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Norms of Liberty

A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics

Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl

Publication Year: 2005

How can we establish a political/legal order that in principle does not require the human flourishing of any person or group to be given structured preference over that of any other? Addressing this question as the central problem of political philosophy, Norms of Liberty offers a new conceptual foundation for political liberalism that takes protecting liberty, understood in terms of individual negative rights, as the primary aim of the political/legal order. Rasmussen and Den Uyl argue for construing individual rights as metanormative principles, directly tied to politics, that are used to establish the political/ legal conditions under which full moral conduct can take place. These they distinguish from normative principles, used to provide guidance for moral conduct within the ambit of normative ethics. This crucial distinction allows them to develop liberalism as a metanormative theory, not a guide for moral conduct. The moral universe need not be minimized or morality grounded in sentiment or contracts to support liberalism, they show. Rather, liberalism can be supported, and many of its internal tensions avoided, with an ethical framework of Aristotelian inspiration—one that understands human flourishing to be an objective, inclusive, individualized, agent-relative, social, and self-directed activity.

Published by: Penn State University Press

Front Cover

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Copyright Page

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Analytic Contents

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pp. ix-xi

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pp. xiii-xviii

In the early 1980s Alasdair MacIntyre argued that philosophy, and indeed Western culture, faced a fundamental alternative: Nietzsche or Aristotle. If understood in terms of essentials, we accept MacIntyre’s claim regarding the fundamentality of this alternative. Further, we, like MacIntyre, but for mostly different reasons, choose Aristotle. We think that the resources of...

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Part One: Liberalism and the Political Order

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pp. 1-3

Not only are most critics mistaken when it comes to understanding what liberalism is, but so indeed are most proponents, and this failure lies at the heart of liberalism’s difficulties. We describe this error, as well as its source, in detail in Chapter 1, where we begin with a discussion of liberalism’s crisis. In Chapter 2 we discuss the problems that result from this error. In both of these...

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1: Liberalism in Crisis

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pp. 5-17

We made the observation in this epigraph over a decade ago,1 and if we are any judge of what has occurred in the intellectual world since, the nature and defense of liberalism is an even more pressing issue. Indeed, in a recent work, Liberalism Defended: The Challenge of Post-Modernity, we began by asking: Why bother about liberalism? In recent times it has been pejoratively called...

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2: Liberalism and Ethics

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pp. 18-41

There is an ambivalence in liberalism with respect to ethics. On the one hand, the traditional role of ethics as exhortation to appropriate conduct seems anathema to liberalism. Leo Strauss has noticed, for example, that ‘‘the soul of modern development, one may say, is a peculiar realism, consisting in the notion that moral principles and the appeal to moral principles—preaching, sermonizing—are ineffectual. And therefore that one has...

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3: Liberalism’s Past and Precedents

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pp. 42-75

This statement by Spinoza is one of the pithiest statements of the essence of political liberalism. Unpacked, it foreshadows values shared by virtually all liberal theorists. Liberty, property, peace, and the welcoming of improvements in man’s estate are the sorts of values that contribute to the ends described by Spinoza, which we find nearly all liberals defending. This common set of values has suggested to many a common set of...

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4: Why Individual Rights? Rights as Metanormative Principles

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pp. 76-96

The language of rights is the language of liberalism, and liberals, as we shall see, should not abandon that language. Moreover, as we have claimed and will develop here and in later chapters, the tradition and language of individual natural rights is our own context as well. Individual natural rights, then, are a historical legacy we do not wish to abandon. Consequently, the primary task of this chapter...

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5: The Natural Right to Private Property

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pp. 97-107

Arguably the most controversial component in the Lockean tradition of liberalism is the natural right to private property. Our purpose here is not to start applying our theory to particular rights that have been traditionally associated with the Lockean tradition or to particular forms of property rights as they have been defined in the past. Rather, we seek to outline some implications of our theory of individual rights in this most central and...

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Part Two: A New Deep Structure for Liberalism

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pp. 109-110

The upshot of the first three chapters of Part I was the insight—once common, but now seemingly forgotten—that liberalism is not an ethical doctrine or a polestar for measuring community or individual well-being. Rather, liberalism is a political doctrine that grows out of specific social and philosophical needs and has a limited and determinate purpose—namely, securing a peaceful and orderly social order. Yet the deep structure with which...

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6: Individualistic Perfectionism

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pp. 111-152

What is perfectionism? If we understand normative ethics to ask two questions—(1) what is inherently good or valuable? and (2) how ought persons to conduct themselves?—then we may determine what perfectionism is by its respective answers to these two questions. Perfectionism holds that eudaimonia is the ultimate good or value and that virtue ought to characterize how human beings conduct their lives. But more must be said in order...

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7: Defending Individualistic Perfectionism

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pp. 153-183

There are many objections and difficulties that confront Aristotelian perfectionism, but most of these pertain to an impersonal or agent-neutral conception of human flourishing.1 We do not seek to defend such a conception, regardless of how traditional or familiar it may seem to some. Our concern is instead with a personal or agent-relative view of human flourishing. This view is able, as we will see...

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8: Natural Law and the Common Good

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pp. 184-205

Our theory of individualistic perfectionism is a natural law theory, if one understands by that term an ethical theory for which the nature of human beings is crucial to an account of both human goodness and moral obligation. Moreover, our theory is a natural end ethics, because we regard the perfection or actualization of human nature as the telos for human conduct. As we have noted in Chapter 6, we endorse a natural teleology when it...

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9: Self-Ownership

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pp. 206-222

The transition from natural law to natural right in the modern era may have taken its final turn through the medium of the idea of ‘‘property in oneself’’ or ‘‘self-ownership’’—what we will call the self-ownership thesis.1 So many of the sensibilities of modern natural rights are conveyed by the idea of self-ownership—individualism, equality, inherent worth, and spheres of personal...

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Part Three: Defending Liberalism

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pp. 223-224

We argued in Part I that liberalism is not an ethical doctrine for guiding human conduct in achieving good or performing right activity, but is instead a political philosophy of metanorms. Further, we argued that liberalism needs a new deep structure and that this new deep structure is an ethics of Aristotelian inspiration. In Part II we developed an account of this new deep structure...

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10: Communitarian and Conservative Critics

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pp. 225-264

Regardless of whether one seeks ‘‘to make men moral’’ or to create conditions for ‘‘social justice,’’ Hayek states succinctly in this epigraph both what is wrong with all attempts to turn politics simply into ethics practiced on the grand scale and what is crucial to liberal political philosophy. The aim of politics should be peace and liberty, not attaining the morally worthwhile life in either its...

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11: The Structure of the Argument for Individual Rights

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pp. 265-283

The temptation in political philosophy to turn expressions of ethical perfectionism into some form of political perfectionism is very great. Indeed, most accounts of human flourishing actually require a political perfectionist program. Admittedly, such programs generally do not involve the political/legal order in every aspect of morality, but whatever the limits placed on the range and depth of...

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12: Defending Individualistic Non-Perfectionist Politics

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pp. 284-339

We heartily accept the spirit of Friedman’s description of liberalism here, but we differ with him when it comes to his grasp of its exact nature. The context in which freedom is given priority over all other values does indeed pertain to relations among people, but this is not sufficient to set the context in which freedom is given first priority. Robinson-Crusoe-without-Friday reasoning is...

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Epilogue: From Metanorms to Metaphysics

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pp. 340-346

We thought of using these lines from Lao-tzu as the epigraph for this book. But we eventually realized that doing so might undermine the seriousness with which we could hold to our political non-perfectionism.1 After all, it would seem that by endorsing these lines we would also be endorsing the view that political orders should bring about certain desirable social ends...


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pp. 347-358

E-ISBN-13: 9780271052922
E-ISBN-10: 0271052929
Print-ISBN-13: 9780271027012
Print-ISBN-10: 0271027010

Page Count: 464
Illustrations: 2 charts/graphs, 1 table
Publication Year: 2005