Interview conducted at Rockford University by Stephen Hicks and sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship as a part of the Profiles in Liberty series.
Rasmussen: I guess the reason I became a philosopher is because I was asking questions at a very early age. I remember in my Sunday school class, I would keep on asking why, why, and why and being told, “Well, you are a Greek, not a Hebrew,” or something like that, and I enjoyed it and I found to be fun. At about the age of eighteen, in fact, I was interviewed for a sort of student spotlight thing, and I decided that Rasmussen wants to be a philosopher. And I really couldn’t imagine my life without doing it, so it’s been an easy choice for me.
Where did you go to college?
I went to the University of Iowa for my undergraduate degrees in Philosophy and Economics, and my doctorate was from Marquette University in Milwaukee.
Why does liberal society need a philosophical basis?
Well, liberal society, let’s try to define our terms a little bit here. Let’s define liberalism as the political, philosophical view that holds that liberty is the paramount value for the political, legal order. Liberty is the value. Now, there are a lot of folks that would say, well, liberty is a value, but it’s one among many. There is equality, justice, virtue, etc. So, if we understand liberalism or a liberal society as one that holds liberty be paramount, then we have to explain why it is paramount over contending values. So that’s, in a nutshell, why we have to have a deeper answer to the question. Also, just to put it in another way, political philosophy is a fairly, middle-range set view, and it presupposes certain views about ethics, about human nature, and about reality. So, it also requires, even if it’s not in the deductive way, other philosophical insights to set a context in which it might be understood.
You present those themes in detail in your books Liberty and Nature, Liberalism Defended, and Norms of Liberty. What is your argument for liberty?
These works, I should begin by saying, are works that I co-authored with Douglas Den Uyl. He and I went to graduate school together and started doing projects together. And so, these three works that I will be talking about is a joint project between myself and Doug.
But, anyway, Liberty and Nature set out to make an argument for liberalism by appealing to a tradition of thought that is usually thought to be antithetical to liberalism, and that is the Aristotelian tradition. And what we did in that book was develop an account of ethics that’s Aristotelian-inspired. We are not trying to do scholarship about Aristotle, but it’s inspired from Aristotle and that tradition. And in that book we argue that there is an account of human flourishing that gives rise to an understanding not only of the ethical life but the need for political principles and, in particular, political principles that could be understood as natural rights. These natural rights could be described more or less as Lockean — life, liberty, property. These would be negative rights, the right not to be interfered with in one’s choices, one’s living, and one’s use of one’s own property. And so, we began then in Liberty and Nature to talk about how this view of ethics could support such a theory of rights.
We also in that book talked a lot about how to understand the concept of the common good of the political community, and we went after fairly traditional accounts of the common good and argued, instead, that the common good of the political community should be understood as a political legal order based on rights. We also in that book spent some time asking ourselves whether the political, legal order known as liberalism was really something that was possible. In other words, is it more than just a philosopher’s pipe dream? Is it something that could be realistically achieved? And we’ve argued for answering that question affirmatively.
Now, Liberty and Nature got us going. The next book, Liberalism Defended, came about first as an essay, and then Charles Rowley at The Locke Institute published it as a monograph because it was a large essay. And we were, in that work, considering two contemporary thinkers that we thought were challenging the point of view that we had, and these two thinkers were John Gray and Alasdair MacIntyre. John Gray argued that the whole notion of human flourishing or perfectionism was an incoherent notion, and so was the attempt to try to base anything on human fulfillment, self-actualization, living the life proper to human being. Those types of concepts really didn’t stand up, he argued. And Alasdair MacIntyre argued that if one really wanted to endorse an Aristotelian-type ethic or virtue ethic or any ethic that’s in that sort of view, then you really have to reject liberalism. MacIntyre was famous for posing the choice of either Aristotle or Nietzsche, and he argued for Aristotle. And then he said, “either Aristotle or liberalism,” and he argued for Aristotle. We, of course, in this book, Liberalism Defended, responded that Gray’s understanding of perfectionism was flawed, flawed because by and large it assumed the good for human beings was a one-size-fits-all conception of the good, and we challenged that. And we also went after MacIntyre’s understanding of the Aristotelian tradition and also his understanding of liberalism.
And, in making these arguments against Gray and MacIntyre, both Den Uyl and I realized that we had something more going on to say about liberalism and how to defend it, and this gave raise to our third book, which was Norms of Liberty. Norms of Liberty continued to develop the idea of human flourishing, or as I sometimes call it, ‘self-perfection’ and what type of ethic that was. We called this ethic ‘individualistic perfectionism’. So, we continued to develop that, but we did in a context that asked people to reconsider what liberalism really was. And there we argued that liberalism should not be understood as either an ethics or a world view, but as just a political philosophy. And, as such, it required a deeper structure to support it. And, when we started talking about this deeper structure, what we would come to realize is two things: that liberalism was a political philosophy and I am going to use a technical term that we developed — it was a political philosophy of meta-norms — and that the way to understand liberalism also required us to understand what liberalism’s conception of what political philosophy was about. To get both these points we needed to look at deeper structure, and that deeper structure is called individualistic perfectionism.
But, now, let me explain myself a little bit here because I used a technical term, meta-norms, and one of the things that Den Uyl and I started to realize is that norms are not all of the same type. The idea that norms all have the same function, we think it is a mistake, and one way of trying to begin to get this idea across is to consider an analogy. The analogy is baseball, something I like and I think hopefully the audience here will know. If one is playing baseball and one strikes out and then one returns to the bench, one is acting or playing the game according to the rules. And there are rules that constitute or determine what it is to play baseball. Also, though, if you are playing baseball and the situation is such that you need to do a certain thing to advance a runner, or you hit the ball to the right and you need to execute in this way, you are following the rules for playing baseball well. And one of things that we started thinking about is that there are norms that tell us what ought to be regarding the general structure of things and norms that tell us what to do in terms of living our lives. And, one of the things we want to say, then, about this is that the liberal understanding, and now we want specifically want to talk about here individual rights, life, liberty and property. The way to really understand the liberal approach to rights is to conceive of rights not was as norms that people use to achieve a worthwhile life or to be virtuous or good or even just in the sense of the virtue of justice, but rather these are norms that have to do with what we need in order to have a certain type of society, a certain type of political, legal order. And I will explain that more in a minute. But, the point we wanted really emphasize was that we needed to rethink what we thought about rights. But even more, we needed to rethink what it was that political philosophy was about, and this is one of the key things about liberalism. Liberalism, if it is to be understood, is a political philosophy that rejects the idea that the political, legal order exists to make men moral or, to use George Will’s famous phrase, the idea of “statecraft as soulcraft”, to be the soulcraft, left-wing versions of it or right-wing versions of it. The liberal order rejects that kind of thing.
So, anyway, to try to defend all of these distinctions and to understand liberalism, we argued in Norms of Liberty that if we looked at human flourishing, individualistic perfectionism again, we are going to find a view of human perfection and flourishing that is objective, individualized, age-relative, self-directed, and social. And we consider all of those factors, what it means to be a flourishing human being, and once we reject the idea that objectivity requires that something be universal, that is possible for something to be objective and individualized. And once we understand the human flourishing is always related to a particular person, then we have some traction for showing. This is one of our big points in the book, that the aim of the political, legal order cannot be to achieve human flourishing or even the conditions for human flourishing because it’s too diverse and too different. And more importantly, what usually happens when you try to do that, you also end up running afoul of one of the central features of the nature of human flourishing, namely, that human flourishing is not something that happens to you, but it’s something that you do yourself. It’s a self-directed activity.
Now, because of this account of human flourishing, and I can’t go through the whole book obviously, but what we say is there is a problem that results. And the problem is the problem of how do we integrate a political, legal order in such a way that going to deal with the diversity of flourishing? How do we have principles that will apply to everybody and, at the same time, will not prejudice that political order towards one form of flourishing as opposed to another? And we call this sort of question that comes about from our account of individualistic perfectionism that political philosophy has to address ‘liberalism’s problem’ because liberalism has been one of the few theories that has, for the most part, understood that the question for political philosophy is how do we have rules of the game that will not be prejudicial against one form of flourishing as opposed to another. Rules of the game that will respect the uniqueness of individuals, rules of the game that will protect the self-directness of people and thereby allow for the possibility of people exercising their choices. How do we do that? And, that problem we call ‘liberalism’s problem’ because liberalism addresses it. It’s not a problem for liberalism. In a sense, it’s a weakness of liberalism, but in the sense that it is liberalism’s task. So that’s how we use that term. And so, what do we do in addressing this task, which we call ‘liberalism’s problem’? How do we get this unity within among all of this diversity? We end up having a set of criteria that needs to be fulfilled, and I’ve already gone through some of them. And so, what we end up saying is that it’s really a mistake to try to have the political order primarily or directly aimed at achieving the human good. Rather, you want to find a solution to this problem. This problem is legitimate, how do we solve it?
Well, we argue that the only feature of human flourishing that we can use to solve liberalism’s problem is the protection of the possibility of self-direction. The way we do that is we have a set of meta-norms that protect that possibility, and that’s what negative rights end up being. And this is a long story. This is the idea, and once we have this idea we can go on and say, but look, when we’re debating with people about what should or should not be done, do not grant the premise that “oh, this is good for human beings”. Once you get into the debate that the government, or the State, or the law exist to do what is good for human beings, then any and everything that could be good for human beings or could promote something that would help human beings achieve their good is a plausible candidate for government action. And the whole insight of the liberal tradition is to say, no, statecraft is not soulcraft. This is the key insight. And so what you would like to do, and we say this in the book, is, just as it is generally recognized in our culture that the political should be separated from the religious, we want to say that the political should be separated from the substance of substantive ethics. Now, in another sense, of course, we are making an ethical claim because we endorse rights. But rights are norms that have to do with how to play the game, not how to play the game well.
And so, in a way, this is how we want to do that. There are a lot of interesting arguments along the way that need to be looked at by people, and what Doug and I think works well in Norms of Liberty is that we go through a lot of objections against liberalism and, indeed, a lot of objections against individualistic perfectionism and show that they can be met. And we do have a way of making an argument for the liberal order, so that’s sort of a long version of an answer to your question.
Which historical philosophers have you learned most from?
Well, I am going to name about four. Obviously, Aristotle for his metaphysical realism, for his modern essentialism, his life-based natural teleology, his understanding of logic as a human tool and not something purely formal, his understanding of practical wisdom, and what he suggests by that. I think in modern philosophy there are two people who should be paid a lot more attention to.
I like the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid for his criticisms of Hume, especially on the issue of conceivability.
Then there is a Latin Aristotelian whose religious name was John of St. Thomas. John Poinsot is how he is known today. And he, writing in the 16th century, gives us an understanding of awareness and ideas as formal signs. In the Latin, not as id quod but as id quo. In other words, ideas are not something that you know, but they are by which you know. He has a long discussions about all of this, and I think he is a tremendously important source.
And then, finally, I like Anthony Kenny. Anthony Kenny is an Oxford don, and I like his interpretation and understanding of the later Wittgenstein, in particular, how Wittgenstein can be used as a source of arguing against private languages and also against what I would call an excessive rationalistic approach to philosophy. So, those would be the people that, historically in philosophy that I think I’ve learned a lot from and I take something from.
How do those issues of metaphysics connect to liberalism?
What we’re ultimately talking about, I think, if we are going to talk about human flourishing and individualistic perfectionism, if that’s going to be the way in which you find the account of how you justify a liberal political, legal order, then you’ve got to be able to make sense of such claims as there is such a thing as human nature. You’ve got to be able to say that our account of what human beings are is not just something that we made up. It’s not just a sort of pragmatic convention that we use, something that is useful for advancing our ends. We have to say something more than that. We have to say, somehow, that our concepts do map reality. And so, this is where I think getting it right on metaphysics and epistemology is very important. In other words, I think it’s vital that we be able to say that there are things that exist and they are what they are apart from human awareness and that we can, with great difficulty, still come to know these things. It may be a process of three steps forward, two steps back, but we need to have that if we are going to be able to get an ethics and, ultimately, a political philosophy off the ground.
Now, it’s not a straight, deductive line. I am not saying you’ve got your metaphysical premise and out pops individual rights. It’s not that kind of thing, but you need to have a context in which you work and in which you reason. And I am not a fan, I will be very blunt about this, of contemporary analytic philosophy’s use of intuitions as just a starting point, and one just says, well, that’s what I am going to work with. I mean, I am not anti-intuition. I think there is a point for that kind of language in direct insight, but I think you have to be able to put those intuitions in a context that supports and makes sense of them. So, I am fairly systematic or traditionalist. I think you need to pay attention to those more fundamental issues. I guess I could say that when I was talking about Aristotle, I truly think he gives us an approach to ethics that’s important. Ethics is for living, and if ethics doesn’t ultimately relate to our lives and what we do, if it’s something you could ignore like, I guess I could ignore chess, and I could continue to live quite well. Well, if ethics has no greater status than chess, then I think some people might say, well, why bother? In fact, among my students, it’s always interesting that they come in and a standard, freshman or sophomore says well, “Why do I give a hoot about any of these things? Why does this matter?” And they expect me to say, “Well, these things are just things you need to know.” And I say, “No, it’s a very good question. Why do we care about ethics? Let’s start that way.” So, I think Aristotle is in that right vein, and I think, when we get away from that in talking about ethics, we risk making the entire enterprise irrelevant.
Which major historical philosophers do you most disagree with?
Well, I want to preface this by saying, given the standard or general interpretations of these people, because history of philosophy is always coming up with new insights about things. But, I would say, standing on one foot, Rene Descartes. I think the idea that you can start out with an awareness of one’s ideas and plausibly ask whether there is anything else other than one’s own ideas is just a huge philosophical mistake. And I think it’s a non-starter. And then, I think, the standard reading of Kant, both in terms of epistemology and in terms of ethics, I find are non-starters as well. Even though, about both philosophers, obviously they are brilliant and there are lots of things to learn from them. I never tell my students, don’t read or study or learn from these people. But, fundamentally, Descartes and Kant would be the philosophers I disagree with the most.
What is the hardest philosophical problem you are working on now?
Doug and I are working on two projects right now, another book together called The Perfectionist Turn from Meta-norms to Metaphysics and a smaller book called The Illiberality of Human Capabilities and Liberalism. The latter book is going to be a critique of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum’s Human Capabilities and Liberalism. The former book is obviously a continuation on our reviews about ethics, but here we’re going to, in the perfectionist turn, concentrate on ethics and will not do that much political philosophy. But in concentrating on ethics I suppose the most difficult thing I find is being able to explain how it’s true that ethical principles really matter, and at the same time, making sure that that doesn’t end up treating both individuals and their actions as mere instantiations of the principles. In other words, it’s the struggle to make sure that ethical principles are used and they are vital but they don’t get turned into the actual subject matter of ethics. The actual subject matter of ethics must be the individual, the society, their problems and issues. That is what we are dealing with. And so, you’ve got key principles, but keep them open-ended and aware of the context in which ethical problems come about. Too often, even virtue ethicists who say that they are not going to be giving you a rulebook end up giving you a rulebook. And as any ethical theory that wants to emphasize practical wisdom as much as we do in our theory, we’ve got to somehow work with it. It ends up being more difficult than you think. I am in a current survey of a lot of the contemporary ethical theories, and we see over and over again people saying that they don’t want reify principles and yet they end up being reified. Anyway, so that’s a real problem.
What is the most challenging criticism of your views?
I think probably what people would say about our argument defending liberalism in all of our works is that what we show is that liberalism is in principle possible, but we don’t show that’s a real possibility. In other words, people say to me, well, Rasmussen, that’s all fine and good, but are people really up to that? And it’s a question about how philosophy relates to the real world, and I am not a rationalist. I think reality is intelligible, reality is rational, but I don’t think rationality is reality. I think there is a difference between our reason and the real. Reason is a tool, it isn’t the real. Knowledge is of reality, knowledge isn’t reality, if you follow me. And so, I think it’s a difficulty because when we have abstraction and we have concepts, and when we form them, we omit a lot of details. We don’t deny them, we omit them. But those details will bite us in the butt. They will affect the plausibility of what will happen. And so the world isn’t a deductive system. It isn’t just a set of theories. And so, we have to acknowledge that, at best, maybe what you can show in philosophy is what is possible in principle, but actually seeing it done, that’s another matter.
What is the state of liberal thought today among philosophers?
Well, I am going to make a comparative judgment. Comparative to what? To what it was when I started really getting involved with this, which will be the late 60s. I think it’s great. I think there are more philosophers that take seriously liberalism as we are talking about it here than never before. I think we can talk, we go through naming a lot of people, but I mean, I think there is a lot more, and I think there is a lot more published, a lot more done. I think there has been definite progress and not only in terms of how Den Uyl and I approach things but other approaches to it. And so, I think there is a lot of good things that are out there. Now, if the question is, but is this view a minority view among academics? Surely, it is a minority view, and it’s also the case that the real question is: how many philosophers that have a sort of liberal understanding are at the very top universities and graduate programs? And, to be quite honest, I can only think of one person. So, I mean, that’s on the negative side I suppose, but it’s sort of interesting. Here we are in 2010, and in many respects, we were seeing the character of our society change, I think radically, and maybe we won’t be able to change this change, maybe it’s irreparable what’s happening. But it’s sort of ironic that this is happening now, and, at the same time, the arguments on behalf of the liberal, political order are stronger than ever, which may mean there is hope in the future. Who knows?
To bring about a more liberal society, what key practical steps can and should be taken?
I would get education out of the hands of government. I would do anything and everything to encourage alternative ways of getting education, alternative ways of getting information out, anything that goes around the structures, the mazes that we are supposed to run through. I think technology, I think individual initiative, I think people in general are beginning to realize that much that passes for education isn’t authentic education. And so, I think that would be the first thing I would want to emphasize.
I think another thing needs to be done is, if liberalism is really to be successful, it’s got to make a transition from abstract philosophical talk to talk that’s more accessible to people. And so we need writers, we need people in the arts, we need journalists, we need people that understand the more philosophical, abstract statements but express it in ways that are more accessible, as I said. I think that needs to be done.
But, then again, I also want to say that people should really, really question the premise: just because something is good, therefore it ought be done by government. I think it’s a really a non sequitur to go from something is good, therefore the government should do it. Or something is bad, therefore the government should prohibit. I think people ought to learn that’s just a gap there and start questioning that. And so, anything that would sort of straightforwardly at a common sense level emphasize that I would like to see.
I think, to some extent, philosophers, we try to write letters to the editor and that sort of thing. I remember I had a letter or two published by the Wall Street Journal, and it always amazes me how long it takes to write a 160 word letter as opposed to a larger essay. I mean, you kind sweat bullets over it. And so, that may mean something about my own skills or may mean also that we need all sorts of different types of people working on communicating knowledge and a big division of labor point. But, rock-bottom, if I had to say anything, get education out of the hands of the government.
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