The much-discussed contemporary revival of political theory in the Anglo-American intellectual community has for the most part been a revival of liberal theory. This should not have come as a great surprise. Most Anglo-Americans are, in one way or another, liberals; all are deeply influenced by the experience of life in liberal societies. Liberal polities have come under attack from within as well as from without, giving those who think them worthy of defense both the motive and the occasion to clarify the grounds of their partisanship.
It is less often remarked that in one decisive respect, the revival of liberal theory remains rooted in the climate of moral skepticism that it has supplanted. Most contemporary liberal theorists are deeply mistrustful of what John Rawls has called “perfectionism”—the philosophic attempt to identify superior ways of life or traits of character and, once having identified them, to use them as the goals of political life. Contemporary liberal theory consists in the attempt to combine this skepticism about theories of the good life with the belief in philosophically defensible principles that regulate relations among individuals.
It is my thesis that this defense of liberalism is fundamentally misguided. No form of political life can be justified without some view of what is good for individuals. In practice, liberal theorists covertly employ theories of the good. But their insistence that they do not reduces the rigor of their theories and leaves the liberal polity unnecessarily vulnerable to criticism.