Friday 11 December 2009

Liberalism and its religious critics

Over at Demos, Richard Reeves has recently published his 2009 Bentham Lecture, 'Liberals hold the moral high ground...' It is a timely and important intervention. For there has been quite a lot of liberalism-bashing going on of late. Phillip Blond defines Red Toryism in opposition to liberalism. Madeleine Bunting has echoed the philosopher Michael Sandel's criticisms of liberalism. And Giles Fraser has voiced a Blondesque attack on something called 'choice-centred liberalism' in a recent Guardian article.

I disagree with Reeves over the moral commitments of liberalism. I think, for example, that Reeves downplays the economic egalitarianism which we find clearly and persuasively advocated in the work of contemporary liberal philosophers such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin. Related to this, his writing sometimes sets up an opposition between 'radical liberalism' and 'social democracy' which is philosophically and historically inaccurate.

However, Reeves is absolutely right to say that liberalism is defined, fundamentally, by moral commitments. He quite rightly rejects the straw person caricature of 'liberalism' as a morality free-zone which has been doing the rounds of late.

In this post I want to add my voice to Reeves' in defending liberalism from this supposed criticism, taking Giles Fraser's recent article as a prime example of the liberalism-bashing genre. However, I also want to sound a cautionary note about setting up a stark opposition between liberalism and religion or faith.

Against liberalism-bashing

Let's turn to Giles Fraser's article 'Choosing for oneself'.

Fraser starts by referring us to an atheist poster campaign which features a three-year old, Ariane Sherine, 'pleading independence from a religious upbringing' under the slogan "let me grow up and choose for myself". This, Fraser claims, is a prime example of the way '[t]he individual's freedom to choose has become the supreme value'. And this, he then argues, 'is the source of the trouble':

'For, with choice-centred liberalism, no moral authority is recognised other than the one which springs unbidden from an individual will. The "let me choose for myself" philosophy has eaten away at our sense that we as a country are shaped by a collection of common values."

Fraser's characterisation of 'choice-centred liberalism' bears no relation to the actual philosophical and political tradition of liberalism.

Yes, liberals value choice. Yes, liberals think that children ought to be raised in ways that enable them to make an independent and informed decision about whether they will pursue their parents' way of life (though this obviously doesn't necessarily imply that liberals think parents should have no right to introduce their children to their own beliefs).

But liberals also value, right at the very foundational core of their belief system, equality. They aspire to a society in which there is a substantive equality of choice and freedom. This means, however, that, on the liberal view, there are going to be a wide range of moral obligations that apply to each and every one of us whether we like it or not. And quite a lot of these moral obligations will be ones that it is entirely appropriate for the state to enforce, if need be against the will of any given individual.

If the italics here seem excessive, recall Fraser's extraordinary claim that liberals accept no moral authority but that 'which springs unbidden from an individual will.'

Really? To state the obvious - but, alas, it seems to need stating - liberals obviously think we have moral obligations not to physically aggress against others and that the state may and should enforce these obligations in the case of people who would like to flout them. Liberals believe in toleration more broadly. And, since one's freedom is a function of the resources one has, many liberals also think we have enforceable obligations to support schemes of 'redistribution' which secure the material conditions of freedom for all.

And to be clear: these moral (and legal) obligations are not in the nature of compromises that liberals make, somehow tempering their fundamental love of 'choice' with a bit of 'morality'. These moral (and legal) obligations are integral to liberalism: they indicate that liberalism, at its base, is not an uncritical celebration of 'choice' but a political morality - that it is itself a philosophy of the res publica, of the common good that properly informs citizenship.

Some people of faith - and I don't wish to overgeneralise, since I am myself a religious person (a Quaker attendee of long-standing) - seem to want to confront us with a dilemma: its either 'choice-liberalism-amoralism-unbridled capitalism' or 'social solidarity-morality-religion-limits to choice'. That's essentially the Blond line, one which Fraser echoes.

But it is a false dilemma. We can have a secular political morality that offers plenty of resources for a critique of unbridled capitalism and for a defence of social solidarity. This political morality is liberalism.

Against religion-bashing

If intellectually hazy rejection of liberalism is one problem, another is the tendency for some liberals to engage in religion-bashing.

There are, to be sure, valid liberal criticisms to be made of efforts by religious groups to bring state power to bear to impress their preferred moral standards on everyone else.

But we liberals need also to recognise the enormous contribution that communities of faith can and do make to the kind of politics we support.

For it follows from what I said about liberalism above that liberals do have very critical things to say about unbridled capitalism. It follows too that liberals value social solidarity, for without it we cannot hope to achieve the material equality that liberalism demands.

But where, today, do we hear the most vehement moral criticism of unbridled capitalism coming from? Who is it that reminds us of the value of solidarity?

The secular political left, at least in the form of the Labour party, rarely speaks in such terms. There are, of course, exceptions, and the Fabians in particular have for a number of years sought to nudge Labour back onto this terrain. But on the whole, one gets the clear sense that all that moralistic stuff is seen - or until very recently, has been seen - as old hat. Its not consistent with what we now know - or thought we knew - about the efficiency of markets. Or else it is just not running with the grain of the new 'aspirational' voter.

On the other hand, London Citizens has emerged as clear and consistent in its criticisms of unbridled capitalism. It expresses an ethic of solidarity that rightly tempers the claims of individual 'aspiration'. And, while London Citizens is not a religious organization, many of its member organizations are. And the clarity and courage of its moral voice is, pretty clearly, grounded in the faith traditions of its member organizations.

Coming at this point another way, it is important to recognize that, buried within the hyperbole and misrepresentation, there is the germ of a truth in Fraser-type assaults on liberalism.

In his Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville famously argued that market societies have a propensity to what he called 'individualism': a tendency to scale back the circle of concern to one's family and friends and forget about the wider public welfare. Although Tocqueville was no social democrat, his analysis is one that social democratic liberals need to heed. For it suggests that the kind of character and outlook spontaneously produced in the market is at odds with the kind of civic, public-spirited character that liberal social democracy requires.

What Fraser calls 'choice-centred liberalism' has little relation to the real philosophical and political tradition of liberalism. But perhaps it does capture a pervasive outlook in our own society akin to the 'individualism' that Tocqueville warned about - and which he saw as a threat to genuine liberalism.

Liberalism requires, then, social institutions and organizations that work to temper and limit the spontaneous 'individualism' of a market society. And, as the example of London Citizens shows, religious traditions and their organizations can and do help to do this.

In short...

The religious critics of liberalism should stop caricaturing it and engage with the real tradition. But since, contra the critics, liberalism does have weighty moral content, liberals must address the question of how we come to be the kind of people who accept serious responsibilities towards others. And when liberals do this, they are likely to find that faith groups can be, and often are, important supports to liberal citizenship.


Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks for this. I found the Reeves Bentham lecture was interesting.

Perhaps we can one day get that Reeves v Blond debate on that everyone wants to see.

I agree with your impatience with an excessive liberal secularism which wants to banish faith entirely. I would come at that from my personal secular agnostic position of lapsed Catholicism.

The role of faith -whether the left can or should "do God" is one of the themes of the Fabian new year conference, and it might be a good idea to have a strand of discussion of this question on Next Left from different perspectives.

Will Davies said...

Once again the word 'liberal' creates intellectual fog.

Phillip Blond comes from a tradition of continental philosophy, not from political theory. This means that his idea of liberalism is drawn from Immanuel Kant who, while still engaged with defending morality, ultimately offers no basis for it other than a rational individual will (the famous categorical imperative). It is, as Blond and other communitarians such as MacIntyre have argued, only a few short steps from this to another famous German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. Once you attempt to found a moral system on individual will alone, then ultimately there is no reason why a rational/moral will should be preferable to an irrational/destructive one - and often the latter is more exciting. (The communitarian critique of this liberalism is also typically continental: MacIntyre, Taylor et al are heirs to Hegel).

As someone who was also trained in this tradition (by Phillip himself, incidentally), I found Reeves's lecture unusually communitarian for a liberal. I expected something more, ahem, 'deontological'. But then I have to remind myself that his liberalism is political and anglophone - Bentham, Mill, Liberal Party (Rawls straddles the traditions maybe).

Sorry to say, I find it entirely plausible that both positions can be right. Germanic, Kantian liberalism is a consciously empty framework for rational, atomised choice. Its vision of the state is as cold rule-enforcer. And as an entirely a priori form of philosophy, it says nothing about how freedom is actually practiced, only what its preconditions must look like.

English, Millian liberalism is (judging from Reeves's portrayal of it) far more Aristotelian, founded in everyday conduct, institutions, norms and co-operation, as the recipe for a smaller state.

Stuart White said...

Will: for someone not trained in political theory, Blond certainly doesn't seem averse to making sweeping generalisations about intellectual and political traditions in political theory. To base one's judgment of an entire political and philosophical tradition on a particular (contestable) reading of how one proto-liberal thinker (Kant) might or might not provide resources for someone like Nietzsche doesn't strike me as good intellectual practice.

I disagree that Reeves's account of liberalism is in any way unusually or especially 'communitarian'. His position in this respect is entirely mainstream, consistent with all of the following liberal thinkers: Mill, Green, Hobhouse, Hobson, Rawls, Dworkin, Ackerman, Galston, Nussbaum, Sen....The 'communitarian critique' of liberalism in the 1980s was always an attack on something of a strawperson, on a caricature of liberalism rather than the liberalism actually espoused by such as Rawls.