Goodwill, Sympathetic Joy, and Liberalism's Foundations

Mere tolerance is necessary for liberalism to function, but liberalism becomes stronger if we can move beyond it.

I recently set out an initial sketch of an argument for going beyond mere tolerance as a central liberal virtue. Instead, we should seek to cultivate goodwill and sympathetic joy, both as a way to live more contented, happier lives within a liberal society, and as a mechanism to strengthen liberalism against illiberal tendencies.

The responses were thoughtful and helpful as I develop this approach to a philosophy of liberalism. But they also made clear that aspects of my argument might have been a bit muddled, as many of the concerns raised assumed I was making a slightly different argument than what I intended to set out. Addressing all of these concerns will take more than one essay, because I want to give them the attention they deserve. Today, I’ll start with the question of whether the goodwill and sympathetic joy I advocate are necessary for liberalism to function.

Before getting to that, however, let me briefly restate my basic argument.

The Case for Goodwill and Sympathetic Joy

A liberal society is necessarily a dynamic one, in a constant state of economic and cultural change, all in an environment of great diversity of preferences and lifestyles. The default liberal stance towards all of this is tolerance. People may do things we don’t like, and the culture may shift in ways we don’t prefer, but so long as the activities don’t violate rights (they aren’t violent, fraudulent, etc.), we should tolerate them in the interests of maintaining liberal pluralism.

The problem with mere tolerance, however, is that all of us have our limits of what we can reasonably tolerate, beyond which lifestyles that aren’t rights-violating nonetheless become intolerable, even if they aren’t directly harming us. When this happens, people have a tendency to give up their liberal commitments and slip into illiberalism as a way to put a stop to the changes. Thus the dynamism and pluralism liberalism entails can also plant the seeds of liberalism’s collapse by making some people so miserable in a liberal society that they seek to undo it.

The solution is to consciously cultivate feelings of generalized goodwill and sympathetic joy, and consciously inoculate ourselves against feelings of ill-will and resentment. Doing so will have two effects. First, by learning to find joy in the happiness of others, even if their happiness isn’t of a sort we would choose for ourselves, we can become more content within an environment of inevitable social change. Second, by moving beyond mere tolerance and towards greater goodwill and sympathetic joy, we strengthen liberalism by boosting our commitment to it against illiberalism.

Sympathetic Joy Is Not a Prerequisite of Liberalism

I am not arguing, as some have taken from my original essay, that mere tolerance isn’t enough for liberalism to exist or to function, or that liberalism cannot persist without a much higher than typical level of sympathetic joy. Liberalism clearly has existed with the levels we have now, and with many people getting by on mere tolerance. 

(Obviously there is some minimal level of goodwill and its related sympathetic joy necessary for a liberal society to persist. If everyone feels nothing but ill-will and resentment towards each other, liberal society will quickly break down. But what that absolute minimum is remains an open question.)

Rather, my argument is that every liberal society contains illiberal forces, and if those forces gain enough purchase, they can undo the institutions underpinning liberalism. Chief among those is the authoritarian personality type, people who naturally feel uncomfortable around difference and threatened by dynamism. Much of the time, they can maintain their liberal commitments through tolerance, but if they encounter enough difference, or if change happens rapidly enough, their latent authoritarianism will trigger. We see this manifest in the white cultural anxiety that is a strong predictor of support for Donald Trump, or in the anti-trans moral panic that has resulted in a wave of illiberal legislation, as well as many self-described liberals suddenly turning to state control and coercive force to push back on the social acceptance of alternative identities and lifestyles.

We can view liberalism as not just a set of political institutions, but also a culture that supports them. If the culture gives up its liberal commitments, the institutions will eventually come undone. Thus defending liberalism takes the form of ensuring that our culture—which simply means the preferences, values, and behavior of the individuals who make up the citizenry—doesn’t doesn’t give up so many of its liberal commitments that liberalism is no longer sustainable. Mere tolerance is fundamental to this. Without it liberalism cannot get off the ground. But the distance between “I can’t stand what you’re doing, but I’ll put up with it” and “I can’t stand what you’re doing and can no longer put up with it” is a good deal shorter and easier to traverse than if we moved beyond tolerance to “What you’re doing isn’t my thing, but I find a genuine source of happiness in your capacity to live as you choose.” In other words, goodwill and sympathetic joy aren’t necessary for liberalism, they give it a much stronger defense against illiberalism.

Relatedly, I am not arguing that a liberal society demands that each of us put in the work to cultivate goodwill and sympathetic joy, much less that it is the role of the state in a liberal system to compel us to do so. While goodwill and sympathetic joy are clearly admirable virtues, there is no role for the state in forcing us to embody them, because even if such a thing were possible (and it’s not), the attempt to do it would be a gross violation of rights. Instead, my claim is that, even if they didn’t provide a stronger defense of liberal institutions, cultivating them is good for each of us. The more goodwill and sympathetic joy we have, the happier and more flourishing we will be within a liberal culture, and the less urge we will have to fantasize—while wallowing in ill-will and resentment—about authoritarian regimes where our cultural preferences are enforced at gunpoint. 

Thus we have good reason, regardless of how much we care about defending liberalism, to want to feel more goodwill and to want to find more ways to experience sympathetic joy. A chief source of suffering is not the fact of a disconnect between how we want things to be—or how we’d prefer they were unchanging—and the fact that others will rarely conform perfectly to those preferences, or stay for long in such conformity. Rather, it’s that we develop a relationship of ill-will and resentment to that simple fact of reality. If we can shift our perspective instead to one of goodwill and sympathetic joy, we will be happier. It’s just a bonus—albeit a very big bonus—that what makes us happier also makes liberalism stronger.

Next in my series developing the ideas of goodwill and sympathetic joy, I address the question of whether the liberal virtues are too demanding.

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