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Reviving the Left is a passionately written work in popular philosophy which seeks to understand the causes of the reign of conservative ideology in America. It has a polemical tone, but is well argued and takes an honest look at liberalism itself to discover where liberalism has gone wrong. Although there is cause for hope, Furrow argues, with the election of President Obama, liberalism itself needs to undergo substantial change if it is to compete with conservative ideology. He argues that liberalism requires a more robust moral foundation, and a revitalization of its moral credentials.
Furrow turns conservative values against conservative practice in a well-argued dialectic, demonstrating the hypocrisy of a “pro-life” conservatism that opposes abortion rights or stem-cell research, while showing little concern for the human lives of ‘enemy’ civilians in war. He demonstrates conservatism’s fateful conflation of ‘ordinary evil’ and ‘radical evil’, and its pernicious effects. But, more importantly, he seeks to understand the reasons for the public’s attraction to conservatism and the challenges these present for liberals.
Conservatism, he writes, is premised upon a narrative of decline, the source of which is identified as individual moral weakness. Human beings are governed by Hobbesian self-interest and rapacious desires. The antidote, therefore, is reforming the soul to avoid succumbing to desires. Hence, conservatism offers a model of strong character and will, stalwart men who can resist temptation and provide leadership and authority. Traditions tell us what is good, and the virtues of self-reliance and self-restraint help us to achieve the good. The appeal of conservatism, Furrow argues, lies in this appeal to moral values that have resonance on a personal level and relate more concretely to the individual’s everyday experiences and identity than the more abstract, detached liberal values of equality and liberty.
Liberalism, on the other hand, is usually premised upon a concept of neutrality between conceptions of the good. That is, it is not the job of government to promote a certain conception of the good, it is rather to ensure justice and fairness between individuals with competing conceptions of their good. Justice therefore rests on impartiality with respect to what individuals hold to be their good. The problem is that such a thin moral vocabulary does not clearly relate to the public’s personal morality. Liberalism, Furrow argues, lacks a richly textured idea of a liberal person and a comprehensive conception of the good life; it lacks a comprehensive moral identity. While conservatism has a direct appeal to individuals, promising them control over their life and circumstances, and delivery from evil, liberalism seems not to answer this need. People tend to approach questions of morality through their own personal morality and allegiances, Furrow notes, and therefore liberalism’s failure to demonstrate its relevance to individuals’ personal lives as well as beyond the local context is a key cause of its problems. Social justice and equality do not have as much ‘moral tug” as more palpable concerns about earning a living, raising children, etc. It is liberalism’s insistence on neutrality, and that impartial, unbiased reason provides the basis for justice that is the source of modern liberalism’s difficulties.
Consequently, Furrow argues, echoing the famous ‘communitarian’ critiques of liberalism by the likes of Charles Taylor and Michael Sandel, liberalism must evolve to become re-connected to the individual’s everyday morality. He argues for the need for a vision of what counts as a flourishing human life, and a clear conception of a less abstract conception of the good, which connects the individual to the community. Social justice cannot remain an abstract, impersonal value; it must be connected to deeply held personal moral convictions.
Furrow’s argument against liberal neutrality is powerful and well-formulated. He argues that neutrality is impossible -- decisions about policy inevitably enhance the prospects of some traditions and discourage those of others. And of course, traditions which run counter to the values of toleration and equality will be discouraged. The adherents of whichever tradition loses out may have to be coerced into accepting they find objectionable.
Given the fact of pluralism, Furrow argues, echoing John Rawls’s and the concept of public reason, appeal to tradition will not confer any legitimacy on decisions. Good reasons require transcending tradition. Furrow writes, “If there is no higher standard, then we have no rational basis for deciding which of the many competing traditions should be the basis of public policy. What is right will simply depend on who has the power to push his or her agenda” (63).
But, given neutrality is impossible, what can this ‘higher standard’ be? Furrow wants to steer a path that avoids relativism and Nietzschean will to power, and argues for an Aristotelian, objective concept of happiness. Such a concept will retain the importance of pluralism, but do away with relativistic neutrality -- a plurality of traditions remains, but traditions that are incompatible with the non-subjective idea of happiness are ruled out.
This part of his argument is fairly sketchy, and points in the direction such a concept rather than specifying how it could fulfill the role Furrow ascribes to it. However, this is quite justifiable -- this is, after all, a work in popular philosophy, and not a scholarly treatise on justifying liberalism -- and although a detailed elaboration of this concept of happiness derived from Aristotle is not his purpose, there is enough flesh on the bones to understand how it might provide the recovered moral foundations of liberalism.
Reviving the Left provides a well-argued critique of conservatism and call for a re-invigoration of liberalism’s moral foundations based in an Aristotelian concept of happiness.
© 2009 David Majorbanks
David Marjoribanks writes about himself: I am currently studying for a PhD in the department of Philosophy at the University of Kent, working in moral and political philosophy, on the subject of morality and social justice in Marxist and liberal egalitarian theory. Narrowly, I am investigating what ideas can be found about morality and justice in Marxism, and their adequacy compared with liberal theories. More widely, I am interested in what an adequate approach to a critical morality would look like, and I am interested in anti-foundationalism. Previous to studying at Kent, I completed a Masters in Political Philosophy (The Idea of Toleration), and a BA in Politics, both at the University of York.