Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism – Peter Berkowitz

*The review that follows is a result of my short lived free books for bloggers campaign. Ben A. won the contest and Berkowitz’s book. Being a gentleman and a scholar he completed the review and sent it on to me, thereby fulfilling the only requirement of the contest. Thanks Ben.

To function and thrive, states depend on the virtues of their citizens: A nation of cowards will be subjugated, a country of thieves corrupted, a city of dolts defrauded. Thus, it might be considered central for any regime to identify the particular qualities of character that support the goals of government, and to understand how best to cultivate them in its citizens. This, at least, was the view of Aristotle; and it is a position explored at length in Peter Berkowitz’s book Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism.


As the title suggests, Berkowitz takes for his topic the role of virtue in liberal states. Berkowitz argues that liberal nations like the United States face particular difficulties in acting on Aristotele’s insight. To describe virtue is to take sides, and, instructed by the great example of religious toleration, liberal states pick sides only with great reluctance. And even when a liberal regime surmounts this difficulty and endorses particular qualities of character, it may lack the ability to support them. Liberalism limits state power and a supports individual liberty and conscience. These commitments require liberal states to foreswear many tools – state religion, censorship, and indoctrination, for a start – used by illiberal regimes to shape the character of citizens. Thus, liberal states may seem shorn of both the means and the will to cultivate virtue.

And yet, liberal states are robust and thriving. Has liberalism found a way to govern without virtue, or if not, what resources can liberal regimes deploy to ensure a virtuous citizenry? To answer these questions, Berkowitz examines the role of virtue in the liberal tradition, devoting the majority of the book to expository essays on four seminal theorists – Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and Mill.

These essays, though brief, are astonishingly successful. Specialists will no doubt find nits to pick in many places. Berkowitz’s attempt to characterize the interaction between Aristotelean conceptions of virtue and Kant’s politics in twenty-five pages, for example, savors of the heroic. And the brevity of this treatment ensures that some points move by too quickly. But within the limits Berkowitz sets himself, he succeeds admirably, offering summaries that are lucid, well informed, and evenhanded. Newcomers to Hobbes, Locke, Mill or Kant will not be misled, while scholars will to return to familiar texts with a new eye.

Berkowitz concludes from this survey that none of these liberal founders believed a government could regard the virtues of their citizens with indifference. This case is most easily made for Hobbes, who explicitly imagined a state role in what might dubiously be called character formation. Hobbes conceived the state as a pact in which individuals cede right in order to secure protection from violence. As such, any citizen willing to risk death for honor or belief represents for Hobbes a potential threat to public order. Thus, he accords the sovereign control of the church and broad powers of censorship to tame these passions, and to ensure that citizens’ subordinate zeal and pride to the fear of bodily harm.

Later thinkers abandoned Hobbes’ endorsement of coercion and censorship, but Berkowitz demonstrates that post-Hobbesian liberals also identified certain traits of character as crucial for stable politics. Kant considered the understanding sufficient to identify rational self-interest a prerequisite for liberal citizenship. Locke emphasized the importance of enlightened self-interest (again) as well as prudence, judgment, and tolerance. And, in a particularly careful treatment, Berkowitz reveals a Mill deeply sensitive to the importance of an informed, unprejudiced citizenry for the smooth functioning of representative government.

It is in Mill that Berkowitz identifies the elements of a liberal approach to virtue that have carried through to the present. While Mill countenanced certain direct government interventions to secure virtue, he believed the central institutions for moral education would be private. It was in Mill’s view the family, and the web of voluntary associations that form civil society, that would play the most crucial role in equipping citizens with the character and education required for political participation.

Mill’s approach has been dominant in liberal theory and practice. Citizens of the United States or Great Britain will recognize the correspondence with their own experience: a government neutral on most questions of virtue, and a reliance on the family and civil society to shape good citizens. And, it has on the whole been a effective model, liberal regimes are the most free, powerful, and prosperous on earth.

Yet despite these successes, Berkowitz argues that Mill’s solution is not without its difficulties. Vesting so much authority to form virtue in non-governmental institutions, Berkowitz suggests, encourages a kind of carelessness. Liberal regimes that get out of the virtue business can forget how stringent are the demands that self-government places on citizens, and neglect the institutions that foster liberal virtues.

Further, Berkowitz suggests that certain liberal impulses may, when taken to extremes, actively undermine the development of necessary virtues. In his concluding essay, Berkowitz argues that ideologies that radicalize liberal principles – feminism, post-modernism, and deliberative democracy – can actively oppose the virtues and institutions needed for liberal governance. In this context, the need for virtue, presented heretofore as a dilemma for liberalism, can serve to vindicate liberal institutions.

This is a suggestive line of argument, but unfortunately, Berkowitz does not develop this own positive position at sufficient length. For example, a liberalism sensitive to virtue would need to balance support of character forming institutions with commitments to liberty, neutrality, and equality. Berkowitz no doubt has views on what forms these decisions would take, but here he seems reticent to elaborate them. So too, the depiction of virtue as a central to the functioning of a liberal governance would seem to have significant, and potentially disastrous, implications for libertarian theories of the minimal state (a night-watchman government, after all, cannot be staffed by pirates). But here again, Berkowitz is largely silent.

Berkowitz’s modesty extends to style as well as content. Readers familiar with his essays in the New Republic know Berkowitz as both an able expositor and, when the occasion warrants, a stinging polemicist. This second aspect of Berkowitz is little visible in this work, where he fights with gloves firmly laced in place. This frustrating restraint is the signal failing of Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism. In a book dominated by explication of other thinkers, one wants in the end more Berkowitz. Having set up a position with careful exposition, Berkowitz shies from drawing out its consequences. Instead, Berkowitz treats opponents with even-handedness indicating either the saintly dispassion or the calm of an assassin contemplating the best place to stick the stiletto. I suspect the latter, but alas, this blow has yet to land.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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