Words like liberal and conservative have been losing whatever meaning they once had. An old Tory would not have seen anything very conservative in free trade, and Senator Bob Taft would certainly have had reservations about America’s role as international policeman. But liber al still has discernible significance in ethics, where the great liberal traditions of Locke, Adam Smith, and the Utilitarians are carried on by able defenders like John Rawls, Robert Nozick, and Bruce Ackerman. Although the philosophers disagree on a great many things, they share certain operating assumptions which make possible a rich cross-pollination of liberal eth ics. Among the truths they hold to be self-evident is the assumption that ethical decisions are made by individuals in confrontation with other individuals; the most impor tant quality of these decisions is the fact of their universal application without distinction of persons. If something is right, it is right for everyone under all circumstances. Considerations of kinship or national identity are irrelevant. 

Since liberal ethics avoid refer ence to transcendent or supernatural beings, they are forced to fall back on certain abstract standards as a basis for ethical judgments. For Adam Smith it was “the impartial spectator” to whom we could ap peal as a judge (an idea revived by Peter Singer). Rawls goes back to the old state of nature myth in the form of “the original position” of equality. By relentlessly emphasiz ing equality, Rawls is led to a sort of totalitarian ethics of duty which would require each of us to share our wealth and resources until we were roughly equal with the worst off On the other side, Nozick so emphasizes the rights side of the equation that he ends up celebrating anarchy. If there is a serious ethical debate going on in the U.S., it is largely between liberals that stress one or the other side of the rights/duties coin.

Enter James Fishkin, at once the most trenchant critic of liberalism and its ablest defender. In a series of brilliant short books—Tyranny and Legitimacy, The Limits of Obligation, and Justice, Equal Opportunity, and the Family—he has ex posed the perils of moral absolutism by demonstrating  that all versions—Rawls’s leveling and Nozick’s libertarianism—can be used to jus tify obviously unethical conduct. What is just as serious, in Fishkin’s view, is the extent to which these zealous absolutists impose an im possible burden on ordinary people. Not everyone may be prepared to bear the burden of moral hero ism. The unintended result may be the withdrawal into a subjectivism that regards all ethical principles as mere matters of taste. In his latest book, Beyond Subjective Morality: Ethical Reasoning and Political Philosophy (Yale University Press; New Haven), Fishkin profiles a se ries of “ordinary moral reasoners” and explores their dilemma. He outlines six characteristics which most people expect of an ethical system. Listed in order of severity, they require ethical judgments: to apply to oneself and to others, to be applied consistently to similar cases, to be “objectively valid” (i.e., most people would accept the reasoning behind them), to be inviola ble, and to be absolute or “rationally unquestionable.” Ordinary reasoners often conclude that since none of their judgments is likely to fulfill these expectations, all moral positions are merely arbitrary.

Anyone familiar with  Fishkin’s work might predict that he would advocate a middle ground. In fact, he suggests that we might reasona bly content ourselves with a mini mal objectivism which rejects absolutism and inviolability, while retaining the expectation that judgments will be universal and objectively valid. 

As a practical hypothesis foreveryday life, this minimal objectivism may offer a way out to many people trapped in their own subjectivity, but it does not address the underlying problem of individualist ethics. For one thing, there is nothing in Fishkin’s position that rules out subjectivism: at best, his objectivity is a possible alternative. Un like the absolutisms of Plato or St. Thomas, Fishkin’s middle ground does not even claim for itself an invincibility against relativism. It is a little like the Anglican via media between the absolutism of the Roman Church and the radical individualism of the extreme Protestants. Like Episcopalians, liberals must always be tempted by the most available absolutist dogma in the air. These days, temptation is not likely to come from Rome—or anything even vaguely theistic, for that matter. Fishkin argues that “it would be out of bounds for a liberal state to base moral  arguments  … on the ultimate convictions of any particular group,” in particular on “our cherished beliefs about God.” On the other hand, “the Marxist strategy of basing claims to a kind of legitimacy on historical inevitability remains a possibility.” Marx, it seems, is not mocked.

But the greatest weakness in Fishkin’s position is his refusal to reconsider the fundamental principle of abstract individualism. He continues to graph human relations on the grid of I/thou intersections, as if there were no other way. Aristotle, whom Fishkin never seems to quote, wondered if a man could be considered happy if his good for tune did not extend to his kin. To his credit, Fishkin is beginning to realize that a man might owe spe cial obligations to certain people, e.g., wife and children, but he continues to express these obligations in the bloodless language of abstract individualism. Still, the strains to which he has subjected his own liberalism may be a sign that he is outgrowing the tattered chrysalis. (TJF) cc