Tuesday evening, Associate Professor of Government at Harvard University Peter Berkowtiz, delivered a talk entitled “Giving Liberalism its Due.” In front of a moderately-sized audience in Griffin Hall, Berkowtiz first discussed the principles of liberalism, and then evaluated three schools of thought considered critical of liberalismâ€”feminism, communitarianism and postmodernism.
After introducing Berkowtiz as the “token liberal” at the Harvard School of Government, Visiting Professor of Political Science Andrew Sabl said Berkowitz has authored two booksâ€”Nietzsche:The Ethics of an Immoralist and Virtue and The Making of Modern Liberalism, writes articles frequently for numerous magazines, such as the New Republic and has taught at Harvard since 1990.
Berkowitz began his talk by quickly outlining the state of liberalism today. “In our current political culture the word liberal is a term of abuse. No one wants to be accused of being one. As a result,” Berkowitz stated, “few know of the proud tradition of this school of moral and political thought.”
According to Berkowitz, Republicans and Democrats alike are moved by liberal principles. “The central principles of liberalism,” Berkowitz commented, “are liberty, equality and open inquiry. The two major political parties both share these principles in common.”
As an example, Berkowitz cited the controversy over affirmative action. Both sides are fighting for equality.
“As this example shows,” Berkowitz noted, “liberalism fails to make specific arguments. It just lays out the principles. It would be a mistake, however, to ignore liberalism because of that.”
Continuing on that line of thought Berkowitz shifted towards his discussion of liberalism’s critics. He pointed out how Thomas Hobbes is part of the liberal tradition because he recognized the natural freedom of all. According to Berkowitz’s criteria, however, Fredrich Nietzche is not a member of the club. Nietzche’s claim that “freedom is the perogative of the few” succeeds in disqualifying him from the liberal tradition.
Berkowitz’s argument was that the goal of the liberal tradition is “to secure the political institutions necessary for individual freedom.” According to him, critics of liberalism point out its failure to achieve this goal to satisfaction.
“Feminists attack liberalism,” Berkowitz argued, “for perpetuating a society that treats women as second-class citizens. Communitarians attack liberalism for disassociating people from politics. And, postmodernists attack the core beliefs of liberalism. There is some truth in all these charges.”
“In certain fundamental respects,” he said, “they assume the truth of liberalism’s first principleâ€”the natural freedom and equality of allâ€”and depend on it to render their appeals attractive.”
“Liberalism’s critics,” he said, “are like rebellious children who have denounced their parents, but continue to live off of them and in the process have run down the family fortune.”
After finishing his talk, Berkowitz fielded questions from the audience. Questions ranged from requests to elaborate more on the issue of freedom to challenges of Berkowitz’s definition of liberalism as too broad.