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Cover for the book Norms of Liberty

Norms of Liberty

A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics Douglas B. Rasmussen, and Douglas J. Den Uyl
  • Copyright: 2005
  • Dimensions: 6.14 x 9.21
  • Page Count: 464 pages
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-02700-5
  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-271-02701-2
Norms of Liberty is one of the most important works on liberalism in recent years. The fact that individuals have different views of the good life poses a fundamental dilemma for modern political philosophy. Liberals frequently adopt a stance of moral neutrality, suggestive of relativism, subjectivism, or skepticism, while their opponents advocate a substantive moral view at the expense of individual freedom. Rasmussen and Den Uyl present a brilliant solution by distinguishing between normative principles guiding individual moral conduct and metanormative principles that concern legislation. They argue compellingly that neo-Aristotelian perfectionist ethics can support liberal non-perfectionist politics.”
“This is a fine piece of work in several dimensions. First, it is among the most comprehensive surveys of modern liberalism of which I am aware. Virtually every major contributor to thought on liberalism, for and against, from the 17th century forward is discussed in illuminating and intelligent ways. Second, the authors have a well-developed point of view about the liberal tradition, what it is and what it is not, how they think it can best be articulated and defended. There is no doubt that it is a major, significant contribution to the political philosophy of the liberal tradition. Here is a work that both synthesizes a wide range of the literature, offers original views of the subject, and provokes renewed discussion of just what the character of liberal thought is.”
“Liberalism, classical and modern, has been under extensive scrutiny by contemporary and earlier political philosophers. One of its most troublesome issues has been how the morality that ought to guide a great variety of individual conduct and the principles of politics of a just community are properly connected.

The authors of Norms of Liberty embark upon nothing less challenging than to answer this question and subject their answer to the most excruciating test they can devise including addressing virtually all the challengers of liberalism who have ever put pen to paper. . . . Here, in summary, is the great strength of this work: it spells out in extensive detail, and with all the nuances needed, just how a defensible, sensible, true morality and the politics of a fully free society are connected so that every major topic is adequately addressed in terms that fit the most reasonable, up-to-date understanding of the nature of human beings within the context of their proper, suitable communities. . . . In my view, Rasmussen and Den Uyl have produced a work of political philosophy that no one who wishes to discuss liberalism can afford to bypass.”
“Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl’s Norms of Liberty provides a seminal contribution to liberal political thought that will be of significant interest to Thomists as well as other classically trained Aristotelians and natural law theorists. The book’s argument, although occasionally repetitive, is characterized by uncommon rigor and clarity.”
“This book offers compelling arguments that liberalism in its pursuit of prosperity needn’t abandon itself to moral poverty. In its attempt to provide a new argument for the goodness of liberalism, Norms of Liberty summarizes and replies systematically and at length to criticisms of liberalism. It should be of interest to anyone who would like to see a novel defense both of liberty and virtue put forth in a clear and honest way.”
“[A] seminal contribution to liberal political thought that will be of significant interest to Thomists as well as other classically trained Aristotelians and natural law theorists.”
“The book gives a very interesting and well-articulated defense of liberalism.”
“In sum, Norms of Liberty is a significant addition to the philosophical literature of liberty, and it will surely be an influential work for years to come.”
“It is a work of classic stature that everyone interested in political philosophy needs to study.”
“In other words, facing the problems associated with actual and potential ‘clashes of civilizations’ (in a descriptive sense) Norms of Liberty is a book of utmost importance and actuality.”
Norms of Liberty considers at length challenges to liberalism posed by communitarians and conservative natural law theorists, and devotes an entire chapter to a Summa Theologica–like series of specific objections and responses. . . . This is an important book, which should be read by anyone with an interest in liberty or contemporary political philosophy.”
“In a dense, thoughtful, and serious work, the authors attempt to address what many regard as the fundamental problem in liberalism: Liberal political order seems necessarily accompanied by atomistic and hedonistic moral philosophy. . . . This defense of liberalism rests upon what can be regarded as a radical claim: Liberalism does not necessarily undermine human moral development; rather, authentic moral development depends upon liberalism. To unpack all that the authors have delivered would take more than a short review. Their work is certainly worthy of more developed analyses.”
“The book is well written, drawing on a wide range of contemporary literature. Its controversial claims will be of keen interest to graduate students and scholars, and accessible to advanced undergraduates.”

How can we establish a political/legal order that in principle does not require the human flourishing of any person or group to be given structured preference over that of any other? Addressing this question as the central problem of political philosophy, Norms of Liberty offers a new conceptual foundation for political liberalism that takes protecting liberty, understood in terms of individual negative rights, as the primary aim of the political/legal order.

Rasmussen and Den Uyl argue for construing individual rights as metanormative principles, directly tied to politics, that are used to establish the political/ legal conditions under which full moral conduct can take place. These they distinguish from normative principles, used to provide guidance for moral conduct within the ambit of normative ethics. This crucial distinction allows them to develop liberalism as a metanormative theory, not a guide for moral conduct. The moral universe need not be minimized or morality grounded in sentiment or contracts to support liberalism, they show. Rather, liberalism can be supported, and many of its internal tensions avoided, with an ethical framework of Aristotelian inspiration—one that understands human flourishing to be an objective, inclusive, individualized, agent-relative, social, and self-directed activity.

Douglas B. Rasmussen is Professor of Philosophy at St. John's University in New York City.

Douglas J. Den Uyl is Vice President of Educational Programs at Liberty Fund in Indianapolis.



Part I: Liberalism and the Political Order

1. Liberalism in Crisis

2. Liberalism and Ethics

3. Liberalism’s Past and Precedents

4. Why Individual Rights? Rights as Metanormative Principles

5. The Natural Right to Private Property

Part II: A New Deep Structure for Liberalism

6. Individualistic Perfectionism

7. Defending Individualistic Perfectionism

8. Natural Law and the Common Good

9. Self-Ownership

Part III: Defending Liberalism

10. Communitarian and Conservative Critics

11. The Structure of the Argument for Individual Rights

12. Defending Individualistic Non-Perfectionist Politics



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