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'Liberalism is beset by a paradox at its core'


To: David N.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: 'Liberalism is beset by a paradox at its core'
Date: 20th April 2009 11:40

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 26 March, with your fifth and final essay for the Pathways Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, ''Liberalism is beset by a paradox at its core' -- What is the alleged paradox? In your view, is the paradox real or only apparent?'

Well done for completing the program. I am impressed by the fact that although you found parts of the program difficult, you persevered and saw it through to the end.

Your answer to the question is that the paradox is not real but only apparent. On the face of it, it looks as though the liberal, in seeking to prevent the intolerant imposing their views on others, is forced to be 'intolerant'. The response, in the words you quote from Anthony Grayling is that whereas 'anyone can put forward a view, no one can be forced to accept it. The only coercion should be that of argument, and the only obligation that of honest reasoning.'

The case for free and open debate seems open and shut. And yet, this is not the only problem.

Let's take the Catholic religion as a case in point. Richard Dawkins, author of 'The Selfish Gene' and 'The Blind Watchmaker' has expressed himself very forthrightly on the way in which religious 'memes' are inculcated: insisting that your child prays the rosary and goes to confession or risk going to Hell is the surest way of bringing it about that they will do the same with their children. In Dawkins' view, making a child pray the rosary is evil. Is that view illiberal?

The child of Catholic parents is not in the happy position of being able to 'debate' whether or not to pray the rosary or go to church. Mill explicitly states in his essay 'On Liberty' that the Liberty Principle applies to adults, not children (and, more controversially, not to 'primitive people' who are to be treated like children by their cultural superiors).

Why should an upholder of liberal views be prepared to tolerate religious orthodoxy? Mill makes it clear that he is for liberty of thought and expression -- indeed, that speech should be *more* free than action, because whether a view is true or false, we benefit from free and open debate. In Catholic schools, should there then be 'free and open debate' on questions of Christian dogma? The idea of asking someone who is religious -- whether a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim -- to 'prove their case' seems preposterous. We don't demand this of religious belief because such matters are beyond proof or disproof.

Not only should religious 'extremists' not be given a platform, on this view, their should be strict limits to what they are able to teach their children -- or have taught to their children. All schools should therefore be non-denominational.

This isn't an argument for extending the Liberty principle to children. A child and an adult cannot debate on equal terms. However, it is a case for severely limiting the power of those who do not subscribe to the principles of liberalism, with the seemingly laudable aim of bringing about the kind of society which the liberal seeks to achieve.

I have problems with this view, which I express in the program -- notwithstanding my great sympathy for Dawkins and my extreme dislike of religious fundamentalism in any form. That's why I see traditional liberalism as involved in a paradox. Preparedness for free and open debate is not sufficient to bring about a society where free and open debate is genuinely possible.

There is a reply open to Mill, however. And that is to stick to his guns, and insist that he is *only* concerned with debate between 'adults'. Let each family bring their children up as they will. Every decision of consequence will be made through free and open debate, in which those who have not imbibed the principles of liberalism at their mother's knee will be forced to learn those principles, on pain of having only a marginal part to play in the discussion.

All the best,