Excerpt #22 — Steven Smith on Neo-Kantian Liberals & Their Neo-Hegelian Communitarian Critics

In some ways, this is a follow-up to an earlier post comparing Lilla and Fukuyama.

To recap: only now, in my third graduate degree at a major research institution, have I come across what is often known as the “social justice left”, and have found it maddening to interact with, very different from the liberal left (social justice movements are illiberal) with which I largely identify (with some communitarian sympathies). It turns out that the graduates of institutions that push this agenda are militant and intolerant, and carry this agenda with them into their workplaces.

It is, thus, imperative to make sense out of what it is, rather than fear it, or react to it. How to make sense out of it, its roots, its character, its principles? I began with Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal, which I’ll probably review here sometime relatively soon. I then moved on to Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, which I enjoyed more. I am only pages away from finishing Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity (Appiah also wrote The Ethics of Identity, which I own, but have not yet read), and when I am done with that, I will immediately begin Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “height”) and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up A Generation for Failure, largely on the merits of Haidt’s many lectures I came across on YouTube where he sanely covers the issues involved in this movement. 

One of the tasks I set for myself, in order to come to terms with some of the issues brought up by one course in particular that I took, was to cover a particular transition of Marxist language into social justice contexts. The social justice folks seemed to use it differently than what I remembered reading in Marx.

Thus, I set out first to understand the transition from the classical liberal tradition to Hegel’s response. Secondly, I tasked myself to see how Marx emerged from the post-Hegelian tradition. Thirdly, I purposed to ascertain how and whether the Marxist-sounding language used by many of the authors syllabused (it’s a good neologism, and you heard it here first, folks) in the class I took –Marxist-sounding language used to support the social justice tradition– was aligned with Marx himself and the Marxist tradition; it seemed like it was not. 

I am starting with Steven B. Smith’s Hegel’s Critique of Liberalism: Rights in ContextIn the opening chapter, he makes some seemingly-insightful comments on how the tension between neo-Kantian individualists (on the one hand) and communitarians (on the other) is a “reinvention of the wheel”, and that Hegel’s critique of the liberal tradition can avoid the weaknesses of these two positions while absorbing their insights and praising the accomplishments of liberalism. When he speaks of neo-Kantians, he has in mind figures like John Rawls

I won’t spend much time introducing Steven B. Smith. He has an open course at Yale on Political Philosophy here. He has recently written what seems to be an excellent book on modernity that can be found here.

At one point in the first chapter of his book Hegel’s Critique of Liberalism, he talks about how modern-day neo-Kantian proponents of the liberal tradition deviate from Kant himself on certain key points, and names the deviations. The list is interesting (I have changed the formatting for reading purposes):

These departures from Kant have characteristically adopted procedures and assumptions from a variety of very non-Kantian sources, especially neoclassical economic theory. These assumptions can be reduced to four.

First, rationality is conceived exclusively as a predicate of individual actors and actions; this is the principle of methodological individualism.

Second, rationality is concerned with means and not ends. It is a form of calculation that allows the agent to acquire the objects of his desire rather than to prescribe what kinds of objects he ought to desire; this is the principle of value neutrality.

Third, the natural goal of each agent is to maximize the number of pleasures and minimize the number of pains; this is the principle of psychological hedonism.

And fourth, the problem of politics is conceived as finding ways of limiting the infinity of human desires so that each person can coexist with all under the universal rule of law. This is the principle of the social contract, which in turn is said to generate the conditions for political legitimacy.

Out of these purely hypothetical assumptions about human nature, contemporary Kantian political theorists have proceeded to elaborate rules of justice which are claimed to be binding on all rational beings, everywhere and always. [Steven B. Smith, Hegel’s Critique of Liberalism: Rights in Context (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 3]

“Value neutrality” would seem to make any evaluative comparative work regarding choices and worth impossible.

~~~

The same points are mentioned again on the next page, with the communitarian counterpoints to these neo-Kantian principles listed in parallel:

The claims undergirding this Hegel renaissance are a mirror image of those supporting the neo-Kantian revival.

In the first place, the contemporary Hegelians deny the tenet of methodological individualism by arguing that rationality may be predicated not merely of individuals but also of the [p.5] institutions and even the political cultures that make these actions possible.

Second, rationality is valued, not simply for its ability to achieve ends, but as an end in itself, something valued for its own sake.

Third, the comprehensive good for human beings cannot be regarded as the satisfaction of private pleasures but is intimately bound up with the good of others. We are what we are by virtue of our membership in a community of shared meanings and values.

And finally, the political community is not on this account merely an aggregate of individuals peering through a veil of ignorance, but is at least partially constitutive of what it is to be a human being. As one of the proponents of the new communitarianism has put it: “To say that the members of a society are bound by a sense of community is not simply to say that a great many of them profess communitarian sentiments and pursue communitarian aims, but rather that they conceive their identity…as defined to some extent by the community of which they are a part.” [quote from Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, 147] [Smith, Hegel’s Critique of Liberalism, 4-5]

Strikes me as a reasonable list to begin to get a handle on the political debates that have been displaced by the social justice noise, agenda, and ideology. I look forward to reading the rest of the book.

I am purposed to finish the series on Dostoyevsky and Writing and the Heart for my friend Yuri before the spring semester begins, so any reviews on, or excerpts from, any of these books will come intermittently.

 

One thought on “Excerpt #22 — Steven Smith on Neo-Kantian Liberals & Their Neo-Hegelian Communitarian Critics

  1. A few random comments (for what they are worth):

    “First, rationality is conceived exclusively as a predicate of individual actors and actions; this is the principle of methodological individualism.”

    I wish that Mr. Smith would not use the passive voice here. This is one of the sins of APA style that promotes ambiguity where clarity would help the reader much more. I could go on here about ceding the craft of writing in the social and natural sciences to people whose field is psychology, not writing, but that would only raise my blood pressure and theirs.

    “Second, rationality is concerned with means and not ends. It is a form of calculation that allows the agent to acquire the objects of his desire rather than to prescribe what kinds of objects he ought to desire; this is the principle of value neutrality.”

    This sounds very much like what a number of people, often called “process Democrats,” promoted in the 1980s. The animating principle seemed to be that given a certain process, majoritarianism would always produce equity.

    “Third, the natural goal of each agent is to maximize the number of pleasures and minimize the number of pains; this is the principle of psychological hedonism.”

    This sounds like a restatement of Jeremy Bentham on individual desires, later expanded by John Stuart Mill to a social compact.

    “And fourth, the problem of politics is conceived as finding ways of limiting the infinity of human desires so that each person can coexist with all under the universal rule of law. This is the principle of the social contract, which in turn is said to generate the conditions for political legitimacy.”

    This sounds like John Locke – so far, so good.

    “Out of these purely hypothetical assumptions about human nature, contemporary Kantian political theorists have proceeded to elaborate rules of justice which are claimed to be binding on all rational beings, everywhere and always.”

    Here is where it can get a bit sketchy. Many beings are not very rational. Many also have desires that conflict fundamentally with those of others, and they are quite willing to impose those desires upon others even unto death, their own of that of the others.

    Here endeth the lesson on the excerpt, part one, from Mr. Smith.

    xxx

    “‘Value neutrality’ would seem to make any evaluative comparative work regarding choices and worth impossible.”

    You are quite correct, sir. If all ideas are equally good and valuable, then no idea is good or valuable. If mass murder were thought equally good as peaceful coexistence, there would be no point of discussion about either. “Value neutrality” seems to have gained quite a foothold in the modern era, however, if one were to examine it closely, one would likely find it replete with its own values, some of them quite unsavory.

    xxx

    Meanwhile, back in Mr. Smith’s territory…

    “Third, the comprehensive good for human beings cannot be regarded as the satisfaction of private pleasures but is intimately bound up with the good of others. We are what we are by virtue of our membership in a community of shared meanings and values.”

    I think that this is a false dichotomy. The “comprehensive good for human beings” is not merely the satisfaction of private pleasures, but it is partly so. We are indeed a community of shared meanings and shared values to an extent. Some of those shared meanings and values are under assault. It would be a very long digression to list and analyze them here.

    “And finally, the political community is not on this account merely an aggregate of individuals peering through a veil of ignorance, but is at least partially constitutive of what it is to be a human being. As one of the proponents of the new communitarianism has put it: “To say that the members of a society are bound by a sense of community is not simply to say that a great many of them profess communitarian sentiments and pursue communitarian aims, but rather that they conceive their identity…as defined to some extent by the community of which they are a part.”

    Yes, we are partly defined by our environment. This is tricky too, however. We have large and small environments. Do you cheer for Brookline or Newton at the Thanksgiving Day football game? Do you favor the Old Calendar or the New? Are you with the Allies or the Axis powers? Do you favor coffee or tea?

    Much of the recent stirring for “social justice” is posited on blaming people who have not themselves, nor have their ancestors, oppressed the aggrieved either in the past or now. That they share a random, non-germane characteristic, such as skin color or nationality, with those who did is irrelevant.

    Liked by 1 person

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