Does a liberal society require anything more from its citizens than respect for the law?by Oliver Letwin / October 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
Liberals believe in freedom-but how much, for whom and why? In a profound and important book, John Gray advances what might be called the sceptic-optimist answers to these questions. Gray doubts the existence of any ultimate truths about how the ideal society should be organised. He doubts the ability of any society to reconcile the conflicting values espoused by individuals and groups within it. He doubts even the existence of Oakeshottian common traditions or practices, capable of binding a society together. He doubts, in short, that there is any firm basis upon which an argument (as opposed to a preference) for a liberal society could be advanced. This is the sceptical aspect of his thesis. The optimistic aspect of the Gray thesis consists in the hope that a liberal society can nevertheless be sustained on the basis of the pragmatic acceptance by a wide variety of individuals and groups of “convenient articles of peace, whereby individuals and communities with conflicting values and interests may consent to coexist.” On this view, the “liberal project” becomes the pursuit of “modus vivendi among conflicting values,” establishing a society in which “toleration is valued as a condition of peace, and divergent ways of living are welcomed.” The question that confronts those of us who regard the continuation of a liberal society in Britain as both the most precious and the most tenuous of our inheritances, is whether Gray’s optimism can be sustained, if the full range of his scepticism is justified. The “convenient articles of peace,” upon which Gray’s hoped-for modus vivendi depends, are not things that can plausibly emerge from nowhere. They have to be formed-as laws, regulations, judgements, administrative acts-within some institutional framework that is accepted as legitimate by “individuals and communities with conflicting values.” To this extent, Gray’s attack on the Oakeshottian-conservative defence of common traditions and institutions misfires. Gray’s liberal optimism needs a dose of conservatism to sustain it in the face of its other scepticisms. But is a dose of institutional conservatism enough? Can we hope for the sustainability of a liberal society in which nothing unites us other than a common institutional framework? If we are otherwise wholly diverse, can a common framework enable us to establish and refine the “convenient articles of peace” required for coexistence? This is an issue with which Conservatives in Britain, and thoughtful politicians of all stripes, are currently preoccupied. The issue comes into sharpest relief when we consider the distinction between virtue and justice. To achieve Gray’s modus vivendi, there is no need for virtue, in the sense of personal rectitude derived from conscience and operating regardless of the law: justice-in the restricted sense of properly applying and properly obeying the law-is enough. In Gray’s truly liberal society, so long as people obey the law, there may be no conception of virtue, or as many different and irreconcilable versions of virtue as there are members of the society. A question with which the liberal “right” wrestles is whether-as an empirical fact about human existence-it is sensible to expect that the tendency to be law-abiding could be sufficiently strong to permit peaceful coexistence under conditions in which there was no common moral understanding lying behind the law. An even more acute tension arises when we come to discuss the making, rather than the obeying, of law and when one of the moralities involved in a clash of morals is itself fundamentally illiberal. If you come from a sect that believes it is morally wrong to educate girls, on the grounds that women are inferior and ineducable, and if I come from what (pace Gray) I am inclined to call a “liberal tradition” which regards women as intellectually and spiritually equivalent to men (and so regards it as grossly immoral not to educate girls), how are you and I going to draw up “convenient articles of peace” that allow us to coexist in a single society? Gray’s answer is that we just have to find a way of establishing a modus vivendi between us, so that you and I can live together. In other words, he calls on each of us to sacrifice even our strongest moral feelings when we legislate, and to consider only the demands of tolerance: efficient latitudinarianism becomes the sole virtue of Gray’s liberal legislator. Can we exhibit such latitudinarianism? I suppose so-with heroic self-restraint. Whether we should do it is a much more difficult question. Should I follow Gray and use my vote in the legislature to permit some sect to deprive girls of an education in the name of liberal tolerance of all such sects? Or should I (equally in the name of liberalism) cast my vote in favour of laws that intolerantly forbid such a sect from acting in this way-so as to liberate the women in question from virtual servitude? The problem is not only that-unlike Gray-I do not think I know the answer to this question. The situation is worse still. I do not even know on what basis to answer the question. I am also intensely suspicious of those who think that they do know how to answer. Perhaps there is no answer. Perhaps the real point about liberalism is that it actually has “two faces” and that neither face can see through the eyes or hear through the ears or speak with the voice of the other. Perhaps each side of liberalism has to find a modus vivendi with its other self.