The Normative Vision of Classical Liberalism
Chapter 5: The Equivocal Ethics of Liberalism
5. The equivocal ethics of liberalism INTRODUCTION To what extent are classical liberalism and welfare-state liberalism ethically compatible? In the stylized ethics of the marketplace, persons meet in a relationship of natural equality, with the ethics of reciprocation a critical element in insuring viability of the whole nexus. In stylized Christian ethics, by contrast, persons exhibit compassion, one toward another, when they meet, with acknowledged hierarchical assignments becoming critical in the direction for give and take. My aim in this chapter is to explore the necessary tension between these contrasting and familiar ethical perspectives. In so doing, I hope to be able to clarify ambiguities that cloud analysis and discussion in several related areas of inquiry, including economics, evolution, game theory, law, philosophy, politics and psychology. I propose to frame the discussion again in terms of the continuing and stillrelevant debate between Plato and Adam Smith as representatives of two presuppositions, that of a natural hierarchy among persons and that of a natural equality. This debate has been consistently confused through a failure to distinguish carefully between the positive and the normative versions of the presuppositions. Empirically, persons differ, one from another, along each of many dimensions. Acknowledgment of this elementary fact prejudices the positive argument in favor of Plato. But is there an overarching common dimension that allows the notion of a natural hierarchy to become meaningful? In the absence of such an acknowledged natural hierarchy, as exhibited in public attitudes, is it normatively permissible to presume the existence...
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