The essence of political liberalism lies in the insistence that many of our deepest moral convictions, vital though they are in other areas of our lives, have no proper place in the political principles that define our relations as free and equal citizens. We must learn to abstract from much that we hold dear when setting the terms by which we will live together under the rule of law. At the same time, this liberal conception must itself have a moral grounding. It rests, I believe, upon a certain idea of respect for persons. To lay out the importance and explain the exact meaning of this idea, I shall begin by looking at the rather different and critical account of political liberalism presented by Stephen White in his book, Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory. The contrast should be illuminating, for he portrays political liberalism, particularly in the form I have sought to give it, as the attempt to detach our political thinking from foundational moral principles of this sort, or, in his words, from “ontological” sources.11x“Political liberalism does not condemn ontology as bankrupt; rather it holds ontology at arm’s length. It declares itself neutral toward all ontologies” (Stephen White, Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000] 152). I do not think that this picture is accurate, and pointing out its errors should bring into greater relief the distinctive ambitions of political liberalism.
What does Stephen White mean exactly by the “ontological” dimension of our political life, which he claims political liberalism is determined to brush aside? His point, I believe, is that in thinking about a good society and a legitimate political order, we find ourselves ultimately obliged to make clear what fundamentally matters to us, to define the bedrock commitments that give our lives substance and direction. We are who we are in virtue of self-understandings that show us what we feel drawn to be. The ontology of the human, in other words, is essentially a moral ontology. I agree with White about the indispensability of “ontology” in this sense, both in general and in the political realm, but what does he mean by the distinction between “strong” and “weak” ontologies?
Here I find reason for disagreement (though apparently not of the sort that White would have anticipated). Sometimes he describes a “weak” ontology as one that recognizes that its conception of the sources of our moral self-understanding is “contestable.”22xWhite 7ff. If contestability means an openness to revision—in other words, fallibility—then it is hard to think of many significant moral or political thinkers, past or present, who would qualify as “strong” ontologists. But at other times, White suggests a different and more interesting criterion of demarcation. “Weak” ontologies acknowledge their own historical embeddedness, the contingencies of time and place that have made them attractive. They “fold back” upon themselves, exhibiting an historical self-consciousness absent from those “strong” ontologies of the grand metaphysical tradition that claimed to work out their conceptions of the human good on a basis that was timelessly available, sub specie aeternitatis, as it were.33xWhite 29, 49.
I, too, believe that our moral ontologies should be “weak” in this sense. Still, the choice of words bothers me, for I don’t see why a historical sensibility ought to constitute a “weakness.” I would have thought it counted as a strength! Behind White’s use of the term “weak,” there lurks, I suspect, the thought that recognizing the historical contingency of our deepest ideas of the good and the right ought to make us more tentative in putting them forward. I think that this is a wrong inference. I’ll not go into here the epistemological views I have detailed elsewhere,44xSee my book The Morals of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) chapter 2; and my essay “History and Truth,” Daedalus (Summer 2004): 46–55. except to observe that backing off from a belief we already hold is proper only where we have positive reasons to doubt its truth, and the fact that a belief is ours because of a past that might have turned out otherwise does not by itself provide grounds for thinking that it might be false. Once we make our peace with historical contingency, ceasing to imagine that our goal must be to transcend our finitude, we ought to be able to affirm whole-heartedly what it is that we believe, even in the case of our moral beliefs.
Similarly, historical self-consciousness does not stand in the way of endorsing universalist principles in ethics. The situation is clarified if we distinguish, as is too rarely done, between two senses of “universal”—universal accessibility and universal validity. History may have had to take a particular course for people to appreciate the claims of certain values, yet those values themselves may be ones that they have good reason to believe ought to guide conduct in general, not only in their own society but everywhere. Indeed, our idea of the equal dignity of all human beings seems to me to be of just this sort: its roots lie in our religious and cultural traditions, yet its scope is universal. (I shall come back to this point at the end.)