Two decades ago, when I arrived at Harvard to study political philosophy, the discipline had become a dull affair. Imagine joining a field of study or activity after it has completed all its stated goals. Not Shakespeare, not even a commentator on his plays—you are a commentator on his commentators. Nothing left to do, but the show must go on because there is no one in charge of pulling the plug.
It would have been bad enough if the main problems of political philosophy had already been solved. In fact it was much worse. Every problem—big or small—had disappeared. There was a procedure in place, a kind of mechanism allowing us to determine what a society should look like before we knew anything about that or any other society. The procedure had been perfected by John Rawls, the greatest political thinker in American history and arguably the greatest political thinker of the 20th century. Rawls had taught at Harvard most of his life. Austere and humorless, he struck his interlocutors as something of a religious figure: “A Puritan in a tall black hat,” as Isaiah Berlin said. His thought towered above us, more as a prohibition than as an interrogation. There was nothing left to do. We knew the truth and were sure it was the truth. Every effort to find a new way could only be interpreted as intellectual obtuseness or, worse, moral turpitude.
While the predicament affected no more than political theorists, all might still be well. But as some of us had started to suspect, this was a more general condition. The problem was that liberalism had been so extraordinarily effective at specifying the conditions of a free society that it could produce an answer to every political question. It could produce that answer by itself, with no need to revert to the actual people living in a liberal society.
Gender relations, the workplace, abortion, religion, technology, money: Liberal theory could tell you how to think about each of these and many other difficult questions. You almost forgot the whole point of a free society was to let people decide important questions in their own lives. Unfortunately but unavoidably, it turned out that, by the point an individual was ready to start living, every important question would already have been decided. Not on substantive grounds but as part of a detailed specification of what needed to be the case if people were to be free to decide how they wanted to live. The paradox could drive you mad.
A story by the architect Adolf Loos seems to me to illustrate the point. It tells how a wealthy and happy Viennese businessman, tired of being no more than a practical man, decided one day that his life needed the exaltation and permanence of art. Or at any rate—for whatever reason—it needed art. He called on a renowned interior architect, who duly proceeded to throw out all his furniture and organize a small army of painters, sculptors, masons, and carpenters to create a living museum. When the rich man saw his new house, he was overjoyed. There was art everywhere he looked, art in everything and anything. When he turned a door handle, he grabbed hold of art and his feet sank in art when he walked across the carpet. Every room was a complete masterpiece. And then the nightmare started.
Because the architect had forgotten nothing, the house was perfect. The architect had thought of everything in advance and decided everything in advance. You picked up an object and the order of the ensemble was immediately disturbed. An endless searching and guessing for the right place to return it would begin. Better not to pick anything up. The rich man started to spend as little time as possible at his house, which had become a historical monument rather than a home. When his birthday arrived, his wife and children gave him many presents. A disastrous mistake, as it turned out. The architect wanted nothing of it and he was the one in charge. “How dare you receive presents? I took care of everything. You need nothing more. You are complete.” When the rich man suggested that, as a rich man, he should at least be allowed to buy new things, the answer came swiftly. No idea could be more shocking. Nothing could be allowed that had not been designed by the architect. Then the rich man, the happy man, suddenly felt deeply unhappy. “He was shut out of future life and its strivings, its developments, and its desires.”
To be sure, there were people at Harvard who felt uncomfortable in the newly completed liberal house. My teacher Michael Sandel made repeated efforts to break free. He felt that liberalism was too cold a philosophy, and strove to provide a richer content for human attachments and emotions. That content was to come from community life, but Sandel never risked much in this pursuit. His plan was to enrich liberalism from the inside without abandoning the formal framework of rights and liberties inherited from the liberal tradition. That placed him in the awkward position of having to slowly withdraw the promises he himself had made for his approach. He would argue, for example, that banning pornography was acceptable, but it quickly turned out that he meant this to apply, very restrictively, to the public display of pornographic materials in bookshops and even then only in select communities rather than the larger society. Another time, he told students that a street musician had the right to be paid for his troubles, even if he had not contracted anything with the passersby. There were other grounds for legal obligation besides contract. Students were flabbergasted and Sandel dropped the idea.
Other political theorists at Harvard attempted different versions of the same strategy, which consisted in little more than applying the principle of toleration to liberal ideas, thus creating some space where their imperial reach could somehow be limited. Some wanted a “liberalism of virtue.” An assistant professor had written a book advocating a “liberalism of honor.” Others spoke of a “liberalism of passion” and, unable to resist, I wrote my dissertation on a “liberalism of adventure”—the strivings, the developments, the desires of life. It was a futile effort because, as I noted above, contemporary liberalism had an answer to everything. To deny that this was the case was to move beyond the liberal creed, and that no one was ready to do.
John Rawls provided a good example of someone who had been struggling with the question. He wrote two major works. The first, A Theory of Justice, was a work of mainstream liberal thought, very much in the tradition of such European political philosophers as Locke, Rousseau, or John Stuart Mill. In it Rawls argued for a conception of justice based on principles of individual freedom and political equality, while providing some clever new ways to arrive at them. He must have thought that not much could be added and was ready to move on to other issues and perhaps even other areas of philosophy when something happened that could be described as a break—albeit a timid one—with the European tradition.
In his second major book, Political Liberalism, Rawls tried to address a serious problem with his earlier approach. How could he have expected the citizens of a modern diverse society to accept the same philosophical doctrine? The American society he had known and admired all his life is characterized by a pluralism of incompatible philosophical doctrines. None of these doctrines is affirmed by citizens generally. Some of them may be so contradictory to the idea of justice that we should feel justified in ruling them out. But many others, surely, must find their place in a diverse society, and therefore the attempt to make everyone think and do the same things is destined to fail.
In broad terms, all these insights had been developed by William James, so they were not exactly new, but Rawls suggested a creative solution. Rather than affirming a single philosophical doctrine of justice, the liberal state should allow many different doctrines to flourish, provided they all agreed on some fundamental political principles. The result would be something like a diagram with multiple overlapping circles. The area of overlap between all the circles is the political conception of justice, but each group, represented by a circle, has its own reasons to support that conception. A religious group may support the principles of freedom and equality because they are dictated by religious doctrine, while artists and intellectuals arrive at them from the point of view of the creative and eccentric individual. The political conception is a module, a constituent part that fits into various philosophical doctrines that endure in the society regulated by it.
The political conception is shared by everyone while the philosophical doctrines are not. Rawls was careful to underline that the political conception could not be called true. It did not aspire to give a theory of how human beings should live, only a stable arrangement allowing them to live with each other and share the same political institutions.
I was never convinced that what Rawls had presented amounted to a solution to the problem that he and the rest of us were interested in. In a famous passage on abortion, he argued that Catholics may reject the existence of a right to abortion, but they cannot impose their views on others. All they can do is not exercise the right of abortion in their own case. Rawls had reformulated his approach to political truth, but he ended up with exactly the same response to every debated question. Some of the political theorists working on this issue at Harvard would even argue that political liberalism did not change anything whatsoever. Human beings do not have a bicameral mind: What they are supposed to believe in the political sphere will seep into other domains, and the demand for a just politics will invade the whole of our private lives.
I met Rawls only once, during a conference about his work in Santa Clara. Since I had been bothered by this particular reservation about his efforts, I chose to ask him whether he thought a philosophical doctrine could have any reality if its defenders were supposed to apply it only to their own private convictions. In secret you could be anything, in public you had to be a liberal. Was this not the opposite of what happened in traditional societies? In secret you could be a libertine, in public you had to be pious. Rawls was not impressed by my way at looking at the question, but I have often thought about that exchange. I wish it had occurred to me back then that the unreality I was referring to might in fact be a great political virtue. Rawls died before reaching the promised land, but he did point to a fundamental problem. Eventually the solution would come not from academic departments but from the real world—or, rather, the unreal world outside.
Examples were all around us, but somehow we were too distracted to see them. They were on television and in the movies and on the internet. On the screen, all human possibilities were allowed and celebrated because none of them were real. Sandel could have argued that the state should allow a community to ban pornographic bookstores not on the grounds that pornography offends its values but because we can all benefit from exploring as many human possibilities as possible. And when his students protested, as inevitably they would, he could calmly explain that all these possibilities are not meant to be real. They are accepted on the condition that they abandon every claim to be true and therefore every claim to override different or conflicting life forms. One could build a traditional community in the spirit of a fantasy park where certain possibilities can be experienced more fully. Think of the television series Westworld.
Suppose one were to leave liberalism behind in search of new strivings and new adventures. What then will hold everyone back? What limits to those new adventures would we be able to establish? On what basis could a stable society be maintained? If everyone leads his or her life as if it were a movie or a television series, what stops us from ending up in anarchy or a war of all against all?
When commentators complain that American society and politics no longer seem real, they miss the promise of unreality. The real world has many disadvantages. What happens in reality has final consequences. Many of those consequences cannot be undone. And the real world is one: There is no place there for contradictions or even for multiple versions of the same experience.
Liberal society is based on a principle of freedom: The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs or impede their efforts to obtain it. Or, as Rawls puts it, each person has a claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all. The new America is founded on a different principle. I call it the principle of unreality: Everyone can pursue his or her own happiness so long as they refrain from imposing it on others as something real—as something valid for all.
One way to think about the principle is to note that a society may be richer in human possibilities if it allows for the existence of illiberal ways of life, but in that case it is the value of diversity or experimentation that is being pursued, not the values defended by those ways of life. Citizens must be at liberty to adopt and abandon different values, to enter or exit different experiments in living. The state must recognize and enforce this right to enter and leave. These are experiments, adventures, storylines. They are not real life. They can be switched on and off.
One could argue that the right to exit is the only fundamental human right. A society may countenance the existence of deeply illiberal practices and groups, provided it ensures every individual has the right to exit these practices and groups as soon as he or she no longer wants to participate in them. The fundamental right is a safe word or a kill switch allowing us to stop the game or experience. Like malware authors, we need to include a kill switch in case we lose control over our own creations—in case things get too real. Provided this switch is available, the game itself may well be dangerous or offensive.
It is important to stress this last point. The experience must be immersive. Doubt and skepticism have a role in human society, but they cannot be present everywhere. At some point we must be allowed to experiment with different possibilities without being reminded of their flaws or incompleteness, and those committed to a certain life form must have the power and autonomy to craft a world that is exciting and rewarding. Intrusions and distractions from the theme should be minimized. Losing oneself, breaking through the screen or the mirror: The metaphors imply a transition to a new world endowed with the richness and consistency of reality. It is what Disneyland already announced: motion picture stories reconstructed in physical space.
The liberty the state must defend is the liberty not to be trapped within ways of life. The state must safeguard the ability of individuals to experiment with and move between different ways of life, but none of these ways of life could be experienced very deeply if individuals were to act as mere voyeurs, looking at the possibilities open to them, without actually taking a leap and fully embracing what is offered. No one will be able to experience the full force of religious belief by being reminded at every step to exercise critical thinking and question the basis of those beliefs. Public principles, institutions, and practices create imaginary worlds for the enactment of individual and group experiences, constrained only by the refusal to use state coercion to impose one specific way of life. Consider the series Westworld one more time. Guests to the fantasy park pay a prohibitively high fee to visit an alternative world, full of danger and excitement, “more real than reality itself,” but this is a world where the right to exit or to leave is strictly protected. There are plenty of safety measures in place. The visitors cannot be killed by the robotic androids they meet in the park. Guns are somehow able to distinguish between humans and androids, so bullets simply bounce off them. The park has one basic rule: Humans cannot get hurt. The adventures do get unruly and wild, especially as you leave the main village, Sweetwater. There is no censorship on content, no matter how immoral. The whole point is to be immoral. But no one gets hurt, everyone is able to leave, so they can return and experience new adventures in the future.
The television series is based on the 1973 movie of the same name, written and directed by Michael Crichton. There is a lot in the movie that prefigures the development of American society and culture over the past few decades. Visitors leave their boring office and family lives in search of deeper experiences. The theme parks they can choose from are celebrations of value pluralism. Much of the point is to experience new worlds where mainstream liberal values are unknown. The experience is fully immersive, everything feels real, but as much as each guest will be transformed by their time there, they know this is not reality: Bullets cannot kill them. The principle of unreality is an answer—a specifically American answer—to the shallowness of life in a modern liberal society.
In a 1972 court case, Old Order Amish parents objected to a Wisconsin state law that mandated the schooling of all children under the age of 16. They claimed a right to exempt their children from schooling after eighth grade, arguing that the mandatory schooling requirement would violate their religious freedom and destroy their way of life. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the parents, a decision quickly criticized on two main grounds. Firstly, many of the initial reactions showed concern that by allowing different groups to live in a separate world from the larger society, we endanger social and political stability, which requires a shared culture and a sense of common purpose. The second set of criticisms points out that there is a third party to the case besides the Amish parents and the state: Amish children have the right to decide how they want to live their own lives, and this right is dependent on developing the skills and knowledge that allow them to know about alternatives and be successful outside their community. Both are classical liberal arguments.
I believe the case was correctly decided. I do not entirely disagree with the two arguments mentioned above, and they must play a role as we fine tune a solution to every particular case, but the main danger for me lies elsewhere. I worry that an overbearing concern with fostering a skeptical attitude towards existing ways of life has already produced a detached attitude preventing many people from directly engaging with life. We risk creating individuals whose contact with lived experience is at best shallow and at worst nonexistent. The contemporary European culture of café life and momentary sensation is a greater risk than the dangers of Westworld. I believe the quest for total immersion is the holy grail of modern politics. A society of stories would be able to create new experiences and genuine feelings and thoughts in a completely artificial environment. The possibilities of the new virtualism are essentially endless.
What can hardly be denied is that, independently of its merits, a “society of stories” is the best way to think about contemporary America. For Europeans the two liberal arguments above are intuitively powerful and compelling. Most Americans are unconvinced. What contemporary America exhibits is a world of worlds where the high-tech utopia of San Francisco exists side by side with those parts of the country where many more people believe in heaven, hell and angels than in the theory of evolution. The European will say: There is no truth; the American: There is no truth, so everything is true. The difference between Europeans and Americans is that the former see the great narratives of nation, religion or money as fictions to be abandoned while the latter embrace them all the more for being fictions.
Adapted from History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America by Bruno Maçães. Copyright © 2020 by Bruno Maçães and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Bruno Maçães is a former Secretary of State in Portugal and the author of three recent books on geopolitics, most recently History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America.