Decay-Prone

Stephen Mulhall

  • Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame and the Law by Martha Nussbaum
    Princeton, 413 pp, £19.95, April 2004, ISBN 0 691 09526 4

Liberalism has been dogged by the suspicion that its commitment to tolerance is essentially duplicitous. The goal of respecting each person’s equal right to choose for herself how to live is surely definitive of a liberal conception of the good life for human beings; but if that is so, it requires a kind of neutrality from the state which flows from a belief in the superiority of that liberal conception. In short, advocating such neutrality gives expression to a partisan moral stance. Liberal tolerance cannot but be grounded in intolerance of its rivals.

This suspicion has never gone away, but neither has it proved easy to articulate in a way that is both clear and convincing. After all, if tolerance really is definitive of the liberal view of politics, how could we reasonably expect a liberal to be neutral between tolerance and intolerance? No conception of a just society can be entirely devoid of moral substance; and if we see social justice as a matter of respecting one another’s autonomy, we must reject visions of society that fail to embody such respect. The crucial distinction to draw, it might be said, is between those conceptions of politics that defend the individual’s freedom to choose and those that permit the state to act in ways that imply that only certain choices are worthy of respect. The latter approach would, for example, allow a confessional politics in which legal restrictions reflected the values of a particular religion, and so contradicted other values (religious and secular). So it does not seem misleading to describe the former approach as committed to neutrality between rival moral visions in a way that the latter is not.

According to the leading liberal political theorist of the postwar period, however, matters cannot be settled quite so simply; even the distinction I have just made fails to dispel the suspicion of liberal partiality. John Rawls’s reputation is built on his monumental A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. But in later years, he not only refined the details of his account of justice as fairness; he also reconstructed its mode of presentation so that it might illuminate and overcome the tension he came to see between liberal claims to neutrality and their theoretical grounding.

For the later Rawls, it is obvious that contemporary liberal democracies exist in a condition of reasonable pluralism: many rival comprehensive visions of the good life have established themselves, and each has a claim to be taken seriously. By this Rawls means that, while one might disagree with the adherents of rival conceptions, one cannot legitimately view their choices as irrational. Some may have misunderstood the facts or committed logical fallacies; but such moral choices, concerning how to conduct our lives as a whole, all face what he calls the burdens of judgment. The relevant evidence is complex and conflicting, and the weight to be attached to each element of it hard to determine; our concepts are vague and prone to throw up hard cases; and our judgments are imponderably but decisively influenced by the whole course of our individual moral experience. Even perfect rationality cannot eliminate disagreements generated by these factors. Hence, we must acknowledge that – with respect to such choices – others in society might reasonably disagree with us.

This reinforces the liberal case for respecting the right of individuals to make such choices as they, and not the state, see fit; but it also raises a deep problem. For comprehensive liberal visions of the good – those which make individual autonomy the linchpin of a complete account of how one’s life as a whole should be conducted – are just one variety among a range of equally reasonable moral conceptions. Hence, if our liberal political vision is grounded in such a comprehensive liberal morality, it will invoke convictions with which our fellow citizens might reasonably disagree. Our way of justifying respect for the freedom of all would then itself embody a failure to respect their freedom. It would be an intolerant defence of political toleration.

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