… is from page 188 of my emeritus colleague Richard Wagner’s insightful 2016 book, Politics as a Peculiar Business:
Perhaps the language of contemporary life has constructed a “we” out of nothing by expanding the sharply limited domain to which “we the people” originally pertained. After all, if someone kidnapped you and a friend, took you to some dark parking lot, and robbed and beat you, you would not later tell police investigators that “we went for a ride.” You and your friend would comprise a “we,” but the two of you plus the kidnapper most certainly would not. To use “we” properly requires consensus among those whom the “we” covers.
DBx: This point is subtle yet very important. A meaningful “we” – a “we” whose decisions and actions should be accorded the same generous presumptions that true liberals accord to the actions of peaceful individuals – is not simply any collection of individuals.
A great error of many conservatives and nearly all progressives today is their presumption that citizenship alone in a nation suffices to ensure that all such citizens together constitute a meaningful “we.” And if that nation has reasonably well-functioning democratic institutions, the outcomes of majority-rule elections there are treated as the rational, nearly sacred choices of this “we.” Hence, in such nations, any formal or informal limits on the collective’s (or its representatives’) range of options are regarded as an illegitimate assault on the presumed legitimate moral authority of the “we.”
The tyranny of monarchs was real. So, too, is the tyranny of dictators. But also so too is the tyranny of unrestrained majorities.
When true liberals – a group that includes Dick Wagner – embrace ethical individualism, this embrace (contrary to much ignorant commentary) isn’t of the notion that the individual is not, or should not be, a social creature. This embrace isn’t of the fiction of individual supermen and superwomen who are, or can be, complete masters each of his and her own fates. This embrace isn’t of the fallacy that the individual has, or ought to have, no legal or moral obligations to a larger group of people extending well beyond the family. This embrace isn’t of the straw man materialist consumer.
Instead, the embrace of liberal ethical individualism reflects the recognition that only individuals choose and experience sensations. Collectives do no such things. And so the measure of the goodness or badness of social institutions is found only in how well or poorly these institutions promote the well-being of individuals as judged by individuals. Merely lumping individuals together who happen to share a native language or who happen to be born or to live within certain political borders does not automatically create an ethically meaningful “we.” For such a creation, much more is needed. Identifying the details of the required “much more” is a (the?) great if devilishly difficult task of political philosophy.