Beyond Liberalism

One way to understand the modern politics of wellbeing – by which I mean the introduction of policies by governments aimed at cultivating the ‘wellbeing’, ‘happiness’ or ‘resilience’ of their citizens – is as an attempt to move beyond the confines of liberalism, and to answer the question, ‘where next?’

The liberal state aims to safeguard the rights of the individual in their own private ‘pursuit of happiness’, but it does not go so far as to tell the individual where or how they should pursue it. Each individual in a liberal society has liberty of conscience, and liberty to pursue their happiness as they see fit, as long as they are not harming anyone else.

Modern liberal governments are, more or less, disestablished from religion – they do not try to promote one particular religion or spirituality, and maintain a careful neutrality in matters of private moral and spiritual beliefs.

Modern liberalism did once have a telos, or goal: the goal was the removal of all obstacles, prejudices and superstitions, so that each individual could freely pursue their own private happiness.

We have more or less reached that goal in western societies today, particularly with advances in minority rights since the 1960s, and in homosexual rights over the last decade. So the overarching telos of liberalism has been reached, and we are left with liberal society as an assortment of private teloi.

But this leads to an inevitable restlessness among philosophers and policy makers. Where now? Now the priests and monarchs have been defeated, and the old superstitions over-turned, now we are free to pursue our private inclinations…where next to steer the ship?

Export liberalism, defend liberalism

One response has been to export liberalism: to make the rest of the world as politically, economically and sexually liberated as we are. This export of liberalism to Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East has been a source of excitement for policy makers since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It gives them the nostalgic sense of the grand old March to Freedom, a march which their own societies have sadly already completed.

Another response has been to fling oneself into the fight with radical Islam and Christian fundamentalism. Liberalism hasn’t won, goes this argument. It’s under attack again! Once more unto the breach, we must fight off the enemies of freedom.

This is another good way of avoiding the horrible feeling of liberalism having arrived at an end point, and not being sure where to go from here. It takes its followers – Hitchens, Dawkins et al – back to an earlier time, to the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, when liberalism was genuinely under attack.

But it’s anachronistic and nostalgic – Dawkins and his ilk are like bored historical re-enactment societies, spicing up their weekends by play-fighting battles already long-since won.

A third response, the one I’m most interested in, is to seek to move beyond modern liberalism’s defence of the negative liberty of its citizens, and to find some ideal of positive liberty to promote.

Isaiah Berlin and the dangers of positive liberty

Negative liberty, as Isaiah Berlin defined it, is the protection of our freedom to pursue our own private ends. Positive liberty, by contrast, is freedom from unhappiness, freedom from our lower selves, freedom to fulfill our highest selves.

Ideas of positive liberty are founded on essentialist views of human nature. They argue that man has an essential nature which is not fulfilled at present, but which could be fulfilled and made whole under the right social and political conditions.

Man has a telos, a goal, which is the fulfillment of his nature. Government can help man in the achievement of his fulfillment as a human being. So politics is the movement towards the telos of the fulfillment of mankind.

Berlin wrote most of his best writing on the dangers of political philosophies that sought to cultivate positive liberty in its citizens. He claimed that such efforts – in Plato, Rousseau, Marx and others – led directly to the totalitarianism of Hitler, Stalin and Mao.

Berlin declared that the idea of governments ‘fixing’ humanity and making it whole once more was both deeply seductive, and profoundly dangerous. We have to accept, Berlin insisted, that humans will never agree on the aim of life, and any attempts to enforce a common telos onto individuals will result in tyranny and oppression.

The rise of the communitarians

Berlin’s diatribe against positive liberty lasted in influence for a good half-century. But it’s come under attack in the last twenty years, particularly through the rise of communitarians like Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Michael Sandel – who for my money are three of the greatest philosophers writing and teaching today.

The key text in this rise of communitarianism is MacIntyre’s 1982 book, After Virtue. MacIntyre takes aim at the liberal idea of the state maintaining moral neutrality and avoiding any positive idea of the ‘good life’ or the telos of human existence.

This sort of liberalism ends up in moral relativism, MacIntyre argues, where people no longer have a common moral language, and public ethical debate is reduced to mere emotivism: ‘I am right, because I feel I am right’, or ‘I am right because I can shout the loudest’. This is the moral Dark Ages in which we now find ourselves, he says.

His ideal society, by contrast, is medieval Europe, when Europe was united under Christian Aristotelianism, with its conception of the cultivation of the virtues as the path to happiness and the fulfillment of man.

MacIntyre dreams, at the end of his book, of a society unified once more by a common idea of the virtues, in which government plays a role in the cultivation of those virtues, and thus in the fulfillment of its citizens as human beings.

His disciple, Michael Sandel, also calls in his 2009 book, Justice, for a return to virtue politics – to a politics based on an Aristotelian idea of the virtues and the common good. He writes that the idea of the morally neutral state is actually a fiction:

Justice is inescapably judgmental…Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is also about the right way to value things…The challenge is to imagine a politics that takes moral and spiritual questions seriously, but brings them to bear on broad economic and civic concerns, not only on sex and abortion.

So, at the heights of contemporary political philosophy, there have been attempts to move beyond Berlin’s negative liberty, and to build a new virtue politics, based on Aristotle’s idea of the cultivation of the virtues as the fulfillment of man’s biological, political and spiritual nature.

The modern politics of well-being

And this philosophical return to Aristotle and the Greek idea of eudaimonia has also filtered down to the policy level as well. A key policy publication in this area was a collection of essays published by Demos in 1998, called The Good Life.

The pamphlet calls for a ‘remoralization of policy debate’, and for a new politics that goes beyond merely seeking material prosperity, and which instead seeks also the fulfillment of its citizens. The collection quotes Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in its opening essay, when it writes:

A fulfilled life is one that has, in modern parlance, some ‘project’ or, as the ancient Greeks put it, a goal or end. But not anything counts as a life project of a kind whose achievement brings real fulfilment.

Perhaps the most interesting essay in the collection is by Geoff Mulgan, formerly director of Tony Blair’s strategy unit, then the founder of Demos, now the head of the Young Foundation. Mulgan writes that governments should not be afraid of promoting an idea of the ‘good life’:

A famous philosopher once asked how the same good life could ever be right for a human race composed of people as different as Marilyn Monroe, Einstein, Wittgenstein and Louis Armstrong. Any single view of the good life, he argued, must inevitably be oppressive. The best that we can hope for is a society in which everyone is given as much freedom as possible to define the good life for themselves.

This view is undeniably attractive. It accords with the ‘non-judgmental’ common sense of most Western societies today. Yet it is as profoundly wrong as any belief could be. Any society which took it seriously would soon become disfunctional. It is wrong, in the first place, because so much about the good life is not solely a matter of individual freedom, but is underpinned by collective provision, by social orders, by the things we share – clean air, safe streets, civility.

It is wrong too because human beings have much in common: we share much the same biology, and many of the same drives and needs, however different we may appear on the surface.

And it is wrong because it ignores the evidence that there have been remarkably constant features of the good life across very different times and very different places….some things are timeless and universal.

He includes among such ‘timeless values’ the family, the community, access to goods, the environment and, finally, ‘the soul’:

a spiritual understanding of transcendence, of connectedness, and awe in the face of the universe, has been made manifest in the church, temple or mosque at the heart of every community…this deep element in the good life is about simplicity and fundamentals. As the medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart commented, God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by a process of subtraction.

So Mulgan is really returning to an Aristotelian idea of man having a common biological nature, and that the cultivation of the virtues is the fulfillment of this nature: what Aristotle called eudaimonia, or flourishing.

Politics, Mulgan suggests, can be re-invented as the collective pursuit of a common idea of eudaimonia. The idea comes from Aristotle, but the only time society really was united under such a philosophy was the Middle Ages, when Thomas Aquinas succeeded in making Aristotle the ruling philosophy of Europe.

What does a neo-Aristotelian politics look like?

So what would this sort of neo-Aristotelian politics look like? Well, perhaps there have been some steps towards it in the UK in the last few years under New Labour.

Take, for example, the introduction of citizenship classes in 2002, an initiative spear-headed by LSE professor Bernard Crick.

Crick saw citizenship classes as a way to cultivate the ‘political virtues’ of self-confidence, autonomy and active political engagement. He quotes with approval another Demos pamphlet, published by David Hargreaves in 1997:

Civic education is about the civic virtues and decent behaviour that adults wish to see in young people. But it is also more than this. Since Aristotle, it has been accepted as an inherently political concept that raises questions about the sort of society we live in, how it has come to take its present form, the strengths and weaknesses of current political structures, and how improvements might be made… Active citizens are as political as they are moral; moral sensibility derives in part from political understanding; political apathy spawns moral apathy.

Another, less obvious, return to the classical virtues came in the shape of the 2008 Improved Access to Public Therapies (IAPT) policy, which was the brain-child of another LSE professor, Richard Layard. Through IAPT, Layard secured £180 million in funding to train 3,500 new therapists in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

As I’ve written before, CBT is a therapy grounded in ancient Greek philosophy, which uses the ‘Socratic method’ to teach people how to examine their beliefs, see how they lead to their emotions, and then hold them to philosophical account.

While CBT presents itself as a science, it is very much grounded in the Socratic, Stoic and Aristotelian idea that mental health involves the cultivation of the ancient Greek virtues of rational self-examination, self-knowledge and self-control.

Lord Layard has, together with Geoff Mulgan, also embraced the new field of Positive Psychology, which attempts to build resilience in young people (particularly school-children and soldiers), through the teaching of the CBT techniques of rational self-examination and self-control.

Layard and Mulgan are behind a pilot scheme, which is teaching Positive Psychology in secondary schools around Britain. They hope that Positive Psychology could supplement, or replace, another new New Labour introduction to the curriculum: Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning.

Again, Positive Psychology presents itself as a science rather than a moral philosophy. Its founder, Martin Seligman, insists that it is merely descriptive, and does not take any moral position on what constitutes the good life. It merely describes the different forms of happiness, without suggesting which form humans should seek (so Seligman claims).

And yet behind the pseudo-science is very much the Aristotelian idea of the good life as the pursuit of virtue and the fulfillment of our human nature. In place of the Aristotelian virtues, we have Positive Psychology’s idea of the ‘strengths’: courage, temperance, wisdom, self-control etc.

Positive Psychology tries to ‘prove’ what interventions lead to eudaimonia through the use of questionnaires and life satisfaction surveys. “It’s Aristotle with a seven-point scale”, as one practitioner put it.

A word of warning

These policies are attempts to go beyond merely the liberal defence of negative liberty, and instead to promote positive liberty, to promote the eudaimonic virtues of self-knowledge, self-mastery and political engagement.

They are attempts to take politics beyond moral relativism and to find a new common idea of the Good Life which we can seek to cultivate in ourselves and our children.

I personally have been deeply influenced by this attempt to go beyond moral relativism, go beyond post-modernism, and return to a virtue-based politics. I’ve been inspired by it ever since I happened to buy that Demos collection, The Good Life, when I was in my second year at university in 1998.

But a word of warning: both CBT and Positive Psychology present themselves as empirical sciences, rather than moral philosophies. They insist that they are morally neutral, that they are merely interested in scientifically testing ‘what works’ in the pursuit of happiness.

This is what has enabled governments to embrace them and promote them. Governments can then say that they are not over-stepping the bounds of moral neutrality, are not dabbling in elitist moral paternalism. They are merely promoting well-researched scientific and technocratic paths to well-being. It’s not moral philosophy. It’s science.

Now in some ways, ancient philosophy was a science. It was grounded in a theory of human psychology, a theory of how humans can learn to control their thoughts, emotions and behaviour. This theory is today known as the cognitive theory of emotions, and it has been largely proved correct through the success of CBT in helping people overcome emotional and behavioural disorders.

So ancient Socratic philosophy was a science. It told people how to change their thoughts, beliefs and emotions.

But it was also a moral philosophy. It went on to tell people what they should believe and value.

And here, the various philosophical schools that descended from Socrates actually disagreed. There was no consensus about what humans should value, or what the goal of life should be.

The Stoics believed that virtue was all that was sufficient for happiness. The Aristotelians believed that the good life consisted in virtue, but also in some external conditions, such as wealth and freedom. The Cynics believed in dropping out of society to return to nature. The Epicureans believed in the pursuit of utility and pleasure.

They all shared the principles of Socratic psychology and Socratic ethics: the idea that that you can learn to know and control your thoughts, and that it is a good thing to do this. But they then took this basic starting point in different directions.

So ancient philosophy was a two-stage process:

Stage one – the scientific stage: how to know yourself, how to challenge your beliefs, how to control yourself.

Stage two – the moral stage: what you should believe, what you should value, how you should live.

I believe governments can and should teach their citizens Stage One. I think CBT does this very successfully. It is grounded in a scientifically-proven model of human psychology, and it trains people how to become conscious of their thoughts and beliefs, how to take responsibility for their thoughts and beliefs, and how to change them.

It doesn’t go much further than that. It doesn’t tell people what they should value or seek in life, beyond teaching them the basic Socratic ethics and techniques of self-knowledge and self-mastery (one could argue that these are not valuable ethics, but I think most democratic societies can agree that they are).

Positive Psychology at its best simply teaches young people Stage One: here’s how to understand and control your thoughts and emotions.

But it also, I would argue, tries to teach people Stage Two: here’s what you should believe and how you should live if you want to be happy. And it tries to do this as a science.

I think this is wrong, because it is bad science – you can’t prove what makes a fulfilled or meaningful life – and it is even worse moral philosophy. It doesn’t teach people that there are different competing models of the Good Life, which may share common features, but which also have important differences.

Teaching young people that there is one scientifically proven path to happiness actually damages their ability to think for themselves: which is a crucial part of Stage One, and a crucial part of their ability to achieve happiness.

Stage Two should never be presented as a ‘science’. There is no scientifically-proven path to the Good Life, because the Good Life always involves questions of value, belief and virtue. It will always be a matter of debate, and you should teach young people to understand and debate the different approaches to question of what makes a Good Life.

A proposal

That is why I think the Good Life should be taught at a subject that includes religious education, citizenship education, and emotional literacy. These subjects are at the moment three different subjects, but really they are all the same thing. They are all philosophy.

Emotional literacy is the teaching of Stage One: how do we learn to control our thoughts and feelings? This is the entry level Socratic teaching that makes religious education and citizenship education possible.

Religious education and citizenship education are both Stage Two: what is the meaning of life, what should we value in life, and how should we pursue it, as individuals and as a society?

This should involve the teaching of different models of the Good Life: Christian, Muslim, Stoic-Aristotelian, Buddhist, and liberal. It should encourage debate and experimentation, rather than passive acceptance of either ‘religious tradition’ or ‘scientific fact’.

It should teach both the differences in these traditions, and their common features – their common acceptance of the Socratic goal of ‘knowing thyself’ and learning to control yourself (Stage One).

It is thus based in a common idea of human nature and a common set of spiritual practices. But it also acknowledges and accepts the diversity of approaches to the Good Life, rather than trying to pretend there is one scientifically-proven path to the Good Life, which is a pernicious and harmful idea.

A new virtue politics, a new politics of eudaimonia, can go some way beyond complete moral relativism. But it should tread extremely carefully. And it should not try to sidestep honest moral debate with spurious claims to scientific objectivity.