Tag Archives: desire

Hauerwas on liberalism and desire

For most part, I’ve only read and heard caricatures and one-liners when it comes to Hauerwas’s critique of liberalism. I recently read Hauerwas’s early and well-worn (for many but not me) essay “The Church and Liberal Democracy: The Moral Limits of a Secular Polity.” I appreciated getting the more sustained critique and look forward to reading others like it. Here’s an excerpt.

Many of our current political problems and the way we understand and try to solve them are a direct outgrowth of our liberal presuppositions. For example, the American government is often condemned for its inability to develop an economic or energy policy, but such policies must necessarily be public policies. Just as it has been the genius of the American political system to turn every issue of principle into an issue of interest, so it has been the intention of our polity to make impossible the very idea of public policy or public interest. Public policy cannot exist because society is nothing more than an aggregate of self-interested individuals. The policy which is formulated therefore must be the result of a coalescence of self-interests that is then justified in the name of the greatest good for the greatest number (but too often turns out to be the greatest good for the most powerful). Liberalism thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; a social order that is designed to work on the presumption that people are self-interested tends to produce that kind of people.

It is often pointed out that there is a deep puzzle about the American people, for in spite of being the best off people in the world, their almost frantic pursuit of abundance seems to mask a deep despair and loss of purpose. I suspect that our despair is the result of living in a social order that asks  nothing from us but our willingness to abide by the rules of fair competition. We have been told that it is moral to satisfy our ‘wants’ and ‘needs,’ but we are no longer sure what our wants and needs are or should be. After all, ‘wants’ are but individual preferences. Americans, as is often contended, are good people or at least want to be good people, but our problem is that we have lost any idea of what that could possibly mean. We have made ‘freedom of the individual’ an end in itself and have ignored that fact that most of us do not have the slightest idea of what we should do with our freedom. – A Community of Character, 79-80