I’m reading Anthony Appiah’s Ethics of Identity. It’s a terrific book. And it keeps startling me by talking about things I’ve been thinking about for years – sometimes down to the smallest detail – such as a particular comment by Martha Nussbaum.

I’ll quote you a bit. Page 40.

The controversy over how to formulate autonomy…immediately lets on to another: whether autonomy…is or ought to be a value in the first place, at least outside the liberal democracies of the West. An availability of options, an endowment with minimal rationality, an absence of coercion: if this is the core of personal autonomy, what could be more anodyne and unexceptionable? And yet…many political theorists write about it as if it were an industrial effluent, something generated by Western modernity and exported, willy-nilly, to hapless denizens of the non-Western world.

Good eh?

For Mill, as we saw, autonomy and diversity were plaited together in his ideal of individuality. For many critics, however, the language of autonomy reflects an arrogant insularity: all that talk of self-fashioning, self-direction, self-authorship suggests a bid to creat the Performance Art Republic, elbowing aside Grandma Walton in order to make the world safe for Karen Finley.

Farther back, on page 26, is where he really startled me.

Mill has been charged with playing favourites among religions, because of his emphasis on the fostering of personal autonomy as an appropriate goal of the state: does this not suggest that strong forms of Calvinism, say, will be contemned?

He startled me there because that is something (as the endnote confirms) that Martha Nussbaum said, that has long puzzled me and that I have talked about here, for instance in this post nearly two years ago. Here’s the mystifying thing she said.

But to claim that freedom of speech promotes truth in metaphysics and morals would be to show disrespect for the idea of reasonable pluralism, and to venture onto a terrain where one is at high risk of showing disrespect to one’s fellow citizens. Mill is totally oblivious to all such considerations. He has none of the delicate regard for other people’s religious doctrines that characterizes the political liberal…In On Liberty he does not hesitate to speak contemptuously of Calvinism as an ‘insidious’ doctrine…One may sympathize…without feeling that he understands the type of mutual respect that is required in a pluralistic society. I agree with Rawls: such respect requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.

Well, I don’t agree with Rawls, but I’ve also been trying to get a better grasp on what he meant by it, by for instance throwing caution to the winds and actually reading the relevant part of Political Liberalism. The subject has come up here more than once; George Felis did some helpful explication. But I don’t like it – I don’t see how it can lead to anything other than surrender to the theocrats, who have no truck with ‘delicate regard’ for other people’s religious much less non-religious doctrines. I don’t like it, so I’m pleased to see that Appiah is arguing for another view.

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