Friday, February 13, 2009

Liberal sobriety plus contextualism equals classical liberalism?

I have now finished reading “The Pursuit of Unhappiness” by Dan Haybron and haven’t modified my view that it usually does people good to take responsibility for running their own lives. (See earlier posts relating to this book: here and here.)

What is more surprising, however, is that I find that the author’s position is in some respects fairly close to my own view. Why am I surprised? I think it is because I originally thought that Haybron’s foreshadowed attack on liberal optimism was shaping up to be an attack on classical liberalism. In the final chapter of the book, however, he defines liberal optimism more specifically as the presumption that a person’s well-being will increase if she/he has more options to choose from. (I think that is the essence of what he is getting at in his lengthy definition on pages 256-8.) In the end it turns out that Haybron’s main target is actually atomistic (or rationalistic) individualism rather than classical liberalism.

Haybron’s conclusion is that the balance of evidence may favour both “liberal sobriety” and “contextualism”. Liberal sobriety initially brought to my mind thoughts about the desirability of respecting the rights of others by being temperate in one’s consumption of alcohol - but it is actually the view that although people should not be presumed to fare better if they have more options to choose from, they usually do fare better under those circumstances (p 263). Contextualism is the view that well-being is better served when individuals’ lives are shaped by an obliging context, i.e. communities, cultures etc. conducive to human flourishing.

Haybron writes: “We should take neither liberal optimism nor individualism for granted. Indeed, perhaps the pursuit of happiness will prove to be mainly a societal matter: our prospects for flourishing may depend less on personal wisdom than on living in the right kind of setting, with the right sorts of people” (p 267). The main problem I see with that statement is that in the modern world a person usually needs considerable wisdom to choose to live in the right kind of setting with the right kind of people. (Haybron implies that there is also another problem, namely that people who consider that they are living in the right kind of community may not be able to prevent economic development that will damage the lifestyle that they value. I will discuss this in my next post.)

Dan Haybron’s position regarding liberal sobriety and contextualism seems close to that of Friedrich Hayek (and Adam Smith). This might deserve some explanation, since there has been a tendency - including by some politicians who should know better - to confuse Hayek’s views about individualism with those of Gordon Gekko.

Hayek supported the classical liberal view that humans are very irrational and fallible beings. In supporting the views of Adam Smith he wrote: “It would scarcely be too much to claim that the main merit of the individualism that he and his contemporaries advocated is that it is a system under which bad men can do least harm. It is a social system that does not depend for its functioning on our finding good men for running it, or on all men becoming better than they are, but which makes use of men in all their given variety and complexity, sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes intelligent and more often stupid. Their aim was a system in which it should be possible to grant freedom to all ...”.

Hayek noted that the classical liberal view affirms the value of the family, community groups, voluntary associations and conventions that have evolved for the mutual benefit of community members. He argued that voluntary cooperation enables coercion to be kept to a minimum. He condemned “false individualism which wants to dissolve all these smaller groups into atoms which have no cohesion other than the coercive rules imposed by the state ...”. He even suggested: “It must remain an open question whether a free or individualistic society can be worked successfully if people are too ‘individualistic’ in the false sense, if they are too unwilling voluntarily to conform to traditions and conventions, and if they refuse to recognize anything which is not consciously designed or which cannot be demonstrated as rational to every individual”. (The quotes are from: ‘Individualism: True and False’, a paper written in the 1940s and published in various places including: C Nishiyama and K Leube (eds.), “The Essence of Hayek”, 1984.)

I’m not sure whether Dan Haybron would appreciate any further attempts on my part to associate his views with those of Friedrich Hayek. So, I will end this post with a quote from Haybron’s book:
“Accepting contextualism does not require us to follow communitarians in rejecting liberalism. Contextualists might insist that governments promote substantive goods only when doing so enjoys sufficient popular support, and that they not infringe on individual rights in doing so” (p 265-6).

2 comments:

Rafe said...

Liberalism can mean anything. Classical liberalilsm for me has the following pillars: a suite of freedoms; property rights; the rule of law; and a robust moral framework with things like honesty, compassion, social responsibility, enterprise.

Rubbish classical liberalism if you must, but have a look around the world and I bet that wherever things are getting better (in terms of peace, freedom and prosperity) it is the principles of classical liberalism that are doing the heavy lifting, but always of course mixed with other agendas which confuse the issue and slow the rate of progress.

Winton Bates said...

Rafe:
I agree with you about classical liberalism.

The point I was trying to make is that classical liberals are opposed to the atomistic liberalism that Dan Haybron targets in his book.