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  • Virtue Liberalism’s Viciousness
  • Jeremy Arnold (bio)

The fundamental and abiding commitment of liberalism is to the most disturbing moral and political idea of all, the idea that each and every human being should be free to think and act as she sees fit.

Flathman, Willful Liberalism

My aim here is to honor one aspect of Richard Flathman’s work in political theory that I find of continuing importance and power: his justified worry that a now dominant “virtue liberalism” wrongly subordinates and disciplines individual freedom and individuality (in Flathman’s sense of the term).1 Flathman’s to me appealing, to many appalling, writings are and will be of immense value to political theorists. Although I am deeply saddened that I won’t hear again Flathman’s distinctive voice rail against ideas he rejected in talks and seminars, extemporize on nearly any book worth reading or theorist worth discussing, and offer important words of encouragement for whatever nonsense I am trying to pass off as a contribution to political theory, I am deeply thankful that I will always find provocation, insight, and example in Flathman’s many essays and books.

Virtue liberalism is the view that “life is or can be just and humane, is or can be appropriate to humankind, only if or to the extent that all public and much private thinking and acting are governed by beliefs that are arrived at under the discipline of intersubjective reason or ‘deliberative rationality’”.2 Paradigmatic examples of virtue liberalism are found in parts of Rawls, both early and late; Habermas (and other deliberativists); and, perhaps more controversially, Philip Pettit’s elaboration of republicanism.3 For virtue liberals, individual agency, rights, and liberties are important; but in different, albeit overlapping ways, individual liberty is often subordinated to (or seen as a part of realizing) the demands of other political values (like justice or equality); or, at the same time or alternatively, the value of individual liberty is found only in a rationalized conception of a freedom.

Flathman does not dispute the liberal lineage of virtue liberalism (his is a family quarrel), but he rightly challenges the current dominance of it within liberal theory. Virtue liberalism fails to fully, or at least full-throatedly, defend liberalism’s endorsement of the most disturbing moral idea and ideal of all: the freedom of the individual to speak, act, desire, and think as it likes. The value of individual freedom, for Flathman, lies in its enabling the development of individualities, that is, singular individuals with distinctive values, desires, habits, activities, creations, and ideas. Flathman attacks virtue liberalism in part by challenging its conceptions of agency; in part by challenging its conception of reason and deliberation; and in large part, by offering a sustained, provocative defense of a willful liberalism that draws on a diverse array of theorists, philosophers, essayists, and novelists.4 The criticisms and the defense make for such engaging reading that I wouldn’t want to summarize it here even if I could.

What I would like to do is, in a Flathmanian spirit, defend Flathman’s worries about and criticisms of virtue liberalisms by asking a question Flathman, to my knowledge, did not directly ask: what is so attractive in virtue liberalism?

The beginning of an answer is that liberal theory is often as much, or more, a theory of the necessary and sufficient conditions of political legitimacy and/or authority than it is a defense of individual freedom. That is certainly true for the Hobbes-Kant line in the 17th and 18th centuries, and much liberal theory today furthers the concerns of this line or develops arguments (for equality, global justice, private property, etc.) that depend upon state (or global institutional) legitimacy/authority.

Consider, however, the truism that politics and practices of securing public order and realizing justice, equality, equal basic liberties, etc., are often nasty and violent, at the very least coercive. If we are worried about the moral status of these doings no matter who is doing them and to whom, then we are left with (at least) four options: 1) endorse some version of anarchism; 2) accept the necessity and authority, but not provide any further...

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