Monday, September 3, 2007

Liberalism and its enemies...

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.

7 comments:

Len said...

I read and commented on Professor Fish's post. I think he gets a lot wrong, particularly in confusing that which is public (politics) with that which ought to be private (religion and spirituality). Also, liberalism isn't inherently hostile to religion; it is neutral to it. A person's religious beliefs or lack thereof are irrelevant when considering their inclusion into the political process and society as a whole. It is a matter of personal choice, not public record.

ted said...

Mark, you've landed in the briar patch of moral relativism, where you're going to take hits from many sides. When you do, you might try an evolutionary perspective. You can posit that moral values survive because they provide a survival edge to the tribe that sustains them. They don't if they don't.
That provides a means of determining whether your moral preference is really better than anyone else's. The answer is, ask me in 200 years. Or you might be able to ask how similar moral choices fared in similar contexts in the past.
Does that perspective open the door to bad stuff like social darwinism? I doubt it, because I doubt that this would provide a survival edge over a more cohesive moral framework. But like evolution it may depend on context.
But what does that say about a larger picture? Do tribal societies provide a more effective environment for selection among competing moralities than do less tribal societies (those with more lateral and vertical mobility)? What determines whether a tribal society has a survival edge over a less tribal one? I'm kind of feeling a need to get answers to that one.

Kate said...

len: "...liberalism isn't inherently hostile to religion; it is neutral to it"

imho, it is more complex than a simple dichotomy between religiosity and liberalism I think classic liberalism has its roots in Christianity--the values of compassion, generosity, justice, responsibility for those in need, those who are marginalized. The problem has arisen because an extremist group has asserted certain narrow set of values as "true" and the rest of us, in addition to being appalled by what is included in that set of "true" values, are simultaneously pretty confused about what our values are. We don't even know how to talk about morality (as the recent Larry Craig saga shows. Being a public nuisance is somehow deeply shameful. Lying to the American people, etc, is not.) Arguments between rocks (the one with extreme, rigid certitude) and bonbons (the one with a heigh-ho, unexamined attitude) rarely turn out well for the bonbon.

Fish reports Starr's liberal values are "free development," "mutual forbearance," or " individualism, egalitarianism, self-realization, free expression, modernity, innovation." I would consider these modern values, not necessarily liberal values, and a mixed set. A less sympathetic reading would suggest that these values are in fact associated not with liberalism, per se, but with a culture of modern consumerism, materialism and capitalism, the primacy of the individual desire over community order. I believe that John Berger, a Marxist art critic, might make that case.

"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"

I also see huge problems with having no philosophical basis to assert why one value is superior to another. In such a relativist worldview, the only way to arbitrate between competing values is power, and these power games can get ugly very fast.

You think torturing animals is wrong. Say, a group gets power that thinks torturing animals is fun and games, worth a public spectacle. What are you going to do?

I agree with ted that an evolutionary perspective might help, but the devil is in the details. Most cultures, for example, agree that murder of another human being is wrong. But who counts as a human being--historically, women didn't count. People from outside the tribe didn't count. Infants didn't count. But I still think we have ways of examining this. The positive psychology people have made a start.

Algosome said...

The history of science can be viewed as a centuries long retreat from certainty about the centrality of views of the universe and humanity's central place in it to a view that is humble enough to examine that actual evidence one way or another. We gave up the flat earth, we gave up heliocentrism, we gave up creationism for evolution (though there are some powerful holdouts), we gave up the divine right of kings, we're now in the process of giving up autocracy as having some logical, axiomatically unquestionable foundation.

We are learning from evolutionary biology and from economics work in bounded rationality that centralized economies are less adaptable, and that diverse ecosystems are more robust to disturbances than uniform ones.

Liberal democracies are attempts to realize these truths in working political and economic systems. We haven't discovered an optimal balance between fascism and anarchy, and we will never find one since such systems are provably unsolvable, but we're a lot closer now than we were 100 years ago.

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Bakersfield Photographer said...

The issue of liberalism is broad which is connected through religion. We may have given the freedom but there is always a choice between right and wrong. In short, there's a limitation.

Anti Money Laundering said...

Democrats say -- "Give a man a fish."
Republicans say -- "Teach a man to fish."
Libertarians say -- "Go fish!"