Today I started to read an article. It began by way of a preamble stating the author’s ‘commitment to universal liberal values’. I stopped right there. My train of thought went off at a tangent to the author’s.
I assumed he didn’t mean values that are universally held amongst liberals only, rather than by subscribers to other creeds, for that would be a misleading use of the term ‘universal’.
I thereby found myself pondering: If we suppose there are universal values, and if we accept that not everyone is liberal, then we know that those values are recognized not only by liberals.
So wouldn’t it be inappropriate to attribute to liberals intellectual property in those values?
Even if we grant that there are values that liberals were the first to conceive of – which I think is a lot to grant but I’ll grant it for the sake of argument since liberals tend to be convinced that values like autonomy, democracy, tolerance and human rights are distinctively liberal ones – then surely, if they are held to have universality, it would be vain to continue emphasising their intellectual provenance. Would it not be some sort of self-contradiction to keep asserting moral property rights in them?
And look at it another way. Suppose the author had considered announcing a ‘commitment to universal Christian values’. He would have been aware that this could immediately alienate a part of his readership; he would be aware that advancing arguments on this basis could in certain contexts even be potentially inflammatory.
I imagine he’d reply that Christianity and liberalism cannot be so readily compared, and, as an accomplished liberal philosopher, he will be able to articulate a number of reasons why. So I shall not attempt to argue the point further. I am aware that liberalism has proved such a resilient creed partly in virtue of its capacity to accommodate a good deal of internal tensions. It is by now a very broad church.
All I felt moved to do – just strongly enough to jot down these thoughts – is observe that the easy equation of liberalism and universal values is just so readily made even within political philosophy that its leading exponents and brightest minds take it for granted.
My practical concern here is that we live in a time when the likes of British Prime Minister Cameron think the way to deal with challenges like Islamic radicalisation, for instance, is to emphasise to Muslim citizens the values we should all hold dear as good British citizens – and not just because we are members of this or that privileged clique – with any beliefs to the contrary being necessarily morally mistaken.
That kind of idiocy fuels cultural relativism.
My concern is with the insidious and unrecognized cultural relativism that equates universal human values with the deliverances of the liberal creed. Liberalism is, as Charles Taylor once astutely observed, a fighting creed.
Liberal philosophers may not want to see it that way. Unfortunately, there are manifestly people in the world today who do. My view is that it would be better consciously to find ground on which to engage them in reasoning together rather than unthinkingly bring on the fight.