Up to a Point

Norm has more on the paradox. He also had more a few days ago, answering my mutterings on the subject. To jump to the end first, he explains further what he had in mind.

So why my suggestion of a tension or paradox in the first place? I suppose because I think some liberals disguise from themselves that there are substantive moral commitments underpinning the ‘neutral’ political framework that they favour. Neutral in many ways it is, but only up to a point.

Ah. Is that it. Right – well then I won’t try to resolve the paradox any more, because I entirely agree with that, and bit that bullet long ago. (I scribbled four pages in my notebook on the subject yesterday morning and kept returning to and emphasizing the phrase ‘up to a point’ [and didn’t see Norm’s comment until today], so we’re on the same page here.) Yeah – if there’s one thing I don’t do it’s disguise from myself that there are substantive moral commitments underpinning the ‘neutral’ political framework I favour. I’m sharply aware of that; the awareness is basic to the ‘Cultural Relativism’ In Focus among other things. Hence the insistence on ‘up to a point’ – that point is where neutrality or pluralism or tolerance or liberty or multiculturalism or cultural relativism bump up against, for instance, subordination of women, or persecution of homosexuals or ‘apostates’ or ‘blasphemers’ or other outgroups merely for being outgroups. I definitely have substantive moral commitments that trump commitments to tolerance or libertarianism. They even trump, for instance, my commitment to democracy, especially democracy understood as simple majoritarianism; I don’t care how big a majority wants to oppress women or atheists or queers or Jews: I want a strong bill of rights to trump that majority will.

So to return to Norm’s original point – “Call this framework ‘pluralist liberalism’. Is it not itself premissed, then, upon principles for which universal validity is claimed by its adherents?” – I would say yes, it is, and furthermore that it applies only up to a point – which is perhaps another thing that some liberals disguise from themselves. In fact there are perhaps three of those (I’m starting to write a Spanish Inquistion sketch here). Substantive moral commitments, the fact that pluralism is believed in only up to a point, and the related fact that democracy is believed in up to a point. They’re all related. The vocabulary (the hurrah vocabulary) of tolerance, pluralism, multiculturalism, diversity, and democracy, are very often flung around as if they were all quite unqualified, unlimited in their application, when the truth of course is that none of them are. Hardly anyone actually believes in tolerance of everything, pluralism in all matters, democracy no matter what the majority decides – yet people often talk as if they do believe exactly that. It’s worth reminding each other of the point up to which.

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