Why Liberals Should be Conservative: Climate Change, Excellence, and the Practice of Happiness, Part 2

February 4, 2019

Ed. note: Part 1 of this series can be found on here.

The Resurgent Aristotelians: Hopkins, Fleming, Francis, and Holmgren

What then does a modern Aristotelianism look like?  How might we reconcile his ideal of a singular, philosophically deduced definition of a “good life” with modern pluralism and heterogeneity, and the Liberal insistence on individual expressive self-creation?  How do we define “good” or “excellence” without imposing an ideology or world-view on others who have their own?  Who judges and according to what standards?  If such a reconciliation is impossible, will we be required to make a difficult choice?  Or is there no real choice at all?

These are the questions that I will be considering, and to which in some cases I will hazard an answer, as we go forward.  To start that process, a quick recap may be in order.  I have outlined a philosophical and political standoff between Liberalism and a still-being-defined conservative Aristotelianism using common terminology, but in a particular way that may also need clarification.  I take Liberalism to represent the broad post-Enlightenment political and moral philosophy that has found its home in societies organized around a market economy, in which the primary location of agency, obligation, and desert or rights resides in the individual, who is freed from the “constraints” of “kinship, neighborhood, profession, and creed,” and given over to seemingly voluntary “freedom of contract” (Polanyi, 171).  Liberalism, as I use the capitalized version of the term, includes both political liberals or progressives of the sort that one might associate with Democrats, the Labor party, or Democratic Socialism, on the one hand, and “conservatives” (with scare-quotes) of the sort associated with Republicans, the British Conservative Party, and Christian Democrats, on the other.  While liberals and “conservatives” believe themselves to have divided up the moral and political world into two competing halves, their similarities are significant in our current political and ecological context, because neither possesses the terms, concepts, or distinctions necessary to organize or describe a social, political, and moral order that can thrive within ecological limits.[i]

Among the shared beliefs and values of Liberals across the continuum, I include the sovereignty of the individual whose identity is (supposed to be) self-styled, unencumbered by revealed religion, tradition, or kinship.  Even among evangelical Christians, never mind their hyper-individualism and enthusiasm for market freedoms, the acceptance of Jesus is an individual act of personal resolve, a self-willed feat of rebirth[ii] peculiar to a Liberal society.  Although there is in our culture a prodigious buffet of available identities, some at odds and disrespectful towards other offerings, individuals are relatively free to choose which ever one they want.[iii]  As Bert van den Brink explains in his interesting defense of Liberalism, among the highest Liberal ideals is both state and cultural “neutrality toward various notions of the good life” (2), letting individuals choose and create their own good.  This normative Liberalism dates back at least to John Stuart Mill.[iv]  As he puts it in On Liberty, the sovereignty of the individual is, with few exceptions, “absolute.”  In pursuit of happiness, we are to expect liberty in “framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong.”

The main moral, political, and legal challenge for Liberalism or within Liberal society has been determining the limits to this otherwise absolute liberty.  As Mill explains it, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”  Mill’s is not, of course, the only articulation of Liberal freedom, and there is considerable disagreement about what sorts of actions or even beliefs might harm others.  But all of them with very few exceptions understand public morality in terms not of how we ought to “frame the plan of our life,” but in terms of the restrictions and prohibitions on our pursuit of individually-defined self-interest or self-expression.  The goal of Liberal social policy — especially visible in economic growth — has been to decrease the sphere in which our wants and desires might “harm others,” thus relieving itself from the more difficult questions of legitimate limits.

There are, then, two key features of Liberalism, emphasized so far: first is the individual framing of a life plan; and second, that the individual is subject only to (decreasingly prominent) restrictions based on harm to others and their individual pursuit of freedom.  I am contrasting it to an Aristotelian ethics with two contrary features: first that the good is subject to philosophical inquiry and therefore lacks the Liberal condition of public (and now cultural) neutrality; and second, that the virtues, according to which one practices the good, are not primarily prohibitive or restrictive.  Rather than an act of self-denial or a limitation on personal freedom, for Aristotelians an ethical life of virtue is a matter of refining one’s passions and wants and organizing the social order to eliminate any gap between self-interest and common good, doing good and living well, pleasure and virtue, religion and politics, conscience and patriotism, inclination and the law.   Describing Ancient Greece, T. L. Hobhouse noted in his classic study, Liberalism, that one can accurately describe “such a community as an association of men for the purpose of living well” (12).  Aristotle refers to this kind of “living well” as eudaimonia, which may be roughly translated to happiness, despite its significant difference from modern understandings of happiness.  Not a state of mind or a passing feeling, eudaimonia refers to a properly-oriented life-course directed towards things of the highest value, well executed, and rewarded with pleasure and enjoyment.

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What would this look like in a modern context?  This unified moral order directed to a kind of excellence (more rigorously defined than “widely sought-after”) is, I would concur, entirely incompatible with a consumer society, riven by choices, motivated by profit and price.  But it is possible to imagine an Aristotelian “good life” or “living well” conceived for an age of ecological limits.  In such an age, to begin with, eventually we are likely to see one or two striking changes in the social background, if not a combination of the two.  Either the sort and level of consumption — the kind that Liberalism can find no effective grounds to prohibit — will, firstly, come to be understood as lethal, or, secondly, will simply no longer be available.  There are a couple of reasons why “living well” would not on first glance seem the likely order of the day.  All those among us who associate “living the good life” with the presence of luxury will be dearly disappointed, while a collapsing economy would create legitimate hardship.  But more threatening than the first-order deprivation would be the second-order responses to this disappointment — the fight to maintain privilege, weaponized entitlement, the confusion of unfulfilled expectations with injustice.  Beyond that, I am arguing here (and here to argue) our moral vocabulary is thin when it comes to the terms and concepts necessary to articulate a new vision of justice and the good in the absence not only of consumer abundance, but even without a constant increase in it.[v]

Its long-shot status notwithstanding, (given the likely outbreak of civil war by means of civil war)[vi], it is possible not only to imagine but to identify a kind of Aristotelian good life graced with non-consumerist abundance, lived wholly within and according to ecological limits, embracing community while engaging in a collective effort to restore and nurture a strained natural world back to health.  The virtues required for this sort of eudaimonious ecological community would require a table of virtues different than those required for the Greek Polis, the Medieval city, the Holy Roman Empire, or Benjamin Franklin’s thrifty and ambitious America, not to mention the current regime of Liberal indulgence and uncurated self-expression.  These ecological virtues would be cultivated with an eye towards moderation, respect for limits, resilience, the skills of observation and cooperative endeavor; they would find joy, pleasure, and satisfaction in the honest work of an ecological conversion and rebirth, as well as the hard, but purposeful, work simply of living.

If this description sounds familiar to those acquainted with the Transition movement, permaculture, the work of Wendell Berry, or the genius of David Fleming, this is because these thinkers and these movements all represent (or might) a resurgent Aristotelianism, whether they realize it or not.  Unlike Liberalism, deep sustainability[vii] in the permacultural vein has a more fully developed and specific understanding of the good.  Unlike Liberalism — which by principle considers something like food choice or landscaping design, like our zeal for “heli-skiing,” sports-cars, or golfing, to be a matter of “life style,” part of the morally neutral “good” we select for ourselves — permaculture and its fellow-travelers join Aristotle in attempting to define the best life for humans.  But this lack of moral neutrality does not, as in Aristotle, imply a denial of enjoyment, pleasure, and joy.  Permaculture does not articulate an ethics of “thou shalt nots.”  Despite its annunciation of limits, its main tenor is not one of denial but of deep abundance.

As Rob Hopkins has described it, the inevitable decrease in consumption and mobility associated with an energy descent “need not necessarily mean deprivation, misery, and collapse” (53).  Rather, from its very first articulations, Transition has promoted itself as the source of a happier life, freed from the complexity, anxiety, and uncertainty of the harried, indebted, and precariously-networked cosmopolitan lifestyle.  One of Hopkins’ most vivid pictures of an Aristotelian life of thriving according to the practice of excellence and the pleasures of virtuous activity can be found in his description of the people of the Hunza Valley, Pakistan, in the introduction to The Transition Handbook: “Here was a society which lived within its limits and had evolved a dazzlingly sophisticated yet simple way of doing so.  All waste, including human waste, was carefully composted and returned to the land.  The terraces which had been built into the mountainsides over centuries were irrigated through a network of channels that brought mineral-rich water from the glacier above down to the fields with astonishing precision” (12).  The people of the Hunza valley eat well and enjoy tremendous health.  Their homes and surroundings blend function with natural splendor, and in that blending find their beauty.  Simply by holding to the practices and measures evolved over centuries, “if there were a global economic downturn or even a collapse, it would have had very little impact on the Hunza Valley.  The people were resilient too, happy, healthy, and with a strong sense of community” (13).   A Transition to an ecological society, Hopkins consistently emphasizes, deprives us largely of useless junk and purposeless novelties that stand between us and a higher and happier purpose: “the future with less oil,” Hopkins summarizes, “could be preferable to the present” (53).

Throughout his work Wendell Berry articulates a similar moral order, though perhaps in more stern and absolute terms.[viii]  But as in permaculture or Transition, Berry’s morality is directed towards happiness through the exercise of virtue, moderation, and restraint.  The “best form of life for humans,” in Berry’s rendering of it, is that of a small-scale farmer who lives off the land that he or she nurtures.  Similar to permaculture, but more explicitly depicted, virtuous happiness is defined as a wholistic, perhaps “wholesome” health, which in turn is described in terms of the unity created through communal interdependence with each other and the earth.  “A healthy culture,” Berry explains, “is a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, and aspiration.  It reveals the human necessities and the human limits.  It clarifies our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other.  It assures that the necessary restraints are observed, that the necessary work is done, and that it is done well” (43).  In this healthy culture one can find “mutual care, generosity, neighborliness, festivity, communal joy, religious ceremony” (9) — something that the Transition Movement has attempted to reproduce.[ix]

But there’s a problem — a big one, just as there is with Liberalism.  Liberalism (it bears repeating) is, in its current form, entirely unsustainable.  The closest thing to a Liberal solution to ecological destruction involves one of two options: first, and primarily, is the blind faith that freedoms will beget innovation, and innovation will permanently stretch ecological limits.  Its only plausible backup plan, given the impoverishment of its current moral vocabulary, would be to resurrect the prohibitive morality it used to employ, creating legal, and thus coercive, limits to consumption.   By imagining a form of happiness and the good that is compatible with ecological limits, in contrast, deep sustainability advances an alternative moral vocabulary.  But, in so doing, it also ignores the problems that Liberalism has solved.  The fact that Liberalism is unsustainable does not mean that the challenges it confronted have or will simply disappear.

Here and throughout my other writings, I certainly come across as a critic of Liberalism.  It is likely that this critical stance obscures my deep respect for Liberalism (similar to the way Marx was awed by the bourgeoisie?”), for the way Liberalism invariably informs many of my own beliefs, desires, and expectation, and the fact that I appreciate my civil liberties.  But my respect for Liberalism runs deeper: from the moment that the idea of philosophy was formed, and before that in myth, ritual, and religion, one of its fundamental problems has been that of difference, variety, and heterogeneity and how they might be variously understood and how order might be created out of them.  But this is not merely a philosophical problem, even as it remains present in almost all philosophical and theological discourse.  It is also a political problem, becoming the overriding political problem with the onset of rapid trans-oceanic travel, the resulting social and geographical mobility,  the “dislocation of the lives of common people,”[x] not to mention the dislocation and death of those colonized, conquered, and enslaved with the creation of a global world order, beginning around 1492 and advancing unabated to the present.

As MacIntyre points out in his sequel to After Virtue, a study entitled Whose Justice? Which Rationality? The Aristotelian ethics that dominated the middle-ages lost its prestige on the cusp of modernity for reasons having little to do with internal coherence, the rigor of Aristotelian dialectics, or the superiority of its replacement.  Rather, he attributes it to lived history — to “the gradual discovery during and after the savage and persistent conflicts of the age that no appeal to any agreed conception of the good for human beings, either at the level of practice or theory, was now possible. . . . That a diversity of rival and incompatible conceptions of the good should obtain the allegiance of a variety of contending parties was from now on increasingly taken for granted” (209-10).  Heterogeneity was no longer a threat lingering at the gates of the unified Polis; it was, even in an age with much less diversity or acceptance of it than ours, one of the basic elements of perceived reality.  From this point on, explains MacIntyre, the “practical question became . . .  what kind of principles can require and secure allegiance in and to a form of social order in which individuals who are pursuing diverse and often incompatible conceptions of the good can live together without the disruptions of rebellion and internal war?” (210).

This explains why Liberalism is rarely utopian, uninterested in human perfection.[xi]  Rather, it is better understood as a management system for human society suddenly less constrained by traditional roles, material scarcity, and limited options.[xii]  As such, it is an extremely clever, often thoughtful, and highly effective response.  I will in a later section explore Liberalism’s evolution more fully, along with the various critiques that have successfully identified its contradictions but without finding a viable alternative.  For now, I’m going to suggest that the resurgent Aristotelianism of deep sustainability has yet to answer Liberalism’s challenge to an Aristotelian order.  It has instead mainly ignored the question that Liberalism has concluded to be unanswerable but at best only manageable: how can a single and unifying notion of the good, one which places distinct limits on the unlimited wants and satisfactions that real people have adopted and embraced, be determined, articulated, and evangelized?  How does it not become authoritarian and repressive?

In this way my argument, which may have appeared to be “against” Liberalism, will hopefully begin to reveal its dialectical intentions, cutting not only against Liberalism, but also against the notion that Liberalism can be easily or painlessly overcome or surpassed (aufheben).  To put this another way, deep sustainability has yet to comprehend the consequences of some of its commitments, consequences which I think are best clarified through a philosophical discourse that demands conceptual coherence.  More specifically, I think that deep sustainability has, with some exceptions, failed to understand its incompatibility with Liberal neutrality (however illusory that neutrality may be).  It is common, but mistaken I believe, to view deep sustainability as a stage in the liberal march of progress or an extension of Liberal commitments to, above all else, individualism, freedom, openness, and tolerance.  Rather, if considered systematically and rigorously, we discover incommensurable commitments and contradictory requirements.

It is not difficult to identify the source of this confusion.  The permaculture “vibe,” after all, is one of openness and acceptance.  Transition as a movement and set of loosely organized institutions attempts to refrain from “judgmentalism.”  It appears compatible with progressive liberalism because of its focus on empathy and understanding, along with its radically egalitarian ideals.  Deep sustainability’s apparent repudiation of hierarchy seems at one with Liberalism’s; its frequent talk of becoming more democratic, its interest in non-violent communication and group decision making, and a focus on emotional intelligence provides a sense of continuity with the advance of progressive values as described by George Lakoff’s famous metaphor of the nurturing family valorized by liberals in contrast to the stern father preferred by “conservatives.”[xiii]  In more anecdotal terms, a Transition sharing-circle or the breathing exercises performed at the start of a clinic on composting, are on the whole, more likely to appeal to a liberal social worker or English teacher than a hard-nosed conservative businessman, with all the gendered connotations remaining significant.[xiv]

Part of this appeal may be explained by the fact that all movements have multiple cultural sources and that the real people who inhabit deep sustainability movements and organizations are themselves products of Liberal society.  Regardless of its source, this sense of continuity and compatibility has much to do with its current experimental and exploratory status, as well as its lack of political power.  Because the community involvement fostered by Transition or a permacultural convergence is at this point more like a life-style choice, with low barriers to entry and exit as David Fleming would say,[xv] its uncompromising principles are easy to ignore.  But however gentle, collaborative, and non-violent a permacultural ethic wishes to be or appear, this air or vibe hides its fundamental need, at some point, to make distinct and uncompromising judgments.  Such judgments may not feel so gentle and inclusive to those who don’t agree.  In the Liberal tradition, for example, one can equally be a “good person” working in “financial services” or advertising (even to children), on the one hand, or as a social-worker, kindergarten teacher, or organic farmer, on the other.  In large part this has to do with the fact that what Liberals mean by a “good person,” however ill-defined, often has to do with maintaining contractual commitments, refraining from harsh or cruel judgments, and treating friends and strangers with easy-going civility.  As a necessary strategic move, if for no other reasons, Transition does not “require” participants to leave jobs in service of economic growth or the various optimization industries in which so many of us are employed, any more than it prohibits airplane travel or smart phones.  Whether as part of a developed philosophy or wishful thinking (I will later explore) Transition believes that the positive alternatives it provides will in time prove their superiority.  Deep sustainability may, in short, envision a good.  But it does not require, even expect, anything more than a part-time adherence to it.

But similar to Aristotle and his identification of the highest good or “the best life for humans,” the demands of deep sustainability more rigorously considered maintain that one’s life-course is not morally neutral.  If we are to take ecological limits seriously and build our lives and communities around them, we are not in any simple way, pace Mill, free to do “as we like, subject to such [personal] consequences as may follow.”   Rather, the human good is gauged according to the way it aids or hinders the project of earth care, people care, fair share, and respect for limits.  Broadly put, a “good life,” lived by a “good person,”[xvi] is one cultivated within and according to ecological limits and the cycles of nature, with strong emphasis on a shared mission that involves nurturing the earth and each other as part of a community quest for a common good that starts locally and expands globally.  We in Transition might believe ourselves to be open-minded and tolerant.  But one of the features that makes Transition a real and significant alternative to Liberal growthism and the pax profusio is that it has a stronger sense of the good, one that is incompatible with the way of life and the aims and goals predominant in Industrialized Liberal societies.  Transition isn’t “” or the “Green New Deal” because it challenges our culture, which is also to say that it challenges our understanding of what is good and what is not.

If it were to evolve from its current experimental, and relatively powerless phase (or if material scarcity and limited options overtake the pax profusio and Liberalism becomes defunct in ways that are becoming a more apparent threat), we would see the return of difficult questions that have yet to be answered in this context, questions such as what to do with those who are unwilling to live within ecological limits, who refuse the obligation of earth care, or reject on principles of freedom or incentive or inherited surplus the ideal of fair share?  What sort of system of justice would be required?  How will education and practical reasoning be reworked?  How would national and international decisions be made and enforced?” There is a faith among many in Transition or similar movements that the focus on emotional intelligence and honest communication and group decision making will allow us to dissolve such difficulties.  Perhaps.  Or we may have entered a blurry world of utopian faith.  Or perhaps the faith in the uncorruptible wisdom of democratic decision-making in the absence of standards of excellence or authoritative truths is a hold-over from a simpler side of Liberalism.[xvii]  Or perhaps the strength of Transition or similar types of localism is their ability to create new traditions in which authority might be grounded.

We can put a finer point on some of these issues — most specifically the inherent conflict between deep sustainability and Liberal neutrality over the content of the good and the challenges posed by heterogeneity and difference — by illustrating some similarities between Transition, permaculture, and other sustainability movements that emphasize the importance of cultural change, on the one hand, and the ecological writing of Pope Francis, on the other.

The parallels between the current Pope and his indispensable Laudito Si’: On Care for our Common Home and permaculture are striking.  Consider, for instance, the Pope’s insistence on framing his argument in terms of ecology, something in which we are embedded, rather than the environment, something external to us.  Included in this ecological view is an understanding of human society as an ecology in which, he repeatedly says, “everything is connected.”  Reading this text, it quickly becomes apparent that the Pope has done nothing short of adopting an ecological paradigm with its emphasis on the wholeness, unity, and interconnection of all living things, to explain and address the problems of human society.  In so doing, the Pope abandons (with some fancy footwork, on one hand, and some insightful reinterpretation, on the other) the Catholic Church’s previous “anthropomorphism.”  This “integrating vision” of interconnection and limits can also be contrasted to Liberalism.  With its multiple systems of checks and balances, Liberalism requires separation: nature from culture, private from public, religion from politics, morality from the law, work from so-called “life.”  This disconnection and its practical possibility are predicated on a model of an infinite universe.[xviii]

But a criticism of Liberalism is more than implied in the Pope’s choice of model.  Rather, the Pope sustains a critique of Liberalism not unlike the one I offered in my previous installment.  In his sights are instrumental reason, utilitarianism, and pragmatism and the empty consumerism and obsession with technological novelty that he believes they foster.  Against Enlightenment Reason and its dissolvent rationality (as Adorno and Horkheimer put it), Francis argues that “many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency. . . to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the working of society” (#107).  Remarking that “we have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends” (#203), along with his sustained critique of the means-oriented “technocratic paradigm” in which we are mired, the Pope would, I think, embrace the distinction between effectiveness and excellence, thus viewing the modernity that has become alienated from and therefore destructive to the natural world as a culture obsessed with effectiveness, winning, and extrinsic rewards.  Francis contrastingly emphasizes the “intrinsic value” of ecosystems, “independent of their usefulness” (#140).

His solution to these ills is likewise similar to that of deep sustainability.  It would be difficult to finds much space between the ecological conversion he calls for and the values of earth care, people care, fair share, and respect for limits.  He speaks of the modern loss of the virtues of restraint and reverence, and is interested in reflective observation.  Like Transition, he calls for the revival of community around the common purpose of building an ecological society.  Like Wendell Berry, he forefronts the necessity of being tied to the land through manual labor, recalling “the great tradition of monasticism” and its insight that manual labor is “spiritually meaningful,” imbuing “our relationship to the world with a healthy sobriety” (#126).  If, as Berry argues in The Unsettling of America, our crisis of ecology is a crisis of culture and agriculture, currently disrupted by imbalance and dis-integration, Francis mirrors this argument when he suggests that “when there is a general breakdown in the exercise of a certain virtue in personal and social life, it ends up causing a number of imbalances, including environmental ones.  That is why it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems.  We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life” (163).

What is perhaps most striking about the Pope’s “ecological conversion” is its ambiguous relationship to a restrictive or prohibitive morality.  This aspect of the Christian tradition has not been entirely removed from Laudito Si’; but, at the same time, in a way that is reminiscent of Aristotle and Transition or permaculture, he describes an ecological conversion whose primary reward is not to be found in heaven, but on and in and through the earth.  Against the traditional Christian chestnut that we shouldn’t try to be happy but try to be deserving of happiness, Francis speaks passionately about “joy,” “deep enjoyment,” even “personal fulfillment” (#222).  Against the Liberal culture of expressive experimentation and novel experience, a sort of consumerism that sociologist Daniel Bell associates with the needs of Liberal capitalism and visible in most of its counter-cultural movements, Francis praises the virtues of “sobriety and humility,” noting that they were “not favorably regarded in the last century” (#224).  But this sobriety is not a matter of denial or obeying difficult and repressive rules.  Rather:

“Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating.  It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity.  On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full.  In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have.  They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness.  Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer.” (#223)

Pope Francis concludes these reflections with a phrase that unites Aristotelian eudaimonia with a vision of the good similar to the one that animates deep sustainability: “Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many possibilities which life can offer” (ibid).

It bears repeating that even in these passages, in which there appears to be no necessary theological dimension, Francis is no liberal, similarly true of Wendell Berry.[xix]  This is not to say that there aren’t those in Liberal consumerist society who live simply, focusing on the modest and handmade, living reflectively and in rare cases with self-imposed restrictions on access to so-called “technology.”  There are in fact entire industries devoted to providing products and images for this sort of “lifestyle.”  Nor is it to say that these people don’t consistently vote for Democrats, if for only lack of a better choice.  It is to say that Liberal society has shown no tendency to favor simplicity, humility, and sobriety over an expansive individualism intent on overcoming limits; it is to say that the call for a widescale conversion to an ecological lifestyle would undermine not only capitalism but its Liberal handmaiden.[xx]

If we can agree that there is a legitimate conflict between deep sustainability and Liberal society, including many features of it to which ecologically minded people remain committed, the inclusion of the Pope in this Aristotelian conservativism reveals the intellectual challenges in articulating an alternative. . . unless, of course, you can invoke God for your cause.  If the challenge of deep sustainability in a secular vein is to articulate and defend a unified and binding notion of the good in the face of Liberal heterogeneity and individual liberty, this is a fairly easy task for the Pope.  While it appears possible to separate passages in Laudito Si’ from the Pope’s theology, such that they stand on their own merits, the theological justification is never far away.  Articulating the nature and duties of humans, for Francis, requires neither empirical observation nor inductive exploration; it can be determined and defended through Biblical exegesis and appeal to the tradition from which they are deduced.  Caring for our common home is a spiritual obligation, plain and simple, because God created nature and charged us with caring for it.  To MacIntyre’s question, “whose justice and which rationality?”— an overwhelming problem in modernity — Francis has a ready answer: God’s justice and God’s rationality.  Where Liberalism answers this question by becoming as neutral as possible with regard to the good, Francis needs only to turn to scripture and tradition, which, he argues, commands us to engage in earth care, people care, fair share, and respect for limits.  As he concludes, putting to rest any notion that the Pope is “actually” a closet Liberal:

“A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable.  That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot.  The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim of absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world.  Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.” (#75).

Just as the problem of the good is solved by way of authoritative doctrine and the hierarchy of obeyer and obeyed, so also is the problem of difference and variety.  On the issue of heterogeneity, Francis draws on the authority of Aquinas, who, he says, “wisely noted that multiplicity and variety ‘come from the intention of the first agent’” (#86).

Philosophy, especially since the Enlightenment, can be seen as an attempt to provide the answers previously provided by a combination of tradition and revealed religion.  As such it too was interested in first causes, if not the “first agent,” as it attempted to determine the natural, human, historical, sociological, or psychological laws that might at first buttress and later replace divine law.  As I have been suggesting, and will argue in greater depth later, the evolution of Liberalism might be interpreted as an acceptance of the impossibility of this task.[xxi]  But Liberalism has not maintained complete hegemony over the course of recent history.  It has always had its critics, rejecters, even revolutionaries running from Romanticism through Hegel and Marx to existentialism and post-structuralism, none of which attempted to revert, simply, to an earlier version of Liberalism as have “conservatives.”  We have witnessed the clear catastrophes and atrocities of State Communism and National Socialism but also might notice the failure of this counter-tradition, even when not inflamed by hatred or revolutionary zeal, to come up with a viable alternative to Liberalism.

In addition to its implicit Aristotelianism, deep sustainability has significant roots in this counter-tradition.  It is impossible for a critic of Liberal Capitalism such as myself to ignore this counter-tradition, from which I can extricate myself no more fully than I can from Liberal society.  But Liberalism’s radical and revolutionary “other” suffers from some of the same challenges that Liberalism does, ones that can be addressed according to an Aristotelian logic.  My argument going forward will in this way attempt a shift: instead of only suggesting that deep sustainability represents an insurgent Aristotelianism, I will consider how it might become more Aristotelian, thus distancing itself from Liberalism’s more persistent and familiar other.  To this failed counter-tradition, then, I turn to next.  After that, we will look more closely at the details of an Aristotelian alternative and the idea of virtue and excellence conceived for an age of ecological limits.


[i] To put it another way, if, as many Liberals do, you believe that there is no alternative to a post-Enlightenment market society, then the term Liberal may seem largely useless. If, as I am arguing, there are all sorts of valid, perhaps inevitable, alternatives, then we need a term like Liberalism according to which we can contrast its “others—a term whose definition I am trying to narrow and whose consequences I am trying to identify.  You may also maintain the same dismissive view of “Liberalism” if you believe that post-Enlightenment market-society is not a real alternative (despite its present currency).  But that stance, despite some possible polemic value, proceeds without sufficient appreciation of what most people do in fact think and believe.  Even if there were not any valid alternatives to Liberalism, the term would still be useful for historical analysis.

In many cases, moreover, Liberalism may be interchangeable with “modernity” or “industrialized nations”; I choose which of those or other terms to use based on the aspects I am trying to define and emphasize.  Modernity is useful for periodization and to describe the effects of technology and a market-society on those who may not be content with the Liberal embrace of them.  Industrialized nations (or capitalism) emphasizes technology, automation, and the means of production.  Consumerism emphasizes where we get our “stuff” and how it organizes our systems of dependencies and affects our fantasy lives.  An interesting argument implicit, at least, in most big picture discussions asks, for example, to what extent is modernity is inevitably “Liberal” or not; whether Liberalism can exist without consumerism; whether technological development leads to Liberalism or yet something else?  The ideological position one takes, or one’s value judgments, can often be identified according to the way one connects these and other similar terms.  Without writing two texts at once, my hope is to be relatively explicit about these connections.

[ii] Now often with promises of earthly rewards of the most garish and profligate nature.

[iii] I am not naively suggesting that there aren’t cultural pressures, nor would I ignore the way some “lifestyles” are out of reach, much in the way some consumer “goods” (such as fashion or clothes) are unaffordable or subject to ridicule.  Regardless, the historical trend and the goal of “normative Liberalism” is to make such choices more readily available at a “lower cost,” thus ironically forgetting what the iron-clad law of supply and demand would make of the quest for the “free.”  As van den Brink points out, moreever, this official neutrality rules out the implementation (as one of our plausible choices) of world-views that would assert a binding morality—which is to remove from the buffet the way most of humanity has lived (without, that is, a buffet).

[iv]Thomas Jefferson likewise declared in his first inaugural address that “a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.”  It is interesting to note that this comes in the same paragraph in which Jefferson misidentifies the infinite space in which such freedom may find its room to roam, where dispersal may free people from the crowded circumstances in which it is all but inevitable to “injure one another” simply by pursuing one’s wants.  Here is the entire paragraph: “Let us then, with courage and confidence, pursue our own federal and republican principles; our attachment to union and representative government. Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high minded to endure the degradations of the others, possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation, entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them, enlightened by a benign religion, professed indeed and practised in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude and the love of man, acknowledging and adoring an overruling providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here, and his greater happiness hereafter; with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow citizens, a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government; and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities”

[v] This may not be the right way of putting it.  We actually have a rich language available for describing various kinds of goods, ranging from the sordid pornography of the novel to lives spent enriched by the service to others or engaged in spiritual practice.  What we lack, perhaps, is any meta-vocabulary in which a particular version of the good might be elevated above others, except the “good” of tolerance and permissive freedom whereby everyone may choose for themselves, never mind the great sea of manipulation with its ceaseless flow of alluring flotsam and jetsam.

[vi] As I noted in a previous installment, MacIntyre describes Liberalism as “civil war by other means,” a condition I believe has achieved its detente only under the pax profusio.

[vii] By “deep ecology” I am referring to the shared emphasis on powering-down and doing it with joy and spiritual abundance found in permaculture, Transition, Wendell Berry, Juliet Schor, David Fleming, perhaps E.F. Schumacher, and to some extent George Monbiot and Sebastian Junger, who I will discuss later.  Fellow travelers, but less explicitly on my mind, are a variety of movements interested in degrowth, radical simplicity, local resilience, the commons, and an economics of happiness.

[viii] I don’t think this is merely a matter of temperament, though the temperaments are rather apparent.  Rather, it has to do with Berry’s attempt to articulate an ecological society more broadly and exhaustively.  As Berry reaches further into the beliefs and practices that an ecological order requires, he invariably happens on obstacles, if not dilemmas, that require as sharper and less-compromising set of distinctions than would a breezier overview.

[ix] The conservative (and not “conservative”) aspects of Berry, Transition, and Permaculture have not been sufficiently explored or discussed.  Part of this has to do with the fact that it is self-identified liberals who are more likely to gravitate in this direction, for reasons I will discuss at length in a later section; part of it has to do with the fact that it doesn’t look like the kind of “conservativism” that we associate with Republicans whose detachment from the conservative values of nurture, protection, and restraint I will also discuss at length later.  Political liberals, at any rate, are not to be fully blamed for their too-simple association with compassion, empathy, kindness, and the rejection of exploitative relationships with liberalism, failing to understand that there once was, and shall be again, a very different home for empathy than in the political left, as currently defined.  The mistake, I am suggesting has its origin in the fact that permacultural nurture cannot, ultimately be found where liberals look for such things—on the liberal/”conservative” continuum.  It cannot be found there, for a reason that becomes simple once we adopt the right perspective: the resurgent Aristotelianism of Transition, Permaculture, Wendell Berry, and like them Pope Francis, stand as an alternative to Liberalism.

[x] In Karl Polanyi’s phrase.

[xi] See Lasch, Chapter 2, “The Idea of Progress Reconsidered.”

[xii] See Fawcett’s Liberalism: The Life of an Idea. “Liberalism,” he explains, began with a predicament.  The first liberals were looking for a new order after the productive turmoil of early industrial capitalism and three late eighteenth-century political revolutions—American, Dutch, and French—had turned society upside down” (4).

[xiii] Lakoff is interesting, even as he only gives language to current unquestioned distinctions rather than putting them into an illuminating context.  As such he is an intellectual partisan, believing that liberals and “conservatives” have divided up the relevant world into competing halves.

[xiv] This is not to discount the appeal to indigenous or tribal wisdom or social practices, something to which I have a fair amount of sympathy and interest.  It is however, to bracket it until I can focus on it more directly.  For as valuable a model as our ancient past provides for human possibility, one must risk becoming so enchanted by it that we forget the way current realities and challenges places us at a far remove from the social context in which some of these practices might organize an entire society, as opposed to a largely recreational or spiritual subculture.  Any sort of reconciliation requires further work.

[xv] See Surviving the Future, pp. 27-29.

[xvi] If this phrase, “good person” rankles, especially as I am being more specific in its designation than is the current fashion, that means I am making my point.  In modern Liberal society we still use the term “good person” in a relatively Kantian fashion, whereby it refers to a “good will,” regardless of “lifestyle” and its bearer’s participation in the manipulative or extraction industries.  We think we know what this means, even if we have no sense of the context in which it could mean anything at all.  It is illuminating to look at similar phrases and uses.  We think of someone who may clumsily execute parts of their moral and social life as having a “good heart.”  “He’s a good man” is, if said by a mother-in-law to her daughter, a phrase with resonances and connotations that could be explored for pages, as would be the phrase “you’ve got a good woman there,” especially if said hunched over bar stools.  “But he’s a good guy,” in my college years, often referred to sexual predators who otherwise fulfilled requirements of genial college sociability.  One of the interesting uses of Facebook is to follow these “good guys” and their career choices, noting the role of “good guy” as a training ground for highly competitive and manipulative careers, including, it turns out, Supreme Court Judge.   This is not to say that one should go about his or her day shaking a fist and exclaiming “ach,” at people with good hearts or who may fulfill prescribed gender roles in a gentle and amiable way.  I would however, like to replace the phrase “good guy” with more pointed terms.

[xvii] I understand the argument that a just and sustainable world will also be a more “democratic” one.  I’m just not entirely sold on it.  While I’m not prepared to reject it entirely, I do believe that the three terms are used together too easily without enough reflection on the conditions under which they (sort of) worked together and those under which they might not.  From a Liberal or liberal perspective, there is all sort of evidence that our agency as decision-makers has been violated by the market (some say) or bureaucracy (others may say) and that more direct democratic involvement would diminish the power of money, marketing, or institutional inflexibility.  I don’t disagree.  However, there remains at least two problems: first, is that a return to a more direct democracy won’t, without other significant changes, be a sufficient response to the culture of effectiveness or entitlement or profligate consumption.  The belief that it would tends to fetishize decision making, supposing that the act of itself, when local or participatory enough, will insure “good” decisions rather than local versions of “bad” (short-term, narrow, unreflective, unnecessarily cruel or violent, unsustainable) ones.  I, for one, need further evidence, though I do see how this act could create a sort of valuable wisdom and excellence.  It’s just not the easy stand-alone concept that many seem to suppose.   And second, as I will argue in the next installment, regrounding democracy or justice after we diagnose and identify the sources responsible for jeopardized agency (i.e. ideological critique) has had trouble articulating, let alone instituting, a real alternative to Liberalism and its inherent unsustainability.  This will be clarified much more fully next time and again in later sections.   The point of my entire project, here, is to consider what, in addition to (or instead of?) “more democratic” we need, which in short may be something along the lines of the of knowledge accrued through the practice of excellence (traditions) and a kind of reflective and practical reasoning for which Aristotle just might provide a useful model.

[xviii] See  and


[xx] In his to often neglected, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell proclaims that he is politically a liberal, culturally a conservative, and economically a socialist.  While this sort of quasi Marx-inspired social conservativism, now entirely out of fashion, has some valuable insights, I would contend that too many new contradictions arise if one tries to be a social conservative and a political liberal, for this requires a deepening distinction between the public and the private and a separation between the cultural forces that affect our political outlook and the political choices we make based, unfortunately, on that very outlook.  A possible response to my argument here, however, would be to conceive of a sort of political philosophy that manages a separation (beyond the invisible workings or price) between needs and wants, so that it would be deeply egalitarian and responsive to the individual in so far as his or her needs are concerned, but would be more rigid and uncompromising when we get to the realm of mere wants, towards which it would be dismissive in ways entirely unacceptable in contemporary Liberal society.  It would have to protect civil liberties when they are required to express needs or protect basic fairness, but eliminate the sort of “free speech” used in the course of manipulation (no advertising, including covert advertising).  It would require respect for the individual dignity, regardless of the group, while maintaining the common good by limiting the rights of acquisition beyond an agreed-upon level.  It would distinguish the sort of expressive individuality necessary to sustain both basic needs and cultural traditions from cultural or individual expressions that undermine ecological principles or group cohesion under conditions of growing moral proximity and interdependence.  It would require, I’m suggesting, a shared notion of the good.

[xxi] Which is not in any way to deny the theological and philosophical hold-outs in our moral language of human nature, inalienable rights, higher purpose, even authenticity.  It is only to suggest that these holdouts are at best non-obligatory options and at worst confusingly contradictory.


Aristotle. 1985. The Complete Works of Aristotle. Edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Bell, Daniel. 1996. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. New York: Basic Books.

Berry, Wendell. 1977. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Fawcett, Edmund. 2014. Liberalism: the Life of an Idea. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Univerity Press.

Fleming, David. 2016. Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future. Edited by Shaun Chamberlin. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green.

—. 2016. Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy. Edited by Shaun Chamberlin. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green.

Francis. 2015. Encyclical letter Laudito Si’ of the Holy Father Francis. Vatican City: www.w2.Vatican.Va.

Hobhouse, L. T. 1911. Liberalism. London: Oxford University Press.

Hopkins, Rob. 2008. The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience. Totnes, Devon: Green Books.

Junger, Sebastian. 2016. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. New York: Twelve.

Koyre, Alexandre. 1958. From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Lakoff, George. 1996. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lasch, Christopher. 1991. The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. New York: W.W. Norton.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1981. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. London: Duckworth.

—. 1988. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? South Bend, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.

Polanyi, Karl. 2001. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of our Time. Boston: Beacon Press.

Schor, Juliet. 2010. Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth. New York: Penguin.

Schumacher, E. F. 1973. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. London: Bond and Briggs.


Teaser photo credit: The iconic painting Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, a tableau of the July Revolution in 1830

Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

Tags: building resilient societies, liberalism, limits to growth, permaculture movement, powering down, Transition movement