Liberalism and Happiness

In After Virtue, MacIntyre claims that you can’t have a coherent moral theory or moral language without some idea of happiness, of what makes a life good and worth living.

This is unfortunate, since MacIntyre also claims that such an idea is precisely what is missing from liberalism. This is both in the sense that liberalism as a theory is deliberately agnostic on such matters, and in the sense that societies heavily influenced by liberalism have no shared conception of happiness. As a result, moral discourse in such societies, including political discourse, is impoverished and fragmented, say MacIntyre.

Note, the claim isn’t that nobody in such societies has ideas on the issue – it’s that such ideas are kept out of politics and public debate. Note also that this is an area where it’s hard to criticise liberalism from the left: socialism, anarchism, etc. share these features, and are in effect merely variant forms of liberalism. Criticism from the right is more readily available: conservatism and nationalism are both often keen to volunteer advice about how people should live happy lives.

Either of the above two premises might be false: a view of happiness might be unnecessary, or liberalism’s conceit of taking no stance on happiness might actually be false. But although I have my suspicions on both scores, I’m still inclined to be sympathetic to MacIntyre’s argument.

On the other hand, I also feel an urge to resist it. Isn’t the liberal disavowal of questions of happiness a good thing, something backed up by good reasons? I won’t pretend to give a conclusive answer, but I can at least review what I take the relevant issues to be. Off the top of my head, I can think of four plausible reasons to keep questions of what makes life worth living away from politics:

1) Truthfulness: this is a domain where no correct or incorrect views are possible, so it would be irrational for society to endorse any one answer. It would make as much sense as a governmental pronouncement on whether vanilla or chocolate ice cream is nicer;

2) Virtue: this is a domain where it’s important and difficult to get the correct view, so it’s important to give people training and space to think for themselves. If they were allowed to rely on publically-endorsed opinions, people would be relieved of the burden of choosing their own way in life, and society would be deprived of the progress that might result;

3) Peace: people care so much about this kind of thing, and agreement is so hard to reach, that embodying different such views in public institutions is a threat to civil harmony;

4) Freedom: if there is a publically-held view of what constitutes a good life, those who dissent or deviate will be oppressed, whether legally or by social disapproval.

The first thing that jumps out is that the first two of these reasons are in direct conflict: one says that how to live is undecidable, the other that it’s enormously important to decide. So one or the other must be wrong, and my opinion is that it’s 1 – the question of what makes a life good is not simply a matter of taste.

What about the other three? All of them are consequential arguments: under certain conditions, certain consequences will follow. This means that they are, ultimately, empirical – the way to judge them is whether available evidence bears them out. And I’m not sure whether it does.

But the other thing that means is that whether they’re good arguments is very circumstantial: it depends on a lot of variables. It would be very hard to justify such an argument if it was made ahistorically, for all time, all possible societies.

To put it another way, they’re not really arguments about whether to allow views about good lives into politics – they’re arguments about how to do so (namely, in a way that avoids dogma, conflict, and oppression). And that means, importantly, about who controls the process: whose power, and whose interests, condition and make use of any such discourse?

So the right verdict might be that these arguments for liberalism (or this aspect of it) is not ‘good arguments’ or ‘bad arguments’ but arguments which depend on the nature of the institutions which control the public space.

This could vindicate liberalism, if those institutions are currently, and for the foreseeable future, dangerous and untrustworthy, and also endorse the substance of MacIntyre’s critique, merely adding that the conditions he objects to cannot be changed in the current type of society. That feels right to me, on balance – but then that proves nothing. And perhaps I’ve missed something important?

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