also grateful to Christopher Ormell, founder of the PER group, who gave me an opportunity to try out some of these ideas both in print and in a number of public lectures. I’ve greatly benefited from his many kindnesses and wise counsel. I would also like to acknowledge the help of Dr. Jean Warburton, whose good humour and indomitable spirit is greatly missed. Thanks too to Dr. John Grant McLoughlin at the University of New Brunswick and Dr. Walter Okshevsky at Memorial University in Newfoundland, with whom I discussed many of these ideas. They may be far away, but they are far from forgotten. And lastly I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the debt I owe to Tasos Kazepedies. Given his healthy Greek skepticism, he will likely be unconvinced by any of this; I can only appeal to his equally healthy Greek generosity. I am fortunate to have friends who provided a sympathetic and alert ear. I would like to thank Ute and Ekhard Freitag, Tyler Gingrich, Gary Norris, Helmut and Marion Speier, Vernon Sundmark, and Abbi and Sabine Zu Putlitz, all of whom, at various times, provided me with a helpful sounding board, and a forum to try out some of these ideas. I am especially indebted to Birgit Bennett, who proof-read the text. Lastly, I owe a debt of a different kind to my wife, Angela Dereume, who makes allowances for my distracted ways, and somehow manages to put up with it all.

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Chapter 1

The Nature of the Enquiry In a 1964 essay entitled “Against Utilitarianism,” Alasdair MacIntyre suggested that: The failure of both our society and our education lies in its inability to discover ends, to discover purposes which can furnish a sufficient reason for our activities and so render those activities reasonable and satisfying.1

The societies that MacIntyre had in mind were the western liberal democracies. He maintained that the reason for their failure was a dominant form of social life, one rooted in utilitarian moral and political theory. Utilitarian theory, he argued, had engendered a means-end view of human action, so that every action is seen as a means to something beyond itself. The result was an educational ethic of “getting on,” of passing from lower to higher educational levels without any satisfactory answer as to what one was “getting on” to. When faced with the question of what they were studying for, students discovered that “The chain of reasons had no end.”2 Individuals could, of course, still discover their own purposes; but in a social mode dominated by the utilitarian ethic, “such ends as men discover are relegated by our public life to private obscurity.”3 What happens to the public life of a society, MacIntyre wondered, when ends are thrust into the “oasis of private life;”4 when human motivations such as love, honour, and compassion find no public forum, and “these same motives [are crippled] in private life by the limits public life sets to them?”5 And if, as MacIntyre argued, the aim of education should be to help people “discover activities whose ends are not outside themselves,”6 what happens to our thinking about education when we banish from public discourse all talk of ultimate ends? How are we to shape the individual to fit a society where “no activity is offered as its own justification?”7 MacIntyre perhaps exaggerated the influence of utilitarianism in bringing about a society “without ends.” The cultural horizon of any society is the result of many 1 Alasdair MacIntyre, “Against Utilitarianism,” in Aims in Education, ed. T.H.B Hollins (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1964), pp. 1-2. 2 Ibid., p. 1. 3 Ibid., p. 10. 4 Ibid. 5 Ibid., p. 11. 6 Ibid., p. 19. 7 Ibid., p. 14.


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influences, and one could, with equal justification, focus on a number of other contributing causes: the growth of science and the rise of a positivist philosophy; the end of a vital public religion, and the dissipation of our sense of the cosmos as a meaningful order; the pluralist nature of modern society and a wide-spread belief that values are merely conventional or arbitrary; or some combination of these factors. Moreover, even though MacIntyre’s criticism of utilitarianism represents a familiar strand of argument, this debate, as with most debates in moral philosophy, is far from settled, and we can still profitably ask whether utilitarianism really does imply such an infinite regress.8 Nevertheless, it seems indisputable that one of the dominant characteristics of our age is precisely the elimination from the public imagination and discourse of all talk of human ends. MacIntyre was surely correct in identifying the dominant political ethic of liberal democracies as among the major factors which brought this about. This is an enquiry into the political philosophy of education, one which proceeds from the premise that the questions concerning ends posed by MacIntyre—for both education and liberal society as a whole—remain equally pressing for our own age, one in which utilitarianism as the dominant social morality has given way to a different liberal ethic where talk of ends recedes even further from the public purview. There is a family of liberal theories which are currently very popular, especially in the English-speaking world. These theories—which are prevalent in the social, moral and political discourse of western democracies—are indebted to Kant for much of their philosophical foundation. This liberalism might be succinctly characterized as one which posits the priority of right over good. As such, it is typically defined in opposition to utilitarianism or other teleological theories and so might best be referred to as “deontological” liberalism.9 In contrast to utilitarianism or other theories of the general or average welfare, deontological liberalism posits as the political ideal a set of regulative principles which, in themselves, do not presuppose maximizing the aggregate happiness or any determinate theory of the good. According to liberal

8 For a recent discussion concerning this problem, see Robin Barrow, Utilitarianism: A Contemporary Statement (Brighton: Edward Elgar, 1991), Chs. 1 and 5. 9 To borrow a metaphor from biology: ‘liberalism’ is the genus, ‘deontological liberalism’ is the species. In its generic form, liberalism simply refers to the idea that liberty or freedom (I use these terms synonymously) is a central political good, a view which I take to be beyond serious dispute. (Which is not to say that freedom is the dominant political good, or that there is no room for legitimate debate concerning curtailments of freedom.) Another way of characterizing deontological theories is that they take duty as the basis of morality: i.e. some acts are viewed as morally obligatory regardless of the consequences. Unfortunately, ‘deontological liberalism’, though technically correct, is a cumbersome phrase. For the sake of brevity and style, I shall, at various junctures, employ the shorthand terms ‘liberal,’ ‘liberal theory,’ etc. to signify that species of liberalism which is of interest—namely, the deontological variety. This should not be construed as mistaking the particular for the general, but is merely a stylistic convention which, it is hoped, will make for simpler and less stilted prose.

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theory, such regulative principles must conform to a concept of right, a moral category given prior to and independent of the good. Deontological theories begin by asserting that society, being composed of a plurality of persons, each with their individual ends and aims, is best governed by principles which do not favor any particular conception of the good. Liberalism refuses to affirm a preferred way of life, and posits as the political ideal the freedom of citizens to choose from incommensurable ends which vie for our allegiance. Or, to make the point negatively, liberalism holds that there are no moral experts on questions concerning ultimate ends, and that no one way of life can be shown to be inherently superior to another. Because there can be no certainty on questions of ultimate value, any attempt by the state to promote or hinder competing versions of the good is seen as an unwarranted intrusion into the private sphere. Hence, liberalism seeks to build a neutral, procedural framework, one in which justice is seen as the primary social and moral value. Any critical appraisal of contemporary rights-based liberalism must first look to the conception of justice embedded in such theories. As happiness is the central concept of utilitarianism, so is justice the central concept of post-Kantian liberalism. It is in examining deontological conceptions of justice that we will best discover what such theories tell us about human nature and the conditions necessary for human flourishing. Liberal justice seeks to build a state which acknowledges the inherent worth of every individual, something which is surely a good thing. Yet, as many have argued, the liberal understanding of the relationship which holds between an individual and his or her community or society, and the emphasis on freedom and rights that follows from that understanding, is misplaced. The liberal state pivots on the principle that human needs can be translated into political rights, and that it is primarily as the bearers of these rights that we make our claims on the collectivity. We understand our role in the political life of our community largely in terms of our having certain rights, and we afford each other dignity by virtue of our commonality as rights-bearing creatures. So, while it may be the case that a rights-based political ethic—what some have referred to as a “human rights culture”10—has provided for individual freedoms, such freedoms have been purchased at a price. In a human rights culture, as Michael Ignatieff points out: we forget about the range of needs which cannot be specified as rights and ... let them slip out of the language of politics. Rights language offers a rich vernacular for the claims an individual may make on or against the collectivity, but it is relatively impoverished as a means of expressing an individual’s need for the collectivity. We are more than rightsbearing creatures, and there is more to respect to a person than his rights. (emphasis in original)11

10 See Richard Rorty, “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality,” in On Human Rights, Stephen Shute and Susan Hurley (eds.) (New York: Basic Books, 1993), pp. 111 -134. 11 Michael Ignatieff, The Needs of Strangers (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), p. 13.


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Ignatieff does not deny that humans are creatures that have certain needs, or that such needs cannot, to a greater or lesser extent, be assured by political authority. What he does suggest, however, is that contrary to the spirit of liberal theory, human needs are not infinitely contestable, and questions about ends are not entirely open-ended: Consistent moral behaviour itself would be impossible unless there were some minimum degree of agreement, within a society, as to the necessary preconditions of human flourishing.12

For Ignatieff, liberal democracies have lost this “minimum agreement.” In a polity that is founded on the principle of the ultimate plurality of values, citizens can no longer speak to each other in a shared language of the common good. Our political discourse seems to have lost the capacity to address those virtues and human excellences that do not readily lend themselves to articulation in terms of individual rights--those ideals which express the individual’s need for the collectivity. For example, where in our political language do we find the ability to speak of such virtues as friendship, loyalty, humility, honour, compassion and forgiveness? As Stephen Lewis once remarked, such concepts have lost their “depth and dimension. And for many of us they [represent] only psychological peculiarities or ... greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of computers and spaceships.”13 These virtues do sound an anachronistic note, for they presuppose a different political culture, one in which the individual is understood not only as an autonomous agent who is free to choose his own purposes and ends, but as a participant in the public world of a social community—a community in which the individual discovers purposes by virtue of his involvement in a public world. My interest lies with the limits of the account of justice given in rights-based theories, and the implications that these limits have for our ways of thinking about education. The limits I have in mind are theoretical rather than practical. It is not so much that liberal justice presents us with an impossible ideal; it is rather that the ideal itself may be amiss in that it distorts our educational ideal. Specifically, there appear to be certain intractable tensions between the view of the individual given in rights-based theories of justice and a certain valuable conception of education, which in the West is variously referred to as a “liberal” or “general” education. While the concept of a liberal education provides the educational ideal most suited for developing rich, full, and meaningful lives, it is an ideal which presupposes a much fuller account of the community, and the central role that the social world has to play in the formation of the individual than is given in a rights-based liberalism. Liberalism, by narrowly focusing on the individual and private at the expense of the communal and public, ignores (if not overtly rejects) the necessarily social nature of the educational engagement, and inevitably erodes those shared understandings and publicly articulated virtues and excellences on which, or so I shall maintain, a 12 Ibid., p. 12. 13 “Putting People First: The Human Side of Public Affairs,” in the Simon Fraser Alumni Journal, Summer, 1990, p. 24.

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liberal education depends. It is maintained that the ideals of a liberal education are intelligible only in light of such commonalties, and that without some unifying vision of the good to guide it, schooling in the liberal state degenerates into little more than a program for vocational preparation or personal self-aggrandizement. My aim is to show how communitarianism provides an alternative to this liberal impasse. I have identified deontological liberalism as the order of liberalism which is my major concern here, but this does not get us very far. For beyond a commitment to such vague and general values as individual freedom and personal autonomy, liberalism of whatever type means different things to different people in different parts of the world. In North America, liberalism is likely to connote a fairly generous redistributive welfare state, while in the United Kingdom its primary association is with individual freedom and autonomy. Moreover, ordinary usage confirms that liberalism refers to quite a wide package of beliefs, so much so that we might question whether anything is really gained by employing such a general term as “liberalism.’’ It is readily apparent that liberals disagree on substantive political issues. For example, part of the standard liberal package concerns both the commitment to individual freedom and a belief in equality of opportunity, the latter often necessitating the need for a more egalitarian distribution of resources than the market allows (i.e., a redistributive welfare state). Obviously, the question liberals must confront is how far they are willing to erode the freedoms of individuals to bring about a more equitable distribution of society’s goods. Not surprisingly, different theorists have provided radically different answers. So, while Robert Nozick is generally conceded to be a bona fide liberal, we can still sensibly question whether his arguments for the ‘minimal’ state and the inviolate rights of individuals set forth in Anarchy, State and Utopia are usefully characterized as a type of liberal theory.14 Given Nozick’s emphasis on the rights of the individual, would it not be nearer the mark to label his view a form of libertarianism, or perhaps even anarchy (as his title suggests)? Such examples of substantive liberal disagreements are legion. My point is simply that there is a wide divergence of beliefs and policies which can be analytically separated from one another, and critiques of liberalism can focus on some aspects of the liberal package and not on others. The label “communitarianism” is perhaps even more problematic, and here we need to be on guard against conflating very distinct positions. Indeed, we might ask whether it is even sensible to speak of the communitarian critique. Certainly, communitarians, like liberals, disagree about substantive political conclusions, and there is frequently as much distance between communitarians themselves as there is between liberals and their communitarian critics. Moreover, the word ‘communitarian’ plays little part in those texts which are most often referred to in this debate, and those writers who are generally conceded to be among the chief communitarian critics do not identify themselves with “communitarianism” in the way that, say, liberals, conservatives or Marxists identify themselves. Nevertheless, there is some justification for such a label. For one, it does identify a particular 14 Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974).


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group of writers, all of whom are dealing with a family of concerns, issues, and themes. If we focus on the communitarian critiques of liberalism (and not, say, the conservative, Marxist, or feminist critiques), then a certain family of ideas and issues present themselves: very briefly, the unifying theme is that “community” (in some broad sense) is seen as a necessary corrective for liberalism’s preoccupation with the individual. But, just as we can analytically identify and separate certain strands of liberal thought, so, too, can we detect certain themes within the communitarianism critique. Specifically, I would suggest that the communitarian response to liberalism can be captured by examining six overlapping themes. These six themes are neither exhaustive nor discrete, but they do provide a useful road map of the debate. We might usefully characterize them as follows: conceptions of the person; asocial individualism; universalism; subjectivism versus objectivism; liberal neutrality; and individual autonomy. In the remainder of this chapter, I want to briefly examine each of these six themes, and to provide a preliminary sketch of the contours of the communitarian critique of liberalism, while outlining the shape and form of the book as a whole. Conceptions of the Person As with any political ethic, deontological liberalism, despite disclaimers that it “does not rest on any special theory of personality”15 or that its key assumptions involve “no particular theory of human motivation,”16 nevertheless proceeds from a certain view of human nature. Liberal justice must presuppose certain truths about ourselves and our situation in the world, and behind much of the communitarian critique lies the view that embedded in a rights-based liberalism is a flawed and incomplete human ideal; an account of human nature which in the words of one critic demands that “we understand ourselves to be creatures of a certain kind, related to human circumstance in a certain way.”17 Communitarians argue that liberals are committed to a conception of the person which is “unencumbered” or “antecedently individuated,” in the sense that our ends, values, conceptions of the good, and communities can never be thought of as part of our identity. What this means is that individuals are characterized—not as actors within a particular social milieu—but as abstract, disembodied, ahistorical agents, removed from the vagaries of time and place, and defined apart from their specific, concrete, ways of life. Communitarians maintain that this conception of the self—one which always puts a certain distance between an individual and his or her conception of the good—presents us with a truncated and implausible view 15 Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 142. 16 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 129. 17 Michael J. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 10.

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of human agency, one which leads to distortions in both our social life and in the formation of individual characters. In short, communitarians charge that liberalism rests on an importantly flawed account of personhood. The educational importance of the liberal conception of persons is brought home if we briefly consider what I take to be the central aim of a liberal education. A liberal education (as the very label implies) seeks to “liberate” the individual, through the cultivation of the intellect, to “discover purposes which can furnish a sufficient reason for our activities and so render these activities reasonable and satisfying.”18 Or, to put the matter more simply, the aim of a liberal education is to enable individuals to discover purposes and ends which make their lives meaningful and fulfilling. In short, a liberal education is unavoidably a normative enterprise, one which is concerned with enabling individuals to lead the best possible lives. Such normative enquiries—central though they may be to the educational enterprise—rest uneasily alongside liberal presuppositions about the nature and status of human beings and their situation in the world. As we have just seen, liberalism asserts that the self possesses a unity and identity prior to its membership in any historical community and prior to its attachment to any particular ends. That is, liberal theory posits the individual in vacuo as an intellectual abstraction, ignoring the obvious fact that human beings have always been social animals living in communities, and the individual is always the product of a particular form of social life. The discovery of “activities whose ends are not outside themselves” is, I shall argue, an intelligible ideal only in light of situating the individual within a particular social world—an idea which clashes head-on with the liberal view of persons which sees the individual as always situated at a certain distance from his or her circumstances. Asocial Individualism Communitarians claim that liberalism misunderstands the relationship between an individual and his or her society, and, more specifically, misconstrues the extent to which various societies constrain and determine the values which an individual might come to hold. This misunderstanding arises from one of the major themes in the history of liberal theory, the idea of the social contract as the basis of civil society. Understanding society as the outcome of a contract or a negotiation between people existing in a pre-social state of nature, cooperating primarily to protect and promote their individual interests, results in two significant errors. First, using the contractual metaphor to think about civil arrangements encourages the naive error of assuming that an individual’s ends, values and identity (regardless of their content) can be thought of independently of the wider community of which he or she is a part. It is evident that, if society is the result of a contract between free and equal individuals, then we must assume that such contractors exist prior to any

18 Alasdair MacIntyre, “Against Utilitarianism,” op. cit., p. 2.


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such compact and that they possess interests which are pre-social; that is, given to individuals prior to their membership in society. Even if we accept that the contract is merely a device of representation, a convenient fiction for thinking about social relations, we are, nevertheless, still bound to certain ontological presuppositions about the status of human beings—namely, that it is sensible and coherent to speak of individuals in vacuo, apart from the contingencies and particularities of a specific, historical culture. To adopt such a view of the status of human beings is to deny the obvious truth that there is no language, no thought, no identifiably human existence outside of communities, and to speak as if there were is, at best, simply mistaken. At worst, it fosters an incoherent conception of the individual, perpetuating the myth that what a person values, the substantive goods which an individual seeks, can be addressed apart from specific historic communities. At a minimum then, liberalism neglects the way in which an individual is parasitic on society for the very way in which he or she thinks, and so vastly underrates the necessarily social and communal origins of an individual’s self-understanding. There is a second way in which asocial individualism undermines and distorts our understandings of the relationship between individuals and society. If the first criticism points to the way in which liberalism ignores the community in understanding how humans come to hold certain values, if, that is to say, there is a procedural flaw, then the second criticism may be said to point to how liberalism leads to substantive misunderstandings. On the communitarian account, the liberal understanding of the individual’s relationship to his or her wider community, results in encouraging and suppressing certain substantive beliefs. That is, the content of our beliefs, our self-understandings, our very conceptions of what makes life worthwhile, are all substantively affected. Liberalism ignores, undermines, and even rules out certain ways of thinking about communities and those individuals who compose them. If society is nothing more than a cooperative venture for the pursuit of individual advantage, an essentially private association formed by individuals whose interests are defined independently of, and prior to, any community of which they are a member, then liberalism would seem to preclude those ways of thinking about human flourishing and human excellences which are inherently communal. In other words, a certain range of conceptions of the good will be unable to flourish. For example, many religious communities posit an ideal of human existence which fulfills itself only in service to the community. Such an ideal seems to demand more than a merely associational model of society can allow; rather, it would appear to appeal to quite a different view of the relationship which holds between an individual and his or her community. Liberalism seems to allow little conceptual space for individuals who understand their identities to be partially, if not wholly, constituted by their relations with others in their community.

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Universalism The issue here concerns the status of liberal claims. As we have already seen in our discussion of the liberal conception of the person, a great deal of liberal thought proceeds by ignoring the particulars of any individual, or, for that matter, the realities of a specific culture or society. Not surprisingly, a significant strand of communitarian criticism has been aimed at what it takes to be liberalism’s alleged failure to attend to cultural particularism, to the different ways in which various cultures embody different values and different social forms and institutions. In other words, are the interests promoted by a liberal political theory truly universal interests? Or, are such interests limited to a certain socio-historical matrix? Does liberalism claim that its conclusions apply cross-culturally and apply universally? Or are its claims much more modest, recognizing that a liberal framework applies only under certain conditions and to certain societies, leaving room for the idea that different societies might have more appropriate ways of organizing their political life? As we shall see in more detail, there is good reason to think that liberal theory does involve pretensions to universality. When reading liberal theorists, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what is being claimed is indeed something which is thought to be true of all people at all times, whatever their cultural traditions or social practices. If we bear in mind that modern liberal thought can be traced fairly directly to the 18th century, and we read contemporary liberal theory in light of its historical origins, then it is easy to detect in contemporary liberal theory a hardy streak of universalizing enlightenment thought: attempts to show that we are all the same underneath; a way of characterizing people in the abstract, detaching people from particular social positions and particular conceptions of the good (in other words, from what actually makes them individual persons); and a widespread emphasis on rational procedures, suggesting that there is a rational essence which transcends cultures.19 Liberal Neutralism A further issue concerns liberal philosophy’s claim to neutrality amongst competing versions of the good life, and the place that such avowed neutrality has to play in educational theory. Here there are two quite separate questions to be explored. First is the question of whether liberalism really is neutral between competing versions of the good. Or, is it, in fact (as many critics argue), far less neutral than it appears, suppressing some versions of the good, while promoting others?

19 It is interesting to speculate on the relationship between a “global” curriculum, which is currently enjoying something of a vogue, and liberalism. Despite the appeals to motherhood issues and the soothing rhetoric in which calls for a global curriculum are usually couched, it is difficult to see how the concept of a global curriculum makes sense apart from liberal assumptions about universality, individuals, and society.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

The focus of the second question might be summarized thus: If a liberal education is fundamentally concerned with empowering individuals so that they can choose the best possible life, then it must necessarily draw on the resources of moral philosophy. (And, indeed, for this very reason, moral philosophy has, at least until fairly recently, been given pride of place in the philosophy of education.) Yet it has become something of a cliché to note that contemporary strands of moral philosophy tend to narrowly focus on negative prohibitions rather than on positive, enabling prescriptions. That is, there is a widespread view that while modern moral philosophy remains properly concerned with questions of what we ought or ought not do, of which acts are deserving of moral praise or condemnation, it must demur at providing anything approaching a full or comprehensive view of the good life. Here is how Charles Taylor puts it: This moral philosophy has tended to focus on what it is right to do, rather than on what it is good to be, on defining the content of obligation rather than the nature of the good life; it has no conceptual place left for a notion of the good as the object of our love or allegiance … . This philosophy has accredited a cramped and truncated view of morality in a narrow sense, as well as of the whole range of issues involved in the attempt to live the best possible life. 20

The result is that moral philosophy on this characterization is rendered prescriptively moot; an undertaking which might enjoin us to refrain from certain activities, but which can offer little to guide our positive educational prescriptions. It seems, then, that we must either accept the idea of a moral philosophy which, in Taylor’s words, is “cramped and truncated,” and silent about questions concerning the good life, or else be prepared to argue for a wider conception of moral enquiry, one which is capable of rationally engaging questions concerning the question of how best we should live. Subjectivism or Objectivism A fifth theme in the debate between liberals and communitarians surrounds the sine qua non of liberalism: namely, the idea of the irreducible plurality of values, and a concomitant emphasis on the freedom of individuals to choose their own way of life. The dominant idea of post-Kantian moral philosophy is the notion of the individual will as the chooser of values, and above all, it is the idea of individual freedom which inspires political liberalism. Central to the Kantian ethic is the view that man is by nature a being who is free to choose his own purposes from a plurality of incommensurable ends. In contrast to the ancient conception of man as a being who discovers his ends in a world not of his own making, the affirmation of the ideal of freedom in Kantian morality leads to the central moral vision of the individual 20 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 3.

The Nature of the Enquiry


as the sovereign agent of choice. The pervasiveness of such popular slogans as “finding yourself,” “doing your own thing,” “getting in touch with yourself,” “selfactualization,” and “self-esteem” point to our society’s ideal of the autonomous moral agent, and underscores the triumph of this particular brand of liberal thought. In contrast to an older tradition which identified personal freedom with public virtue, communal solidarity, and the activity of citizenship, modern society defines freedom negatively as the absence of restraints on solitary, all-responsible, freely choosing selves. It is in freedom’s name that liberalism has sought to abolish systems of hierarchy and authority, for such systems were seen as external and arbitrary constraints on individuals—barriers which only serve to prevent the realization of one’s “true” or “authentic” self. The problem for liberals is whether there is any rational procedure for arbitrating among the various competing visions of the good. In other words, is an individual’s choice of values, aims, ends and conceptions of the good more than merely an arbitrary expression of his or her idiosyncratic preferences? Can such choices be rationally justified or condemned? Are there, that is to say, rationally justified ways of discriminating between better and worse, worthy and unworthy ways of life? Or are such life-choices really no different from the fact that some of us prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla? In short, can one be a liberal and believe that judgements about values are objective? The importance of this debate for education is compelling. If a liberal education involves questions of how best we should live, then quite obviously it cannot remain neutral on such questions. Educators must be prepared to state that some ways of living are better, nobler, higher, more fulfilling, more estimable, or more meaningful. In short, a liberal education involves a recognition of a hierarchy of standards, and educators must be prepared to make discriminations of higher and lower, better and worse, important and trivial, right and wrong—judgements which are rendered valid independently of the tastes, choices, preferences or desires of any individual. Underlying a liberal education is the demand that we acknowledge something outside ourselves whose value is immune to the whims and inklings of our own consciousness, but which stands independent of these and offers criteria by which they can be judged. Any such hierarchy is, of course, notoriously difficult and contentious, and, of course, the idea of a hierarchy of values resistant to human willing is entirely alien to the liberal temperament. Yet, a liberal education can only proceed by recognizing that that which is truly valuable in human life is not entirely arbitrary, a mere adjunct of the personal will. Ultimately, or so I will maintain, the answer to the question of what makes life worth living must reside in values which exist independent of personal will, and whose validity and integrity are resistant to the individual’s own inclinations, preferences and desires.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

Individual Autonomy and the Public Sphere The sixth and last theme in the liberal-communitarian debate—a theme which is in some ways the culmination of the previous ones—is the relationship which holds between the individual and the public sphere of society. Both liberals and communitarians emphasize individual freedom, but it is how this freedom is understood which is at issue. Communitarians argue that in the name of individual autonomy, liberalism has sought to limit public concern with private lives, securing for each individual the requisite private space necessary for the realization of one’s true self. As Joseph Tussman observes, the liberal state draws a firm distinction between the public and the private. And the mind, as private, “lies beyond the reach or jurisdiction of public authority.”21 In liberal states, the government has no business in the realm of intellect or spirit, and “may take notice only of outer personae, of acts, not thoughts ... the privacy of the mind is [one of] our stock of basic notions. Public authority is unlicensed in the private world. It must leave the mind alone.”22 Hence, communitarians argue, the liberal state understands freedom not as something to be achieved in the public world of politics, civic involvement, and communal activities; rather, freedom in the liberal state is conceived primarily as the personal achievement of individuals, brought about through their own efforts in a private world of their own making. It is perhaps necessary to stress here how successful this modern notion of liberal freedom has been in permeating the realm of public discourse. The American essayist Lewis H. Lapham, commenting on the ethos of post-war America, suggests that the language of American political oratory now revolves around the following dichotomies:23 Good private the self feeling expression country innocence simple

Evil public the world thought art city experience complex

The educational implications of a public ethos that stresses freedom and individuality, and the essential independence of the self, are, I believe, portentous. 21 Joseph Tussman, Government and the Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 5. 22 Ibid. 23 Lewis Lapham, Money and Class in America: Notes and Observations on Our Civil Religion (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988), p. 135.

The Nature of the Enquiry


For citizens of the modern liberal state, the individual is the whole, and the thrust of modern education lies not so much with the attempt to impose an order on our thoughts and feelings by reference to a public world, but with the search for such holy grails as “inner harmony,” “self-discovery” and “personal integration.” When our idea of political freedom banishes the relevance of others, and, indeed, of the larger community as a whole, individuals seek liberation not through discovering their world—by using their imagination to join the world and ask “What is this?” or “Who are they?”—but by focusing their attention inward on themselves with the ever-present question “Who am I?” Individuals, caught up in a narcissistic cult of personality, become “perennial students of the self,”24 seeking liberation from a public world which would only frustrate and undermine their attempts at realizing their “true” and “authentic” selves. In short, talk concerning the cultivation of a public self has all but disappeared from our discussions about educational goals. Our educational ideal increasingly revolves around the analysis of a unique and mysterious inner self, one whose purposes, aims and goals cease to be formed by reference to a defining community, but which are generated out of itself. The modern conception of the self can be seen as a negation of the idea that the public world is relevant to achievement of personhood; rather, it acknowledges only the legitimacy of inner, private, individual experience in the formation of character. What are the educational consequences of this modern understanding of selfhood? To understand the nature of the liberal self, it is perhaps helpful to compare our contemporary notions with the ancient Greek ideal of personhood. As Richard Peters points out, the English word ‘idiot’ derives from the Greek term which “disdainfully picked out the man who concerned himself only with private matters.”25 For the Greeks, to be human was to be a part of and to participate in a whole outside of oneself. Aristotle’s maxim that man was a political animal means that an individual is intelligible only as a part of the polis. The idea that there could be such an entity as a “self” without reference to a defining community was anathema to the Greeks, for selves could only be understood in relation to other selves, all of whom were acting within a given historical community. Accordingly, the educational ideal consisted of initiating individuals into the ongoing conversation of their community, for it was only by reference to that conversation that one could find his or her own bearings and achieve personhood. Hence, it was only within the community itself—and the public loyalties and virtues that it spawned—that the self could form its character and conceive of coherent purposes and aims.26 24 Ibid., p. 62. 25 R.S. Peters, Ethics and Education (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1966), p. 48. 26 A passage in Xenophon neatly illustrates the Greek disdain for the “idiot.” A young acquaintance of Socrates, Euthydemus, seeks enlightenment, and hopes to become unrivaled in the arts of politics and public administration. Nonetheless, the youth declines the help of competent teachers, thinking that he can best achieve his ambitions of his own accord. Socrates ridicules the youth, and suggests how Euthydemus might, upon starting his political career, introduce himself to the Athenian assembly:


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

By contrast, for us it is the very act of dispossessing the self of community, of tradition, family and religion that is seen as liberating and morally significant. We in the liberal west might take as our motto “only disconnect,” for it is only by abolishing the relevance of the local and particular to the formation of the self that we come to understand true moral agency. Ignoring the ancient paradox that it is only when we are able to stand outside our personal concerns that we are able to forget our self, to set apart our biases and perceive justly, the modern individual is thrust back on his or her own resources, and, under the aegis of the idea of autonomy, the “self,” like a butterfly from a cocoon, is somehow supposed to appear.27 Ours is an age where the political realm, the most significant manifestation of the local world, no longer invests individual lives with common meanings and purposes. In Philip Rieff’s memorable phrase, we live in a “zoo of separate cages,”28 and our culture, rather than directing the self outward toward those communal purposes in which alone the self can be realized and satisfied, becomes simply a means for confirming our illusions about individuality and freedom.29 “Gentlemen of Athens, I have never learned anything from anybody, nor have I sought the company of any person whose abilities in speech and action I have heard of, nor have I troubled to acquire a teacher from among those who understand these matters. On the contrary, I have consistently avoided not only learning anything from anybody, but even given the impression of doing so. However, I shall offer you my advice as it occurs to me of its own accord.” Xenophon, “Memoirs of Socrates”, in Conversations of Socrates, trans. Hugh Tredennick and Robin Waterfield (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), p. 179. Xenophon captures the Greek disdain for those who would deny the relevancy of the public world in the formation of character by having Socrates mock the “idiot”, the self-made man who thinks that his own experience provides sufficient guidance, and who thinks he has no need to live in a public world of public concerns. The Greeks scorned the ambitions of such individuals because it was understood that an individual’s education, and those qualities of judgment and wisdom that such an education implies, could only develop out of, and as a response to, the public traditions of a community. 27 Here is how one new-age prophet characterizes individual development. “The goal of individual development is the creation of an autonomous ego, self-awareness sufficient to itself, dependent on nothing other than its own state.” Joseph Chilton Pearce, Magical Child Matures (New York: Bantam, 1988), p. 155. The impoverishment of such a vision is staggering. The goal of individual development, or so it would appear, is to create a society of solipsists—if such a thing is conceivable. And while one can perhaps dismiss this as the muddled and confused musings of the lunatic fringe, the tone of this passage does, it seems to me, echo much of the modern conception of the individual, and the concomitant political ethos, which typify our age. 28 Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (New York: Harper & Row, 1968). 29 We in the west sometimes lose sight of the fact that our notions of individualism and freedom, far from being the universal norm, are historically, even for the west, fairly recent innovations. The confrontation between the individual and freedom—or at least freedom as conceived by the modern west—is a recurring theme in the writings of V.S. Naipaul. In his short story “One Out of Many,” he tells the tale of an indentured Indian servant who leaves

The Nature of the Enquiry


It is a simple truism that no society can exist for long if its citizens fail to share common values and observe common behaviours. The liberal state, no less than any other, must ensure at the very least that it imbues its future citizens with those common understandings necessary for the continuance of a liberal democracy. But given the breakdown of shared ideals, and a world of autonomous social atoms, each of whom is a center of self-interest and self-validation, it is difficult to know what the sources of such commonalties could be. As much as we might value individual freedom, we have perhaps arrived at a critical historical juncture. As the authors of one American study put it: It seems to us that it is individualism, and not equality, as Tocqueville thought, that has marched inexorably through our history. We are concerned that this individualism may have grown cancerous—that it may be destroying those social integuments that Tocqueville saw as moderating its more destructive potentialities, that it may be threatening the survival of freedom itself.30

What happens to our culture when politics maintains the distinction between separate selves so firmly as to deny the possibility of shared goals and common purposes? What is the fate of individuals when the political culture is no longer capable of capturing the imagination of its citizens by imbuing public life with a shared vision of the good? Given the conception of the self embraced by rightsbased theories, what are the educational implications of an ethic which emphasizes the individual and private over the communal and public? Can an individualistic rights-based ethic adequately account for those human excellences which can only flourish in the collective? Or, are the communitarian critics correct in maintaining that liberalism necessarily erodes those virtues and social advancements which can only come about through a common striving in a civilized society—virtues which are, as I shall argue below, the hallmarks of the liberally educated person? As it is impossible to maintain any extended argument on such a broad front as “liberalism,” certain caveats are needed. I want to emphasize again that my concern lies with the communitarian challenge to traditional liberal theory, and, in particular, with those strands of the communitarian critique I have outlined above. This means Bombay and moves with his master to Washington, D.C., where he eventually buys his way out of servitude and obtains his freedom. The story concludes with the narrator speculating about the nature of his new-found liberty: “I see the dancers but they are separated from me as if by glass. Once, when there were rumours of new burnings, someone scrawled in white paint on the pavement outside my house: Soul Brother. I understand the words; but I feel, brother to what or to whom? I was once part of the flow, never thinking of myself as a presence. Then I looked in the mirror and decided to be free. All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and have a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a certain number of years. Then it will be over.” V.S. Naipaul, “One Out of Many,” in In a Free State (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), pp. 57-58. 30 Robert N. Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart (London: University of California Press, 1985), p. viii.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

that I shall all but ignore the challenge to liberalism brought by representatives of other schools, such as conservatism, Marxism, libertarianism, and feminism. Likewise, I should perhaps reiterate that the educational ideal which concerns me here is that of a liberal education. Others may hold different educational ideals; my aim is to show that the ideals of a liberal education can rest only uneasily (if at all) alongside an ethic that excludes the central role of community in the formation of the individual. Very broadly, my argument falls into three parts. First I offer an historical account of liberalism (emphasizing in particular its roots in both Kant and the idea of the social contract). I then address contemporary liberalism. The idea of individual rights as the basis for the liberal state has, of course, been advanced by many different philosophers in many different ways, and the choice which presents itself is to provide a sketchy reading of a number of such theorists, or to concentrate more fully on one or another. I have opted for the latter strategy, and have chosen to examine what is arguably the paradigmatic expression of contemporary liberal theory, the idea of “justice as fairness” articulated by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. Finally, in the third section, I make the positive case for communitarianism, suggesting that it provides a political setting for a richer education. Educational theory is irrevocably caught up with moral prescriptions, and moral questions, in turn, give rise to political considerations. Thus educational theory is, at bottom, a discussion about the ends of the just society, and any such discussion must necessarily draw on the resources of political philosophy. The two liberal traditions and their differing claims concerning the political good are the focus of chapter three. I suggest that the debate between a liberalism founded on a theory of utility and one founded on a theory of rights has now been decided in favour of the latter, and that the dominant social discourse of liberal democracies is predicated on rights-based liberal theories. Chapter four examines one of the central tenets of deontological conceptions of justice: namely, the idea that the right is understood as prior to the good, and, consequently, the subject must be understood as prior to and independent of its purposes and ends. Following Kant, I argue that the priority of the right is a coherent construct only insofar as we have recourse to the metaphysical realm. While this was clearly recognized by Kant (who posited a transcendental or noumenal subject), contemporary liberalism seeks to avoid the obscurity of metaphysical claims, instead recasting deontological liberalism with an empirical face and situating the subject much closer to the real world of lived experience. Much of the resulting incoherence in liberal theory can be traced to the unwillingness of liberals to squarely face what for Kant was a certitude: namely, that moral agency is only possible by a subject who transcends nature, and who participates in a super-sensible, ideal world. Chapter five then examines a second building block of the liberal view of self: the idea of the social contract. By placing the work of contemporary liberal theorists within the larger tradition of the social contract theorists, it is shown how the priority of the right is inextricably embedded in the metaphor of the social contract. Moreover, the picture of the individual given in social contract theories carries us

The Nature of the Enquiry


to a conception of the relationship between communities and selves that marks the limits of the liberal ideal of justice. Chapter six critically examines Rawls’ central idea, “justice as fairness.” The gist of my argument here (and one which can be generalized to other contractarian theories) is that Rawls’ account is predicated on an implausible account of human agency, and for this reason fails to convincingly make the case for a rights-based justice. Chapters seven and eight provide an exegetical summary of two thinkers who are widely conceded to be at the forefront of the communitarian critique of liberalism—Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. What these thinkers share in common is a mistrust of the atomistic individualism inherent in Rawlsian liberalism, and the resultant split in the spheres of public and private morality. And while these writers have very different philosophical agendas, they might legitimately be called “communitarian” thinkers, insofar as they are committed to the belief that moral agency can only arise within the shared values and common understandings of a community. The focus of their criticism may be said to center on how liberal accounts of justice must presuppose an inadequate conception of both the person, and the relationship which holds between an individual and his community. For both MacIntyre and Taylor, Rawlsian liberalism must be read as a specific symptom of a much deeper cultural malaise, and explicit reference to Rawls appears only briefly in their work. Finally, in chapter nine, I examine more carefully the concept of liberal education, and argue that a liberal education represents the educational ideal most appropriate to humane societies. However, contrary to the individualism which is inherent in rights-based justice, I shall maintain that the concept of a liberal education is marked first and foremost, to use R.S. Peters’ famous metaphor, by an “initiation” of the individual into the shared values and common understandings of a community.31 Such common understandings entail notions of civic virtue and communal obligations, and the very idea of a liberal education rests on some common account of public virtue. Furthermore, a liberal education presupposes an ideal of civil association in which society is understood at a deeper level than is given in liberal theory; what is required is a fuller and more coherent account of the political good, one which is capable of rescuing talk of ends from the obscurity of private life. Following Alasdair MacIntyre, who argues that “the crucial moral opposition is between liberal individualism in some form or other and the Aristotelian in some form or another,”32 I argue for a communitarian ethic predicated on MacIntyre’s modified Aristotelian theory of moral development. A communitarian ethic provides a more coherent and compelling account of moral agency, and supplies the philosophical resources for conceiving richer educational 31 R.S. Peters, Ethics and Education, Chap. 2. 32 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame. IN: University of Notre Dame Press), 1981, p. 241.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

and political possibilities. My goal is to illuminate some of the extremely important questions for education which arise from a redrawn map of the political landscape. It is perhaps unfashionable to suggest that many of our practical educational problems arise from rather remote and abstract concerns in political theory. In what follows, I intend to show that the communitarian criticisms of liberal theory challenge us to rethink many of our assumptions about the relationship which holds between individuals and those public institutions which are charged with their education.

Chapter 2

Political Philosophy and Educational Theory In this chapter I want to “map the logical geography” (in Gilbert Ryle’s phrase) of political philosophy. In particular, I want to show why political and moral philosophy are not detached and isolatable areas of enquiry, and why questions about the moral good necessarily entail considerations about the political order. This view of the interdependence of moral and political philosophy is, of course, not one which is universally shared. But in recent years, the idea of moral philosophy as a discrete area of enquiry, detached from the political realm, has come to be regarded as increasingly untenable. For example, Mary Warnock, in her preface to the third edition of Ethics Since 1900, maintains that her decision to omit political philosophy from the book’s first edition now seems “naive” and “in any case impossible [as] it is no longer possible to distinguish moral from political philosophy.”1 In a similar vein, Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that, “the notion that the moral philosopher can study the concepts of morality merely by reflecting, Oxford armchair style, on what he or she or those around him or her say is barren.”2 Similarly, Stuart Hampshire has remarked: Most Anglo-American academic books on moral philosophy have a fairy-tale quality, because the realities of politics, both contemporary and past politics, are absent from them ... . Plato and Aristotle were surely right to think that virtues and vices in government, and in the uses of power, always constitute the greater part of morality, when we come to reflect on our life and our times.3

The tendency to separate moral from political questions explains in large part why philosophers of education (at least in the English-speaking world) have too frequently neglected the political component of educational questions. For, while educational theorists have been quick to point out that moral philosophy is central to educational theory (if not the central question), too frequently the inclination has been to treat moral concepts divorced from political considerations, so that the difficult political issues engendered by educational theory have been unduly neglected. To

1 Mary Warnock, Ethics Since 1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. vii. 2 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. vii. 3 Stuart Hampshire, Innocence and Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 12.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

understand why this is the case, it is first necessary to understand something of the history of modern political philosophy. No definition of political philosophy is uncontested. Both “political’’ and “philosophy’’ are abstract terms, and both are what might be termed “essentially contested concepts.”4 One school of thought maintains that, whatever we take “political philosophy” to be, its meaning rests on the logically prior question of what we understand philosophy itself to be. Various philosophers from various schools have, according to their own philosophical orientation, tried to legislate some narrow definition of what political philosophy is or should be. Predictably, such definitions have run the gamut of philosophical fashion including, of course, the suggestion that there is no such subject, and that what past generations have mistaken for political philosophy is merely the muddled linguistic confusions of proto-philosophers.5 But the temptation to define political philosophy in light of a narrow philosophical partisanship should be resisted. Invariably, such factions hold that philosophy consists of doing “x.” Therefore any activity which consists of “non-x” is not philosophy (or at best it is a very “impure” form of philosophy). Predictably, this allegiance to one school or another results in partisan pronouncements about who can and cannot be counted as a philosopher—political or otherwise. This frequently takes the form of saying something disparaging like, “I agree that y is an interesting thinker; but he or she is hardly what I would call a philosopher” (where “philosopher” is understood to be one who shares the same methodological biases as the speaker). Perhaps, instead of aligning ourselves with a certain philosophical school, it would be more sensible to define political philosophy by examining those texts which compose the canon of political philosophy, and then teasing out a shared set of questions and concerns. For, although the definition of political philosophy may be contested, there is nevertheless a broad consensus that whatever political philosophy may be, it is concerned with the common topics of a series of famous books such as Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Locke’s Treatises on Civil Government, Rousseau’s Discourses and The Social Contract and Mill’s Liberty. Any such canonical list can of course be challenged; but if we examine what political philosophers from Plato to J.S. Mill to Robert Nozick have conceived their task to be, we find that despite the intervening centuries, and obvious differences in emphases, the locus of enquiry has been remarkably stable and consistent and might be succinctly summarized as reasoned debate about questions pertaining to the political ends of a society, and the search for clarity about the fundamental problems associated with humans living together in communities. Thus John Plamenatz defines

4 W.B. Gallie, “Essentially Contested Concepts,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1955-6, pp. 167-198. 5 Thus, Anthony Quinton: “It has been very widely held, indeed, that there really is no such subject as political philosophy apart from the negative business of revealing the conceptual errors and methodological misunderstandings of those who have addressed themselves in a very general way to political issues.” “Introduction” in Political Philosophy, Anthony Quinton (ed.) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 2.

Political Philosophy and Educational Theory


political philosophy as “systematic thinking about the purposes of government.”6 Allan Bloom defines it as “... the quest for knowledge about the best way of life, of the most comprehensive good, or of justice of the best regime.”7 These definitions capture the essence of what political philosophers have traditionally tried to accomplish. They are necessarily very general definitions, for political philosophy has traditionally involved very large-scale reflections about politics. Yet, these definitions also presuppose certain things about the nature of political philosophy, some of which are uncongenial to certain modern modes of philosophizing. Political philosophers, whatever their substantive differences, have assumed that there is a political good which is knowable: that is, rational grounds can be given for accepting or rejecting any particular vision of society. Or as J.S. Mill put it, “The subject is within the cognizance of the rational faculty.”8 Although political prescriptions are obviously not amenable to direct proof in the way that the theorems of mathematics are, it does not follow that the acceptance or rejection of any political vision must depend on “blind impulse or arbitrary choice.”9 We should, following the advice of Aristotle, look for the degree of proof the subject matter allows: [we must] not look for precision in all things alike, but in all class of things such precision as accords with the subject matter, and so much as is appropriate to the inquiry.10

Additionally, political philosophy is the quest for knowledge of the best ideal, not its practical realization. Philosophy can do no more than supply clarity about the fundamental responses to the human problem. However disparate these visions might be, political philosophy is marked first and foremost by competing schemes about the nature of the political good, and how it can best be realized given the conditions of human existence. Political philosophy, then, is best defined as an imaginative, systematic and rational enquiry into the nature of the political good and its justification. The problems which occupied the great theorists of the past tended to be speculative and the answers tentative: What should the laws and constitution of a just and humane society be? What particular institutions are needed to uphold the laws? What mode of education is necessary to sustain the polity? How is political authority justified? These are the substantive questions. But how does political philosophy proceed and what methods does it employ? Again, perhaps the easiest way to determine how political philosophy proceeds is to examine the common questions and clusters of concerns of the canon of political philosophy. And if we examine the great texts of 6 John Plamenatz, “The Use of Political Theory,” in Political Philosophy, Anthony Quinton (ed.) op. cit., p. 19. 7 Allan Bloom, “The Study of Texts”, in Political Theory and Political Education, Melvin Richter (ed.) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 114. 8 J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism (London, J.M. Dent, 1910), p. 7. 9 Ibid. 10 The Nichomachean Ethics, trans. David Ross, p. 14.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

political philosophy, we find that political philosophers have structured their treatises around four central themes: conceptual questions; questions about human nature; factual or descriptive accounts of political institutions and activities; and the positing of ideal ends and normative prescriptions for designing institutions (including, of course, the educational institutions) required for realizing these ends. This characterization suggests that political philosophers of the past were engaged in a number of different kinds of activity. Or, to put it differently, political philosophy may be said to involve logically distinct sorts of questions. For example, from Socrates on, the first task of political philosophy is the clarification of words and phrases used in political discussion, for central to political enquiry are such problematic concepts as justice, freedom, authority, equality, choice, human nature, and individuality. Hence, a crucial part of political philosophy is to make explicit how these concepts function in political discourse and unmask the presuppositions which underlie their use. Such enquiries demand logical rigour. Yet, political philosophers also framed investigations into human nature, criticized the actual political institutions of society, and speculated about the ends that governments should pursue. The study of institutions involves the political philosopher in empirical claims, while the positing of ideals obviously draws on the resources of moral philosophy. Thus, political philosophy, in the words of George Grant, demands a “steadfast attention to the whole.”11 Our understandings about the political realm do not fall within neat and tidy academic categories, but involve gathering our knowledge from whatever sources are capable of aiding the enquiry. In short, political philosophy has never been in any way a “pure” enquiry, if by that term is meant a discipline with an exclusive set of concepts and truth tests; rather, it has always been somewhat of an eclectic enterprise, a field of study which borrows liberally in piecing together whatever relevant knowledge and understanding is available. For example, perhaps the central issue in political philosophy surrounds the concept of human nature. The starting point of political philosophy has always been the Socratic question, “How ought we to live?”, and the question of how we should live can only be answered in light of a coherent response to the logically prior question of who we are. Hence, at some very early point in the enquiry, a view of human nature is either tacitly assumed or explicitly argued for, and the political philosopher must then offer reasons and evidence for what he takes to be a convincing vision of the political good based on certain claims about human nature. As Isaiah Berlin notes, “The ideas of every philosopher concerned with human affairs in the end rest on his conception of what man is and can be.”12 For example, is it true, as Jeremy Bentham thought, that “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pleasure and pain” [so that it is for the two sovereign universals of pain and pleasure alone to “point out what we ought to do as well as to determine what we

11 George Grant, English-Speaking Justice (Toronto: Anansi, 1974). 12 Isaiah Berlin, ‘Georges Sorel,’ in Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), p. 298.

Political Philosophy and Educational Theory


should do”?]13 Are we creatures who are good by nature, but then become corrupted by the conventions of an artificial and degenerate society, as Rousseau maintained? Are we, as Kant and Sartre maintained, creatures who are essentially free to choose our own ends, or was Aristotle correct in arguing that man is a social animal, one whose true nature can only be discovered through civil association in the polis? Or was Michael Oakeshott closer to the truth when he denied that human beings have a nature, but are rather creatures with only a history and culture? Ultimately then, when a political philosopher asks “What is human nature?”, he is asking for more than a description of how we are to employ this term. Rather, what is being sought is a context within which we can identify what conduct is appropriate to humans. As Tasos Kazepides remarks: The importance of recognizing the universal truths about human beings lies in the fact that they set the boundaries of human possibilities; and, consequently, the boundaries of our moral code and our social and educational policies.14

Clearly, we cannot adduce ideals which defy what is humanly possible. The establishment of facts about human nature is, therefore, also the establishment of a context of normative significance. In this sense, the concept of human nature carries with it both a descriptive and prescriptive duality. It is not so much a question of having the facts of human nature on the one side and the values or norms on the other but rather that the facts and values are best understood as dual elements, like the warp and weft of a fabric, that constitute a conceptual whole. The concept of human nature is, therefore, a whole that enjoys a duality; it is at once descriptive and prescriptive.15 In brief, “the concept of human nature provides a ground for action in the human world.”16 This means that when in political argument recourse is had to human nature, it is being claimed that the facts descriptively are so-and-so and that these facts prescriptively are significant or normatively authoritative for comprehending human conduct.17 Yet, the duality of the concept of human nature clashes head on with a modern philosophical article of faith, one which has held considerable currency in the ethical writings of this century. The so-called “naturalistic fallacy” states that one cannot derive normative prescriptions from factual premises. Or to put it in different terminology, no set of descriptive statements can entail an evaluative statement without the addition of at least one evaluative premise. Hence the “ought” and the

13 Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, J.H. Burns and H.L.A Hart (eds.) (London: Methuen, 1970), p. 11. 14 Tasos Kazepides, “Human Nature in Its Educational Dimension,” Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 13, 1979, pp. 55 - 63. 15 Christopher J. Berry, Human Nature (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International, 1986), p. 36. 16 Ibid, p. 42 17 Christopher J. Berry, Human Nature, p. 37.


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“is,” the value and the fact, and the normative and the descriptive must be kept in logically separate compartments. The origins of the view that there exists such a fallacy can be found in David Hume18 but it was given its most pervasive modern formulation by G.E. Moore in Principia Ethica.19 Fortunately, we need not rehearse the arguments for and against the naturalistic fallacy in detail. For our purposes, it is enough to make some general observations. First, it should be remembered that unlike, say, the rule of the excluded middle, there is far from universal agreement that the naturalistic fallacy really is a fallacy.20 Certainly, this fallacy was unrecognized in the ancient world, where justice was unequivocally founded on claims about the way things are in nature. Nature presented us with primal truths and directed us to a highest good, under which all other goods could be known in a hierarchy of subordination and superordination. Yet, even Hobbes and Locke—the political philosophers who may be said to be the first to consciously reject the ancient idea that nature can direct us to a highest good—founded their idea of the social contract on an idea of the way things are. So, while nature may no longer be able to provide us with the highest good, it could nevertheless teach us something about the greatest evil—a life which was nasty, brutish, and short. Reflection on the state of nature provided principles (albeit negative ones) on which to construct a theory of the best political regime. Clearly, then, the contract theories of Hobbes and Locke are examples of the naturalistic fallacy. Furthermore, if we take seriously the fact-value distinction, and all that it implies for questions concerning human nature, it is difficult to know how political philosophy, at least as the subject has traditionally been conceived, could long survive this strict bifurcation. As Anthony de Crespigny and Alan Wertheimer comment: The philosophical belief in the complete logical gulf between descriptive statements and statements of value has contributed to the doctrine of neutrality in both philosophy and political science. This belief, however, need not be accepted. We may quite properly support a value position by relating it in an intelligible way to human needs, wants,

18 Hume remarks: “In every system of morality which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning ... or makes observations concerning human affairs; when, of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulation of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however of the last consequence. For as this ought or ought not expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time a reason should be given for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.” Treatise on Human Nature, Bk. III, Part I, Section 2. 19 G.E. Moore’s central thesis was that goodness is a non-natural property discovered by intuition, and that it was impossible to identify natural with non-natural properties. 20 See, for example, John R. Searle, “How to Derive an Ought from an Is,” in Phillipa Foot (ed.), Theories of Ethics (Oxford: OUP, 1967), pp. 101 - 114.

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and purposes. Indeed, there can be no other way of justifying values since they have no independent existence of their own.21

It is the fact-value distinction which more than anything divides contemporary conceptions of political philosophy from both its ancient and modern precursors. And it is in the writings of Immanuel Kant that this distinction is taken to its apogee. Kant denies that the empirical facts of human nature have any implications for ethical theory, and the debate between a liberalism which is founded in Kant against the liberalism of J.S. Mill can be read largely as a debate over the role that human nature has to play in arriving at a suitable political ethic. We shall examine this debate in the next chapter; for now, it is sufficient to note that if we deny, with Kant, that considerations of human nature have any bearing on moral theory, then moral philosophy must be radically reformed. Whereas moral philosophers had traditionally looked to human nature, and the political context in which that nature realized itself for guidance, morality had now to be studied apart from the living world that humans actually inhabit. The facts of our existence were no longer apposite in arriving at universal prescriptions. Instead, moral imperatives, if they were to be truly universalizable, could only be adduced a priori. Kant’s transcendentalism represents a sea change of the first magnitude for political philosophy. Political philosophy could, of course, still provide normative prescriptions. But the challenge presented to political philosophers was to arrive at an Archimedean point of view: moral prescriptions must be removed from the lived reality of a particular political context if they were to avoid charges of contingency and arbitrariness, and yet not so far removed as to render them useless for the practical lives that humans actually encountered in a particular social world. Henceforward, the normative component of political philosophy was uninformed by the particularities of a specific political milieu. Whereas political philosophers had traditionally tried to construct universal prescriptions based on principles which were adduced from the world they encountered in their everyday lives, such understandings were now ruled out of court. In short, the task faced by the political philosopher was no longer to arrive at political prescriptions by moving from the particular to the general; rather, it was to begin from a timeless, ahistorical vantage point, one where moral imperatives stood impervious to the changing historical realities of the social world and the facts of human nature. Political philosophy could no longer be construed as a “steadfast attention to the whole;” instead, the facts of the social world and the moral prescriptions which were intended to ameliorate the human condition had to be kept in logically distinct compartments. In this century, the fact-value distinction insisted upon by Kant was taken even further. The characterization of political philosophy as a normative enterprise has come up against two other broad objections, both of which have had an equally stultifying effect on political philosophy, particularly within the English-speaking 21 Anthony de Crespigny and Alan Wertheimer (eds.), “Introduction,” in Contemporary Political Theory (Chicago: Aldine-Atherton, 1970), p. 5.


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world. Broadly, each of these objections corresponds with one of two major philosophical developments which have dominated English-speaking philosophy in this century—logical positivism and linguistic analysis. The former holds that political philosophy is simply a tag left-over from pre-scientific times, and denies that philosophy should properly be concerned with judgements of value, while the latter defines philosophy in such a narrow way as to greatly restrict its usefulness to political enquiry. For both procedural and substantive reasons, these philosophical schools have left a legacy which is hostile to the very idea of political philosophy as sketched above. Positivism holds that all human knowledge is contained within science. Logical positivism is the philosophical doctrine which holds that only that which is empirically verifiable (except for mathematics and logic, which are true by definition of the meaning of their terms) is meaningful. The propositions of metaphysics, religion, aesthetics and political theory, for example, or any other discourse which relies on propositions which defy scientific verifiability, are seen as either emotive expressions or quite literally meaningless, and are, thus, simply excluded from philosophical concerns. For logical positivism, philosophy just was the philosophy of science, nothing more and nothing less. Political philosophy, on this account, is simply a spurious tag left-over from pre-scientific times, and the role of the political philosopher was not so much to engage in reasoned debate about political values, but to provide a “clarificatory” service to those who got on with the first-order work of empirical investigation. Henceforth, the primary political questions (in common with any other sort of social enquiry) were to be construed exclusively as scientific ones. While logical positivism per se held only a short vogue in philosophical circles, the scientific spirit which informed positivism (aligned with the doctrine that all genuine statements must be analytic or empirical) had an enormous impact on how political enquiry was subsequently conceived. Obviously, given the positivistic thesis, political understanding is primarily, if not exclusively, an empirical and scientific undertaking. As with any scientific investigation, methodological rigour demands a neutral attitude towards political phenomena on behalf of the observer. That there can be an impartial, neutral and unbiased observer in any social enquiry is, of course, simply a slogan of the positivist ideology, one which is necessary to serve the demands of scientific rigour and methodological neatness. Nevertheless, the ideal of the detached, objective enquiry is one which exerted a great influence on the way political philosophy was conceived, and which relegated the role of the political philosopher to that of an underlabourer to the real work of the enterprise, which was, on the positivist account, exclusively scientific and empirical. Under the sway of positivism, political philosophers were confined to facilitating the empirical enquiry by engaging in such proper philosophic tasks as clarifying the difficult concepts any such enquiry is bound to engender, or sorting out the difficult technical problems associated with verification in the social sciences. However naive this crudely positivistic view may now appear, it was nevertheless at one time extremely influential. For example, serious people announced that

Political Philosophy and Educational Theory


“political philosophy” (at least in the traditional meaning of that phrase) was dead, and many scholars spent their careers trying to arrive at a “scientific” understanding of the political realm. Yet however premature the reports of its death, political philosophy still bears the legacy or the empirical spirit of the positivist philosophy. Not surprisingly, some are reluctant to give up the positivist ghost, and it is not too unusual, even at this late date, to find the normative questions which necessarily attend on any political discussion being either ignored, or simply treated as unproblematic and straightforward empirical questions. None of this is to suggest that there is not an empirical component to political philosophy. Indeed, as I argue below, political philosophy must be grounded in an understanding of the world in which we live. It is only to make the point that the positing of normative positions, and the problems of justification associated with such questions, has always been an integral part of political philosophy, and that such questions are simply beyond the ken of science. By denying the value-laden nature of political enquiry, positivism excluded from its purview traditional notions of what political philosophy was, and ignored what political philosophy could do. But if political philosophy is ill-served by a too-exclusive emphasis on the empirical, it is equally undone by a too narrow focusing on the conceptual and the accompanying tendency to bog down in interminable discussions about meaning. This is the second fate which befell the traditional idea of political philosophy in this century. In the 1940s and 50s, largely under the influence of such figures as Moore, Wittgenstein and Austin, there developed in the English-speaking world a certain view of the proper procedures of philosophy, one which gave rise to such distinctive labels, and, on some views, such distinctive activities as “linguistic philosophy,” “conceptual analysis” or “ordinary language philosophy.” Such terms cover a wide variety of activities, and perhaps encompass an even broader list of philosophers. The fact is that all western philosophy, in some form or another, may be said to involve the analysis of concepts. (Indeed, it is difficult to conceive how philosophy, at least as it is understood and practiced in the western tradition, could proceed without analysis of some sort.) While it would be wrong to suggest that these three views represent a single school of thought, or that there are not important differences among them, there is nevertheless a sufficient commonality of purpose to speak meaningfully of the “analytic tradition,” or the so-called “revolution in philosophy.” Although not overtly hostile to the idea of political philosophy per se, the analytic school engendered certain philosophical trends which, when taken together, undermined what I take to be the central, historical project of political philosophy to be: that is, a reasoned debate concerning questions of ultimate value grounded in the phenomenal world. The analytic tradition defines philosophy as a “secondorder” discipline, parasitic upon those endeavours which humans actually engage in the world of experience. On this view, the philosophical task is seen as one which is exclusively concerned with the clarification of the language used in first-order activities. Philosophy, on this account, is said to have no special subject matter of its own, but takes as the basis of its enquiries the language which typifies a specific


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human activity, making explicit the logical interconnections among concepts in a certain domain of human endeavour. Thus, the proper task of the political philosopher was no longer to provide prescriptions for the good life, but rather to clarify and examine the concepts of political discourse from a position of detached neutrality; the philosopher of education would perform a similar task for education, the philosopher of religion would examine religious language, and so on. Philosophers were, of course, free to leave the realm of second-order reflection to offer positive prescriptions in the real world; but whenever the philosopher left off the analytic task and sullied his hands with facts about the everyday world, he ceased to be philosophical, for by definition philosophy was deemed a second-order, abstract activity at one remove from the lived historical world, and concerned entirely with clarifying and analysing concepts. Here again the job of the philosopher was characterized in terms of a neutral underlabourer for those who got on with the first-order activities of the phenomenal world. The philosophical task was seen as largely therapeutic, in that it could help clear the conceptual muddle and confusion in which such first-order activities were carried out. As Wittgenstein remarks in a famous section of the Tractatus: Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity. ... The result of philosophy is not “philosophical propositions”, but the clarification of propositions. Without philosophy, thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and give them sharp boundaries.22

Philosophers presented themselves as bringing to first-order activities the precision, clarity, and coherence which were their professional prerogative. For example, within the realm of political enquiry, analytic philosophers held that it was an indispensable precondition of answering questions about, say, justice or authority, that we first give an explicit account, an analysis, of the ideas of justice and authority, and then tease out the logical implications of these concepts. Obviously, such analyses involve more than merely giving verbal equivalents, for to simply substitute synonyms for the concept under question provides nothing more than can be given in the dictionary. In Gilbert Ryle’s famous phrase, the task of the philosopher was to “map the logical geography of a concept.”23 If, for example, I am analysing the concept of authority, I must say in other words what authority is, but those “other words” must do more than merely provide a list of fairly close or equivalent terms. I must isolate and describe just those independent properties which are essentially related to the concept of authority, and describe them in sufficiently independent terms if my analysis is not to lapse into circularity. But, if the final court of appeal on the success of an analysis is to the ordinary language, then this raises the question of what language use is to count as ordinary, and who is to decide. Critics have been quick to suggest that what passes for neutral 22 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, translated by D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuiness (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961), 4.112. 23 Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1949).

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“logical analysis,” is in fact an analysis based on the usage favoured by a certain class or a certain type of person, so that what we end up with is not so much a detached, objective analysis, but a disguised normative prescription. Despite the analytic school’s preoccupation with “ordinary” language, it is surely damaging to the plausibility of the analytic approach that no one has successfully told us what, exactly, this much-vaunted “ordinary” language is. A further line of criticism maintains that even if we allow that such a thing as ordinary language exists, we have little reason to think that by reflecting on how people actually use the language, we can uncover any great truths.24 For clearly people can and do abuse and misuse the language. Bertrand Russell, for one, thought that a focus on “ordinary language” led to a “preoccupation with the silly things that silly people are accustomed to say.” The methodological preoccupation with ordinary language led to two unfortunate tendencies, both of which were detrimental to traditional notions of political philosophy. The first was an inclination to treat concepts as absolutes, as somehow fixed and eternal, existing outside of history and continuing unchanged through time. Many practitioners of the analytic school seemed to see it as their task to arrive at a “true” or “correct” analysis of a concept, and implicit in much of their philosophy is the idea that if only concepts were subjected to enough analysis, the essence of the concept would be made clear and placed beyond the pale of disputation. As Robin Barrow comments: On this view, the task of analysing concepts is seen as one of getting hold of the correct and eternally true account of it. Education, for example, is what it is, and the concept waits to be captured and pinned down, rather like a butterfly being pursued by a lepidopterist. … When expressed clearly in this way, it may be doubted whether many philosophers would admit to being absolutists, but none the less many proceed to analyse concepts as if this is what they believed: they search for the necessary and sufficient conditions of tableness, education, or courage, as if there could only be one correct account, regardless of time or place.25

Barrow is probably correct when he states that “When expressed clearly in this way, it may be doubted whether many philosophers would admit to being absolutists.” Yet analytic philosophy doubtlessly did engender an unfortunate tendency to “absolutism,” one which not only seemed to deny the simple truth that our words and concepts alter over time, but obscured the equally important truths that a large part of what it means to philosophize is to be sensitive to the shifts in

24 The all-embracing faith in the ordinary language seems at times to border on the mystic. Keith Graham, in his book on J.L. Austin, reports that he has “... heard a philosopher ask (and get away with asking) the rhetorical question, ‘How could ordinary language possibly be wrong?’” Keith Graham, J.L. Austin: A Critique of Ordinary Language Philosophy (Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1977), p. 2. 25 Robin Barrow & Geoff Milburn, “Analysis,” in A Critical Dictionary of Educational Concepts (Brighton: Wheatsheaf, 1986), p. 15.


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our language. If philosophy is to prove a useful guide to understanding our world (and what else should it be?), then philosophical understandings must be grounded in the historical world in which we live and not some other. Obviously, an absolutist view of concepts as unchanging and immutable entities, not subject to historical, economic and social forces, does little to further our understanding about the messy and contentious facts of our own existence. Philosophy becomes an increasingly sterile and scholastic exercise and, like the Medieval schoolmen before them, much analytic philosophy seems to have degenerated into little more than neo-scholastic quibbles over details.26 Perhaps a more unfortunate tendency of the analytic school was a certain impoverishment of the philosophical imagination, a narrowing of what philosophy could profitably do. Taking seriously (or perhaps misinterpreting!) Wittgenstein’s dictum that “Of what we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence,” many analytic philosophers refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of any tradition of philosophy which, proceeding from different assumptions, tried to articulate that “of which we cannot speak.” Philosophy in the analytic mode inexorably worked to cut itself off from those larger questions (not to say the answers that previous generations of philosophers had supplied) which historically had provided political philosophy with its raison d’être. This truncation of the philosophical imagination had a particularly debilitating effect on political philosophy for at least two reasons. First, political philosophy is necessarily a speculative enterprise, one that is engaged in normative prescriptions for deciding questions about what, ideally, the best political arrangements should be.27 Again, we should follow Aristotle in looking only for that degree of proof the subject matter allows, and keep in mind Burke’s dictum that “Politics is not geometry.” But if in our quest to prescribe ideal political strictures our philosophical energies are harnessed to the analysis of the words and concepts of the present order, the so-called “ordinary” language, then we are constrained by the limits that ordinary language sets to our ways of thinking, and it is difficult to know how we could break out from this circle. It is for this reason that analytic philosophy has often been condemned by radicals as being politically conservative, for the first premise of analytic philosophy 26 The analytic school has certainly produced its share of fantastic debates. Keith Graham reports that he has heard two philosophers try to settle the question about whether one can be mistaken about the nature of his own intentions “by pitting against each other the idioms ‘I didn’t want it all along’ and ‘I didn’t want it after all.’ One of the unfortunate consequences of an undue attention to language is the tendency to mistake idiomatic and vernacular expressions for ‘philosophically interesting’ locutions. One of the ironies of analytic philosophy is that some of its practitioners are at times almost deaf to the different registers of speech which typify a natural language. 27 Keith Graham reports that when he made the claim that ordinary language philosophy was “Deeply rooted in the English intellectual tradition [of empiricism], a feeling for concreteness and particularity, and a mistrust of high-flown abstractions and generalisations ... ” his dubious colleague responded with, “Well, could you give me an example?” (Keith Graham, J.L. Austin, op. cit., pp. 3-4).

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would seem to prevent any significant cultivation of the philosophical imagination. Obviously, political philosophy is an imaginative enterprise, and it is only too easy for ordinary language philosophy—by too narrowly focusing upon usage at the expense of larger questions—to constrain the philosophical imagination and militate against novel and alternative understandings about the world. Second, if we grant that the starting point of political philosophy is the Socratic question, “How ought we to live”, then any answer we posit obviously incurs certain empirical claims about human nature. But, as we have seen, the analytic school encourages a certain division of labour so that facts and values remain isolated, and defines the philosophical task in such a way as to place empirical claims—no matter how general or trivial—beyond the scope of philosophical enquiry. Yet, political philosophy proceeds neither ex nihilo, nor from some timeless conceptual vantage point; rather, it proceeds by taking account of the particularities of the world in which, as a matter of fact, we happen to live, and builds a speculative edifice upon such concrete understandings of the human condition as we have at our disposal. One must acknowledge that whatever its shortcomings, the analytic tradition did engender in its adherents a respect for clarity and precision in language and a respect for rigorous argument. The techniques of analysis do provide a powerful tool, and provided that they are recognized as such, then much insight can be gained. But as J.L. Austin himself admonished, the ordinary language provides us with at best a “first word,” a point of departure. Implicit in Austin’s observation is the acknowledgement that every method of philosophy contains within it its own limitations. When it concentrates too exclusively on a preoccupation with language, analytic philosophy tends to overlook the reality of the larger social world and neglect other fundamental philosophical tasks—tasks which have traditionally been the province of political philosophy. Such oversights greatly limit its bearing on political philosophy. No matter how competently and thoroughly done, the analysis of political concepts per se is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for political philosophy—what is further required is some way of accounting for the messy, untidy and contentious facts of our existence, and providing a justification for the political institutions of a society.

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Chapter 3

The Two Liberal Traditions At its most elemental level, liberalism is a theory of social arrangements which banishes from the political realm all talk of ultimate ends. Central to the liberal ethic is the view that a plurality of incommensurable ends exists, such that any interference by the state in ordering these claims, in giving preference to one over another, is seen as an arbitrary and unwarranted intrusion into the private realm of the individual. Because individuals choose diverse ends, and we can never know in advance what particular ends an individual may choose, societies are best arranged when individuals are allowed the freedom to realize such ends as they may choose. The core thesis of liberal theories is that the state should not impose any particular conception of the good life on its citizens, or justify political decisions by preferring one vision of human excellence to another. Instead, the state must remain steadfastly neutral over the particular ends an individual may choose, always provided that such ends are compatible with the freely-chosen ends of other individuals. Isaiah Berlin, in what one critic has called “the most influential essay of post-war political theory,”1 nicely captures the essence of the liberal ideal. In “Two Concepts of Freedom,” Berlin argues: The world that we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realization of some of which must necessarily involve the sacrifice of others. Indeed, it is because this is their situation that men place such immense value on the freedom to choose; for if they had assurance that in some perfect state, realizable by men on earth, no ends pursued by them would ever be in conflict, the necessity and agony of choice would disappear, and with it the central importance of the freedom to choose.2

In view of choices between “ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute,” Berlin argues that the negative freedom engendered by a plurality of values seems “a truer and more human ideal” and that “to assume all values can be graded on one scale” is to “deprive men, in the name of some remote, or incoherent ideal, of much that they have found to be indispensable to their life as unpredictably self-transforming beings.” Berlin concludes that “the ideal of freedom to choose

1 Michael Sandel, “Introduction,” in Michael Sandel (ed.) Liberalism and Its Critics (New York: New York University Press, 1984), p. 7. 2 This essay has been reprinted in numerous places. I refer to the version in Sandel, (ed.), Liberalism and Its Critics, op. cit., pp. 16-36.


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ends without claiming eternal validity for them”3 is the hallmark of a civilized and politically mature society: To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.4

In light of the ultimate plurality of values, liberalism views the ideal function of the state to be that of a regulator, limited to ordering those social arrangements which both optimize the freedom of individuals to choose their own ends, and which promote the active progression toward such ends. This commitment to individual freedom is the sine qua non of liberalism, and in practice it means that liberals— in the name of individual freedoms—are often called upon to defend what they oppose. Liberals must constantly distinguish between endorsing a practice or merely allowing it; between actively valuing a thing and simply tolerating it. It is one thing, they argue, to allow such things as pornography, abortion, or “hate literature;” it is something else to positively endorse them. But why, it may be asked, should tolerance and freedom prevail when other important values are also at stake? Often, at least at the popular level, the fashionable answer involves some sort of moral relativism. Values, it is said, are merely subjective, and who are we to impose our values on others? But freedom and tolerance are values as well, and one can hardly defend ultimate values by arguing that no values can be defended. Clearly, the relativist defence of liberalism is no defence at all. What, then, can be the basis of the freedom and tolerance which the liberal invokes?5 Contemporary liberal theory supplies two alternatives, one utilitarian, the other Kantian. Utilitarians follow J.S. Mill in endorsing a negative concept of freedom: The only freedom that deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.6

When asked why freedom is good, the answer is that freedom is valuable in that it contributes to the greater social utility, “the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions.”7 In short, the state should not impose on its citizens a preferred way of life, because such a move would diminish from the total sum of human happiness. 3 Ibid., p. 33. 4 Ibid., p. 34. 5 It perhaps needs to be stressed that liberals are not logically committed to subjectivism. In the liberal state, not just anything goes. To put it tautologically, liberals are committed to liberal values: toleration, freedom, autonomy, and the like. But liberals are logically forced to concede that sometimes there is no rational choice to be made between or among certain values; one simply pays the money and takes the chance. 6 John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty,” in Utilitarianism, Liberty & Representative Government (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1910), p. 75. 7 Ibid., p. 74.

The Two Liberal Traditions


But utilitarianism, charge its critics, by aiming to serve the general good, conflates the desires of individuals to an aggregate whole, and interprets the welfare of the group as an extension of the principle of rational choice for an individual. It thus fails to take seriously the distinction between persons. Social justice, instead of securing the freedom of the individual to pursue his own good, becomes “the principle of rational prudence applied to an aggregative conception of the welfare of the group.”8 In such a conception of justice, the good of the individual always risks being subordinated to the balance of preferences of the group, for “justice is a name for certain moral requirements which, regarded collectively, stand higher in the scale of social utility.”9 And while Bentham’s dictum that “everybody is to count for one, and nobody for more than one” ensured that utilitarian justice was governed by strict impartiality, and Mill called justice “the chief part, and incomparably the most sacred and binding part, of all morality,”10 and that to have a right is “to have something which society ought to protect me in the possession of,”11 such rights were not absolute, but could be overturned when “some social expediency required the reverse.”12 On the utilitarian account, happiness—”the only thing desirable in and of itself because men do actually value it,”13—not justice, is the ultimate value. The absolute value of happiness makes all other values subservient to its overriding claims. If it could be shown that the overall happiness could be furthered by unjust means, then so be it. As Mill himself acknowledged, there may be some cases “in which some other social duty is so important as to overrule any one of the general maxims of justice.”14 Utilitarianism, then, by seeking to secure justice and individual rights by reference to the idea of utility (or the Greatest Happiness Principle), is seen by many as a too limited basis on which to secure the liberal promise of individual freedom.15 8 J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism, Oskar Priest (ed.) (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957), p. 78. 9 Ibid., p. 77. 10 Ibid. 11 Ibid. 12 Utilitarianism, op. cit., p. 10. 13 Ibid. 14 Ibid. 15 Utilitarians naturally reject this line of argument. Thus, Robin Barrow: “ ... to say that happiness is the sole thing that is morally good in and of itself is, therefore, to say that insofar as there is happiness there is something good, regardless of the terms on which it is gained or the consequences of its being gained, and there is nothing else of which this is true. This is not, of course, to say that utilitarians do not care how happiness is achieved, or would be unconcerned if, as a consequence of their happiness, people were willing to let civilization collapse, for example, and the human race to extinguish itself. For the fully developed theory involves all sorts of considerations about whose happiness should be considered, the length of time we should be concerned with, quantities of happiness, and fair distribution of happiness. A utilitarian would regard a situation in which a few individuals bought their happiness at the cost of the suffering of the majority and the extinction of the human race as deplorable, since on any reckoning such a situation would involve minimal happiness. He would indeed have to concede that in such a situation the happiness of the few constituted a microscopic amount


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

Kantians respond that by failing to secure the priority of justice, utilitarians clear the way for unfairness and coercion. Thus Kantian liberalism seeks to secure the rights of the individual by establishing a basis for the liberal state where justice, not utility, is posited as the primary moral value. But how, exactly, is this claim for the priority of justice to be understood? And in what ways does it distinguish deontological liberalism from utilitarian theories? The claim for the primacy of justice can be understood in two distinct, but related ways. The first is in a straightforward moral sense. When moral principles clash, it is justice, rather than some substantive good, which takes precedence. Liberal justice must remain scrupulously neutral in debates concerning the good, for to favour some particular account would be to favour some ends over others, thus denying to some the freedom to pursue happiness in their own ways. But the primacy of the moral sense of justice alone is hardly sufficient to distinguish a rights-based ethic from other varieties of liberal theory. As we have just seen, Mill himself referred to justice as “the most sacred and binding part of all morality.” How then are we to understand a deontological claim for the primacy of justice? Ultimately, the distinction between deontological accounts of justice and utilitarian accounts rests on the foundational priority of justice given in the former. On this view, the primacy of justice describes not only a moral priority, but a privileged form of justification. What sets deontological liberalism apart is the ultimate ground of individual rights. Kantians hold that any attempt to ground rights in utility is doomed to failure. People find that different things make them happy, and to adopt any particular conception of happiness as regulative would necessarily create a world in which some were denied the freedom to advance their own conceptions of the good by being coerced by the values of others. Man’ s freedom as a human being, as a principle of a commonwealth, can be expressed in the following formula. No one can compel me to be happy in accordance with his conception of the welfare of others, for each may seek his happiness in whatever way he sees fit, so long as he does not infringe upon the freedom of others to pursue a similar end which can be reconciled with the freedom of everyone else within a workable general law—i.e. he must accord to others the same rights as he enjoys himself. (Kant’ s emphasis)16

For Kant, the concept of right could not depend on empirical ends “which can all be summed up under the general heading of happiness:”17 of goodness within an otherwise deplorable state of affairs; but that admission is quite distinct from maintaining that, since a few people are very happy, all is well with the world and that the acts that produced it were therefore right.” Utilitarianism, ibid., chap. 3. 16 Immanuel Kant, ‘On The Common Saying: ‘This May Be True In Theory, but it does not Apply in Practice,’ in Hans Reiss (ed.) (trans. H.B. Nisbet), Kant’s Political Writings (London: Cambridge University Press), 1970. p. 74. 17 Ibid., p. 73.

The Two Liberal Traditions


Men have different views on the empirical end of happiness and what it consists of, so that as far as happiness is concerned, their will cannot be brought under any common principle nor thus under any external law harmonising with the freedom of everyone.18

The concept of right must be “derived entirely from the concept of freedom in the mutual external relationships of human beings” and has nothing to do with “the end which all men seek by nature (i.e., the aim of achieving happiness) or with the recognised means of attaining this end.”19 The moral law, if it was to “hold morally, i.e., as a ground of obligation” could not be subject to empirical (hence contingent) considerations, but “must imply absolute necessity.”20 It could, therefore, only rest in pure philosophy, by which Kant meant a philosophy based solely on a priori principles. Any attempt to construct a moral law which was based on empirical truths or human psychology, no matter how universalizable such truths might be, belonged to mere “anthropology.”21 the ground of obligation ... must not be sought in the nature of man or in the circumstances in which he is placed, but sought a priori solely in the concepts of pure reason, and that every other precept which rests on principles of mere existence, even a precept which is in certain respects universal, so far as it leans in the least on empirical grounds (perhaps only in regard to the motive involved), may be called a practical rule but never a moral law ... all moral philosophy rests solely on its pure part. Applied to man, it borrows nothing from knowledge of him (anthropology) but gives him, as a rational being, a priori laws.22

Kant is unyielding: if the claims of morality were to be absolute and universalizable, then moral laws could not be abstracted from the contingent facts of our experience. Indeed, “everything empirical is not only wholly unworthy to be an ingredient in the principle of morality but is even highly prejudicial to the purity of moral practices themselves.”23 Thus, the moral law must have a basis prior to all empirical ends, for any material condition would undermine its priority. Yet, if we banish all material considerations as a fitting basis for the moral law— if, that is to say, the right is always prior to a particular good—then on what can morality be said to rest? For Kant, the basis of the moral law was to be found in pure reason alone, and pure reason demonstrated that “Nothing in the world—and indeed nothing beyond the world—can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will”24 (Kant’s emphasis). But this good will is “undetermined with

18 Ibid., pp. 73-74. 19 Ibid. 20 Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Lewis White Beck (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959), p. 5. 21 Ibid. 22 Ibid. 23 Ibid., p. 44. 24 Ibid., p. 9.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

reference to any objects. It contains only the form of volition in general, and this form is autonomy.”25 Hence, for Kant, the moral law was founded not on empirical ends—the object of practical reason—but on a view of the subject whose character and color are delivered to us by pure reason alone. And this is a subject who is capable of an autonomous will. The right is prior to the good because the autonomous will of the subject exists prior to any determinate conception of the good which the subject may will. The concept of the subject given prior to and independent of its objects ensures a basis for right which is not subject to a utilitarian social calculus. Equally, the priority of the subject secures a foundation for the moral law independent of the laws of nature, and which depends on neither psychology nor teleology. On the Kantian view of the autonomous volition of the subject, what matters above all is not the particular ends chosen, but the capacity of the autonomous will to choose them: “if freedom of the will is presupposed, morality together with its principles follows from it by the mere analysis of the concept.”26 Thus, for Kant, the foundation of the moral is based not on considerations of general utility, but on the freedom of the autonomous will to actively choose its own ends. It is at their foundational levels, at the laying down of first principles, that we see most clearly the difference between utilitarianism and rights-based theories. Whereas Mill had foregone “any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility,”27 Kant had sought a basis for the moral law on exactly such abstract considerations. And while Kant sought a morality based on “the requirement of pure reason, which legislates a priori, regardless of empirical ends,”28 Mill had set out to refute what he disparagingly referred to as the “a priori moralists.”29 Mill could generously call Kant’s philosophy “one of the landmarks in the history of philosophical speculation,”30 but he reserved some of his most caustic prose for certain nameless philosophers who refused to admit empirical principles into the canon of moral reasoning: ... gravely to argue as if ... mankind had remained till now, and always must remain, without drawing any general conclusions from the experience of human life is as high a pitch, I think, as absurdity has ever reached in philosophical controversy.31

By grounding morality on an abstract concept of right, Kantian liberalism seeks to secure a freedom which is independent of utility, or other determinate theories of the good. As the moral law is derived independently of any determinate conception 25 26 27 28 29 30 31

Groundwork, p.63. Ibid, p. 65. J.S. Mill, On Liberty, op. cit., p. 74. Immanuel Kant, ‘On The Common Saying’, op. cit., p. 73. J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism, op. cit., p. 6. Ibid. J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism, p. 32.

The Two Liberal Traditions


of the good, so too must society be governed by a set of regulative principles which do not in themselves presuppose any particular conception of the good. Instead, such regulative principles must conform to a concept of right, a moral category arrived at through pure reason and given prior to and independent of the good. The Ascendancy of Kantian Liberalism As an ethic which posits the priority of the right over the good, that liberalism which derives from Kant might best be referred to as a species of “deontological liberalism.” And while both utilitarian and deontological theories are marked by an emphasis on fairness, individual rights, autonomous choice, equality, pluralism and the freedom of the individual to actively pursue his or her own conception of the good life from a plurality of conflicting ends, deontological liberalism is, above all else, a theory about justice, and the primacy of justice among political and moral ideals. But justice is here afforded an independent status and is construed apart from any particular notion of what the good life is. Contemporary liberalism rejects any conception of justice which demands that we first determine what constitutes human excellence, and then treat people as they would wish to be treated according to such a determinate conception or any particular theory of human virtue or excellence. Deontological liberalism asserts that it is only by assuring the independent status of justice that we can guarantee the freedom of the individual, and ensure that people who hold diverse theories of human excellence can arrive at a reasonable consensus about what is required of justice. The primacy of justice, construed independently of any determinate conception of human excellence, is the fundamental tenet of the deontological ethic. As John Rawls proclaims on the opening page of A Theory of Justice: Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory, however elegant and economical, must be rejected if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust. Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.32

The inviolability of the individual is the theme which unites various conceptions of deontological liberalism, and one can find similar statements by other major proponents. For example, Robert Nozick writes, Individuals have rights, and there are things that no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).33

In a similar vein, Ronald Dworkin argues that,

32 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 3. 33 Robert Nozick. Anarchy, State and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), p. ix.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education Individual rights are political trumps held by individuals. Individuals have rights when, for some reason, a collective goal is not a sufficient justification for denying them what they wish, as individuals, to have or to do, or not a sufficient justification for imposing some loss or injury upon them.34

But it is Rawls who has formulated the fundamental expression of contemporary liberalism. While it is perhaps somewhat exaggerated to claim, as did Robert Nozick, that “political philosophers now have to work within Rawls’ theory or explain why not,”35 Rawls’ effect on political philosophy has doubtless been profound and lasting, and his Theory of Justice continues to stand as one of the most influential books of contemporary political debate. Rawls’ theory played a large part in rescuing political debate from the doldrums of a lingering positivism, and returning it to its locus classicus: the Socratic question, “What is justice?” Whatever one thinks about Rawls’ conclusions, or way of doing philosophy, it is indisputable that his book has engendered a remarkably fertile intellectual climate. While Rawls proceeded methodologically from within the assumptions of the analytic tradition, philosophers who were hostile to that tradition could not dismiss it as simply another scholastic exercise in clarifying language. Rawls’ defence of liberalism was philosophy in the grand style—inclusive, rigorous and sweeping in its concerns. Moreover, the practical social programs which followed from his positive thesis mattered. Whether one accepted or rejected Rawls’ theory, his argument demanded a reply. But in addition to revivifying political philosophy, Rawls’ thesis marked the ascendance within the liberal state of a Kantian, rights-based liberalism over the varieties of utilitarianism which had traditionally provided the political justification for the liberal state. As the legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart suggested in 1978: I do not think that anyone who is familiar with what has been published in the last ten years, in England and the United States, on the philosophy of government can doubt that this subject ... is undergoing a major change. We are currently witnessing, I think, the progress of a transition from a once widely accepted old faith that some form of utilitarianism, if only we could discover the right form, must capture the essence of political morality. The new faith is that the truth must lie not with a doctrine that takes the maximisation of aggregate or average general welfare for its goal, but with a doctrine of basic human rights. ... Whereas not so long ago great energy and much ingenuity of many philosophers were devoted to making some form of utilitarianism work, latterly such energies and ingenuity have been devoted to the articulation of theories of basic rights.36

The publication of Rawls’ book provides a rough but useful division: prior to Rawls, the public discourse of liberal democracies turned on the belief that the essence 34 Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), p. xi. 35 Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia , p. 183. 36 “Between Liberty and Rights,” in Alan Ryan (ed.), The Idea of Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 77

The Two Liberal Traditions


of political morality depends on utilitarianism in some form or another; since Rawls, the essence of the political good is thought to rest on the rights of the individual. To put it epigrammatically, Kant has displaced Mill as the founding father of the liberal state. Since Rawls, the major preoccupation of contemporary political philosophy has been to articulate a theory of basic rights, and to provide a justification for the liberal-democratic state which does not rest on utilitarian considerations.37 Of course, this division merely acts as a convenient historical mark. As several recent books38 and collection of papers39 readily attest, utilitarianism as a viable political philosophy is far from dead. Moreover, it has often been argued, with more or less success, that attempts to produce a consistent rights-based ethic eventually falter, and in the final analysis such theories begin to more and more resemble the utilitarian theories they would replace.40 Nevertheless, as a glance at the daily media is sufficient to confirm, the language and categories which dominate the public discourse of liberal democracies are increasingly predicated on a rights-based ethic. The prevailing political orthodoxy is that, wherever there is a clash of competing interests, such conflicts can best be resolved by weighing and adjudicating the rights of the opposing parties. Those who perceive themselves as excluded from society’s goods and benefits legitimize their claims on the collective by appealing to their rights, and when injustices occur, society seeks to redress the balance by restoring or establishing individual rights. In short, the tacit understanding in liberal democracies tends to be that the language of individual rights is the only moral discourse appropriate to the modern world, and the only language capable of sustaining social justice. More and more, individual rights have come to function as the final determining ground of morality, and the secular faith in liberal democracies turns on the belief that an ever- increasing body of individual rights and entitlements is synonymous with moral and social

37 Despite Rawls’ claim that his aim “is to work out a theory of justice that represents an alternative to utilitarian thought generally and ... all different versions of it” (A Theory of Justice, p. 22), many have argued that what, in fact, he actually provides is simply another species of utilitarianism. Nevertheless, whatever its shortcomings as a rights-based theory, Rawls’ intent is clear enough: he seeks to secure the rights of the individual by reference to the idea of “justice as fairness.’’ See below, chapter five. 38 Robin Barrow, Utilitarianism: A Contemporary Statement (Hants: Seare and Baybrooke, 1991). 39 See A.K. Sen and Bernard Williams (eds.), Utilitarianism and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). 40 See for example Robin Barrow, Utilitarianism: A Contemporary Statement, op. cit., Chapter I. See also Michael Sandel’s discussion of affirmative action programs in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, pp. 135-147, and H.L.A Hart’s brief, but illuminating discussion of Robert Nozick’s libertarianism, in “Between Liberty and Rights,” in Alan Ryan, The Idea of Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 82-83.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

advancement. As Ronald Dworkin suggests, ours is an age which takes rights very seriously indeed.41 But is an ever-growing body of rights and entitlements the unqualified moral progress its advocates would have us believe? It is axiomatic that the language and categories of a political ethic shape our way of addressing questions concerning the political good and, at a minimum, the elevation of the language of individual rights necessarily alters our sensibilities and encroaches on our ability to think seriously about moral alternatives. Moral questions rarely admit to obvious and simple answers, and it is all too easy to forget that the language of rights is not the only grammar in which to articulate the demands of social justice.42 To quote Hart once more, “as often with such changes of faith or redirection of philosophical energies and attention, the new insights which are currently offered us seem to dazzle at least as much as they illuminate.”43 What is certain is that the institutions, social policies and practices which a rightsbased ethic entail will differ in important and fundamental ways from the social arrangements which follow from alternative ideas of social justice.44 Moreover, one of 41 Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977). 42 In both the popular and academic presses, one cannot help but be struck by the strident militancy of many rights advocates. At times there is a certain unsettling ruthlessness attached to their polemic, an almost religious conviction which harbours little room for doubt about the soundness of their position or the tolerance of alternate views. Too often, challenges to the prevailing orthodoxy are met with the depressingly familiar tactic of disparaging the motivations of those in opposition; such challenges are haughtily dismissed as arising from prejudice, ignoble motives, pathological psychological states, or other forms of irrationality. 43 H.L.A. Hart, “Between Liberty and Rights,” op. cit., p. 77. 44 For example, in 1982 Canada terminated its tradition of parliamentary supremacy by adopting The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That the power of parliament is now limited by the provisions of the charter as interpreted by the judiciary can, of course, be seen as moral and political progress. But these rights are undeniably juristical, and whatever progress has been made has been purchased at the cost of establishing a more litigatious and legalistic society. If we mean by justice the constitutional entrenchment of individual rights, then undoubtedly the Charter will bring about greater justice. But whether such a society is in fact more humane, civil, and conducive to human welfare is clearly a further question. In any case, The Constitution Act of 1982 was far from universally applauded. See Keith Banting and Richard Simeon (eds.) And No One Cheered: Federalism, Democracy and the Constitution Act (Agincourt, Ont: Methuen, 1983). H.L.A. Hart provides an illuminating discussion of the paradox which arises from a sovereign parliament limiting its powers. “[Parliament] in effect makes a choice between a continuing omnipotence in all matters not affecting the legislative competence of successive parliaments, and an unrestricted self-embracing omnipotence the exercise of which can only be enjoyed once. These two conceptions of omnipotence have their parallel in two conceptions of an omnipotent God: on the one hand, a God who at every moment of His existence enjoys the same powers and so is incapable of cutting down those powers, and, on the other hand, a God who enjoys the power to destroy for the future His omnipotence. Which form of

The Two Liberal Traditions


the more intractable problems entailed by rights-based theories is the Protean nature of the concept of individual rights. Any society, no matter how well favoured, has only a finite pool of social goods and entitlements to distribute amongst its citizens, and obviously everyone cannot have the right to everything. Yet the proliferation of rights not only leads to the illusion of unlimited social goods, but perhaps more ominously, seriously undermines the discriminatory power of political discourse. The language of rights is notoriously incapable of making the requisite distinctions between public issues which involve genuine moral consequences, and those issues which merely represent the parochial interests of various self-interested factions. Under the all-embracing concept of “right,” the important becomes easily and readily confused with the trivial.45 Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the language of rights unleashes powers and forces which are easily summoned, but are rather more tricky to subdue. As one critic suggests, “The effort to produce a complete account of justice ... by multiplying rights soon makes a farce of what it multiplies.”46 Quite obviously, any society must limit the proliferation of rights. But given a political ethic which acknowledges only the ultimate incommensurability of values, and the freedom of individuals to choose their own ends from amongst these values, where are we to locate the source of such limits? To what common good do we appeal? Before proceeding, we need to examine more carefully the picture of the individual given in contemporary rights-based theories. For, while Kant posited the autonomous will as the one fact of pure reason, modern theorists seek to avoid this metaphysic ideal, and recast deontological liberalism within an empiricist framework, a language more conducive to the modern turn of mind.

omnipotence—continuing or self-embracing—our Parliament enjoys is an empirical question concerning the form of rule which is accepted as the ultimate criterion in identifying the law.” The Concept of Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), pp. 146-150. 45 Examples of this conflation are legion. To cite two recent instances: the entrance age for children attending Kindergarten in British Columbia schools was in some circles considered primarily a human rights issue; patrons who object to art depicting nudes in public galleries claim that such depictions violate their rights. The point is not that these are illegitimate claims; to the contrary, our society recognizes that these issues do substantively turn on the question of the rights of individuals. But where are the criteria which help us distinguish more clearly between issues such as these and more pressing moral concerns? The language of rights seems to suggest that the depiction of nudes in galleries and the entrance age of Kindergarten children are no less issues about justice and human rights than is torture, euthanasia, or abortion. 46 Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice (New York: Basic Books, 1983), p. xv.

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Chapter 4

The Priority of the Right and the Transcendental Subject In the previous chapter, I argued that the debate between utilitarian and deontological conceptions of justice can be read largely in terms of the foundational priority afforded to justice in the latter. That is, while both utilitarian and deontological theories afford justice a primacy in a straightforward moral sense (in that the claims of justice outweigh other moral considerations), this sense of moral priority is hardly sufficient to distinguish them. Rather, it is from the standpoint of moral foundations, from the laying down of first principles that we best see what is meant by affirming the primacy of justice. On the full deontological ethic, the primacy of justice describes not only a moral imperative, but a privileged form of justification, one in which the priority of the right is derived in a way that does not depend on any particular values or ends. The moral law cannot be implicated in advance with any special ends or purposes, for if it were, it would create a society in which some were denied the opportunity to advance their own ends. Thus, on the Kantian view, the moral priority of justice and its foundational priority hang together: The moral priority of justice is made possible (and necessary) by its foundational priority. Justice is more than just another value, because its principles are independently derived. ... Given its basis prior to all merely empirical ends, justice stands privileged with respect to the good, and sets its bounds.1

In order to avoid the coercion of some by the convictions of others, deontological theorists seeks a basis in which to affirm absolutely the primacy of justice and the sanctity of individual rights. In this sense, deontology opposes not only utilitarianism, but teleological theories in general. Hence, in the deontological scheme, it is justice (derived independently of any determinate conception of the good) which is seen as morally overriding by virtue of its foundational priority. In this chapter, I want to examine more carefully the foundations of the right in the metaphysical morality of Kant, and the view of the moral subject such a foundation must necessarily presuppose. The cornerstone of any moral theory is a certain ideal of the person. If, as Kant maintained, the moral law is to be categorical and absolute, derived prior to all purposes and ends, then certain things must be true of the moral subject.


Michael J. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, op. cit., p. 6


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Kant’s Metaphysics and the Transcendental Subject It is important to grasp what Kant means by a “metaphysics of morals.” When Kant uses the term “metaphysical enquiry,” he is not referring to speculation into the principles of “ultimate reality,” but to a systematic and rigorous study of laws which can only be established by reason. For example, geometry cannot be merely a descriptive science, for if it were, we would be mired in describing the particularity of one or another figure drawn on a blackboard. Without measuring every triangle, we could never say all triangles have the sum of their internal angle equal to two right angles. Yet, we can determine this and other facts about triangles which are universally true and binding for all triangles. Such universal rules are not established inductively, but only through a faculty which Kant calls “pure reason.” In the preface to Foundations of the Metaphysic of Morals, Kant lays out the nature of how any enquiry seeking the universal laws of morality must proceed. Following the ancient Greeks, he divides philosophical enquiry into physics, ethics, and logic, and attempts to lay bare the principle on which such a division rests. All rational knowledge is either material, “and concerns some object,”2 or formal, and “is occupied merely with the form of understanding and reason itself.”3 The latter he calls logic; the former (that is, physics and ethics) correspond to, respectively, either “laws of nature or laws of freedom.”4 The science of nature he calls “physics” while that of freedom he calls “ethics” or “theory of morals.” Kant concedes that “all philosophy, in so far as it is based on experience, may be called empirical;”5 only that philosophy which is based on a priori principles may be called “pure philosophy.”6 Pure philosophy, when merely formal, is called logic; when applied to a definite object of understanding, such as ethics or epistemology, it is called metaphysics. In this way there arises the idea of a twofold metaphysics—a metaphysics of nature and a metaphysics of morals. Physics, therefore, will have an empirical and also a rational part, and ethics likewise. In ethics, however, the empirical part may be called more specifically practical anthropology; the rational part morals proper.7

Just as all the human arts have profited from the division of labour, of ensuring that practitioners within any field of human endeavor limit themselves to a particular job, so, too, can moral enquiry only be furthered if we are careful to separate enquiries into “practical anthropology” (Kant’s name for what we would today call psychology) with enquiries into morals proper—that is, an enquiry which is based on pure reason. This is so because practical knowledge differs in kind from knowledge delivered by 2 3 4 5 6 7

Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 3. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid., p. 4. Ibid. Ibid.

The Priority of the Right and the Transcendental Subject


pure reason, and each requires special treatment and a corresponding special talent, and it is reasonable to suppose that “the combination of these talents in one person” only produces “bunglers.”8 Philosophy which mixes pure principles with empirical ones does not deserve the name, for what distinguishes philosophy from common rational knowledge is its treatment in separate sciences of what is confusedly comprehended in such knowledge.9

Only when metaphysical enquiry is “carefully purified of everything empirical” can we “know how much pure reason can accomplish ... and from what sources it creates its a priori teaching.”10 Metaphysics also assumes an important logical priority. Moral philosophy can borrow nothing from a knowledge of man, for if the moral law is to be absolutely binding and universal, then it cannot be inductively established, but must come from some non-empirical activity of the mind. Its absolute foundation necessitates that moral principles are unconditioned even by the “nature of man or the circumstances in which he is placed,”11 and the “purity and genuineness” of the moral law [can be found] “nowhere else than in pure philosophy; therefore, [metaphysics] must lead the way, and without it there can be no moral philosophy.”12 For unless morals are based on the “a priori practical principles which lie in our reason,”13 they lack the “supreme norm for their estimation”14 and so are subject to “all kinds of corruption.”15 The “supreme norm, “that which is delivered to us by pure reason alone, informs us that “it is not sufficient to that which should be morally good that it conform to the law; it must be done for the sake of the law.”16 Yet how does a metaphysics of morals draw this conclusion? Kant’s answer is the thundering assertion with which he opens his book: “Nothing in the world—indeed nothing beyond the world—can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will.”17 The good will is not good because of “what it effects or accomplishes,”18 nor is it good because of its efficacy in achieving some proposed end. Rather, “it is good only because of its willing, i.e. it is good of itself.”19 And it is this will which is the “highest good and the condition of all others, even of the desire for happiness.”20 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Ibid. Ibid., p. 6 Ibid., p. 5. Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 5. Ibid., p. 6. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid., p. 9. Ibid., p. 10. Ibid. Ibid., p. 12.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

Thus the categorical moral law is made both possible and necessary because of a certain view of the subject, rather than the object of moral experience. This is the subject who is capable of autonomous will: “the metaphysics of morals is meant to investigate the idea and principles of a possible pure will.”21 Only a subject who was capable of submitting to laws of an autonomous will—that is, laws it wills itself—could elevate itself above the world of sense, and, thus, participate in an ideal and absolute realm, one which is independent of our social and psychological inclinations. On Kant’s account, the right is prior to the good, because the subject possesses an autonomous will, a will which exists prior to whatever aims and ends a subject may adopt through the contingencies of history. Ultimately, a categorical moral law rests on the idea of the primacy of the will of the subject, or the idea of freedom, for “... freedom and self-legislation are both autonomy.”22 In short, only the autonomous subject can secure a moral law which is categorical; that is, independent of empirical considerations and based on pure reason, for “the principle of autonomy ... is the sole principle of morals.”23 To put it another way, a categorical moral law is possible only if some claim for the autonomy of the subject can be defended, for “the autonomy of the will ... alone is consistent with freedom.”24 How do we know that we are, in fact, the sort of creature for whom freedom is real? How do we know that in fact we do possess an autonomous will? Of course, the claim for the autonomy of the subject can hardly be an empirical claim, for if it were, it could not do the work required of the deontological ethic in the first place. As Kant points out, “Freedom is a mere idea, the objective reality of which can in no way be shown according to natural laws or in any possible experience.”25 Yet, if the moral law “must be derived exclusively from the property of freedom,”26 and freedom itself cannot be proved “to be real in ourselves and in human nature,”27 then what could be the basis for the claim of the autonomous will? As Kant recognized, there can never be any iron-clad guarantee that we are actually possessed of an autonomous will. Nevertheless, he offers two arguments— one epistemological, one practical—to support the idea of the priority of the subject. Both are forms of transcendental argument, in that they proceed by seeking out the presuppositions of certain indispensable features of our experience. The epistemological argument begins by examining the presuppositions of selfknowledge. Introspection can only deliver to the senses objects of experience, for when I introspect, all I can see are the deliverances of my senses. That is, I can know myself only qua object of experience, as the bearer of this or that inclination,

21 22 23 24 25 26 27

Ibid., p. 7. Ibid., p. 69. Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 59. Ibid., p. 78. Ibid. Ibid., p. 66. Ibid., p. 67

The Priority of the Right and the Transcendental Subject


disposition, temperament, purpose, and so on. Yet this kind of self-knowledge has limits, for I can never get behind the appearances to see what they are appearances of: “A man may not presume to know even himself as he really is by knowing himself through inner sensation.”28 Introspection, or “inner sense,” can never account for something which unites these objects of experience, for if it did, it would immediately dissolve into yet another appearance. Hence, the subject can know objects of experience only as they affect him; what they are in themselves remains unknown. While it follows that while we can never know “things in themselves,” by virtue of the fact that they can only be known by how they affect us, we must nevertheless “admit and assume behind appearances something else which is not appearance, namely, things in themselves.”29 This distinction between the world of sense and the world of understanding, the distinction between the “world in itself” and the world as we know it, is what Kant admittedly calls a “crude” one,30 but one which is inevitable if we are to account for the possibility of self-knowledge, or any knowledge at all. While man “obtains knowledge of himself through inner sense and consequently only through the appearance of his nature,”31 there must nonetheless exist something which is “behind the object of the senses, something else invisible and acting of itself.”32 That is, we must presume something further behind the stream of experiences; an apparatus of the mind which necessarily contributes various ordering elements to our sensations, such as space, time and causality, and which unifies our perceptions into an ordered whole. Without such elements, our experience would be chaotic, scattered, and unintelligible—the experiences of no one. This “something,” which is antecedent to any particular experience, and which unifies our diverse perceptions and holds them together in a single consciousness, is what Kant refers to as “ego as it is in itself.”33 This ego “transcends everything that sensibility can give to consciousness” and brings “the sensuous conceptions under rules.”34 Or, as Michael Sandel puts it, “[the ego] provides the principle of unity without which our self-perceptions would be nothing more than a stream of disconnected and ever-changing representations, the perceptions of no one.”35 This understanding of the ego as the subject as well as the object of experience suggests two ways of conceiving the laws that govern human experience. As part of nature, man is bound by the laws of the sensible world, and, hence, under the laws of causal determination. If freedom were based on any “property of the will according to the laws of nature” then “a free will would be an absurdity.”36 Yet, because it 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36

Ibid., p. 70 Ibid., p. 69. Ibid., p. 70. Ibid., p. 70. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid., p. 71. Michael J. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, p. 8. Ibid., p. 65


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

was only under the idea of freedom that an autonomous will could be ascribed to all rational beings, freedom must be presupposed if we are to think of ourselves as rational creatures endowed with a will: “Now I affirm that we must necessarily grant that every rational being who has a will also has the idea of freedom and that it acts only under this idea.”37 Or again, Thus the question, “How is a categorical imperative possible?” can be answered only to this extent: We can cite the only presupposition under which it is alone possible. This is the idea of freedom ... .38

For Kant, the presupposition of the autonomy of the will was necessarily grounded in the faculty of reason: “Reason must regard itself as the author of its own principles, independently of foreign influences.”39 If the subject is to be truly self-regulating, then we must presuppose freedom of the will as a necessary quality of the subject, as distinct from any particular desires and attachments it may form in the sensible world: ... the notion of a subject prior to and independent of experience, such as the Kantian ethic requires, appears not only possible but indispensable, a necessary presupposition of the possibility of freedom.40

For “All laws ... which are directed to an object make for heteronomy, which belongs only to natural laws and which can apply only to the world of sense.”41 As Michael Sandel comments: Were I wholly an empirical being, I would not be capable of freedom, for every exercise of will would be conditioned by the desire for some object. All choice would be heteronomous choice, governed by the pursuit of some end. My will could never be a first cause, only the effect of some prior cause, the instrument of one or another impulse or inclination.42

Rather, it is only from the vantage point of a subject of experience, as belonging to an intelligible, or super-sensible world, that I can regard myself as free and autonomous, for “independence from the determining causes of the world of sense (an independence which reason must always ascribe to itself) is freedom.”43 Man’s freedom is only possible by positing a subject who is capable of inhabiting a world that is independent of the determining causes of the world of sense. This is the realm of pure reason, a world which, according to Kant, “signifies only a something which

37 Ibid. 38 Ibid., p. 80. 39 Ibid., p. 67 40 Michael J. Sandel, “The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self,” Political Theory, Vol. 12, No. 1, Feb. 1984, pp. 81-86. 41 Ibid., p. 78. 42 Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, p. 9. 43 Kant, Groundwork, p. 71.

The Priority of the Right and the Transcendental Subject


remains when I have excluded from the determining grounds of my will everything belonging to the world of sense.”44 It is here, in the realm of pure reason, that freedom resides. And it is in the realm of freedom that we see how the claims for the priority of the subject and the priority of the right hang together in the deontological ethic. In the same way that justice demands an Archimedean standard of appraisal—that is, one which can detach itself from the contingent without lapsing into arbitrariness—so, too, is there the parallel need to distinguish between a subject and its empirically given ends. As justice requires a standpoint of appraisal which is independent of prevailing social values, so, too, must any coherent conception of the self incorporate a certain measure of detachment between those desires a subject might contingently possess, and who that subject is: Any theory of the self of the form “I am x, y, and z,’’ rather than “I have x, y, and z,’’ collapses the distance between subject and situation which is necessary to any coherent conception of a particular human subject.45

What this means is that the individual must always be construed as an entity which exists antecedently to the particularities of a personal history. The self can never be defined by previous choices or the contingencies of birth and place, for such a definition would undermine the autonomy of the individual and constrain his future choices. Who we are can never be identical with our aims and desires, for, if we were to define an individual in terms of past choices, or the contingencies of a personal history, then such an agent could never truly be free, but would instead be rooted in heteronomy. Freedom demands that we always be able to distinguish the subject from its situation. There must always be some space between those qualities I contingently have, and the person who I am. Without some such distinction, the subject would merely be a “concatenation of various contingent desires, wants, and ends,” one whose identity would: ... blur indistinguishably into [its] situation. Without some distinction between the subject and object of possession, it becomes impossible to distinguish what is me from what is mine, and we are left with what might be called a radically situated subject.46

Now a “radically situated subject,” one which is indistinguishable from its surroundings, is inadequate to the notion of personhood in the same way that a standard of appraisal which is thoroughly implicated in existing standards is inadequate to the idea of justice. As the right must be prior to the good, so, too, must the subject be prior to its ends and attachments. Because the individual must be construed as existing prior to whatever particular ends are sought, what matters above all in the deontological ethic is not the ends chosen, but our capacity to choose. 44 Ibid., p. 81. 45 Michael J. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, p. 20. 46 Ibid., pp. 20-21.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

Yet, if we appeal to an entirely formal conception of the self—that is, one which totally transcends the empirical such as the deontological ethic requires— then it is difficult to know how such a conception can avoid charges of arbitrariness. Any conception of persons which totally detaches the “self” from its empirical features seems “no more than an abstract consciousness (conscious of what?), a radically situated subject given way to a radically disembodied one.”47 Whereas the “radically situated” subject is incapable of standing aloof from the sensible world (and is inadequate to the notion of personhood in the same way that a standard of appraisal which is thoroughly implicated in the values of a society is inadequate to the concept of justice), the “disembodied” subject remains too aloof, incapable of bridging the distance between the ideal realm of pure reason and the human circumstances which provide justice its occasion. Ultimately, Kant’s transcendental, or noumenal subject, one who lacks altogether an empirical foundation, secures the priority of the self, and hence the priority of justice, only at the cost of denying the human situation. To summarize the argument so far: On the Kantian view, the priority of justice is both moral and foundational. It is moral in the sense that the demands of justice outweigh other moral and political interests, no matter how pressing such interests may be. And it is foundational in the sense that justice is an end in itself, given prior to all other ends, and regulative of them. This is so because of a particular view of the subject. As the subject is prior to its ends, so must the right be prior to the good. Hence, society is best governed by principles which do not presuppose any empirical ends (which, we recall, according to Kant, can all be summed up by the concept of “happiness”), for such principles would fail to respect individuals as creatures capable of autonomy; it would treat them as objects rather than subjects, as means instead of ends in themselves. Yet, in Kant’s transcendentalism, the cost of securing the priority of the subject (and hence the priority of the right) is purchased at too high a price; we arrive at an absolute and categorical moral law only by denying the phenomenal world, and it is unclear how disembodied, abstract creatures could, without arbitrariness, produce determinate principles of justice. Contemporary liberal theorists seek to affirm the primacy of justice and build a theory of morality which is both universalizable, and independent of psychological and teleological assumptions. But unlike Kant, who posited the transcendental subject as the one fact of pure reason, and from which followed all morality, contemporary theorists wish to rescue the priority of the right from the obscurities of Kant’s transcendental deduction. Kant, it is argued, wins the primacy of justice only at the cost of ceding too much to the obscurity of the transcendental subject. The metaphysic ideal, for all its advantages, succeeds only by denying human circumstance. So, while Kant saw the transcendental deduction as a necessary presupposition of the categorical nature of the moral law, contemporary theorists wish to avoid metaphysical obscurities. They reject Kant’s first premise—namely, that empirical principles are unfit as a basis for moral law—and argue, as John Rawls 47 Ibid., p. 21.

The Priority of the Right and the Transcendental Subject


puts it, that “moral philosophy must be free to use contingent assumptions and general facts as it pleases.”48 The leitmotiv of contemporary liberal theory may be seen as the attempt to preserve the moral force of Kant’s metaphysical ethics within the scope of an empirical theory. As Rawls further suggests: To develop a viable Kantian conception of justice, the force and content of Kant’s doctrine must be detached from its background in transcendental idealism [and recast within the] canons of a reasonable empiricism.49

As Sandel suggests, the central aim of contemporary liberal theories is to have liberal politics without “metaphysical embarrassment,” and to arrive at a deontological ethic with a “Humean face.”50 In short, what is required is a view which affirms the priority of the subject, yet situates the subject closer to the lived world of human experience than Kant’s ideal metaphysic allows. But how far does this project succeed? Can one salvage the priority of the right without recourse to the difficulties of the subject encountered in Kant’s transcendental deduction? Or, to put it more simply, can one preserve the primacy of justice without recourse to metaphysics? The challenge presented to contemporary deontological liberalism is this: if we follow Kant in seeking an absolute and categorical basis for morality, yet forgo the advantages of the transcendental realm, how are we to avoid charges of arbitrariness? Where, exactly, are we to find our Archimedean point? If our morality is to be neither arbitrary nor contingent, how can we justify morality? The answer given is that we must posit the fiction of an ahistorical and disembodied freely choosing self, one which is defined independently of its desires and ends. In the deontological republic, ideally rational, adult calculators, ignorant of their particular situation and, thus, barred from making particularist claims, choose a fair method of distributing social goods in accordance with the impartial strictures of regulative principles. Thus, for example, John Rawls draws over his choosers a “veil of ignorance” to separate the chooser from the particularities of a personal history, natural endowments, and social place. In this fashion, contemporary theorists believe that they can preserve the autonomy of the individual and the priority of the right without recourse to the transcendental. By positing the fiction of an “original position,” the self of contemporary liberal theory is both removed from the actual social world (freedom demands that we transcend those desires and ends which are brought about by accidents of birth, or which we may possess at a given point in time), yet not too far removed, for the choices that individuals make are informed by some general understandings about the world (morality is, after all, intended for the actual world in which humans must live.)

48 Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 51. 49 Ibid. 50 Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, p. 14.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

In very broad strokes, this is the idea which informs much contemporary liberal theory, and it is within the framework of a domesticated empiricism that such theories hope to secure the primacy of justice.

Chapter 5

The Foundations of Right: Liberalism and the Social Contract Tradition Kant, rejecting all empirical ends as a satisfactory basis for the categorical moral law, ultimately secures the priority of the right by positing a certain view of the subject. This is the transcendental, or noumenal subject, one who is capable of standing outside of time and causality and exercising an autonomous will. On Kant’s account, moral agency is only possible by a subject’s participation in an ideal, super-sensible, intelligible world, one which is independent of the subject’s social and psychological inclinations. While Kant believed that our knowledge of this metaphysical conception of the agent was necessarily vague and obscure, we could, nevertheless, by reflecting on the requirements of freedom, come to see that such a conception of the agent was a necessary presupposition of moral knowledge, or indeed, of any knowledge at all. For Kant, it is the subject’s participation in the transcendental realm which ensures that its identity is given prior to and independent of whatever attachments it might contingently form in the phenomenal world. The right is prior to the good because the subject possesses an autonomous will, a will which exists prior to whatever aims and ends it might adopt through the contingencies of a personal history. We know this to be so by virtue of our reflections about what freedom demands for rational agents—reflections that inevitably require the positing of a transcendental realm. Here, then, lies the essence of Kant’s ethics, and of deontological schemes in general—namely, the idea that the moral law, if it is to be truly categorical and not merely contingent, can only be founded on a view of the subject, rather than the object, of moral experience. In Kant, it is the transcendental deduction which shows us that the subject must be considered prior to its ends; and, because the self is prior to whatever attachments it forms in the world, so, too, must the right be considered prior to any particular good affirmed by a willing subject. The foundational priority of the subject in Kant’s ethics (and those who follow Kant) has important consequences both for politics, and the formation of the individual within the larger polity. For, when we adopt a theory of justice, what is ultimately at stake is nothing less than what it means to be a person. Kantian liberalism affirms that the just state is one which respects the autonomy of the individual and guarantees its citizens the freedom to choose their own ends, consistent with a similar liberty for others. Because liberalism denies the possibility of an objective moral order, the liberal state must, above all else, remain neutral over what ends are to be promoted


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

or suppressed.1 Hence, justice in the liberal state is not concerned with maximizing happiness or otherwise promoting a determinate conception of the good, but with maximizing the conditions for individual choice within a neutral framework. What makes a society just is not the purpose or telos at which it aims, but its very refusal to engage in debates about ends. The role of the state and its public institutions is limited to regulating—in a spirit of strict, procedural, impartiality—those conflicting interests which must inevitably arise from citizens making disparate claims upon a finite pool of social goods. If the state were to impose a view of the good on the individual or posit a collective end, it would fail to respect the autonomy of all subjects; it would treat some subjects as objects rather than as free and independent subjects capable of choice; as means only, rather than as ends in themselves. There is no denying the deep and powerful appeal of this strand of liberal thought. Our own century provides ample evidence of the horrors perpetrated by totalitarian regimes which have subordinated the freedom of its citizens to pre-ordained, collective ends: from the “bloody-minded professors” of the Bolshevik revolution to the Ayatollahs of our own day, there is no shortage of what can go wrong in politics when the liberty of the individual is curtailed in the name of a greater good. And while the liberal ethic denies the possibility of an objective moral universe, it is important to bear in mind that not just anything goes; deontological liberalism affirms justice, not nihilism. And the function of liberal justice is to enforce an order where conflicts can be resolved without invoking an overarching theory of human good. To put it tautologically, the overriding good of liberalism is the continued maintenance of the liberal social and political order. Yet despite the great appeal of the deontological vision, it does, I believe, fail as philosophy. Very simply, if claims for the priority of right are to succeed (as liberal justice demands), then so too must some claim for the priority of the subject. This much at least is clear. Yet, as we have already seen, contemporary liberalism denies that its collection of regulative principles derive from any special theory about human nature or motivation. Now, in so far as liberalism denies that we have determinate natures of normative significance, it does circumvent highly controversial questions concerning human nature. Yet it does so only at the cost of locating its controversy in a view of the self which is no less problematic. Assuredly, deontological theories do imply a theory of the individual. As Rawls, for one, acknowledges, “... embedded 1 Bruce Ackermann provides the quintessential statement concerning liberal neutrality: “The hard truth is this: There is no moral meaning hidden in the bowels of the universe. All there is is you and I struggling in a world that neither we, nor any other thing, created. ... By speaking to one another in a Neutral way ... [we affirm] our capacities to impress our own meanings on the world. It is only through such an act of mutual reinforcement that we give a concrete reality to our understanding of ourselves as people capable of living a valuable life in a world without a preordained design” (Social Justice in the Liberal State, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980, pp. 368-369). Curiously, this same writer insists that, “In order to accept liberalism, you need not take a position upon a host of Big Questions of a highly controversial character,” and that, “Liberalism does not depend on the truth of any single metaphysical or epistemological system” (Ibid., p. 361).

The Foundations of Right: Liberalism and the Social Contract Tradition


in the principles of justice is an ideal of the person” (584).2 In short, this ideal is the subject who is constituted prior to and independent of its aims and attachments. It is this vision of the moral subject that provides both the compelling promise of liberalism, and its great undoing. While Kant argued unequivocally that the priority of the subject rested in an ultimate and deep way on an appeal to a metaphysical realm, contemporary liberalism seeks to secure the priority of the subject while avoiding the attendant problems and obscurities of Kantian idealism. We need not enter too far into these difficulties here, except to note two of the standard objections to Kantian metaphysics.3 The first is a rather surprising consequence of the transcendental deduction—namely, that no reasons can be given for acting morally, if by reasons we mean a motivation or an inducement for being moral. That this must be so can be shown very simply. Any reason we might give to persuade an agent to act morally is either of a moral or non-moral kind. Yet, because Kant insisted that morality was autonomous and could have no external sanction, any appeal to moral reasons cannot succeed, for an agent must already be inside the moral life to accept it. If, on the other hand, we offer nonmoral reasons, they are incapable of reaching the moral realm; for again, morality is autonomous, and not susceptible to non-moral suasion. As Bernard Williams writes, “[for Kant] morality requires a purity of motive, a basic moral intentionality (which Kant took to be obligation), and that is destroyed by any non-moral inducement. Hence, there can be no reason for being moral, and morality presents itself as an unmediated demand, a categorical imperative.”4 A further set of problems arises from the very abstract conception of rational agency embedded in Kantian metaphysics. Kant’s answer to the age-old problem of how we are to combine the perspective of a particular person inside the world with an objective view of that same world is that objectivity must ultimately rest on a metaphysical conception of the subject. That is, the capacity to transcend our particular point of view and conceive of the world as a whole is made possible only by reference to the transcendental subject. It has always remained unclear how an abstract, disembodied consciousness, such as the Kantian ethic requires, could, without arbitrariness, produce determinate principles such as are required in the phenomenal world. At best, such a conception can only produce general and formal principles—that is, notional laws—to regulate relationships between the abstract and rational agents which such theories must presuppose. For Kant, categorical moral principles could be adduced only by reference to a particular metaphysical conception of the moral agent, the noumenal or transcendental self, whereby the moral agent was understood as a purely rational agent, and no more. Yet, why should we think that the foundations of morality rely 2 Throughout the rest of this dissertation, quotations followed by numbers in single brackets refer to John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, op. cit. 3 Here I follow Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 55-63. 4 Ibid., p. 55.


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upon a conception of ourselves as abstract, purely rational agents? Why should we adopt such a picture? Clearly, the question of what a given person should reasonably do as a moral agent is different from the question of what he might reasonably do if he were a rational agent and nothing more. Indeed, the latter question is, in a sense, unintelligible, for there is no way of being a rational agent and nothing more. As Williams further suggests, “[Kant] needs to tell us what it is about rational agents that requires them to form this conception of themselves as, so to speak, abstract citizens.”5 The problem faced by contemporary deontological theorists is this: the claim for the priority of the right ultimately rests on the claim for the priority of the subject. Yet, how can the priority of the subject be established without recourse to the more extravagant metaphysical baggage of the noumenal self? If we forgo metaphysical ambitions, and deny the transcendental self, then what sort of agents must we be? In affirming a morality of rights and duties, what does the deontological ethic tell us about ourselves? The claim for the priority of the right over the good finds expression in a number of contemporary writers. Such works as Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia,6 Ronald Dworkin’s Taking Rights Seriously,7 and Bruce Ackermann’s Social Justice in the Liberal State8 all warrant close attention. But for reasons already alluded to (Cf. Chap. 3 above), it is John Rawls who has, I believe, articulated the modern deontological view with the greatest force and fullest expression. As one writer

5 Ibid., p. 63. 6 Nozick has since changed his mind about many of the positions he argues for in this book. The central theme of this work revolves around the sanctity of individual rights: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without) violating their rights” (ix). Subsequently, the need arises for a “minimal state,’’ one which “may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others” (ix). Notoriously, he fails to provide an account of how these individual rights arise, and what justifies them in light of the larger claims of the collectivity. Not surprisingly, Nozick’s “libertarianism’’ was embraced with enthusiasm by many elements of the political right in America, who saw in his work a justification for some of the more heartless and draconian measures which typified American domestic policy under the Reagan presidency. He now writes: “The libertarian position I once propounded now seems to me seriously inadequate, in part because it did not fully knit the humane considerations and joint cooperative activities it left room for more closely into its fabric.” The Examined Life (Toronto: Simon & Schuster: 1989), p. 287. Nozick, once the most ardent defender of individual rights, now suggests that, “If a democratic majority desires to jointly and symbolically express its most solemn ties of concern and solidarity, the minority who prefer differently will have to participate sufficiently to be spoken for.” (The Examined Life, pp. 289-290). Perhaps it is some gauge of just how far his thinking has moved that we now detect paternalistic echoes of Rousseau’s general will, and forcing people to be free! 7 Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978). 8 Bruce Ackermann, op. cit.

The Foundations of Right: Liberalism and the Social Contract Tradition


suggests, “A Theory of Justice has set the current agenda of issues to be discussed, and provides the terminology in which much of this discussion proceeds.”9 At the centre of Rawls’ theory is a new characterization of the moral subject, one which Rawls believes can overcome the objections to Kant’s transcendental subject (a subject which is too far removed from the empirical world that humans actually inhabit); and yet not so enmeshed in the phenomenal world that the standards of justice blur indistinguishably into the practices of a given society. Like the transcendental subject, Rawls’ agent is understood as an autonomous, independent, and ahistorical self, standing outside of time and causality, and constituted prior to its ends. But, unlike the transcendental subject, the Rawlsian agent is not entirely removed from the phenomenal world. Rather, it possesses some minimal knowledge about the world in which humans must live—namely those goods which are required by all people in order to realize their various ends. Beginning from a hypothetical choice situation, free and rational agents, possessed of a minimal knowledge of the world, but deliberating from behind a veil of ignorance which denies them personal knowledge and, thus, prevents them from making any particularist claims, determine their rights and duties. In such a fashion, Rawls’ agent is to “regard the human situation not only from all social but from all temporal points of view” (587). Having some knowledge of the world, such an agent is more than the purely rational, transcendental self of Kant. For, as Rawls further argues, “The perspective of eternity is not a perspective from a certain place beyond the world, nor the point of view of a transcendent being; rather it is a certain form of thought and feeling that rational persons can adopt within the world” (587). But does this via media reconstruction of the moral agent succeed? Can Rawls have it both ways, as it were? A subject which, by virtue of the veil of ignorance, is both removed from the world, yet not too far removed? Can we reasonably think ourselves to be the sorts of subjects demanded by the Rawlsian ethic? I shall argue that we cannot, and that the conception of the self which Rawls must posit is no less problematic than the transcendental subject it seeks to correct. The central question for contemporary deontological ethics is this: how far is it possible to secure the priority of the subject (and, hence, the priority of the right) without recourse to metaphysics? In answering this question, I shall draw primarily on Rawls, referring to the work of other rights-based theorists to more fully elaborate and expand the discussion.10 While it would be wrong to suggest that there are not vitally important differences among rights-based theorists, they all proceed from a number of shared assumptions. In the words of Ronald Dworkin, they are all “working the same street.”11 And the 9 Tom Campbell, Justice. London: Macmillan, 1988, p. 66. 10 The omission of a systematic account and critique of the above-named theorists will undeniably leave my account significantly incomplete. Still, one must choose between breadth and depth, and in concentrating on Rawls it is hoped that my sins of omission will be partly compensated for by a sufficiently complete account of the presuppositions of that tradition within which Rawls, and rights-based theorists in general, conduct their enquiries. 11 Ronald Dworkin, “Dialogue With Bryan Magee,” in Men of Ideas: Some Aspects of Contemporary Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 227.


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street they are working is one which trades in a radically misconceived human ideal. The conception of the self which contemporary deontology must posit presents us with both a falsifying and impoverished conception of human agency, and a truncated and distorted vision of the world which humans inhabit. First it will be necessary to set the stage for my argument by situating Rawls, and contemporary rights-based theories in general, within a broader historical tradition. As Michael Sandel notes: Bound up with the notion of an independent self is a vision of the moral universe this self must inhabit. Unlike Classical Greek and medieval Christian conceptions, the universe of the deontological ethic is a place devoid of inherent meaning ... a world without an objective moral order. Only in a world empty of telos, such as seventeenth century science and philosophy affirmed, is it possible to conceive a subject apart from and prior to its purposes and ends.12

In the remainder of this chapter, I want to characterize more fully the assumptions of the deontological universe. By placing contemporary rights-based theories within a larger historical-philosophical framework, and examining their common background, we can better grasp what, precisely, such theories tell us about human nature, and the sort of justice which such creatures require. It is worth bearing in mind that the leading proponents of rights-based liberalism are almost exclusively American thinkers; or, at the very least, all may be said to proceed within what might be broadly labeled the American political tradition. The prevailing consciousness in the literature turns on concepts and categories familiar to a citizen who is perhaps most at home in the American Republic. One detects no revolutionary call to arms here, no radical challenge to the first principles of the contemporary belief system of Americans. Rather, the animating spirit of the conversation is one of a general agreement on the vital concepts and categories of American political thought: freedom, equality, majority rule, the elevation of the individual over the collective, social contract, and a singular emphasis on individual rights as a way of addressing injustices. Admittedly, there is a difference of emphasis. Rawls’ idea of “justice as fairness” favours an egalitarian interpretation of liberal democracy, while Nozick’s ideal of the “minimum state” obviously falls on the side of freedom. But on balance, the theories of justice promulgated by rightsbased liberal theorists, no matter how divergent their practical consequences, are thoroughly implicated in the practices and institutions of contemporary American life. These writers are conspicuously products of the American political experience. None of this is to suggest a narrow historicism. We can admit the obvious fact that every writer is a product of a particular time and culture without embracing the further claim that all thought is, therefore, reducible to historical forces. Yet when reading these writers, it often seems that justice is merely a matter of being more clever and consistent in interpreting (or re-interpreting) the American Constitution. There seems to exist just below the surface an almost doctrinal faith that the basic 12 Michael J. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, p. 175.

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axioms of American democracy occupy some unassailable moral high ground which places them beyond the pale. As Allan Bloom, commenting on Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, remarks: What Rawls explicitly undertakes to do is to provide principles for our pre-existing moral sense ... Rawls takes it for granted that we are all egalitarians. Aristocratic teachings are inadmissible, but it is not clear whether this is because they are based on an untrue understanding or because we do not like them any longer. Conversely, it is unclear whether our egalitarianism is a result of the revelation of the fact of men’s equality or whether it is just what we happen to like today.13

Bloom goes on to suggest that, “This correspondence ... between what is wanted by many for current political practice and the conclusions of abstract, rigorous political philosophy ... [is] unique in the history of political philosophy,” a fact which would be “most remarkable if one did not suspect that Rawls began from what is wanted here and now and then looked for the principles that would rationalize it.”14 Bloom’s polemic holds true for much of the contemporary rights-based literature. What emerges in these writings often reads less like a critical appraisal of the political beliefs of our age, than an attempt to preach to the converted. The ancient distinction between opinion and knowledge is blurred, so that what we get is not so much a serious and compelling challenge to our conventional opinions, as an apology for a certain historical consciousness, one which affirms a capitalist, liberal democracy as the only just form of civil society, and the American Republic as the highest realization of that ideal. Yet the social practices and institutions of a nation are themselves the embodiments of theories which, in turn, must be held up to critical scrutiny. The adage has it that America is a nation with no history prior to the Enlightenment, and if we examine the animus which undergirds the American political ethos, we can trace it directly to the presuppositions and preoccupations of the moral and political aspirations of the eighteenth century. America was founded on the idea of individual rights, and American political thought has been dominated by a rhetoric which emphasizes the ideal of the individual standing against society. This individualism arises directly from two metaphors which dominated eighteenth century political thought—namely the twin ideas of the “state of nature” and the “social contract.” To better understand the rights-based theories of contemporary political thought, we must look to the idea of the social contract, and the picture of the natural, free, rational, and autonomous individual that such an idea implies. More than any other idea, it is the conception of the social contract that underpins contemporary rights-based theories of justice. What was once a new and radical social theory for challenging old orthodoxies became a rigid principle of American political thought. While the political consciousness that typifies contract theory was the result of a certain set of historical circumstances, that 13 Allan Bloom, “Justice: John Rawls vs. Political Philosophy,” The American Political Science Review, pp. 648-649. 14 Ibid.


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consciousness has become fixed and preserved in the American Constitution, so that it is predominantly in terms of the contract that Americans have come to understand the relationship which holds between the government and citizen. When we analyze contemporary expressions of rights-based liberalism, we often find ourselves returning to the ideas and controversies of the Enlightenment, especially that wide variety of overlapping concepts and traditions in political philosophy which revolve around the concept of the social contract. The core thesis of the social contract can be very simply stated. In the words of Peter Laslett, the social contract refers to the idea that “the collectivity is an agreement between the individuals who make it up.”15 This is, of course, a very broad definition, and for that reason not particularly useful. Indeed, it could be argued that all political associations, are, in this loose sense, “contractual.”16 As Laslett further suggests, the simple model of the collectivity as an agreement between individuals “is so obvious an image that it can be found in some form in any political system ... It seems likely that every political theory must be contractual, at least to some degree ...”17 If we accept this broad definition, then we can find the general idea of the social contract wherever we look. For example, in Plato’s Republic, Glaucon suggests that men, “decide that they would be better off if they made a compact neither to do harm nor to suffer it. Hence, they began to make laws and covenants with one another; and whatever the law prescribed they called lawful and right.”18 And what was Socrates’ refusal to escape prison, if not an acknowledgement of the “contract” that existed between the state and the citizen?19 Although the term “social contract” may be said to reach back to the Greeks, there is also a narrower and more modern use of the term, one which is indebted to the great social thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially Hobbes,

15 Peter Laslett, “Social Contract,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (London: MacMillan, 1966). 16 And perhaps religious associations too. The Bible implies a similar covenant between Jehovah and the Jews, one which Calvin would later use as the foundation for his doctrine of the elect. 17 Laslett, op. cit., p. 467. 18 Republic, 359a. The Republic, trans. F.M. Cornford. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941), p. 44. 19 In the Crito, Socrates responds to Crito’s entreaties to flee Athens by arguing that the state has a right to expect its citizens to live in obedience to it. Socrates, speaking from the state’s point of view, says, “It is a fact then ... that you are breaking covenants and undertakings made with us, although you made them under no compulsion or misunderstanding, and were not compelled to decide in a limited time; you had seventy years in which you could have left the country, if you were not satisfied with us or felt that the arrangements were unfair.” Should he flee, Socrates continues, the state “... would no doubt pounce on me with perfect justice and point out that there are very few people in Athens who have entered into this agreement with them as explicitly as I have.” (Crito, trans. Hugh Tredennick. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954, pp. 92-93.) For a contemporary reading of Socrates’ trial, see I.F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates. Toronto: Little, Brown, & Co., 1988.

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Locke, and Rousseau. It is this modern idea (what is sometimes distinguished by the name of contractarian, or contractualism theory) which has, perhaps more than any other, dominated the literature on justice for the past three hundred years. In its most basic formulation, contractualism is the view that social justice— and indeed society as a whole—is created and justified by a general agreement, a contract entered into and sustained by the mutual consent of each and every member of a society. In the words of Michael Lessnoff: A contract theory is a theory in which a contract is used to justify and/or set limits to political authority, or, in other words, in which political obligation is analyzed as a contractual obligation.20

Contract theories proceed from the premise that independent and autonomous individuals once resided in a pre-political, pre-social, “state of nature,” free of both civil ties and governmental authority. The central motif of all contract theories is that of the independent and autonomous individual, one who is essentially a solitary unit, a free chooser who is capable of existing without social ties. At some point in prehistory, these autonomous individuals came together, and, by mutual consent, voluntarily contract to end the state of nature by surrendering some of their natural liberties in order to establish a civil society. Government is, thus, conceived of primarily as a trust entered into by freely contracting individuals, one which is meant to provide for the security and liberty of a subject’s person and property. In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, Locke writes: Men being ... by nature all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent. The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, etc.”21

The motives for giving up our natural freedom and autonomy vary according to different theorists’ views about the condition of the individual in the state of nature. Hobbes thought that the natural relation of man is one of fundamental equality. Yet, because man’s primal instinct was toward power, life in the natural state resulted in a mode of existence marked by a perpetual state of enmity, competition, and mutual suspicion where “every man is enemy to every man,” a constant “war of all against all.”22 For Hobbes, the state of nature was a state of war, and the life of man was

20 Michael Lessnoff, Social Contract (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International, 1986), p. 2. 21 Locke, quoted in Elizabeth H. Wolgast, The Grammar of Justice (London: Cornell University Press, 1987), p. 5. 22 Hobbes, Leviathan, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell), Michael Oakeshott (ed.), from the edition of 1651, p. 82.


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correspondingly “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”23 It was man’s continual fear and the danger of violent death which drove him to civil association, the end of which was “the peace of the commonwealth.”24 The negative fact on which all sensible men must agree—that death is terrible and must be avoided—provides the underlying passion that motivates men’s adherence to civil society. We enter into a social contract because our lives in a state of nature are threatened, and it is reasonable to fear death. The sole purpose of society is the establishment and maintenance of peace, which provides the requisite protection by which we may live our lives free from the fear of death: “All society, therefore, is either for gain or for glory; that is, not so much for love of our fellows as for the love of ourselves.”25 At the other extreme, Rousseau saw natural man as intrinsically good—“nothing is gentler than man in his original state”26—and life in the state of nature, though it may have been solitary, was far from being nasty or brutish. For Rousseau, the move to civil society was not, as it was in Hobbes, designed for our mutual protection from each other; rather, it was a fall from happiness into misery. The emergence of civil society was necessitated by a series of disasters of our own making, such as the development of agriculture (“The first yoke that they [men] had unwittingly imposed on themselves”27) and the subsequent declaration of private property. Nature was intended to preserve men from knowledge, and all our efforts to emerge from “the happy ignorance in which eternal wisdom placed us” have resulted only in “luxury, dissolution, and slavery.”28 Yet the fall was irrevocable and there could be no going back. Although man is naturally good, once he has eaten from the tree of knowledge and formed civil bonds, he is constantly set upon by the corrupt forces which exist within society and which not only alienate man from himself, but threaten to transform him into either a tyrant or a slave. Whatever the reason for emerging from a state of nature—whether or not it was the need for self-preservation or a disastrous fall from grace—what varies is the conception of our “natures” in the original state, and not the basic tenets of the social contract. In exchange for our agreement to abide by certain rules, the state agrees to regulate society and its institutions fairly. We all agree to such principles because, according to our own best rational calculations, they ultimately serve each of our best interests, and we reasonably believe that these principles are as fair to us as they are to others. That is, we agree to live together only on condition that the rules of cooperation, necessary to that living together, serve the overall purposes of each member of that society.

23 Ibid. 24 Ibid., p. 76. 25 Hobbes, quoted in R.S. Peters, Hobbes (Harmonsdworth: Penguin, 1956), p. 156. 26 J.J. Rousseau, “Discourse on Inequality Among Men,” trans. Lowell Blair (New York: Signet, 1974), p. 179. 27 Ibid., p. 177. 28 J.J. Rousseau, “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” trans. Lowell Blair (New York: Signet, 1974), p. 215.

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When viewed against the background of the Enlightenment, the great appeal of the social contract is readily apparent. There is probably no better brief description of the Enlightenment ideal than that given in Kant’s essay, “What is Enlightenment?” Here, Kant defines the aim of the Enlightenment as “man’s release from his selfincurred tutelage,”29 a liberation which could only be brought about by “the freedom to make public use of one’s reason at every point.”30 Reason would displace authority and tradition by appeal to principles undeniable by any rational person. In the realm of moral and political philosophy, the central question which Kant, and others, hoped to answer was: What are those principles governing human action such that no rational being can deny his or her assent? The social contract, by supplying a rational account of society, was intended to replace both the revealed, Biblical account of the origins of man and society, and the teleological account of nature given in Aristotle. Henceforward, the human species would depend for its moral progress on neither God nor nature but on its own freedom, and justice would be determined solely by the fact that we can rationally give ourselves our own moral laws. As Kant put it, “the touchstone of everything that can be concluded as a law for a people lies in the question of whether a people could have imposed such a law on itself.”31 Thus, the agreement or contract, and the rational calculating implicit in it, answers the most fundamental of political questions in terms which are amenable to the Enlightenment turn of mind: Why should human beings consent to even that minimal social cooperation without which organized society cannot exist? The answer given by contract theories (albeit in various formulations) is that it is ultimately in the individual’s own best interest to do so; for although individuals forfeit their autonomy and liberty by entering into a social compact, this forfeiture is, in the main, in their own self-interest. We have consented to be social only on certain conditions: namely, that those conditions provide benefits which would otherwise be unavailable. Should society fail to meet these conditions, then the contract may be revoked. Either explicitly or implicitly, contract theories assume that contractors are rational in their pursuit of self-interest. That is, individuals expect to be better off under government, provided that the government is appropriately constituted. Political obligations are determined by those political institutions that rational, selfinterested, contractors would agree to in a state of nature. There are several generic features of contract theories which should be noted. First, if society is a voluntary contract amongst individuals who came together to form a compact, then quite obviously the individual must be thought of as logically prior to the state or to society. Contractarian theories must presuppose that humans are the sort of creatures who are independent, self-contained, and complete in 29 I. Kant, “What Is Enlightenment?”, in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment?, trans. Lewis White Beck, (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1959), p. 85. 30 Ibid., p. 87 31 Ibid., p. 89.


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themselves, quite capable of existing (whether well or poorly) on their own. In this sense, contract theories are highly individualistic, and are almost universally associated with the rights of the individual person. The individualism inherent in contract theory makes it powerfully anti-authoritarian, and, historically, it has been used to reinforce arguments for limiting the powers of government, and exalting the rights of the individual. For on the contract view, all political authority arises from the idea of individual independence; that is, the authority that individuals have over themselves. Contract theories are also egalitarian. This is so for two reasons. First, the starting point of separate and self-interested individuals ensures that those individuals must be thought of as equal. For contract theories are intended to derive an analysis of the just society from a universal theory about human nature which treats all humans alike. As Locke says, in their pre-political natural state, all people (or more accurately, all men)32 are “free, equal and independent,” and the contract is intended to secure, as far as possible, these same equalities and liberties for the individual in civil society. Second, it is simply a logical requirement that any legitimate contract must be entered into freely and voluntarily by all parties, and, hence, must be agreed to by all parties equally. Ultimately, government must be in the interest of all. A further characteristic of the social contract is its view of human society as artificial, rather than as natural or divine; the work of man, rather than of God or of nature. Ultimately, society arises from an act of human will. True, the social covenant might, at times, appeal to divine guidance,33—but it is primarily and fundamentally a human artifact. Society is thus rendered neither natural nor divine, but as something which is determined by the calculations necessary to our acceptance of the social contract. The laws of a society receive their sanction from its citizens; not from the commands of God or from principles derived from a teleological nature. Individuals undertake an obligation to obey the law because they themselves have agreed to do so. Implicit in the belief in the human creation of society is the conception of man as a free agent, rather than one who is determined by external forces. Accordingly, contractarian politics place a strong emphasis on the idea of human consent, for, as we have seen, the very idea of a contract presupposes a voluntary agreement by those who will be bound by the laws they establish. Moreover, implicit in the voluntaristic 32 The qualification here is an important one. The use of masculine pronouns by contract theorists signified more than stylistic convention, and were an essential part of the description. As Mary Midgley observes, “The great social contract theorists of the Enlightenment ... explicitly excluded women from their systems. Each woman remained attached to some male contractor, according to the older organic and hierarchical pattern.” Mary Midgley, “On Not Being Afraid of Natural Sex Differences,” in Feminist Perspectives in Philosophy, Mowenna Griffiths and Margaret Whitford (eds.) p. 32 33 Most famously in the American Declaration of Independence, the preamble of which reads: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

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conception of political authority is the idea that contractors in a state of nature must arrive at a consensual agreement. This is so because, again, any legitimate contract requires the agreement of all parties equally. As individuals have the power to keep or give away authority over themselves, no human society or government can be said to be legitimate except in so far as its authority is based on the mutual consent of the governed. But is it plausible to suppose that there can be such a consensus of individual wills? This question leads us to a final characteristic of the social contract—that of rationalism.34 Government is seen to be just because it is formed to promote people’s self-interest; that is, the rules and regulations necessary for our living together are those that rational, individuals would choose if they were to calculate what would be in their own interests. Contract theories postulate that it is only if individual wills are not willful but rational, and recognize their own self-interest and act accordingly, that consensus can be reached. The obvious tension here is between a volunteerism which in principle respects people’s choices, and, a calculative conception of reason which supposes that people’s choices must follow very definite lines—that is, a choice is “rational’’ only in so far as it serves the self-interests of the individual. But is rationality essentially a matter of selfishly calculating one’s own interest? And, if it is, then what becomes of the relationship between reason and morality? How is it that moral obligations can be derived from an agreement motivated by self-interest? If reason is essentially a matter of calculating our self-interest, how can we posit any rational conception of morality which, at some level, could not be reduced to self-interest? At the very least, the calculative model of reason implies a radical rethinking of the relationship between reason and morality. It would also seem that this idea of reason as “self-interested calculation” implies a very truncated view of reason, and the choices that reason permits the moral agent. For example, as Mary Midgley comments: Why, when we all know that loneliness is a paralyzing form of human misery, do we go on as if we thought that the deepest need of rational individuals was to be independent of one another? (emphasis added)35

(As we shall see in our discussion of Rawls in the next chapter, the epistemological claim inherent in contract theories—that reason is predominantly calculative—has important ramifications for liberal conceptions of the self.) In summary, the general features of contract theories sustain a model of political association whereby autonomous and independent individuals, emerging from an apolitical state of nature, reach a consensus on the rules which govern society 34 In a general sense, rationalism simply means a commitment to reason, as opposed to faith, prejudice, habit, or any other source of conviction considered irrational. However, there is also a narrower sense in which rationalism refers to a cluster of overlapping philosophical doctrines which have been inspired by the mathematical model of knowledge and reasoning, and this is crudely the sense in which I use the term. 35 Mary Midgley, op. cit., p. 33.


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through a deliberative calculation of their own self-interest. The compelling political appeal of the social contract arises from the idea that the power of the state and its laws derives from the individual; ultimately, the ground of all legitimate government and moral authority is the single individual. It should be stressed that it does not necessarily follow that, if the collective is understood as embodying agreement, it means any such agreement actually took place in historical time.36 Nor does it follow that we might still find people who exist in some pre-social state, or that we ourselves can choose to return to such a state. For while it must be admitted that the logic of a contract at least implies a temporal event, it has long been recognized that a contractarian theory need not be taken literally, and that it is still meaningful to speculate on situations in which individuals exist prior to the existence of society. The contract can be entirely hypothetical, a useful conceptual model for analyzing state and society as if agreement can be presumed; a way of deriving conclusions about the norms of political association from premises about a contract. Yet, even if we grant that contract theories are works of the imagination rather than historical claims, a useful philosophical device for providing a criterion of rightness in political matters, there still remain some powerful challenges to the usefulness of this model. The first obstacle is what appears to be an insurmountable logical impasse. In brief, contract theory proceeds by abstracting the individual from society, and then reassembles society with these same individuals, who, by definition, are asocial abstractions. How is it that abstract and asocial individuals come to be embodied in the lived reality of a society? Similarly, as hypothetical selves existing in a presocial state, we are, by definition, sovereign agents of choice, free to choose principles of justice to regulate our civil association. But the logic of such a situation bars the individual from saying anything about what sort of society he wishes to inhabit; for, again by definition, society has not yet come into being. In other words, the independent, asocial contractor is forced to make his decision in ignorance of social possibilities, and is, therefore, not really free to choose at all. For, to choose freely presupposes a knowledge of alternatives, and it is precisely such a knowledge of social options which is denied the contractor by the logic of his position in the state of nature. A further problem already alluded to is that of deriving moral principles from the self-interest of individual calculators. For on the contract theory, any principle is sufficiently justified, provided it is agreed to by society; that is, those who agree 36 Locke believed in the historical reality of the contract, while for Hobbes and Rousseau it remained primarily an ideal. The qualification is necessary, for at least on some occasions, Rousseau seems ambivalent. For example, in The Social Contract he writes, “The law of majority voting itself rests on a covenant, and implies that there has at least on one occasion been unanimity.” (The Social Contract, trans. Maurice Cranston. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968, p. 59) In any case, the empirical hypotheses embedded in contract theories were, even in the early parts of our own century, taken as a matter for serious scientific investigation. However, the many attempts over the years to prove that the contract was a historical reality have resulted in little more than fanciful history and dubious anthropology.

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to the contract. This recalls the dilemma involved in the search for an Archimedean position, and is a problematic feature of theories of judgement in general. It is an epistemological rather than a moral requirement, and arises from the need to distinguish a standard of assessment from that which is being assessed. What is required when reflecting on our society and its institutions is a standard of reference which can provide an impartial perspective from which to assess our social ideal. Yet if there is no standard higher than the ideal of our society, then we are utterly unable to take a critical distance from that ideal. But without such a perspective, it is difficult to know what warrant there could be for condemning, say, cannibalism, human sacrifice, or slavery, for, on the contractual account, practices are justified if they are accepted by society, and, clearly, many societies have accepted these things. In short, if justice is merely contractual, a product of social consensus, then it would be impossible to find an impartial vantage point from which to judge the soundness of our own ideals. As with any theory, we must also be prepared to accept certain consequences entailed by that theory—consequences which often call into question the usefulness of that theory in explicating the phenomena it seeks to illuminate. Implicit in contract theory is the view of society which might be termed “social atomism”—the idea that we can understand society by examining its constituent parts. Contract theories take individual self-interest as their starting point, and posit that society is nothing more than the sum of the interests of such individuals. This method of understanding appears scientific, for just as we understand a molecule as being composed of two or more atoms, so, too, is society nothing more than the sum of its collective parts. The assumption is that a part is a discrete thing with its own nature, and if only we understand the component parts of society (that is, individuals) well enough, then so, too, will we arrive at an understanding of the whole. In brief, contract theories imply that an understanding of separate, simple units provides an understanding of the complex whole. Now such a model of human society provides a neat and tidy theory. But how useful is such a model in understanding society? While it is not unreasonable to suggest that some things might be understood in terms of simple units, it is surely equally plausible to think that other things can only be understood in their relation to a whole. For example, to build a successful sailboat involves more than just a discrete knowledge of such variables as hulls, keels, rigging, sails, and so on. What is further required is an understanding of how these variables relate to one another in terms of a whole. The length of the hull will determine how much sail a boat can carry, and the purposes for which the boat is intended will likewise determine (or at least constrain) the configuration of the keel. In the end, successful boat design rests not so much on a knowledge of discrete variables, but on an understanding of the relationships which hold among the various components. Similarly, we must at least keep open the question of whether we can truly understand individuals as discrete units, existing independently of and apart from the communities in which they reside. Is it not the case that individuals, as members of a society, establish attitudes, emotions, and motivations which are simply unavailable


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to isolated and independent individuals? And, in some deep sense, are not these same attitudes and motivations, at least to some degree, partly constitutive of the individual? Yet, if we take the isolated and independent individual as the starting point for investigating society, such understandings are banished from our purview. We must at least be prepared to entertain the idea that social atomism may not be the best, or the only, way to understand human society. In so far as the contract theories of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau proceed from universal claims about human nature, they represent a certain continuity with classical political philosophy. The pair of assumptions which unites both state of nature theorists and the ancients is that man has a nature, and that this nature is knowable. Both proceed from substantive beliefs about human nature, and it is human nature which provides the permanent standard against which we measure both the good man and the good life. Hence, for both ancient and contractarian political philosophers, the decisive issue for morality is that of human nature; where they differ is in their ideas of what is natural. What contract theorists provide is a radical critique and rejection of an older understanding of nature and its moral and political consequences. We agree to abide in civil societies—not because, as Plato and Aristotle had mistakenly thought, human nature is such that it is only in the polis that it can be fully realized—but because we are naturally independent, rational, and autonomous beings, who have entered into the social contract only on condition that by doing so, we may better realize our own ends. If Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau represent a certain continuity with classical political philosophy, it is Kant who ushers in a distinctively modern understanding of the social contract. Kant is the clearest about why the contractually based state is the best state. As we have seen, Kant rejects the idea that nature provides any standard—positive or negative—against which to assess morality. Against both the ancients and state of nature theorists who based their prescriptions upon substantive claims about human nature, Kant argued that a categorical moral law could not be founded on the passions of human nature, however conceived. Rather, it could only be founded on the freedom of individuals to legislate a timeless, rational morality which transcended nature. For Kant, the only good without qualification is a good will, and because the highest purpose of human life was to will autonomously, the only just state was one which was concerned with preserving the requisite social freedom necessary to that willing. The just state must not impose moral duties on its citizens, for this would undermine the individual’s autonomy. As George Grant writes: It must be a state based on the “rights of man,” that is, giving the widest possible scope to external freedom, because any limitations on external freedom stand in the way of the exercise of our autonomy. These rights must be universal throughout society, because all human beings are equal in the sense that they are all open to the highest human end of willing the moral good.37

37 George Grant, English-Speaking Justice (Toronto: Anansi, 1974), p. 27.

The Foundations of Right: Liberalism and the Social Contract Tradition


Hence it is not on “natural,’’ but on, moral grounds that the morally neutral state is the best state. The state is limited in the social contract because the good will is the only good without restriction. (emphasis added)38

It is in the contractarian teachings of Kant that the Enlightenment ideal of the independent, rational, and autonomous person is taken to its apogee. On the Kantian view of the contract, we are the makers of our own laws, not because of any substantive view of the world of nature, but because we are beings, the essence of which is our freedom to transcend nature. We must stand outside of both nature and time, for such a world can only ever be relatively good. It is only as participants in the transcendental realm that we can escape the relatively good, and partake of the only good that exists without qualification—namely, the timeless, ahistorical good will which wills the universal law. The individual of Kant’s Kingdom of Ends does more than simply supply a firmer foundation for contractarian teachings; he is the harbinger of a radically new conception of the self that enters into ethical relations. This conception of the moral agent has become the dominant conception of our own age, and whose familiarity is apt to blind us to the radical severity of its claims, and its revolutionary implications for thinking about morality. Perhaps the radical nature of the Kantian contractor can best be brought out by contrasting it with the ancient idea that one’s status (which here simply means one’s life situation) has moral significance. On the Kantian view, I cannot be required, simply by virtue of my position in a social structure, to act in a certain fashion, if the action required of me is to be of a moral kind. The fact that I am a member of this community, that I am the child of these parents, father to this child, that I have these friends, and am married to this woman, are all, from a moral point of view, simply arbitrary. To act morally is to act autonomously, which, on Kant’s account, means to act free from the constraints of history, nature, and circumstance, willing only that which I can at the same time will to become a universal law. The universalizing will must of necessity deny that the proximity of some, or the distance of others, has any moral force, for true moral agency demands that we divest ourselves entirely of the contingencies of history and the accidents of birth. This “universalizing” individual, and its normative implications for ethical theory, brings us to the heart of modern moral philosophy, and ushers in a distinctively new understanding of moral agency. As Alasdair MacIntyre writes, “Modern moral philosophers take to be an essential characteristic of human selfhood the capacity to detach ourselves completely from any particular standpoint or point of view, to step backwards, as it were, and view and judge that standpoint or point of view from the outside.”39 Yet, it is not entirely unreasonable to think that our status—the particular social facts that in some sense define who we are—affect our moral obligations. That my family, friends, colleagues, 38 Ibid., p. 29. 39 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 119.


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or the larger political community of which I am a member, are, from a moral point of view, entirely arbitrary and carry no special weight, strikes most of us as, at best, a peculiar sort of puzzle. How can it be that those who are close to me have no more claim on my moral deliberations than those whose existence will never touch my life? As Bernard Williams suggests: It has been in every society a recognizable ethical thought, and remains so in ours, that one can be under a [moral] requirement ... simply because of who one is and of one’s social situation. It may be a kind of consideration that some people in Western societies now would not want to accept, but it has been accepted by almost everyone in the past, and there is no necessity in the demand that every requirement of this kind must, under rational scrutiny, be ... abandoned.40

Yet, on Kant’s account, the moral law must not make concessions to the principle of universality. That which is truly deserving of ethical praise or blame, true moral worth, can only be categorical; that is, universal. The facts of one’s social situation and familial attachments—those personal commitments which form the daily stuff of our existence—are thus rendered morally arbitrary by a universal will, the essence of which is to banish from its purview the contingencies of history, culture, and community. As against the classical idea that to be human is to be part of and to participate in a particular community, and that moral agency consists in large part of serving that same community, the autonomous self denies the relevancy of the particular and contingent. It asserts that true moral agency demands nothing less than abandoning our local loyalties, traditions, and customs, and adopting an allegiance to values which are taken to be universal, not local and particular. Moral agency is no longer understood in terms of participation in a community which provides the individual with a common stock of ethical concepts and norms to which all must conform and to which all may appeal. Rather, moral agency resides exclusively in the autonomous will of the individual. As against the ancient belief that the common tasks of the community in pursuing shared goods could provide the basis of judgements about justice and virtue—not only within one’s own community but throughout all communities—the universalizing agent, acknowledging no imperatives but those enjoined by reason, is liberated from the inherited burdens of traditional beliefs, and is free to pursue his own interests under minimal constraints. But perhaps it is time to question whether the modern project has not been too hasty in its rejection of the particular. Perhaps, as Bernard Williams suggests, “the Kantian dream of a community of reason is too far removed ... from social and historical reality and from any concrete sense of a particular ethical life.”41 Perhaps the truth is that “all morality is always tied to the socially local and particular and that the aspirations of the morality of modernity to a universality freed from all particularity is an illusion.”42 40 Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 7. 41 Ibid., p. 197. 42 MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 119.

The Foundations of Right: Liberalism and the Social Contract Tradition


The tension between the particular and the universal parallels the tension between ancient traditions of ethical enquiry and modern conceptions of moral philosophy. On an older account of the ethical life, the modern moral project--what might be characteristically described as the search for a universal reason by virtue of which the moral subject divests himself of local attachments--is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for moral agency. Might it possibly be the case that, “The resources of most modern moral philosophy are not well adjusted to the modern world” and that, “In some basic respects the philosophical thought of the ancient world was better off, and asked more fruitful questions, than most modern moral philosophy?”43 I shall be returning to these themes more fully in chapters seven and eight. I mention them here only by way of suggesting that a concern for justice need not concede that the values of the Enlightenment, and the rational, universalizing moral agent such values presuppose, are the only basis we have for proceeding. However much our conception of the rational, universalizing moral agent may appear selfevident, it is important to grasp that there are other traditions as well. And however archaic such traditions may seem to the Enlightenment project, we must at least be prepared to ask if justice may be something other than the calculation of worldly self-interest, justified by the pseudo-eternity of a timeless social contract. In conclusion, let me briefly summarize the tripartite foundations on which contemporary rights-based theories of justice rest. First, is the claim for the priority of the subject; if the right is prior to the good, then so too must the self be understood as prior to and independent of its purposes and ends. Second, we have seen how deeply embedded in the metaphor of the social contract is the claim for the priority of the right. Contract theories affirm the priority of the subject, for it is a simple logical requirement of contract theories that the individual must be understood as an entity existing prior to and independent of society. Third is the new and radical conception of the social contractor which arises from Kant’s abstract conception of moral agency. On Kant’s account, the social contractor is a subject who transcends nature. He legislates his own laws, not from calculations of self-interest based on beliefs about the way things are in nature, but because his reason leads him to the understanding that the only good that exists without qualification is that of the good will. The just state is, therefore, one which optimizes the opportunities for the agent’s autonomous willing. It is also the egalitarian state, for, as George Grant notes, “Concerning what matters absolutely we are all equal in the fact that the rational willing of our duty is open to all.”44 These then are the building blocks of various contemporary rights-based theories. Yet, while all proceed within the language of the social contract, all are united in their opposition to Kant’s transcendental subject. The many attempts to construct modern deontological theory may be read as attempts to rescue the priority of the right from the difficulties associated with the transcendental subject of Kantian ethics. Kant, 43 Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 197. 44 Grant, English-Speaking Justice, p. 28.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

it is argued, secures justice only at the cost of positing a moral agent who is too far removed from society. He thus achieves an impartial standpoint only at the cost of denying the human situation. As long as justice must rely on the transcendental subject, there remains the ever-present danger that principles of justice will simply lapse into arbitrariness. How, then, are we to choose principles of justice which are neither arbitrary nor contingent? Where can we find a foundation for the moral priority of right which, like the transcendental subject, establishes the priority of the subject, yet is still situated in the world, and, therefore, not arbitrary from a moral point of view? A contemporary solution to this impasse is provided by John Rawls. It is the notion of what Rawls terms the “original position,” a hypothetical choice situation which he believes to be less vulnerable to charges of arbitrariness, and better suited to yielding determinate principles of justice suited to the circumstances of human life. For again, as Rawls suggests, “The perspective of eternity is not a perspective from a certain place beyond the world, nor the point of view of a transcendent being; rather it is a certain form of thought and feeling that rational persons can adopt within the world” (587). It is to his work that I now turn.

Chapter 6

Liberalism Without Metaphysics: John Rawls and the Moral Subject In the previous chapter, I tried to show how contemporary rights-based liberalism originates in certain strands of eighteenth-century thought.1 It was argued that the twin myths of the state of nature and the social contract not only provided a radical challenge to traditional political authority, but ushered in a new understanding of the relationship between the individual and society. Briefly, contract theories understand that individuals are prior to society, and the central affirmation of Enlightenment thought is the idea of individual autonomy; that is, the authority that individuals have over themselves. Because individuals are autonomous, all legitimate political authority must arise from the mutual consent of individual subjects. Societies are thus construed as arising from a collective act of voluntary association. The resulting agreement or “contract” is justified by the fact that although the contract demands that individuals surrender some part of their autonomy, their interests are, nevertheless, better served under the terms of the newly wrought civil association. Accordingly, contract theories attach a crucial importance to the individual, and perhaps the most enduring of all the political legacies which come to us from the Enlightenment—and increasingly one of the fixed moral and political assumptions of our own age—is that society is nothing more than a collection of individuals and that the state exists only to protect their rights. The social institutions and societal arrangements of liberal societies are, by and large, deemed just or unjust in so far as they promote or subvert the individual’s good. In short, it is the good of the individual which endows liberalism with its raison d’etre and provides liberal justice with its occasion. It is hardly news that liberalism seeks to promote the individual. Nor is it objectionable that it should do so. What is at issue, however, is how liberalism understands the very individual whose good it seeks to promote. For what is good 1 When tracing the history of ideas, the temptation is always to push back the beginnings of our enquiries, and expand their purview. By placing the origins of contemporary liberalism within the pattern of assumptions, attitudes and values which are collectively known as the European Enlightenment, I do not mean to imply that we cannot find elements of the same patterns of thinking in other times and places. Even less do I want to suggest that the Enlightenment was not itself a problematic matrix of ideas and attitudes. Still, if we are to speak meaningfully about the history of ideas, some historical synthesis must be found, without which history becomes merely an incoherent concatenation of innumerable and individually meaningless atoms.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

for the individual is relative to what he or she is and how he or she is understood. As I have argued above (Chapter 2), any characterization of the moral subject is more than merely an empirical description, but carries with it certain normative associations. In this sense, those concepts and categories which pick out the organization of experience around subjectivity and individual consciousness both describe and classify the moral reality of our world. For example, when we speak about persons, human nature, selves, characters, or moral agents, we are providing more than a scientifically objective description. Rather, our choice of vocabulary already informs our stance, so that our investigations invariably presuppose a great deal about the world. No doubt such terms pick out a number of overlapping concepts; but they also carry connotations and historical baggage which are associated with different intellectual traditions which frequently trade in conflicting conceptions of the individual. For example, “moral agency” locates its concerns in questions dealing with freedom and human will; talk of “human nature” echoes Aristotle’s teleological biology; the concept of “character’’ seems somehow linked to talk of the virtues; and when we refer to “persons,” we are clearly suggesting something beyond the more scientifically accurate “homo sapiens,” though here it is perhaps more difficult to state positively what exactly we do mean. As is the case with any political ethic, deontological liberalism is, in the last analysis, an account of what it means to be human, and how we are to realize our humanity within a social world. Consequently, any challenge to liberal justice must first look to its ideal of the individual. Only if the moral subject is conceptualized in a particular manner can justice be primary in the way that deontological liberalism demands. How, then, does liberalism understand the individual? When we stand before the mirror of contemporary liberalism, what is the self-image we see reflected there? Or, to go directly to the heart of the matter, in affirming the priority of the right over the good, and the self over its ends, what does contemporary deontology tell us about ourselves? It is the liberal conception of the subject that I propose to challenge here. I want to suggest that liberalism offers us an unacceptable picture of ourselves as a people. That is, what is difficult to accept in contemporary liberal theory is not so much its central preoccupation with the individual; rather, it is that it provides an understanding of the individual which is partial and incomplete, and which overlooks much of what is valuable in human experience. Given the plethora of competing liberal theories, even amongst modern rightsbased proponents, it is impossible to maintain a focus on such a broad front as “liberalism.” Liberalism not only values pluralism, but is itself highly pluralistic. Nevertheless, those modern liberal writers who reject utilitarianism as a starting point for their deliberations about justice, do, from a philosophical point of view, share many common assumptions, foremost of which is the rejection of anything approaching a full or comprehensive view of what is of value in human life. Modern deontological liberals proceed from the premise that there exist irreconcilable conceptions of the good, and that there can be no publicly acceptable way of adjudicating reasonably among these conflicting views.

Liberalism Without Metaphysics: John Rawls and the Moral Subject


I have suggested that it is in the writings of John Rawls that the deontological ethic is perhaps best and most fully expressed. In what follows, I provide a critical, if necessarily selective, reading of Rawls’ major text, A Theory of Justice.2 Moreover, in light of the millions of thoughtful and often insightful words that have been penned in response to Rawls, it seems a fool’s errand to try to do justice to such rejoinders.3 In any case, such a summation would be largely beside the point. Given my interest in the larger deontological project as a whole, my concern lies not so much in assessing the minutae of his theory (though some such critical exegesis will obviously be required), as with the more general question: what sort of creatures must we be for Rawls’ theory of justice to make sense? What is being said about human beings in Rawls’ liberalism? And what does the moral reality of our world have to be, such that Rawls thinks us the kind of beings for whom his theory of justice is our proper due? By examining the central claims of A Theory of Justice, we 2 A Theory of Justice represents something of a compendium of his professional concerns. He has published little that does not relate directly to the concerns his book addresses. The central topics of his earlier scholarly articles are here more fully developed—“In presenting a theory of justice I have tried to bring together into one coherent view the ideas expressed in the papers I have written over the past dozen years or so” (vii) —while his later writings are exclusively concerned with elaborating upon various issues raised in his book, and defending certain positions against various objections. 3 Rawls’ theory has initiated a renaissance in social philosophy unparalleled in this century, and has spawned a protean critical literature, the sheer volume of which is intimidating. Every aspect of his many-faceted theory has been subjected to minute, rigorous, and often highly technical scrutiny, and just keeping up with the flood of Rawlsian literature is a full-time enterprise. Perhaps one gauge of Rawls’ importance is the number of scholars from outside philosophy who have seen fit to comment on his theory, and every year brings a growing number of commentaries not only from philosophy, but from within practically every field of human study. In any case, two anthologies which I have found very useful are John Rawls’ Theory of Social Justice: An Introduction (eds. H. Gene Blocker & Elizabeth H. Smith, Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1980), and Reading Rawls (ed. N. Daniels, New York, 1973.) In addition, practically any elementary reader on political philosophy or ethics published in the last twenty years will contain a section on Rawls. One such volume is Alan Brown’s Modern Political Philosophy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.) A special issue of “The American Political Science Review” (June, 1975) was given over to Rawls. Of particular interest is the article from which I have quoted, Allan Bloom’s “John Rawls vs. The Tradition of Political Philosophy.” The best book-length critiques of Rawls are Michael Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (op. cit.), Robert Paul Wolff’s Understanding Rawls (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977) and Brian Barry’s The Liberal Theory of Justice (Oxford: OUP, 1973). George Grant, in his masterly little book, English-Speaking Justice (Toronto: Anansi, 1974), places Rawls in a larger historical context of social and political thought, although only the second chapter of this book is explicitly given over to A Theory of Justice. A recent defence of Rawls, especially in light of the criticisms brought forward by Sandel and Barry, is Thomas W. Pogge’s Realizing Rawls (Cornell University Press, 1989). Additionally, I have found helpful the writings of Robin Barrow, Stuart Hampshire, H.L.A. Hart, and Bernard Williams, all of whom, although concerned with more general themes, do, in various places, address themselves specifically to issues raised in Rawls’ work.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

can better see how contemporary deontological liberalism understands the subject of its deliberations, and, subsequently, what it tells us about the individual’s good. Rawls writes, “This is a long book, not only in pages” (viii). And so it is. A Theory of Justice is a difficult read, in large part because it is a book of almost baroque complexity, where every part is dependent on the whole. The book is chocka-block full with arguments, and, from the first, Rawls constantly reminds the reader that misunderstandings will arise from failing to attend to the overall direction of his exposition, and warns that his various arguments must be tested and accepted or rejected as a whole. To guide the reader through this labyrinth, Rawls employs an elaborate system of cross-referencing and is constantly directing the reader forward or back to various numbered sections (of which there are eighty-seven). The net result of all this “to-ing” and “fro-ing” is that one is never sure if the passage just read is intended to stand on its own, or if the argument is to be continued and expanded at another point. Reading A Theory of Justice is not unlike wandering into an elaborate eighteenth-century maze. The intrepid adventurer negotiates intricate passages, traipses into blind alleys, and follows paths which take him away from where he thinks he is heading. Nevertheless, dazed and bewildered though he be, he somehow manages to stumble out the exit, without any clear idea of quite how he got there, and with no great desire to repeat the escapade. Reading Rawls can be a frustrating experience. Rawls is a philosopher who works within the analytic tradition. His intent is to provide a superior alternative to both the utilitarian theory which has “long dominated our tradition” (52), and, more generally, to any teleological theory. To overcome what he perceives as the deficiencies in both utilitarian and teleological theories writ large, Rawls sets out an elaborate and systematic account of social justice which is “highly Kantian in nature” (viii). Rawls notes that there are many different subjects of justice. Many different kinds of things are said to be just and unjust: not only laws, institutions, and social systems, but also particular actions of many kinds, including decisions, judgements, and imputations. We also call the attitudes and dispositions of persons, and persons themselves, just or unjust (7).

For Rawls, however, the primary subject of justice is the basic structure of society, in particular, “The way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation” (7). The social institutions are the primary subject of justice because, [they] define men’s rights and duties and influence their life-prospects, what they can expect to be and how well they can hope to do. The basic structure is the primary subject of justice because its effects are so profound and present from the start. The intuitive notion here is that this structure contains various social positions and that men born into different positions have different expectations of life determined, in part, by the political system as well as by economic and social circumstances. In this way the institutions of society favor certain starting placing over others. These are especially deep inequalities.

Liberalism Without Metaphysics: John Rawls and the Moral Subject


... It is these inequalities, presumably inevitable in the basic structure of any society, to which the principles of social justice must in the first instance apply (7).

In brief, injustice arises largely due to certain discriminatory features of the basic structures of society. A conception of social justice must therefore “provide a standard whereby the distributive aspects of the basic structure of society are to be assessed” (9). The concept of justice must be defined “by the role of its principles in assigning rights and duties and in defining the appropriate division of social advantages” (10). Justice is, therefore, not a matter of promoting a particular conception of the good, but of carefully allocating social advantages. As it is the institutions of a society which are for the most part responsible for this allocation, justice is, therefore, concerned primarily with institutions. Justice is the first virtue of social institutions as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust ... Being the first virtues of human activities, truth and justice are uncompromising (3-4).

Hence, for Rawls, the concept of justice is no longer tied to what many older traditions have taken it to be—namely, the cultivation of personal virtues whose nature is given in prescriptions for the good life. Rather, his claim is that justice is properly the focus of institutions—an ideal which prescribes impersonal, governmental workings, rather than the cultivation of personal qualities. Social justice, in Rawls’ terms, is no longer irrevocably caught up in questions concerning how best we should live, but is primarily a matter of institutional imperatives, mainly concerned with the distribution of social benefits. The ideal of justice is no longer a function of personal character, attached to considerations of the good life; rather, it is an ideal which centers on the “goods of life,” and, as such, is properly the focus of governmental policy. For Rawls, the central deontological claim for the priority of the right provides the only appropriate way for thinking about social justice. As against the many forms of utilitarian theory, none of which “take seriously the distinction between persons” (27), the assertion with which Rawls opens his book is that: Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many. Therefore in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests (3-4).

Thus, Rawls confirms absolutely the primacy of justice. Rawls places himself firmly in the camp of those critics who take the view that utilitarianism constrains the rights of individuals by virtue of its reference to considerations of general welfare


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

or majority preference.4 Rawls, therefore, seeks a theory which can unconditionally affirm the individual’s right to equal liberty, and the inability of majority preferences to affect these rights. The intense convictions of the majority, if they are indeed mere preferences without any foundation in the principles of justice antecedently established, have no weight to begin with. The satisfaction of these feelings has no value that can be put in the scales against the claims of equal liberty. ... Against these principles neither the intensity of feeling nor its being shared by the majority counts for anything (450).

Rawls is concerned not only with arguing against utilitarianism, but, more ambitiously, against teleological theories in general. ... the nature of teleological doctrines is radically misconceived: from the start they relate the right and the good in the wrong way. We should not attempt to give form to our life by first looking to the good independently defined. It is not our aims that primarily reveal our nature but rather the principles that we would acknowledge to govern the background conditions under which these aims are to be formed and the manner in which they are to be pursued. For the self is prior to the ends which are affirmed by it; even a dominant end must be chosen from among numerous possibilities. ... We should therefore reverse the relation between the right and the good proposed by teleological doctrines and view the right as prior (560, emphasis added).

Because teleological theories have radically misconceived the relationship between the self and its ends, they misconstrue the relationship between the right and the good. As Rawls states, “the self is prior to the ends which are affirmed by it; even a dominant end must be chosen from among numerous possibilities.” Hence, the liberties of equal citizenship are “insecure when founded on teleological principles. The argument for them relies upon precarious calculations as well as controversial and uncertain premises” (211). What is required is a theory where the principles of right, defined independently of any teleological conception of the good, are given precedence. In so far as Rawls proceeds from the meta-ethical claim for the priority of the right, the theory he proposes may be considered “deontological,” which Rawls defines negatively as any theory which is “non-teleological” (30). In opposition to conceptions of deontology which take duty as the basis for morality, and which, like Kant, argue that moral acts must be done for their own sake regardless of their consequences, Rawls argues that, “All ethical doctrines worth our attention take consequences into account in judging rightness. One which did not would simply be irrational, crazy” (30). 4 This is a well-worn criticism of utilitarian theory, and hardly unique to Rawls. Admittedly, there is a prima facie plausibility to this line of argument; but there are also good reasons for thinking that the case against utilitarianism may not be as simple as Rawls would have us believe, at least for rule-utilitarians. See Robin Barrow, Utilitarianism: A Contemporary Account (op. cit.).

Liberalism Without Metaphysics: John Rawls and the Moral Subject


It is necessary to take a closer look at the claim that ethical theories which do not look to consequences are “irrational” and “crazy.” Is this a slip of Rawls’ analytic pen, evidence that Rawls too is not above engaging in a bit of rhetoric? Is he merely indulging his authorial prerogative to lace his writings with emotive language? Or is there perhaps something deeper going on? Rawls makes it clear that he believes deontological theories must take account of consequences. Fine and well. This can be a matter for discussion. But it should be remarked that deontological theories have traditionally been defined in opposition to those ethical theories which do look to consequences. Rawls is, of course, free to define deontology in any way he likes. But it should be remarked that Kant, for one, believed that because we can never know in advance what the consequences of our actions will be, any ethical theory which looked to consequences would render the moral law heteronomous and contingent, not autonomous and categorical. For Kant, morality must be autonomous; the good will is the only unconditional good, chosen for its own sake and not affected by the actual state of affairs. A moral agent is autonomous only if he acts according to laws derived by universalizing the maxims of his actions, and one is free and rational only when one so universalizes, irrespective of consequences. In short, Kant denied that taking “consequences into account” had anything to do with judging the rightness of our actions. Does Rawls then truly want to say that Kant’s ethical doctrine—the very essence of which is predicated on the idea that it is futile to take account of consequences when judging the rightness of actions—is “irrational” and “crazy”? Rawls obviously admires Kant as a great lover of egalitarian justice. Yet, despite the claim that his theory is “highly Kantian in nature,” Rawls seems to have fundamentally misunderstood what Kant means by morality. For all his appeals to Kant, what emerges is a partial and denuded account, where Kant’s central ontological affirmations are absent. For Kant, the categorical moral law was made possible only by positing a super-sensible, transcendent realm, one where the subject exercised an autonomous will independent of social and psychological considerations. Clearly, given the assumptions of Rawls’ analytic method of philosophizing, he wishes to avoid the obscurity of such metaphysical claims. And although as George Grant observes, “when Kant is taken essentially as a precursor to modern analytic philosophy, certain sides of his thought are being correctly grasped,”5 there is also another side to the story. As Grant further notes, to interpret Kant without reference to his metaphysics, as if he were merely a precursor to modern analytic philosophy, is to “lay him on a bed of Procrustes and cut his thought down to a required ametaphysical shape.”6 What Rawls has failed to grasp is that Kant’s purpose was not to criticize metaphysics as such, but rather to debunk the traditional metaphysics, and so secure the foundations of a new one. What he fails to notice is that Kant’s egalitarianism ultimately rests on his ontology. For Kant, it is only by the laying of metaphysical

5 6

George Grant, English-Speaking Justice, p. 30. Ibid., p. 31.


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foundations—by positing a realm beyond the phenomenal world—that we can know that justice is the right of free and autonomous beings.7 In any case, Rawls ignores the metaphysical aspects of Kant’s thought, and so attempts to construct a theory which will prove persuasive within the canons of his own philosophy. Because Rawls’ philosophy denies what Kantian metaphysics affirm—namely, that we can have knowledge of the highest or ultimate good—he must attempt to construct a theory which is independent of metaphysical assumptions. Hence, in contrast to those deontological theories which deny that the foundations of morality can rest on consequential considerations, the novelty of Rawls’ theory arises from his attempt to develop a deontological theory which takes account of consequences. Since we can only judge consequences in light of some set of principles or another, what Rawls further requires is a theory of the good. As he explains: To establish [the principles of right] it is necessary to rely on some notion of goodness . ... Since these [notions] must not jeopardize the prior place of the concept of right, the theory of the good used in arguing for the principles of justice is restricted to the bare essentials. This account of the good is what I call the thin theory: its purpose is to secure the premise about primary goods required to arrive at the principles of justice. Once this theory is worked out and the primary goods accounted for, we are free to use the principles of justice in the further development of what I shall call the full theory of the good (396).

For Rawls, “the bare essentials”—the thin theory of the good—are neither ultimate nor intrinsic (which would make his theory teleological), but consist entirely of what he terms “primary social goods.” These include liberty and opportunity, wealth and income, and the bases of self-respect and are held to be universally desirable no matter what ends a person may pursue. “These goods normally have a use whatever a person’s rational life plan” (62). Hence, for Rawls, the thin theory of the good is not derived from any conception of final ends, nor from goods which “are contingent upon present desires or existing social conditions” (263). Rather, it arises “by assuming certain general desires, such as the desire for the primary goods” (263) that “every rational man is presumed to want” (62). The thin theory of the good cannot in itself provide the basis for the principles of right. What is further required are some principles to adjudicate the distribution of these goods. Yet, if we cannot appeal to a “full theory of the good,” if, that is, the right must be founded independent of the good, where are we to locate its origins? Rawls believes that the idea of the social contract provides a way into such a theory, and affirms that justice can only be truly understood when rooted in the contract. His explicit aim is “to present a conception of justice which generalizes and carries to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of the social contract”(11) so that “it is no longer open to the more obvious objections often thought fatal to it” (viii). It is the conception of the social contract which “best approximates our considered judgements of justice and constitutes the most appropriate moral basis for 7

See above, Chapter four.

Liberalism Without Metaphysics: John Rawls and the Moral Subject


a democratic society” (viii). The guiding idea of Rawls’ theory is that the principles of justice are the object of an original agreement: “Thus we are to imagine that those who engage in social co-operation choose together, in one joint act, the principles which are to assign basic rights and duties and to determine the division of social benefits” (11). These principles regulate “all further agreements” and “specify the kinds of social cooperation that can be entered into and the forms of government that can be established” (11). The principles of justice which are established as a result of an initial agreement are what Rawls refers to as “justice as fairness” (11). Rawls disclaims any originality for the views he puts forward, and claims instead that his leading ideas are “classical and well known” (viii). His theory draws on Hume’s conception of the circumstances of justice, Kant’s conception of the self, a model of decision-making drawn from economic theory, and an Aristotelian account of the good life. His intention is to “organize [these ideas] into a general framework so that their full force can be appreciated” (viii). To reconcile the empiricism of Hume with the idealism of Kant, Aristotelian teleology with a deontological theory is surely an ambitious enough project for any book, even one of almost six hundred pages! The book falls into three sections of roughly equal length. In the first part, “Theory,” Rawls sets forth objections to various systems of justice, especially utilitarianism, and presents his positive theory, “justice as fairness.” In part two, “Institutions”, he illustrates how the contents of the principles of justice can be enacted within the institutions of a constitutional democracy, and what their implications are for individual liberties, distributive justice, and the limits of political obligation and duty. Finally, in the last section, “Ends,” he attempts to connect his doctrine of justice with an Aristotelian theory of the good and the moral development of the individual. This, in broadest outline, is Rawls’ energetic project. The Original Position Despite the many diversions and digressions in A Theory of Justice, the linchpin of the entire project rests on a fairly straightforward thought experiment, one which is based on the intuitive appeal of procedural fairness. Just as a parent divides a cake between two children by allowing one child to apportion it while the other is given first choice, so, too, does justice as fairness aim at ensuring that social goods are equally distributed, and that no one is given undue advantages in acquiring these goods. Rawls asks us to imagine an initial situation where rational adults, each of whom is concerned with furthering certain specific ends, get together and decide “once and for all what is to count among them as just and unjust” (12). This initial situation corresponds to the state of nature in contract theory and is what Rawls refers to as the “original position” (12). The original position is not supposed to represent any actual historical moment, but “is understood as a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice” (12, emphasis


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added). In order to ensure that whatever principles decided upon are fair, and that no individual’s interest is unduly influential (for example, the principles advocated by those who are more eloquent and persuasive), Rawls sets out certain conditions under which principles must be chosen, for “We want to define the original position so that we get the desired solution” (141, emphasis added). There is something unsettling in what these italicized words point to. Unlike those political philosophers who ask that we leave aside our moral preconceptions and stand apart from our everyday assumptions, Rawls makes it abundantly clear that the original position is intended to provide principles for a certain set of preexisting moral sensibilities: namely, those bound up with what Rawls refers to as “justice as fairness.” Rawls suggests that his characterization of the original position is “simply to make vivid to ourselves the restrictions that it seems reasonable to impose on arguments for principles of justice, and therefore on the principles themselves” (18). Yet, as we shall see, it is far from clear to what extent these restrictions are “reasonable” ones, and to what extent Rawls is not simply loading the dice, and admitting as “reasonable” only those conditions which adhere with his own preconceived notions. Does Rawls truly provide a justification for his principles of justice, or merely a rationalization for the prevailing set of liberal democratic sentiments? The suspicion arises that, far from challenging the current wisdom of the age, Rawls is seeking only to consolidate our faith in current notions about the superiority of liberal justice. As Allan Bloom puts it: We start from what we are now and end there, since there is nothing beyond us. At best Rawls will help us to be more consistent, if that is an advantage. The distinctions between opinion and knowledge, and between appearance and reality, which made philosophy most needful, disappear. Rawls speaks to an audience of the persuaded, excluding not only those who have different sentiments, but those who cannot be satisfied by sentiment alone.8

What is important to bear in mind is that Rawls views the original position as an answer to Kant. It is his way of arriving at an “Archimedean point” from which to assess the basic structure of society; a point where principles of justice can be adduced which rely neither on a priori principles (which are too unconnected with the world), nor on the values and conceptions which are currently dominant in society (when the standards of appraisal blur with the objects of appraisal, there is no way of picking out one from the other.) Whereas Kant argued that empirical principles are unfit as the basis for moral law, the original position attempts to preserve the moral force of Kant’s metaphysic morality “within the scope of an empirical theory.”9 Rawls argues that “moral philosophy must be free to use contingent assumptions and 8 Allan Bloom, “John Rawls vs. The Tradition of Political Philosophy,” op. cit., p. 649. 9 John Rawls, “A Well-Ordered Society,” Philosophy, Politics and Society, 5th series. Eds. P. Laslett and J. Fishkin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 18.

Liberalism Without Metaphysics: John Rawls and the Moral Subject


general facts as it pleases” (51). What is essential is only that the premises be “true and sufficiently general” (158). Where Kant’s transcendental subject was too far removed from the world in which moral agents actually live, Rawls seeks to arrive at a position whereby agents can arrive at a critical standpoint which is not entirely beyond this world. As Michael Sandel notes: The aim of the original position is to provide a means of deriving principles of justice that abstracts from contingent and therefore morally irrelevant social and natural influences— this is the Kantian aspiration—without having to rely on a noumenal realm or on the notion of a transcendent subject wholly beyond experience.10

Rawls’ solution to Kant’s abstract, transcendent subject is to restrict the description of the parties in the original position to those characteristics shared by all rational beings. Hence, two crucial assumptions are made: the first is an assumption about what the parties do not know; the second is an assumption about what they do know. First, as parties to the original agreement, we are to imagine that a “veil of ignorance” descends over us. Such a veil produces in us a mysterious sort of amnesia, and obliterates from our understanding all that we know about ourselves: our personal histories, our social position, our sex, race, peculiar attachments, the values we hold, our educational levels, our particular conception of the good, and even the “particular circumstances of our own society” (137). We are further deprived of any knowledge of our psychological propensities and our natural assets and abilities, for all such personal knowledge must be put aside if the decision arrived at is to be fair. The veil of ignorance is meant to “ensure that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstance” (12). If the procedure of deciding on principles of justice is to be fair, then, “somehow we must nullify the effects of specific contingencies which put men at odds and tempt them to exploit social and natural circumstance to their own advantage” (136). In brief, “The arbitrariness of the world must be corrected for by adjusting the circumstances of the initial contractual situation” (141). The second assumption concerns what the parties in the original position know. So, the veil of ignorance is intended to preserve the principles of justice from contingent influences, the assumption of knowledge is necessary to prevent the principles of justice from lapsing into arbitrariness. Justice must be suited to this world, and not some other. Thus, while individuals in the original position are denied the knowledge of certain personal facts—those that “seem arbitrary from a moral point of view” (15) —they are not entirely ignorant of the world, but are possessed of some general knowledge about those “particular facts ... subject to the circumstances of justice and whatever this implies” (137). It is taken for granted, however, that they know the general facts about human society. They understand political affairs and the principles of economic theory; they know the 10 Michael J. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, p. 39.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education basis of social organization and the laws of human psychology. Indeed, the parties are presumed to know whatever general facts affect the choice of the principles of justice (137).

Furthermore, in keeping with the traditions of American contractualism, Rawls sees the parties in the original position as rational and mutually disinterested equals, all of whom are concerned with furthering their own ends: “the postulate of mutual disinterest in the original position is made to insure that the principles of justice do not depend on strong assumptions” (129).11 For any strong or controversial assumptions would threaten to impose a particular conception of the good, and hence bias the choice of principles in advance, and undermine their independence. Clearly, for any deontological theory, the principles of justice cannot be deduced from a doctrine which imposes any such prior constraints. “Presuming mutual disinterest in the original position carries out this idea” (254). While the original contractors do not know what particular ends they in fact wish to secure, they do know that they, like everyone else, have certain aims and aspirations they wish to advance, and that these are likely to be opposed by the aims and aspirations of others. Moreover, in keeping with Rawls’ egalitarianism, it is further understood that while parties in the original position are concerned with promoting their own ends, all parties are to be thought of as equal, so that “systems of ends are not ranked in value” (19). Although the parties may be ignorant of their own final ends, they fully understand that whatever their particular ends happen to be, they are likely to require certain social goods, irrespective of their more specific desires. As we have seen, those things “which it is supposed a rational man wants whatever else he wants” (62) are what Rawls describes as “primary goods,” and are contained in the thin theory of the good. The thin theory of the good is distinguished from the full theory of the good, and is so-called because it is unable to yield any basis on which to judge between various values or ultimate ends. The thin theory tells us only what social goods are necessary to realize any end, not what ends are worth pursuing. The Two Principles of Justice Given the restrictions of the initial choice situation, and the conditions under which rational agents must make their choice, what principles of justice would Rawls’ ideal 11 Rawls’ formulation of “mutual disinterest” merely reflects a well-worn theme in contract theory. That the sole valid perspective in public life is one of mutual disinterest can be traced directly to Hobbes’ dismal views of human nature. Eighteenth century critics Trenchard and Gordon in The New Cato write: “... as selfishness is the strongest bias of men, every man ought to be upon his guard against another, that he become not the prey of another. ... No wise man, therefore, will in any instance of moment trust to the mere integrity of another.” (Trenchard and Gordon, 1733, Cato’s Letters or, Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects.) Quoted in Thomas L. Pangle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism. (London: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 32.

Liberalism Without Metaphysics: John Rawls and the Moral Subject


contractors choose? Rawls’ answer is that in any social order, rational agents would choose two principles of justice, and a rule for allocating priorities when the principles conflict. Because contract theories must assume equality among the parties, his first principle is that “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all” (302). The second principle is: ‘social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principles [that is, investment in the interests of future generations] and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity” (302). Rawls assigns these principles a rank order, so that when they conflict, the first takes priority over the second. He also assigns the two principles a “lexical” order, meaning that a prior principle must be fully complied with before later ones are considered. Thus, liberty is ascribed an absolute priority over equality, and can be restricted only for the sake of liberty. So we arrive at Rawls’ general conception of justice: All social primary goods—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect—are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favored (303).

Herein lies the essence of Rawls’ theory: justice is primarily a matter of distributing social goods in accordance with the principle that such a distribution must favor the least well off in society. Justice as fairness is meant to provide the justification for a certain set of external political arrangements; a political ethic which not only recognizes the equal right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but to the actual achievement of happiness as well. Rawls’ position might accurately be labeled “welfare egalitarianism.” As Allan Bloom notes: Rawls’ innovation is to incorporate the maxims of contemporary social welfare into the fundamental principles of political justice. Not only must material goods be provided to each citizen, but also an equal sense of his own worth, recognized by others. ... A man does not, as Plato thought, have a right to what he can use well; or, as Locke said, to that with which he has mixed his labor; or even, as Marx said, to what he needs; he has a right to what he thinks he needs in order to fulfill his “life plan,” whatever it might be. With respect to ends, government for Rawls is laisser faire; with respect to the means to the ends, it must be beaucoup faire.12

As with other contract theories, two broad lines of criticism may be brought to bear on the internal coherence of Rawls’ notion of justice as fairness. The first concerns the description of the initial position and the problem of choice posited there, and the second concerns the choice of the substantive principles agreed to. As Rawls says, “One may accept the first part of the theory (or some variant thereof) but not the other, and conversely” (15). Thus, one set of objections may deny that 12 Allan Bloom, “John Rawls vs. The Tradition of Political Philosophy,” op. cit., p. 650.


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the original position achieves the required set of detachment from the world. Even the thin theory of the good, it may be objected, is too thick. The list of primary social goods that Rawls specifies, far from being shown to be universally desirable, could be seen as merely a cluster of contingent preferences, irredeemably implicated in the assumptions, beliefs and values of particular societies—namely, those of industrialized, Western, democracies. What, for example, is the Rawlsian notion of material wealth to one who believes that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven? What does health mean to one who, like Simone Weil, believes that sickness is the true state of the Christian? What does self-esteem mean to one who believes in hair-shirts and humility? It may be argued that Rawls’ list of primary goods, far from being the neutral collection of universally desirable values Rawls believes it to be, inevitably presupposes much about what sort of life is worth pursuing. On the other hand, a second set of objections might protest that the original position is not so much implicated in a particular set of values, as too detached from the world. It might be protested that the thin theory of the good is too thin, and that, contrary to Rawls, it in fact excludes information which is morally relevant and necessary to generating meaningful results. Like Kant’s transcendental subject, such critics might continue, the logic of the original position secures the principles of justice only at the cost of a too formal and abstract conception of the person, one which is too far removed from the contingencies of the world to account for human motivations. A further set of objections centers on Rawls’ conception of the social contract tradition. First, despite Rawls’ appeals to his contractarian predecessors, the original position presents a radical departure from state of nature theorists. In so far as the validity of Rawls’ scheme rests straightforwardly on hypothetical considerations, and does not depend on any historical contract having actually taken place, he is working within a well-traveled strand of contract theory. Yet, even granted that the early contract theorists were frequently ambivalent about the historical reality of the contract, they nevertheless based their prescriptions on a comprehensive reflection about the way things really were. The social contract itself might be a fiction, but those passions which motivated men to form civil associations were real enough. Man chooses society not from a situation of “reflective equilibrium,” but because he is a being in the grip of powerful and natural passions which direct his reason. According to the older tradition of contract theorists, man enters into the social contract because his life is threatened, and it is reasonable to fear death. The state of nature theorists presented a picture of man as he really was, divested of convention and accident; a being whose fear was not an abstraction or hypothesis, but an experience which accompanies men from cradle to grave, and whose power is sufficient to provide men with a selfish reason for adhering to civil society. The positive law derives its sanction from the negative fact on which all reasonable men must agree: that death is terrible and must be avoided. Yet, the original position is a bloodless abstraction. Rawls, as a philosopher working within the assumptions of the analytic tradition, is careful not to derive

Liberalism Without Metaphysics: John Rawls and the Moral Subject


an “ought” from an “is”, and so diligently avoids any talk of man’s nature. The original position, thus, derives its status not from any substantive beliefs about nature, but is understood “so as to lead to a certain conception of justice” (12). The veil of ignorance ensures that there is nothing “natural” about Rawls’ contractors; indeed, it is difficult to imagine in the creatures which operate from behind the veil of ignorance anything that might remotely correspond to real human experience. So where Rawls’ predecessors derive the force of the moral law from considerations arising from concerns about living, breathing creatures, Rawls’ theory proceeds from considerations due to fantastic and fictive creatures such as never walked the earth. As Michael Sandel comments: Not only did his contract never happen; it is imagined to take place among the sorts of beings who never really existed, that is, beings struck with the sort of complicated amnesia necessary to the veil of ignorance. In this sense, Rawls’ theory is doubly hypothetical. It imagines an event that never really happened, involving the sorts of beings who never really existed.13

There is also a logical objection which arises as a consequence of the characterization of the individual agent in the “pre-contract” or original position. The veil of ignorance ensures that all contractors are devoid of any distinguishing, personal features, which is to say, that all are identical in every respect. As Rawls says, To begin with, it is clear that since the differences among the parties are unknown to them, and everyone is equally rational and similarly situated, each is convinced by the same arguments. Therefore, we can view the choice in the original position from the standpoint of one person selected at random (139).

Rawls is certainly correct in characterizing the bargaining position as being the equivalent of the choice of “one person selected at random.” Yet curiously he seems to miss the import of what this means for the internal coherence of his theory. He seems to think ensuring that “everyone is equally rational and similarly situated, ... . convinced by the same arguments” merely simplifies the bargaining procedure. Thus there follows the very important consequence that the parties have no basis for bargaining in the usual sense (139).

The veil of ignorance is intended to overcome one of the traditional objections to contract theory—namely, the theoretical difficulties associated with arriving at unanimity in the principles chosen. The veil of ignorance makes possible a unanimous choice of a particular conception of justice. Without these limitations on knowledge the bargaining problem of the original position would be hopelessly complicated (140).

13 Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, p. 105.


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It is far from clear what a “contract” could mean to individuals who all have the identical motives, intentions, and views; who are, that is, indistinguishable in every respect. Nor is it clear what Rawls means by bargaining “in the usual sense.” For social contract theories must presuppose a number of things: that there exists a plurality of persons who have real and conflicting interests; that these parties know what their interests are; and that the parties to the contract can “bargain”, which is to say that they can calculate a proper strategy to further their individual interests, including negotiating such things as trade-offs and compromises. In short, the logic of any contract demands that the consenting wills of two or more persons undertake certain binding obligations, limits, and restrictions which result in creating the right of one party against the other. But what the veil of ignorance ensures is that there is no reality to even a hypothetical bargaining or contracting situation, for all desires and motivations are undifferentiated and, thus, reduced to the solitary choice of “one person selected at random.” Whatever the original position amounts to, it is something considerably less than what contract theory demands. The logic of the veil of ignorance ensures that in the original position, not only is there no bargaining “in the usual sense,” but in any sense at all. In the final analysis, the veil of ignorance renders the original position a mere choosing situation, where a single individual chooses principles, rather than bargains or contracts with other agents. In reality, far from overcoming one of the fatal objections to contract theory, Rawls merely presents us with a uniform choice-situation. However adorned and elaborated though it be in the finery of contract theory, justice as fairness is simply cut from another cloth. It might be contended that, although Rawls has clearly misnamed his theory and used inappropriate labels, we should stop short of taking the further step of discrediting his substantive position. That is, we should avoid confusing the fact that A Theory of Justice is clearly misnamed as a species of contract theory with the question of its overall coherence as a way of establishing a theory of justice. Yet, if the logic of the original position results in merely a uniform choice situation, and not a contractual one as Rawls would have us believe, then this objection is more than merely a verbal quibble, but strikes to the very heart of his theory. Rawls’ conception of justice is predicated on the centrality of the social contract—understood as a covenant entered into by free and equal agents—in at least two ways. First, it is a simple logical requirement of justice that there be a plurality of subjects. Justice is only necessary because the conditions that prevail in human society are typically marked by a conflict of interests over the division of limited social goods. Such conditions give rise to the circumstances of justice, and, in their absence, justice is neither required nor desired. That is, for there to be justice, there must be the possibility of a clash of competing claims, and for there to be such competing claims, there obviously needs to be more than one claimant. Hence, the plurality of subjects is a necessary, but not sufficient condition of justice. In addition to a plurality of subjects, justice further requires a society of beings which are in some way distinguishable from one another. In a world where subjects were indistinguishable in every respect (which is the result of Rawls’ veil of ignorance), it

Liberalism Without Metaphysics: John Rawls and the Moral Subject


is similarly inconceivable that we would either require or desire justice. In short, in a world where there is only one subject, or where subjects are indistinguishable from one another, the concept of justice is quite meaningless. Second, it must be borne in mind that the animus for Rawls’ theory arises from what he considers to be the major inadequacy of utilitarianism, a deficiency which, in Rawls’ estimation, centers on its failure to respect the distinctiveness and plurality of persons: “Utilitarianism is not individualistic,” (29) for it conflates all desires into a single system, and thus fails to observe the plurality and distinctiveness of persons. What Rawls seeks, therefore, is a conception of justice which acknowledges the uniqueness and distinctiveness of persons, thereby avoiding what he sees as the fatal flaw in utilitarianism. Again, A Theory of Justice can largely be seen as an attempt to formulate a necessary corrective to utilitarianism’s lack of emphasis on the individual. Rawls does, of course, acknowledge the necessity of a plurality of subjects as an absolute logical requirement of justice. Principles of justice deal with conflicting claims upon the advantages won by social cooperation; they apply to the relations among several groups of people. The word “contract” suggests this plurality (16).

Moreover, he knows that for subjects to be plural there must be something that differentiates them. But the logic of the uniform choice situation in the original bargaining position renders these points moot. For the uniform choice situation in the original bargaining position results in precisely the sort of conflation of desires which Rawls would avoid. The uniform choice situation utterly destroys that plurality which Rawls accuses utilitarianism of ignoring, and under whose aegis Rawls is fighting. It is difficult to see how the “standpoint of one person selected at random” (139) circumvents the sort of conflation of desires which he sees as utilitarianism’s major deficiency. Despite his appeals to Kant, and his professions of the need to treat people as distinct systems of ends, the logic of the bargaining position results in precisely that error which Rawls would eschew. It is, of course, debatable whether Rawls condemnation of utilitarian theory is justified. But what does need to be noted is that, far from overcoming what Rawls takes to be the major shortcoming of utilitarian theory, the original bargaining situation merely moves the markers in the game, and introduces into the Rawlsian notion of “contract” a similar conflation of desires. The logic of the original position ensures that Rawls’ manner of proceeding radically undermines and discredits the twin notions of individualism and respect for persons, precisely those qualities he sets out to justify in A Theory of Justice. In short, Rawls is culpable of something more than misplaced nomenclature. Even if we leave aside our doubts about the adequacy of Rawls’ characterization of the original position, the further question arises: would the original contractors choose the principles that Rawls claims they would? Again, there are a number of telling criticisms.


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In putting forth the principles he does, Rawls must rely on a very narrow and specialized view of what constitutes a rational decision. In common with the individualistic assumptions of other contract theorists, reason is taken to be primarily a matter of calculating self-interest: “The concept of rationality must be interpreted as far as possible in the narrow sense, standard in economic theory, of taking the most effective means to a given end” (14). Proceeding from this narrow and stipulative concept of reason, Rawls maintains that because the stakes are so high in the original position, the initial contractors would naturally proceed with caution and avoid risky strategies. Because there can be no way of knowing where one might wind up in society, individuals would necessarily choose their principles cautiously, so as to make even the worst social prospects (which, after all, they may inhabit) the best. In short, justice as fairness would be the only strategy open to rational agents. The obvious criticism here is that Rawls’ conception of rationality is too narrow and circumspect. There is probably no more complex and perplexing concept in philosophy than that of reason itself, and it might be sensibly maintained that the sort of economic instrumentalism that Rawls takes for “rationality” is, in fact, only a small, and arguably one of the least important aspects of what it means to be a “rational” agent. Even if we accept the economic conception of rationality that Rawls adopts—that is, taking the most effective means to the desired end—it is not entirely apparent that contractors would necessarily opt for the safe route. While the stakes are, indeed, very high, there is nothing irrational about taking risks if the rewards are great enough and the odds are reasonable. In fact, it could be reasonably argued that any gamble is only worth the risk if one is playing for high stakes. If, for example, a scheme is advanced whereby a majority of the population is guaranteed a life of relative ease and luxury at the cost of enslaving the minority, and say that the ratio is in the order of eight to two, then it is difficult to see how reason would prevent one from taking the gamble. Such a callous calculation might strike us as morally repugnant and unjust. (Although it should be remembered that in the pre-contract state there exists no warrant for saying such things, as we have yet to arrive at a concept of justice.) But if the end we are seeking is an easy and luxurious life, and if reason is taken to mean calculating the most effective means to a desired end, then there is certainly nothing “ unreasonable” about taking such a risk under these conditions. In short, the choices that even instrumental reason allows are not as circumscribed as Rawls believes, and people in the original position have no need to be as cautious as his theory demands. I have examined above only some of the criticisms which might be levelled against the internal coherence of Rawls’ theory. But telling as these objections may be, there are a number of reasons why I do not want to pursue them further. First, given Rawls’ description of the original position, some principles of justice must be chosen, and the theory of justice he puts forward is not entirely unreasonable. Clearly, if we accept his contractarian premises, it is not unthinkable that agents might indeed choose the principles of justice Rawls claims they would, whatever our

Liberalism Without Metaphysics: John Rawls and the Moral Subject


reservations about the details. Moreover, he works from two guiding assumptions, both of which seem to me fundamentally sound, though hardly unique. The first assumption is his belief that deliberations about justice must take account of social institutions. It is an obvious enough idea that one of the ways in which we check the soundness of our social theories is to look to their practical implications. And what are social institutions if not the practical realization of certain theories? I do not want to revisit here debates which were adressed in Chapter Two; but suffice to say, whatever its internal failings, Rawls’ theory provided a necessary corrective to a conception of political philosophy which had for too long been engaged exclusively with abstract, conceptual questions, at the expense of obvious empirical considerations. Where Rawls errs, however, is in claiming that we begin our moral deliberations by reflecting on the justice of our social institutions. Again, for Rawls the social institutions are the primary subject of justice, in particular, “the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation” (7). It is worth repeating that passage which might well stand as the leitmotif of Rawls’ theory: Justice is the first virtue of social institutions as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust ... Being the first virtues of human activities, truth and justice are uncompromising (3-4).

Obviously, to judge our institutions we need to appeal to a standard which is capable of providing a detached, critical distance from those institutions. Understandably, if, like Rawls, one rejects any metaphysical or natural view of justice, then one has no option but to appeal to positive right, which is to say that notions of right ultimately have their ground in the conventions of communities. Here we run into the familiar problem common to all contractarian theories; if our critical principles are nothing more than the agreed upon conventions of a society sanctified by an original choosing situation—if, that is, justice and the right have no basis but some sort of agreement—then the principles of cannibalism and slavery are as sound as those of civilized life, and it is of little moral import whether or not our social institutions reflect accurately those conventions which arise from the social contract. What Rawls must do, as a political philosopher working within the assumptions of contract theory, is tell us why he thinks arriving at principles through the act of collective choosing he advocates should result in a moral theory. Furthermore, his belief that justice must serve the least advantaged (or what we might better call the poor) acknowledges a moral truth which is in keeping with the best traditions of liberal humaneness. As the adage has it, “The scale of justice inclines toward the poor and oppressed.” Whatever our skepticism about the soundness of his theory in its entirety, Rawls must be credited with recognizing what seems to me an unassailable intuition about moral deliberations.


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Yet, however much we might admire this sentiment, two questions remain—one empirical, the other theoretical. First, are Rawls’ two principles really the principles in accordance with which any society exhibiting the conditions of justice ought to arrange its practices? That is, would the “least advantaged” necessarily be better off under the conditions posed by Rawls’ theory? As Robert Wolff suggests: I find it extraordinarily difficult to get a grip on this question. ... The problem, in part, stems from the fact that Rawls says little or nothing about the concrete facts of social, economic, and political reality. ... A Theory of Justice can be placed historically in the tradition of Utopian liberal political economy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One could characterize it briefly, even brusquely, as an apologia for an egalitarian brand of liberal welfare-state capitalism. ... while preserving the political, psychological, and moral presuppositions of such a doctrine, [Rawls raises] the discussion to so high a level of abstraction that the empirical specificity needed to lend any plausiblity to it are drained away. What remains, it seems to me, is ideology, which is to say prescription masquerading as value-neutral analysis.14

Theoretically, and more fundamentally, the question is this: has Rawls really provided a rational basis for our liberal-democratic sentiments? Or has he merely, in the words of Wolff, passed off an ideology as a value-neutral analysis? Rawls writes within the assumptions of an American, or at best, Anglo-American consciousness, which is to say that he is representative of a culture that is already relatively prosperous and free. In Allan Bloom’s words, “... the question always present is whether that moral sense is anything other than a mere preference, one conditioned by time and place.”15 Simply, historicism, whether that of Marx or Nietzsche and the existentialists, has made it questionable whether an undertaking such as Rawls’ is possible at all; yet he does not address himself to these thinkers. He takes it for granted that they are wrong, and that they must pass before his tribunal, not he before theirs. ... But the issues raised by Marx and Nietzsche must be dealt with if Rawls is to be persuasive at all. If liberal democracy is just a stage on the road to another type of society, then Rawls is merely an ephemeral ideologist. And if rational determination of values is in the decisive sense impossible, then Rawls is only a deluded myth maker. He supposes that his method makes a detour around these roadblocks, that there is no need to discuss nature and history.16

Such concerns take us back to the themes which opened this chapter. As I said at the outset, my concern is not so much with how tightly Rawls argues his case, as with a more general question: Is Rawls’ deontological vision an adequate account of our moral experience? If the original position and the bargaining game—which are the key to Rawls’ philosophy—are intended to supply an answer to Kantian metaphysics, what sort of answer is it? What must be true about us for justice to be 14 Wolff, Understanding Rawls, p. 195. 15 Allan Bloom, “John Rawls vs. The Tradition of Political Philosophy,” p. 649. 16 Ibid., p. 648.

Liberalism Without Metaphysics: John Rawls and the Moral Subject


primary in the sense that Rawls would have us believe? Why does Rawls believe he has overcome one of the major objections to contract theory—namely, the idea that we can arrive at moral considerations through calculations arising from self-interest? Even if we concede the description of the original position, and further concede that Rawls’ agents choose the principles that Rawls claims they would, we are still faced with the question of determining how a rational decision-making process confers moral status on the principles chosen. To answer these questions we need to work back from Rawls’ theory to a conception of the moral agent. The answers can only be given in light of a certain conception of the moral subject, and the societies and universe that such individuals inhabit.

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Chapter 7

Alasdair MacIntyre: Morality After Virtue In the previous chapter, I tried to convey how the notion of the unencumbered self in Rawls’ deontological scheme is inadequate to secure the notion of moral agency. My concern was not so much with how tightly Rawls argued his case, but rather to demonstrate how deontological projects in general fail to adequately account for moral experience. Specifically, I argued that the conception of the self at the centre of liberalism—disembodied, unencumbered, antecedent to society, and standing in a shadowy and detached way to its end—radically misconstrues the way we are constituted as individuals, in that it cannot account for the social context, the community, in which we live. In this and the next chapter, I want to make a positive case for the communitarian agenda by providing an exegetical summary of two thinkers who are widely conceded to be at the forefront of the communitarian critique of liberalism— Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. While both writers have very wide-ranging philosophical interests, the focus of their criticism may be said to center on how liberal accounts of justice must presuppose an inadequate conception of both the person, and the relationship which holds between an individual and his community. I begin in this chapter with Alasdair MacIntyre, arguably the more ambitious in terms of the breadth and generality of his analysis. Then I move to Charles Taylor whose work, like MacIntyre’s, is a sweeping account of the rise of modernity. Unlike MacIntyre, however, Taylor is not inclined to reject liberalism per se; rather he sees many of liberalism’s claims as worthy of serious consideration, but only if they can be detached from various incoherent ways of articulating and defending them. For both MacIntyre and Taylor, Rawlsian liberalism must be read as a specific symptom of a much deeper cultural malaise, and explicit reference to Rawls appears only briefly in their work. What both of these thinkers share is a rejection of the atomistic individualism inherent in Rawlsian liberalism, and the resultant split in the spheres of public and private morality. They might legitimately be called “communitarian” thinkers, in so far as they are committed to the belief that moral agency can only arise within the shared values and common understandings of a community.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

In After Virtue1 (hereafter AV) and succeeding volumes, Alasdair MacIntyre sets out to map the cultural and historical landscape of contemporary moral debate. He likens the contemporary moral scene to an imaginary scenario where scientific knowledge has been lost. What remains are pseudo-scientists, who, while continuing to mimic the scientific language and categories of an earlier age, are nevertheless ignorant of the deeper, underlying conceptual framework of science. Contemporary society, he maintains, is in a similar state of moral confusion, for while “the language and the appearances of morality persist ... the integral substance of morality has to a large degree been fragmented and then in part destroyed” (AV, p. 5). The political and moral life of contemporary western societies is at an impasse because we have lost the means of rationally arbitrating among various opposing points of view. For MacIntyre, it is not simply that people argue over fundamental moral goods, for that has always been more or less the case. It is rather the more disturbing notion that, given the form our moral arguments take, they can never be brought to any rational conclusion. This is because the basic premises from which the opposing parties proceed are fundamentally incommensurable. Conclusions still follow logically from premises, in the sense that each person’s opinion is derivable from a set of fundamental propositions. But when these fundamental premises are compared, it proves impossible to evaluate their relative merit or worth, for the premises themselves are incommensurable with one another. Thus, premises which invoke rights are contrasted with those that invoke the notion of a soul, as in the case of the abortion debate. As each side of this debate invokes concepts which are not translatable into opposing points of view (what MacIntyre labels the “conceptual incommensurability of the rival debates” [AV, p. 8]), there is no overarching framework within which we can compare and rationally demonstrate the superiority of one concept over another. The result of all this is that moral debate “... can find no terminus. There seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture” (AV, p. 6). According to MacIntyre, the reason for this impasse and the lack of fruitful moral debate in contemporary society is that moral arguments exemplify merely a clash of personal wills and their arbitrary preferences. While we might continue to invoke universal, impersonal criteria to justify our moral judgements, such appeals are spurious, for we have ceased to believe in impersonal standards by means of which moral disputes can be arbitrated. So while we continue to use language which appeals to universal moral rules (just as our pseudo-scientists continue to trade on expressions such as “neutrino,’’ “specific gravity” and “atomic weight”), our moral prescriptions are, in fact, little more than thinly disguised attempts to get others to feel and act as we do. In short, for MacIntyre, contemporary moral arguments,

1 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press,1981). The other volumes that are of interest are: Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988) and Three Rival Version of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy and Tradition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990).

Alasdair MacIntyre: Morality After Virtue


while invoking the language of impersonal standards, are in fact little more than expressions of personal will and idiosyncratic preferences. This paradox can be easily explained by the school of moral philosophy called emotivism. Emotivism holds that moral utterances (and, indeed, all evaluative judgements) express nothing but our personal feelings or attitudes about “x.” Unlike factual statements, they cannot be tested for truth or falsity. Rather than securing agreement as to what is true and what is false, moral judgements, being expressions of attitudes or feelings, are attempts to persuade others to share that attitude. For example, when we say “Abortion is immoral” or “Capital punishment should be abolished,” we are voicing not only our own disapproval of such acts, but are trying to induce others to share our disapproval. MacIntyre rejects emotivism as an explanation for what has gone wrong in morality, primarily because emotivism confuses meaning and use. That is, emotivism is a theory about the meaning of sentences, yet the expression of feelings and emotions is a function not of meaning, but of their use on specific occasions. The angry schoolmaster, to use one of Gilbert Ryle’s examples, may vent his feelings by shouting at the small boy who has just made an arithmetical mistake, “Seven times seven equals forty-nine!” But the use of this sentence to express feelings or attitudes has nothing whatsoever to do with its meaning. This suggests that we should not simply rely on these objections to reject the emotive theory, but that we should rather consider whether it ought not to have been proposed as a theory about the use—understood as purpose or function—of members of a certain class of expressions rather than about their meaning ... (AV, p. 13)

In short, MacIntyre argues that emotivism is false if construed as a theory about the meaning of moral utterances, but true if used to describe how, in fact, moral utterances are put to use. What has happened is that over time “the meaning and the use of moral expressions ... had become ... radically discrepant with each other” (AV, p. 13). In other words, while we currently use moral expressions to convey our fundamentally arbitrary and personal feelings, such expressions nevertheless retain traces of an earlier historical period, one in which moral utterances did appeal to impersonal and objective standards. As MacIntyre writes: ... to a large degree people now think, talk and act as if emotivism were true, no matter what their avowed theoretical stand-point may be. Emotivism has become embodied in our culture. But of course in saying this I am not merely contending that morality is not what it once was, but also and more importantly that what once was morality has to some large degree disappeared—and that this marks a degradation, a grave cultural loss. (AV, p. 21)

While it is true that we are indeed living in an emotivist culture, that wasn’t always the case. In After Virtue, MacIntyre sets himself a twofold task: first, to uncover the historical forces which have imbued our culture with emotivist tendencies and practices, and, second, in light of this analysis, to examine the possibility of restoring


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

objective and impersonal standards to moral debate. This is a task which is “partly historical and partly philosophical” (AV, p. 21). As MacIntyre further suggests: A moral philosophy—and emotivism is no exception—characteristically presupposes a sociology. For every moral philosophy offers explicitly or implicitly at least a partial conceptual analysis of the relationship of an agent to his or her reasons, motives, intentions and actions, and in so doing generally presupposes some claim that these concepts are embodied or at least can be in the real social world. (AV, p. 22)

In an emotivist culture such as ours, all moral discussion is simply the attempt of one party to try to alter the preferences and inclinations of another party so that they accord with one’s own feelings and attitudes. In such a social milieu, ‘the generalisations of the sociology and psychology of persuasion are what I shall need to guide me, not the standards of a normative rationality” (AV, p. 23). There is no use appealing to impersonal criteria, for there are none. Moreover, by collapsing the distinction between personal and impersonal reasons, the emotivist culture removes the possibility of treating persons as ends, as rational beings capable of making an independent assessment of what they take to be right: The sole reality of distinctively moral discourse is the attempt of one will to align the attitudes, feelings, preferences and choices of another with its own. Others are always means, never ends. (AV, p. 23)

Hence, moral debate is reduced to a forum in which we attempt to get others to go along with our thinking. If MacIntyre is right in suggesting that any moral philosophy presupposes a sociology, then the question to be asked is what would the social world look like as seen through emotivist eyes. If emotivist moral debate is an instance of manipulative interpersonal relationships, then the same holds true for social relationships per se. The social world for the emotivist self is simply a meeting place of individual wills, each with its own set of idiosyncratic preferences. It is a society where ‘truth has been displaced as a value and replaced with psychological effectiveness” (AV, p. 29). We can see this more sharply by referring to what MacIntyre calls the “characters” of modern culture. Here, a “character” is understood to be a fusion of a specific social role with a specific personality type in a way that embodies certain metaphysical ideals embedded in the culture. MacIntyre identifies three such types, the aesthete, the manager, and the therapist. The aesthete is concerned with nothing other than satisfying his personal desires, and seeks above all else the avoidance of boredom. The social world presents an arena for the achievement of desires, and all available human and non-human resources are seen as opportunities for exploitation. The manager’s goal is to rationally increase bureaucratic output, in the sense of matching means to end economically and efficiently; but he explicitly eschews the task of setting ends, for “Questions of ends are questions of values, and on values reason is silent” (AV, p. 25).

Alasdair MacIntyre: Morality After Virtue


The manager treats ends as given, as outside his scope; his concern is with technique, with effectiveness in transforming raw materials into final products, unskilled labour into skilled labour, investment into profits. (AV, p. 29)

The therapist is concerned with redirecting neurotic and socially maladapted energy to purposes which are deemed socially useful. Like the manager, ends are taken as given, and his concern is with efficiency and technique, rather than on assessing the worth of the ends a patient may adopt. Because ends are outside the realm of reason, the therapist restricts himself to those realms where rational agreement is possible—the realm of means which are measurably effective. It is by reference to such role models that individuals define themselves in the emotivist culture. What is instructive about these distinctively modern character types is that they all agree in treating people as means to other people’s ends, and all agree too that questions of ends are beyond systematic, objective, and rational assessment. The bifurcation of the contemporary social world into a realm of the organisational in which ends are taken to be given and are not available for rational scrutiny, and a realm of the personal in which judgment and debate about values are central factors, but in which no rational social resolution of issues is available, finds its internalisation, its inner representation, in the relation of the individual self to the roles and characters of social life. (AV, p. 33)

Thus, any moral stance that the self adopts or takes on must be seen as ultimately an arbitrary and purely personal preference, devoid of any rational criteria. Since a moral stance cannot be justified by reference to rational criteria, the only justification must be because an agent freely chose to adopt it. This entails regarding the relationship between the modern self and its ends as purely voluntaristic, and the choice of ends as entirely criterionless. Whatever allegiances or preferences the emotivist self might profess, they can be construed only as contingent preferences, little better than passing whims, for there exists no underlying criteria by which to assess any particular set of preferences. This means, of course, that there can be no intelligible history of a moral agent’s progress for, whenever moral conflicts arise, they can only be seen as the confrontation of one contingent arbitrariness with another. As a further consequence of this lack of any ultimate criteria, the emotivist self cannot be unconditionally identified with any particular moral viewpoint(s) it takes up. Herein lies MacIntyre’s central thesis: Everything may be criticized from whatever standpoint the self has adopted, including the self’s choice of standpoint to adopt. It is in this capacity of the self to evade any necessary identification with any particular contingent state of affairs that some modern philosophers, both analytical and existentialist, have seen the essence of moral agency. To be a moral agent is, on this view, precisely to be able to stand back from any and every situation in which one is involved, from any and every characteristic that one may possess, and to pass judgment on it from a purely universal and abstract point of view that is totally detached from all social particularity. Anyone and everyone can thus be a


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education moral agent, since it is in the self and not in social roles or practices that moral agency has to be located. ... The democratized self which has no necessary social content and no necessary social identity can then be anything, can assume any role or take any point of view, because it is in and for itself nothing. (AV, p. 30)

On MacIntyre’s view, the emotivist conception of the self assumes an abstract and ghostly quality. And while at this point in his argument MacIntyre makes no explicit reference to either Rawls or liberalism per se, clearly his analysis of the modern self converges with the Rawlsian notion of the subject in the original position—the subject as antecedently individuated and removed from any social and historical particularity. For MacIntyre, contemporary forms of liberalism are not so much the disease itself, as they are the symptoms of the deeper emotivist affliction which he is setting out to diagnose and cure. In order to understand the emotivist culture, he argues that we must first understand why the Enlightenment project of rationally justifying morality had to fail. He points out that the attempts of Kierkegaard, Kant, Diderot, Hume, and Smith were all uniformly unsuccessful, and that the reason for their failure was the same in every case. Despite the fact that all essentially consented to the moral beliefs of the Christian culture into which they were born (that is, there was broad consensus among these thinkers as to what constituted the content of morality) the Enlightenment project was doomed at the outset: the moral rules they were attempting to justify had originated in a very different social and historical context, one which was dominated by the teleological framework of Aristotle. In Aristotle’s teleology, there is a sharp and vital distinction between humannature-as-it-happens-to-be and human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized-its-telos. Just as we can distinguish between the potential of an acorn, and the fulfillment of that potential in its growth into a sturdy oak, so, too, on Aristotle’s account, we can distinguish between human nature as we happen to find it, and human nature as it could be if it realized its true nature. Accordingly, in an Aristotelian scheme, the whole point of morality is to shift the individual from the former to the latter state, and the study of ethics was conceived of as the science of how, under the tutelage of practical reason, this transformation was best to be effected. The precepts which enjoin the various virtues and prohibit the vices which are their counterparts instruct us how to move from potentiality to act, how to realize our true nature and to reach our true end. To defy them will be to be frustrated and incomplete, to fail to achieve that good of rational happiness which it is peculiarly ours as a species to pursue. (AV, p. 50)

Ethics, on Aristotle’s view, presupposes three things: 1) some distinction between potentiality and act; 2) some account of the essence of man as a rational animal; and 3) some account of the human telos. This view of ethics can work only if each element of the triadic relationship is in place. To remove one element is to render the whole incoherent. According to MacIntyre, this is precisely what happened when the Enlightenment philosophers dispensed with the idea of a human telos.

Alasdair MacIntyre: Morality After Virtue


The abandonment of the notion of a human telos left them with two sides of the triangle, but it became increasingly unclear how these two remaining elements were to relate to one another. If the purpose of morality is to improve and reform human nature as it happens to be, to move it from its untutored state to its true end, then it becomes difficult to know how we are to proceed if we have banished the possibility of articulating a human telos. The eighteenth century moral philosophers engaged in what was an inevitably unsuccessful project; for they did indeed attempt to find a rational basis for their moral beliefs in a particular understanding of human nature, while inheriting a set of moral injunctions on the one hand and a conception of human nature on the other which had been expressly designed to be discrepant with each other. This discrepancy was not removed by their revised beliefs about human nature. They inherited incoherent fragments of a once coherent scheme of thought and action and, since they did not recognize their own peculiar historical and cultural situation, they could not recognize the impossible and quixotic character of their self-appointed task. (AV, p. 53)

In short, MacIntyre argues that morality as conceived by the eighteenth century philosophes presupposed a teleological framework, without which morality is impossible, or, at the very least, radically transformed. For any morality understood as a rational or objective enterprise, MacIntyre holds that the concept of a human telos is vitally important. The concept of a telos is the only device by which we can move from statements of “is” to statements of “ought,” that is, from statements of fact to statement of value. From the factual statement “this watch keeps accurate time,” we can move to the evaluative conclusion that “this is a good watch” because it is the function of a watch to keep time accurately. The concept of a watch cannot be defined independently of the fact that it should keep time accurately, so that the criterion for something being a watch and the criterion for something being a “good watch” cannot be defined independently of each other. We can move from factual to evaluative statements because we know what the end or function of a watch is. In other words, these functional, or purposive concepts allow us to transform evaluative statements into a species of factual statements: Hence any argument which moves from premises which assert that the appropriate criteria are satisfied to a conclusion which asserts that “this is a good such-and-such,” where “such-and-such” picks out an item specified by a functional concept, will be a valid argument which moves from factual premises to an evaluative conclusion. (AV, p. 55)

According to MacIntyre, if we conceive of the human species as possessed of a similar telos, we can likewise make similar transitions from “is” to “ought,” since our grasp of the final end of human nature permits us to distinguish between those character traits, behaviours, and activities which contribute to the development and fulfillment of our human nature, and those which detract and lead away from the fulfillment of our nature. The concept of a human telos, then, is vitally important to morality. If we are to avoid the ghost of the emotivist self, the unencumbered, antecedently individuated will, then we must (according to MacIntyre) find some


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

way of reintroducing the notion of teleology into contemporary moral debate. Only then can we secure morality as an aspect of human life which is amenable to rational scrutiny, and which regards the self as necessarily implicated in his social, historical, and cultural milieu. Above all, there are three elements which MacIntyre sees as essential to any fully realized morality: 1) moral judgements as factual 2) a human telos; 3) an “encumbered” self, one who is thickly situated within a particular society. This way of looking at human beings is, of course, central to Aristotelian ethics, and MacIntyre believes that modern morality must, in some sense, attempt to recapture certain elements of Aristotle’s ethical thought. Aristotle’s ethical system is a response to the older world of Homeric heroes, where an individual had a fixed status in virtue of the position they occupied in a rigid and fixed hierarchical social structure. In such societies, right action flows from one’s individual identity, and since that identity is defined by the social role one occupies, morality and social structure amount to the same thing. What is crucial for Aristotle is not that we all occupy some social role, such as King or Queen, wife or husband, daughter or son, which defines our morality; rather, it is that each of us shares in an essential human nature: Human beings, like members of all other species, have a specific nature; and that nature is such that they have certain aims and goals, such that they move by nature towards a specific telos. The good is defined in terms of their specific characteristics. (AV, p. 139)

It is the specific nature of human beings that sets for them certain goals and desires, and the virtues are those excellences of human character which allow individuals to move towards their telos. However, virtues are not merely a means to the end of the good life, but are in themselves constitutive of the good life itself: The exercise of virtue is not a means to the end of the good for man. For what constitutes the good for man is a complete human life lived at its best, and the exercise of the virtues is a necessary and central part of such a life, not a mere preparatory exercise to secure such a life. We thus cannot characterize the good for man adequately without already having made reference to the virtues. And within an Aristotelian framework the suggestion therefore that there might be some means to achieve the good for man without the exercise of the virtues makes no sense. (AV, p. 140)

Moreover, the concept of virtue, as Aristotle understands the term, makes no sense outside of a political community. The good life demands that virtue be demonstrated not only in the life of an individual, but in the life of the city, in citizens living together in the polis and engaging in common undertakings. This is what Aristotle means when he says that the individual is intelligible only as a political animal, for it is only within the city, with all its material and cultural resources, that we find the framework and conditions for the unfolding of the full range of human virtues. This is, of course, a very quick retelling of MacIntyre’s views on Aristotle. What is essential here for our purposes is this: if we are to understand his attempts to

Alasdair MacIntyre: Morality After Virtue


resurrect an Aristotelian conception of ethics, then we must understand both the central role that the virtues play in Aristotle, and must take seriously Aristotle’s insistence on the community as a necessary prerequisite for living the good life. Of course, MacIntyre is arguing for a radically reconstructed Aristotle and so must meet two challenges. First, he must avoid presupposing Aristotle’s own understanding of human teleology which was predicated on a metaphysical biology which is now entirely discredited; second, he must find a way of invoking the idea of community being central to morality without reverting to romantic and utopian social changes, for the obvious truth is that we live in societies quite different from the Greek citystate. His neo-Aristotelianism attempts to meet these challenges by relying on three central concepts: that of a practice, that of the central narrative unity of life, and that of tradition. Taken together, these three concepts are intended to provide a social framework for a rational morality in which virtue is accorded a central place. The concept of a practice, according to MacIntyre, is: ... any coherent and complex form of socially established co-operative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended. (AV, p. 175)

This definition obviously required some unpacking of its key terms. MacIntyre begins by noting that tic-tac-toe is not a practice in this sense, for it is not sufficiently complex, nor is dribbling a soccer ball with skill. But the game of soccer itself is a practice, and so is chess. Similarly, bricklaying is not a practice, whereas architecture is; planting turnips is not a practice, whereas farming is. Obviously, the list of practices is very wide in our society. Other terms in the definition are perhaps more problematic. What is meant by “goods internal to that form of activity?’’ Here, MacIntyre seems to be saying that internal goods are those that cannot be achieved any other way than by engaging in the practice itself. External goods are those that can be derived by engaging in a practice, but might also arise from other practices. For example, an expert soccer player can achieve such goods as fame, wealth, social status, and so on, but so might he achieve these same things had he engaged in other practices; he might have turned his talents to music, politics, or whatever. In this sense, fame, wealth and status are external goods. What is internal to the practice of soccer are those goods which cannot be gained in other ways, such as the joy inherent in a well-executed attack, scoring a goal on a penalty kick, the crushing tackle on an opponent, team camaraderie, and so forth. They are internal goods precisely in the sense that they cannot be achieved in any other way than by playing the game of soccer itself, or to use MacIntyre’s phrase, by engaging in the practice of soccer. No activity can count as a practice if it lacks internal goods, and it is these internal goods which lead to MacIntyre’s first tentative definition of a virtue:


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods. (AV, p. 178)

This definition links the possession and exercise of a virtue to participation in practices, a participation which, in turn, requires acceptance of the standards and authority imminent in the practice: A practice involves standards of excellence and obedience to rules as well as the achievement of goods. To enter into a practice is to accept the authority of those standards and the inadequacy of my own performance as judged by them. It is to subject my own attitudes, choices, preferences and tastes to the standards which currently and partially define the practice. (AV, p. 177)

It is important to note that while this idea seems to lead to a certain conservatism, a certain acceptance of the status quo within practices and a concomitant withholding of criticism, MacIntyre is adamant that subordinating my tastes and inclinations to the current standards does not entail that, subsequent to my entry into a practice, I must refrain from criticism, or unquestioningly accept the judgements of my fellow practitioners. His point is simply that “in the realm of practices the authority of both goods and standards operates in such a way as to rule out all subjectivist and emotivist analyses of judgment” (AV, p. 177). In short, disputes which arise within a practice will be subject to certain agreed upon constraints, in that differing judgements are, nevertheless, grounded in shared canons of relevance. For example, if I want to argue that Carol Shields is a better novelist than Margaret Atwood, I must argue within the paradigm and standards that govern and constitute the practice of “novel-writing.” Whose characters are more imaginatively drawn? Who tells us more enduring truths about human nature? Who is the better prose stylist? We can still disagree over these matters, but only for relevant reasons: that is, those reasons which are internal to the practice. What is not permitted are purely subjective or emotive analyses. The framework of the practice constitutes the boundaries for our judgements, and it is not up to the individual to determine in an arbitrary, criterionless and subjective way what will, or will not, count as better or worse novel-writing. It is this framework of agreed upon canons and relevance of practice that renders judgements within practices objective and rational. The framework itself is, of course, subject to change, but any such change cannot be entirely arbitrary, for even the most radical reformer must, of necessity, be steeped in the traditions of that practice which he sets out to alter. As MacIntyre observes: To enter into a practice is to enter into a relationship not only with its contemporary practitioners, but also with those who have preceded us in the practice, particularly those whose achievements extended the reach of the practice to its present point. It is thus the achievement, and a fortiori the authority, of a tradition which I then confront and from which I have to learn. (AV, p. 181)

Alasdair MacIntyre: Morality After Virtue


It is through the initiation of others into these shared practices, with their communally and historically determined standards, that human judgements of worth are rendered safe from charges of emotivism. In any practice, I must subject my own standards, tastes, preferences, and inclinations to the communal standards and authorities that currently define a practice. And a virtue, as MacIntyre has thus far partially defined it, is that acquired human quality, the possession of which allows me to partake of the internal goods of a practice. MacIntyre concedes that practices vary widely, each with its own set of internal goods, and so that there is a healthy plurality of human endeavors in which the virtues might be exercised. However, this same multiplicity also raises further questions: granted the diversity of human practices with their non-arbitrary way of settling questions about value and worth, how are we to choose between and among the various practices which vie for our allegiance? What of the relative worth of the practices themselves? How is an individual to judge whether a life spent mastering the cello is preferable to a life devoted to, say, playing hockey? Obviously, one cannot be all things, and difficult choices must be made. The question, therefore, is how are we to decide between such competing allegiances? Or, more pointedly, given MacIntyre’s attempt to re-evaluate our emotivist culture, is there a non-arbitrary, rational way of making such choices? Or, when confronted with such decisions are we simply thrust back to the emotivist self? MacIntyre’s response to this problem is to provide an account of what he calls the “narrative unity of a human life.” It is a commonplace to observe that even the most mundane human behaviour cannot be explained solely in terms of physiological or neural responses, but that any account of bodily movement must take account of the intentions, desires, goals, and aspirations of an agent. If we are to take account of an agent’s intentions, then we must further attend to what MacIntyre calls the setting of an action. A setting is a human milieu with a particular history, within which the histories of human agents are rendered intelligible. MacIntyre uses the example of a man digging in his garden. If I want to know why he is digging, it might be that he is preparing the earth for the spring, pleasing his wife, getting some exercise, planting corn, digging a grave for his pet, or some combination of these factors. Any of these explanations will render his actions intelligible, but central to any explanation will be a peculiar narrative history. For example, it might be that he is digging to get exercise in order to please his wife, in which case his action can be seen as an episode within the narrative history of a marriage. Similarly, he might be preparing the garden for spring, in which case his digging is an episode within the history of a very different type of narrative, a particular type of household-cum-garden management narrative. To render any human act intelligible is, then, a matter of grasping it as an episode in the history of the agent’s life and the setting in which it occurs: We cannot ... characterize behaviour independently of intentions, and we cannot characterize intentions independently of the settings which make those intentions intelligible to agents themselves and to others. (AV, p. 192)


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

Would the man continue to dig if his wife grew irritated at him? Would he continue his actions if he intended his garden to lie fallow for the year? To answer these questions, we would need to relate his long-term and short-term intentions about digging, in effect relating the agent’s history to the history of the setting in which his actions take place. Ultimately, any explanation for an action must always move towards placing a particular episode in the context of a particular set of narrative histories. Again, there is no such thing as “behaviour,” if by that term is meant human action which can be identified prior to and independently of intentions, beliefs, and settings. And here a central thesis emerges: ... man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to the truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?” (AV, p. 201)

Every human action may be seen as another installment in a nesting of narratives. In short, “Narrative history of a certain kind turns out to be the basic and essential genre for the characterisation of human action” (AV, p. 194). This holds true for both the characterization of other’s actions, as well as our own. It is always appropriate to ask an agent for an intelligible account of his or her actions, because all action has basically an historical character, the particular narrative pattern of which is likely known only to the agent. Similarly for our own lives. We are both the authors and the characters of our own enacted narratives. On MacIntyre’s view then, a person is a character abstracted from history. Of course, we are neither the sole nor the sovereign authors of our narratives, and the settings in which we move are fixed by others. Ultimately, the future will always be unpredictable. Nevertheless, the narrative forms of our lives provide them with a certain teleological character : We live out our lives, both individually and in our relationships with each other, in the light of certain conceptions of a possible shared future, a future in which certain possibilities beckon us forward and others repel us, some seem already foreclosed and other perhaps inevitable. There is no present which is not informed by some image of some future, and an image of the future which always presents itself in the form of a telos—or of a variety of ends or goals—towards which we are either moving or failing to move in the present. Unpredictability and teleology therefore coexist as part of our lives; like characters in a fictional narrative we do not know what will happen next, but nonetheless our lives have a certain form which projects itself toward our future. Thus the narratives we live out have both an unpredictable and partially teleological character. If the narrative of our individual and social lives is to continue intelligibly—and either type of narrative may lapse into unintelligibility—it is always both the case that there are constraints on how the story can continue and that within those constraints there are an indefinitely many ways that it can continue. (AV, pp. 200-201)

Alasdair MacIntyre: Morality After Virtue


How then are we to make rational choices between the competing demands of differing practices? In effect, MacIntyre is saying that it is the narrative form— our life’s story—which provides the framework within which we can make these decisions. Of what does the unity of a human life consist? The answer is that “its unity is the unity of a narrative embodied in a single life.” To ask “What is the good for me?” is to ask how best I might live out that unity and bring it to completion. To ask “What is the good for man?” is to ask what all answers to the former question must have in common. But now it is important to emphasize that it is the systematic asking of these two questions and the attempt to answer them in deed as well as in word which provide the moral life with its unity. (AV, p. 203)

Here, then, is a way which lends to lives a certain teleological character without invoking Aristotle’s metaphysical biology. For MacIntyre, the key question must always be, “How best can I live out the narrative unity of my life?” The asking of such questions will not necessarily isolate what it is good to do, although it might; but the emphasis on the narrative unity of our life will serve to remind us that we are not operating ex nihlio, but from the vantage point of a particular person, at a particular time in his life, and in a particular social setting. In urging this shift of perspective, he is suggesting a framework within which both you, and all who know you, are best able to determine better and worse options. It might be that decisions taken will never appear to be clearly right or wrong, but the asking of the question is at least as important as the specific answers which might emerge. One is engaged on a quest, and embarking on such a journey amounts to embarking on a quest for a conception of the good life which will enable us to order all the other goods in our life. But unlike a medieval quest, the goal of the quest is not separable from the quest itself. Because the quest educates the person who is engaged in it about himself—as well as the good that he seeks—MacIntyre’s definition of the good life as the search for the good life can avoid charges of an empty circularity: “A quest is always an education both as to the character of that which is sought and in self-knowledge” (AV, p. 204). He is now able to offer a second, revised definition of virtue: The virtues therefore are to be understood as those dispositions which will not only sustain practices and enable us to achieve the goods internal to practices, but which will also sustain us in the relevant kind of quest for the good, by enabling us to overcome the harms, dangers, temptations and distractions which we encounter, and which will furnish us with increasing self-knowledge and knowledge of the good. (AV, p. 204)

Of course, the shape of the quest for the good life is not everywhere the same, but different for different peoples in different cultures, in part because the historical specificity of practices will determine that the quest must necessarily be different for an Athenian general, a medieval nun, or an eighteenth century farmer. But it is not just that different individuals live in different social circumstances; it is also that we all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone’s son or daughter, someone else’s cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation. Hence what is good for me has to be what is good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is in part what gives my life its own moral particularity. (AV, pp. 204-205)

The fit here with MacIntyre’s conception of the “narrative unity of life” is obvious. As opposed to liberal individualism, which regards all such contingent social attachments as arbitrary from a moral point of view, MacIntyre is arguing that the self is not detachable from its social and historical roles and statuses. There can be no universalist, ahistorical and timelessly applicable mode of practical reasoning to which all individuals can commit themselves, for the simple truth is that ... the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past; and to try to cut myself off from that past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships. The possession of an historical identity and the possession of a social identity coincide. (AV, p. 205)

Thus, an individual must be understood in part as a member of a tradition, and the history of their life will be embedded in a larger narrative of a historically and socially extended argument about the good life for human beings. The fact that the self finds its identity in the particular community and traditions in which it is reared does not mean that one must accept the moral limitations of that tradition. Such traditions are neither hegemonic nor static, and the communal understandings of a healthy tradition will be in a state of continuous debate: ... when a tradition is in good order, it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose ... . A living tradition then is an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition. (AV, pp. 206-207)

While it may be true that traditions are in a dynamic state of tension, and so not immune to criticism, what is less obvious is how we are to adjudicate between and among the multiplicity of traditions which typify our society. Here we are thrust back to the same set of relativistic worries which attend to MacIntyre’s characterization of the emotivist culture. How are we to determine whether or not to stay within a particular tradition or leave it for another one? Is there a rational way of determining which tradition we should remain in? If our only available models of practical reasoning are tradition-bound, are such choices really merely arbitrary? MacIntyre’s extended answer to this dilemma is given in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? He argues that the internal cogency and relative worth of a tradition can be tested by examining its performance when it meets what he calls an epistemological crisis. The internal standards of a tradition can be used to assess how far a tradition is progressing or receding from its own conception of the good. When a tradition tends towards the latter state, it is in an epistemological crisis, which it

Alasdair MacIntyre: Morality After Virtue


can overcome only by developing a new set of concepts, and achieving a synthesis of old concepts with the new, as, for example, with Aquinas’s synthesis of Christianity and Aristotelianism. MacIntyre’s analysis of rival traditions is, of course, highly controversial, as is his idea of an epistemological crisis. What is important here for our purposes is that MacIntyre believes that he has met the relativist challenge by providing the framework in which traditions as a whole are open to rational scrutiny: “It is in respect of their adequacy or inadequacy in their responses to epistemological crises that traditions are vindicated or fail to be vindicated.” 2 This is the general framework for MacIntyre’s indictment of the contemporary emotivist culture, and we are now in a position to ask how, and in what sense, he qualifies as a “communitarian” thinker. MacIntyre’s triadic conception of practice, the narrative unity of a life, and tradition makes it clear that, as opposed to the unencumbered individual of liberal theory, he views the very possibility of rationality and objectivity in the arena of morality as dependent on locating individuals within an embedded nest of social matrices. In this sense, the concept of community is given a central and vital role. Any attempt to articulate a theory of justice which fails to recognize the centrality of community and its inherently social matrices is doomed to incoherence, for, on MacIntyre’s view, in the absence of communal and constitutive attachments the very idea of morality as an intelligible enterprise is implausible. Specifically, MacIntyre views contemporary liberalism as an historical tradition which lacks the resources to accommodate the importance of the community in maintaining the objectivity of moral thought and the integrity of human identity. He accuses liberalism of an inability to recognize that every human good or end derives from an overlapping framework of social and communal practices and traditions. By positing the original position as an appropriate device for thinking about justice, Rawls reveals that entry into society is ideally a voluntary act of rational individuals, all of whom are asking the question, “What sort of social contract ought I to enter into?” As MacIntyre suggests, “It is ... as though we had been shipwrecked on an uninhabited island with a group of other individuals, each of whom is a stranger to me and to all others” (AV, p. 233). It is in consequence of this view of society as a “collection of strangers “that the common tasks of a community in pursuing shared goods is excluded in Rawls’ account of justice. Such common undertakings cannot be envisaged by Rawls, for among his presuppositions is that “... we must expect to disagree with others about what the good life for man is and must therefore exclude any understanding of it that we may have from our formulation of the principles of justice” (AV, p. 233). Here he explicitly addresses Rawls for his failure to take desert into his account of justice, for any account of desert is intelligible only within shared understandings: For ... Rawls society is composed of individuals, each with his or her own interest, who then have to come together and formulate common rules of life. Individuals are thus ...


Whose Justice? Which Rationality? p. 366


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education primary and society secondary, and the identification of individual interests is prior to, and independent of, the construction of any moral or social bonds between them. But ... the notion of desert is at home only in the context of a community whose primary bond is a shared understanding both of the good for man and of the good of that community and where individuals identify their primary interests with reference to those goods. (AV, pp. 232-3)

For MacIntyre, the concept of desert is central to any rational morality, for it is only by reference to desert that we can confer rationality or objectivity on our moral deliberations. And it is only in relation to common tasks of the community in pursuing shared goods that we can provide the basis for judgements about virtue and injustice. Without such common understandings, moral thought is necessarily eroded, for the simple fact is that without shared understandings of the good, society lacks the moral resources to settle moral conflicts rationally. On MacIntyre’s analysis, Rawls’ individualism ensures that his theory is incapable of reaching a rational grounding, and, accordingly, is incapable of forming the substance of political consensus. Rawls’ original position is an attempt to lay out the rules for living together without reference to any determinate or unified conception of the good. MacIntyre cites Rawls in A Theory of Justice: Human good is heterogeneous because the aims of the self are heterogeneous. Although to subordinate all our aims to one end does not strictly speaking violate the principles of rational choice ... it still strikes us as irrational or more likely as mad ... . The self is disfigured. (TJ, p. 554)

Of course, for MacIntyre the situation is reversed. It is precisely the “narrative unity of life,” the telos, the subordination of our aims to an overarching good that confers meaning on individual lives. Moreover, for MacIntyre, this is not just an academic debate. Liberalism’s distinctive refusal to employ conceptions of the good in justifying state action is embodied in the legal, political, and social institutions of a liberal social order: In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of its citizens, but is instead a set of institutional arrangements for imposing a bureaucratized unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus, the nature of political obligation becomes systematically unclear. (AV, p. 236)

Thus, what began in the Enlightenment with Kant (and others) as an attempt to found morality on tradition-independent principles acceptable to all rational human beings ends with the creation and perpetuation of one more moral tradition. Liberal theory is best understood, not at all as an attempt to find a rationality independent of tradition, but as itself the articulation of a historically developed and developing set of social institutions and forms of activity, that is, as the voice of a tradition.3


Whose Justice, p. 345.

Alasdair MacIntyre: Morality After Virtue


Thus, liberalism is best read as an example of a specific historic tradition, the dominant feature of which is the abjuring of any conception of the good in the political realm. Individuals, of course, are still free to pursue their own good; but in a liberal social order there is a split between the political and non-political, between public and private spheres of morality. But central to MacIntyre’s neo-Aristotelianism is the rejection of that split. It is founded on the idea that it is only within the political arena that the implementation of the good life for human beings can occur, and it is only within those culturally and historically specific traditions that an individual can develop and pursue the good. MacIntyre rejects what liberals celebrate. On his account, liberalism’s distinction between public and private morality is incoherent. Individuals are not “unencumbered” or “antecedently individuated.” Nor are they rational calculators brought together under the “veil of ignorance” to formulate rules for living together. To the contrary, all of us are born into specific historical social milieus, brought up within certain traditions, and involved in certain practices. And it is the communal understandings involved in such public traditions—and not some timeless, ahistorical and universalist mode of reasoning—which provides for both the narrative unity of our lives, the telos to which we strive, and lends to morality an objective and rational nature.

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Chapter 8

Charles Taylor: Sources of the Modern Self The work of Charles Taylor, like that of MacIntyre, involves a sweeping historicalanalytical account of Western moral and political thought, and the sum and substance of his thinking can be understood as an attempt to counter certain pervasive strands of cultural thought. His work covers the rise of political culture from Plato to post-modernism, and liberalism per se appears as merely one strand in the web of modernity. On such a stage, Rawls appears as part of the chorus, rather than as the central actor. Taylor explicitly names Rawls as the target of his critique only when discussing the priority of the right over the good. Moreover, unlike MacIntyre, Taylor does not reject liberalism tout court. He views the central claims of liberalism as worthy of serious consideration, but only if they can be disentangled from various erroneous ways of articulating them.1 Nevertheless, his analysis is pertinent to our concerns here, for the thrust of his writing can be read as an attempt to eradicate certain errors in evaluating contemporary moral schemes. Taylor’s negative thesis is that contemporary liberal moral theory errs in the positing of a radical division between the self and its vision of the good. Positively, he argues that moral argumentation, and, indeed, the very concept of personhood, both presuppose a vision of the good (or what he refers to as a “strong evaluative framework”). What I intend to show below is how Taylor develops his position, and why his work is widely regarded as an important contribution to communitarian thinking. To understand Taylor’s critique of both modern liberalism and Rawls, it will be helpful to examine certain positions he first articulated in a paper in 1971 entitled “Interpretation and the Sciences of Man.”2 Much of his later work can be read as an elaboration on certain themes he develops in this early article, and many of the arguments he puts forth here present an abbreviated overview of the liberalcommunitarian debate. The essence of the problem Taylor sets for himself in this early article is stated in the first sentence: “Is there a sense in which interpretation is essential to explanation 1 On this point, see Taylor’s “Cross Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate.” Chapter Nine in N. Rosenblum (ed.), Liberalism and the Moral Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991). 2 Charles Taylor, “Interpretation and the Sciences of Man,” in Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2, C.Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) pp. 15-57.


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in the ‘sciences of man’?”3 That is, in our efforts to make sense of human agency, might there not be an illegitimate extrapolation from the sort of practical reasoning and methodology embedded in the natural sciences to the “sciences of man?” Taylor answers in the affirmative, and the essence of his position can be put very simply: interpretation is essential to explanation, for the plain fact is we are “selfinterpreting” animals. That is, our human identities are bound up with, and partly constituted by, the sense of significance we attach to the objects and situations we encounter in everyday life. Or, to phrase it differently, we are beings whose natures are not specifiable independent of our self-interpretations.4 But what, exactly, does Taylor mean by “self-interpretation?” It might be useful to begin by recalling Dilthey’s aphorism from the last century: “We explain science, but understand human nature.” According to Taylor, what has gone deeply wrong in this century is that various attempts to characterize human behaviour (including of course attempts to articulate moral agency) are predicated on importantly wrong methods of reasoning borrowed from the natural sciences. These methods have produced powerful results in explaining the natural world, and the progress of natural science seems to lend credibility to the idea of reconstructing human sciences along the same model. Yet, this empiricist orientation must be resisted: when it comes to enquiries into human nature, the fact of the matter is that we cannot understand crucially important dimensions of human life within the bounds set by this epistemological bias. In fact, any such empiricist notion must necessarily be hostile to understanding the social world. In any attempt to reconstruct social reality, a certain notion of meaning is essential, yet in the empiricist tradition, according to Taylor, the concept of meaning “cannot meet the requirements of intersubjective, non-arbitrary verification which it considers central to science. Along with the 3 Ibid., p. 15. 4 This same idea has, of course, been formulated by many thinkers in various ways. See, for example, Peter Winch’s The Idea of a Social Science (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanitie Press International, 1958), Michael Walzer’s Interpretation and Social Criticism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987) or Kieran Egan’s Education and Psychology: Plato, Piaget, and Scientific Psychology (New York; Teachers College Press, 1983). One is struck, however, by the similarity of this sentiment to certain passages in Michael Oakeshott: “Human beings are what they understand themselves to be; they are composed entirely of beliefs about themselves and about the world they inhabit. They inhabit a world of intelligibles, that is, a world composed, not of physical objects, but of occurrences which have meanings and are recognized in manners to which there are alternatives. Their contingent situations in this world are, therefore, what they understand them to be, and they respond to them by choosing to say or to do this rather than that in relation to imagined and wished-for outcomes. Their wants are not biological impulses or genetic urges; they are imagined satisfactions, which have reasons but not causes, and are eligible to be wished-for, chosen, pursued, procured, approved or disapproved. A human life is composed of performances, and each performance is a disclosure of a man’s beliefs about himself and the world and an exploit in self-enactment. He is what he becomes; he has a history but no nature.” Michael Oakeshott, “Education: The Engagement and Its Frustration,” in The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education, Timothy Fuller (ed.) (London: Yale University Press, 1989), pp 63-94.

Charles Taylor: Sources of the Modern Self


epistemological stance goes the ontological belief that reality must be susceptible to understanding and explanation by science so understood.”5 It is this element of meaning which is vital to understanding the social world, and which ensures that the natural sciences and the sciences of man must forever proceed on separate tracks. Common meanings, as well as inter-subjective ones, fall through the net of mainstream social science. They can find no place in its categories. For they are not simply a convergent set of subjective reactions, but part of the common world. What the ontology of mainstream social science lacks is the notion of meaning as not simply for an individual subject; of a subject who can be a “we” as well as an “I”. The exclusion of this possibility, of the communal, comes once again from the baleful influence of the epistemological tradition for which all knowledge has to be reconstructed from the impressions imprinted on the individual subject.6

But in what sense is Taylor employing the concept of “meaning?” Taylor is concerned to distinguish between what he refers to as “experiential meaning” and “linguistic meaning,” the former being the object of his concern: it is frequently thought that “meaning” is used here in a sense which is a kind of illegitimate extension from the notion of linguistic meaning. Whether it can be considered an extension or not is another matter; it certainly differs from linguistic meaning. But it would be very hard to argue that it is an illegitimate use of the term.7

He goes on to argue that when we speak of the “meaning” of a given predicament, we are using a concept which has three characteristics: 1) first, meaning is for a subject; it is never the meaning of a situation in vacuo, but is always meaning for a subject or a group of subjects (or, possibly, for the human subject as such); 2) second, meaning is of something; that is, we can distinguish between any given situation and its meaning. For example, we can distinguish between the physical fact of a particular soccer game, and its meaning for any given spectator. While we cannot physically separate the watching of a game from its meaning for any particular spectator, we can, nonetheless, analytically separate the meaning for the subject from the game itself. In other words, the two elements are not symmetrical. Put otherwise, meanings may be realized in different physical conditions. 3) third, things only have meanings in a field, that is, in relation to other things. In this sense, meanings bear a close resemblance to words, or to concepts in a semantic field. Just as the introduction of new vocabulary permits finer discriminations, more sophisticated understandings, and new possibilities, so, too, are meanings identified only in relation to others; introducing new meanings into a field in important ways significantly shifts the meaning of existing concepts, and alters the boundaries of that field. 5 6 7

‘Interpretation and the Sciences of Man,’ p. 21 Ibid., p. 40. Ibid., pp. 21-22.


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This is the sense in which we speak of a certain situation, an action, a demand, or a prospect as having a certain meaning for a person. [meaning] has a place [which] is integral to our ordinary consciousness and hence speech about our actions. Our actions are ordinarily characterized by the purpose sought and explained by desires, feelings, emotions. But the language by which we describe our goals, feelings, desires is also a definition of the meaning things have for us. The vocabulary defining meaning—words like “terrifying”, “attractive”—is linked with that describing feeling—“fear”, “desire”—and that describing goals—“safety”, “possession”.8

For Taylor, these three terms—meaning, feeling (or emotion), and goals—are so closely linked in an “hermeneutic circle” that we can only understand one by grasping its relationship to the others. For example, we can only experience the meaning of “shame” by reference to a “shameful” or “humiliating” situation and our responses to it, such as covering up or attempting to hide and so on; and it is essential to this emotion’s being identifiable as shame that it be linked with situations of this type and that it give rise to dispositions of this sort. Similarly, our goals cannot be understood except by reference to the emotions experienced; I am attempting to hide or avoid detection—not because I am being hunted by a hostile army, but because it is an appropriate response to try and cover my shame. Hence, a wide range of human feelings and actions are not simply brute, physical phenomena (such as nausea), but can only be understood in reference to other concepts which, in turn, can only be understood in reference to the goals of the agent. Human nature must be understood against a background of desire, feeling, emotion, and purpose, and can only be characterized in terms of the meaning that the action takes on for the agent. Thus, we can feel ashamed in situations which others do not find shameful, and fail to respond appropriately to genuinely shameful ones. At this juncture, Taylor makes a crucial point: he reminds us that the vocabulary used to characterize the experiential meaning of situations has its significance only as part of a semantic field, as an interrelated grid of contrasting, related, yet distinct concepts. Or, to put it colloquially, concepts are like grapes in that they only come in bunches. Hence, to describe something as “fearful” will mean different things to different people, depending in large part on the set of related and contrasting concepts available. For example, if I have in my vocabulary such related terms as “alarmed,” “worrying,” “terrifying,” “bothersome,” “apprehensive,” “awesome,” “phobic,” “anxious,” and so on, then I can oppose “fearful” with other related, yet distinct terms, and am liable to make finer discriminations when it comes to characterizing some part of my experience as “fearful.” The greater the vocabulary at my disposal, the more significant my choice of one term as opposed to another becomes. These increasingly fine discriminations will, in turn, effect a change in how I understand the experiential meaning of the situations I encounter, which will, in turn, affect the import of my feelings and goals.


Ibid., p. 23.

Charles Taylor: Sources of the Modern Self


In short, Taylor makes the general point that the significance of the situations in which an agent finds himself are in some important way determined by the range and structure of the vocabulary available to him for their characterization.9 One cannot feel shame if one lacks a vocabulary in which the circle of situation, feeling and disposition characteristic of shame is absent. Similarly, the precise nature of the feeling which attaches itself to shame will differ and moderate according to the semantic field in which the agent’s conception of shame is embedded. (Shame as opposed to what? Dishonour? Disgrace? Humiliation? Embarrassment?) He elaborates: The range of human feelings, desires, emotions and hence meanings is bound up with the level and type of culture, which in turn is inseparable from the distinctions and categories marked by the language people speak. The field of meanings in which a given situation can find its place is bound up with the semantic field of the terms characterizing these meanings and the related feelings, desires, predicaments.10

Yet, it would be a mistake to think that the relationship between vocabulary and feeling is a simple one. In particular, there are two models which suggest themselves, both of which are inadequate. In the first place, we might think of vocabulary as simply describing some pre-existing feeling, as marking a distinction which would be there even if we lacked the language. Yet this won’t do, for the plain fact of the matter is that we often experience in ourselves (or in others) how achieving a more sophisticated vocabulary of the emotions (such as one might achieve when reading a great novel) makes our emotional life more sophisticated, and not just our description of it. On the other hand, it is not merely a matter of thinking making it so, for not any definition can be forced on us (by others or by ourselves), and some definitions that we take up can be simply wrong-headed, inauthentic, or deluded. Nonetheless, what remains true is that the relationship between a person’s inner life and the language available for reflection is an intimate one, and pari passu, the more sophisticated our vocabulary, the more sophisticated our emotional life.

9 Of course, the idea that having a large vocabulary of finely discriminated terms at our disposal does, in important ways, determine our experience, is hardly unique to Taylor. For example, Barrow has coined the term “conceptual finesse,” which captures much of what Taylor is articulating: “To be possessed of conceptual finesse is to have a large armoury of clearly articulated and finely discriminated concept’s at one’s disposal; to think in relatively specific, clear, and distinct concepts.” Barrow & Milburn, A Dictionary of Educational Concepts (2nd ed.), (New York: Teachers College Press, 1990), p. 62. Just as Taylor claims that lacking a finely discriminated vocabulary impoverishes and confines our experiences, and that the greater the vocabulary at our disposal the greater our range of feelings, so, too, does Barrow make the general claim that being possessed of conceptual finesse is an important part of what it means to be educated, Robin Barrow, The Philosophy of Schooling (Brighton: Wheatsheaf, 1981). 10 Interpretation and the Sciences of Man, p. 25.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

From this analysis of the intimate relationship which holds between language and experience (what he dubs the “hermeneutical circle”) Taylor draws the following conclusion: If this is so, then we have to speak of man as a self-interpreting animal. He is necessarily so, for there is no such thing as a structure of meanings for him independently of his interpretation of them; for one is woven into the other. But then the text of our interpretation is not that heterogeneous from what is interpreted; for what is interpreted is itself an interpretation; a self-interpretation of ... experiential meaning which contributes to the constitution of this meaning. Or to put it another way: that of which we are trying to find coherence is itself partly constituted by self-interpretation.11

Simply put, Taylor’s claim is that to be an agent one must experience one’s situation in terms of certain meanings; and these meanings, in turn, are shaped and interpreted by the language in which the agent lives these meanings. In short, our identities— our conception of the good life, of our own character—are inseparably bound and constituted by self-interpretations: “... man is a self-defining animal. With changes in his self-definition go changes in what man is, so that he has to be understood in different terms.”12 This is the gist of Taylor’s early paper and the starting point for much of his later work: a person’s identity is inescapably caught up in self-interpretation, which, in turn, will depend in large part on the storehouse of meanings available through language—meanings which are part of a language community. Or, to put it otherwise, Taylor’s view of human beings as self-interpreting animals commits him to the view that an individual’s relation to a community is largely constitutive of his identity. However he puts it, Taylor is quite clear about one thing: because of the place of meaning in human affairs, there can be no coherent conception of the self which fails to take account of a person’s self-interpretation. Unlike the objects of scientific enquiry, we can never assume for human beings a fixed identity, nor study them in abstraction apart from their self-interpretations. To ask what a person is, in abstraction from his or her self-interpretations, is to ask a fundamentally misguided question, one to which there couldn’t in principle be an answer ... We are not selves in the way we are organisms, or we don’t have selves in the way we have hearts and livers. We are living beings with these organs quite independently of our self-understandings or self-interpretations, or the meanings things have for us. But we are only selves insofar as we move in a certain space of questions, as we seek and find an orientation to the good. (Sources of the Self, hereafter, SS)13

For Taylor, self-interpretation and self-understandings are only possible in relation to other selves. 11 Ibid., p. 26. 12 Ibid., p. 55. 13 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 34

Charles Taylor: Sources of the Modern Self


The very way we walk, move, gesture, speak is shaped from the earliest moments by our awareness that we appear before others, that we stand in public space, and that this space is potentially one of respect or contempt, of pride or shame. (SS, p. 15)

In a word, it is only in relation to a community, and the significance and meaning of those one encounters there, that human identity arises. This is so for two reasons. First, gaining access to self-interpretations necessarily entails gaining access to a vocabulary, and languages exist only in language communities, in what Taylor refers to as “webs of interlocution” (SS, p. 36). To study persons is to study beings “who only exist in, or are partly constituted by, a certain language” (SS, p. 35). This is obviously not just a contingent matter: There is no way we could be inducted into personhood except by being initiated into a language. We first learn our languages of moral and spiritual discernment by being brought into an ongoing conversation by those who bring us up. The meanings that the key words first had for me are the meanings they have for us, that is, for me and my conversation partners together ... So I can only learn what anger, love, anxiety, the aspiration to wholeness, etc., are through my and others’ experience of these being objects for us, in some common space. This is the truth behind Wittgenstein’s dictum that agreement in meanings involves agreement in judgements. (SS, p. 35, Taylor’s emphasis)

Second, any coherent answer to the question “Who am I?” can only arise in response to the existential truth that I am defining myself in relation to others. A self can never be described in isolation from those around it, but can only be a self in relation to other selves in an interchange of speakers. I define who I am by speaking from a particular personal history, and from a particular social status. My identity inescapably arises from a certain social space and geography, one in which my experiences and understandings are conjoined with others in some common space. This is the sense in which one cannot be a self on one’s own. I am a self only in relation to certain interlocutors: in one way in relation to those conversation partners who were essential to my achieving self-definition; in another in relation to those who are now crucial to my continuing grasp of languages of self-understanding—and of course, these classes may overlap. A self exists only within what I call “webs of interlocution.” (SS, p. 36)

For Taylor, then, it is these two dimensions—both of which depend on some defining notion of community—which give rise to our conceptions of identity. Any attempt to occlude one or the other (such as the Kantian picture of ourselves as pure rational agents) is bound to result in an illusory vision of the self. Moreover, any attempt to understand individuals in atomistic terms, to regard society as merely an aggregate of antecedently individuated selves independent of the embedding webs of interlocution, is bound to result in incoherence. We are self-interpreting entities, and in acknowledging this fact, we must necessarily acknowledge the social origins of our understandings. This is, of course, not to say that we are forever bound by


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these origins, or that we cannot resist, or attempt to neutralize them; clearly, many of us do develop sharp disagreements and rebel against our background. I may develop an original way of understanding myself and human life, at least one which is in sharp disagreement with my family and background. But the innovation can only take place from the base in our common language. (SS, pp. 35-36)

What is paramount to Taylor’s thesis is that our character develops out of, and in response to, the vision and conceptions of others, and that it is within a specific historical community that we must, ultimately, find our bearings. Any alterations to our ways of thinking must take place within a common language, and their significance can only be understood by reference to the relationships which hold within the conversation of a particular tradition: “... the drive to original vision will ... ultimately be lost in inner confusion unless it can be placed in some way in relation to the language and vision of others” (SS, p 37). Taylor’s analysis of human beings as self-interpreting animals commits him to the view that membership within a specific historical community is not merely an interesting contingent fact about a person, but is rather strongly constitutive of an individual’s identity. It is for these reasons—reasons which revolve around the notion of man as a “self-interpreting animal”—that Taylor is generally conceded to be a “communitarian” thinker. We are now in a position to examine how this generally communitarian framework of thought leads him to other specific conclusions about self and identity, in particular the connections between our sense of the self and our sense of the good. We need to look at how Taylor articulates his ontological account of the moral life, and why, on this account, he rejects any moral scheme which posits the priority of the right over the good. In Chapter Six, I argued that I was less interested in how tightly Rawls argues his case than in how he understands the status of moral agency. To phrase it somewhat tendentiously, I argued that the ontology of deontological schemes (that is, any liberal theory which centres on the right, rather than the good), the assumed facts of the common life of human beings, is an inadequate account of the actual circumstances in which humans find themselves, and which give rise to the demand for justice. (Taylor neatly characterizes such liberal theories as “procedural liberalism,” in that their essence resides in the procedures for arbitrating the competing demands of individuals, as opposed to promoting substantive conceptions of the good.14) When we talk of ontology, we are speaking of those concerns which we invoke when accounting for social life. Or, to put it differently, we are talking of the assumptions about existence underlying any conceptual scheme or any theory or system of ideas. The ontological assumptions of a theory are those terms which we would accept as ultimate in explaining existence. For example, theocratic societies would account for social actions, conditions, and structures by taking into account the will of God, the fact that we are all children of God and deserving of respect, and the belief (at least for some religions) that God makes his will known in the world. 14 Ibid.

Charles Taylor: Sources of the Modern Self


Similarly, a Marxist account is liable to analyze social phenomena by emphasizing the means of production, the concentration of capital, the alienation of the worker, and so on. For the last three centuries or so, the big debate in political theory has centered on the question of whether we are to understand society in terms of the concatenation of individual wills, or whether there is some more holistic way in explaining social arrangements. On the one hand, the former mode of understanding centers on an atomistic and individualist account of society, while the latter posits instead the need to understand society in terms of community life and the collective. Of course, these positions represent extremes, and most of us, most of the time, find ourselves somewhere in the middle. (This is not to say that such extremes are not without their adherents. For example, one thinks of the “minimum” state of a libertarian such as Nozick, or the collectivism of a Pol Pot.) Placing these differing ontologies more firmly within the context of contemporary democratic theory, we might see the debate as being between an atomistic theory which denies that the state has any business in promoting different conceptions of the good life (à la Rawls), and a holistic theory which posits that democratic society needs some reasoned consensus, some common goals, some unifying understandings of what shape and form the good life should take. It needs to be stressed that these models of society—the atomistic and the holistic—are not mutually exclusive, in the sense that the practical social arrangements which follow from adopting one or the other will necessarily be at odds. Consensus about practical action can often arise from quite disparate starting points and for various reasons. However, what is crucial for our purposes, is the question of how the different ontologies underlying the atomistic and the holistic are linked with different understanding of self and identity, and, hence, structure, and restrict the field of political possibilities open to us. For example, if we accept procedural liberalism’s atomistic notion of the “unencumbered self,” then it is very difficult to see how a highly collectivist society could arise. By conceptualizing the individual prior to and apart from its social roles, liberalism obscures what is surely an undeniable fact of existence—namely, that the identity of an individual is necessarily implicated in and defined (at least in large part) by his social, cultural and historical circumstance. Of course, on Rawls’ view, political liberalism begins precisely from this denial of unity, of shared goals and aspirations that communitarians hanker for. Liberalism, on this account, denies both the possibility and desirability of any politics based on a substantive theory of the good. On this point, Rawls is quite clear: justice as fairness does indeed abandon the ideal of political community if by that ideal is meant a political society united on one (partially or fully) comprehensive religious, philosophical, or moral doctrine. That conception of social unity is excluded by the fact of pluralism; it is no longer a political possibility for those who accept the constraints of liberty and toleration embodied in democratic institutions.15 15 Rawls, “The Priority of Right,” op. cit., p. 269.


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Similarly, if we reject the unencumbered self, and posit in its place a self which is “thickly” situated, it would be equally difficult to envision a society which had a very individualist life-form. The point that Taylor is making is that ontology is inescapable in any account of human agency. In this sense, adopting a Rawlsian account of the self (or any other theory of the self) is far from ontologically “innocent.” And while the relationship between one’s ontological account and one’s substantive views is often clouded and obscure, any account of morality is, nevertheless, interwoven with one’s ontology. As Taylor suggests: Taking an ontological position does not amount to advocating something; but at the same time, the ontological does help to define the options which it is meaningful to support. ... ontological theses can be far from innocent. Your ontological proposition, if true, can show that your neighbor’s favourite social order is an impossibility or carries a price that he or she did not count with.16

If we examine our widely shared moral intuitions—revulsion at torture, instinctive reactions of horror and pity at the suffering of others—we find that they have a dual aspect. On the one hand, we have a purely instinctive and physiological “gut” reaction, in much the same way that ingesting certain substances will lead to a feeling of nausea. On the other hand, however, we are often capable of articulating what, exactly, it is about other human beings which elicits our reactions. We are morally outraged for specific reasons. In essence, we can articulate our intuitions by reference to one or another ontology of the human: because humans are children of God, and hence beings worthy of respect, or rational choosers of ends, and so on. It is our ability to articulate our moral intuitions which distinguishes them from such brute, visceral reactions as nausea. If drinking whiskey induces nausea, then there is no point in asking an agent to articulate an explanation of why whiskey has this effect, or to demand that he provide reasons why his reaction is either warranted or wrong-headed. It is simply a brute fact that for this particular individual, drinking whiskey produces this effect. However, in the case of a moral intuition, while we also react to a particular property of a given object, there is room for questioning the fitness of our reaction. We can debate and argue over whether our reaction was a suitable one, whether it was consistent with our reactions in similar situations, whether there might not be a more appropriate response, and so on. In a word, we can debate if our reaction was merited, and in such cases there is always the question of the fitness of our response. Here we are dealing with an instance of what Taylor calls “strong evaluation”—we invoke descriptions of the object of our moral deliberations by reference to criteria which are independent of our given reaction, desires, and preferences, and which allow us to evaluate their worth. In effect, the way in which we reason, argue, and question ourselves about morality implicitly acknowledges claims made upon us concerning their objects, and 16 Charles Taylor, “Cross-Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate,” op. cit., p. 161.

Charles Taylor: Sources of the Modern Self


we try to articulate these claims by invoking various ontological accounts. Taylor is clear that ontological accounts cannot be regarded as mere rhetorical ornamentation which can be safely ignored. Rather, he argues that our moral reactions are internally and intimately connected to our ontological accounts. The terms of our ontological account specify both the identity and character of the object of our moral deliberations and the identity and character of our reaction; they tell us precisely what our reaction is a reaction to, and so tell us precisely what our reaction is. If we dispense with the ontological account, then there can be no argument at all, for the terms of that account are the only possible terms for the argument. The temptations to deny this, which arise from modern epistemology, are strengthened by the widespread acceptance of a deeply wrong model of practical reasoning, one based on illegitimate extrapolation from reasoning in science. (SS, p. 7)

For Taylor, moral thinking rests on three axes: respect for persons, questions concerning the good life, and questions concerning dignity or status. The first has to do with our relations with other human beings, in what is conventionally captured in the phrase “respect for persons.” This sense of obligation to others is a large part of what is conventionally meant when we appeal to moral considerations. Yet, for Taylor, such considerations form a necessary rather than a sufficient condition for thinking about morality. If we accept the idea that obligation to others is a sufficient account of morality, then we have to accept that other questions beyond the moral are of central concern to us, and bring strong evaluation into play. Consider especially those questions concerning the good life. How best should I live my life? What does a full, meaningful, and flourishing life consist of? These questions form the second axis or moral thinking. They are questions of strong evaluation because people who ask these questions understand that one can potentially take a wrong turn, and fail to lead a full and satisfactory life. As Taylor suggests: Moderns can anxiously doubt whether life has meaning, or wonder what its meaning is. However philosophers may be inclined to attack these formulations as vague or confused, the fact remains that we all have an immediate sense of what kind of worry is being articulated in these words. (SS, p. 16)

Lastly there are those questions concerning our own sense of dignity or status—of the characteristics by which we command or fail to command the respect of others. The issue of what one’s dignity consists in is “no more unavoidable than those of why we ought to respect others’ rights or what makes a full life” (SS, p. 15). For Taylor, then, moral frameworks necessarily develop around these three axes: respect for persons, questions concerning the good life, and questions concerning our status. He suggests that “Probably something like these three axes exists in every culture” (SS, p. 16). Since all three axes presuppose some account of the nature or status of human beings, this way of articulating the nature of morality emphasizes the point that an ontological account is essential. It also brings home the point that, along all three axes, strong evaluation is inescapable.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education To think, feel, judge within such a framework is to function with the sense that some action, or mode of life, or mode of feeling is incomparably higher than the others which are more readily available to us. (SS, p. 19)

For example, to ask what constitutes a good life, presupposes that our present desires could lead to wrong answers, thereby wasting or even destroying our lives. In short, any such framework involves qualitative distinctions of lower and higher, of more or less worthy. Judging within any such framework involves the sense that some actions, some modes of life, some feelings are incomparably higher than others. Of course, we desire the ordinary human satisfactions and goods; we also recognize that some ends, some desires, some goods, are not just quantitatively more desirable, but stand qualitatively apart and possess an entirely different status such that they cannot be measured on the same scale as our ordinary desirabilia. Rather, they command our respect and awe, and provide the standard by which our ordinary choices and desires are judged. For Taylor, no system of moral thought can avoid such strong evaluation—if only implicitly—for, if it failed to do so, it would cease to be an ethic at all. Moreover, the notion that whatever we do with our lives is acceptable is unintelligible for, if such were the case, there could never be any coherent account of human dignity. In brief, strong evaluation is unavoidable in a world shaped by our moral responses. While it is doubtless true that some people operate without an explicit, philosophically defined framework, this does not mean that they are without a framework at all—it merely means that they don’t consciously articulate it. In all cases, whether we are examining the life of an inarticulate peasant, or an elaborate system of thought such as Marxism, “some distinction is maintained between the higher, the admirable life and the lower life of sloth, irrationality, slavery or alienation” (SS, p. 23). For Taylor, the idea that adopting a moral framework is optional is fundamentally wrong. To be free of all frameworks is incoherent. Those individuals who find themselves without such frameworks would be in the grip of a frightening state of disassociation, a pathological identity crisis. Our identity is what allows us to define what is important to us and what is not. It is what makes possible these discriminations, including those which turn on strong evaluations. It hence couldn’t be without such evaluations. The notion of an identity defined by some mere de facto, not strongly valued preference is incoherent. (SS, p. 30)

Hence, a moral orientation is inescapable, and to lose this orientation is to call into question one’s very identity. ... to speak of orientation is to presuppose a space-analogue within which one finds one’s way. To understand our predicament in terms of finding or losing orientation in moral space is to take the space which our frameworks seek to define as ontologically basic. The issue is, through what framework-definition can I find my bearings in it? In other words, we take as basic that the human agent exists in a space of questions. And these are the questions to which our framework-definitions are answers, providing the horizon within which we know where we stand, and what meanings things have for us. (SS, p. 29)

Charles Taylor: Sources of the Modern Self


Two salient factors emerge from Taylor’s use of the spatial metaphor.17 First, finding my bearings in such a space implies that the space exists independently of both me and my success (or lack thereof) in finding my way in it. The metaphor, thus, brings out the idea of the objective status of moral questions, and undermines the idea that moral intuitions and reactions are no more than the arbitrary expressions of preference. Second, it brings home the point that just as one’s orientation to physical space is not optional, in that we are not given choices in developing our sense about up, down, right and left, so, too, must one find one’s bearings in developing a moral sense. A human life which failed to address matters concerning its bearing in moral space, which failed to locate itself within frameworks in which things are given meaning, would be caught in a radically painful and frightening identity crisis. In this sense, the need to establish a moral orientation is as fundamental as the need to establish a physical orientation. We now come to a further crucial implication of the metaphor of orientation in space, one that follows from the fact that there are two ways in which we can fail to be orientated. On the one hand, we can be like travelers in a strange land, without maps and ignorant of the landmarks which the natives use to navigate. Or, on the other hand, we can possess maps, have a general feel for the lie of the land, and still not be sure of where, exactly, we stand. Analogously, our relation to the good requires not only some framework which shapes the quality of the evaluatively higher, but also some indication of where we stand relative to this evaluative landmark. Just as one cannot start out on a journey without some sense of where one is going, and some desire to get there, so, too, must it matter to us where we stand in relation to those normative landmarks. Because the qualitative distinctions which our frameworks bring about must matter to us, so too must our proximity or distance from those landmarks which define what is ultimately important to us: “Not being able to function without orientation in the space of the ultimately important means not being able to stop caring about where we sit in it” (SS, p. 42) Taylor’s claim here is that the goods by which we define our spiritual orientation are ultimately those goods by which we measure the worth of our lives. This is, of course, the second of Taylor’s axes, that which involves questions surrounding those goods which make our lives meaningful and worthwhile. Taylor suggests that we can always enquire about how we are placed in relation to these goods: whether we are in contact with them or not, or whether we are rightly placed with respect to them. That is, we can always ask two questions: to what degree does my life embody and manifest those goods to which I am committed, and is the good to which I am

17 Taylor’s use of the spatial metaphor is, he suggests, more than a mere personal predilection. “There are signs that the link with spatial orientation lies very deep within the human psyche. In some very extreme cases of what are described as ‘narcissistic personality disorders’, which take the form of a radical uncertainty about oneself and about what is of value to one, patients show signs of spatial disorientation as well as moments of acute crisis. The disorientation and uncertainty about where one stands as a person seems to spill over into a loss of grip on one’s stance in physical space.” (SS, p. 28)


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committed the right direction to take in the first place. In brief, the question is not just where we are but where we are headed. The point here is that we are dynamic beings in a constant state of movement. Here, Taylor echoes a central theme of MacIntyre’s, that life is an unfolding story, and that my sense of the good has to be interwoven with the on-going narrative of my existence. Any coherent answer to the question “Who am I?” involves answers to the questions “Where did I come from?” and “Whence am I going?” My orientation to the good, and the narrative unity or “quest” of my life are internally related and mutually sustaining: My underlying thesis is that there is a close connection between the different conditions of identity, or of one’s life making sense, that I have been discussing. One could put it this way: because we cannot but orient ourselves to the good, and thus determine our place relative to it and hence determine the direction of our lives, we must inescapably understand our lives in narrative form, as a “quest”. But one could perhaps start from another point: because we have to determine our place in relation to the good, therefore we cannot be without an orientation to it, and hence must see our life in story. From whichever direction, I see these conditions as connected facets of the same reality, inescapable structural requirements of human agency. (SS, pp. 51-52)

Let us pause briefly and summarize the two major thrusts of Taylor’s arguments to this point. First, he is opposed to any conception of the self which sees human nature as fixed and determinate, and capable of being studied independently of any descriptions and interpretations offered by human agents. Taylor views man as a “self-interpreting” animal, and so to gain an understanding of human agency one must enter into “webs of interlocution” and the attendant meanings embodied in them. To ask what a person is in abstraction from his self-interpretations is to ask a fundamentally misguided question. Gaining access to self-interpretations is gaining access to a particular vocabulary, and, according to Taylor, a language only exists in a language community. This does not mean that the content of our conceptions of the good are necessarily social or communal; it is only to acknowledge the necessarily social origins of all our goods and conceptions. Second, he is committed to the view that the qualitative understandings which contribute to my sense of the good are, in important ways, inseparable from my sense of identity. To exist without strong, evaluative frameworks is, in Taylor’s view, tantamount to madness. The need for orientation in moral space is as fundamental as the need for orientation in physical space. Yet, clearly, there are many goods in life, many of which are worthy of pursuing, and many of which are liable to conflict with one another. How, then, are we to choose between various goods which make claim on our moral deliberations? What mechanism is there for adjudicating between and among diverse conceptions of the good? Is there are rational way of choosing between, say, loyalty to one’s friend or loyalty to one’s country? Or, are we here at the mercy of individual whim, thrust back on the shoals of that very subjectivism which it is Taylor’s avowed task to navigate around?

Charles Taylor: Sources of the Modern Self


To answer these concerns, Taylor invokes the idea of a hypergood. He suggests that individuals will have to rank order those goods they deem worthy of pursuit in some scheme of subordination and super-ordination, and this will mean regarding one of them as being of supreme importance relative to the others. For example, one might set value on autonomy, loyalty, and generosity as goods worth pursuing, but may choose one of them—benevolence for example—as of overriding importance. Such an individual might recognize a whole range of evaluative distinctions, but recognizes, too, a qualitative discontinuity between benevolence and all others. That is, a higher-order qualitative distinction is drawn in order to segment goods which are themselves defined in terms of lower-order distinctions. Taylor calls such higherorder goods hypergoods. Once we adopt the perspective of a hypergood, it has the effect of radically transforming both the way in which we view the world, and how we conduct ourselves: For Plato, once we see the Good, we cease to be fascinated by and absorbed in the search for honour and pleasure as we were before, and we will even altogether want to renounce certain facets of these ... Or again, the move from a prerational or parochial perspective to one in which we recognize the right of all humans to equal respect transforms our entire way of seeing historical cultures and their practices. What previously was endowed with the highest prestige may now seem narrow, tawdry and exploitative. We can no longer feel awe before it. ... We find ourselves lifted out of the ruck of unthinking custom, and become citizens of a wider republic, a kingdom of ends. (SS, p. 70)

The concept of a hypergood contains within it inherent conflicts. Whether we take the case of the individual or an entire society, adopting a hypergood involves radical change which is typically characterized by individual agents as “growth,” “sanctification,” “higher consciousness,” and the like; in the case of societies, such change is inevitably called “progress.” Moreover, because a hypergood, by definition, must set itself over and above earlier goods, it ultimately produces a transformation of values and an intolerance of those goods to which it assigns a lower rank. Because such transvaluations present themselves as steps toward a higher moral consciousness, they often involve rejecting entirely goods which were previously treated as hypergoods themselves, castigating earlier moral beliefs with such epithets as “primitive,” “wrong-headed,” “barbaric,” and the like. For example, many people today are likely to assign to the principle of equal respect the status of a hypergood. Clearly, it was not always the dominant good, and arose only out of a process of conflict and development in which it replaced other, earlier goods. (For example, one thinks of the identification of Medieval Christendom with “The Great Chain of Being,” or of more contemporary societies in which religious doctrines assign lower and higher classes based on ethnicity and religion, or gender.) But where the principle of equal respect is dominant, it continues to find new applications and challenges older ethics. For example, the on-going debate concerning the relations between the sexes in this society can be read as the introduction of a new hypergood (equality) displacing older, more restricted ethics.


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As suggested above, it is a feature of hypergoods that the dominant goods which they displace are seen as “restrictive,” “parochial,” “dated,” and so on. But the question arises: why should we accept the judgement that the new hypergood is more worthy and less restrictive than that which it displaces? In other words, what guarantees do we have that the new hypergood truly is superior to the previously dominant one? Or, to flip it around, how do we know that the old hypergood really is less worthy than the new? In other words, why should we accept the judgement that, say, equality is preferable to honour, particularly when this judgement proceeds within the assumptions of a society which does, in fact, put equality first? How can we know that such a transition is a rational one? For Taylor, the gist of the answer lies in the very spirit which gives rise to such questions in the first place—that of human practical reason. For practical reasoning is designed to cope with situations such as these. According to Taylor, practical reasoning ... is a reasoning in transitions. It aims to establish, not that some position is correct absolutely, but rather that some position is superior to some other. It is concerned, covertly or openly, implicitly or explicitly, with comparative propositions. We show one of these comparative claims to be well founded when we can show that the move from A to B constitutes a gain epistemically. This is something we do when we show, for instance, that we get from A to B by identifying and resolving some contradiction in A or a confusion which A relied on, or by acknowledging some factor which A screened out, or something of that sort. The argument fixes on the nature of the transition from A to B. The nerve of the rational proof consists in showing that this transition is an error-reducing one. (SS p. 72)

This picture of rationality strongly echoes MacIntyre’s idea that the validity of a given moral tradition can be tested against rival moral traditions in its ability to cope with what MacIntyre calls an “epistemological crisis.” Similarly, both Taylor and MacIntyre see this form of argument as having its genesis in biographical narrative: We are convinced that a certain view is superior because we have lived a transition which we understand as error-reducing and hence as epistemic gain. I see that I was confused about the relation of resentment and love, or I see that there is a depth to love conferred by time, which I was quite insensitive to before. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t and can’t argue. Our conviction that we have grown morally can be challenged by another. It may, after all, be illusion. And then we argue; and arguing here is contesting between interpretations of what I have been living. (SS p. 72)

Taylor’s point, then, is not that the transition from one hypergood to another is incontestable moral growth, or that we are not capable of getting it wrong. It is rather that there are, and can be, no criteria for assessing the worth of hypergoods which exist outside of a moral framework. To believe otherwise, to search for “objective” criteria to decide the issue—criteria which are somehow not implicated in the perspectives in dispute—is to be deluded. The bare fact of the matter is that there are no such considerations, for,

Charles Taylor: Sources of the Modern Self


My perspective is defined by the moral intuitions I have, by what I am morally moved by. If I abstract from this, I become incapable of understanding any moral argument at all. You will only convince me by changing my reading of my moral experience, and in particular my reading of my life story, of the transitions I have lived through—or perhaps refused to live through. (SS p. 73)

In Taylor’s view, the idea that practical reasoning is transitional means that we are still bound to provide reasons; but the sort of reasons we provide have to be understood in ... a different way than usual. As long as the wrong, external model of practical reason holds sway, the very notion of giving a reason smacks of offering some external considerations, not anchored in our moral intuitions, which can somehow show that certain moral practices and allegiances are correct. An external consideration in this sense is one which could convince someone who was quite unmoved by a certain vision of the good that he ought to adopt it, or at least act according to its prescriptions. (SS, p. 75)

Even if my moral intuitions are grounded in a belief in God, I can have rational confidence in them only if they are somehow grounded in considerations that somehow take account of my moral experience. The most reliable moral view is not one that would be grounded quite outside our intuitions but one that is grounded on our strongest intuitions, where these have successfully met the challenge of proposed transitions away from them. (SS, p. 75)

In essence, Taylor’s claim that practical reasoning is transitional amounts to the view that any evaluation of practical reasoning must necessarily evoke a substantive conception of the good. In other words, the rationality of the agent will be judged in substantive terms, not procedural terms. He is opposed to what he terms a “procedural conception of ethics,” by which he means systems which judge the rationality of an agent (and ultimately the justification of his actions) by how he thinks, on whether the procedures of correct thinking are observed, “not in the first instance by whether the outcome is substantively correct” (SS, p. 86). Or, to phrase it differently, what ultimately matters on a procedural account of moral deliberation is not the outcome, but how the outcome is arrived at. He elaborates: Practical reason was understood by the ancients substantively. To be rational was to have the correct vision, or in the case of Aristotle’s phronësis, an accurate power of moral discrimination. But once we sideline a sense of the good and consider it irrelevant to moral thinking, then our notion of practical reasoning has to be procedural. The excellence of practical reasoning is defined in terms of a certain style, method or procedure of thought. For the utilitarians, rationality is maximizing calculation. ... For the Kantians the definitive procedure of practical reason is that of universalization. (SS, p. 86)

For Taylor, the modern idea of freedom is the strongest motive for the shift from substantive to procedural conceptions of rationality in ethics. By emphasizing the methods or style of thinking, procedural conceptions of reason underline


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

the importance of free and autonomous choice, and point to the primacy of the individual’s will and desires in much contemporary moral philosophy. But there are two overarching objections Taylor adduces against such procedural notions. First, procedural conceptions of ethics implicitly deny the idea of an objective order to the universe, for such an order would determine that some conceptions of the good were right and others wrong, and, thus, lead toward a substantive conception of practical reason. Second, procedural assumptions about rationality in morals are designed for a world in which the human agent, alone in a disenchanted universe, must listen to his own judgement and reason. That is to say, procedural assumptions are suited to the hypergoods of modernity—to equality and freedom, say—yet are strangely incapable of suggesting why these substantive commitments are given this privileged pride of place. Their official aversion to conceptions of the good ensures that what begins as an argument about procedures must, ultimately, become an argument about substance. Yet, because they are officially committed to eschewing question of substance, they are incapable of giving reasons for assigning priority to the pursuit and achievement of practical rationality. The more one examines the motives ... of these theories of obligatory action, the stranger they appear. It seems that they are motivated by the strongest moral ideals, such as freedom, altruism, and universalism. These are among the central moral aspirations of modern culture, the hypergoods which are distinctive to it. And yet what these ideals drive the theorist towards is a denial of all such goods. They are caught in a strange pragmatic contradiction, whereby the very goods which move them push them to deny or denature all such goods. They are constitutionally incapable of coming clean about the deeper sources of their own thinking. Their thought is inescapably cramped. (SS, p. 89)

The result of what Taylor dubs “a strange pragmatic contradiction” is the appearance of peculiar divisions in moral thinking, such as Habermas’s boundary between questions of ethics, which have to do with interpersonal justice, and questions concerning the good life. This distinction18 is crucial, for it marks the division between demands for ethics which possess truly universal validity, and those goods which are contingent on the particularities of culture. The general line of argument here is that without some such distinction, we run the risk of chauvinism; that is, of imposing our own traditions, conceptions of the good and way of life on others. 18 The distinction between questions concerning the good life for the individual and what is often labeled “inter-personal” or “social” morality is a staple in modern liberal theory. For example, Cornel Hamm, in the context of an introductory textbook, writes, “A case can be made for there being a kind of personal morality, having to do with self-development, personal integrity, and individual authenticity; but this chapter will be exclusively concerned with inter-personal, social morality. We are here considering as morality only those rules and principles which govern relations between people” (emphasis added). Cornel Hamm, Philosophical Issues in Education (Lewes: The Falmer Press, 1989). For Taylor, of course, it is precisely this compartmentalization of ethics into “personal” and “inter-personal” realms which gives rise to a denatured, procedural account of ethics—one which is ultimately incoherent.

Charles Taylor: Sources of the Modern Self


In practical terms, the outcome of this distinction is to organize the political sphere around a conception of morality which acknowledges only inter-personal concerns, forbidding invocations of conceptions of the good life for human beings within politics. Obviously, any such account would necessarily have to draw on an ontology of the human, and some general account of the human good. And, of course, it is precisely here—in maintaining neutrality with respect to accounts of the nature of the good—that deontological liberalism defines itself. We are now in a position to see how these concerns of Taylor make contact with Rawls, and, in general, any ethical theory which assigns an absolute priority to the right. Taylor is not opposed to assigning the priority of the right, if this is meant to signify a rejection of utilitarianism or other consequentialist theories; indeed, he agrees with the general thrust of Kant-derived moral theories that morality needs to be conceived more broadly than simple outcomes, and must be thought of deontologically; that is, morality must include as well some notion of duty or intrinsic value. Rather, his quarrel is with a particular ethical view, one which downgrades the relevance of all conceptions of the good whatsoever, and which seeks to articulate a moral view without invoking those qualitative distinctions which Taylor argues are essential to the elucidation of any account of morality. In Taylor’s view, any moral or political theory must necessarily draw on a particular conception of the good. Those accounts which attempt to dispense with such conceptions, or which aspire to maintain an official neutrality between alternate articulations of the good, are, at best, embroiled in a strange pragmatic contradiction. For the plain fact of the matter is that any political theory does—whatever its official line—necessarily depend on some ontological account of the human good. Taylor takes Rawls as an example of a theory of justice which avoids reliance upon any particular theory of the good. Recall that Rawls expressly eschews what Taylor calls “hypergoods,” and develops his notion of justice starting only with “a thin theory of the good.” If he were to offer a more complete account of the good, then those principles of justice (as well as those social institutions) which emerge from his theory would be guilty of violating the autonomy of the individual, imposing on some the morality of others. Yet, as Rawls himself acknowledges, if, as a matter of fact, we recognize the principles of justice which emerge from his theory as acceptable, it is not so much because we are swayed by the force of his argument; rather, it is because such principles happen to square with our pre-existent moral intuitions. As Taylor points out: If we were to articulate what underlies these intuitions we would start spelling out a very “thick” theory of the good. To say that we don’t “need” this to develop our theory of justice turns out to be highly misleading. We don’t actually spell it out, but we have to draw on the sense of the good that we have here in order to decide what are adequate principles of justice. The theory of justice which starts from the thin theory of the good turns out to be a theory which keeps its most basic insights inarticulate ... (SS, p. 89)


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

In other words, Rawls’ insistence that his theory only demands a thin theory of the good, that no other conception of the good is at stake, is simply an instance of repression or self-delusion. Taylor summarizes his views on any ethical theories which assigns the priority of the right over the good: Where “good” means the primary goal of a consequentialist theory, where the right is decided simply by its instrumental significance for this end, then we ought indeed to insist that the right can be primary to the good. But where we use “good” in the sense of this discussion, where it means whatever is marked out as higher by a qualitative distinction, then we could say that the reverse is the case, that in a sense, the good is always primary to the right ... the good is what, in its articulation, gives the point of the rules which define the right. (SS, p. 89)

For Taylor, then, both deontological ethical schemes, as well as procedural conceptions of practical reasoning, necessarily rely on substantive theories of the good. We cannot do without such “thick theories of the good,” because without them, we have no way of articulating the moral point of our actions and feelings. However obscure and perplexing such matters tend to be, and no matter how difficult it might be to express them cogently, without some attempt at articulation, our moral intuitions would lack the very feature which distinguishes them from such brute phenomena as nausea.19 What is integral to both a recognizable human identity, and the narrative unity of a human life, is the articulation of a conception of the good. For Taylor, then, implicit in any moral or political theory is both a set of qualitative distinctions, and an ontological account of human nature. Deontological theories (such as Rawls’) which attempt to build their claims on a thin theory of the good are merely self-deluded. Taylor argues that if the grounds for advocating a theory of the right were to be fully articulated, they would be found to constitute a very substantive sense of the good: This is what has been suppressed by these strange cramped theories of modern moral philosophy, which have the paradoxical effect of making us inarticulate on some of the most important issues of morality. Impelled by the strongest metaphysical, epistemological and moral ideas of the modern age, these theories narrow our focus to the determinants of

19 Taylor is obviously opposed to the Wittgensteinian idea that some things should be passed over in silence. As he suggests, “... the goods I have been talking about only exist for us through some articulation ... . A vision of the good becomes available for the people of a given culture through being given expression in some manner. The God of Abraham exists for us (that is, belief in him is a possibility) because he has been talked about, primarily in the narrative of the Bible but also in countless other ways from theology to devotional literature ... Universal rights of mankind exist for us because they have been promulgated, because revolutions have been fought in their name, and so on. In neither case, of course, are these articulations a sufficient condition of belief. There are atheists in our civilizations, nourished by the Bible, and racists in the modern liberal West. But articulation is a necessary condition of adhesion; without it, these goods are not even options.” (SS, p. 91)

Charles Taylor: Sources of the Modern Self


action, and then restrict our understanding of these determinants still further by defining practical reason as exclusively procedural. They utterly mystify the priority of the moral by identifying it not with substance but with a form of reasoning, around which they draw a firm boundary. They then are led to defend this boundary all the more fiercely in that it is their only way of doing justice to the hypergoods which move them although they cannot acknowledge them. (SS, p. 89)

What this means is that deontological theories such as Rawls’ cannot be as neutral between competing conceptions of the good as they aspire to be. For example, the absolute priority assigned to the right in Rawls’ theory can be attributed to the value given to the autonomy of the individual. In Taylor’s nomenclature, autonomy is a hypergood of Rawlsian theory. Yet, the question clearly needs to be asked: why, in the Rawlsian version of justice, is autonomy so valued, and not something else? Whatever the answer, it would necessarily need to be framed within some sort of evaluative framework which, in turn, would need to invoke some ontology of the human. In other words, it would need to trade on the very sort of qualitative distinctions, and raise precisely those sorts of question it was designed to overcome in the first place. Taylor, of course, is not opposed to the hypergood of autonomy, nor, obviously, is he opposed to the idea of a hypergood per se. Indeed, on his account, the invocation of hypergoods is critical to establishing any moral or political theory. His point is simply that liberals fail to come clean about the sources of their hypergoods. To do so would amount to defending evaluative positions about competing conceptions of the good life, a move which logically presupposes some more general account of human nature. For Taylor, aspirations to neutrality in liberal theory are wholly a chimera born of the modern age. On his account, there is simply no escape from engaging in questions concerning the good life for human beings. For Taylor then, moral argumentation (and, indeed, the very concept of personhood) both presuppose a vision of the good, or what he refers to as a “strong evaluative framework.” As I said at the outset of this chapter, my intention was to show how, and in what ways, Taylor could be considered a communitarian thinker. We are now in a position to see more clearly why his work is often cited in communitarian circles. Let me conclude by briefly summarizing the main thrusts of Taylor’s position. He begins by arguing that we are “self-interpreting” animals, and that our selfinterpretations are, in important ways, caught up with and dependent upon the language we have at our disposal. Because language is a social phenomenon, we are all of us dependent on those “webs of interlocution” which typify a community of language speakers. Community is, therefore, a structural pre-condition of human agency, including, of course, moral agency. Consequently, any adequate conception of morality must be acquired, established, and maintained within a community. Moreover, moral conceptions must necessarily invoke qualitative frameworks which are themselves intimately connected to a defining community. Morality, on Taylor’s account, can only come about in relation to the language and vision of others, which, in turn, is intimately involved in the language of a defining, historical community.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

Finally, it needs to be stressed that Taylor is not rejecting liberalism tout court. Indeed, he finds much in liberalism which is congenial, particularly its insistence on the inherent worth and dignity of the individual. For Taylor, the problems in deontological liberal theory arise not so much from the substantive values it promotes—liberty, equality, autonomy and so on—(values which Taylor endorses), but rather by liberalism’s inability to come clean, so to speak, and articulate its deepest moral intuitions. This is what Taylor refers to as the “pragmatic contradiction” at the heart of liberal theory. If liberalism were to come clean and articulate its deepest moral intuitions, it would necessarily draw on a substantive, rather than an exclusively procedural view of practical reason, and the internal logic of liberalism denies the legitimacy of such a move. Ultimately, what concerns Taylor is that without such an articulation, the presentday tendency of liberal societies to view their institutions and values as purely instrumental, as merely the means by which individuals defend themselves against others, leads to a loss of social cohesion. Even an individualist political tradition such as liberalism, one which places great emphasis on the dignity and freedom of each person, must also commit itself to certain communal values. At a minimum, an individualist social ethic must be committed to maintaining those communal structures and institutions which themselves permit an individualist ethic to flourish. In short, Taylor’s communitarianism arises not from a hostility to the values and institutions of the liberal state; to the contrary, it is from a position of affection and admiration, because he views the liberal state as something worth preserving, that he argues for a communitarian ethic.

Chapter 9

Philosophy of Education and Communitarianism In the previous two chapters, I addressed the objections to liberalism posed by MacIntyre and Taylor. Both thinkers (albeit in different ways) tried to show how the abstract individualism which characterizes liberal theory leads to distortions in our private morality and our public ethos. I want now to move these concerns more directly to educational theory, and suggest that a liberal education presupposes an ideal of civil association in which society is understood at a deeper and more profound level than is given in liberal theory. As I said at the outset, the concept of education which interests me is that of a liberal or general education. My interest here lies less in articulating a new way of conceptualizing a liberal education, than in suggesting how we might achieve it. Thus, my concept of a liberal education contains nothing particularly novel or original, but is indebted to the analysis of the concept of education proffered by R.S. Peters in Ethics and Education. I believe that Peters’ analysis provides, on the whole, a comprehensive and helpful formal definition of what we mean by a liberal education, and provides a sympathetic starting place for a communitarian ethic. It need hardly be added that Peters’ analysis is not universally agreed upon, and it perhaps should also be acknowledged that Peters’ work is not as influential as it once was.1 Nevertheless, I believe that the thrust of his analysis is, on the whole, correct. Moreover, it is, at the very least, a concept of education which is compatible with a communitarian ethic, and by emphasizing certain salient features of his analysis, we see in his work many of the same themes which preoccupy the contemporary communitarian agenda. Again, my aim here is not to arrive at some new or original gloss on the concept itself; rather, it is to underscore certain of its features and suggest why a communitarian ethic is best suited to fulfilling the promise implicit within it. 1 During the 1960s and 1970s, the philosophy of education established itself as a distinct area of academic study, and this development was brought about largely through the efforts of Peters. By saying that his work is no longer as influential as it once was, I do not, of course, mean to imply that the legitimacy of a view is somehow tied to intellectual fashion. I merely observe that in recent years, philosophy of education has, for various reasons, tended to forgo the style of philosophical analysis that Peters favoured. As Robin Barrow comments, “... in recent years philosophers of education have tended to go beyond analysis ... drawing in particular on European traditions of philosophy.” Robin Barrow, “Philosophy of Education: The Analytic Tradition,” in T. Husen and N. Postlethwaite (eds.), The International Encyclopaedia of Education, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Pergamon, 1994), p. 13.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

The thread which runs throughout Peters’ writing is the idea that a liberal education is fundamentally about “the unimpeded and unconstrained development of mind, not harnessed to utilitarian or vocational ends.”2 His insistence on this view can be put in perspective if we recall that his career spanned a time when the tradition of a “liberal” or “general” education had come under increasing attack from both ends of the political spectrum. On the one hand, “progressive” educators focused on the learner, and indulged in such slogans as “I teach children, not mathematics.” On the other hand, an increasingly technicist and commercial society exhibited an increasing impatience with any conception of education which did not translate readily into direct economic benefits. In the concluding paragraph of Ethics and Education, Peters writes: The conservative is afflicted with nostalgia for an age when England had an empire and when life—for the few at any rate—was more gracious. The progressive is disillusioned because he has realized that political panaceas seem prosaic if they are practicable enough to be implemented, and throw up yet another set of problems. (Ethics and Education, hereafter EE, p. 319)

Peters saw both these extremes as equally mistaken, and equally destructive of the educational engagement. His educational ideas may be seen as an attempt to preserve the liberal conception of “the unconstrained development of mind” by steering a middle course between an unthinking and anti-intellectual emphasis on the learner, and a rigid, unrealistic and unresponsive attempt to shape the child to some pre-established norm. What Peters saw as lacking in both accounts “is the notion that [cognitive structure] develops out of, and as a response to, public traditions enshrined in the language, concepts, beliefs, and rules of a society” (EE, p. 49). Hence, the task of the educator is to initiate students into that public body of shared understandings and awareness. This initiation presupposes impersonal standards to which both the learner and the teacher must give their allegiance. By focusing on the individual child, progressivists lose sight of the fact that the development of mind is coherent only within a social, intersubjective domain. On the other hand, a too exclusive concern on molding the individual to conform to some pre-conceived pattern of development leads to an education which is impersonal, sterile, and morally suspect. What both these models lack is a sense of what D.H. Lawrence called the “Holy Ground” that stands between the teacher and the taught. To conceive of education as imposing a pattern on another person or as “fixing” the environment so that an individual “grows” fails to do justice to the shared impersonality both of the content that is handed on and of the criteria by reference to which it is criticized and developed. It ignores the cardinal fact that education consists essentially in the initiation of others into a public world picked out by the language and concepts of a people and in encouraging others to join in exploring realms marked out by more differentiated forms of awareness. (EE, p. 52) 2 R.S. Peters, Education and the Education of Teachers (London: Routledge, 1976), pp. 46-47.

Philosophy of Education and Communitarianism


The well-chosen metaphor of “initiation” may be seen as the leitmotif of Peters’ work, a way of working out a much-needed reconciliation between child-centered and subject-centered approaches to education. The task which Peters set himself was to formulate a way of conceiving education which paid due respect to the learner without losing sight of the fact that education is, in the last analysis, essentially the initiation of the learner into a public world of understandings: “the essential feature of education ... consists in experienced persons turning the eye of others outwards to what is essentially independent of persons” (EE, p. 54). In his analysis of education, Peters observes that education has normative implications—that is, it is a term which implies a change for the better, one which is characterized by the achievement of valuable states of mind. Just as it would be absurd to claim that a man had “reformed” but had in no way changed for the better, so, too, would it make no sense to say that one had been “educated” but was in no way the better for it. Following the distinction first introduced by Gilbert Ryle between “task” and “achievement” verbs, he further maintains that “education” is primarily an “achievement” word.3 According to Ryle, “... in applying an achievement verb we are asserting that some state of affairs obtains over and above that which consists in the performance, if any, of the subservient task activity.”4 In other words, achievement verbs do not pick out any activities, but refer to states of being which certain activities bring about. Education, then, “picks out no particular activity or process; rather, it lays down criteria to which activities or processes must conform” (EE, p. 25). In this sense, education is a “polymorphous” concept and cannot be identified with any particular activity or mode of teaching. Accordingly, the number of activities which may count as educative are limitless, provided they meet three further conditions embedded in the logic of education: 1) that education implies a transmission of “worthwhile knowledge”; 2) that such knowledge and understanding is not inert, but results in a cognitive perspective which transforms the outlook of the individual; 3) that “education” rules out some methods of procedures for transmitting knowledge, on the grounds that they violate the wittingness and voluntariness of the learner. The first criterion, the commitment to worthwhile knowledge, rules out of court inconsequential and trivial knowledge. Clearly, we are capable of teaching, and students are capable of mastering, much knowledge that is trifling, unimportant, and idle. In order for an activity to count as educative, that which is taught must meet the minimal requirement of “worthwhileness.” (It perhaps needs to be stressed that here Peters is putting forth a purely formal claim, and provides no determinate answer to Herbert Spencer’s question, “What knowledge is most worth knowing?” He does, however, elaborate more fully on these questions elsewhere.)5

3 Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1949). 4 Ibid., pp. 143-144. 5 See P.H. Hirst and R.S. Peters, The Logic of Education (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970).


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

The second criterion, the requirement for knowledge and understanding that is not inert, is necessary to distinguish the truly educated individual from the merely well informed. To count as educated, one must possess more than merely a disjointed body of facts and information without any underlying conceptual scheme. What is further required is that one have some organizing principles which allows a glimpse into underlying patterns and associations; a way, that is, to say, of “understanding” what all this data means. Clearly we can teach students to merely parrot the correct answers, such that they will succeed in examinations. But in the final analysis, such a tactic is of little use to anyone. By stressing knowledge and understanding, Peters is emphasizing the idea that the educated person is one whose knowledge is not “inert” or “external” to him or her, but rather transforms one’s entire outlook. We all possess unrelated, insignificant bits of knowledge; what the educated person further possesses is what Peters refers to as “cognitive perspective,” in that one not only has knowledge, but cares about it and is committed to it. Moreover, education implies that one has knowledge in breadth and depth. That is, we would not normally call “educated” those who possessed competence in a narrow specialty, but who were, at the same time, quite ignorant outside their field. What such people lack is the requisite breadth of learning. Peters suggests that, “Education is of the whole man” bears witness not simply to a protest against too much specialized training, but also to a conceptual connection between “education” and seeing what is being done in a perspective that is not too limited.” (EE., p. 32)

The third criterion, unlike the first two which are concerned with the content of what is being passed on (albeit only in a formal way), is concerned with how such “worthwhile” knowledge is to be transmitted. Its function is entirely negative, in that it rules out certain procedures for transmitting knowledge on the grounds that certain techniques fail to respect the moral worth of individuals. Peters argues that practically anything could count as a legitimate educational procedure provided that it 1) brings about an educationally valuable state, and 2) that it not impinge on the wittingness or voluntariness of the learner. Thus, procedures which violate the autonomy of the learner, such as indoctrination, brain-washing, propaganda, and conditioning are ruled out. Peters does not dispute the efficacy of such techniques; he is simply saying that they are not educative, for education is a term which carries with it a moral obligation to bring about learning in a fashion which respects the integrity and moral worth of the individual. So, while the achievements of a teacher may be morally neutral, or even pernicious, the achievements of an educator logically cannot be. In sum, for an activity to count as educative it must satisfy three criteria: 1) that it involve the transmission of worthwhile knowledge; 2) that such knowledge be taught in breadth and depth, and that it transform the outlook of the learner; 3) that certain procedures for the transmission of knowledge are ruled out on moral grounds. On Peters’ analysis, we might define education as the achievement of valuable states of mind, characterized by cognitive breadth and depth, and brought about in a morally

Philosophy of Education and Communitarianism


acceptable fashion. It should be emphasized again that this analysis of the concept of education is purely formal. That is, Peters is simply making logical claims for what is entailed by the concept of education, and leaves open for the moment the question of what is to count as “worthwhile knowledge,” or what is to count as a morally acceptable educative procedure. This, then, is a quick sketch of Peters’ pioneering analysis of the concept of education. Let me briefly underscore what I believe are the crucial aspects of his analysis. First, Peters makes it clear that education is conceptually linked with the development of mind; that such development necessarily takes place in a social, public, intersubjective sphere; that language is the medium in which an individual is initiated into the public inheritance; and that, in the final analysis, education involves “turning the eye ... outwards to what is essentially independent of persons.” Peters’ analysis of the concept of education has been criticized for both his procedural assumptions and his substantive position.6 I want now to briefly review some of the methodological objections, for I believe that, on the whole, these are the more telling criticisms, and certainly the more pertinent ones for my purposes. And while I believe that, on the whole, most of the procedural objections can be met, there is, nevertheless, one serious substantive flaw in Peters’ work—one which he himself came later to acknowledge. Broadly speaking, there are two main procedural objections to Peters’ method of philosophizing. First, as an ordinary language philosopher, his analysis is subject to the standard set of objections to which that enterprise is prone. As hostile critics have been quick to point out, “ordinary language” analysis presupposes that there is such a thing as “ordinary language,” yet nobody has successfully described exactly what this supposed ordinary language is. Hence, the entire enterprise is misconceived, in that it makes little sense to analyze any concept without first asking “whose” concept we are analyzing. The simple truth of the matter is that there is little reason to believe that a concept possesses an essence which is common to all usages. Hence, what passes for the “logical analysis” of ordinary language is really merely a usage favored by a certain class or type of individual, so that what analysis ultimately yields is less a detached analysis, than a disguised normative prescription being foisted on an unsuspecting audience. For example, a recent work on the history of philosophy of education maintains that “Peters’ version ... was profoundly conservative. The 6 Substantively, certain obvious objections present themselves. Take, for example, the requirement for breadth and depth. Leaving aside the fact that such a requirement is hopelessly vague (how much breadth and how much depth is required?), we clearly do refer to people as educated who possess only a narrow specialty. Are we really prepared to say that those who may know nothing outside of their field—a heart surgeon, a dentist (or for that matter a philosopher)—are “uneducated,” or even poorly educated? To deny them the epithet is simply not condoned by common usage. A further objection can be raised to the requirement that educated people care about and are committed to knowledge. If, for example, one were to forgo the pleasure of a life of scholarly contemplation and take up with a rock and roll band, would we really want to say that such an individual was no longer educated? I doubt it, yet it would seem that on Peters’ analysis, we would need to say precisely that.


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

‘London Line’ reflected the Victorian stance of the classical aristocratic educational tradition out of which it had sprung.”7 A further line of criticism takes the view that even if we allow that there is such a thing as “ordinary language,” we have little reason to think that by reflecting on how people actually use the language we can uncover any great truths. Bertrand Russell, for one, thought that a focus on ordinary language led to a “preoccupation with the silly things silly people are accustomed to say.” At best, ordinary language provides us with a point of departure, a “first word,” as J.L. Austin put it. But if, following Robin Barrow, we reject the ‘too simplistic and inaccurate identification of linguistic philosophy with analytic philosophy,”8 then both objections can be met. As Barrow observes: In some of his early work Peters was prone to using such phraseology as “we would not call a person educated, who ...” This type of phraseology naturally invited the criticism ... that analysis in this case was being interpreted as linguistic analysis. 9

Barrow’s basic point is that, procedurally, Peters, ... in common with other analytic philosophers, was not “appealing to the usage of a given social group”, but as a way of inviting others, whoever they might be, to consider whether something seemed, on reflection (the important phrase) to make sense. Thus the question being addressed was really “would anyone who thought long and hard about the matter actually choose to identify education with, say, training in some specific skill such as tossing horseshoes, notwithstanding the fact that some people may indeed unreflectively regard a person as educated on the strength of their possessing that skill.” 10

I think that if we understand that Peters was appealing—not to ordinary language as his critics charge—but to standards of clarity, completeness, and reasonableness, then much of the hostility his analysis engendered simply dissipates, for his analysis goes a long way toward meeting such standards. Perhaps his analysis of education might have met with less hostility if he had dropped the mantle of analytic detachment, and simply argued straightforwardly for what he took to be a desirable and not unreasonable view of education. Nevertheless, any system of philosophy contains limitations, and the analytic philosophy of education which Peters engendered, no matter how thoroughly and competently done, has the unfortunate tendency to remove from our view of education the lived, social, world. By definition, analysis involves the contemplation and elucidation of concepts in the abstract. This is not to say that analysis is unimportant, or even less to suggest that philosophy can proceed without it. It is to make the different point that there are other things to do beside analyze concepts. 7 James S. Kaminsky, A New History of Educational Philosophy (London: Greenwood, 1993), p. 191. 8 Robin Barrow, “Philosophy of Education: The Analytic Tradition,” op. cit. 9 Ibid. 10 Ibid.

Philosophy of Education and Communitarianism


Peters himself recognized the danger inherent in the detached examination of concepts. In one of his last published pieces, he writes, “Like Rousseau in Emile, we have been dealing too much with man in the abstract.’”11 Or again, “... the concept of education and its aims ... must take more account of human nature and the society in which it operates.”12 In a similar vein, he notes in an autobiographical fragment: ... I realize now that ... the behaviour of people and what they ought to be can only be understood and judged in a living world of people, institutions, traditions and economic forces.13

Peters had listened to those critics who had attacked the analytic school for being too preoccupied with linguistic analysis while neglecting the larger social questions surrounding the educational engagement. He came to see that to philosophize about education is necessarily to philosophize about the problems of people living together in political communities, and that what is most needed for the future vitality of philosophy of education is not so much a piecemeal account of certain concepts, but a fuller account of the social and political dimension of the educational engagement. In brief, philosophy had to be re-conceptualized as an analytic-historical sort of enquiry which somehow overcomes the analytic-synthetic distinction and no longer keeps the conceptual and the empirical in logically distinct compartments. I want now to locate Peters’ concept of education within a communitarian framework, thereby demonstrating how it might allow us a fuller account of the socio-political realm. In short, what I am attempting here is to provide some bridge which would allow philosophy of education to make the transition to an analyticempirical sort of enquiry of the kind envisioned by MacIntyre, who, recall, suggested that “every philosophy presuppose a sociology.” In other words, I hope to take account of what Peters calls the “living world of people, institutions, and economic forces.” Following MacIntyre, who argues that “the crucial moral opposition is between liberal individualism in some form or other and the Aristotelian in some form or another,”14 I argue below for an educational ethic predicated on a modified Aristotelian theory of moral development. In particular, I want to revisit the themes addressed in chapter seven and explore further the educational potential in MacIntyre’s conceptual innovations, particular those around the issues of what he calls a “practice” and “the narrative unity of a life.” As a starting point for our communitarian investigations, we should recall the task that Peters set himself: namely, the reconciliation between a child-centered and subject-centered approach to education. Bearing in mind the notion that education is 11 R.S. Peters, ‘Philosophy of Education’ in Educational Theory and its Foundational Disciplines, P.H. Hirst (ed.) (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), p. 51. 12 Ibid. 13 R.S. Peters, “I Was Twenty Then” in Psychology and Ethical Development (London: Allen & Unwin, 1974). 14 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, op. cit. (hereafter AV) p. 241.


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primarily about the achievement of certain valuable states of mind, how then is this reconciliation to be accomplished? What, if any, are the positive implications for a concept of education where knowledge and understanding are afforded a central place? Two obvious questions arise: what is mind, and how is it developed? Peters argues against both the classical empiricist and rationalist views. The empiricist account of mind, with its view of mind as a tabula rasa, misleads us into thinking that “the ideas and expectations of an individual ... develop as deposits out of an atomic individual experience” (EE, p. 48). On the other hand, the rationalist account is deficient in emphasizing mind as “innate or as simply the product of maturation” (EE, p. 51). What is lacking in both accounts is “the notion that [cognitive structure] grows out of, and as a response to public traditions enshrined in language” (EE, p. 51). Peters writes: ... consciousness, as well as ... individuality, is neither intelligible, nor genetically explicable without the public world ... in relation to which [one] develops, and on which [the individual] imprints his own individual style and pattern of being. (EE, p. 50)

Thus, consciousness and mind are “first and foremost about objects in the public world,” a world that is marked out and differentiated by “a public language into which an individual is initiated” (p. 50). Thus education is the “initiation of an individual into public traditions enshrined in the language, concepts, beliefs, and rules of a society” (p. 49). Peters further points out that we have historically developed highly differentiated modes of thought and awareness, each with its own body of specialized concepts, body of knowledge, and procedures for validating knowledge. To be educated is to be on the inside of these publicly articulated forms of thought by participating “in the shared experience of exploring a common world” (EE, p. 53). In brief, Peters argues that the development of mind is sensible only within a social, intersubjective dimension. At this juncture, we see in Peters’ work many of the same concerns that occupy the communitarian agenda: that there is a commonality to the social world which is knowable; that the formation of mind grows out of a response to a public language; and that an education consists in being on the inside of publicly articulated modes of thought. Hence, the task of the educator is not to perform as “a detached operator working for some kind of result which is external to him” (EE, p. 53). Rather, it is to initiate students into that “accumulated heritage,” that public body of shared impersonal standards to which both the teacher and learner must give their allegiance. Or, to phrase it in language which is more conducive to a communitarian frame of reference, the very idea of a liberal education rests on some common account of public virtue. What is required, then, is a social ethic which is capable of rescuing talk of ends from the obscurity of private life, and providing the means to permit a reasoned debate concerning what ends are appropriate for a community to advance, and what ends are reasonable to suppress.

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In Chapter Seven, I sketched in the outline of MacIntyre’s substantive position. I want here to enlarge my commentary on some of these same concerns, and embed his ideas more carefully within an educational context. It would perhaps be best to recall quickly the educational task that MacIntyre sets himself. At the beginning of this dissertation I quoted from one of MacIntyre’s early papers: The failure of both our society and our education lies in its inability to discover ends, to discover purposes which can furnish a sufficient reason for our activities and so render those activities reasonable and satisfying.15

The result was an educational ethic of “getting on,” of passing from lower to higher educational levels without any satisfactory answer as to what one was “getting on” to. When faced with the question of what they were studying for, students discovered that “the chain of reasons had no end.”16 And while individuals could, of course, still discover their own purposes, “such ends as men discover are relegated by our public life to private obscurity.”17 If, as MacIntyre argued, the aim of education should be to help people “discover activities whose ends are not outside themselves,”18 what happens to our thinking about education when we banish from public discourse all talk of ultimate ends? How are we to shape the individual to fit a society where “no activity is offered as its own justification?”19 He sees the contemporary scene of moral debate as interminable and unsettlable, because of the variety of incommensurable concepts which inform the premises of the major protagonists of the debate. The post-Enlightenment culture has spawned the “emotivist self,” an individual who denies that there can be any rational basis for the settling of moral ends. In the emotivist culture, all faiths and evaluations are equally non-rational, based as they are on subjective directions given to sentiment and feelings. How are we to “educate and civilize human nature in a culture in which human life [is] in danger of being torn apart by the conflict of too many ideals, too many ways of life” (AV, p. 154)? MacIntyre argues against the tide of modernity which sees it as the proper function of the state that politics exclude moral concerns which quite properly apply to us as individuals. On MacIntyre’s view, this bifurcation of morality into the public and private domains results in what he calls the cultural climate of “bureaucratic individualism” (AV, p. 33)—a culture typified by the character types of the aesthete, the manager, and the therapist. The aesthete is concerned only with securing personal pleasure, while the manager and the therapist are concerned only with technique. The manager seeks efficiency, in the sense of utilizing resources as effectively as possible to ends which are taken as given, while the therapist analogously seeks 15 Alasdair MacIntyre, “Against Utilitarianism,” in Aims in Education, ed. T.H.B Hollins. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1964), pp. 1-2. 16 Ibid., p. 1. 17 Ibid., p. 10. 18 Ibid., p. 19. 19 Ibid., p. 14.


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psychological effectiveness: “with transforming neurotic symptoms into directed energy, maladjusted individuals into well-adjusted ones” (AV, p. 29). Both character types obliterate “the distinction between manipulative and nonmanipulative social relations” (AV, p. 29). For MacIntyre, in order to rescue both ourselves and our culture, we need to restore a teleological framework for ethics, thus re-introducing into the public debate talk of ends. Specifically, what is required is “the kind of understanding of social life which the traditions of the virtues requires, a kind of understanding very different from those dominant in the culture of bureaucratic individualism” (AV, p. 209). The question before us now is how to accomplish this in an educational setting; how, that is, can we “furnish a sufficient reason for our activities and so render those activities reasonable and satisfying.” At this juncture, we need to say a little more about MacIntyre’s neoAristotelianism, for, as we saw in Chapter Seven above, it is by appeal to a certain account of Aristotle’s teleology that MacIntyre hopes to re-introduce talk of virtue. First, he advises that he is not interested in that narrower tradition of Aristotelianism “which consists simply in commentary upon and exegesis from Aristotle’s texts” (AV, p. 154). Rather, he acknowledges that he is “in a relationship of dialogue with Aristotle, rather than in any relationship of simple assent” (AV, p. 154). Recall, too, that in Chapter Seven I noted that in arguing for a reconstructed Aristotle, MacIntyre must avoid the identification of teleology with nature; that is, he must avoid the metaphysical biology on which Aristotle rests his teleology, for such a framework is now entirely discredited. Secondly, he must also find a way of evoking the idea of community being central to morality without falling into the romantic trap of thinking that the modern societies can be compared to the Greek city-state. MacIntyre responds to these problems by resting his case on three central concepts: that of a practice, that of a tradition, and that of the narrative unity of a life. Taken together, these three concepts are intended to provide a social basis for a rational morality in which virtue is afforded a central place. I have already outlined each of these concepts in Chapter Seven above; let me here take these one at a time in order to examine more carefully their educative implications. First, MacIntyre’s concept of a practice hinges on the idea of a sufficiently complex form of activity with standards of excellence internal to it. A practice might be best contrasted with something like a skill, which is mechanical, repetitive, and mastered by the simple expedient of practice. In this sense, keyboarding skills do not qualify as a practice, while writing a dissertation (one hopes) does. Additionally, a practice involves goods which cannot be achieved in any other way but by engaging in the practice itself. Again, not all activities count as a practice (though the list of practices may be very long); rather, only those activities which contain within them internal goods—goods which cannot be achieved in any other way but by engaging in the practice itself—are to count thus. Here we arrive at a tentative answer to what educational activities are most worthwhile. In MacIntyre’s view, only those activities which are practices, in the sense that they are sufficiently complex and possess internal goods are educationally

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justified. For on MacIntyre’s account, only a practice, by definition, is capable of helping people “discover activities whose ends are not outside themselves.” A further consideration is that obviously not all practices will fit all students. This is as it should be, for as MacIntyre acknowledges, “the range of practices is wide; arts, sciences, games, politics in the Aristotelian sense ... all fall under the concept” (AV, p. 175). It might be briefly noted that on this account, those disciplines and fields of enquiry which typify the traditional liberal arts curriculum quite obviously qualify as practices, all of which provide the student with “goods internal to the practice” and which, potentially, can motivate the student for intrinsic reasons. Yet, what about instances where students fail to be intrinsically motivated? MacIntyre uses the example of a seven-year old girl who is bribed with candy into learning the game of chess. Thus motivated the child plays and plays to win. Notice, however that, so long as it is the candy alone which provides the child with a good reason for playing chess, the child has no reason not to cheat and every reason to cheat, provided she can do so successfully. But, so we may hope, there will come a time when the child will find in those goods specific to chess, in the achievement of a certain highly particular kind of analytical skill, strategic imagination and competitive intensity, a new set of reasons, reasons not just for winning on a particular occasion, but for trying to excel in whatever way the game of chess demands. Now if the child cheats, he or she will be defeating not me, but himself or herself. (AV, p. 176)

Notice here it is the mastery of the internal goods of an activity which MacIntyre links to a moral stance. Here it would be helpful to recall MacIntyre’s first, tentative definition of virtue: A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods. (AV, p. 178)

This definition links the possession and exercise of a virtue to participation in practices, a participation which in turn requires of any participant acceptance of the standards and authority imminent in the practice: A practice involves standards of excellence and obedience to rules as well as the achievement of goods. To enter into a practice is to accept the authority of those standards and the inadequacy of my own performance as judged by them. It is to subject my own attitudes, choices, preferences and tastes to the standards which currently and partially define the practice. (AV, p. 177)

Further on, he elaborates: [in any practice] ... its goods can only be achieved by subordinating ourselves to the best standards so far achieved, and that entails subordinating ourselves within the practice in our relationship to other practitioners. We have to learn to recognise what is due to whom; we have to be prepared to take whatever self-endangering risks are demanded along the


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education way; and we have to listen carefully to what we are told about our own inadequacies and to reply with the same carefulness for the facts. In other words we have to accept as necessary components of any practice with internal goods and standards of excellence the virtues of justice, courage and honesty. (emphasis added, AV, p. 178)

MacIntyre’s linkage of performance in a practice with what we normally see as moral considerations has a twofold effect. First, his framework of agreed upon canons and relevance of practice renders judgements within practices objective and rational. In any practice, I am not at liberty to simply assert my tastes, inclinations, and preferences on the received accumulation of human judgement which composes the practice. It is rather the reverse. I must submit to the shared canons of relevance within a practice if I am to partake of its internal goods. The framework of a practice itself is, of course, subject to change, but any such change cannot be entirely arbitrary, for even the most radical reformer must, of necessity, be steeped in the traditions of that practice which he sets out to alter. As MacIntyre observes: To enter into a practice is to enter into a relationship not only with its contemporary practitioners, but also with those who have preceded us in the practice, particularly those whose achievements extended the reach of the practice to its present point. It is thus the achievement, and a fortiori the authority, of a tradition which I then confront and from which I have to learn. And for this learning and the relationship to the past which it embodies the virtues of justice, courage and truthfulness are prerequisite in precisely the same way and for precisely the same reasons as they are in sustaining present relationships within practices. (AV, p. 181)

To place this all within Peters’ concept of education, we might say that use education is essentially about the initiation of others into what MacIntyre calls practices. For again, by definition, a practice is that which is capable of supplying to the individual ends which are not outside itself, and which demand from the participant the exercise of virtue. Practices must not be confused with institutions, for while it is true that practices require institutional support: Institutions are characteristically and necessarily concerned with ... external goods. They are involved in acquiring money and other material goods; they are structured in terms of power and status, and they distribute money, power and status as rewards ... In this context the essential function of the virtues is clear. Without them, without justice, courage and truthfulness, practices could not resist the corrupting power of institutions. (AV, p. 181)

Of course, the virtues are encouraged by some sorts of social institutions and suppressed by others. Clearly, it should be part of the mandate of schools to encourage, rather than suppress, the virtues. But on MacIntyre’s analysis, such a scenario would appear unlikely, for in the liberal state, Government and the law are, or ought to be, neutral between rival conceptions of the good life for man, and hence, although it is the task of government to promote law-abidingness,

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it is on the liberal view no part of the legitimate function of government to inculcate any one moral outlook. (AV, p. 182)

For MacIntyre, it is only by turning away from the liberal individualist point of view and adopting a broader notion of political community, that government can be fit to act as the moral educator of the community. As he suggests, “the power of the liberal individualist partly derives from the evident fact that the modern state is, indeed, unfitted to act as moral educator of any community” (AV, p. 182). It is important to be clear that MacIntyre is using the notion of a practice to partially explain and define virtue and not vice-versa. That is, he is not restricting the exercise of the virtues to the context of practices; rather, he is using the concept of a practice to locate the point and function of a virtue. But, thus far, he has only provided a partial and first definition. What is further required for his neo-Aristotelianism is some answer to the question which Aristotle’s teleological biology presupposed— namely, is it coherent to conceive of each human life as a unity, so that we may try to specify each such life as having its good and so that we may understand the virtues as having their function in enabling an individual to make of his or her life one kind of unity rather than another? (AV, p. 189)

As we saw in Chapter Seven, MacIntyre’s response is that to speak meaningfully about the unity of a life, we need to conceptualize a self “whose unity resides in the unity of a narrative which links birth to life to death as narrative beginning to middle to end” (AV, p. 191). That is, we need to think of the self in the narrative mode: “narrative history of a certain kind turns out to be the basic and essential genre for the characterisation of human actions” (AV, p. 194). When we seek to account for human actions, or to generally characterize human behavior, we cannot do so without reference to the intentions of the agent. For MacIntyre, there can be no such thing as human “behaviour,” if by that phrase is meant human action which can be identified prior to and independently of human intentions. And these intentions are themselves embedded in certain narratives. Consider [the] trivial example of a set of compatibly correct answers to the question “What is he doing?” “Writing a sentence”; “Finishing his book”; “Contributing to the debate on the theory of action”; “trying to get tenure”. Here the intentions can be ordered in terms of the stretch of time to which reference is made. Each of the shorter-term intentions is, and can only be made, intelligible by reference to some longer-term intentions; and the characterisation of the behaviour in terms of the longer-term intentions can only be correct if some of the characterisations in terms of shorter-term intentions are also correct. Hence the behaviour is only characterised adequately when we know what the longer and the longest-term intentions invoked are and how the shorter-term intentions are related to the longer. Once again we are involved in writing a narrative history. (AV, p. 193)

Conversation is perhaps the most common and familiar type of context by reference to which speech-acts and human action are rendered intelligible, “for conversation,


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understood widely enough, is the form of human transactions in general” (AV, p. 197). To enter into a conversation is to enter into the essential human interaction. Here we are struck with an obvious and famous metaphor: namely, the idea that a liberal education consists essentially of initiating others into an on-going conversation. This idea has been expressed by many thinkers in many ways, but perhaps never so eloquently as by Michael Oakeshott. For Oakeshott, a culture was not merely a concatenation of beliefs, ideas, and sentiments. It was rather recognizable as consisting of a number of distinct languages of understanding, and a liberal education was best conceived as an invitation to a younger generation to become conversant with these languages. Here is what Oakeshott says: Perhaps we may think of these components of a culture as voices, each the expression of a distinct and conditional understanding of the world and a distinct idiom of human selfunderstanding, and of the culture itself as these voices joined, as such voices could only be joined, in a conversation—an endless unrehearsed intellectual adventure in which, in imagination, we enter into a variety of modes of understanding the world and ourselves and are not disconcerted by the differences or dismayed by the inconclusiveness of it all. And perhaps we may recognize liberal learning as, above all else, an education in imagination, an initiation into the art of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices; to distinguish their different modes of utterance, to acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to this conversational relationship and thus to make our début dans la vie humaine.20

While this passage contains certain obvious resonance with MacIntyre, the idea of a conversation is even more fundamental to MacIntyre. It is not simply that a conversation provides a useful metaphor for thinking about education (although I doubt there is anything in the above passage with which MacIntyre would take exception), but that at some deep, foundational level, conversation is “an allpervasive feature of the human world” (AV, p. 196). We allocate conversations to genres, just as we do literary narratives. Indeed, a conversation is a dramatic work, even if a very short one ... it is not just that conversations belong to genres in just the way that plays and novels do; but they have beginnings, middles and 20 Michael Oakeshott, “A Place of Learning,” in Timothy Fuller (ed.) The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education (London: Yale University Press, 1989), pp. 38-39. As Timothy Fuller further comments: “for Oakeshott the aim is to enter a relationship of ‘conversation’ informed by familiarity with the traditional literary, philosophical, artistic and scientific expressions of European civilization. There is no plausible distinction for him between ‘essence’ and ‘accident’, and thus no true learning that separates the ‘how’ from the ‘what’ of knowing. To try, therefore, to correct the last several generations of training in abstract skills, by creating a great debate over lists of books to be inserted in the curricula, is to perpetuate an uncivilizing dichotomy (already evident in faculty debates), a bifurcating conflict unmediated by intimacy with a comprehensive tradition within which one can live and move.’’ Timothy Fuller, “Introduction,” The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education, p. 4.

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endings just as do literary works. They embody reversals and recognition; they move towards and away from climaxes. There may within a longer conversation be digressions and subplots, indeed digressions within digressions and subplots within subplots. (AV, p. 196)

A conversation, then, is an enacted narrative, and here we encounter a further central theme of MacIntyre’s, the idea that “man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to the truth”21 (AV, p. 201). Like characters in a fictional narrative, we do not know what will happen next. But our stories do have a certain form, one which provides constraints on how our story is to continue. Ultimately, the future is unpredictable; but if the narrative of our lives is to continue intelligibly, and avoid breaking down into incoherence (which is an ever-present and real danger), then we need to project some form of telos, some image of a future which provides us with goals and ends, and towards which we are either moving towards or falling away from. And it is the narrative unity of our lives which provides them with a certain teleological character. For MacIntyre, the key question must always be, “How best can I live out the narrative unity of my life?” I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question, “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?” We enter human society, that is, with one or more imputed characters—roles into which we have been drafted—and we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how others respond to us and how our responses to them are apt to be construed. (AV, p. 201)22 21 The idea that literature and philosophy must necessarily be opposed to each other is at least as old as the Greeks. Plato spoke of the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry and notoriously banished poets from his republic. Yet which philosopher writes with as much literary grace and sheer narrative inventiveness as Plato himself? And would we really be willing to deny that, say, the novels of a Jane Austen or Henry James, provide profound and lasting philosophical insights into the human condition? For an interesting discussion of the problems of literature and philosophy see Jonathan Ree, Philosophical Tales (London: Methuen, 1987). 22 The role of story is, thus, crucial in the lives of young children: It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive not inheritance but must make their way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living and go into exile to live with the swine, that children learn or mislearn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words. Hence there is no way to give us an understanding of any society, including our own, except through the stock of stories which constitute its initial dramatic resources. Mythology, in its original sense, is at the heart of things. Vico was right and so too was Joyce. And so too of course is that moral tradition from heroic society to medieval heir according to which the telling of stories has a key part in educating us into the virtues. (AV, p. 201)


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The narrative concept of selfhood is antithetical to the understanding of the self posited by liberal individualism, a self which, as we have seen, is detachable from its social roles and statuses. On the liberal account of the self, I am always at some distance from the contingent features of my social role--a distance which allows me to stand back in a detached manner, question, and, if I wish to, simply choose another identity. MacIntyre’s concept of the narrative unity of a life denies that the self is detachable from its historically conditioned roles and statuses, for the reality is that the story of my life is, in large part, also the story of those communities which nourish me, and from which I derive my identity. We can, of course, rebel, and dissent against the particularities or limitations of our community; but we are all born with a past, and to try to “cut myself off from that past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships. The possession of an historical identity and a social identity coincide” (AV, p. 205). We operate from the vantage point of particularity—from a particular social setting, with a particular past, and within a particular time. To ask what is good for me is to ask how best I might live out the unity of a narrative embodied in a single life. If MacIntyre’s analysis is correct, then we can none of us ever seek the good or exercise the virtues in solitude. It is rather only in community with its traditions of practice, and in companionship with others, that the self can locate its identity, and seek to live out its unity and bring it to completion.

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Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

Wolgast, E. (1987) The Grammar of Justice. London: Cornell University Press. Xenophon (1990) “Memoirs of Socrates.’’ Conversations of Socrates. Trans. Hugh Tredennick and Robin Waterfield. Harmondsworth: Penguin.


Ackermann, Bruce, 56n Aristotle, 21, 23, 30, 38, 70, 104-105, teleological framework, 65, 83, 102, 105,146 autonomy, 12, 14, 34n, 63, 65, 70, 75, 129, 133-6 in Kant, 38, 48-56 Barrow, Robin, 2n, 77, 80n, 119n, 137n, 142 Bellah, Robert, 15n Bentham, Jeremy, 22 Berlin, I., 22, 33 Berry, C.J., 23n Bloom, A., 21 on justice, 84, 87 on Rawls, 61 Campbell, Tom, 59n Categorical imperative, 50-7 citizenship, 11, 79, 80 contract theory, 61, 63, 66, 68-9, 83, 86n, 88-90, 93, 95 Democracy, viii, 15, 60-61, 83 desert, 111-112 Dworkin, Ronald, 6n, 39-40, 42, 58-59 emotivism, 26, 99-100, 107 enlightenment, 32n, 71, 73, 75, 102, 112, 145 Graham, Keith, 29n, 30n Grant, George, 22, 70, 73, 77n, 81 Hampshire, S., 19, 77n happiness, 2, 3, 34-7, 47, 52, 56, 64, 66n, 87, 102

Hart, H.L.A., 40, 42, 77n Hobbes, T., 24, 62-4, 68n, 70, 86n Hume, D., 24n, 83, 102 Ignatieff, Michael, 3-4 Individualism, 7, 8, 14n, 15, 17, 61, 66, 91, 97, 110, 112, 137, 143, 145 vs. equality, 15 justice as fairness, 16, 17, 60, 83, 84, 87, 90, 92, 123 Kant, Immanuel, vii, 2, 16, 23, 25, 3641, 45-6, 48-50, 52-3, 55, 57-9, 65, 70-71, 80-81, 83, 84, 91, 102, 112, 133 Lapham, Lewis, 12 Lewis, Stephen, 4 liberal education, vii-viii, 4-5, 7, 10, 11, 16, 137-8, 144, 150 Locke, John, 24, 63, 66, 68n, 70, 87 MacIntyre, A., 1-2, 17, 19, 71, 97-113, 130, 143, 145-51 Mill, J.S., 21, 25 concept of justice, 35, 36-8 father of the liberal state, 41 negative freedom, 34 Naipaul, V.S., 14n Nozick, R., 5, 39, 40, 58n, 123 Oakeshott, Michael, 23, 116n, 150 original position, 53, 74, 83-95, 102, 111-12 parliamentary supremacy, 42n


Liberalism, Communitarianism and Education

Peters, R.S., 13, 17, 64, 137-44, 148 Plato, 129, 151n Political theory, 1, 9, 18, 26, 33, 62, 123, 133-5 Rawls, John, vii, 6, 16-17, 39-41, 52-3, 56, 58-61, 67, 74, 75-96, 97, 102, 111-12, 115, 122-4, 133-5 Rieff, Phillip, 14 Rorty, R., 3n Rousseau, J.J., 23, 63-4, 68n, 70, 86n Ryle, Gilbert, 28n, 139

Sandel, Michael, 6n, 33n, 45n, 49, 5053, 60, 85, 89 Searle, John, 24n Tussman, Joseph, 12 Taylor, Charles, 10, 17, 97, 115-36, 137 utilitarianism, 1-3, 35-6, 38, 40-41, 45, 76, 79, 80, 83, 91, 133 Williams, Bernard, 57, 58, 72-3, 77n