© 2004, Humboldt State University


Liberalism is often under attack because of its alleged excessive "formalism". In the words of one of its main contemporary defenders, "the defining feature of liberalism is that it ascribes certain fundamental freedoms to each individual. In particular, it grants people a very wide freedom of choice in terms of how they lead their lives".1 In more continental language, this core idea has been summarized in the statement that what liberalism is all about is "the handling and organization of the conditions in which freedom can be realized".2 For liberals, individuals must be recognized as the ultimate arbiters of what gives value to their own existences, and the liberal principle of legitimacy is not satified whenever the state seeks to impose any particular comprehensive doctrine about the good life.

From many sides, however, it is said that an acceptable society in which to live needs a more substantial conception of the good, without which individuals are uprooted and anonymous.3 Somewhat along the lines of the traditional criticism of the Kantian doctrine, turning upon its focus on procedure and universalism to the detriment of content and particularism, contemporary liberalism is sometimes seen as an empty morality that, abstracting as it does from experience, is not able to provide the ethical resources necessary to ground acceptable pragmatic policies.4 I want to argue instead that, at least from one point of view, liberalism in all its versions is not formal enough. There is, I will claim, a specific problem with respect to which an important substantive aspect is surreptitiously introduced into the theory: the problem of moral status. As my argument unfolds, I shall deal with three different senses of "formal": formal as procedural, formal as neutral, and formal as analytic.

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