English Political Theory in the 19th and 20th Centuries

David Weinstein. Handbook of Political Theory. Editor: Gerald F Gaus & Chandran Kukathas. 2004. Sage Publication.

Analytical Philosophy’s Legacy

The converging currents of Anglo-American political theory have swept away much of English political theory’s distinctiveness. Nevertheless, the latter has been sufficiently distinctive and influential, warranting our concern as intellectual historians. Indeed, as it has become less Anglo and more American, English political theory has become more rigorously analytical and, consequently, increasingly insensitive to its own historical past. For all its many virtues, contemporary Anglo-American political theory is an impoverished history of ideas, having substituted a truncated eulogized canon for the richness of its predominantly English historical tradition.

This historical amnesia stems, in large part, from the legacy of logico-positivism, which discredited normative political theorizing as just another variety of emotive venting and unmeaning metaphysical gibberish. Fortunately, H. L. A. Hart’s The Concept of Law (1961) and Brian Barry’s Political Argument (1965) resurrected normative political theory. John Rawls followed with A Theory of Justice (1971) which, in turn, unleashed an industry of criticism that shows no signs of abating.1 Ironically, then, English analytical philosophy eviscerated English-speaking political theory at the beginning of the last century, only to redeem it 50 years later. And what it redeemed quickly spread elsewhere, becoming what we now know as Anglo-American political theory.

Whereas English political theory may have lost much of its identity in the confluence of Anglo-American political theory, the latter remains robustly at odds with the continental philosophical tradition. Whatever English political theory has become, its analytical rigour and empiricism extensively immunized it from the Counter-Enlightenment preoccupations of continental theory. This is not to say that Anglo-American political theory has been uninfluenced by continental theorizing, especially recently. As we shall see, continental motifs informed late-nineteenth-century English idealism, Isaiah Berlin’s value pluralism and the Cambridge school of textual interpretation.

The History of Political Thought

Despite Anglo-American political theory’s homogenizing interpolation, English theorists have resisted forsaking intellectual history more than their American counterparts. The triumph of conceptual analysis caused American political theorists to lose interest in the history of political thought except as a way of certifying their current theoretical positions. Canonical theorists were typically invoked (Nozick’s 1974 use of Locke) as remarkably prescient in anticipating—or at least identifying—solutions to current conceptual disputes.

By the 1970s, the Cambridge school of political thought, led by Quentin Skinner, J. G. A. Pocock, John Dunn and Richard Tuck, began challenging such interpretive strategies, countering that the meanings of past political philosophical texts could only be recovered with difficulty by historically contextualizing them. According to Skinner, we should first ascertain the range of possible meanings available to an author when writing a piece of text, and next deploy ‘this wider linguistic context as a means of decoding the actual intention of the given writer’ (1969: 49).

For his part, Pocock (1985) insists that proper interpretation depends more on discovering the discourse paradigms that inform political philosophical texts than on trying to discover their authors’ intentions. In his view, discourse paradigms function hegemonically, structurally infusing texts with often-contested yet related core meanings. Hence, we must first sensitize ourselves to the debates and secondary literature contextualizing any text and then map these core meanings back into them. Moreover, discourse paradigms are dynamic, evolving with each new ‘spin’ that canonical works impart to their inheritance. And subsequent readings of these texts spin them again, making each reader, in part, a new author. Interpretation is inherently open-ended and unstable. Language paradigms ‘impose upon actors in subsequent contexts the constraints to which innovation and modification are the necessary but unpredictable responses’ (1985: 7).

Contemporary English political theory has struggled to resist marginalizing the history of political thought in the face of the ascendancy of philosophical analysis. Indeed, the parochialism of analysis has rejuvenated the former, which has, in turn, rebounded to the practice of analysis itself. For the Cambridge school, intellectual history remains a veiled analytic exercise. Both its method and its purpose are fundamentally linguistic. What words formerly meant can help us refine our own meanings and consequently improve our own philosophical thinking. Intellectual history, when not rational reconstruction, can be analytically provocative and therefore ‘educationally mandatory’ (Dunn, 1996: 1).

Pocock is less vexed than Skinner about the dangers of parochialism, which may partially account for the similarities between his method of doing intellectual history and continental political theory. For instance, his emphasis on the determining role played by discursive paradigms makes his interpretive methodology structuralist. Yet, his interpretive methodology is equally poststructuralist in so far as meanings are unstable since subsequent interpretive spins recast and multiply meanings in ways unintended by the author. As poststructuralists insist, ‘language, as “writing”, inevitably harbors the possibility of… an indefinite multiplicity of recontextualizations and reinterpretations’ (McCarthy, 1989-90: 148).

Contemporary Oxford political theory hasn’st been entirely swept aside by the vogue of philosophical analysis either. Berlin early on abandoned analytical theorizing for a Herderian-inspired history of ideas. Like Pocock, he affirms that intellectual history ‘is to a large degree a history of dominant models.’ In examining any civilization, ‘you will find that its most characteristic writings… reflect a particular pattern of life which those who are responsible for these writings… are dominated by (Berlin, 1999: 2). Echoing Skinner, he writes that ‘unless you try by some act of imagination to reconstruct within yourself the form of life which these people led… your chances of truly understanding… their writings and really knowing what Plato meant… are small (1999: 62).

More recently, Oxford’s Michael Freeden (1996) has championed conceptual political theory but also without forsaking the value of the history of political thought. Following W. B. Gallie, Freeden agrees that conceptual disputes are unavoidable but locates the source of these disputes in the underlying ideological structure of political theorizing. For Freeden, political ideologies are distinct systems of interrelated conceptual interpretations. Liberalism’s and socialism’s disagreements about liberty are tethered, for example, to their respective disagreements about the meaning of equality. Hence, conceptual disputes are always disputes about a host of interconnected political ideas. Political ideas come in distinctive conceptual packages. Diligent intellectual history is crucial in sensitizing us to the nuanced variety of these conceptual packages, reminding us of the contested nature of all normative political concepts and thus commemorating the always-unfinished nature of political theory.

In sum, analytical English political theory has never forsworn the history of political thought as much as its American counterpart. For it, the ascendance of Anglo-American philosophical analysis has not relegated intellectual history to the margins of scholarship. And in taking intellectual history seriously, English political theory has been less historically near-sighted and less prone to mistake its purported discoveries for unwitting duplications of past debates.

Varieties of English Political Theory

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century English political theory comes in distinct varieties: liberal utilitarianism, egalitarian liberalism, socialism, and conservatism. This list is not exclusive and is perhaps somewhat arbitrary. Moreover, as I have been suggesting, these varieties are no longer distinctively English; they are now becoming distinctively Anglo-American. Consequently, my history spins them with inescapable Anglo-American prejudice. And since I am interested in how the history of these varieties exposes contemporary Anglo-American political theory’s inflated sense of novelty and conceit, my interpretive strategy unavoidably spins them further, replicating some of contemporary theorizing’s insensitivity to its own past.

Liberal Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism, modern English political theory’s most venerable legacy, holds that morally right actions are those that maximize utility. Utilitarian theories are therefore typically welfarist, consequentialist, and aggregative (see Scarre, 1996: introduction, for a concise, nuanced account of utilitarianism’s basic features).

Utilitarianism is welfarist in so far as it identifies good with human welfare. Whereas early-nineteenth-century utilitarians such as Bentham and James Mill construed welfare more hedonically in terms of pleasure and pain, J. S. Mill construed welfare more subtly as consisting in higher (mental) and lower (sensual) pleasures. But by regarding the former as more valuable, Mill arguably corrupted his version of utilitarianism by infusing it with another criterion of value besides happiness. Contemporary Anglo-American utilitarians have worked hard to salvage utilitarianism from such inconsistencies by offering preference, informed preference and objectivist accounts of welfare. However, objectivist accounts of welfare are problematic because they presuppose that individuals can be mistaken about their own happiness. John Harsanyi concludes that we have no choice but to rely on actual preferences. But preferences must be informed preferences, namely those that individuals would have after rational reflection on all relevant information (Harsanyi, 1976: 31-2). However, informed preference accounts of individual welfare are susceptible to the criticism that they are surreptitiously objectivist in so far as they invoke rationality as a criterion.

Utilitarianism is also a form of consequentialism because it holds that general welfare should always be promoted. Hence, moral rightness is a function of whatever best promotes universal welfare. Like all forms of consequentialism, then, utilitarianism prioritizes the good over the right. Consequentialism also comes in egoistic varieties, which stipulate that agents should always promote their own welfare exclusively. Whether Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism was purely universalistic (about maximizing general welfare) or egoistic (about maximizing individual welfare) is a matter of some dispute. For Elie Halévy, Bentham’s and James Mill’s versions of utilitarianism were essentially egoistic (1972: 66-8, 474-8); others have held that Bentham’s utilitarianism was a species of universal hedonism (Harrison, 1983: ch. 5).

Lastly, utilitarianism is aggregative in so far as it assumes that welfare is measurable and therefore can be summed. However, some critics have denied that utilities can be intrapersonally or interpersonally compared. According to them, utilitarian calculations are illusory, making utilitarian moral judgements impossible. Others, following William Hazlitt and Thomas Carlyle, have condemned utilitarianism for being too rational and ‘philistine’ for endeavouring to reduce morality to spiritless calculations, assuming that such calculations could nevertheless be made. But utilitarians from Bentham to Harsanyi have responded, insisting: (1) that utilitarianism incorporates feelings, especially pleasure and pain; (2) that rough ordinal calculations can usually be made, particularly when the welfare stakes are high; and (3) that they must be made.

Utilitarianism’s purported willingness to sacrifice some for the sake of the greatest aggregate happiness has always been its Achilles’ heel. According to Rawls, it fails to take ‘seriously the distinction between persons.’ But Mill’s utilitarianism wasn’st so unsophisticated; nor was Bentham’s, according to recent interpreters. For Frederick Rosen, Bentham was the ‘first liberal utilitarian’ because he successfully integrated a robust theory of individual liberty with his principle of utility, thereby precluding sacrificing some in the name of the rest (1990: 64; also see Kelly, 1990). According to Jonathan Riley, Mill likewise successfully infused his utilitarianism with a powerful commitment to liberty, insisting that generous self-regarding freedom of action was necessary to maximizing welfare. We maximize individual happiness by cultivating our talents, which, in turn, requires that we freely experiment with our lives. Hence, individuals flourish and general welfare is maximized wherever societies live by the liberty principle, which stipulates that citizens may be coerced solely ‘to prevent harm to others’ (Mill, 1963: 223).

Mill’s utilitarianism seems more immune to traditional criticisms than Bentham’s because it also incorporates a spirited defence of stringent moral rights. As Mill says in the much undervalued last chapter of Utilitarianism:

Justice is a name for certain classes of moral rules, which concern the essentials of human well-being more nearly, and are therefore of more absolute obligation… and the notion which we have found to be of the essence of the idea of justice, that of a right residing in an individual, implies… this more binding obligation. (1969: 255, emphasis added)

‘Utility in the largest sense’ flourishes wherever citizens cultivate their individualities subject to respecting each other’s rights-protected interests in security and freedom. Moreover, the sanctity of basic rights encourages continued moral self-development that, in turn, promotes greater respect for rights. As Riley observes, rights and moralized individuality reinforce each other symbiotically, accelerating the growth of general welfare (1988: chs 8-9). Compared with Bentham’s indirect utilitarianism, then, Mill’s is more traditionally liberal because it is so thoroughly rights oriented. His two seminal essays, Utilitarianism and On Liberty, work hand in glove; the former’s last chapter bridges their respective, seemingly irreconcilable principles of utility versus liberty.

Now many critics, from James Fitzjames Stephen and F. H. Bradley in the nineteenth century to John Gray more recently, have faulted Mill’s attempt to accommodate utilitarianism and liberalism as illogical. As Stephen asks rhetorically, ‘Why should [anyone] prefer obedience to a rule to a specific calculation in a specific case, when… the only reason for obeying the rule is the advantage to be got by it, which by the hypothesis is… a loss in the particular case?’ (1991: 277).

Notwithstanding Mill’s efforts to accommodate utility and liberty, we shouldn’st ignore Henry Sidgwick’s and Herbert Spencer’s sophisticated versions of nineteenth-century liberal utilitarianism either. Although their reputations have declined, recent scholarship has resurrected their importance (see: Schneewind, 1977; Schultz, 1992; Weinstein, 1998).

Sidgwick’s significance for contemporary political theory has been enormously undervalued. John Rawls’s Theory of Justice is, to a considerable extent, a critical response to Sidgwick. When Rawls says we ‘often seem forced to choose between utilitarianism and intuitionism,’ the utilitarianism he has in mind is Sidgwick’s (1971: viii). Like the English nineteenth-century utilitarians, Rawls sees intuitionism as an unsystematic and therefore unsatisfactory rival. But, unlike them, he rejects utilitarianism as a credible alternative.

Contemporary political theorists must take Sidgwick seriously if they take Rawls seriously. If Barry is right in insisting that we live in a ‘post-Rawlsian’ world, then navigating this world requires that we take better account of Sidgwick. How ironic it is that the rise of analytical political philosophy has blinded contemporary Anglo-American political theorists from properly appreciating their historical debts.

Sidgwick’s ‘classical’ utilitarianism was also a form of liberal utilitarianism in so far as Sidgwick held, like Mill, that utility was best promoted indirectly via intermediary moral principles. Hence, Rawls’s attack on ‘classical’ utilitarianism is warfare against a straw man. For Sidgwick, the ‘middle axioms’ of common sense morality generally constituted appropriate happiness-maximizing guides and therefore needed modest critical refinement. Sidgwick nevertheless held, like Mill, that ‘as this actual moral order is admittedly imperfect, it will be the Utilitarian’s duty to aid in improving it’ (1981: 476).

More recently, Rawls has embraced Sidgwick’s healthy reverence for common sense. Following Sidgwick, Rawls holds that our moral intuitions play a critical role in justifying and systematizing our political principles. Whereas Sidgwick justifies and systematizes common sense by appealing to utility, Rawls deploys the veil of ignorance as a justificatory and systematizing filtering device. According to Rawls’s reflective equilibrium, the principles we choose behind the veil of ignorance should match more or less our existing moral convictions; otherwise we risk trying to construct political morality de novo, as Sidgwick would say. We risk making our political morality unrealistic. For Sidgwick as well as Rawls, common sense tames radical reform. The utilitarian reformer

will naturally contemplate [established morality] with reverence and wonder, as a marvelous product of nature, the result of long centuries of growth… he will handle it with respectful delicacy as a mechanism, constructed of the fluid element of opinions and dispositions, by the indispensable aid of which the actual quantum of human happiness is continually being produced. (1981: 475)

In sum, for Sidgwick, utility was best maximized indirectly via healthy but not uncritical deference to the ‘middle axioms’ of common sense morality. Hence, his liberal utilitarianism was closer to Hume’s and thus more conservative than Mill’s. But it looked back not only to Hume but also ahead to Rawls because common sense needs systematizing, but not without abandoning its justificatory role.

Sidgwick’s indirect utilitarianism also resembled Spencer’s liberal utilitarianism despite Sidgwick’s protestations to the contrary (see Weinstein, 2000). Spencer agreed with Sidgwick that established morality was the ‘marvelous product of nature, the result of long centuries of growth’ with modern liberal societies converging on the same array of utility-promoting moral rules. And he agreed with Mill, though not Sidgwick, that we have reformulated our most fundamental moral rules as stringent rights.

Spencer was therefore as much a liberal utilitarian as Mill in so far as he combined a rights-constrained, maximizing theory of right with a hedonic conception of good. For Spencer, rights were indefeasible logical ‘corollaries’ of his principle of equal freedom, which stipulated that: ‘Every man is free to do that which he will provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man’ (1978: I, 62). General happiness was best promoted wherever basic liberal rights to life, personal integrity and property were unconditionally enforced, making Spencer’s liberal utilitarianism more uncompromising than Mill’s. While Spencer and Mill acknowledged the extensive similarities between them, Spencer distanced himself markedly from Bentham, disparaging the latter’s utilitarianism as merely ‘empirical,’ or unconstrained, and therefore as morally inferior. Being ‘empirical,’ Benthamism allegedly justified sacrificing individuals in the name of maximizing utility even marginally. By contrast, he characterized his own brand of utilitarianism as ‘rational’ precisely because it purported to derive basic rights from the principle of equal freedom and because these putative logical derivations were indefeasible. But Spencer exaggerates his differences with Bentham, if Rosen and Paul Kelly have interpreted Bentham correctly.

Contemporary English utilitarians have championed liberal utilitarianism with increasing subtlety and sophistication. Rule utilitarians stress utilitarianism’s compatibility with accepted moral rules and intuitions (Hare, 1981; Harsanyi, 1985; Hooker, 2000), whereas liberal utilitarians marry utilitarianism with strong liberal rights (Gray, 1983; Riley, 1988). All such accounts nevertheless constitute different versions of what is now commonly known as indirect utilitarianism. For indirect utilitarians, according to James Griffin, the principle of utility serves as a ‘criterion’ for assessing classes of actions. By contrast, established moral rules and/or basic liberal rights function as sources of direct obligation (or ‘decision procedures’) for guiding individual actions (Griffin, 1994: 179). Actions are morally wrong if they violate these decision procedures. Indirect utilitarians hold that respecting such decision procedures will best maximize general utility overall, though not necessarily in short-term individual cases. In other words, sometimes acting rightly is doing wrong. But why should I act rightly if acting rightly happens not to be for the utilitarian best in a given situation? Why should I be a mindless, rule-worshipping sucker?

As just suggested, for liberal utilitarianism, fundamental rights function as critical decision procedures, making it more juridical than rule utilitarianism. Rights indirectly steer our actions along inviolable channels of acceptable behaviour that purportedly generate overall general utility. But liberal utilitarianism is not simply a more juridical version of indirect utilitarianism. Following Mill, it also champions individuality in so far as individual flourishing also constitutes happiness. For liberal utilitarians, wherever citizens can meaningfully cultivate their personalities by their own lights within the limits proscribed by equal basic rights, individuality thrives and society is happier.

Contemporary liberal utilitarianism is often criticized in the same way as Mill’s contemporary opponents assailed him for trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. For instance, John Gray (1989: 218-24) has recanted his earlier enthusiasm for liberal utilitarianism, agreeing with liberal utilitarianism’s critics that it futilely seeks to join multiple ultimate normative criteria, namely utility and indefeasible moral rights. For Gray, either maximizing utility logically trumps rights, or rights (in so far as they possess authentic moral weight) trump maximizing utility. Liberal utilitarianism fails logically because it pulls in opposite normative directions, instructing us to maximize utility when doing so violates rights and to respect rights when doing so fails to maximize utility. We sometimes must choose between our liberalism and our utilitarianism.

Liberal utilitarianism strains to combine the systematizing efficiency of utility with liberal ethical appeal by sanctifying individuality. It gallantly seeks to systematize liberalism and liberalize utilitarianism. All forms of utilitarianism (though not all forms of consequentialism) are necessarily monistic for better and for worse, but liberal utilitarianism is surely utilitarian monism at its moderated—though problematic—best.

Egalitarian Liberalism

Utilitarianism reigned in England during the nineteenth century, gradually giving way to analytical egalitarian liberalism during the twentieth. As English political theory lost its distinctively utilitarian identity, it also lost its distinctively English identity, becoming just another voice in the homogenizing discourse of Anglo-American, egalitarian liberalism.

Egalitarian liberals, in contrast to utilitarians, feature equality over utility as their overriding normative concern. Still, utilitarians are not indifferent to equality and distributive justice. As we have just seen, indirect utilitarians take these values seriously, though not so seriously that they trump maximizing utility as the ultimate normative standard. Utilitarians also prize equality in the sense that impartiality is constitutive of the principle of utility. Each person’s ‘happiness… is counted for exactly as much as another’s’ (Mill, 1969: 257). For egalitarian liberals, however, equality plays a more commanding role because many of them favour internalist arguments for equality. And because equality matters for them up front, they also tend to be more preoccupied with questions about equality of what rather than why.

Egalitarian liberalism’s pedigree emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries via new liberals like T. H. Green, L. T. Hobhouse, J. A. Hobson and D. G. Ritchie who were, in turn, powerfully influenced by the British idealists. Idealists combined a coherence theory of truth with neo-Hegelian historical teleology. For them, thinking partially constitutes whatever we describe, explain or interpret. Facts are never simply discovered or just speak for themselves but are mediated by cognition. When we theorize, we make and organize facts according to our systems of value, interpretive perspectives and preoccupations. Hence, the more coherently we theoretically mediate and organize the world, the more truthful our understanding becomes. And as we theorize the world with increasing sophistication, we realize universal history more completely.

Now, English idealists like F. H. Bradley and Bernard Bosanquet were as much indebted to Hegel for their social ontology and moral and political theory as for their conception of history. Bradley argues that individuals are socially constituted, making morality fundamentally social in the sense that acting morally requires acting for others rather than simply leaving them alone. Hence, in so far as good is self-realization, acting morally means promoting everyone’s self-realization, not merely one’s own. Being so interdependently constituted, we best promote our own self-realization by simultaneously promoting our fellow citizens’ and they best promote theirs by promoting ours (Bradley, 1988: 116). Moreover, because our identities are socially encumbered, rationalistic moral theories like utilitarianism and Kantianism are misconceived and self-defeating. Both theories share the misguided pre-Hegelian delusion that we can somehow detach ourselves from our social milieu when determining how to act. Acting morally primarily entails embracing one’s socially constituted identity and fulfilling ‘one’s station and its duties.’ Nonetheless, fulfilling the duties of one’s station isn’st the whole of morality since the kind of society in which one lives also matters. Conventional morality must not be taken uncritically.

Bosanquet’s The Philosophical Theory of the State (1899) takes up politically where Bradley’s Ethical Studies (1876) leaves off morally. Bosanquet agrees with Bradley that, in so far as our identities are socially constituted, others are not merely external constraints on our self-realization. Societies are free according to how well they manipulate social relations so that everyone flourishes. For Bosanquet, and new liberals, freedom consists in being empowered by meaningful opportunities (‘positive or political… liberty’) as well as being left alone (‘negative or juristic liberty’). Thus, ‘“higher” liberty is also… the “larger” liberty, presenting… the more extensive choice to self-determination’ (Bosanquet, 2001: 147). In addition, for Bosanquet, higher freedom also entails mastering oneself in the sense of giving ‘effect to the self as a whole, or removing] its contradictions and so mak[ing] it most fully what it is able to be’ (2001: 149-50).

Moreover, being positively free entails juridical security: Our ‘liberty… may be identified with such a system [of rights] considered as the condition and guarantee of our becoming the best that we have it in us to be’ (2001: 139). Self-realization is most effectively promoted indirectly by a system of strong, though not indefeasible, rights. As with liberal utilitarianism, rights function as ready-made decision procedures. Like habitual bodily activities such as walking, acting justly by respecting others’s rights usually demands ‘no effort of attention,’ enabling citizens to devote themselves to ‘problems which demand… intenser efforts’ (2001: 201-2). And whenever citizens lose their justice habit, liberal states swiftly re-educate them through punishment. While states can never make citizens just, they can encourage just behaviour by maintaining a system of rights. By hindering ‘hindrances of the good life,’ they warrant our loyalty (2001: 21).

New liberals joined Bosanquet in combining a moralized theory of freedom and strong rights with a communitarian social ontology. For Green, Ritchie, Hobhouse and Hobson, moral self-realization was unconditionally good. Realizing oneself morally meant being fully free by being both ‘outwardly]’ and ‘inward[ly]’ free (Green, 1986: 234-5). It meant having the enabling ‘positive power or capacity of doing… something worth doing’ and actually ‘doing… something worth doing’ (1986: 199). As Hobhouse put it, self-realization consists in ‘social’ as well as ‘moral’ freedom. Whereas the former concerns external harmony between citizens or ‘freedom of man in society,’ the latter is ‘proportionate to the [self s] internal harmony’ (Hobhouse, 1949: 51, 57).

For new liberals as well, rights indirectly promoted everyone’s self-realization by enabling each to flourish. And to the extent that each flourished morally, each, in turn, promoted common good by respecting the rights of others. Thus, for Hobhouse, common good was ‘the foundation of all personal rights’ (1968: 198). In Green’s words, rights realize our moral capacity negatively by ‘securing the treatment of one man by another as equally free with himself, but they do not realise positively, because their possession does not imply that… the individual makes a common good his own’ (1986: 26).

However, new liberals favoured a more robust threshold of equalizing opportunity rights. Although they concurred with Bosanquet that possessing property was a potent means of ‘self-utterance’ and therefore crucial to successfully externalizing and realizing ourselves, they also stipulated that private property was legitimate only in so far as it did not subvert equal opportunity. In Hobson’s words, ‘A man is not really free for purposes of self-development… who is not adequately provided’ with equal and easy access to land, a home, capital and credit. Hobson concludes that although liberalism is not state socialism, it nevertheless implies considerably ‘increased public ownership and control of industry’ (1974: xii). New liberals, then, transformed English liberalism by making social welfare, and the state’s role in promoting it, pivotal. They crafted welfare liberalism into a sophisticated theoretical alternative.

Regrettably, contemporary Anglo-American political theory has underappreciated the new liberalism because it constitutes an idiosyncratic medley of neo-Kantianism, consequentialism, communitarianism and perfectionism (see Weinstein, 2001). Hence, contemporary liberals and communitarians have disabled themselves, due to their historical insensitivity, in their struggle for theoretical accommodation (see Simhony and Weinstein, 2001).

Contemporary political theory’s historical myopia has consequently made Joseph Raz’s perfectionist liberalism seem more anomalous than, in fact, it is. Though Stephen Mulhall and Adam Swift are correct in concluding that Raz ‘transcends’ the rivalry between liberalism and communitarianism, they overemphasize his originality (1996: 250). Raz’s perfectionist liberalism is refurbished new liberalism but with some differences. For instance, Raz distinguishes autonomy, a seminal value requiring serious political attention, from self-realization, which he holds is merely one variety of autonomy. Whereas a self-realizing person develops all of his capacities to their full potential, an autonomous person merely develops ‘a conception of himself, and his actions are sensitive to his past.’ In ‘embracing goals and commitments, in coming to care about one thing or another,’ such persons ‘give shape’ to their lives, though not necessarily according to a unified plan as with Hobhouse (Raz, 1986: 375, 387).

Moreover for Raz, unlike new liberals, autonomy entails value pluralism because goods and virtues are incommensurable, often forcing us to trade them off, ‘relinquishing one good for the sake of another’ (1986: 398-9). And, tragically, we have to make trade-offs because (though Raz fails to argue why) the menu of goods and virtues available to us is largely socially determined (1986: 366, 398-9).

Notwithstanding these differences, for Raz autonomous agents nevertheless ‘identify’ with their choices and remain ‘loyal’ to them, just like new liberal self-realizing agents. Second, in shaping their lives, autonomous agents, like self-realizing agents, don’st arbitrarily recreate themselves in spite of their social circumstances. Brute Nietzschean self-creation is impossible, for we are all born into communities presupposing our values. At best, acting autonomously transforms slightly, or reconfirms, these values selectively (1986: 382, 387-8).

More than anything, what makes new liberals Raz’s predecessors is the thoroughly liberal nature of his perfectionism. For Raz, following the new liberals, rights equalize opportunities for acting autonomously. Rights are necessary though insufficient conditions for achieving autonomy. Furthermore, these conditions must be redistributively robust if citizens are to enjoy meaningful opportunities to make the best of themselves. Hence, as with new liberals (and liberal utilitarians), rights indirectly promote good. Governments can’st make citizens good but governments should indirectly encourage them to make themselves good by providing appropriate opportunities. Hence, politics can, and should be, perfectionist:

The autonomy principle permits and even requires governments to create morally valuable opportunities, and to eliminate repugnant ones. Does not that show that it is incompatible with [Mill’s] harm principle?… Perfectionist goals need not be pursued by the use of coercion. A government that subsidizes certain activities, rewards their pursuit, and advertises their availability encourages those activities without using coercion. (1986: 417)

In other words, we are duty bound to provide fellow citizens with the conditions of autonomy as long as we don’st harm them. Coercing citizens into leading valuable lives harms them whereas providing valuable options for all harms no one.

David Miller’s egalitarian liberalism also resuscitates unawares the kind of liberal communitarianism earlier championed by new liberals. According to Miller, justice is (1) pluralistic, in so far as desert, need and equality comprise its threefold criteria, and (2) contextual, in so far as the strength of these criteria varies according to the goods and social practices at issue. Miller’s justificatory strategy on behalf of these three criteria owes much to Sidgwick, though he trades on Sidgwick largely via Rawls’s reflective equilibrium. Miller hopes to ‘show that a theory of justice rooted in popular beliefs can retain a sharp critical edge’ (1999: xi). We first try to discover the principles of justice embodied in our everyday beliefs. We next hone them philosophically before reapplying them as guides to the distributive social dilemmas facing us. But we never forgo the moorings of common sense justice lest our theory become either so abstract or so controversial as to prove irrelevant.

Miller prefers Rawls’s later writings where the original position becomes little more than a heuristic device for impartially systematizing and clarifying our common sense notions of justice. Consequently,

It… merely highlights his preferred method of proceeding, which is to move back and forth between our particular beliefs about justice and the general principles that might be used to systematize them, always bearing in mind that these principles… must be publicly justifiable. (1999: 58)

But given this shift towards public justifiability, Rawls ought to have been more sensitive to empirical evidence about how we, in fact, understand justice. Miller, then, evokes Sidgwick unawares, and empirical social science, to rehabilitate Rawls in the name of egalitarian communitarianism.

Miller would resist being characterized as an egalitarian liberal; he would view this label as conflating ‘simple’ distributive equality with the ‘complex’ market socialist equality he favours. The former stipulates that people should be equal with regard to some X and thus limits debates about equality to disputes about ‘equality of what?.’ Following Michael Walzer, complex equality is not about distributing some X. Rather, it is a ‘social ideal’ about how we should treat each other as equals. But Miller remains an egalitarian liberal nevertheless: ‘An egalitarian society must be one which recognizes a number of distinct goods,’ ensuring that each ‘is distributed according to its own proper criterion [desert, need and equality].’ As long as no distributive sphere dominates others, complex equality is secured. The real ‘enemy of equality is dominance,’ which must be politically regulated (1995: 203). And dominance is nefarious because it is so harmful to individual self-development.

Miller readily concedes that his political theory draws on two political traditions: ‘distributive equality from the tradition of liberalism, social equality from social democracy and socialism’ (1999: 244). Consequently, Miller is a true heir to the new liberals. Equally for them, no justice principle is sovereign. Equality and need temper desert qua individual choice and responsibility, allowing all citizens real equal opportunity to develop their talents according to their own lights.

Ronald Dworkin, Amartya Sen and Barry recall the new liberalism much less. Dworkin and Sen feature the sovereignty of equality (though, for Sen, equality is ‘consequence-based’) while Barry prefers the justificatory logic of social contract. By contrast, new liberals and their heirs have balked at fetishizing the first, while rejecting the modus, vivendi of the latter. Dworkin’s, Sen’s and Barry’s versions of egalitarian liberalism are nevertheless compelling. As already noted, Dworkin’s and Sen’s versions are egalitarian in what Miller pejoratively labels the ‘simple’ sense. Whereas Dworkin prefers equalizing resources, Sen prefers equalizing capabilities. In his recent Sovereign Virtue, Dworkin presses hard his familiar defence of equality of resources, appealing to what he calls the ‘challenge model’ of ethical value, which he insists is non-consequentialist. For Dworkin, lives go better when they are lived from the inside with ‘ethical integrity,’ meaning when they are not lived mechanically from the outside in accordance with rote habit. Ethically honest lives are skilful performances exhibiting ongoing, critical self-reflection. For such lives, choice is constitutive of living well. Welfarism and utilitarianism are immoral since they instrumentalize choice in the name of promoting states of affairs.

For Dworkin, equality of basic resources ‘flows from’ the challenge view. If living well means meeting the challenges we assign ourselves, then having sufficient basic resources is ethically imperative. And if it is ‘equally important how each person lives,’ then everyone ought to have equal basic resources. Hence, ‘ethical liberals begin with a strong ethical reason for insisting on an egalitarian distribution of resources’ (Dworkin, 2000a: 279). In other words, equal concern and respect somehow entail resource egalitarianism since equality ‘must be measured in resources and opportunities’ (2000a: 237; also see Dworkin, 1985: 192-3). Notwithstanding the circularity of arguing that equal concern and respect entail treating people equally along some separately identified domain, Dworkin never stipulates precisely what he means by equality of resources also ‘flow[ing] from’ the challenge model. But if the latter is meant to be a source of justification, then Dworkin’s egalitarian liberalism begins to look like Sen’s more than Dworkin realizes.

Sen’s egalitarian liberalism testifies to liberalism’s conceptual flexibility by combining an ‘inclusive’ form of consequentialism with basic ‘capability equality.’ For Sen, morality is ‘consequence-based’ though it is not more narrowly consequentialist. Consequentialism is narrower because it is arbitrarily evaluator-neutral. ‘Consequence-based evaluation,’ by contrast, includes non-utility information such as agent relativity. In Sen’s words, ‘deonto logical values can, in fact, be accommodated within consequence-based evaluation through evaluator-relative outcome moralities’ (1982: 38). More recently, Sen refers to his version of practical reasoning as ‘deontic-value inclusive consequential reasoning’ (2001: 64). Such reasoning forbids prioritizing either the right or the good. Rather, these concepts are linked, thus requiring that we consider them simultaneously: ‘While considerations of freedoms, rights and duties are not the only ones that matter (for example, well-being does too), they are nevertheless part of the contentions that we have reason to take into account in deciding on what would be best… to do’ (2001: 61).

Sen concedes that his modified consequentialism turns even Williams into a consequentialist (though Williams would likely respond that, with Sen, we have an unholy hodgepodge that is no longer remotely consequentialist). Perhaps Sen’s theory of equality can assist us here. Sen rejects Rawlsian primary goods equality and Dworkin’s resource equality as well as welfare equality in favour of capability equality. Capability equality is a modified needs account of equality similar to Miller’s. For Sen, functionings and capability functionings determine well-being. That is, a person’s life goes well when she not only manages to do various things (functions) but also possesses the wherewithal (capabilities) to choose to do these things from many alternatives. Moreover, certain functionings are more elementary, such as being adequately nourished, and are therefore the purview of the principle of equality. Other functionings, such as being happy, are important although they are not basic. Everyone deserves equal basic nourishment but not equal happiness. Freedom itself is elementary, too, and therefore everyone also deserves equal basic freedom or capability equality.

In sum, morality is complex though fundamentally ‘consequence-based.’ Moral evaluation measures how effectively freedom and rights are promoted, duties are honoured and well-being is maximized. And these metrics are premised, in turn, on all enjoying the basic capability equality of ‘being adequately nourished, having mobility’ and ‘taking part in the life of the community’ (Sen, 1993: 36-7). Notwithstanding the intricacies of measuring behaviour according to such diverse consequences, we still might insist that Sen’s consequentialism is consequentialist in name only.

With Barry, however, we clearly have unadulterated liberalism, which is nevertheless deeply informed by English utilitarianism. As Kelly recently notes, ‘there is a very real sense in which most of Barry’s work… has involved an engagement with… utilitarianism’ (1998: 44). These debts aside, Barry has emerged as one of the leading champions of Anglo-American contractualism. Like Thomas Nagel, Rawls and Thomas Scanlon, Barry holds that the existence of incompatible conceptions of the good necessarily prioritizes the right over the good. Justice as impartiality adjudicates ‘between the conflicting demands that arise from the pursuit of those conceptions of the good’ by giving citizens a ‘veto over proposals [principles of justice] that they could not reasonably be expected to accept’ (Barry, 1998: 229, 223). The sieve of disapproval makes surviving principles impartial: nobody is unreasonably privileged by what survives in pursuing his respective conceptions of the good. Utilitarian justice is precluded because reasonable citizens would purportedly veto it. Few would be prepared to bear the self-sacrificing burdens of agent neutrality. Justice as impartiality is therefore self-limiting, excluding utilitarian impartiality as too extreme. In the name of impartiality, it constrains impartiality. Being impartial about competing conceptions of good does not entail such indifference towards them that one is always prepared to sacrifice one’s own interests for the general interest.

Justice as impartiality thus preserves the liberal public versus private goods distinction that feminists have claimed reinforces patriarchy. Barry nevertheless concedes that domestic violence and marital rape are public concerns. The personal is indeed largely political. But as Susan Mendus perceptively worries, ‘what is to block the move to the kind of society which Barry fears—one in which very little is left to private judgement and almost everything to public scrutiny and censure?’ (1998: 183). In short, Barry’s feminism risks collapsing the private into the public, imperilling his liberalism. Barry responds, accusing Mendus of ‘alarmism’ and denying that prohibiting domestic violence and marital rape would ‘open the floodgates’ to tyrannizing (utilitarian) impartiality. He insists that rightful public intervention in some cases won’st lead ‘inexorably to public intervention in other cases where that is wrong’ (Barry, 1998: 256). Surely this begs the question.

Like Rawls and Scanlon, Barry’s debts to Sidgwick are palpable, stemming no doubt from his complex engagement with utilitarianism. For Barry, as for Scanlon, justice as impartiality is merely a ‘device for focusing our thoughts’ about justice. It simply helps us in ‘thinking for ourselves in a more structured way’ (1998: 194-5). In short, following Sidgwick, it systematizes our considered views of justice though not through the lens of utilitarian good for, with Barry, good is pluralistic.

Good is famously pluralistic for Berlin as well. In his case, however, value pluralism precludes systematizing justice because values are so clearly irreconcilable, making Berlin’s liberalism difficult to classify. Berlin has lately become an academic industry, leading Barry to criticize Berlin’s literary executor of publishing every bit of trivia Berlin wrote as though it was reputable philosophy (see Barry, 2001: 7). Berlin’s reputation initially rested on his analysis of negative versus positive freedom, which has overdetermined much theorizing ever since. Berlin defends negative freedom, condemning positive freedom as historically, if not logically, anti-liberal. For Berlin, the problem goes back to Green’s unfortunate appropriation of Hegel (for Berlin’s misreading of Green, see Simhony, 1991). But Berlin’s defence of negative freedom, and hence his liberalism, is problematic in so far as the more he clarifies what he means by negative freedom, the more negative freedom resembles positive freedom. For instance, in the original 1958 ‘Two concepts of liberty,’ Berlin reconceptualizes negative freedom in a much-ignored footnote. Being free is not simply having options to do what one wants. Rather, the

extent of my freedom seems to depend on (a) how many possibilities are open to me… (b) how easy or difficult each of these possibilities is to actualize; (c) how important in my plan of life… these possibilities are… (d) how far they are closed and opened by deliberate human acts; (e) what value not merely the agent, but the general sentiment of the society in which he lives, puts on the various possibilities. (Berlin, 1969: 130, emphasis added)

Hence, being free is also being empowered to realize worthwhile aims. (But see Berlin’s 1969 Introduction to Four Essays on Liberty, where he omits (b) and (e).)

More recently, scholarly attention has shifted to Berlin’s value pluralism because of its congruence with postmodern scepticism. In ‘Political judgment,’ Berlin asserts unequivocally that there is ‘no natural science of politics’ or ‘natural science of ethics’ but only political judgement (1996: 49, 52). Attempts to substitute the former for the latter can too often result in disaster, especially wherever political science and revolutionary theory converge. Such theorizing lacks a ‘sense of reality’ in naively assuming that politics is scientifically generalizable and therefore predictable. For Berlin, such scientific conceit is the Enlightenment’s most unfortunate legacy. We simply can’st anticipate all the important consequences of public policies. Justice, whether utilitarian, contactarian or socialist, is always controvertible in practice.

Berlin holds that Herderian Romanticism cured political theory of this conceit. A double-edged alloy of expressivism and irreconcilable ideals, this ‘new romantic transvaluation of values substituted the morality of motive for that of consequence, that of the inner life for that of effectiveness in the external world’ (1996: 191). But the cure became its own disease, degenerating into emotivism and aestheticism, causing Berlin to eschew subjectivism while embracing pluralism:

I am not a relativist; I do not say ‘I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favour of kindness and you prefer concentration camps’—each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. Pluralism is not relativism because multiple values are objective… rather than arbitrary creations of men’s subjective fancies. (2000: 11-12)

And crucially, because objective values are incompatible, pluralism privileges freedom (2000: 23).

Gray has recently defended Berlin, agreeing that freedom should be privileged because it allows us to ‘negotiate’ our way among incommensurable values. Negative freedom is pre-eminently valuable because it ‘facilitates’ unavoidable radical choice-making between incommensurables (Gray, 1996: 143-4). Though Berlin’s ‘agonistic’ liberalism purportedly unmasks the rationalistic pretensions of ‘legalistic’ liberalisms like Mill’s, Dworkin’s and Barry’s, Gray nevertheless views Berlin’s justification of negative freedom’s priority as incomplete. For Gray, Berlin’s ‘historicist turn’ suggests that ‘there can be, and need be, no universal justification for liberalism.’ Rather, liberalism ‘is instead best understood as a particular form of life, practiced by people who have a certain self-conception, in which the activity of unfettered choice is central’ (1996: 161). And given what Gray has written most recently, this self-conception flourishes in value-pluralistic sensitive cultures that, as a matter of prudence, embrace the politics of modus vivendi in order to survive (2000: ch. 4). (However, Alan Ryan, 2001: 56, argues that Gray’s modus vivendi liberalism is much closer to Rawls’s political liberalism than Gray realizes.) Gray’s Berlin combines intimations, which Gray now sees as his task to make explicit, of a communitarian theory of identity with a postmodern theory of value. However, Gray exaggerates Berlin’s abandonment of Enlightenment rationalism.


Nineteenth- and twentieth-century English socialism is a medley of currents, not all of which are philosophically systematic: Fabianism, ethical socialism, labour Marxism and, more recently, analytical Marxism, new left socialism and new labourism. (For an overview of English socialist thought, see Foote, 1997.) I examine some of these varieties more extensively than others because I want to underscore English socialism’s distinctiveness.

For Fabians like G. Bernard Shaw and the Webbs, unearned increments on land and capital caused poverty which redistributive taxation could solve. But only democracy coupled with collectivist professionalism could manage class struggle and capitalism away. C. A. R. Crosland’s and Richard Titmuss’s post-war revisionism inherited Fabianism’s enthusiasm for managerial gradualism, though neither viewed public ownership as a panacea. In The Future of Socialism (1956) and Socialism Now (1974), Crosland argued that while welfarism had nearly eliminated poverty, only tempered socialism could eradicate class without eroding democracy.

Ethical socialists like Edward Caird, W. J. M. Mackenzie and R. H. Tawney likewise favoured gradualism in advocating a ‘heroic’ moralized socialism that derived much from the new liberals. They valorized moral autonomy and citizenship, arguing that neither could flourish unless capitalism was radically reformed, providing all citizens with meaningful equal opportunities. Moreover, ethical socialists contrasted themselves to ‘scientific’ socialists whom they denounced as mechanistic, dogmatic and corporatist.

Tawney seems to have been the only English socialist Berlin admired, mostly because his commitment to socialism was both ethically grounded and historically erudite (see Ignatieff, 1998: 235). Christian values emphasizing our common humanity and dignity informed Tawney’s socialism, causing him to stress duties over rights. Capitalism regrettably eviscerated our common humanity by generating enormous economic inequalities and privileging polarizing rights over duties. Educational and health care inequalities particularly crippled the working class from making their lives meaningful.

Tawney’s ‘higher’ socialism both mimics Hobson’s ‘liberal socialism’ and anticipates contemporary egalitarian liberalisms like Dworkin’s. Although his theorizing lacks Dworkin’s rigour, it likewise begins with our common dignity and regards liberty and equality as compatible (Tawney, 1964: 46-7). Liberty and equality are fully commensurate, especially where greater economic equality protects all citizens from undue economic coercion. Greater economic equality is ‘essential’ to greater liberty (1964: 168). Tawney thus follows new liberals in insisting that extreme economic inequalities are no less constraining than physical threats.

In the 1952 edition of Equality, Tawney clarifies why liberty and equality are compatible. He insists that political liberties are more ‘fundamental’ than ‘secondary’ economic liberties. Hence, while redis tributive justice plainly compromises the freedom to acquire and exchange property (a ‘secondary’ liberty), it enhances political liberties by making them more than merely nominal for the poor. In short, greater economic equality frees us by opening our political ‘range of alternatives’ and fortifies our ‘capacity’ to choose between them. Liberty and equality ‘can live as friends’ (1964: 227-9).

English socialism includes modified Marxism too. From guild socialists like G. D. H. Cole and Harold Laski through Ralph Miliband more recently, Marxists have championed varied combinations of industrial democracy and nationalization, although Cole and Laski became increasingly less enthused about both. Cole and Laski also became more statist, despite Laski never relinquishing his affection for Mill and Hobhouse.

More recently, G. A. Cohen and Steven Lukes have taken up Tawney’s challenge, insisting that Marxists need to defend equality philosophically rather than take it for granted. Because capitalism has failed to dig its own grave and because we seem fated to perpetual scarcity, we need to engage in greater ‘moral advocacy.’ We need to argue for egalitarian justice (Cohen, 1995: 7-12; 2000b: 103-9). Marxists need to resolve their paradoxical commitment to both adopting and rejecting moral criticism, for otherwise they will disable Marxism from ‘offering moral resistance to measures taken in its name’ (Lukes, 1985: 141). Arguing for equality means arguing analytically, which means arguing anti-dialectically and anti-holistically. Analytical Marxists are anti-dialectical because they refuse to substitute dogma for rigorous argument. They refuse to ‘bullshit’ because ideological ‘bullshit[ting]’ leaves too many conceptual misapprehensions (say, about freedom) intact, reinforcing the status quo. Traditional Marxist theses that fail to survive the ‘corrosive acid of analysis’ should be abandoned. Analytical Marxists are also anti-holistic because they reject economic historicism (Cohen, 1981: 7; 2000a: xvii-xxvii).

As Dworkin rightly points out, Cohen agrees with Sen that citizens should be equal not in welfare or resources but in opportunities to achieve welfare. As Cohen recently claims, injustice prevails not when different distributions of goods reflect differences in people’s choices but when these differences stem from sundry lucky and unlucky circumstances (2000b: 130). Socialist justice neutralizes these circumstances with the aim of making different distributions exclusively a function of people’s socially unencumbered choices. But for Dworkin, Cohen’s attempt to distinguish between choice and circumstance breaks down because unvarnished choosing doesn’st exist. All choosing is circumstantial, making inexpensive preferences no less unlucky than expensive ones. Equality of welfare opportunity thus collapses into simple equality of welfare. Consequently, if we are

not responsible for the upshot of some of our ‘expensive’ tastes, on the ground that we did not choose those tastes, then we are not responsible for any of them, and the community is obliged… to see that we suffer no comparative financial disadvantage in virtue of any of them. (Dworkin, 2000a: 289)

Cohen, in short, is just a left utilitarian in disguise.

Cohen has tried to separate himself from what he regards as Sen’s less demanding egalitarianism, no doubt, in part, because he is keen not to be mistaken for some sort of disguised welfarist. In particular, he criticizes Sen for advocating an ‘athletic’ notion of capability which makes freedom and well-being entirely a function of actively choosing between functionings. Hence, well-nourished infants could not experience well-being. Indeed, adults couldn’st experience well-being either unless they were actively meeting challenges (Cohen, 1993: 16-32). And this seems to entail aggressively perfectionist politics, which Cohen presumably finds distasteful. But Sen rejects Cohen’s interpretation as a mischaracterization, arguing that a person’s ability to ‘achieve various valuable functionings [well being] may be greatly enhanced by public action and policy’ (1993: 44). Well-being depends upon being economically empowered, which depends upon considerable wealth redistribution. Cohen has also tried to distance himself from Miller’s market socialism, arguing that it is neither consistent with Miller’s emphasis on desert nor just. Desert is little more than a bourgeois principle that treats talents as a ‘natural privilege’ (Cohen, 1995: 259; for the reply see Miller, 1999: 327, endnote 1).

Left-wing feminists have, in turn, criticized Marxists for stubbornly holding on to maleness as a ‘natural privilege.’ For Sheila Rowbotham, Marxists have failed to appreciate how capitalism reproduces itself through patriarchy. Because working-class women suffer both class and gender exploitation, they are the true vanguard of working-class consciousness. Women’s oppression is unique in that unlike ‘the working class, who have no need for the capitalist under socialism, the liberation of women does not mean that men will be eliminated’ (Rowbotham, 1973: 117). Recent socialist feminists have expanded upon Rowbotham’s anxieties, attacking radical feminists for their parochial women-centred analysis: ‘Although affirming an identity creates a refuge for marginalized women, a transformative politics is required if that refuge is not to become a ghetto’ (Lovenduski and Randall, 1993: 91).

Despite these nuances, English socialism has mostly become left-wing egalitarian liberalism. Indeed, classifying left new liberals, as well as market socialists like Miller as egalitarian liberals rather than socialists, seems arbitrary. We could just as easily classify ethical socialists, and even some analytical Marxists, as left egalitarian liberals. But however much English socialism and liberal egalitarianism have converged, neither have forsworn English political theory’s concern with class, which still distinguishes it from its American counterpart.


Even more so, conservatism has served to retard English political theory’s shrinking distinctiveness. More properly a philosophical mood, it has eschewed the sustained argumentative rigour typifying Sidgwick through Cohen. According to Anthony Quinton (1993), conservatism is a continuous tradition stretching back to Burke and culminating in Michael Oakeshott, whom Quinton considers the only philosophically interesting twentieth-century English conservative. For Quinton, three doctrines characterize this tradition. First, conservatives fear precipitous change, preferring continuity in existing political practices and institutions. Second, they are deeply sceptical about the possibilities of political knowledge, preferring the purported political wisdom accumulated in established laws, institutions and moral conventions. Third, conservatives view individuals as organically constituted by the societies in which they live. Universal human nature does not exist, making systematic political theory illusory and self-defeating (1993: 244-5, 252).

Exemplifying Quinton’s doctrinal anxieties, nineteenth-century conservatives like Samuel Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle and James Fitzjames Stephen excoriated utilitarianism for its supercharged, community-subverting rationalism. For instance, Stephen condemned Mill’s liberty principle as morally subversive in so far as it authorized all acts short of harm to life and liberty. The liberty principle thus circumscribed moral obligation, undermining community (Stephen, 1991: 58-9). Notwithstanding his disingenuous account of Mill’s theory of obligation (for Mill also maintained that we owe each other imperfect as well as perfect obligations), Stephen’s fears have resurfaced in Patrick Devlin’s The Enforcement of Morals (1959). Devlin follows Stephen, condemning Millian liberalism for vitiating society’s organic, moral integrity. Hart has responded by reformulating Mill’s distinction between merely offensive and harmful acts. For Hart, Devlin errs by agreeing with Stephen against Mill that ‘law might justifiably enforce morality as such’ (Hart, 1963: 16). In conventional utilitarian fashion, Hart denies that positive morality carries independent moral force simply by virtue of its existence. Moreover, whiledistressing others does not constitute harm, publicly shocking them is ‘another matter,’ possibly justifying legal prohibition. Though he concedes that the distinction remains a ‘fine one,’ Hart provides no criterion for making it. Presumably, general utility serves this function. But Hart must show just how much general disutility transforms mere distress into harmful shock. This dilemma merely exemplifies the larger one plaguing liberal utilitarianism discussed previously, namely what is our supplemental criterion for determining how much threatened disutility warrants violating basic rights?

Quinton’s assessment that Oakeshott is the only theoretically interesting twentieth-century English conservative is compelling. Michael Oakeshott’s appeal stems from his sophisticated rehabilitation of idealism combined with his willingness to take utilitarianism and socialism as worthy philosophical opponents. As one of his sympathetic interpreters urges, Oakeshott forcefully challenges the ‘commonsensical’ or ‘liberal utilitarian’ view of freedom, which regards laws purely instrumentally. Whereas liberal utilitarians hold that law necessarily restricts freedom, Oakeshott claims that only certain types of laws do. That is, liberal utilitarians follow Berlin in thinking that how much government interferes with its citizens determines the extent of their political freedom, while Oakeshott thinks that political freedom is just as significantly a function of government’s mode (Liddington, 1984: 308-9). ‘Enterprise’ government ‘runs’ citizens’ lives, compromising their freedom, by instrumentalizing law in the name of promoting some substantive goal such as general utility, equality or distributive justice. ‘Enterprise’ politics is therefore naively rationalistic. By contrast, ‘civil’ government merely ‘rules’ citizens without determining their ends. Reason is incapable of delivering up new Jerusalems. And whenever we mistakenly convince ourselves otherwise, we risk creating what Karl Popper called ‘closed’ societies. Rationalistic insolence is the enemy of civitas.

Since Oakeshott, conservatism has been mostly lamentation. Shirley Letwin’s (1978) ‘conservative individualism’ is little more than simplified Oakeshott. Kenneth Minogue’s ‘conservative realism’ berates political theorists for ‘grinding their concepts into a finer and finer powder.’ Conservative realists reject ‘rationalist ways of thinking’ exemplified by ‘Dworkinian believers in social justice.’ They follow Oakeshott, condemning rationalism as the misguided belief that the ‘conditions of any activity could be exhaustively formulated in precepts’ (Minogue, 1996: 4, 160).

No contemporary conservative, however, surpasses Roger Scruton for moodiness over carefully crafted argument. Scruton concedes as much when he says that his ‘concern is with dogma’ and that ‘argument is not the favourite pursuit of conservatives.’ A conservative is ‘“for” certain things… not because he has arguments in their favour, but because he knows them, lives with them, and finds his identity threatened… by the attempt to interfere with their operation’ (Scruton, 1980: 12-13). In short, conservative political theory is not so much theory but pathos and profession.


Every intellectual history is a narrative. My intellectual history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century English political theory privileges liberal utilitarianism and the new liberalism because I firmly believe that both constitute English political theory’s most significant contribution to modern Anglo-American political theory as well as to modern political theory in general. In my view, contemporary American political theorists, for whom Anglo-American political theory begins with Rawls, haven’st taken either seriously enough. But those who fetishize Rawls should at least read Sidgwick, since A Theory of Justicewas written largely in response to him.

Contemporary English political theory is less historically myopic, not only because liberal utilitarianism has long been an English preoccupation, but also because English political theory largely avoided falling under the ideological spell of German émigré intellectuals like Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, who found refuge in the US academy in the 1930s and 1940s, and who read their anxieties about fascism into their depictions of liberalism. They infused American political theory with intoxicating fevers and fascinations. No wonder Rawls’s analytical liberalism seemed so bracing and therefore proved so historically numbing in turn. And no wonder American political theory unwittingly reinvented communitarianism since it knew next to nothing about the new liberalism. English political theory has fared somewhat better. From Bentham on, it has simultaneously maintained its analytical rigour without losing its historical memory.