The Idealist Revision of Liberalism

The Idealist Revision of Liberalism. This revision of liberal theory was accomplished in the two decades following 1880 by the Oxford idealists of whom Thomas Hill Green was the most important representative, at least in political philosophy. In the United States there was an analogous and related movement in philosophy of which Josiah Royce was the best known representative; the pragmatism of John Dewey was a later development from idealism which carried on its liberalism but rejected its metaphysics.


With the exception of Dewey this loosely related group of thinkers was usually described as Neo-Hegelian, though no very exact meaning ever attached to this description. Certainly none of them ever regarded the dialectic as an exact instrument of logical analysis, as Hegel and after him Marx imagined it to be, and none of them accepted the authoritarian strain in Hegel’s political theory.

If some leaned toward conservatism, as contrasted with liberalism, it was still a conservatism that had no misgivings about representative political institutions, and the most radical of them were quite without any leaning toward a theory of class antagonism like Marx’s. What related their social philosophy to that of Hegel was chiefly the very general idea that human nature is fundamentally social.

Oxford idealism was the culmination of the vague body of intellectual influences that came from outside the British empirical tradition, chiefly from post-Kantian, German philosophy, and that had been associated with the names of Coleridge and Carlyle. But there was one important difference. This earlier idealism, because it was largely a criticism of industrialism and its social effects, had never been liberal in its political outlook.

What Green accomplished, then, might be described as a twofold reversal of position. On the one hand he captured for liberalism a Movement of thought which was to dominate Anglo-American philosophy for , full generation at the turn of the century.

On the other hand he revised liberalism to meet the valid objection that, as a one-sided statesmen of class interests, it had stood for a conception of liberty which, in fact if not in intention, amounted to a reckless disregard for social Stability and security. To a considerable degree this revision had only to make coherent and explicit the qualifications by which Mill had in effect ex, planed away the individualism and the egoism of Bentham’s form of liberalism.

The principal purpose of idealism was to reconstruct a system of philosophy, while the purpose of directing a political movement was incidental. Looked at after the event it is easy to see that its main achievement in philosophy was critical. It released British thought once and for all from what had become a burdensome tradition the dissociation psychology and its supposed implications for logic, and in ethics the pleasure-pain theory of motivation and value with its individualist implications for social philosophy.

With respect to the latter the idealists developed and made coherent the criticism of individualism that began with Rousseau’s theory of the general will, and that they found still further elaborated in Hegel’s theory of freedom. The fundamental philosophical problems of idealism, therefore, were the nature of personality, the nature of the social community, and the relationship between the two. Its purpose was to show that personality is realized by finding a significant part to play in the life of society.

Its problems were conceived in terms of logical analysis and metaphysical construction, which was responsible for some of the strength and a good deal of the weakness of idealism. On the one hand it was a fairly effective critic of a form of mechanistic dogmatism that was commoner in science fifty years ago than it is now.

On the other hand the idealist argument moved on a high level of abstraction that often prevented it from exerting its due influence either on scientists or on persons primarily engaged in politics. Idealism tended always to be an academic philosophy and to be stated in a cumbersome, Gormandized terminology that kept it esoteric.

Nevertheless its central problem the mutual dependence between the structure of personality and the cultural structure of its social milieu–was one that has steadily increased in importance over the whole range of social studies. Idealism was the agency through which this problem emerged into social psychology and impinged upon a more concrete conception of a liberal society.

There were special circumstances that make the study of T. H, Green’s philosophy difficult. He died relatively young and the only books which he completed and published hardly mention any political or concrete social question. His Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation was put together and edited after his death from his notes and from those of his students.

Moreover, Green’s own experience was in the main academic, though he was concerned throughout his life with the improvement of secondary education. He had at first hand almost no acquaintance with the social problems created by industrialization, though he had been able to observe something of its indirect effects on agricultural labor, and his remarks upon them are always a little remote.

Green’s direct influence, therefore, was measured almost wholly by the effect of his teaching upon his students, and while this was very great it could hardly be inferred from his published writings. At its root lay a strong sense of the moral injustice of a society that withheld from large portions of its members the goods, partly material but chiefly spiritual, which the culture oi that society created.

As Green once said, the underfed denizen of a London yard has hardly more share in the civilization of England than a slave had in that of Athens. In some measure this feeling was like that which actuated Mill’s rejection of a competitive economy but it was also different. There was in Green’s ethics, and in idealism generally, a religious element that had no counterpart in utilitarianism, and also Green did not think of the deprivation as primarily economic.

Abject poverty, he felt, is likely to entail some measure of moral degradation. Full moral participation in a social life was for Green the highest form of self-development, and to create the possibility of such participation was the end of a liberal society. The source of this conviction with Green was not Hegel.

It represented on the one hand his understanding of Christian brotherhood and on the other hand a liberalized conception cf Greek citizenship, not reserved as in Aristotle for a privileged few but made available to all men. Accordingly for Green politics was essentially an agency for creating social conditions that make moral development possible.

We content ourselves with enacting that no man shall be used by other men as a means against he will, but we leave it to be privily much a matter of chance whether or no he shall be qualified to fulfill any social function, to contribute anything to the common good, and to do so freely.

The most concrete statement of his liberalism that Green eve, made was in a lecture which he delivered in 1880 entitled Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract. The lecture was occasioned by Gladstone’s proposal to regulate contracts between Irish tenants and landlords. This plan posed a question which, as Green said, had arisen repeatedly in respect to liberal legislation it purported to be liberal and yet it abridged the right of contract.

Earlier liberal policy had in general followed the rule that freedom of contract ought, for the purpose of diminishing legal restraint, to be extended as far as was compatible with public order and security.

Is liberalism then inconsistent in pursuing opposite policies in different cases? The question clearly must be answered in the affirmative if the position taken by Bentham is correct, namely, that all legislation is intrinsically a restriction of freedom and that freedom is always greater where a relationship is not regulated by law but is left to voluntary agreement between the parties.

But as Green said, Bentham’s position tacitly assumed that law is the only restriction on liberty, and this is not true unless freedom is arbitrarily identified by definition with the absence of legal restraint. Against this conception, which Green called negative freedom, he set up a positive definition liberty is a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying.

Freedom must therefore imply not merely a legal but an actual possibility, in view of existing circumstances, of developing human capacities, a genuinely increased power on the part of an individual to share in the goods which a society has produced and an enlarged ability to contribute to the common good.

Freedom of contract may be a means to this end and, if so, is a good, but it is not an end in itself. It may, for example, in cases where the bargaining power of employer and employee is grossly unequal, merely reduce the general practice in a trade to that of the least scrupulous employers. The freedom of an Irish tenant to contract with the owner of his land becomes a mere formality when eviction means starvation.

In such cases the actual coercion which an employer or a landlord can exert under the legal form of a contract is in fact, Green argued, far more oppressive and far more destructive of effective freedom than the legal coercion exerted by the state which it abridges the right of contract to protect the weaker party.

The choice of the latter course is not, Green argued, several of liberal policy. For the law has always recognized that some contracts are subversive of the general good and hence are to be prevented as contrary to public policy, and there is nothing illiberal in putting other contracts into this category if they too jeopardize general interests such as public health or a respectable standard of public education.

Green’s argument in this lecture was an effective analysis, on a limited scale, of liberal purposes in legislation. It brought out the fact that liberal theory in the past had been largely ad hoc, controlled by the purpose of repealing obsolete legislation, and it argued cogently that liberalism could not be placed permanently on so narrow a foundation.

Liberal policies have to be flexible to meet changes of circumstance and if they are genuinely liberal they have always to follow the guidance of moral purposes. They are essentially an effort to open a humane way of living to a larger number of persons.

Consequently, he inferred, at the center of a liberal philosophy is the idea of a general good or common human well-being which is capable of being shared by everyone and which provides a standard for legislation. This standard cannot be individual liberty alone, or the least possible legal restriction of free choice, because free choice has always to be exercised in a situation, and some situations are such that they reduce choice to a mockery. Choice means opportunity, and opportunity means a society that is not coercive beyond need either in its legal and political structure or in its economic and social structure.

Freedom is really a social as much as it is an individual conception; it refers at once to a quality of society and a quality of the persons that make up a society. Hence it is impossible that a government should be liberal merely by standing aside and refraining from legislation, or that a liberal society should come into being merely, so to speak, by political inadvertence.

The function of a liberal government is to support the existence of a free society, and while government cannot make people moral by law, it can remove many of the obstacles that may stand in the way of their moral development. Green’s ethics and political philosophy were an elaboration and reinforcement of these ideas, which his Lecture on Liberal Legislation applied to the specific case in hand.

The central principle of Green’s ethics was the mutuality of the relationship between the individual and the social community of which he is a member. As he put it, the self is a social self. By this he meant, much as Aristotle might, that the highest form of community is one in which equal is associated with equal and in which the bond that holds the community together is the loyalty of the members for the group and its purposes. At the same time to be a member of such a group to share its work and have a significant part to play in it, is both the condition of achieving a well-rounded personality and also the highest, satisfaction that a human being can gain. Within limits, Green believe, any social group is of this sort.

Even the most powerful and the most despotic government cannot hold a society together by sheer force, to that extent there was a limited truth in the old belief that governments are produced by consent. Government, Green said, depends Oh will and not on force, because the tie that binds a human being to society is the compulsion of his own nature and not the penalties of the law or the calculation of ulterior advantages.

The unanswerable, argument for a liberal society is that it recognizes this fundamental social impulse in human nature, which is at the same time a moral impulse, and tries to give it realization in a form adequate to the full ideal meaning of morality. This ideal requires that the members of a society meet as moral equals, that they treat each other with respect, that all are free to think and act for themselves, and that their thought and actions are guided and controlled by full moral responsibility.

For this reason coercion ought to be reduced to a minimum, and this is no truer of coercion exerted by the state than of any other form of coercion which has the effect of making persons less than free moral agents, For Green as for Kant a community of persons is a Kingdom of ends in which everyone is treated as an end and not merely as a means.

Because this is inherently the ideal nature of a community and of a person, the opportunity ought to be open to everyone to realize such a life up to the limit of his capacities. Hence a really liberal society cannot aim at less than to give to all men the right to moral self-determination and to the moral dignity which is at once the condition and the due of personality.

Green developed this conception chiefly in his analysis of right. A right, he argued, has always two elements. It is in the first place a claim to freedom of action which is in substance the assertion of an individual’s impulse to realize his own inner powers and capabilities.

A hedonist psychology, he argued, is fundamentally false because human nature is a mass of desires and tendencies to actions which are directed not toward pleasure in general but toward concrete satisfactions. The claim, however, is never morally justified merely by the desire, but only by rationalized desire, which takes account of the claims of other persons.

What justifies it is the fact that the general good itself allows of such freedom of action. It is a claim to participate and contribute. In consequence the second element in a right is a general social recognition that the claim is warranted, that the individual’s freedom really does contribute to the general good.

A moral community from Green’s point of view, therefore, is one in which the individual responsibly limits his claims to freedom in the light of general social interests and in which the community itself supports his claims because the general well-being can be realized only through his initiative and freedom ideally it is, as Rousseau said, a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone.

There is, therefore, a general social good or welfare which is the criterion of the individual’s rights and duties what Plato called the health of the community-but it is neither distinct from nor opposed to the happiness of the individual, because it is one in which the individual can share and because the participation is itself a significant part of the individual’s happiness.

The fundamentally liberal element in Green’s ethics consisted in his refusal to contemplate a social good which demanded merely self-sacrifice or self-abnegation on the part of the persons who share and support it. The obligation and the right of the community matches the right and the obligation of its members.

Green’s meaning was well stated by Leonard Hobhouse, in a book designed to refute what Hobhouse regarded as the illiberal, or Hegelian, tendency to lift society or the state above the interests of its members which he attributed to Bernard Bosanquet, Green’s most distinguished student.

The happiness and misery of society is the happiness and misery of human beings heightened or deepened by its sense of common possession, its will is their wills in the conjoint result. Its conscience is an expression of what is noble or ignoble in them when the balance is struck. If we may judge each man by the contribution he makes to the community, we are equally right to ask of the community what it is doing for this man. The greatest happiness will not be realized by the greatest or any great number unless in a form in which all can share, in which indeed the sharing is for each an essential ingredient. But there is no happiness at all except that experienced by individual men and women, and there is no common self submerging the soul of men. There are societies in which their distinct and separate personalities may develop in harmony and contribute to a collective achievement.

This mutual interdependence of individual claim and social recognition was with Green an ethical and not a juristic conception. He explicitly rejected Bentham’s definition of rights as the creatures of law. The reason for this lay in Green’s conviction that a liberal government is impossible except in a society where legislation and public icy are continuously responsive to a public opinion which is at once enlightened and morally sensitive.

This was the truth which, he believed, was contained in the theory of natural law; it held up to the law an ideal of justice and equity and humanity to which it-ought to approximate. By this he did not mean that law can try to make men moral, because morality, being mainly a matter of character, Cannot be produced by legal coercion. Law necessarily deals with the external, of conduct and not with the spirit and the intention behind it.

Yet in order that government may be truly liberal there must, Green believed be a continuous reciprocity between law and morals. This interchange is twofold. On the one hand the rights and obligations that are actually enforced by law are never up to the level of what would be possible. The moral judgment of society is the indispensable means of holding government up to the best that it might accomplish.

On the other hand, though the state cannot make men moral, it can do much to create social conditions in which they are able to develop a responsible moral character for themselves. At the very least it can remove many hindrances to such development, as it does, for example, by recognizing that children have a right to education.

Governments that profess to be liberal nave in fact, Green argued, fallen far short of what they ought to undertake in this respect. The moral obligation of the state to create opportunity is not diminished because men cannot be compelled to make the best use of opportunity, and it is both idle and cruel to hold men to a moral standard that they have no opportunity to meet.

The most characteristic element in Green’s liberalism was his belief in the reality of a social conscience which both regulates law and is supported by law. This was the meaning which he attached to Rousseau’s general will. But he argued that Rousseau was merely confused when he tried to find out where in a society, the general will is located. Moral judgment cannot in the nature of the case be located anywhere, because no man and no social institution is infallible. Every man must follow his intelligence and his conscience, and a liberal society is one which both respects his right to judge and also enhances the probability that his judgments will be socially trustworthy.

This moral freedom, which Green conceived to arise from the metaphysical nature of the self or personality, was for him the foundation of political liberalism. It is meaningless to inquire in general, he argued, why a human being is subject to rules created by social institutions or why as a member of society he has rights. His liberties and his obligations are two sides of the same social relationship which gives him at once the duties of his place in the social structure and provides him with a personality that can be invested with rights.

A human society, therefore, is a complex of institutions within which human beings live their personal lives, and their personalities consist largely in the sharing and participation which such membership implies. The part to be played by government in this social complex is that of regulation and control in the light of this ideal of free participation. A liberal government aims at minimizing coercion but coercion is of many kinds and can depend on many circumstances.

In general any situation is coercive when it frustrates the spontaneous self-expression of native capacities and substitutes compulsion for moral self-control, The justification of legal coercion is precisely that it offsets and neutralizes other forms of coercion which are less tolerable.

The right to freedom of judgment and action Green extended to all men, without distinctions of rank or wealth, in so far as they rise to the acceptance of social responsibility, and he believed that all men do rise more or less to this level in so far as they are given the opportunity to share in the moral culture provided by civilization.

Hence he regarded education as the most important social function, and he conceived that the chief difference between ancient and modern civilizations lay in the degree in which the modern nation opens to all men goods which in antiquity were reserved to an aristocracy.

For the present, Green thought, the nation is probably the largest unit that has the social cohesiveness needed to make the idea of a common good effective, but he was convinced that states ought to direct their policy with due regard for the general human welfare. War, he argued, can never occur without moral fault somewhere, and while it may sometimes be unavoidable, it is always a confession of moral failure.
Read More Related Topics :

    1. Modernized Liberalism
    2. John Stuart Mill Liberty
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    4. Herbert Spencer
    5. The Idealist Revision of Liberalism
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    7. The Present Meaning of Liberalism

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