Liberalism and Sympathetic Joy

The virtues upon which liberalism depends also make us better people.

One way to defend liberal institutions is to argue that they are value neutral. Thus a liberal government protects the persons and property of its citizens, but doesn’t coerce them into a particular conception of the good life. Under a liberal regime, you can be a teetotaler or a lush, a Christian or a Muslim, a hedonist or an ascetic. Thus liberalism is desirable, in part, because it supports robust pluralism. We needn’t fight with one another about how to live, because some narrow range of society’s diverse preferences won’t be codified into law.

And while any attempt to move the political regime of a liberal society away from that core commitment to law’s value neutrality should be fought tooth and nail, it’s not the case that legal neutrality doesn’t have the effect of making some values and preferences more likely to find success in the resulting society. How our individual values and preferences interact with diverse people—and their diverse values and preferences—can impact how happy we’ll be, and how much of our lives are spent enjoying a liberal society versus resenting it.

Because most of us want to be happy—we want ours to be lives of flourishing—the fact that some values and beliefs are more conducive to that than others within a liberal society means that political liberalism, in the value-neutral sense, nonetheless rewards, and so encourages, certain traits of character. Fortunately, the very traits that liberalism rewards are those that make political liberalism more robust—and the traits that make liberalism more robust are those of admirable people more likely to lead ethical and flourishing lives. Thus, unless it’s short circuited by political intervention or toxic ideologies, liberalism constructs a positive feedback loop, where good people are more likely to be liberal people, and liberal people are more likely to be good people.

Many traits fall into what I call these “liberal virtues,” but here I want to focus on goodwill and sympathetic joy. I’m using these terms in an Eastern philosophy sense, specifically Buddhist philosophy. Goodwill, as the scholar Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu puts it, is “a wish for true happiness, both for yourself and for others. Because the highest level of true happiness comes from within, your true happiness need not conflict with that of anyone else. Thus goodwill can be extended to all beings without contradiction or hypocrisy.” Within that, then, sympathetic joy is simply “what grows out of goodwill when you see happiness: You want that happiness to continue.” Another way to think about it is “finding joy in the happiness and success of others.”

We need to be careful not to confuse goodwill or sympathetic joy with “loving everyone” or “never being critical of another’s behavior.” Even if either were possible, neither would be desirable, or even rational. We can’t love everyone the way we love our family and friends, but we can wish that everyone find happiness, even if we personally want nothing to do with them. Goodwill and sympathetic joy can be universal in a way that love cannot.

“Happiness” in “finding joy in the happiness and success of others” speaks to happiness from their perspective, not necessarily our own. It is subjective and pluralistic. What makes me happy isn’t necessarily what would make you happy, but we can both recognize that each other’s happiness is genuine. This can be true even if what makes another happy we find personally distasteful. (A critical point, for example, in the anti-transgender moral panic on the right.)

“Success” is likewise a personal measure. Our culture tends to define success by our bank balance, fame, or, among adherents of Ayn Rand, our productivity. (For a debunking of why the last is a faulty metric for happiness, go here.) But holding success to those narrow confines is obviously incorrect. Rather, we should think of success as, roughly, having the life you want, or having the life that makes you happy. If that’s being a titan of industry, so be it. But the monk living in the woods and never earning a dime, or the “underemployed” person making enough to afford a simple lifestyle they find contentment with, is equally successful.

Of course, we can be mistaken about our own happiness, or believe we’re successful when we’re not, because we can be making choices that are harmful or that we’ll later profoundly regret. But our default should be to trust people’s subjective judgment, because they know more about their own goals and satisfaction than we do. And we should be very careful about elevating our personal preferences to universal truths about human flourishing. It can certainly be the case that what a person takes to make them happy is, in fact, actually harmful, even violently so, to others.

Buddhist philosophy is clear that happiness can only come about through skillful intentions, meaning not motivated by “ill will, cruelty, resentment.” Knowing with certainty where to draw that line when it comes to another’s subjective happiness—or “happiness”—is impossible. But that it’s impossible doesn’t mean we need to give up on the distinction, or let ourselves fall into the trap of thinking only that which aligns with our own subjective conceptions of happiness is true and worthy. A liberal society is inevitably messy, but messiness is not nihilism. And cultivating traits of goodwill and sympathetic joy will make us better able to recognize genuinely unskillful intentions, while cultivating or giving into ill-will and resentment will make us far less likely to recognize and appreciate others’ skillful happiness.

This is, in fact, one path to illiberalism. It comes from failing to recognize happiness and success in alternative ways of living, and so insisting both must conform to a narrow range. From there, the illiberal concludes that the problem with freedom is it enables and encourages people to pursue success and happiness outside of “traditional” ways. Illiberals see any happiness and success that doesn’t align with their preferences as false, inauthentic, mistaken or corrupt. Thus, to return to the prior example, transgender people aren’t actually happy in their gender identity, but are instead mentally ill and secretly miserable. Illiberals on the left can make a similar move, assuming that people who freely choose “traditionally” conservative lifestyles, or hold to restrictive religious faiths or opt to raise children instead of seeking careers, aren’t genuinely happy and aren’t meaningfully successful.

Goodwill and sympathetic joy are clearly virtues. A person who isn’t resentful of others’ happiness has a better character than a person who is. And a person who in fact finds joy in others’ happiness takes that good character a step further. We admire (or should admire) such large-hearted people, and strive to cultivate this feeling in ourselves.

But what does this have to do with liberalism?

A society permeated more thoroughly with the virtues of goodwill and sympathetic joy is likely to better maintain political liberalism than one grounded in mere toleration. Illiberalism comes about in part because people have reached a limit of how much difference they’ll tolerate, and they turn against liberty, and toward the state, to put a stop to lifestyle choices they dislike. If illiberalism takes strength from intolerance, then cultivating virtues that go beyond tolerance into sympathetic joy strengthens liberalism’s defenses. And if we’ve come to view the happiness of others as a key component of our own happiness, then restricting their freedom to pursue success as they define it will be seen as not only making them worse off, but ourselves as well. It’ll cause us pain, not give us joy, to do so.

Virtues are cultivated, and the environment we’re in can make it easier or harder to do so. The good news is that in a liberal society, there is an inherent incentive to develop these liberal virtues. Liberalism necessarily entails that we will be surrounded by people different from us, pursuing success in ways not our own, and finding happiness in places we don’t. Living in a liberal society will be quite miserable if we constantly resent different kinds of happiness and self-expression and harbor ill-will for those experiencing and embracing them. As Tibetan scholar Traleg Kyabgon puts it, “Feelings such as resentment and bitterness gradually make us weak, frustrated, and unhappy, rather than having any impact on the person toward whom we direct these emotions.” On the other hand, living in a liberal society will become not just tolerable, but a genuine delight, if we possess the virtue of sympathetic joy. Thus as liberal citizens, these virtues are a means to great life satisfaction, which we all should want and strive for.

This feedback loop, far from being value neutral, is one of liberalism’s great strengths. But to take advantage of it, we need to recognize it, and push back against the illiberal desire to resent happiness in difference and diversity. We should avoid the ideology of hang-ups, have little respect for religions that ask us to become worse people and accept tolerance as only a second-best alternative to a fuller internalizing of liberal virtues.

Note: I have begun a short series of follow-up essays building out this argument further, clarifying some of its claims, and defending it against objections.

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