Miscellany: liberalism, knowledge, ethics

LIBERALISM, according to me, to the best of my ability this afternoon (forgive me but I could not resist):

“Liberalism is a philosophical tradition with origins in the work of British Enlightenment philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith together with other European philosophers like Immanuel Kant, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau that was extremely influential on the thought of America’s Founders as well as that of the French Revolutionaries. Later thinkers like John Stewart Mill. Despite the individual differences in these philosophers, they have each contributed their stones to the temple of liberalism. Among the basic tenets of liberalism are (1) the recognition of individual sovereignty, (2) a strong emphasis on commerce and specifically, free-market exchange and the guarantee of private property rights, (3) anti-traditionalism, and (4) secular universalism.

I will offer a couple sentences by way of explanation for each of these points. By (1) I mean that the atomic individual is recognized as the basic unit of community and society. The liberal conception of “liberty” consists in absence of external constraint or coercion over an individual person’s actions. Liberalism assumes a nominalist position in respect to communities and, with the exception of David Hume above, a realist position in respect to individuals. (2) Adam Smith’s notorious enunciation from The Wealth of Nations that:

“a rising tide raiseth all ships”

expresses the faith in the “invisible hand” of the free market. It also represents perhaps the most essential element of liberalism: namely that if only the dogma and oppression of tradition could be cast off, then many of lives ills would spontaneously resolve without any further concern or action. (3) Liberalism is largely a philosophical revolution of the burgher or merchant caste against the aristocracy, and it is a reaction against secular Enlightenment thought against traditional religious forms. (4) A basic postulate of liberalism is that any intelligent person will embrace its precepts provided that he is liberated of inherited tradition and dogma. By the same token, any instance of someone not embracing these precepts is interpreted as repression and ignorance imposed by these things.”

—“Liberalism” has tended towards historical amnesia together with a Pollyannaish outlook for the future.

—“Conservatism” is the reverse of this, hearkening back to a chimerical Golden Age and viewing any change with suspicion.

—A fanatic is someone who fails to see how each of these sides alone is one-sided.


I agree with everything you said but I would like to explore the issue a bit further by posing this question: is it possible truly to learn something new and yet live in a way that remains consistent with one’s earlier beliefs. For example, some might be afraid of flying but then, through research, learn that travel by airplane is statistically safer than travelling by car or even by dogsled. Suppose, however, that the same person still became pale and started to sweat and tremble every time they boarded a plane. Would we say that this person had really learned that planes are safe or would we say they had only nominally learned this? By analogy, has a person truly learned anything in a study of ethics if the knowledge has no bearing on that person’s conduct? On the other side, it is evidently feasible for a person to learn how to square a binomial, or to learn that the capital of Saudi Arabia is Riyadh, without this knowledge exerting the slightest effect on his behavior. The question is: is ethics more akin to the fear of airplane analogy or the capital city one?


Plato and Aristotle were convinced that the sole reason for sin was lack of wisdom or insight or knowledge. This is a characteristically Ancient Greek atttitude, which emphasizes wisdom.

Interestingly, at the same time in the Near East, the Hebrew prophets were composing the Torah which lay sole emphasis not on wisdom so much as on will. The laws of God the creator had been revealed for all to see and thus any deviation could be ascribed to a lack of will.

Some 800 years after the Greek philosophers and the Jewish prophets, writing in Rome just before the notorious “Sack of Rome” by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410, St. Augustine is adamant that failure of knowledge is not the only cause of sin, but rather sin can also follow from a failure of the will: “We sin from two causes: either from not seeing what we ought to do, or else from not doing what we have already seen we ought to do. Of these two, the first is ignorance of the evil; the second, weakness.” Thus we see in Augustine the characteristic synthesis of the Greek and Hebrew traditions that defined Christianity, which established itself as the primary philosophical and religious influence in that region and also far beyond it for over a thousand years to come. 


I want to pick up on what you said and emphasise that there are fundamentally two different ways of answering a question like this, which correspond to the two uses of intelligence that I mentioned in the last lecture.

One way we could answer is to say something like “the reason I am a beader is because I make necklaces and other jewelry. The reason I do this is because it is a family business. The reason it is a family business is because my great-grandmother etc….” Evidently, this establishes a causal series through time in which one thing is the result of the thing prior to it in the series.

Another way to answer the question, which corresponds to “philosophical” or “moral” intelligence is to inquire into the question in the way that you did. In that case, it is not so much a question of establishing what is prior in time, as a proximate cause, but what is prior in value, as an ultimate cause.

Perhaps this example will help to clarify the distinction. When Jean Valjean notoriously stole the silver from the kind-hearted bishop in Hugo’s famous masterpiece Les Misérables, one answer to the question of “why?” is to say he stole it because he was poor, and he was hungry because he didn’t have income, and he didn’t have income because he was on parole and so on. The other way to answer is to say that he stole the silver because he valued wealth above a moral code that would dictate that one not betray one’s benefactors—“don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” it is sometimes said. Here we have answered in a way that is ultimate in the sense that we are not going back to events that preceded this one in time, but rather to facts or events which undergird or motivate the action in the present. I think it is important to point out that by “ultimate,” in this sense, I don’t mean that it can never change. In fact, Valjean’s moral transformation shortly after the event that I described is the engine that drives the entire entire novel (the way a heart enlivens the body with blood) and accounts for Les Misérables’ enduring popularity. (As a rule, it is boring to hear a mere chronicle of events but very compelling to gain insight into the values of which those events are expressions and works of literature that are recognized as “masterpieces” always evince this distinction). 


I think you introduced, or perhaps emphasized, a very perceptive point: namely that ethical knowledge per se, already in providing us with an understanding of our own and others’ reasons for acting, makes us more compassionate, since compassion just is this kind of interior understanding of beings. I appreciate this point because it allows for a more comprehensive concept of character than merely the aggregate of a person’s actions. Instead, character also includes…well, traits of character.


Thank you for your laconic responses. I’m not sure I will manage to be so concise as you but I have a couple questions:

(1) I wonder about ethics not being immoral. “Ethics is not immoral,” you suggested. I can understand an ethical person not being immoral, but it is hard for me to see ethics as such being immoral or not. Perhaps an analogy for my difficulty is this: I can conceive of a circle being round but I cannot conceive of circularity being round. The analogy is not perfect but I think it is sufficient to suggest the problem that I believe is at stake. Another analogy, which is also imperfect but I hope it is complementarily so, is to think of something like “economy”: one or another economy might be good or bad or moral or immoral, but economy as such seems like a basic amoral fact. Maybe this is what you meant: “ethics is not immoral, but not because it is moral, but rather because neither one of these predications makes any sense.”

(2) I am curious is you are using “ethics” here (i) in an amoral sense as a mere designation to indicate that a person’s actions are lawful according to one or another principle, irrespective of whether the principle itself is “ethical” or “moral,” or (ii) if you are tacitly implying that a person who allows principles to govern his behaviour will spontaneously chose good ones.

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