Words like liberal and conservative have been losing whatever meaning they once had. An old Tory would not have seen anything very conservative in free trade, and Senator Bob Taft would certainly have had reservations about America's role as international policeman. But liber al still has discernible significance in ethics, where the great liberal traditions of Locke, Adam Smith, and the Utilitarians are carried on by able defenders like John Rawls, Robert Nozick, and Bruce Ackerman. Although the philosophers disagree on a great many things, they share certain operating assumptions which make possible a rich cross-pollination of liberal eth ics. Among the truths they hold to be self-evident is the assumption that ethical decisions are made by individuals in confrontation with other individuals; the most impor tant quality of these decisions is the fact of their universal application without distinction of persons. If something is right, it is right for everyone under all circumstances. Considerations of kinship or national identity are irrelevant. 

Since liberal ethics avoid refer ence to transcendent or supernatural beings, they are forced to fall back on certain abstract standards as a basis for ethical judgments. For Adam Smith it was "the impartial spectator" to whom we could ap peal as a judge...

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