The Idea of a Liberal Theory

The Idea of a Liberal Theory: A Critique and Reconstruction

David Johnston
Copyright Date: 1994
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    The Idea of a Liberal Theory
    Book Description:

    Liberalism, the founding philosophy of many constitutional democracies, has been criticized in recent years from both the left and the right for placing too much faith in individual rights and distributive justice. In this book, David Johnston argues for a reinterpretation of liberal principles he contends will restore liberalism to a position of intellectual leadership from which it can guide political and social reforms. He begins by surveying the three major contemporary schools of liberal political thought--rights-based, perfectionist, and political liberalism--and, by weeding out their weaknesses, sketches a new approach he calls humanist liberalism.

    The core of Johnston's humanist liberalism is the claim that the purpose of political and social arrangements should be to empower individuals to be effective agents. Drawing on and modifying the theories of John Rawls, Michael Walzer, Ronald Dworkin, Joseph Raz, Amartya Sen, and others, Johnston explains how this purpose can be realized in a world in which human beings hold fundamentally different conceptions of the ends of life. His humanist liberalism responds constructively to feminist, neo-Marxist, and other criticisms while remaining faithful to the core values of the liberal tradition.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2151-8
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
    (pp. 3-10)

    At its inception and for much of its early history, the liberal tradition of political theory was radical both in its intentions and in its principal effects. Locke was a revolutionary and, in his best-known political writings, a shrewd opponent of the absolutist tendencies that had been manifest in England throughout much of the seventeenth century. Adam Smith brilliantly exposed the crude assumptions and calamitous consequences of the mercantile system that dominated the economic and trade policies of most European states in his day. In France liberal principles justified a wide-ranging program of legal and social reforms, including abolition of...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Political Theory and Liberal Values
    (pp. 11-39)

    Imagine that you have been asked to participate in the founding of a new society. One of your tasks is to help select the institutions and practices that will regulate that society’s affairs. You do not have to invent those institutions and practices ex nihilo, nor do you have to gather the empirical information on which your decision will be based. That preliminary work has been done for you. Instead, you are presented with a handful of ready-made plans, each of which describes the institutions and practices of a hypothetical but fully operational society. The information provided in the plans...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Rights-Based Liberalism
    (pp. 40-67)

    One way in which political and social arrangements can embody recognition of individuals equally as agents is to treat those individuals equally as bearers of rights. The idea of individuals as rights-bearers has played a major and well-known role in the liberal tradition from Locke onward. In this chapter I want to explore how far we can take this idea toward a persuasive liberal account of the bases of political and social criticism. I want to suggest that accounts of the bases of social criticism that rely on individual rights to do all or most of their work face substantial...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Perfectionist Liberalism
    (pp. 68-99)

    Rights are valuable because human beings are agents. That is, we are creatures who are capable of conceiving and of trying to bring to fruition projects and values, including projects and values that are not designed simply to affect our own experiences. In this chapter I want to consider a strand of liberal thought that develops the concept of human agency into a normative conception of the person and places that conception at the center of an account of the bases of political criticism.

    The idea that a normative conception of persons might play the key role in an account...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Political Liberalism
    (pp. 100-136)

    In order to construct worthwhile lives for themselves in association with others, human beings have to develop their capacities as agents as well as their capacity for a sense of justice. But human beings also need resources in order to shape their lives in ways that will be meaningful to them. Rights-based and perfectionist approaches to liberal theory do not ignore resources, of course. In John Rawls’s theory of justice as fairness, however, in contrast to these other approaches, questions about the nature and distribution of the resources that are relevant to political and social criticism play a central role....

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Humanist Liberalism
    (pp. 137-185)

    Rawls’s political liberalism focuses attention on the fact that human beings reasonably conceive diverse and conflicting values and projects, or “comprehensive doctrines with their conceptions of the good,”¹ as he prefers to put it. Yet recognition of this fact runs through the family of liberal political theories as a whole instead of being distinctive to Rawls. The assumption of reasonable value pluralism, as I have called it, is a pragmatic implication of the more fundamental liberal premise that human beings are agents, beings who conceive values and formulate plans, including plans that involve states of the world that are not...

    (pp. 186-192)

    I began this book by asking what counts in political and social criticism. For most of its history, theories in the liberal tradition of political thought have answered this question by focusing on two kinds of features of the social world. The first is individual rights and liberties. What seemed to count most of all, to many thinkers in the early liberal tradition, was whether political and social arrangements protected these rights and liberties. Liberals held different views about the means for protection on which reliance was to be placed—some emphasized natural and positive laws, whereas others stressed social...

  11. References
    (pp. 193-200)
  12. Index
    (pp. 201-204)