You Are Not a Thought Experiment!

Jacob Chatterjee debunks the myths and metaphysics of liberalism.


Liberalism has been the dominant political paradigm of the last two centuries. It has reshaped our world, entered our consciousness, and marinated the bones of our society. It seeks unquestioning obedience, and expects revulsion against any criticism. But that does not mean it is correct. In fact, as the original assumptions that led to its victory have faded from the Western consciousness with the ‘death of God’, it is justified only by political philosophers’ appeals to arbitrary intuitions pumped by thought experiments.

The fundamental premise of liberalism is the idea of the abstract ‘autonomous individual’ – a version of you who doesn’t have your parents, or your experiences, or your nationality, or sex. (Or religion, or other metaphysical beliefs, such as the belief that matter is all there is). Without these ‘constraints’ and ‘prejudices’, the abstracted individual can stand outside their society and judge how it should ‘really be’.

This concept lay at the heart of the ideology’s early theological justifications in Locke, in Rousseau’s idea of the ‘noble savage’ oppressed by the chains of society and, most recently, in Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance thought experiment.

But if we aren’t abstracted individuals, but real people, then social norms aren’t something imposed on us. This is because the social norms we are raised with make us who we are. Liberal attempts to free someone from those norms then become attempts to impose new norms.

It’s not as if liberal societies have no norms at all. In liberal political theories, these new norms are usually generated in the following way: the ‘noble savages’ ask themselves what norms they would all want, if only they hadn’t been taught the values they in fact have, and design a society according to those. Of course, these hypothetical values always perfectly coincide with the preoccupations of the philosopher carrying out the experiment.

The idea that every individual knows what is best for herself is validated only if we can grasp our good independently of our upbringing. If someone’s priorities are really the product of the intellectual history they stand at the end of, their desires socially created, then one can only judge a society from within its traditions and values. Social criticism is always particular, between friends, ‘conservative’.

Rawls’ thought experiment of the ‘veil of ignorance’ is perhaps the most precise attempt to sell the snake-oil of the abstract individual who can design a just society from nowhere. He posits that if people were forced to decide their political and social structure form behind a veil of ignorance, where they are ignorant of who they would be in the structure they design, they would construct a just structure. That structure turns out to be a liberal society working pretty much like he and his colleagues thought 1970s America worked.

But the unencumbered individual that Rawls posits, ignorant of their own needs, even their own fundamental beliefs about how humans flourish, does not exist. The only people sat behind the veil of ignorance are us, with our experiences, needs and moral principles. The abstract individual Rawls posits is not really free of particular desires and historically contingent beliefs, but reflects particular fashions of Rawls’ day.

The belief that man is everywhere and always the same has led to failed intervention in the foreign sphere, by ignoring the diverse political cultures and historical experience of different countries.

Ironically, it is the institutions that liberals value the most which are put at the greatest risk by liberalism’s destructive impulses. Successful democracies depend on solidarity, fellow-feeling, among a pre-existing people united by a shared identity that can only be inherited, not invented.

Modern European states only arose in the nineteenth century because there were proto-national identities, rooted in literary and religious traditions, able to cut across and transcend regional identities. (The English have no consciousness of this process, because it occurred for us a millennium ago!) Stable political systems are dependent upon high levels of social trust, of imagining each other as belonging to and caring for each other.


This is where civil political discourse and planning occurs. Can you see any autonomous agents or noble savages? Turns out they don’t drink. (Photo by Philafrenzy; used under CC Sharealike 4.0.)

But liberalism views these fragile institutions not as long-nurtured and contingent, but as a natural expression of human rationality. At the same time, it has continually attacked as ‘irrational’ the fellow-feeling which they need to persist. Immigration which outpaces cultural assimilation, and the undermining of a shared culture by wealthy, powerful people whose education makes them feel no allegiance to any culture, have eroded the social trust and mutual loyalty on which the functioning of political institutions depends.

Trust in elected representatives declines, commitment to the common good declines, and politics becomes polarized as society fractures into factions. Individuals are less willing to contribute a share of what they see as theirs to the common wealth when they think of themselves as an island and not a field in a common plot. But our governments depend on willing, not merely compelled, contributions to achieve the common good and so maintain their legitimacy.

It is no coincidence that, as liberalism has entrenched itself, and people have been taught to cast off and forget their origins and traditions to pursue pleasure and profit as efficiently as possible, mental health problems have grown exponentially.

If liberation means liberation from misery to flourish, rather than liberation from the past to wander aimlessly and selfishly, then human beings – only ever human beings, never ‘autonomous agents’ – are only liberated by the cultures which make them. They are not, as liberalism claims, liberated from them.


Jacob Chaterjee reads History at the University of Oxford.

The agitprop featured is “The Contrast 1792/Which is Best”, by Thomas Rowlandson.

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