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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: August 2010

Should political Liberals Be Compassionate Conservatives? Philosophical Foundations of the Faith-Based Initiative



It is easy and popular these days to be a political liberal. Compared to ‘ethical liberals’, who justify the use of state power by way of one or another conception of people's true moral nature, ‘political liberals’ seek a less controversial foundation for liberal politics. Pioneered within the past twenty years by John Rawls and Charles Larmore, the ‘political liberal’ approach seeks to justify the coercive power of the state by reference to general political ideas about persons and society. Since it abandons the debates about personal moral value that have historically dogged liberal theory, political liberalism offers itself as a more latitudinarian, indeed a more liberal, form of liberalism. Being a political liberal is not the only way to be a good liberal, but this approach has become prevalent enough that I shall focus upon it here.

At the same time, it is not so easy or popular these days to be a compassionate conservative. As a presidential candidate in 2000, George W. Bush sprinkled his campaign speeches with references to a new, more compassionate form of conservatism. Unlike some forms of conservative thinking, Bush's stated approach rested not on the ideal of cutting back public spending for welfare, assistance, or schooling programs, with the goal of returning the provision of such goods to the realm of the market and activity among voluntary associations. Instead, Bush emphasized his determination to retain a large public role in the provision of social services, but to remodel the way in which such services are delivered.