Liberal Faith, Liberal Feelings

A few points to add to Daniel’s latest, lovely excoriation of Kagan. The latter has said that

[o]nly the liberal creed grants the right–the belief that all men are created equal and have certain inalienable rights that must not be abridged by governments; that governments derive their power and legitimacy only from the consent of the governed and have a duty to protect their citizens’ right to life, liberty, and property. To those who share this liberal faith, foreign policies and even wars that defend these principles, as in Kosovo, can be right even if established international law says they are wrong.

I’m not really interested in endorsing Daniel’s remark that “Russia and China are in the position the U.S. and western Europe were in during the late 1940s with the beginning of containment, while the U.S. and Europe have adopted the revolutionary posture of the USSR and China.” (Neither I suppose are a goodly number of Europeans.) But I do really dig Daniel’s characterization of Kagan’s ‘liberal creed’ as

an ideologically-driven mania that says sovereignty and international law can be compromised whenever certain powers feel (and feel is the right verb here) it necessary to protect “rights” […].

Contrast against this Kagan’s own self-appellation, “liberal faith.” Perhaps the central failure of liberalism has been its inability to sustain its intellectual convictions without relying fundamentally on feelings. One could argue that a Burkean conservatism is frank about the indispensability of feelings in this regard, and a MacIntyrean whatever-you-want-to-call-it is equally strict about the indispensability of rational argument through but above them.

Our own Dr. Deneen has already put the question to ‘democratic faith’; this matter of liberal faith deserves similar attention. Probably the best I can do here is to underscore why “feel is the right verb.”

Take, as Daniel does in the full post, Kagan’s last sentence:

To those who share this liberal faith, foreign policies and even wars that defend these principles, as in Kosovo, can be right even if established international law says they are wrong.

Bracket for a minute the opening relativist gambit (“To me…”). That’s not the problem. First, instead, notice how an aggressive war stops being aggressive because it is really only defending principles. Query how it is we’re supposed to determine whether or not a certain principle needs defending. As hard as it is to remember, everyone must patiently acknowledge that a neoconservative point of view is compatible with prudence, as in sometimes the principles of the liberal creed may ‘need defending’ more than others. That what seemed blatantly obvious even during the Cold War now seems incomprehensible is a sign of just how far thinking discourse has degenerated on the matter. Even if one feels like one should be everywhere at once, even if in at the level of wildest dreams it would be ideal to be winning every battle one felt like starting, it simply doesn’t follow that one should or even can be everywhere at once, or waging particular possible battles.

It’s very sad and dangerous that the foes of neoconservatism and its loudest exponents alike are persuading us that neoconservatism is incompatible with practical reason. If neoconservatism fails in this way as liberalism itself has failed, the fault seems to me not to reside in the structural characteristics of ‘the liberal creed’ as such but in the personal character of particular liberals and conservatives who fall prey to the temptation to embrace not only ideology but a conflation of faith and feeling.

Kagan’s last quoted sentence is a textbook case. It is quite possible to reason as follows: (a), this Kosovo business (1999) is an affront to the basic principles of the liberal creed; (b), bombing the perpetrators of that affront, by contrast, would do more good than harm to the creed; but ©, international law prohibits us simply waking up one morning and bombing away; unfortunately, (d), violating international law (in this case, at least) does more harm than good to the liberal creed, and (e), on balance, as much as the creed would invite us to bomb, the creed rightly understood militates against simply serving as the henchman of the passions; therefore, (f), we will not bomb and yet we will remain good liberals.

Can this be done in practice? I think so. But it is more uncomfortable than simply swooning into your own arms. It requires the toleration of a certain kind of liberal suffering — knowing that something which revolts and offends you and your most basic principles is happening, and that, with those principles in mind, you must counsel yourself well to let it happen. It transpires that a significant number of people often cannot stand the anxiety or agony which this last trap of liberals inspires in them, and that, in the end, they would rather know that they ‘care more about people’ than that they ‘care only about principles.’ Liberalism is always in fear of losing its humanity; this is its constant modern crisis of faith. The specter of being insufficiently feeling, and therefore insufficiently active, in the face of real suffering is what tortures the liberal soul — tortures it so much that it pulls liberals away from the liberal creed itself. Sadly, not a few liberals — and, to be explicit, not a few neoconservatives — are willing to damage their faith to gratify their feelings. And as for conservatives

Crossposted at Postmodern Conservative.