Bob Brecher

Getting What You Want? A Critique of Liberal Morality.

London and New York: Routledge, 1998, x + 217 pp. ISBN 0-415-12951-6.






From the Introduction:

My intention in this book is polemical, but not rhetorical. For while I shall try to persuade readers that the whole idea of a liberal morality is in the end untenable, the very possibility of my doing so rests on a sense of, and a confidence in a rationality which it is liberalism's great achievement to have bequeathed us. Thus an underlying theme is that liberalism's loss of confidence in a universal and impartial rationality, resulting in its transformation into the series of relativisms now described as postmodernism, is misplaced; but that the seeds of this transformation have lain dormant in the liberal tradition. In particular, it is liberalism's difficulties in justifying morality which are central to that transformation and which show why, its achievements notwithstanding, liberal morality is in the end conceptually inadequate to the point of being corrosive. My argument is simply that liberal morality is unsustainable because it cannot offer a rationally adequate account either morality as a fact of everyday life or of any possible justification of moral principles and moral demands. I hope to lay the ground, in the longer run, for the possibility of a thoroughly rationalistic account and justification of morality to refute both amoralists who reject the claims of morality upon them and (philosophical) sceptics who, however they may actually behave, reject the possibility of ally rational justification of (even their own) moral actions and judgements. In rejecting liberal morality and liberal theories of morality, then, I am emphatically not rejecting the liberal conception of rationality. In particular, I share the aspirations of classical no less than later nineteenth- and earlier twentieth-century liberals to a universal and impartial rationality - even if imperfectly realized, in that tradition as elsewhere, and even if too often limited to questions of means rather than extending also to ends.

The task concerning the liberal tradition's understanding of morality is in this book a wholly negative one: to offer grounds for rejecting what I think is the profoundly mistaken view that morality is in various ways rooted in what people want. To those who would not regard themselves as particularly impressed by the seductions of a consumerist culture - or convinced of the philosophical positions its advocates either explicitly adopt or implicitly rely upon - this may well seem an unambitious task. But both consumerist culture and its philosophical props run very deep. The unrestrained indulgence of greed which characterizes that culture and the intellectual parameters within which we think about it - even if critically - bolster each other. 'It's what people want': the twin assumptions that getting what we want is our 'natural goal', and that wanting something must be a good reason for going about getting it, largely determine what passes for public policy and political debate. Whether it is a matter of pornography in the press, treatment for infertility or getting married - if people want it, then that's that. Questioning such assertions of the apparently obvious produces disbelief more often than downright opposition, sheer amazement that anyone should actually think that getting what we want is not synonymous with pursuit of the good life. But it is not. To observe that people want something is just the start, and not the conclusion, of moral debate. What people want is, so to speak, the difficulty that morality is called upon to deal with, the problem we have to solve by invoking moral considerations.

Contents: Introduction; The Makings of Liberal Morality; The Empirico-Liberal Tradition; A Wanting Thing; Wants and Reasons; The Problem of Motivation; The Argument Reviewed; Getting What you Want?