Sketches of the ›liberal ironist‹

This book tries to show how things look if we drop the demand for a theory which unifies the public and private, and are content to treat the demands of self-creation and of human solidarity as equally valid, yet forever incommensurable. lt sketches a figure whom I call the ›liberal ironist‹. I borrow my definition of “liberal” from Judith Shklar, who says that liberals are the people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do. I use “ironist” to name the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires – someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance. Liberal ironists are people who include among these ungroundable desires their own hope that suffering will be diminished, that the humiliation of human beings by other human beings may cease. 

For liberal ironists, there is no answer to the question “Why not be cruel?” – no noncircular theoretical backup for the belief that cruelty is horrible. Nor is there an answer to the question “How do you decide when to struggle against injustice and when to devote yourself to private projects of self-creation?” This question strikes liberal ironists as just as hopeless as the questions “Is it right to deliver n innocents over to be tortured to save the lives of m x n other innocents? If so, what are the correct values of n and m?” or the question “When may one favor members of one’s family, or one’s community, over other, randomly chosen, human beings?” Anybody who thinks that there are well-grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question – algorithms for resolving moral dilemmas of this sort – is still, in his heart, a theologian or a metaphysician. He believes in an order beyond time and change which both determines the point of human existence and establishes a hierarchy of responsibilities. 

The ironist intellectuals who do not believe that there is such an order are far outnumbered (even in the lucky, rieb, literate democracies) by people who believe that there must be one. Most nonintellectuals are still committed either to some form of religious faith or to some form of Enlightenment rationalism. So ironism has often seemed intrinsically hostile not only to democracy but to human solidarity – to solidarity with the mass of mankind, all those people who are convinced that such an order must exist. But it is not. Hostility to a particular historically conditioned and possibly transient form of solidarity is not hostility to solidarity as such. One of my aims in this book is to suggest the possibility of a liberal utopia: one in which ironism, in the relevant sense, is universal.

A postmetaphysical culture seems to me no more impossible than a postreligious one, and equally desirable. 

In my utopia, human solidarity would be seen not as a fact to be recognized by clearing away “prejudice” or burrowing down to previously hidden depths but, rather, as a goal to be achieved. lt is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created. lt is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people. Such increased sensitivity makes it more difficult to marginalize people different from ourselves by thinking, “They do not feel it as we would,” or “There must always be suffering, so why not let them suffer?”

This process of coming to see other human beings as “one of us” rather than as “them” is a matter of detailed description of what unfamiliar people are like and of redescription of what we ourselves are like. This is a task not for theory but for genres such as ethnography, the journalist’s report, the comic book, the docudrama, and, especially, the novel. Fiction like that of Dickens, Olive Schreiner, or Richard Wright gives us the details about kinds of suffering being endured by people to whom we bad previously not attended. Fiction like that of Choderlos de Laclos, Henry James, or Nabokov gives us the details about what sorts of cruelty we ourselves are capable of, and thereby lets us redescribe ourselves. That is why the novel, the movie, and the TV program have, gradually but steadily, replaced the sermon and the treatise as the principal vehicles of moral change and progress. 

In my liberal utopia, this replacement would receive a kind of recognition which it still lacks. That recognition would be part of a general turn against theory and toward narrative. Such a turn would be emblematic of our having given up the attempt to hold all the sides of our life in a single vision, to describe them with a single vocabulary. lt would amount to a recognition of what, in Chapter 1, I call the “contingency of language” -the fact that there is no way to step outside the various vocabularies we have employed and find a metavocabulary which somehow takes account of all possible vocabularies, all possible ways of judging and feeling. A historicist and nominalist culture of the sort I envisage would settle instead for narratives which connect the present with the past, on the one band, and with utopian futures, on the other. More important, it would regard the realization of utopias, and the envisaging of still further utopias, as an endless process – an endless, proliferating realization of Freedom, rather than a convergence toward an already existing Truth.