Stanley Fish has written an interesting essay in today's New York Times. As he points out, alongside a spate of recent books attacking religion and its growing influence, publishing houses seem to be issuing defenses of liberal political organization, such as Paul Starr's Freedom's Power: The True Force of Liberalism. I think I could count my Social Atom as taking a similar position, arguing for government based on the maximum use of science, knowledge and open discussion based on real understanding, rather than ideology. But as Fish argues, and I think he is right, there is no way to defend the supremacy of that kind of "liberal" government over illiberal government (theocracy, dictatorship, or anything else) on purely logical grounds. Commenting on Starr, he writes that
...in the invocation of "free development" and "mutual forbearance," Starr gives the lie to liberal neutrality. Free development (the right of individuals to frame and follow their own life plans) and mutual forbearance (a live-and-let-live attitude toward the beliefs of others as long as they do you no harm) are not values everyone endorses.
And neither are the other values Starr identifies as distinctively liberal – individualism, egalitarianism, self-realization, free expression, modernity, innovation. These values, as many have pointed out, are part and parcel of an ideology, one that rejects a form of government organized around a single compelling principle or faith and insists instead on a form of government that is, in legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin’s words, "independent of any particular conception of the good life." Individual citizens are free to have their own conception of what the good life is, but the state, liberal orthodoxy insists, should neither endorse nor condemn any one of them (unless of course its adherents would seek to impose their vision on others).
Can one defend this liberal view on logical grounds? No. That's the way it is with values. They're assertions, not derived facts, although our language induces us to treat them as facts.
For example, I don't support the torture of animals. Or anything else. I find the idea completely reprehensible. But I won't claim that torturing animals is "wrong" in some absolute moral sense. There is, as far as I can tell, no source of absolute and final moral values, there to be read in the very fabric of the universe, a source from which we could take unquestionable values about how life "ought" to be led. That may be disappointing, but it seems to be the case, and I'd prefer to live with honesty rather than self-deception. [I say "prefer"; I cannot prove that one should do that either.] So in honesty, and clarity I think, my position on torture is that I do not do it, I don't think others should do it, and I am willing to work actively to stop them. But the point is: I am the source that value. My willing self. Not some book of eternal values.
Of course, this is rarely the way moral values get put forth. People use the terminology of "right" and "wrong" (usually unconsciously) because it is a powerful technique of persuasion, perhaps the most powerful. You're not going to follow my prescription for life, but you may that of an all powerful and invisible god who is watching your every move.
Today we have a battle of increasing animosity, and employing all the best techniques of moral persuasion, between those who would like to enforce their arbitrary values on the rest of us, and those -- supporters of the "liberal" philosophy -- who wish to recognize and remain aware of our inability to find absolutely true values, and to try without self-deception to live as best we can without them. In that sense, I don't think the liberal and illiberal positions are equivalent; the one aims to keep its eyes open and to live with knowledge and light, while the other aims to close down the mind and live in illusion.
You cannot prove that one is better than the other. I know which I prefer.
But Fish is also right that the battle between these two mindsets is real, it involves a real struggle for power, and it is practically of utmost importance. What should we do? He suggests, linking to an essay by Mark Lilla, trying to "cope":
One thing we can’t do is appeal to some common ground that might form the basis of dialogue and possible rapprochement. There is no common ground, and... "agreement on basic principles won’t be possible." After all, it is a disagreement over basic principles that divides us from those who have been called "God’s warriors." The principles that will naturally occur to us – tolerance, mutual respect, diversity – are ones they have already rejected ; invoking them will do no real work except the dubious work of confirming us in our feelings of superiority. (We’re tolerant, they’re not.)
So again, what to do? Lilla’s answer is pragmatic rather than philosophical (and all the better for that). All we can do, he says, is "cope"; that is, employ a succession of ad hoc, provisional strategies that take advantage of, and try to extend, moments of perceived mutual self-interest and practical accommodation. "We need to recognize that coping is the order of the day, not defending high principles." Now there’s a principle we can live with, maybe.
Perhaps, this is indeed true. For all the sense I find in the essays against religion of Richard Dawkins, Sam Miller or Christopher Hitchens, I can't imagine they're going to change anyone's mind. However, that may not be their real value. If we (meaning those who prefer "liberal" government in the sense used above) wish to defend our values, we need to recognize the energy and determination of those acting against us, who would very much like to stamp their values on our foreheads. Dawkins, Miller and the like have at the very least sounded an important warning. Lilla put the matter quite well:
Today, we have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.