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Professor John Kekes: Against Liberalism

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Published on: December 15, 2014

If someone were to demand from me the gravestone of modern liberalism, which I have so often declared dead, I would refer him to a book written by Professor John Kekes entitled Against Liberalism
(available on

The professor’s work is an analysis of the incoherence of liberalism. 

Although it is impossible for the critics of liberalism to demonstrate to liberals themselves that their language is logically incoherent, perhaps it is possible to convince the truly rational liberal that his language is practically incoherent; that his goals, which he intends to realize by using language the way he in fact uses it, work against one another.  Professor Kekes is the master of this pragmatic critique which proposes an implicitly pragmatic understanding of rationality.

The meaning of language is its use.  Liberals are free to use language any way they want.  Since the use of the language is exactly what establishes the rules for using it correctly, it is impossible to establish the logical incoherence of a tradition from the outside.  (The critics of Christianity cannot establish the incoherence of the trinity, or the integration of the divine and human, because the Christian use of language in these regards is all about achieving practical, spiritual goals and follows the rules for doing so consistently.)  But what we can establish from the outside, or even from the inside of a tradition and its hopefully honest community, is that the goals which the language is devised to realize may not be operationally compatible with one another.  This is a hard, empirical observation unless there is no shared language whatsoever with which to characterize the results.  Otherwise, it becomes a statistical fact that liberalism has led to chaos, not universal reason, peace and security.  And there are some recovering liberals because of this.  They can see that never before in America has the social fabric been so rent as the goodness and decency of the people has been undermined.  The people know very well that the liberal programs for making people free and equal, and therefore rational, integrated and law-abiding, have been failing consistently ever since the Johnson administration in the sixties of the last century. 

A tradition like liberalism is a search for a specific use of language — an ongoing linguistic experiment — which tends to cause the effects that the tradition is looking for.  The language is being used correctly, from the standpoint of the tradition, if and when it causes the intended effects.  But then a coherent, that is lawful, use of all of this language might still cause effects which cannot obtain together.  This is just another way of saying that rationality is rooted in this standard of practical coherence.  The principle of non-contradiction, of coherence, is finally pragmatic.  To say that the liberal’s use of language is coherent is just to say that this use follows liberal rules for using terms like “justice,” “freedom,” “reason,” “equality,” “compassion” and so on.  Conservative pundits are wasting their time by suggesting that liberal language is in some clear sense logically incoherent.  Although he is the epitome of an analyst, I do not think this is a mistake Professor Kekes makes.  He seems to be focused, quite rightly, on the fact that the liberal’s whole paradigm of language, which is certainly following the liberal’s rules for using that language, aims at the realization of goals which in a much more objective, tradition-transcendent sense, cannot be sustained alongside of one another. 

In my neopopulist philosophy, moral practicality is the standard of both rationality and finally truth.  The neopopulist is a pragmatist — a practical thinker about how to create a sustainable civilization.  This kind of rationality leads straight to Christianity of a very non-liberal form.  If you agree that our everyday experience, especially of the moral sort, is not an illusion as modern reductionist science suggests, but the very Reality from which we cannot escape, then this practical test for truth is also a realist view of the truth, not a form of relativism.  The idea that every tradition works is inauthentic from my Christian neopopulist position on the historical landscape.  I think that Professor Kekes analysis is a pragmatic critique.  And although it does not seem to lead him to the conclusion that the Christian tradition is more practical (perhaps because of its liberal misinterpretations) — that it is coherent with respect to its goals — I think it should lead him there.

Now it might be the very nature of the liberal to be impractical — to pretend, for emotional satisfaction, that he can liberate people from all tradition, and the Christian tradition in particular (sometimes by simply pretending that Christianity is liberalism) while reducing the prevalence of evil.  In this case there is no such thing as a “truly rational” liberal.  There are only ex-liberals who have somehow become rational.  What Professor Kekes finally notices about unrepentant liberals is that they are possessed by sentimentality which is the sorry habit of attempting to make a recalcitrant world conform to their romantic view of how it ought to work, rather than appropriating their feelings to the revelations of experience.  This is an ironic demonstration of a lack of “rational autonomy” (which we will get to in a moment) on the liberal’s part.  Realists, who also reject conservative pessimism (as I do), must root their hope in a truly effective moral perspective.  For me, that perspective is Christian.  Professor Kekes may not agree now, but I believe a true age of faith could convince him.  And according to Christianity that age will come.

It was Immanuel Kant who first introduced us to the cornerstone of modern liberalism — the concept of the “rationally autonomous” individual.  Autonomy is freedom from all of the influences which might otherwise keep us from applying universal standards of rationality, a couple of which Kant believed he had discovered.  (They did not survive philosophical analysis.)  Rational autonomy not only requires the transcendence of tradition and community (for example, Christianity and the church), but adverse experience, like poverty and racism, which leads to irrational personal formation.  Autonomy, the liberal tradition went on to say after Kant, must be rooted in positive freedom — power and capacity, especially of an economic nature.  And so the redistribution of wealth becomes a cornerstone of widespread “autonomous” rationality, which benefits us all, from the liberal point of view.  Once mass autonomy is achieved, and therefore rationality rooted in universal standards, the prevalence of evil will supposedly begin to decline.  In other words until we make criminals and sluggards free in this positive sense, and therefore autonomous, we cannot expect them to behave the way they ought to.  “Ought,” the liberal says, “can.”  

And so the liberal tradition will not make people who are technically criminals responsible for their actions unless and until these choices are autonomous.  And it will not allow these actions to reflect on the individual — to change the calculation of his personal worth.  It makes morally equivalent a serial murderer who cannot help himself and a privileged saint who cannot stop doing good because of his own conditioning.  

This, of course, is the end of civilization.

Professor Kekes notices that there are extreme cases where most people would agree that some poor soul, who has been consistently abused, or is mentally disabled, may, by degree, be less responsible for his actions.  But this grace need not commit itself to the doctrine that we are only obliged to do what’s right if we can.  In other words, regardless of extenuating circumstances, we must hold everyone accountable and insist that their behavior reflects upon them, or we are ensuring the prevalence of evil.  Christianity, for the purpose of constructing and sustaining civilization, deals practically with our enslavement to sin.  It holds us all accountable while applying grace.  Unlike liberalism, it keeps the top of Pandora’s Box nailed down tightly.  We cannot simultaneously make evil less prevalent, deny the accountability of people who are not perfectly autonomous, and make people more and more autonomous of the very traditions which make them part of a community hold them accountable to its standards.

Above all else, there is little evidence for the liberal faith that evil behavior will decrease as a function of increases in autonomy.  We seem to be experiencing just the opposite.  The more we empower people to become autonomously good, the more we empower them to become autonomously evil.  There is nothing about liberal autonomy which is inherently good and famous liberals has proven this time and again.  Without tradition, there is no distinction between good and evil.  People behave well where they are NOT free of traditional communities like the church.

Although Professor Kekes may not agree that the Christian combination of grace and universal accountability (even without capacity — see the Apostle Paul) is essentially anti-liberal, he should be studied by every compassionate Christian as the most intrepid and efficient critic of liberalism proper.  The myth of the rationally autonomous individual, including the notion that moral accountability always implies capacity, cannot be orthodox Christianity.  Civilization requires both the accountability of every individual and a constant prayer for the strength to overcome our enslavement to sin.  Only Christ can make free those who are always able to pray for this freedom. 

But, of course, liberals may deny that some are free enough even to pray, where in the wisdom of the Christian tradition this is all that is required by God to begin their liberation, as difficult as it might be.  This extreme determinism is, I submit, inauthentic.

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