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What's the Matter with Liberalism?

Beiner, Ronald. What's the Matter With Liberalism? Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. viii + 197 pp. $28.00--Despite its nonscholarly sounding title, this work is a trenchant reinterpretation of certain crucial aspects of Aristotle's thought for the contemporary age, and an excellent survey of the "liberal-communitarian" debate today. The author seeks to restore the philosophical language and concerns of classical moral theory, which he sees as having perennial importance, as against the "thinness" of contemporary liberal theorizing. The work has a prefatory note, including Vaclav Havel's warning about Western smugness, and a short Index. Footnotes, often substantial, are placed at the bottom of the page. The author's consciously chosen strategy is to raise problematic issues, and questions for further study, rather than to try to establish an unassailable theoretical structure.

In the Prologue Beiner advances the idea of "the theorist as storyteller," to restore and extend the possible purview of political philosophy. Just as great literature is meant ultimately to offer some basis on which to meditate on the way to live, so genuine philosophy cannot remain (or pretend to remain) strictly neutral as to what constitutes "the good life". The second chapter, "Liberalism," points out some inadequacies of the liberal theories, and of the common communitarian critiques. Beiner criticizes "the liberal dispensation" of an "ethosless ethos," but also eschews the label of "communitarian," embracing instead the "republican" ideal of a rational-discursive public realm. The third chapter, "Moral Vocabularies," boldly lays out the contrast between the "thinness" of the central liberal concepts of values, rights, and individual autonomy vis-a-vis the Aristotelian summum bonum, unity of the virtues, and prudence. Beiner extolls the Aristotelian idea of practiced virtue accessible through phronesis as one which is readily available to common human understanding and experience. The "neutrality principle" of liberalism is exposed as a sham. Neither liberal theory nor liberal practice can be neutral--the idea of neutrality itself presupposes a conception of the good life.

In the fourth chapter Beiner argues that "rights talk" is a worse guide to conduct than is "goods talk," and that the former actually leads to intemperance and fanaticism in the polity. According to Beiner, everything meaningful in the debate over rights can be subsumed into the language of the good, while rescuing society from the atomizing effects of rights talk. The fifth chapter, "Citizenship," assails liberal theory for neglecting the problem of citizenship in society. Beiner stresses the importance for human beings of participation in a public realm, pointing out the dangers of the remoteness of governmental decision-making processes today, particularly in military nuclear policy. He hopes that society's seeing political citizenship as an urgent issue will itself be a positive step. The sixth chapter, "Socialism?" suggests that socialism is the only real alternative to liberalism today. The concrete, if distinctly utopian, goals of full employment, decent employment, and "the Plato principle" (no person's income in society shall exceed any other person's by a ratio of more than five to one) are suggested as measures to be worked toward which could begin to restore citizenship in contemporary society. The epilogue discusses, in a generous spirit, the limits of theory. It suggests again, following the author's interpretation of Aristotle, that phronesis, not theoria, is the key to a good life. It calls on present-day theory to be more critical of present-day society, especially by taking into account different models of human existence than those prevalent today.

The following questions are some that may be addressed to the book. First, the disingenuously made political suggestions would realistically require massive revolutionary changes in society (and its ruling elites) to be accomplished. They also seem virtually impracticable economically, as well as largely tangential to solving what Beiner himself calls the "spiritual impasse." Second, there is the problem of various conflicting ideological definitions of what is moral and immoral, good or evil, if we accept with Beiner that human persons should strive for "the good" to become fully human. Third, a philosophically judgmental perspective would seem theoretically to imply the distribution of goods based roughly on the degree of one's approach to moral virtue--if practiced virtue is to be meaningfully enhanced--rather than on very generous workfare for everyone. Fourth, Beiner's reluctance to consider traditional religion, nationalism, or ethnic identity--which, like socialism, tend toward an equalitarian ideal (albeit within one's own community)--as possible answers to the problem of community, seems programmatically to leave most human societies--possibly excepting America--devoid of their essential definitional contents.
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Author:Wegierski, Mark
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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