Political Philosophy Politics

Liberalism: Freedom from Harm as Freedom from Responsibility

Liberal society—if we can call it a society—is stagnating. Moreover, it should be obvious to any observer over the “whimpification” of liberal society: liberals are weak; liberals are cowards; liberals capitulate to extremist forces; liberals are unwilling to employ the effective use of power; liberals blame other people for their problems; liberals do not take responsibility for their mistakes, misdeeds, or irresponsibility.  Why is this so?

To understand the decadence of liberalism one must understand its metaphysics.  Political science, to this end, with its superficial description over external laws, legal systems, political mechanisms, and so forth, is never going to be a truly intellectual discipline for understanding the nature of the political or political philosophy because it rejects the study of philosophy which served as the foundation for what we now call political ideology.  Any attempt to study politics, political movements, political ideologies, without philosophy is doomed to failure; it is destined only to produce superficial understandings of political traditions as is the case with understanding liberalism and the asinine assertions that liberalism stands for individualism, civil rights, the rule of law, religious toleration, constitutional government, property rights, and representative politics—what exactly does any of this tell us about the deep underpinnings, the metaphysics, of liberalism?  Everything political science ascribes to liberalism are secondary or tertiary, not liberalism in of itself, its first principle, its fundamental nature; political science, in other words, describes what has grown out of the metaphysical center but fails to address the metaphysical center.

Understanding liberalism requires us to go back to those figures who are universally seen as the “classical” liberal fathers: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, and John Stuart Mill (not to discount important French liberals but they happen to get the short stick so we’ll bypass them for the sake of brevity; I already mentioned some of them in this post on liberalism anyway).  In reading their works one will find a similar theme—that metaphysical center—which undergirds the “liberal project.”  That is freedom from harm.  Freedom from harm is the central axiom of liberalism—classical and modern.  It is what links Locke to Rawls.

For those who have read Locke, as opposed to being lied about Locke, Locke’s description of the state of nature is not a rosy and benign one.  It is not the outright “war of all against all” as described by Hobbes, but the state of nature is no paradise in Locke’s thought experiment either.  After all, people left the state of nature for commonwealth society and this is what Locke wants to explain.

Admittedly, one might argue, Locke makes the distinction between the “state of war” and the “state of nature.”  The state of nature is good, insofar that the state of nature is not the state of war.  This line of argumentation would maintain that it is not the state of nature we are abandoning for commonwealth society but the intolerable state of war.  That may be true but Locke’s argumentation in the first four chapters of Two Treatises is not a progressive one-way street.  He is very clear, in his description of the slip from the state of nature into the state of war, that the starting point of the state of nature necessarily and always backslides into the state of war.  If we were otherwise stuck in a state of nature of stasis there would have never been a reason to leave; but, as Locke says, we did leave the state of nature—and we did so because the state of nature exhausts itself into the state of war.  And this state of war is intolerable.  The only solution to the state of war is the commonwealth society.

What Locke presents in the first few chapters of Two Treatises is interesting for readers to recognize.  Locke asserts that the law of nature is self-preservation.  That is the only true “natural right” anyone has in Locke’s thought—though this right to self-preservation manifests itself in various ways.  Property, by technicality, is not a natural right in-of-itself; property is a natural right only insofar that it is tied to the law of self-preservation.

But what is the problem in the state of nature and state of war in Locke?  It is that we are fundamentally burdened with the responsibility of being judge, jury, and executioner of the law of nature in the state of nature/state of war.  This burden of responsibility is so great it inhibits us from pursuing the more comfortable end of self-preservation through acquisition of goods or property to have a bodily pleasing or pleasant life.  (Here, Locke is in total agreement with Hobbes that the practical manifestation of The Good is a bodily pleasing life; Locke may have been a dualist, but the practical application of his philosophy is physicalist.)  Furthermore, as Locke says, fear of war and violent death also propels men out of the state of nature.  Fear, or insecurity, and the burdensome responsibility of being personal executive of the law of nature (which prevents the enjoyment of leisure and the fruits of labor) propel men into civil society.

This stems from Locke’s metaphysical center—the freedom from harm.  Man is compelled to act, per Locke (as with Hobbes, Spinoza, and Mill) through the want to escape harm—bodily harm.  The drive for material acquisition and wealth is the want to escape the discomforts (harm) of poverty.  The drive to foster compromise and the establishment of the rule of law in civil society is the want to escape bodily conflict that may lead to death.  The drive claim property for oneself is the want to escape the discomforts of poverty too.  These are all derivative outgrowths of self-preservation but what is the end of self-preservation?  What does self-preservation aim for?  Escaping harm.

The reality of liberalism as the flight from harm necessarily, inevitably—as we see today—leads to the freedom from responsibility (i.e. sacrifice).  This desire to free oneself of responsibility of being judge, jury, and executioner of the law of nature in the state of nature was already identified by Locke (and others) as one of the reasons for man leaving the state of nature—however benign or chaotic it was.  The logic of Locke becomes inescapable.  What drives “progress” is the abdication of responsibility and its transference to civil government.  Rather than take responsibility for oneself, one’s life, one’s action, etc., the individual refuses to take responsibility because responsibility is itself harmful.

I am not arguing that Locke qua Locke argues against responsibility.  I am arguing, as is clear in the logic of Locke’s political philosophy, that the abdication of responsibility necessarily manifests itself within the Lockean framework.  If the flight from harm and the want for material comfort and lack of distress or worry is what motivates man in the liberal vision, then it logically and necessarily follows that man will renege all responsibilities that he regards as painful or harmful.  It is my argument that this will eventually exhaust itself into the welfare state and the civil government providing for its citizens because a government which nurses, or provides, is a government that frees the individual from their own work and responsibilities to achieve material comfort on their own which requires harmful (physically laborious or time-consuming) work, inability to enjoy leisure time (as that time would be spent working), and sacrifice.

As responsibility is seen as a constraint on individual want, the individual comes to jettison responsibility precisely because responsibility is seen as harmful; as well as being constrictive to free choice and movement.  If I have an obligation, or responsibility, I am forced to do X instead of whatever else I may wish to do instead.  In running an opportunity-cost analysis I find my responsibility more detrimental (i.e. harmful) than doing Y or Z.  Therefore, as I am motivated to avoid that which is most harmful (the responsibility), I reject my responsibility and pass it off to government (which was established to take on the responsibilities of being the arbiter of the law of nature according to Locke).

Therefore, liberal societies are in a state of catatonic paralysis.  This desire to be free from harm leads to a freedom from responsibility.  Anyone familiar with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” will immediately see a connection to this theme of freedom from.  Roosevelt was not an aberration of liberalism but its culminating fulfillment; the same is true of the welfare state.  Moreover, liberals are generally seen as “weak-kneed.”  Rather than fight, or struggle, which entails the possibility of harm, they seek compromise to avoid harm (freedom from harm).  In time this spirit of compromise exhausts itself in capitulation.  Rather than fight to conserve, preserve, and pass on (which is often harmful), liberals capitulate and “hope for best.”  Liberalism promises freedoms to do whatever you want to do; free from responsibility if something “goes wrong” (i.e. harmful). The end point of liberalism’s movement is a society without responsibility because it creates individuals who do not take responsibility because responsibility is seen as harmful and, therefore, fundamentally antagonistic to the liberal dream of freedom from harm which entails freedom from responsibility.


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    1. I must admit, though Nietzsche is clearly wrong about a number of things, I have been very much influenced by his prophetic understanding of where liberalism leads men and what the crisis of modernity is. I’m unsure if it is good or bad, but I have a soft spot for him.

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