Is Classical Liberalism based on Skepticism?
Tibor R. Machan
There are quite a few champions of the free society who believe the best argument for it is skepticism, especially about moral truths. Some actually claim that the major proponents of the position—including, especially, its political philosophy of limited government—thought that the reason absolute or even considerable authority does not belong to the government is that no one can know what’s right and wrong. And if no one can know this, then no one can claim the authority to make others conform to their judgments of what is right.
Now this is a bad argument and actually few original classical liberals made it. It’s more the province of recent positivism-based classical liberalism, although followers of a certain (I would argued mistaken) interpretation of David Hume’s epistemology also toyed with it. (Hume, you may recall, is the famous advocate of the “is-ought gap,” the view that no judgment as to what anyone ought to do can be deduced from any factual knowledge. Notice, however, that Hume was careful to chide those who wanted to deduce the one from the other. He himself often made inferences from what is to what ought to be done.)
John Locke, perhaps the political thinker most responsible for the political philosophy sketched by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, was no skeptic. He thought we could know well enough that there are certain laws in the state of nature—certain ethical precepts before we even consider politics—that we ought to follow. And in order to make this possible in our communities, he identified certain natural rights that members of the community need to respect and its legal authority ought to protect.
This, I insist, is not a skeptical argument. It affirms that we can know the precepts of ethics and what rights everyone has. Pretty hefty stuff to know, I’d say.
Was Adam Smith a skeptic? In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, be it sound or not, he doesn’t appear to be one at all. All kinds of moral virtues are affirmed, quite confidently, in that, Smith’s favorite, book and there are passages about morality in The Wealth of Nations which show no less confidence in our ability to know a thing or two about right and wrong.
But why is the skeptical argument a bad one? Because if no one can know anything about right and wrong, then none could know, either, that it is wrong to impose one’s wishes or preferences on other people, to coerce them to live the way one happens to want them. Nor can anyone know that it is wrong to take it upon oneself to forge a polity that will regiment everyone (if it can muster sufficient power for that purpose)? The skeptical case for liberty is, in other words, hoisted on its own petard.
So those who champion the free society and want to do more than simply express their preference for it, never mind if it holds any argumentative merit—whether it can be shown to be superior to alternative regimes—need to find good arguments and not rely on the skeptical tactic. It simply will not work.
One reason skepticism is attractive to many intelligent and decent people is that in too many cases those who claimed to know had the delusion that this knowledge is eternal, timeless, perfect, incorrigible, and final. Now that kind of knowledge doesn’t exist and it is folly to think that human knowledge is like that. That kind of fantasy knowledge amounts, actually, to being what one knows, not knowing it. (Even then it’s too much to ask for—we do not even know ourselves in that way, perfectly.)
In the face of this idealistic conception of what it is to know the world, it made sense to turn to skepticism. But why accept that self-destructive view? Knowing is a normal, natural, human endeavor and like all such endeavors, the future can require one to make some modifications, alternations. The idealist’s knowledge is the knowledge of an omniscient being, not of a human one.
So the defense of the free society should not rest on skepticism but on a sensible conception of human knowledge. Such knowledge, as most classical liberals held, will show it to be the best system among all the live options.