Has Liberal Theory Failed us?
When I started my graduate studies in 2019, I knew that my research would focus on defining personhood and notions of belonging. I also knew that my research would be based in the works of Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950) who developed a current of personalist philosophy—Saint Pope John Paul II developed, as part of the Lublin school, another form of personalism that helped to inform his papacy.
In exploring the question of personhood, I began to learn about the liberal-communitarian debate sparked by John Rawls’ book A Theory of Justice (1971 ). Even though I believe that liberal democracy is the best framework of governance for our lives, I think that the foundation that liberal democracy rests on, i.e., the many tenets and works of liberal theory (from Locke to Kant to Mill to Berlin to Rawls), has failed us.
The senseless murder of George Floyd has compounded what I have suspected for many years: liberal theory is complicit in perpetuating systemic racial oppression.
George Floyd may be the most vivid and most recent image, but it was the verdict in the Colton Boushie case that sticks in my mind as the moment where I knew that something was wrong. In this short piece, I want to very briefly open a discussion about the failures of liberal theory, namely its emphasis on difference-blind proceduralism and its obsession with prioritising rights.
To close, I want to outline how Emmanuel Mounier’s personalism can offer a way to reform the liberal theory that heavily influences liberal democracy.
Liberal theory is like a vast garden. Many varieties of flora grow in this garden; all nourished by the same soil. This garden includes varieties espoused by John Locke, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, and many more.
Some, like Adam Gopnik, would argue that Canada is the perfect example of liberal theory in action because of our balance of English and French aspirations as he contested in his interview with Ezra Klein. But flaws have been embedded in the Canadian societal mould as much as in the American mould:
Canada has a horrible racist track record with Indigenous peoples and with Black and Asian Canadians. What does this treatment of racialised peoples have to do with liberal theory? The relation is on the issue of justice as difference blind.
The expression and desire to be colour blind does more harm than it does good. Paul Theobald and Todd Dinkelman (1995) point out in their article ‘The Parameters of the Liberal-Communitarian Debate’ that communitarians critique liberals for focussing too heavily on difference blind justice and juridical proceduralism (1995: 14-16).
We can see this playing out when Whites argue that ‘all lives matter.’ Proceduralism as the first recourse has led to Whites, in particular, especially those blind to their privilege, viewing calls of Black lives matter and calls for rights to be afforded properly ‘in terms of “your interest vs. my interest”’ (Theobald and Dinkelman, 1995: 16).
These arguments create the image of rights being like a pie: if I give more pie to someone, there will be less for others. This is not the case with legal and human rights, as affording rights to another group does not reduce the rights that you have.
What needs to be understood is that calling into question liberal theory’s difference blind view of justice does not mean that we should be eschewing fair (blind) justice. It means that difference blind or colour blindness ‘neglects diversity among communities, often times with harmful consequences’ (Theobald and Dinkelman, 1995: 15).
Let us consider the Colton Bushie case. This case in particular had many flaws, but at the end of the day, the White man was found not guilty of any crime. That verdict illustrates how difference blindness can have negative impacts on people’s lives. And in the case of George Floyd, I fear that the four officers, especially Derek Chauvin, will be acquitted of the crime, which will inevitably spark fiercer outcries of injustice.
In both the Floyd and Boushie cases, we see the failure of difference blind liberal justice: the system liberal theory constructed favours Whites and disadvantages and is less likely to believe people of colour.
Another problem with the system that is linked to liberal theory’s juridical proceduralism is the obsession with rights. Human rights are important. No communitarian or personalist would say otherwise—Mounier even creates a schedule of rights in Le personnalisme (2016: 72).
Liberal theory, especially that developed by Rawls, ‘defend[s] the priority of the right over all other values’ (Theobald and Dinkelman, 1995: 13). They do so because liberals believe that we are unable as a diverse group of people to unite around one single conception of the Good. This means that we are all allowed to pursue our own projects and conceptions of the Good. We are living through a couple of conjoined moments that demonstrate to us that perhaps we do indeed need a shared common aim.
The current pandemic and the bright light being shone on the systemic racial barriers and biases in society has illustrated the extent to which some elements of liberal theory have become complicit in holding up the barriers of inequality.
Not everything can be laid at the feet of liberal theory. Liberal theory is the reason why we have contemporary human rights in the first place, but the idolisation and prioritisation of a neutral public arena void of a common goal has allowed for a hollowing out of supports and understanding between communities.
Can liberal theory be reformed? Yes, it is possible. Adam Gopnik would argue that liberalism is always reforming itself, but it needs to be swifter and clearer on its reforms (2019: 23, 46-52). Incrementalism, something I believe is important to utilise, needs to be pushed aside in this moment of unrest. We need to reform the system completely.
One way to do so is by examining the works of Emmanuel Mounier who was a devout Catholic but wanted to make certain that personalism was attractive to believers and nonbelievers (Mounier, 1961: 859-869; Mounier, 1962: 87, 467-468; Deweer, 2013: 115).
Mounier believed that the person is unrepeatable (2016: 49) and that the person does have self-determining abilities (1961: 523) that can find parallels in liberal theory. Mounier also believed that ‘person and community are related in a personalist and communitarian ideal that establishes an inextricable link between freedom and commitment for the common good’ (Deweer, 2013: 122).
In essence, this means that personalism wants us to find our vocation and pursue it (Deweer, 2013: 122; Mounier, 2016: 60-62), but in pursuing our vocation, ‘the person has to serve the common good, [and] the common good serves the person and [their] liberty’ (Deweer, 2013: 122).
What does this all mean for removing systemic barriers? In part, it means that we need to establish a common good. It will not be easy to decide what the common good is, but we can start by affirming that Black lives and Indigenous lives matter.
We can work to actually fulfil our Gospel obligations of treating one another as we want to be treated. We can work to be people of the Beatitudes. We can work to actually live out the Gospel from which we read every Sunday.
In pursuing a common good, we also will acknowledge the unrepeatability of the person. This means focussing on the particular rather than the universal. As Catholics, we are supposed to be good at this. But we need to be careful: just because Mounier was a devout Catholic and that Catholicism offers good insights into embracing the particular and the universal, it does not give us the right to pursue a theocratic illiberal state, i.e., a Catholic state.
No, this would undo part of the personalist belief about the state, i.e., ‘it is the duty of the state to guarantee both the fundamental status of the person and the free functioning of spiritual communities’ (De Tavernier, 2009: 373).
The focus on the particular helps to add in colour to our colour-blind judicial system. Particularity means that we pay attention to the needs and concerns of communities of colour. It means that we have to have different standards and different approaches for different communities in order to rectify and repair past injustices. This is needed for true equality of peoples, regardless of race, in the future.
Mounier presented personalism as a ‘philosophy of combat.’ This phrase is similar to liberalism’s view of itself as a ‘fighting creed’ (Taylor, 1994: 62). As a result of it being a ‘fighting creed,’ we can hold to the hope of saving liberal theory from its failures.
We need to reform liberal theory. Personalism is a source of ideas to reform and upend the system that keeps so many persons disadvantaged.
This piece has been very brief and quick in many spots due to limited space. I hope to address many of the injustices that liberal theory has purported in my thesis. In the process of writing my thesis, I anticipate exploring briefly some ideas again in igNation.
I encourage everyone to reflect on their own prejudices and biases that help to perpetuate and normalise the systemic oppression of racialised persons in society and within our Church.
We cannot tire of calling out for a better world until we tear down the walls of oppression. No justice, no peace.