Thursday, March 02, 2006

Liberalism in the Age of Cartoons

How do we square a decent respect for opinions of others with the deep conviction that they are wrong? Positive Liberty writes:


Just as moral relativism does not imply an automatic cross-cultural toleration, liberalism does not imply moral relativism. Liberalism is not a set of moral conclusions at all; it is a meta-discourse: It’s a way of thinking and talking about thinking and talking themselves. Most other discourses think or talk about other things. But liberalism asks, and tries to answer, a very interesting philosophical question: Given the existence of profound disagreements on very important matters, how are people who disagree with one another to pursue a life together? All other things being equal, what rules will lead us more surely to the truth, and — in liberalism’s one leap of faith — are these not the very same rules that make for a decent and honorable argument (and a peaceful life) even in the absence of truth?

Liberalism proposes rules to keep the conversation going, and here are some of them, simply stated: It’s usually wrong, and almost always ineffective, to try changing someone’s mind with violence. If it neither picks your pocket, nor breaks your leg, do consider leaving it alone. God is strong enough to take care of His own; He does not require your help. Most political disputes can be settled without killing, and even if they can’t, the chances are that you don’t want everyone else taking up the sword as well. Contrary to what you have been told, mere words do not hurt you.

These are rules not about how to conduct our lives, but about how to try to convince others of how to conduct their lives. They are the meta-rules of the discourse of liberalism, the only discourse so far discovered that even has a reasonable set of such meta-rules. By contrast, the meta-rules of fundamentalism allow for no discussion whatsoever: We are right; you are wrong; all else may be discarded.


Our Constitution was only possible because the various factions all subscribed to this type of liberalism, despite their many differences. Pluralism demands that a differing group/viewpoint at least agree to the above principles. Some point out that folks in liberal cultures are resistant to criticizing those in illiberal ones. That need not be so--the sublimation of disagreement from violence into verbal critique is the heart of what it means to hold a liberal view. A liberal man may call an illiberal one misguided, counterproductive, dogmatic or morally bankrupt; he just can't call him wrong enough to be killed.

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