Editors’ Note: This forum is featured in our spring 2023 issue. Order a copy here.
I agree with Christine Sypnowich that equality of opportunity, even in its most radical forms, is insufficient for equal flourishing. But I do not think that equal flourishing is a good description of the egalitarian ideal. In particular, Sypnowich is mistaken in thinking that equal flourishing requires socialism and vice versa.
To kick off, does equal flourishing require socialism? Suppose that some enlightened capitalists get together with state officials to set up a system of equal flourishing. They commit their net profits to that end; they even appoint Sypnowich as chair of a Commission of Equal Flourishing to help them realize it. In this scenario—pure science fiction, but instructive nonetheless—we have equal flourishing, but subject to the decisions of a capitalist ruling class. In other words, we have equal flourishing without socialism, because socialism precludes class rule.
What about the converse—does socialism require equal flourishing? Sypnowich thinks it does, but this is also a mistake. In The German Ideology Marx criticizes Max Stirner for advocating an infeasible and undesirable conception of self-realization: Marx’s view is not “that each should do the work of Raphael,” but rather “that anyone in whom there is a potential Raphael should be able to develop without hindrance.” If this is correct, then equal flourishing is not part of the socialist ideal of equal freedom. To see why, suppose that Raphael and his twin are both unhindered in their pursuits of excellence. Unlike Raphael, his twin by choice fails to cultivate his talents and therefore fails to flourish, in any Sypnowich-consistent sense. I don’t think there is anything to regret here. There is, by Sypnowich’s definition, unequal flourishing, but there is no injustice. In other words, Marx’s argument against Stirner also applies against Sypnowich: like Stirner, Sypnowich affirms a needlessly demanding account of socialist equality.
I think Sypnowich’s discussion of liberal neutrality—the idea that justification for state policy cannot appeal to any conception of the good—also needs rethinking. Sypnowich is among the so-called “perfectionist” critics of this idea; she thinks neutrality is impossible. I agree with this claim and with the inference that Sypnowich draws from it: that a non-metaphysical, purely “political” liberalism is incoherent. But I disagree with Sypnowich’s justification for rejecting neutrality. As I see it, neutrality does not fail because it allows undesirable outcomes, such as stifled lives, a soulless consumerism, and a concomitant mindless worship of the rich and powerful. Rather, these contemptible features of capitalist civilization stand condemned on the ground that they fail to reflect equal freedom.
This view is weakly perfectionist because it identifies equal freedom with the ability of individuals to set, pursue, and revise their plans of life independently of others. It is still perfectionist because it takes autonomy, summed up as the rational revisability of a life plan, to be good independently of whether anyone values it as good. But this form of perfectionism is still weaker than Sypnowich’s substantive hierarchy of valuable outcomes—some excellent enough to count as flourishing, some not. On Sypnowich’s view, equal freedom is defined in terms of successful outcomes. On my view, outcomes are irrelevant, unless inconsistent with the ability of each to set, pursue, and revise her ends independently of others. The upshot is that socialists differ from liberals in their theory of the right, not their theory of the good.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Sypnowich’s strong perfectionism seemed like a progressive idea. Many philosophers, from Charles Taylor to Michael Sandel, joined the perfectionist ranks in criticism of liberalism’s allegedly “unencumbered” conception of the self, its putatively emaciated conception of choice, and its supposedly asocial characterization of society. But today we know that the so-called “liberal-communitarian debate” was worse than a waste of time. Time-wasting can, after all, be benign, whereas the communitarian position turned malignant. Not only did the communitarians fail to register any plausible criticism of liberalism; they also articulated “liberal nationalist” views readily co-optable by the populist right. Such inegalitarian political movements as British “Blue Labour,” Flemish, Catalan, and Quebecois varieties of nationalism, as well as Trumpism and Brexit-style populism, found in communitarianism a rich repertoire of nativist ideas to draw from. Communitarianism itself eventually collapsed into various forms of nationalism, pure and simple.
Sypnowich is not a liberal nationalist, of course; her larger body of work attests to a consistent socialist internationalism. But her perfectionism vacillates. When asked “why contribute to this community, tradition, or culture?” Sypnowich’s perfectionism is tempted by the communitarian answer—“because these traditions constitute authoritative horizons”—as opposed to the proceduralist answer: “because they serve everyone’s equal freedom.” But only the latter answer is immune to co-optation. This does not mean that unique cultures and traditions should be abandoned, but only that they should be supported if and only if such support is consistent with the equal freedom of all. This is also, I think, why the language of solidarity is preferable to the language of community. Under solidarity, you need only share a single cooperative end jointly with others. Under community, you need to share ends quite independently of their contribution to cooperation—this is what Sypnowich-style outcomes are all about.
Socialist internationalists should therefore reject a substantive perfectionism of outcome. They should jettison ideas like having an “equal share in a beautiful world”—perhaps a good slogan for the William Morris Furniture Coop, but not for a political program. And they should do so not just because beauty is subjective or essentially contested, but also because it is notoriously co-optable.
Instead, socialists should get busy elaborating the project of equal freedom that is close to Sypnowich’s heart (and mine), namely of creating “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” This concluding flourish of the second section of the Communist Manifesto represents an internationalist project that takes equal freedom as its premise and that discovers flourishing as a welcome byproduct of freedom’s own exercise and self-justification. The reverse approach is undesirable and unnecessary to the socialist project Sypnowich exhorts us to undertake.
We’re interested in what you think. Submit a letter to the editors at email@example.com. Boston Review is nonprofit, paywall-free, and reader-funded. To support work like this, please donate here.