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Liberty & Equality

The Paradox of Liberalism

Francisco Mejia Uribe explains why the rise of fundamentalism poses a problem for liberals, and suggests what they can do about it.

Fundamentalism is creating a paradoxical situation for us Westerners. Pluralism and moral autonomy, the very concepts that once helped us overcome the bitter fundamentalism of the wars of religion, now seem to prevent us from counteracting the current rise of fundamentalism. In other words, while we feel the need to defend our moral convictions in the new global battle for beliefs, the core liberal assumption that moral conflict is irresolvable (pluralism) together with the belief that individuals should be free to choose and act on their own values (moral autonomy) seem to prevent us from engaging in direct moral conflict. This paradox is something we need to acknowledge and resolve before we can mount a convincing case against fundamentalism. Allow me to elaborate.

The Problem with Moral Conflict

As citizens of liberal secular societies, it is no mere coincidence that we feel queasy when thrown into the arena of moral conflict. The history of Western liberalism, the viewpoint which underpins our current secular political structures, is a story of gradual moral privatization and a steady retreat from moral conflict. We are ill prepared to defend our own moral intuitions precisely because we live in societies where moral conflict was, until recently, minimized by design. So it comes as no surprise that we do not really know how to respond to the rise of global fundamentalism, with its impetus to aggressively moralize the public sphere.

The philosophical reasons why we avoid moral conflict were clearly articulated by Alasdair Macintyre in his classic book After Virtue (1981). In a nutshell, once we discarded the Aristotelian program of explaining things in terms of their purposes and instead embarked in the Eighteenth Century on the Enlightenment’s project of providing a rational justification for objective morality, we found ourselves sliding down a slippery slope that led eventually to our having to give up the idea of being able to provide any justification for an objective morality, and thence to what Macintyre describes as an ‘emotivist’ society – one which takes moral conflict as irresolvable.

Macintyre’s explanation is rather simple but nevertheless powerful: from the analysis of what the world is we have failed to derive what it should be. We have been trying to do this at least since Descartes, but without a defined human nature that reveals our essence such as Aristotle had, we simply cannot seem to derive what we ought to do. Aristotle’s ethics had humans as they in fact are on one side, and humans as they would be if they achieved their essential nature on the other; and ethics was the enterprise of bridging the gap. But if you dismiss Aristotle’s assumption of an essential human nature and purpose, you’re left with trying to discover the rules of morality by looking solely at what is, with no Aristotelian ought posited in advance. It’s like building a bridge to nowhere.

Logical Positivism, the philosophical movement born in Vienna in the 1920s and brought to English speakers by A.J. Ayer, also contributed to the demise of belief in absolute morality. According to Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic (1936), moral propositions are meaningless because they cannot be empirically verified. Morality doesn’t ‘hook’ to anything in the observable world; so it unverifiable and hence vacuous, meaningless.

Think what you like about Logical Positivism’s extreme argument, but objective morality never really recovered from its attack, combined as it was with many other Twentieth Century attacks on it. Philosophical debate about the status of morality is ongoing, but in practice, Western secular society gave up on moral absolutes long ago; and if faced with moral conflict, we shun it as a pointless and irresolvable clash of opinions.

St Bat's Massacre
Naked moral politicking: A scene from the European wars of religion

Liberalism to the Rescue

The recent evolution of political liberalism can be understood precisely as an attempt to deal with this capitulation over moral conflict. I would even argue that liberalism is above all a brilliant political answer to what was originally an epistemological question – a problem concerning what we can know. If we have no way to know what is morally correct, and so choose among competing and irreconcilable moralities, how can we still carry on with our lives in a peaceful manner? Answering this question is the fundamental task of liberalism.

From day one, liberalism’s laudable goal was to craft a system where, despite their diverging beliefs, free individuals could agree on a set of political rules that respect their freedom whilst guaranteeing a just and stable society. In other words, liberalism did not only want a solution to the drama of irresolvable moral conflict, it wanted a solution that protected individual liberty. Liberalism’s central emphasis is then, as the name suggests, on liberty. And according to the liberal tradition, to be free is to be autonomous – to be able to direct one’s own life according to one’s own beliefs.

True to its Christian roots, yet given a secular twist, at the core of liberalism resides the powerful idea that human beings should be equally free to live their lives according to their own beliefs. The brilliance of liberalism was to identify the one thing we could all agree with, despite our seemingly irreconcilable beliefs, and build from there. This one thing we could agree with is that we are all free in the sense of not being naturally subject to others’ moral and political authority. Note that it is no coincidence that Western society could agree on this point: this was made possible by a shared Christian tradition that preached the value of the individual and individual salvation. However, by emphasising the concept of autonomy, liberalism avoided the pitfall of trying to justify political arrangements through any of the contested worldviews that characterize a plural society. The dilemma of moral conflict then dissolved, as we were finally in possession of a set of commonly-agreed rules that cut through our substantive disagreements.

The first step upon launching this bold enterprise was to focus on the thing we all shared: our idea of individual liberty or autonomy. The core objective of political activity then became the protection of individual liberty – which means that political discourse needed to abstain from favoring any particular moral or religious view. Hence the overriding insistence on state neutrality in regards to moral debates. This meant privatizing contested moral beliefs.

In a liberal culture, coercing everyone into a unified moral outlook is recognized as impossible, since the point of departure is the presumption of our autonomy – our inalienable right to elect our worldview. Liberalism’s stroke of genius was to see moral and religious diversity precisely as the normal outcome of letting individuals exercise this autonomy. Suddenly, the fact that we disagree about our basic beliefs – the fact of pluralism – ceased to be viewed as a corrosive threat to social order. Instead, it became the mark of freedom, the manifestation of liberty in action. The philosophical capitulation on moral conflict suddenly became a virtue rather than a problem. In other words, for us Westerners, to be reasonable is precisely to understand and accept pluralism – the fact of irreconcilable moral conflict. Now, in a liberal culture, refraining from trumpeting our morality to others is the ultimate mark of reasonableness.

Liberalism & the Rise of Fundamentalism

If as good liberals we take moral autonomy and irresolvable pluralism as givens, is there anything we can do against those that lever their autonomy to pursue the fundamentalist agenda of denying other people theirs? In a society that has grown to embrace pluralism and equates moral conflict with unreasonable squabbling, what can we do to stop fundamentalism?

What’s the problem? To conceive of others as being both free and morally and legally equal requires us to respect their boundaries and refrain from demanding that they endorse beliefs they do not have reasons to support, even if their own beliefs strike us as unjustifiable, even repugnant. Full autonomy in choice of values is part of what it means to be free. But here the paradox of liberalism comes into focus: wouldn’t it then be tantamount to coercion to impose our liberal values on fundamentalists? After all, if fundamentalists have their own reasons to support their beliefs, isn’t it a violation of their autonomy to force them to behave in a manner contrary to those beliefs? Perhaps even more worrying, isn’t it a violation of state neutrality to turn these moral discussions into public affairs, with the state siding with a particular view? Finally, even if we were to put these moral considerations aside and engage in moral conflict, wouldn’t it be pointless anyway, since we take moral conflict to be irresolvable to begin with?

Many would rightly point out here that state neutrality and the promotion of autonomy do not mean absolute quietism with regards to others’ beliefs. In On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill famously argued that we should be free to pursue our own good in our own way, as long as we do not attempt to deprive others of their freedom to do the same. If so, then when fundamentalists cross the boundaries of others’ moral autonomy – as they often do – both liberal civil society and the liberal state are fully justified in responding, either through overt criticism or coercive force, depending on the gravity of the matter. But perhaps the deeper question is: do we really need to wait for fundamentalism to foster violent or oppressive behavior before we are prompted to engage in moral conflict? The danger is that liberalism’s well-intended conviction that the moral autonomy of others is to be respected, coupled with its position that moral conflict is irresolvable, leads to an unwillingness to engage in moral debate that gives fundamentalists ample room to fortify their positions, since, in the words of Michael J. Sandel, “fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread” (Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, 1982).

The paradox of liberalism is now fully evident: the very freedom it has fostered, and the pluralistic world it has created, are giving fundamentalists both the room and the apparent reason to come after us and oppose this freedom.

Escaping the Paradox

To respond to the growing threat of fundamentalism, we need to escape this paradox and figure out a way to defend Western liberal values without violating others’ autonomy. Let me offer three suggestions.

First and foremost, we need to reconnect with the moral content of liberalism. We cannot successfully defend our way of life if we do not understand the roots of its moral authority.

To a degree, in carving out a private sphere for moral autonomy to flourish, we’ve become victims of our own success. We often confuse our freedom to self-elect our worldview with crass individualism, and fail to recognize the moral dimension behind the liberal conception of individual freedom and moral equality. In his illuminating book Inventing the Individual (2014), Larry Siedentop provides us plenty of tools to repair this neglect. He shows us how Christian moral intuitions about the value of individuals and of individual beliefs played a crucial role in shaping the discourse that gave rise to modern liberalism and secularism. He helps us remember that the institutional arrangements of liberal secularism did not simply happen: they have a rich history which underpins their moral authority. We can recognize ourselves as individuals precisely because we are united in a shared moral tradition that fosters diversity. Understanding that tradition will help us regain a fertile ground from where we can mount a defense of our way of life against those who seek to undermine it.

But grasping the profound moral content of the liberal tradition won’t be sufficient, if we do not reengage in moral debate with fundamentalists of all sorts. Although we cannot objectively ground morality, we still have a powerful tool we can use in our effort to reshape the moral conversation: we can argue hard for the practical consequences of our beliefs; and we should do so. Thus, we should steer the debate away from antagonistic discussions on whose moral beliefs are purer, better grounded, more legitimate. Rather, for moral conflict to lead somewhere, we need to turn it into a conversation about the practical effects that a life of freedom and moral equality has on our well-being in comparison with the effects of a life of fundamentalist dogmatism. This is our turf, and it’s where we’re more likely to take the upper hand. We need to show our opponents the appalling consequences of fundamentalist attitudes and the countless lives it destroys and opportunities it forecloses. This is the only road to moral victory. Its effectiveness is well documented in the very liberation struggles of the Western world, where oppressive beliefs have been defeated time and again by those who dare to point out their hideous consequences. Similarily, we need to shame fundamentalists into respecting the autonomy of others by demonstrating how a dogmatic morality falls short.

Besides reconnecting with the moral content of liberalism and encouraging debate around its practical consequences, we need a final step to fully escape our paradox: we need an amplified concept of autonomy that allows us to engage in moral conflict without contradicting ourselves.

In this case, the capacity to live our lives according to our self-elected moral beliefs should come to be seen as only the first step in achieving full autonomy. A freedom that deserves the name should seek to enlarge understanding, and itself, through a process of ongoing social debate. Before we can consider ourselves truly autonomous, we must subject our private values to open-ended debate. Moral autonomy that is not held accountable through such debate leaves us at the mercy of our own self-enslavement. It also corrodes our capacity to defend our way of life. If there is any silver-lining to our dark times, it is that the struggle against fundamentalism will in the end strengthen our own freedom.

© Francisco Mejia Uribe 2015

Francisco has philosophy and economics degrees from Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, and works in the financial industry in the City of London. His philosophy blog is PostmodernPerspective.com.

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