February 13th, 2016
THE RISE of fundamentalism is causing a paradoxical situation for us Westerners: The very concepts that once helped us overcome the bitter fundamentalism of the wars of religion—pluralism and moral autonomy—seem to prevent us from counteracting the current rise of fundamentalism. In other words, while we feel the need to defend our moral convictions in this new global battle for beliefs, our core liberal assumption that moral conflict is irresolvable (pluralism) together with our belief that individuals should be free to elect their own moral outcomes (moral autonomy) seem to prevent us from engaging in direct moral conflict. This liberal paradox is something we need to acknowledge and resolve before we can mount a convincing case against fundamentalism. Let me elaborate.
The Problem with Moral Conflict:
The history of Western liberalism—which underpins our current secular political structures—is, if anything, a story of gradual moral privatization and steady retreat from moral conflict.
The philosophical reasons why we avoid moral conflict were clearly articulated by Alasdair Macintyre in his classic book ‘After Virtue’. In a nutshell, once we discarded the Aristotelian teleological program and embarked in the Enlightenment’s project of providing a rational justification for an objective morality, we entered a slippery slope that led to capitulation and to what Macintyre describes as an ‘emotivist’ society: one which takes moral conflict as irresolvable. His argument is rather simple but powerful: from the analysis of what the world is we failed to derive what it should be. We have been at it since Descartes but without a predefined human nature that postulates our essence we simply cannot seem to derive what we ought to do. In Aristotle, we had humans-as-they-are-in-fact on one side and humans-as-they-would-be if they achieved their essential nature on the other. Ethics was the factual enterprise of connecting both sides of the equation. Morality was all about figuring out the rules that would satisfy this project. But once you embrace the Enlightenment and dismiss the idea of a human nature you are left with the pure individual trying to discover the rules of morality looking solely at what is with no ought posited in advance. It is basically like building a bridge to nowhere.
Philosophical debate about the status of morality is ongoing but in practice we have given up on moral conflict long ago; and when faced with it, we shun it as a pointless and irresolvable clash of opinions.
Liberalism to the Rescue:
If we have no philosophical way to adjudicate among competing and irreconcilable moralities, is there any way in which we can still carry on with our lives in a peaceful manner? Answering this question is the fundamental task of liberalism.
Afflicted by intractable moral conflict, the brilliance of liberalism was to identify the one thing we could all agree with—despite our seemingly irreconcilable beliefs—and build from there. This one thing we could all agree with was, of course, that we are all free and equal—in the sense of not being naturally subject to others’ moral and political authority and being equally placed in reference to such liberty. Note that it is no coincidence that we could all agree on this point: this was made possible by our shared Christian tradition, a crucial fact that I will stress in the final part of this essay. By introducing the concept of autonomy, liberalism avoided the pitfall of trying to justify political arrangements in reference to any of the contested worldviews that characterize a plural society. From now on, state coercion had to be justifiable to all; otherwise it would run against our stated individual freedom and equality. The dilemma of moral conflict then dissolved as we were finally in possession of a set of commonly agreed rules that cut through our substantive disagreements. The first step to launch this bold justificatory enterprise was to roll back and privatize those contested moral beliefs we have been talking about and focus on the one thing we all shared: our very idea of individual liberty or ‘autonomy’.
For us Westerners, to be reasonable is precisely to understand and accept the fact of pluralism, the fact of irreconcilable moral conflict.
Liberalism and the Rise of Fundamentalism
If we take moral autonomy and irresolvable pluralism as given, is there anything we can do against those that lever their autonomy to pursue a fundamental agenda? In a society that has grown to embrace pluralism and equates moral conflict with unreasonable squabbling, is there anything we can do to stop fundamentalism? Liberalism rightly highlights that to conceive of others as free and equal requires us to respect their moral jurisdiction and to refrain from demanding that they endorse beliefs that they do not have reasons to support—even when their beliefs seem repugnant to us. Full autonomy in our choice of moral outcomes is constitutive of what it means to be free and liberalism is correct in mobilizing to protect it. But here is where the paradox of liberalism comes into focus: wouldn’t it then be tantamount to coercion to impose our moral outcome on fundamentalists? After all, if fundamentalists have their own reasons to support certain beliefs, isn’t it a violation of their autonomy to force them out of them? And more worrisome even, isn’t it a violation of state neutrality to turn these moral discussions into public affairs, with the state siding with a particular view? And finally, even if we were to put these considerations aside and engage in moral debate, wouldn’t it be pointless as we take moral conflict to be irresolvable to begin with?
The liberal paradox is now fully evident: the very moral freedom we have fostered and the plural world it has created are giving fundamentalists both room and apparent reason to come after us.
Escaping the Paradox:
If we are to be able to respond to the growing threat of fundamentalism, we need to escape the paradox of liberalism and figure out a way in which we can proactively defend our Western values and assert our moral outcome without violating others’ autonomy. In what follows I offer three ideas to help mount our comeback.
Understanding the profound moral content behind what we now take to be the secular premises of a modern society helps us regain a fertile ground from where we can mount a defense of our way of life against those who seek to undermine it.
But grasping the profound moral content of our liberal tradition won’t be sufficient if we do not manage to reengage in moral conflict with fundamentalists of all sorts. A pure philosophical grounding of our morality might escape us, as I explained with the help of Macintyre, but we still have a powerful route to take in our effort to reshape the moral conversation: we can and should proactively argue for the practical consequences of our beliefs. We should steer moral conflict away from the antagonistic discussions on whose moral beliefs are purer, more legitimate and better grounded. For moral conflict to lead somewhere we need to turn it into a factual conversation about the practical effects that a life of freedom and equality has on our well-being versus those of a life of fundamental dogmatism. This is our turf and here is where we are more likely to take the upper hand: we need to show our opponents the appalling consequences of their beliefs and the countless lives it destroys and opportunities it forecloses. This is the only road to moral victory and its effectiveness is well documented in the very liberation struggles of our own Western world where oppressive beliefs have been defeated time and again by those who dare to show the hideous consequences of some deeply held convictions.
If there is any silver-lining to our dark times is that the struggle against fundamentalism will in the end strengthen our own freedom.