Liberals hold the moral high ground
OK, enough. Liberals are under attack from all sides.
From the left, in the shape of Ed Balls, who lambasted “so-called progressive liberalism that sees the state as the enemy of individual freedom and is just conservatism with the label ‘progressive’ erroneously shoved in front.” From the right, social conservatives in the mould of Melanie Phillips lament that “our libertarian society has decided that all restraint is oppressive. Liberalism has thus become a licence to do harm, re-badged as virtue.” And now even from the Church, with the usually excellent Giles Fraser, canon chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, declaring in a column in today's Guardian that “with choice-centered 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.” If he gets his way, the Church of England will become the anti-liberal party at prayer.
I've just used the 2009 Bentham Lecture to say, in a nutshell, that this is all nonsense. (The speech is published today by Demos and also available at the website of the British Humanist Association, which sponsors the lecture series). The critics of liberals typically bring three charges against them: that they have i) an amoral view of 'the good', ii) an atomistic view of the self, and iii) a selfish view of human motivation. They thereby create not one, but three straw men. The kind explanation is that these critics have never read a word of Mill, Hobhouse, Rawls or Sen, none of whom believe any of these things. The less kind one is that they are deliberately creating a caricature of what 'liberal' society is supposedly like as cover for socially regressive policies. Liberals, in the critics’ cartoon version are in favour of blind neo-liberalism in economics, and ‘anything goes’ moral relativism in social relations: free markets and free love.
In fact, liberalism, properly understood, provides a deep mine of moral resources. The reason why liberal politicians and philosophers have been obsessed with issues of morality, virtue and character is that they know liberal societies can only function with rich social ties, evolving moral norms and community solidarity. Where liberal moralists might part company from statist social democrats on the left and communitarian social conservatives on the right is in their insistence that these moral norms are maintained by us all, collectively, rather than being imposed from above: a ‘bottom up’ approach to the work of moral construction, rather than a ‘top-down’ one. To the extent we face a number of problems with a strongly moral dimension - and we do - liberal morality provides a better moral framework than either pessimistic statism or vacuous communitarianism.
I address four contemporary problems through the lens of liberal morality:
· Tackling climate change requires a quintessentially liberal international frame for justice and insistence on protection from harm
· Maintaining open diverse societies requires liberal tolerance and shared commitment to liberal principles
· Family relationships rest on obligations of reciprocity between parents, and duties to children, which have always been honoured - as well as reformed - by liberals
· Inequalities in the economy ought to be reduced by a liberal focus on gaps in wealth and property, and by reformed corporate structures that give power to employees
Justice, tolerance, responsibility, equality, character, solidarity and power: the vital components of a liberal society. They cannot be injected by some super-benevolent communitarian dictator. All of us have a role in nurturing the moral resources that fuel good lives, and good societies, and a good world. This is of course a much more demanding approach to morality than leaving moral judgments to someone else, which is why freedom is a mixed blessing; why Isaiah Berlin described the “painful privilege of choosing”. But a strong, free society is made up of strong, free people rather than a strong state or a free market.