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4.0 out of 5 stars

TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 14 July 2013
These days liberalism comes in for a lot of flak, from both left and right. It is the whipping boy of cultural conservatives and political leftists alike, who see in it pusillanimous equivocation either in face of licentious individualism, cultural or economic.

Amid all this sound and fury, the question of how human beings are to live together with their differences remains a perennial one. And this is a central liberal preoccupation. If we reject a state that enforces one way of life, uniformly and tolerating no dissent, then this is question that will always require an attempt at an answer. Alan Ryan has spent his professional life examining the thinkers who have addressed this question - Hobbes, Locke, Mill through to Berlin and Rawls.

You may think the inclusion of Hobbes' in this pantheon is an odd one but it is not. He was as much concerned with the question of how to reconcile passionately contested ideas human beings profess with order and stability as much as any modern liberal thinker. The essays on Hobbes' preoccupation with this point are especially stimulating. We learn that Hobbes view of a state of nature and a war of all against all is not predicated on a view of human beings motivated by atavistic blood lusts but struggling with the problem of security and the impossibility of anticipating the motives of others, leading to a `better safe than sorry' strategy that makes a premptive strike the only rational thing to do in a state of nature.

Aside from the necessity of maintaining peace in a society in which the members hold views at odds with one another, another prominent concern features in these essays: when is it right to override individual rights for the common good? This tension is traditionally defined as that between liberty and equality but is not contained by it. We see practical examples each day. The National Health Service is predicated on the right on each individual to receive free access to healthcare but by necessity difficult decisions must be made on the allocation of resources.

The sense you get from reading this collection is that some of the criticisms made of liberalism, alluded to in the first paragraph of this review, are unfair because liberalism engages with these tough questions in the way that conservative moralists and leftist utopians do not. However, this is not a line of argument that the author explicitly pursues. This is a pity, for it deserves to be made, and made vigorously. The allegation that liberals are muddle-headed falls when some hard truths are thrown back at its detractors: how would they decide to resolve the tensions between individual rights and the common good, for instance? It seems that liberalism's detractors simply deny that these questions arise at all. Being muddle-headed is not good. But being deluded is a lot worse.

This collection of essays is mostly thought provoking and stimulating. Some are less so than others. This is not on account of the author's lack of skill but my own varying interest in the thinkers concerned. Mill and Hobbes are more interesting to me than Dewey and Hegel.

Another drawback with these essays is the drawback I have found political philosophy shares with other related forms of academic theory: the priority of theory over practice, a feature shared by those philosophical systems allegedly engaged in changing the world, and not just studying it, like Marxism. Whether this is a fault of the book depends on what you are looking for. The book is probably more for those with an academic interest in the thinkers the author covers, and for those who already have some basic acquaintance with philosophical terminology, rather than those with a broad interest in the nitty gritty of politics. However, it will help you spot the assumptions on which political argument (such as it is) is made, which is an education in itself. Whether you are prepared to pay the hefty admission price for this privilege - there is no indication if it will ever come out in paperback - is your decision. Overall, I thought it was worth it.
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