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.

As inhabitants of a liberal secular society, it is no mere coincidence that we feel queasy when thrown into the arena of 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. So it comes as no surprise that we do not really know how to respond to the rise of global fundamentalism with its impetus to moralize the public sphere. We are ill prepared to defend our own moral intuitions precisely because we live in societies where moral conflict was, until recently, minimized by design.

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.

Logical Positivism took this project to its ultimate consequences: In A.J. Ayer’s version, moral propositions are meaningless because they cannot be verified, i.e., they purport to state facts but these facts are not empirically verifiable. Morality doesn’t “hook” to anything in the world; hence it is vacuous, unverifiable and meaningless. Think what you like about Logical Positivism’s extreme argument but the reality is that morality never really recovered. 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.

The development of political liberalism can be understood precisely as an attempt to deal with this capitulation on moral conflict. I would even argue that liberalism is above all a brilliant political answer to what originally was an epistemological problem: 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. From day one, liberalism’s laudable goal was to craft a system where free and equal individuals could, despite their diverging moral beliefs, agree on a set of political rules that respect their freedom while guaranteeing a just and stable society. In other words, liberalism did not only want a solution to the drama of irresolvable moral conflict, it wanted a solution that protected our individual liberty. True to its Christian roots yet with a secular twist, at the core of liberalism resides the powerful idea that human beings should be equally free to live their lives according to their own beliefs. Liberalism’s central emphasis is then, as the name foreshadows, on liberty. To be free, according to the liberal tradition, is to be autonomous: to be able to self-direct one’s own life according to one’s own beliefs.

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.

From a liberal perspective, the core objective of political association became then the protection of individual liberty, which means that political discourse needed to abstain from favoring any particular moral or religious view—hence the overriding insistence on state neutrality in regards to moral debates. Coercing everyone into a unified moral outcome became impossible, as the point of departure is the presumption of our autonomy—our inalienable right to autonomously elect our worldview. Liberalism’s stroke of genius was to take moral and religious diversity precisely as the normal outcome of letting individuals exercise their autonomy. Suddenly, the fact that we disagree about moral beliefs—the fact of pluralism—ceased to be viewed as a corrosive phenomenon that needed to be resisted in the name of a single moral and religious worldview. Instead, pluralism became the mark of freedom, the manifestation of our liberty in action. The philosophical capitulation on moral conflict that I explained earlier suddenly became a virtue rather than a problem. Under a liberal system, refraining from trumpeting our morality to others is the ultimate mark of reasonableness. 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.

Many would rightly point out that liberal autonomy and state neutrality do not mean absolute quietism with regards to others’ beliefs. As J.S Mill famously articulated, we are free to pursue our own good in our own way, as long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs. When fundamentalists cross the boundaries of others’ moral autonomy as they often do, both civil society and the state are fully justified in responding either through overt criticism or coercive force—depending on the gravity of the matter. But the question is: do we really need to wait for fundamentalism to foster unreasonable behavior or violent manifestations before we are prompted to engage in moral conflict? The danger is that liberalism’s well intended conviction that the moral autonomy of others is to be respected, coupled with our position that moral conflict is irresolvable, leads to an unwillingness to engage in moral debate that gives fundamentalists enough room to strengthen. In the powerful words of Michael J. Sandel “fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread”. 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.

First and foremost, we need to reconnect with the moral content of liberalism. We cannot successfully defend our way of life if we do not understand the roots of its moral authority. We have become victims of our own success in carving out a private sphere for moral autonomy to flourish. We have wrongly come to associate our freedom to self-elect our worldview with crass individualism and fail to recognize the moral dimension behind the liberal conception of individual freedom and equality. In his recent book “Inventing the Individual”, Larry Siedentop provides us with plenty of ammunition to revert this historical neglect. In his illuminating account, Siedentop shows us how Christian moral intuitions played a crucial role in shaping the discourse that gave rise to modern liberalism and secularism. Siedentop helps us understand that liberalism and secularism are not just institutional arrangements that simply happened to us: they have a rich history which firmly grounds their moral authority. We are individuals precisely because we are united in a shared moral tradition that prefigures our individuality. 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.

Besides reconnecting with the moral content of liberalism and encouraging debate around the practical consequences of the beliefs it entails, we need a final step to fully escape our paradox: We need an amplified concept of autonomy that allows us to engage in moral conflict without contradicting ourselves. The capacity to live our life according to our self-elected moral beliefs should come to be seen as only the first step in achieving full autonomy. An amplified autonomy ought to demand that we subject our private moral outcomes to open-ended moral debate before we can consider ourselves truly autonomous. A freedom that deserves the name should seek to enlarge itself through a process of ongoing social debate and moral conflict. Moral autonomy that is not held accountable socially leaves us at the mercy of our own self-enslavement and corrodes our capacity to defend our way of life. We need to shame fundamentalists into a life of freedom by insisting how a dogmatic, even if self-selected morality, falls short. This concept of amplified autonomy as socially constituted is the final step in escaping the liberal paradox, allowing us to engage in a proactive and liberating defense against fundamentalism. If there is any silver-lining to our dark times is that the struggle against fundamentalism will in the end strengthen our own freedom.