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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

And speaking of bullshit, try this example from Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton has written a confused article in The Guardian, in which he seems to be taking Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis and others to task for illiberalism. I same "seems", because this article is all over the place; it's difficult to work out what Eagleton is really trying to say.

As it happens, I do think that there is a risk of people with comprehensive rationalist philosophies ending up falling into illiberalism. We could get to the point of wanting to ban religions, take children from religious parents, leave no room at all for moral views different from our own. Any comprehensive worldview has the potential of turning illiberal if it lacks certain inner resources; if it cannot find its own reasons to participate in something like a Rawlsian political framework. Indeed, I often wonder how many comprehensive worldviews really would participate in such a framework if they thought they could get away with imposing their views on others.

Sometimes I am worried by the proposals of commenters on the various blogs and sites that have become rallying points for rationalism and atheism; sometimes such people do stray into rather illiberal territory. While we complain about the theocratic tendencies of religionists, we all need to be careful not to become too prescriptive, ourselves, of other people's views of the good. Or, rather, we can offer prescriptions, but should not try to impose them by political coercion.

This is a worthwhile topic for an article. The trouble is that Eagleton makes a complete hash of it. If Dawkins, say, advocated deporting Muslims, or taking children from Muslim parents (with no uncontroversial child abuse involved), or attempting to suppress Islam, or to ban promulgation of its doctrines, that would plainly be illiberal. He would be making clear that he is unwilling to allow Islamic views of the good to flourish in our society - side by side with other views of the good - free of persecution by the state. I would oppose any such proposals.

But to oppose other views of the good simply by way of criticism or satire is not illiberal at all. There is no reason why liberals should refrain from criticising or satirising viewpoints that they consider benighted. Liberalism isn't an agreement that we all shut up and say nothing nasty about each other; it is not an agreement that we cease to regard our own respective worldviews as superior to others on offer; it is merely an agreement that we stop trying to get our hands on the levers of state power for the purpose of imposing our worldviews by coercion. It implies that the powers of the state should be somewhat limited, or at least exercised with a certain deference to the choices of individuals (I disagree, however, if Eagleton thinks, as he seems to, that it rules out any socialist economic program).

Eagleton is simply wrong to say that there's only a short step from superiority to supremacy. Anyone who could say such a thing does not understand liberalism at all and needs to go back to school. A liberal is not someone who takes the contorted view that her own viewpoint is no better than others on offer (that would be a vulgar and implausible sort of relativism). She is someone who takes the principled political stance that, although she considers her comprehensive worldview (perhaps a rationalist one, but perhaps even a religious one of some sort) to be superior, she will not attempt to impose it by means of fire and sword, as long as others do not attempt to use fire and sword to impose their views on her.

Generally speaking, liberals are even prepared to tolerate (at least up to a point) those who do not reciprocate. That's a practical necessity in modern societies because it may well be that the majority of religious and similar groups are not totally prepared to reciprocate. They do so only with reservations.

There are, of course, difficult issues about how far liberals should tolerate the intolerant, such as Catholic cardinals with theocratic tendencies. However, the general assumption is that individuals and groups which advocate intolerant laws and social arrangements will themselves be given a broad measure of tolerance. That doesn't mean that they should receive credence or be immune from criticism or beyond satire. Most importantly, we may have powerful liberal arguments to put in opposition to laws that would restrict freedom of religion or restrict consensual adult sexual behaviour (for example), and we may argue fiercely that the state should be unimpressed by any advocacy of those laws. But that's different from making the advocacy unlawful. Writing in the American constitutional context, Martha Nussbaum says:

"If people seek to torture children, or to enslave minorities, citing their religion as their reason, their claims must be resisted even though they may be sincere. If they simply talk in favor of slavery or torture, their freedom to speak must be protected, up to the point at which speech becomes a threat. They will not, however, be able to present their ideas in the political sphere on an equal basis with other ideas, since the Constitution (in the case of slavery) and the criminal law (in the case of torture) forbid the practices they recommend. So: people are all respected as equals, but actions that threaten the rights of others may still be reasonably opposed, and opinions that teach the political inequality of others, while they will not be suppressed, will still be at a disadvantage in the community, since their advocates would have to amend the Constitution to realize their program."

I think that's about right. It should be added that, even if it is not necessary to amend a nation's constitution to realise such an intolerant program, the program's advocates will (rightly) be at disadvantage because they will need to overthrow ethico-legal principles that are widely accepted within a liberal society. Within such a society, they cannot expect equal consideration of their views in the public sphere. They can, however, expect to be permitted to express their views. We won't suppress the intolerant, but their intolerant views don't deserve a level playing field.

A point may come where some intolerant worldviews that do not accept the Rawlsian framework need to be challenged more directly. The state may, for example, react by giving them a lower priority in its various consultations. It's not obvious that the state must consult with the intolerant or give intolerant groups formal recognition. In the extreme, we don't have to tolerate the intolerant so much that they are allowed to overthrow the liberal framework itself, but we should be very reluctant to decide that the time has come to suppress illiberal opponents, even opponents as despicable as, say, a neo-Nazi movement. But long before the state does anything in particular, individuals are free to employ criticism, satire, persuasion, to challenge any views that they disagree with strongly, and they are most definitely free to oppose intolerant views.

I fail to see where Dawkins or anyone else who has been mentioned has done more than that. If anyone is sailing close to the wind here, it's not them but Eagleton himself. What are we to make of it when he writes the following? "Liberals are supposed to value nuanced analysis and moral complexity, neither of which are [sic] apparent in the slanderous reduction of Islam to a barbarous blood cult." Whether or not Islam is "a barbarous blood cult" is a matter of opinion. It's not my opinion, as it happens, and I don't know where Dawkins or anyone else has ever expressed such an opinion. Islam is obviously more complex than that. Nonetheless, even if Martin Amis, say, has said such a thing, so what? Someone who thinks Islam is nothing more than "a barbarous blood cult" does not necessarily propose to suppress Islam by using the coercive power of the state. Such a person may be quite committed to the liberal framework.

It sounds, however, as if Eagleton is getting very close to telling Dawkins and the others to shut up. The choice of the word "slanderous", which denotes a form of illegal speech, is very troubling. Is Eagleton seriously suggesting that the speech of Dawkins, etc., should be regarded as slander - as a form of defamation - and so prohibited? Perhaps not, but it would be a relief if he clarified this. If he doesn't actually want to use force to shut up his rationalist opponents, he's chosen his words poorly. Talk of slander may be colourful hyperbole, I suppose, but it's not very amusing at a time when the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, supported by other influential players such as the Vatican, is continuing its campaign to ban "defamation of religion".

Eagleton identifies with the Left, and he claims that it does not seek to suppress civil liberties (well, that's a relief!). But his own wording seems to call for exactly that. He can say what he likes, of course, in the sense that his attempts at a cultural contribution should not be censored. I'm a good Millian liberal, and I won't campaign to suppress Eagleton's opinions, or to control how he expresses them. But maybe he'd like to think a bit more carefully next time, before he rushes into print. It might also be a good idea if he learned something useful about political philosophy before his next unlettered rant against reason and secularism.

9 comments:

Ian MacDougall said...

Good one, Russell.

The left that Eagleton talks about has never recovered from the illiberalism encouraged from Moscow in the '20s and '30s. Liberalism if not derided with the prefix 'bourgeois' was assigned a position well down in the hierarchy of left values, becoming a casualty in the battle for socialism.

Centralisation of economic power meant private trade in goods and services had to go at all levels. That included advocacy of capitalism in any form. I have often thought that if Karl Marx had devoted himself in more detail to the subject of socialism and liberalism instead of just mentions in passing, the 20th C might have been saved an awful lot of grief.

All people are equal, but not all cultures. That seems to be the issue that Eagleton is struggling to come to terms with; uphill and backwards.

More at http://noahsarc.wordpress.com/

quedula said...

I had the suspicion there was something wrong with Eagleton's piece but couldn't get to grips with it. Russell demolishes it beautifully. A pleasure to read.

tauriqmoosa said...

Excellent Russell. Consider, also, Eagleton's terrible review of The God Delusion (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/eagl01_.html) and a lovely reply from PZ Myers (http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/10/eagleton_vs_dawkins.php).

I have never liked Eagleton, even before the whole anti-rationalist stance he seems to imply.

Anonymous said...

"Eagleton is simply wrong to say that there's only a short step from superiority to supremacy. Anyone who could say such a thing does not understand liberalism at all"

You're right about liberalism. However, the short step from superiority to supremacy is just the step that christianity, islam and marxism all took when they had the opportunity. Eagleton began as a Roman Catholic and became a marxist. He changed his opinions, but not the kind of opinions he holds or the way he held them. It isn't surprising that he thinks everyone thinks in the same way.

Frieder Otto Wolf said...

Convincing and much needed point, well taken. Islamophobia is, in fact, wrong, but this does not mean that such wrong opinions should be suppressed. They should be, most forcefully, be argued against!

kynefski said...

Excellent. I came away with the same impression of Eagleton's article: That he suggested that vociferous argument was somehow illiberal. That claim must be resisted.

Anonymous said...

When you say "liberal" you must mean "classical liberal" Modern day liberals do not appear to me to resemble what you describe.

You say for example,

". . .we can offer prescriptions, but should not try to impose them by political coercion."

But that's exactly what modern liberals do.

"it is merely an agreement that we stop trying to get our hands on the levers of state power for the purpose of imposing our worldviews by coercion. It implies that the powers of the state should be somewhat limited, or at least exercised with a certain deference to the choices of individuals"

That certainly is not what modern liberal politicans stand for.

"A liberal is . . . someone who takes the principled political stance that, although she [sic] considers her comprehensive worldview . . . to be superior, she will not attempt to impose it by means of fire and sword, as long as others do not attempt to use fire and sword to impose their views on her."

Maybe not by fire and sword, but they will try to impose it.

AYY

Russell Blackford said...

Anonymous, you seem to be dealing with a very different concept of liberalism from what I and Eagleton are discussing. I am talking about the political philosophy of, say, John Stuart Mill, which can be traced back to genuinely "classical" liberals such as John Locke. But recent/contemporary liberal thought such as that of H.L.A. Hart, Joseph Raz, John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, or Paul Starr is much the same, and this is the sort of thing that Eagleton has in mind - judging by his language in the opening sentences - and he (I think rightly) sees Dawkins and so on as in this tradition. (It's also the sort of thing that Stanley Fish is always attacking.)

However, Eagleton then shows that he doesn't really understand it.

Anonymous said...

Same anon as 3:58 (btw I put in the initials AYY after the post so you cam identify me from any other anons)

I don't disagree with your underlying criticism of Eagleton's argument. My point was more along the lines that you were distracted by his description of what a liberal is and so you discussed a form of liberalism that Eagleton would not, from his article at least, consider to be liberal.

If he's right about anything, he's right in assuming his readership would identify "liberal" with his version rather than your version


AYY