Freedom from Harm: Andrew Jason Cohen’s “Liberalism Reconceived”

Andrew Jason Cohen has written and important book. While I will not quibble over issues of toleration and the metaphysical dilemma of universalism or monism vs. pluralism—wherein the liberal philosophical tradition while advocating “toleration” endorses metaphysical monism—Cohen’s “reappraisal” of liberalism as a philosophy promoting freedom from harm is not so much new as it is a timely arrival over debates as to the nature of liberalism and what the doctrine entails. The book is more a survey connecting, rightly and wrongly (or unconvincingly) the origins of the liberal dogma freedom from harm. This is not new, however, as freedom from harm (and violent death) is the basis of the classical liberals: Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, and Mill.

Cohen’s book is strongest where he connects his conceptualization of freedom as freedom from harm with those of the classical liberal philosophers and economists. He rightly identifies the strand of thought which includes Locke, Ricardo, and Mill, among others, as progenitors of this tradition of material and social well-being as foundational to liberalism. Far from being a philosophy of “individual rights” or “rule of law”—as if rights just magically appeared in the seventeenth century and the rule of law along with it—liberalism is properly conceived of by Cohen as a program to maximize comfortability through material possessions which ease our bodily defects and other such bodily harms.
While Cohen’s introductory definition of liberalism as being about “autonomy and toleration” (p. 2), he rightly traces from his foundations where liberalism did develop: Freedom From Want (or Harm). In this sense Cohen identifies autonomy (free from harmful external imposition) and toleration (freedom from external imposition) as providing the cornerstone for the development and explosion of market liberalism and the concept of the “positive welfare of citizens” (p. 4).

Cohen’s honesty about liberalism being only a political ideology, rather than a social philosophy (p. 4) is also a noteworthy moment of honesty. Critics of liberalism have piled on liberalism precisely because it is not a comprehensive social and anthropological philosophy—or that it reduces man to a mass of matter in motion wherefrom the freedom from harm exhausts itself into a relativistic hedonism similar, but not the same, to ancient Epicureanism (because Epicureanism wasn’t ideological and didn’t seek to create a political reality for itself). As such, Cohen is also honest about his work not seeking (or attempting) to address seminal questions of political philosophy. That said, his honesty about what liberalism is and isn’t, as well as his understanding of liberalism as primarily understanding “freedom” about being the freedom from harm which logically leads to material well-being and welfare being the end of liberalism, is spot on. He doesn’t mince words about.

Because of the association of freedom from harm being the cornerstone of this “new” liberalism (which isn’t new but is thoroughly liberal), Cohen rests upon the non-harm principle as necessitating autonomy and toleration. Autonomy and toleration are two guarantors of non-harm (from others).

Since this work is not a comprehensive treatise over liberalism Cohen doesn’t spend much time examining what most political philosophers already know: That classical liberalism laid the seeds for the expansive apparatus of the modern liberal welfare state. Unlike the likes of David Rubin and other “classical liberals” who charge modern liberalism as having abandoned traditional/classical liberalism, Cohen does see the continuity between classical and modern thought owing to their reductionist materialism, concern for autonomous action (even if only in the realm of the economic sphere per Locke, Smith, and Ricardo), and general arguments for toleration (though without delving into what “toleration” really entails). From this emerges the great liberal doctrine of free choice: To decide for oneself what one’s religion will be (or not be), what will provide him or her maximum bodily happiness, and what one shall do with their lives (rather than inheriting the family trade or business, etc.).

Cohen’s work should be read as a companion guide—slightly more philosophical and intellectual—with Kathleen Donahue’s Freedom from Want: American Liberalism and the Idea of the Consumer which traces the origins and outgrowth of consumer liberalism and the New Deal as premised on the freedom from want (read: harm). Cohen’s work may add more historical substance to Donahue’s great treatise examining how consumeristic liberalism emerged as the most likely medium to achieve Roosevelt’s social liberal dream.

I should remark, here, that I am not a liberal. I am not a liberal for many reasons, including some of the reasons Cohen outlined. However, Cohen’s work is a refreshing breath of intellectual honesty and integrity. He does not conjure up an imaginary liberalism from YT videos and Wikipedia; nor does he bombastically present the tired and worn out Whig Myth of Progress and blame religion for so many of the woes of society. Moreover, Cohen is spot on that the essence of liberalism is not what Bill Maher, Dave Rubin, Carl Benjamin (and a whole assortment of otherwise shallow and generally ignorant public “intellectuals”) proclaim liberalism is about. Cohen rightly identifies—even if in a supposed “reappraisal”—that the essence of liberalism aims at a world free from harm (and thus free from conflict and external impositions imposed on the “autonomous individual”).

While one could easily spar with Cohen over the flaws, shortcomings, and blind spots of liberalism (precisely because it is purely a political doctrine and not a comprehensive social theory or philosophy of human nature), those with a good knowledge of philosophy and political philosophy will find that Cohen’s work is, in fact, well within the liberal tradition. In an age when cheap and shallow taglines and catchphrases (or tired old narratives) reign supreme, Cohen’s book is a short, but still scholarly, dive into the world of political ideology and of liberalism in general. For those who seek a good and widely accepted (philosophical) understanding of liberalism but not diving too far into the waters of philosophy (and political philosophy especially), read Cohen’s work.

While it is not a book that will teach you to think and come up with rebuttals to the dogmas of liberalism, it is a book that openly and honestly presents why classical liberalism ended up where it is today. And it, ultimately, has nothing to do with modern liberalism abandoning classical liberalism but classical liberalism coming into its own in modernity in a highly modernized, urbanized, industrialized, capitalized, and globalized world. Given that Professor Cohen is a philosopher, it is not surprising that he rightly knows what liberalism is, and how modern liberalism is rooted in classical liberal thought.

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