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 Context. In 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.