The Normative Vision of Classical Liberalism
Chapter 2: Classical Liberalism and the Perfectibility of Man
2. Classical liberalism and the perfectibility of man* INTRODUCTION I can reduce the subject matter of this chapter to a single question: To what extent and in what meaning of terms does classical liberalism depend on some presumption that man is perfectible? This question is worth examining on its own merits, but it seems especially appropriate in this setting since John Passmore’s book The Perfectibility of Man (1970) remains the definitive work on the history of ideas here. Also, and in passing, I might note that Passmore’s title, introduced before our age of political correctness and feminist sensitiveness, allows me to use ‘man’ without either apologies or the sometimes tortuous constructions dictated by norms for gender neutrality. More specifically, Professor Elias Khalil sent to me two draft papers in which he states unequivocally that classical liberalism does depend on a presumption of perfectibility.1 This claim, when advanced so provocatively, seems to counter much of the conventional wisdom which judges classical liberalism to be the philosophical position that stands opposed to the whole set of perfectionist ideational schemes, up to and including the modern postsocialist environmental idealism. At first blush, classical liberalism is precisely that value stance that pulls the perfectionist utopians up short – that brings goodly doses of empirical reality back into any meaningful discourse. Surely, or so an argument might go, the person who inhabits the classical liberal’s world of social reality is a far cry from the perfect man or woman idealized in poetry, song and political rhetoric....
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