Modus Vivendi Liberalism and the Right

Over at Alternative Right, Jim Kalb and others frequently argue for a return to traditionalism. I think it would be more effective to simply argue for a return to Liberalism. (From a purely pragmatic perspective, you simply are not going to go from perfectionist liberalism to a traditional form of perfectionism.)

Patrick Neal, in his Liberalism and its Discontents (1998), outlines the situation and the type of liberalism I am speaking of:

Contemporary liberal discourse is dominated by the competition between political (Rawls) and perfectionist (Raz, Dworkin) models. The ignored third party to this conversation is that of what Rawls calls the “modus Vivendi” view, or what I refer to here are vulgar liberalism. Both political and perfectionist liberals, as well as critics of liberalism, take it as more or less obvious that this model is deeply deficient. This chapter tries to show that this is not so, and that there a good deal to be said in defense of “merely” vulgar liberalism.

But is “a good deal” enough? That is more difficult to say. It may well be that case that only those claimed by and devoted to something other than liberalism could be enthusiastic about the appeal of this minimalistic type of political liberalism. But that itself would be a telling fact, at least in light of the professed attempt by ecumenical political liberals to propose terms of political association with broad appeal to more people than simply those who already affirm liberalism as a comprehensive philosophy of life. Vulgar liberalism is less liberal but more political than political liberalism – and therefore more likely to approach the ecumenical ends sought by political liberalism itself.

By vulgar (or minimal) liberalism, Neal is not referring to libertarianism. Libertarianism is just a theory of (minimal) governance, which may or may not aspire to Liberal or illiberal ends. Rather, he is referring to a minimalistic theory of the Liberal Good – that is, a political theory of Justice and Morality.

The virtues of the Hobbesian, modus vivendi account of liberalism are best appreciated when seen against the background of the vices arising from perfectionist and neutralist versions. Modus Vivendi liberalism certainly does not constitute a political theory capable of speaking to the deepest needs of the human soul; indeed, as I understand it, it openly eschews the attempt to do so and acknowledges (at least ideally) both its modest reach and limited aspiration. The essence of the idea is that political justices is to be understood as an agreement upon terms of political procedure which an be worked out amongst the actual existent group embodying differing accounts of the good in a given set of circumstances. The agreement is provisional and always subject to change, and is understood to be so by those who have agreed to abide by it….
…The differences between the Rawlsian idea of overlapping consensus and the idea of modus vivendi is not that the former presumes a motivating desire to seek and live by principles of justice whereas the latter does not, but that the overlapping consensus restricts the bounds of political community in a way that the modus Vivendi idea does not. In the overlapping consensus idea, conceptions of the good and the groups embodying them which reject the liberal principle of political legitimacy are defined outside the sphere of full political legitimacy. I think this is too narrow a view of pluralism to adequately capture and express what is best about the essential spirit of liberalism, that “imagination of various possibilities” of which Trilling spoke.

While non-modus vivendi Liberalism is anathema to Right-thinking — modus vivendi Liberalism can co-exist with it.

For those interested, I linked (to a link of — copyright and all) his essays on which this concept is based.

Liberalism and Neutrality
A Liberal Theory of the Good?
Perfectionism With a Liberal Face? Nervous Liberals and Raz’s Politial Theory
Vulgar Liberalism (1993).

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One Response to Modus Vivendi Liberalism and the Right

  1. Pingback: Old right, Nietzschean right « Occidental Ascent

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