What does ‘liberal’ mean?

The available answers to the above question are diverse, and sometimes actually conflicting. That opens a door to rethink the notion, popular in circles ranging from ‘neo-conservative’ cultural criticism to development theory and even Critical Theory, that societies in the First World along with others subject to strong Western (especially American or British) influence, carry a package of values and assumptions labelled ‘liberal’. Each group of critics is likely to assume the package to be a recognisably coherent set, but in fact each group would include a different set of components for the package. One way to begin sorting out differences is to think of the argument in politics and economics since the Second World War, with roots extending far back before then, between those formerly identified as ‘classical’ liberals, but now often referred to as ‘neoliberals’(although that is actually not quite the same), and those often termed ‘social’ liberals, or sometimes ‘progressives’ or ‘liberal egalitarians’. In recent times the most prominent exponent of the former strand was the economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006) who, together with politicians and economists who followed him, stood for an individualist, or ‘laissez-faire’, approach to economic life limiting the state to regulation of money and money supply and protection of individual legal rights (although presuming a broad moral framework alongside that). By contrast, there has been a varied strand of ‘liberal’ argument, represented by thinkers such as John Rawls (1921-2002), J. K. Galbraith (1908-2006), or Amartya Sen (1933- ), which emphasises development of and protection for equal rights for individuals; usually with a quite extensive conception of equality to include access to resources of various kinds and limiting inequalities of wealth and income, as well as the equal political rights which classical liberals also endorse. Even such a brief, and simplified, summary is enough to point up a large area of argument and political dispute within the West – as well as elsewhere. That argument has frequently taken in the aims of movements and political parties identified as ‘conservative’ as well as those called ‘social democratic’ or even ‘socialist’, quite apart those actually sporting the label ‘liberal’. In this context the notion of equality is given a socio-economic content in addition to the idea of equality of moral status that Gray (1995) counts as one of the characteristics of liberalism.

This opening summary needs to be filled out with two observations that are revealing as well as important in themselves. The current trend of neoliberalism, which became potent following inflation and other economic disturbances during the 1965-79 period, can be traced back to the work of Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) and the Mont Pelerin society in the 1920s and 1930s as well as Friedman, differs sharply from classical liberalism in a political sense because its advocates welcome active promotion of capitalism and competition by the state, something their classical predecessors, such as James and John Stuart Mill, had not seen as necessary. In turn, the mix of state regulated capitalism and social welfare typical of Western influenced societies during the 1945-80 period has been described by David Harvey (2005) and others as ’embedded liberalism’. That term shows up the identification of ‘liberalism’ with capitalist enterprise and private property (with corporate property being classified as private), and more generally the political economy tradition dating back to John Locke, which is customary in most academic circles. However, it can be said with some confidence that those referred to, usually with hostility, as the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ would be likely to be far more sympathetic with a regulatory and welfare embedding than with a liberalism in that more classical sense. Mostly they would prefer the egalitarian or social version of liberalism.

If the dimension of political economy were not complicated enough, once the dimensions of religion and areas of ethics including human rights and family responsibility are brought into consideration such questions as ‘What do liberals stand for?’ or ‘What does liberal mean?’ become still more bewildering. In the nineteenth century ‘liberal theology’ referred to the movement in Christianity, exemplified by Strauss’ Life of Jesus (1973 [1860]), which sought to draw upon new developments in archaeology and historical research for arriving at a more authentic picture of the ‘historical’ Christ than traditional teaching could provide. That particular movement faded early in the twentieth century despite continuing investigation of the documentary and other evidence for the ‘real’ historical founder of what began as a dissident Jewish sect; with such questions as whether Jesus Christ was really a rebel Jewish leader, a Messianic prophet, or a purely spiritual teacher with no concern for politics, remaining unresolved. However, the terms ‘liberal religion’ or ‘liberal theology’ have persisted, and now commonly refer to strands within both Christianity and Judaism which in fact bear strong resemblances to secular liberalisms, including willingness to question traditional doctrines or hold them open to fresh revelation and interpretation, and emphasis on personal freedom. Yet it could hardly be said that liberal religion in any of its guises regularly takes a position often ascribed to liberalism in general, viz., that religion is a purely ‘private’ matter of personal faith with no application to a wider society or public realm. Rather, as illustrated by the current statement on the website of Liberal Judaism, the believer may be urged to engage with a wider society and people of other faiths. Indeed, the very idea of all human beings being created by God may be invoked in support of this wider engagement, probably at least as marked with religious liberals as their secular counterparts.

Where Islamic liberals are concerned, Binder (1988) has pointed to a division of opinion precisely on the question of whether religion applies directly to public affairs or not. Some liberal Muslims hold that Islam has few or no political prescriptions, and that Shari’a is silent on the matter of political institutions, so that a liberal system where Muslims are free to choose their own political arrangements is especially suitable. But others have contended that liberal institutions, such as parliament, free elections, civil rights, and even some welfare policies, can actually be based on Islamic legislation as deduced from canonical sources and anecdotal histories of the early caliphate. Although this represents a very explicit and clear difference of view as to the meaning of liberal religion in the Muslim case, some such division as to whether the liberal who has a religious faith may treat faith as a purely personal matter or is actually obliged to pursue liberal aims and values on religious grounds may be seen to occur generally, even if it is not being specifically debated.

A very different phenomenon, but one which opens another route to showing the complexity of matters related to liberalism in general as well as religious liberalism in particular, is that of a movement especially prevalent in parts of Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, namely Liberation Theology. Liberation Theology was a dissident movement in Catholicism which attempted to link Marxism and Christianity. Now, Marxists have customarily seen themselves as in opposition to ideas associated with liberalism, even the more egalitarian conceptions of justice advanced by the social liberal school or Keynsian economic management and social welfare, these being meliorations of capitalism rather than real social transformation in Marxist eyes. Accordingly, they were rejected along with the frankly capitalist market economics advocated by so-called classical or neo-liberals. But Marxism, as well as at least some strands of liberalism, promised a liberation to the broad mass of people including, of course, the poor and dispossessed, and it was this which apologists for Liberation Theology held could be linked to the Christian message of God’s love for all mankind despite the Marxist tradition of atheism. The ideal of freedom had always been claimed by Marxists on the grounds that unless people are untied from the need to sell their labour they cannot be free. But during the same period that Liberation Theology was making its presence felt in Latin America, New Left movements drawing upon the dissident Marxist school of Critical Theory (especially Herbert Marcuse, 1898-1979), together with the advocates of a participatory form of democracy, were often described as ‘libertarian’ because they demanded a more direct and immediate liberation of people than anything in prospect from either orthodox versions of Marxism (not to mention official Communist regimes) or what they pictured as Western liberalism. Yet it has been just as commonplace to describe the radically free market position of Friedman and the neo-liberal school as ‘libertarian’ not only because of their support for a ‘minimal’ state, but also because Friedman argued that markets are the one form of social organisation which works from the ‘bottom up’ as messages pass from the consumer to the retailer, and so on back up to the producer; rather than working by instructions passed from the top down.

One of the points emerging from all this is that simple attachment to an ideal of personal freedom is not sufficient to distinguish liberals, secular or religious, from others. This is both because some who reject liberalism altogether (and supported the ‘national liberation’ movements in the Third World which challenged Western, and especially USA, political influence) claimed to offer fuller and more immediate freedom than the liberalisms would, and because the differing ‘liberal’ strands themselves are disputing over what is most effective at providing for personal freedom. Not only that; those who adhere to the more egalitarian forms of liberalism are much more inclined to accept a measure of constraint on individual freedoms in the interest of equality which they see as necessary to protect the freedom of others. If it is in fact possible to distinguish at all who is actually a ‘liberal’ and who is not, then it must be a particular combination of support for personal or individual freedom with certain other elements which would provide the distinguishing mark.

Questions Arising:

1. What do ‘liberals’ agree on?

Since the nineteenth century it has been customary in broad historical surveys of liberalism, including in textbooks on political theory, to begin with the works of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704) and, in particular, with discussion of Locke’s famous triadic statement of the natural rights of man (the term ‘human rights’ had not been coined in Locke’s time) as rights to life, liberty, and property. Naturally, this leads to emphasis on liberalism as being a doctrine of restricted, although perhaps harsh, state activity and individualism in the sense characterised by C. B. Macpherson (1962) as ‘possessive individualism’. Indeed, the ‘individuals’ concerned were understood by these writers, and by some of their successors such as James Mill (1773-1836), as male heads of families who were expected to be responsible for their wives and children as well as themselves so far as both politics and economics are concerned, as well as being (family) property owners. In the context of shift from royal to parliamentary or republican government that entailed political reform, but little attention to social reform of the kind more to the taste of some later liberals – or even conservatives – as well as socialists. Only in the context of contemporary political and ethical theory would the student’s attention be drawn to the attempts of theorists such as Rawls (1971) and Scanlon (1982) to use the notion of social contract in very different ways from the ways in which Hobbes and Locke had used it.1

However, it is far from being the case that even a Lockean conception of human entitlements leads to any simple position on moral or social questions. For instance, the notion of a ‘right to life’ is regularly invoked by opponents of abortion, whilst taking a different stand from some abortion supporters in the convoluted arguments over whether a foetus is already a ‘person’ carrying that right to life. In turn, supporters of (legal) abortion commonly apply a right to control over her body to the mother, thereby invoking the Lockean right to liberty, and perhaps property, in support of a woman’s right to an abortion if she feels she needs one. A right to liberty (more commonly ‘freedom’ in contemporary language) is particularly fraught: Locke had explicitly applied his notion of religious tolerance and insistence that religion be treated as a private (i.e., personal) matter as an antidote to the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But the very idea of personal rights or freedoms may count religious ideas – especially of a personal relationship to God or even divine sanction for personal responsibilities – amongst its sources, and many have believed liberal political or even social reforms to be at least compatible with religious faith, if not required by it, with abolition of slavery being only one of the most striking examples. In a more general context, the history of ideas in the West has now for more than two centuries included efforts to extend the idea of liberty/freedom beyond what Locke had in mind to take in demands for economic and gender as well as political equality, national and cultural ‘self-determination’, and a wide range of personal rights and freedoms to be guaranteed by political authority. Already in the nineteenth century many liberals were keen to adopt some, or all, of these extensions. In so doing they naturally began to shift away from a strict demarcation between public and private spheres of life, with family as well as religious faith being in the ‘private’ sphere, which had underpinned a Lockean view developed in the seventeenth century context to support religious toleration as well as limit state power. Yet in the present there remains a strong thread of argument in liberal or neoliberal circles that extension of the idea of individual freedom, or of a right thereto, across more parts of life leads to a dangerous expansion of state control or gives the notion of equality a pre-eminence not compatible with freedom or common conceptions of justice. That kind of argument acquires practical relevance in conflicts over progressive taxation vis-á-vis incentives or the justification for ‘positive discrimination’ in favour of disadvantaged individuals or groups. In sociological arguments by Charles Murray (1990, 1994) amongst others the ideal of a welfare state, very important to egalitarian minded liberals, is challenged on the grounds that welfare benefits take away people’s incentive to care for their families and disrupt family life. The debate around equality connects also to the rather confused – and confusing – current debate about spiritual and health discontents within affluent but also unequal societies. In addition to all these unresolved issues, the whole idea of personal freedom and property lies in an ambiguous relationship to corporate property or personality, which can at once control and protect individual savings, for instance. In many contexts, including social life of employees, a corporation (or trade union) can act as another collective in addition to the state. The controversial legal practice of treating corporations as individuals at law (so keeping their property officially private) introduces a parallel to treatment of communities such as nations as individuals with a personality, mood, or ‘soul’ of their own, an attitude often flatly opposed to any form of individualism – or liberalism – as regards human persons.This point is highlighted by some fascist conceptions of a ‘corporate state’, and fascism has always been recognised as an antithesis of liberalism.

2. What do liberals say about evil?

The above points leave it difficult to identify much in concrete terms that ‘liberals’ all agree on. Perhaps the only major issue to elicit a liberal consensus would be migration, with free movement of people across state borders a cause that appeals at once to neoliberals who welcome an easy flow of labour to where it might be needed commercially, and to more socially minded liberals who would support those seeking to escape persecution or poverty at home. Important, and emotive, as migration is it is hardly sufficient on its own to identify a consensus that could underpin any notion of ‘Western liberal assumptions’ or ‘Western liberalism’. However, from the epoch of the eighteenth century Enlightenment onward (not of Hobbes and Locke themselves) movements and thinkers associated with the varied strands of liberalism have been supposed to believe in an optimistic idea of ‘progress’. Progress was commonly understood as embodying a combination of scientific discovery leading on to technological innovation and then to increasing productivity, with development of rational thought and organisation and emancipation of the populace from superstition and scarcity. Steven Pinker (2018) has both restated the idea of progress, supported by recent empirical data, and linked it to what he calls 'classical liberalism'. Yet even at this stage it is important to note briefly several caveats: First, the ideal of reason – after the nineteenth century more often referred to as ‘rationality’ – is itself a complex notion. Sometimes, especially in the thought of the Stoics and in more modern times Immanuel Kant, rationality contains an ideal of self-discipline and observance of rationally determined law, including moral law, whereas in other cases it may be understood in narrower senses. Those can include the economic idea of consumer utility, logical and scientific analysis and observation (still retaining the Stoic and Kantian ideal for purposes of rational study and thought), and organisational rationality.2 Second, the idea of progress was sometimes adopted into highly illiberal visions, including Auguste Comte’s schema for a rationally planned and directed society and, most dramatically, the world of Marxism which, even if it promised an ultimate liberation itself, consistently rejected liberal interpretations of moral values like justice and liberal conceptions of government and economics. Thirdly, even if it is legitimate to argue that liberals do not have an effective antidote to negative aspects of ‘progress’ such as dangerous applications of technology including mass destruction weapons, health and social problems accompanying rising affluence, environmental degradation, or moral confusion (including as regards scientific research), it would be hardly reasonable to claim that (supposedly liberal) Western culture as a whole is unaware of them. It may fear the proffered alternatives to progress as authoritarian, disruptive, and even barbaric, but that is not the same as claiming that modernity as we now experience it is a noble condition of humanity.

Probably it would be fair to maintain that, in general, liberalisms did not attend much to these caveats directly although it should be noted that most recent liberal arguments have not in fact depended upon any faith in progress as such, but have consisted mostly of attempts to show that society is best organised, and people’s choices and freedoms best protected, through certain approaches to justice, markets, dispersion of power, democracy, and so on. Yet it is still the case that many critics of liberalism like O’Hear (1999) associate it with the Enlightement tradition and belief in progress (cultural as well as material progress) and see that tradition as incapable of addressing the reality of evil. In that regard John Kekes (1999) has put a different argument, ascribing liberalism’s inability to recognise the ‘prevalence of evil’, as he puts it, to an idea of personal autonomy which has to authorise people’s autonomous actions or action from free choice even when they are prompted by wicked motivations.

Now, if we were looking for an explicit admission by liberal movements and writers that evil and corrupt human behaviour will make liberal ideals particularly hard, if not impossible, to achieve, then we probably search in vain. Yet that leaves what appears to be a paradox; namely, that some strands of liberal thinking actually do contain attempts to address the problem of evil, even when they are not being publicly billed as such. This point comes out most obviously with ‘classical’ economics and free markets. Free market apologists from the eighteenth century to date have been ready to explain that the famous ‘hidden hand’ is capable of enlisting at least some of our less attractive motivations, including greed and avarice and perhaps even envy, in service of others and of society as a whole. Moreover, individual actors within a competitive economy are indeed supposed to be acting autonomously in pursuit of their interests. These traditional themes about markets are not the same as the connection with negative moral authority I have argued for in essay 7. ‘Authority and Truth’, although they help us to understand that relation. The point being made in the traditional argument is that markets are social institutions which put each of their actors in contact with others – also pursuing their interests – if only to negotiate and trade with them, which then fits all into a wider picture. Friedman (1991) is clear that these actors need not have personal knowledge of each other, or care for each other in any way, but their individual interests are brought together and mediated by the system. Without actually presenting his free market doctrines as an approach to the problem of evil per se, Friedman says the (classical) liberal ‘conceives of men as imperfect beings’ and that

‘He [the liberal] regards the problem of social organization to be as much a negative problem of preventing “bad” people from doing harm as of enabling “good” people to do good; and, of course, “bad” and “good” people may be the same people, depending upon who is judging them.’ (Capitalism and Freedom, 1962, 12.)

The first part of this explanation in effect takes a ‘realistic’ stance often supposed to be characteristic of illiberal philosophies and it is only with the subsequent proviso that definition of who is to be regarded as a ‘bad’ or as a ‘good’ person has to be left to individual judgment (that is to say, there is no authority which can be relied upon to determine anyone’s moral character) that Friedman displays what are customarily seen as ‘liberal’ colours.

A possible cause of confusion in this case is that, regardless of any notions of progress, neither Friedman nor anyone else has been claiming that free markets and libertarian economics will necessarily diminish, let alone eradicate (sic!), human evil. What is claimed is that they are capable of organising human affairs in such a way as to take at least some of the poison out of evil and evil motives. Not surprisingly, once free markets and economic competition come to be viewed in this way then criticisms of them can then be viewed as arguing that the laissez-faire economy is not really successful in drawing the poison from evil and that (say) greed and corruption continue to inflict great harm, for instance to those who, perhaps through no fault of their own, lose out in the competition.

A similar confusion may also apply in the case of liberal ideas on constitutional government, where the connection with the problem of evil is anyway somewhat less obvious. An interesting curiosity in the history of ideas is the way eighteenth century thinkers were readier to make a connection with virtue than their later counterparts. James Madison (1981) certainly considered ‘republican’ government – the term he used for what might nowadays be called ‘liberal democracy’ or ‘constitutional government’; ‘democracy’ in his mind being direct and unconstrained popular rule – would be more effective at keeping rulers virtuous through their responsibility to the people.3 Where Rousseau (who was more interested in direct forms of democracy) was concerned virtue had much to do with promoting patriotism and civic responsibility. Subsequently the notion that such forms of government might actually promote moral virtues has faded from political argument, and probably for wider reasons than just recognition that limited terms of office do not necessarily protect against corruption of politicians who may try to conceal their activities from the electorate or manipulate the economy to fit with their electoral cycle. Moral arguments for devices like compulsory voting still surface from time to time in contemporary debate, but these are more likely to be put in terms of combating apathy than actually promoting civic or other virtues. Yet the aspect of fear of apathy provides a clue to a connection which is still commonly made in such terms as making government accountable (to the people), or curbing (abuse of) power, and indeed sometimes – especially by advocates of a more participatory form of democracy than experienced in representative democratic states – developing people’s sense of community, rationality, and involvement in public affairs. Once again, any suggestion that the presence of evil might thereby be less potent rarely, if ever, appears directly in these arguments. But as soon as the old theme of corruption of power and especially of unlimited or unrestrained power is to be found, a connection with evil becomes clear. Just as it is possible to see free markets in terms of a device to remove the poison from certain forms of evil or wickedness even when in common argument they are not being seen in that kind of way, so it is also possible to see constitutional government as a device, or set of devices, for restraining evil and minimising opportunities for certain kinds of wickedness (including different kinds from those related to economic behaviour) even when, again, it is not being so viewed in conventional arguments on the subject.

Now, it is probably quite impossible to work out whether either free markets or constitutional government in fact have any real impact on the ‘prevalence of evil’. Both systems are historically associated with particular strands of liberal thought although there may not be any sufficiently precise concept of liberal practice for it to be said whether they are necessarily so. For instance, some would argue that free markets do not work in accord with liberal justice, but the field is controversial both as to whether an egalitarian interpretation of justice is generic to liberalism and as to whether free markets can be adjusted to constrain inequality within certain bounds. However, if Kekes’ arguments were sound we might be driven to suppose that both systems are in fact conducive to evil since each depends, at least to some degree, on individual autonomy and the autonomous rights of individuals to make choices between alternatives. Again, it is hard to see how that issue could ever be firmly decided. The most cursory examination of contemporary economics and consumerism, or of political corruption within democratic or constitutional states, makes it clear that evil finds plenty of scope here. Yet a similarly cursory examination is all that is required to make clear that evil is similarly abundant within systems which contrast with liberalism – and which do not recognise personal autonomy at all. Of course, the ethical confusion of the contemporary world extends to confusion about what is to be classified as ‘evil’; with personal sacrifice in service of political action or terrorism providing only the most obvious example. But for the present purpose all that needs to be shown is the two points: First, that however rarely liberals of whatever type may attend directly to the problem of evil, there are at least some practices associated with ‘liberalism’ which can be interpreted as efforts to tackle that problem, and, second, no one can expect to be able to show for certain whether these practices have any effect at all on the evil presence or, whether they have a more (or less) beneficial effect than other illiberal practices.

3. How do autonomy, recognition, and multiculturalism fit together?

As has already been indicated, some strands of liberal thought are prepared to limit individual freedom or autonomy, the latter denoting that personal independence which is held capable of making the choices that freedom offers, so as to respect equal rights for others. Perhaps all liberals could be said to be willing to do that at least to the minimal extent required for political and citizenship rights. But the common assumption about this issue is that liberalism, and Western culture in general, remains individualistic so that any question about personal freedom or autonomy in relation to a wider society will be confined (by liberals and Westerners) to an individual perspective. That assumption deserves to be questioned even as regards some liberals, not to say Western culture as a whole, when the matter of ‘multiculturalism’ is being considered.

Some of the aspirations connected with multiculturalism are not new, although the growing extent of travel and migration together with diverse cultures within contemporary states raises a new level of difficulty for social cohesion. Within the traditions of Western liberalism and nationalism the idea of cultural and national ‘self-determination’ as it gradually developed after the French Revolution, becoming a guiding principle for the settlement of 1919, already extended the notion of equal citizenship and rights to groups as well as individuals. The ‘self’ which then claimed the right to set its own course was that of a national and most probably linguistic group, not an individual.4 The implications of this for culture and political ideas were diluted in the earlier twentieth century by the presumption that such autonomous groups would be territorially defined, occasionally even to the extent of forcibly moving populations around to fit national and territorial boundaries as happened in Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1945. The complex reality of Western culture was already apparent here since, after an initial period from the French Revolution to German unification in 1871 when liberalism and nationalism seemed to be partners against the ancien regime, the contrasts between ideas of individual freedom and of national self-expression became more obvious. However, in the contemporary scene the position has become far more complex as a simple model of territorial states, each embodying a distinct national or cultural group with its own history and aspirations, and often its own language, has become quite inadequate.

That model already failed to accommodate the aspects of slavery, and subsequently aboriginal tribal groups confronted with colonialism. Those aspects then extended into historic Western states themselves, including most European states and Britain as well as the United States and Canada, as former colonial empires led into migration of overseas citizens or abolition of slavery and then grudging recognition of aboriginal rights (again accompanied by migration) in turn developing into ‘multicultural’ societies within the territorial states. The point is exaggerated further by growth of diverse, and frequently conflicting, ‘sub-cultures’ within even the relatively homogeneous former populations of these states, each with its own aspirations, attitudes, and even modes of behaviour and appearance. Sometimes each of the strands of liberalism itself can appear as one of the sub-cultures, as in the case of libertarians associated with such causes as commercial deregulation or lifestyle ‘choice’, or liberal strands within religious communities associated with many ‘liberal’ causes and with opposition to more literal or ‘fundamentalist’ interpretations of the faith.

It is quite clear from differing responses to Charles Taylor’s (1992) attempt to work out a way of reconciling commitment to fundamental (personal) rights and liberties with making accommodation for collective aims and identities of groups such as survivance of French Canadians, as well as from the complex arguments over discrimination and minority claims, that liberals are themselves divided and indeed uncertain as to how to deal with the ‘politics of recognition’, to use Taylor’s expression. It is important to notice that opposition to any presumption of European, and subsequently also white North American, superiority over other cultures, right from the anti-slavery movement or the writing of J. G. Herder (1744-1803) in the eighteenth century through to the present, has incorporated notions of equal recognition for groups and their cultures as well as ideas of universal (individual) human rights and that both themes run through what we think of as ‘liberalism’.

At the same time, arguments within Western societies about ‘multiculturalism’ extend far outside the confines of those (amongst them Taylor himself) who would consider themselves to be liberals in some sense. Opposition to recognition of collective aims and identities of ethnic, religious, social, and other groups includes, but is in no way confined to, other liberals anxious that individual claims and rights and the universal principles which are held to support those claims and rights will be compromised thereby.5 The various strands of neo-conservatism, beginning with those Gutman (1992: 13ff) has called ‘essentialists’ in American academia who condemn compulsory study of works by authors from outside the Western tradition and disadvantaged groups as dilution of academic standards, and continuing with worries about social order or moral authority within societies confused by intercultural conflict or diverse attitudes to work and family life, regularly contain a belief that multiculturalism is not a workable practice. That follows a much older tradition, nationalist and sometimes religious as well as conservative, that people need a unified culture to belong to. By contrast, certain radicals like Kenan Malik (2002) view multiculturalism not only as abandoning universal goals of equality but as fostering authoritarian policies, such as refusal to allow a quote from Rushdie’s Satanic Verses because that was considered to cause too much ‘offence’. Malik’s condemnation of multiculturalism as seeking to suppress debate in the name of ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect’ might be seen as a particularly strong liberal position. But some pluralists such as Parekh (1994) have taken issue with liberalism, not least in its guise of universal principles or human rights, as leading to ‘assimilation’ of differing cultures into a (Western) mould, an attitude noted by Taylor (1992: 40) himself when he commented that in the politics of difference and identity nothing could be ‘more legitimate than one’s aspiration that it [identity] never be lost’. In view of the fragmented and diverse character of liberalism itself, it cannot be thought surprising that opposition to liberalism will also be fragmented and diverse. But the issue of multiculturalism and equal recognition of differing groups, as distinct from differing individuals, shows up the tension between universal principles, including one that all human aspirations are equally worthy of respect, and recognising that certain groups may not respect the principles anyway. With some practical issues, like conflicts over ‘affirmative action’ or ‘positive discrimination’ intended to redress disadvantages seen as being suffered by certain groups, or efforts to outlaw female genital mutilation, we see the tensions in reality. Liberals will divide generally between those who hold to universal principles and those who hold to recognition of difference. In addition there is a contrast between conceptions of fairness and justice in the form that Rawls and his followers would understand them as depending upon equal chances for all members of a society and, for example, the interpretation of justice put forward by the libertarian Nozick (1974) as depending upon entitlements which people can make to others (an interpretation which might apply to fairness also).

The upshot of such arguments, and of the politics surrounding them, is that there is no sense in pretending that even liberals themselves, let alone Western cultures as a whole, agree on how they answer the question of whether individual freedom and autonomy on the one hand and recognition of distinct groups on the other can be reconciled. Taylor (1992: 59-60) attempts to reconcile the two demands by suggesting (perhaps as two levels of rights and obligations in a constitution, for example) that some fundamental individual rights recognised as such from the beginning of the liberal tradition; i.e., rights to life, liberty, due process, free speech, free practice of religion, and so on, be held as unassailable, whereas other important but less fundamental privileges and immunities, such as commercial signage in the language of one’s choice, may be invoked in the interest of recognising distinct cultures. As we see, numerous liberals as well as opponents of liberalism, would dispute the viability of such a solution. Liberal and anti-liberal elements can come together, not only in challenging the politics of multicultural recognition but also an egalitarian conception of fairness and justice which might be invoked in support of efforts to eliminate group disadvantages wherever possible (or, some would say, beyond what is possible).6

4. Are there any Western liberal assumptions?

On any understanding of such phrases as ‘Western liberal assumptions’ or ‘Western liberalism’ we should expect to find within that set of geographical regions once called the Occident but now known as the ‘West’, certain commonly held beliefs or principles which are understood as ‘liberal’. Even a comparatively brief discussion like the one here makes it clear that such beliefs and principles are hard to identify, and that the political and cultural scene in Western societies does not render it obvious that liberal values are accepted by most people in those societies. Bearing in mind that liberals are quite as liable as anyone else to carry a load of unstated notions and ideas (as illustrated by the problem of evil), Kekes is probably sound as a critic in identifying a commitment to personal autonomy and the freedoms which would make that autonomy effective, as the nearest we can find to a principle or value common amongst those describing themselves as liberals. Yet even here there are serious qualifications:
(a) The more egalitarian strand of liberalism insists that, once people are placed in a situation of equality, they will in fact act rationally and that rationality will lead them to secure the position of the most disadvantaged in their society. In effect this places two limits on personal autonomy – first, the requirement of rationality in thought and behaviour and second, each will accept a priority of keeping inequalities strictly limited. Kymlicka (1990; 71ff) wanted that taken further than Rawls (1971) himself had attempted by including what he calls ‘natural primary goods’ (health, intelligence, appearance, etc.,) as well as ‘social primary goods’ (rights, opportunities, wealth, etc.,) amongst those benefits which need to be taken into account in assessing the disadvantages of people which need to be compensated for. Now, the development of biotechnology, cosmetic surgery, and genetic therapies has the potential for a radical extension of compensation together with accompanying restrictions on autonomy compared with a requirement that society must provide for education, healthcare, and welfare benefits to compensate the disadvantaged. Where treatment for genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis or Down’s Syndrome are concerned, the extension would be relatively uncontentious, as a minimum standard of universal healthcare has already been uncontentious in many states, but not all (especially the USA). But any plan to, for example, provide compensation for deficiencies in natural intelligence through genetic modification and/or molecular manipulation techniques funded by general taxation would be controversial to say the least. The very silence of most liberals (and of their critics also) on the potential of new developing technologies to change the terms of argument on the whole question of natural advantages or disadvantages – natural inequalities in short – speaks of the challenge involved in modifying doctrines and ideas fashioned in a centuries old context for the twenty-first century world.
(b) Central to the profound disagreement between egalitarian liberals and the free market strand is just that the latter do not accept that rationality itself entails placing a high value on equality (or minimising inequality). That follows indeed from the neo-liberal argument that state provision of services is apt to squeeze opportunities for enterprise and initiative (the so-called ‘crowding out’ argument) and that welfare benefits leave people dependent on their providers and therefore powerless. To a certain degree fears of ‘welfare dependency’ – dependency on the state – have replaced older fears of dependency on landlords, employers, and so forth which fuelled older forms of political radicalism. The dependency theme adds support to the arguments of Charles Murray (1990, 1994) and others, now seemingly more widely accepted, that welfare benefits are damaging to family life.

Now free market liberals, as distinct from some neo-conservatives, do not take issue with the ideal of autonomy and freedom, nor do they cavil at the presumption that the free individual is rational. On the contrary, they refuse to admit that rationality itself places any limit on people’s choices, including in the interests of equality or removing the disadvantages of others. That is, they refuse to treat rationality as a moral category in itself. By the same token, however, they have to set aside the warning from their antagonists, including liberal antagonists, that without the protection that a measure of equality backed by principles of justice and fairness can provide, many people simply will not be able to exercise their autonomy even if they wanted to. The theme that citizens’ rights and freedoms are worthless without social and economic freedom was already familiar from Marxism and socialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it gained a new twist in the latter part of the twentieth with a new emphasis on institutions and groups. From one point of view the freedom and autonomy which free market liberals themselves prized is threatened by the power of large ‘private’ corporations as well as governments, with both acting as collectives, especially if they are treated legally or psychologically as already individuals so their members have no distinct individuality. Ironically, even capitalism seems to become more a faceless and menacing bureaucracy, and less efficient to boot, on the large scale than the small scale where individual enterprise seems most obvious and even attractive. But, from another standpoint, the very liberal ideal of human self-expression could be taken up into demands for recognition of the aspirations of groups and cultures to which many individuals actually want to belong.
(c) An obvious source of liberal difficulties where multiculturalism, and more generally recognition of group aspirations, is concerned is that there is no self-evident reason why these values need to have any connection with personal freedom or autonomy whatsoever. Indeed, nationalist thinking as it developed during the nineteenth century typically had it that the member of a nation, or Volk, or Kultur, is born into that community and inherits its language and mores without making any personal choice about doing so. In that sense, national cultures were being treated in a similar way to other associations carrying inherited identities and obligations like dynastic families or medieval guilds, and making no concession to a notion of an individual’s right to freedom of association. So, even in a demand for ‘national self-determination’ the ‘self’ referred to would be a collective self and did not mean self-determination for each individual member of the nation. That point was hardly diluted by occasional use of plebiscites to settle a territorial question, not least the Saar plebiscite of 1933 which provided the Nazi regime with an opening toward further territorial claims. Now, one of the many unresolved issues surrounding multiculturalism, and recognition of particular cultural, as distinct from particular individual, aspirations is whether a human right to (individual) freedom of association can be bolted on, as it were, to recognition of the cultures themselves. In the mobile conditions of the present, there are many people who do move from one state to another and change their citizenship accordingly, as there are also many who may change their religious faith and gain a religious faith when they had none before or vice-versa. Yet the sensitivity of migration issues and of people leaving their religious community highlights the fact that many are unhappy with simply treating their cultures as associations in Hirst’s (1994) sense, i.e., as groupings for particular purposes which the individual members join or leave as they wish. In the Canadian experience discussed by Taylor for example, the French Canadian goal of survivance would be hard to reconcile with insisting that individuals have a right to join or leave the French Canadian community as they see fit (especially if Quebec were to become an independent state), although Taylor’s attempt at reconciliation of liberalism with such group aspirations would presumably require him to try.

Accordingly, although it remains true to say as a general statement that liberals of each type are broadly committed to personal freedom and autonomy, it is far from the case that this ideal has been neatly fitted in with other requirements, ideological or practical, recognised within the various streams of liberalism itself. But any survey of current affairs and politics or economics within Western societies, individually or severally, shows that most if not all the themes in liberalism are highly contentious and it is not obvious that most of the population within the West would accept them. It is not obvious that most people in the West accept an egalitarian view of justice, or that free markets necessarily organise social interaction and allocate resources in the best way possible, or that distinct cultural groups need to be recognised and protected. We cannot even take it for granted that most people accept the ideal of personal freedom and autonomy given their well known anxieties about such problems as crime and social disorder, excessive consumption of the earth’s resources, family breakdown, migration, or income and wealth inequality, any of which (along with many others) might provide grounds for restricting personal freedom and autonomy, and, indeed, are already taken to do so. Probably the most obvious mismatch of all between any form of liberalism and much popular opinion within Western societies comes just where liberals would be most likely to agree, namely migration. Recent political events in Europe, North America, and Australia alike make it all too clear that liberal opinion on that matter is not typical of Western political culture. Indeed, Hungary’s nationalist leader Viktor Orban may be the more accurate in his use of language when he describes himself as ‘illiberal’ and denies that democracy is liberal anyway. In light of such realities it seems a considerable stretch of the imagination, and perhaps sheer fantasy, to maintain that Western liberal assumptions in the sense of liberal values or ideas held uncritically by most people within Western societies exist at all.


Some liberal themes, including individualism (not necessarily personal freedom or autonomy), rationality, and universalism (not progress) have been given a relevance independent of any version of liberal ideology through the presence of mass destruction weapons, especially the nuclear arsenals.

Simply, the annihilation of individual lives beyond a certain point means the annihilation of their communities also, including the ability to transmit record of history and traditions. That is, the destruction of those aspects of human life classic non-liberal thought has frequently appealed to. The very existence of homo sapiens technical ability for self-destruction (and destruction of most life on Earth) of course applies universally to the whole of humanity, not just to nuclear-armed states.

Probably the deepest impact of the change in the human condition from the mid-20th century is that conceptions of facing death rather than shame before one's community are restricted by hazard to the community itself, at least in the context of (defeat in) war. Here a minimal degree of rationality is prescribed by survival, of individuals and communities alike, not liberalism.


  1. In the classical theorising of the seventeenth century – especially by Hobbes – the idea of contract was employed as a route to constraining conflict between individuals, whereas Rawls and Scanlon, for example, have been more interested in using contractual theorising as a way to find people’s common interests or at least, to find areas of moral and economic agreement between them. Scanlon’s essay ‘Contractualism and Utilitarianism’ aimed at an alternative to utilitarianism which would avoid making a sharp break between individual well-being and other moral notions.
  2. The narrower conception of rationality in fact subdivides into at least two distinct conceptions: (i) The scientific conception, basically similar to Hume’s idea of reason as discovery of truth and falsehood together with analytical tools for classifying each; and (ii) the conception used in economics and Public Choice theory, which amounts to awareness of one’s preferences and ability to order them. This latter conception in fact recognises that choices and decisions about values need to be made, although it does not claim to prescribe particular values a priori.
  3. Cf. The Federalist, No. LVII; (1981), The Mind of the Founder, Marvin Meyers (ed.), Brandeis University Press, 134.
  4. See the classic discussion of collective ‘self’ determination in A. Cobban, (1969), The Nation-State and National Self-Determination, Revised edn., Collins, Fontana Library.
  5. One such liberal riposte from Rockefeller (1992) appears amongst the comments published with Taylor’s work on the politics of recognition.
  6. In the context of social and political argument it is still taken for granted that any relevant biological differences between individuals or groups will be unalterable, as is illustrated by various reactions to work by Eysenck (1973) on IQ and inheritance, or by Murray and Herrnstein (1994) linking IQ to class and success in life. (Most recent scientific work has not supported any notion of a substantial biological component to race as distinct from intelligence).
    However, such arguments have still not taken account of the emerging possibility of genetic modification or molecular manipulation techniques capable precisely of altering biological makeup, and of these being used to do that, whether in the interests of equality or any other ideological purpose.


  1. Binder, Leonard, (1988), Islamic Liberalism, University of Chicago Press.
  2. Cobban, Alfred, (1969), The Nation-State and National Self-Determination, Revised edn., Collins, Fontana Library.
  3. Eysenck, H. J., (1973), The Measurement of Intelligence, Medical & Technical Publishing Co., Lancaster. — (1973), The Inequality of Man, Maurice Temple Smith, London.
  4. Friedman, Milton, (1962), Capitalism and Freedom, University of Chicago Press. —- ‘Economic Freedom, Human Freedom, Political Freedom’, Smith Center, December 1991.
  5. Gray, John, (1995), Liberalism, 2nd edn., Open University Press, p. 86.
  6. Gutman,Amy, (1992) ‘Introduction’, Multiculturalism and ‘The Politics of Recognition’, 3-19.
  7. Harvey, David., A Short History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press, (2005), pp 11f.
  8. Kekes, John, (1997), Against Liberalism, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London.
  9. Macpherson, C. B., (1962), The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, Oxford. Clarendon Press.
  10. Malik, Kenan, ‘Against Multiculturalism’, Web: http://www.kenanmalik.com/essays/against_mc.html, First published New Humanist (Summer 2002).
  11. Murray, Charles, (1990), ‘The Emerging British Underclass’, Institute of Economic Affairs, Health and Welfare Unit. — (1994),‘Underclass: The Crisis Deepens’, Institute of Economic Affairs, Health and Welfare Unit. —& Herrnstein, R., (1994), The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.
  12. Nozick, Robert, (1974), Anarchy, State and Utopia, Basic Books.
  13. O’Hear, (1999), After Progress: Finding the Old Way Forward, Bloomsbury.
  14. Parekh, Bhikhu, (1994), ‘Cultural Diversity and Liberal Democracy’, Defining and Measuring Democracy, David Beetham (ed.), SAGE Publications, 199-221.
  15. Pinker, Steven, (2018), Enlightenment Now The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Allen Lane.
  16. Rawls, John, (1971), A Theory of Justice, Belknap Press, Cambridge, Mass.
  17. Scanlon, T. M., (1982), ‘Contractualism and utilitarianism’, Utilitarianism and Beyond, A. Sen & B. Williams, (eds.), Cambridge University Press, 103-128.
  18. Strauss, David Friedrich, (1973 [1860]), The Life of Jesus critically examined, SCMP.
  19. Taylor, Charles, (1992), ‘The Politics of Recognition’, Multiculturalism and ‘The Politics of Recognition’, 25-73.