On the Contradictions of Liberalism (and how to address them)

It is a well-worn criticism that despite their ostensive commitments to pluralism, respect, autonomy, etc. political liberals often find themselves incapable of accommodating or productively engaging those who reject central theses of their ideology. As Alain Badiou aptly put it:

“Our suspicions are first aroused when we see that the self-declared apostles of ethics and of the ‘right to difference’ are clearly horrified by any vigorously-sustained difference. For them, African customs are barbaric, Muslims are dreadful, the Chinese are totalitarian, and so on. As a matter of fact, this celebrated ‘other’ is acceptable only if he is a good other—which is to say what, exactly, if not the same as us?  Respect for differences? Of course! But on the condition that the ‘different’ be parliamentary-democratic, pro free-market economics, in favor of freedom of opinion, feminism, and the environment…even immigrants in this country [France], as seen by partisans of ethics, are acceptably different only when they are ‘integrated,’ only if they seek integration (which seems to mean, if you think about it: only if they want to suppress their difference). It might well be that ethical ideology, detached from the religious teachings which at least conferred upon it the fullness of a ‘revealed’ identity, is simply the final imperative of a conquering civilization: ‘Become like me and I will respect your difference.’”

From, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (p. 24-5).

This line of criticism is important, but in many respects, insufficient: Not only are political liberals often unwilling or unable to tolerate illiberalism—they have difficultly when others fail to endorse their particular conceptions of justice, respect, equality, etc., or hold different priorities for “shared” values.

This is a major problem for the liberal project—ideologically yes, but pragmatically as well: Illiberalism not only persists, but is prevalent in contemporary societies—in fact, by some measures, liberalism has been on a steady decline worldwide for most of the last decade. And as Western political hegemony continues to erode in the face of an emergent “Global South,” the costs, risks and prospects of success for attempting to coerce or cajole others into adopting Western-liberal institutions and norms will only grow worse. Indeed, it has gotten so bleak that the postwar liberal order is facing disintegration even within America and Western Europe.

Clearly, a different approach is required: both in terms of how political liberals engage other societies, and how they manage their own.

From Political Liberalism to Para Liberalism: Cognitive Liberalism, Epistemological Pluralism & Authentic Choice“ highlights three necessary and sufficient conditions for a social arrangement to be “reasonable” from a liberal perspective:  it must promote the perceived interests of the affected public, represent their values, and enjoy popular legitimacy. Beyond this, it should be totally irrelevant whether or not another society is liberal, democratic, or free-market oriented—or if it relies on conceptions of justice, freedom, etc. that defy Western-liberal sensibilities.

The essay focuses primarily on the theoretical virtues of this “para-liberal” approach, but there are pragmatic considerations as well: encouraging and empowering others to develop and test novel social arrangements in response to their particular wants, needs and circumstances enriches the sphere of governance possibilities. Over time, these social experiments may help Western liberals to not only better identify shortcomings with their own systems and institutions—but perhaps more importantly—to envision and implement viable alternatives. That is, rather than representing a failure, weakness, or threat to political liberalism, para-liberalism may help ensure the continued relevance and viability of the liberal project.

For more, see the full article:

Al-Gharbi, Musa. “From Political Liberalism to Para-Liberalism: Cognitive Liberalism, Epistemological Pluralism & Authentic Choice.” Comparative Philosophy 7 (2): pp 1-24

(It’s a peer-reviewed but open-access journal: read, share, cite to your heart’s content!)

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