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Liberal Values

by Zettel 

Posted: 28 August 2004
Word Count: 2250
Summary: Feature Article - Based on Bertrand Russell's decalogue definition

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It may not look like it but this has already been edited more than once. However with your indulgence, I thought, entirely within the spirit of the piece as you will see, that I would like to import the benefit of any comments any of you might have, into the final edit.

Again within the spirit of the piece I guess I must, anxiously, invite you to do your worst - or as we might say in this case, your best.

Regards - Zettel

Liberal Values

This is not a defence. Liberal Values lie at the heart of all that is best in our culture and need no defence. They are too often cast in defensive mode without sound argument or sufficiently rigorous rebuttal.

The end of the 20th century marked a global rejection of the major political ideologies that dominated it. Whether well meaning or inherently malign, efforts often tyrannical, to implement these ideologies in real human societies caused death and untold suffering. The current distrust and disillusionment surrounding such ideologies is therefore empirically sound and morally justified. This progress towards a more mature political realism is currently blocked by the growth of another kind of illiberal tyranny; religious fundamentalism, fuelling political and social unrest around the world.

Liberal values are usually portrayed as impractical and naively idealistic. In fact, they are the most rigorous and challenging standards on offer and absolutely practical especially when dealing with intractable problems. They are idealistic, but not naively so. This reputation for weakness has been generated by a false identification of a coherent set of beliefs with the decline of the Liberal, and until recently, Liberal Democrat Parties.

What are liberal values? I have seen no better definition than that of Bertrand Russell in a New York Times article in December 1951, prophetically called ‘The Best Answer to Fanaticism – Liberalism’. He put this in the form of a liberal decalogue, generously and consistently remarking for such a committed atheist and liberal, that it was intended to supplement, not supplant the old one.

These are Russell’s 10 principles.

1. Do not feel absolutely sure of anything.

The key word here is ‘absolutely’. What would absolute certainty look like? I guess Hitler, Stalin, and other political tyrants were assailed by few doubts. It is hard enough to believe the actual suffering they engineered, but impossible to think that they did not have a sense of absolute certainty and personal destiny to drive them to such appalling acts of inhumanity.

Another form of absolute certainty is found in fundamentalist religious beliefs. The devastating effects of such unassailable conviction of rightness hardly needs spelling out given the current state of affairs in the world. And the intractability of many conflicts can be traced to this form of absolutism. The best example is perhaps the Palestine/Israel conflict: each claims a form of transcendental sanction for their right to the same territory. The land is the same but the religious convictions each side cites in support of their irreconcilable claims, are unresolvable until they are brought into some form of non-transcendental context. This context can only be built upon secular political aims and objectives where the contradictory character of the mutually exclusive religious aspirations has to be faced and subjected to secular rationality.

The dubious place of ‘absolute certainty’ in religious belief is a philosophical issue in its own right outside the scope of this article. However, the lack of a shared rational context within which to approach secular, political issues, common in the most intractable historical disputes, leads inexorably to physical conflict. The tragic paradoxical result is that conflicting absolutist belief systems are driven to sanction forms of behaviour contradictory to some of the most profound moral tenets within those systems.

Liberal belief as expressed in this principle therefore is profoundly anti-absolutist, deeply committed to reason and an acknowledgement of and respect for, opposing points of view. At the heart of this lies a respect for others that underpins the British national trait of tolerance. The rejection of absolutism is philosophically existentialist in character. As such it is the toughest of political principles: it is our responsibility to act, to resist injustice and irrationality in the conduct of practical affairs. We can neither appeal to God nor any political ideology to sanction or excuse action or inaction: it is down to us. That is why liberal values are the most demanding and challenging of political philosophies. They are also different from Atheism and most forms of Humanism, which take their position from the denial of a transcendent being. This is an illiberal perspective: the source of both lies in the denial of God, and this, when extended beyond personal belief, is an absolutist position which offends the paradigm liberal value. The absolute denial of God is as unacceptable as the absolute belief in Him. Liberal values are not in themselves inconsistent with religious belief, Atheism or Humanism only with absolutist forms of them. You cannot deny another man’s God; or impose yours on another.

This profound respect for reason and rationality, which are philosophically derived from within shared forms of life with others, generates a deep respect for human beings in and for themselves. Respect for human life and different cultures is predicated upon the liberal rejection of unexaminable metaphysical prejudice. From Russell’s first principle of rejecting absolute certainty comes the central tenet of respect for human life. This includes respect for the belief and faith of other individual human beings. It only denies these perspectives when they take a form that claims transcendental, therefore absolute, sanction in human affairs.

2. Do not think it worthwhile to proceed by concealing evidence for the evidence is sure to come to light.

This is an eminently practical and largely prudential injunction. Its moral dimension is expressed elsewhere in the decalogue. The list of politicians who have ignored it, incurring precisely the consequences indicated, is headed ignominiously by Richard Nixon. But he has plenty of political company.

3. Never discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed

Only partly ironic on Russell’s part. French philosopher Simone Weil comes to mind: “action is easy; thought is hard; the hardest of all is thoughtful action.” Rationality is a fundamental liberal value and as it is always a matter of degree, the rigour of the rationality displayed will be a function of the quality of thought. But there is a deeper point: to encourage thinking and not to discourage it, is not only an expression of a commitment to rationality but an implicit acceptance of dissent (see 8 below). Dissent can be problematic: but to stifle it is to evade the rigour and discipline of subjecting one’s thinking to challenge and the need to overcome that challenge by reasoned argument. (see 4). Russell lived by this principle: he said that it was the philosopher’s professional responsibility to make his thinking as accessible as possible to expose it fully to question and challenge.

4. When you meet with opposition, even if it be from your spouse or children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not authority, for a victory dependent upn authority is unreal and illusory.

Opposition is the grit of truth and the prick of humility. One of the defining characteristics of liberal values that makes them tough to adhere to in politics is the point Russell makes above: it is the manner of victory, not merely the fact, that is crucial. People can be induced to behave in specified ways by different means: fear, greed, desire, selfishness work well as is attested by the original decalogue. Even more effective and pertinent for our current economic and political system is the appeal to naked self-interest. The economic success of this appeal has led to its universal acceptance even by ideologies inherently hostile to it, like socialism.

The moral discomfort many feel about this has been ‘spun’ away. Logical legerdemain has turned a partly immoral perspective into a civic and moral duty. The economic triumph of global capitalism at the end of the 20th century, which swept away competing ideologies rested firmly on the success of the appeal to naked self-interest - national, corporate and personal – as a prime motivator. Margaret Thatcher expressed the specious ‘moral’ argument for this when without irony or humility, she ‘explained’ that the Samaritan’s goodness was dependent upon the fact that he had sufficient wealth to implement his desire to help the stranger.

Thus politically, the pursuit of self-interest generates maximum excess value, some of which can be extracted through taxation to support public expenditure to help the less successful. What looks like selfishness becomes not only socially desirable but a personal and civic duty. We have created an unselfish selfishness. Orwell’s on the spin.

Of course appeal to self-interest works: it’s so easy; we can do what we want and feel morally smug about doing it. But it is not the only appeal to which human beings respond: they can also be motivated by appeals to personal pride, humanity, concern for the natural world, love of art in all its forms, respect for other cultures and for the wonder of human diversity etc.

Status in our culture is a function of personal and corporate wealth. It is a function of power. Just the kind of hierarchical authority Russell is attacking. There is a theme here of the way one achieves victory as paramount.

5. Have no respect for the authority of others as there are always contrary authorities to be found.

This echoes the injunction about certainty. If it is important to resist the absolutism of personal certainty, then the history of the 20th century shows how much more vital is resistance to the certainty of the group: Nazism, Stalinism, Racism, indeed most of the political ‘isms’. This illustrates a key liberal value: respect for the individual and a sense of distinctiveness from the group. The only true ‘authority’ therefore is that of reason, respect for the truth and the importance of other individuals.

6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do, the opinions will suppress you.

A lesson for messrs Bush, Rumsfeld, Joe McCarthy et al. What price current American foreign policy with regard to Islamic fundamentalism? This is not to deny the problem of terrorism; it is just an apposite and dire warning about seeking the wrong kind of victory.

7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted, was once eccentric.

A re-statement of the above principles. An encouragement to the individual to have the courage and confidence in his on judgement subject of course to 1. The history of science is the perfect illustration of this precept.

8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence, as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

“A cloud of philosophy condensed in a drop of grammar” as Wittgenstein remarked in another context. The quality of thought is related to intelligence. Respect for dissent has to do with a sense of humility with regard to thought; a recognition of the dangers of certainty. It underlines the value of rationality, as being a process shared with others. The ‘deeper’ agreement of which Russell speaks which philosophically derives from sharing a language, might be called the love of and respect for, the search for truth. Not undeniable ‘truths’ (see 1); but the courageous, humble effort to seek out as much truth as the different circumstances will permit. And the acknowledgement that one must look outside oneself, to others, to achieve this.

9. Be scrupulously truthful, even when the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

The list of public figures who have ignored this precept to their cost is long. But this is not just pragmatic advice. Beneath it lies the principle of trust. The viability of language itself is predicated on the principle that people, on the whole, tell the truth as best they can when they use language. The systematic mis-use of this principle gradually undermines the process of communication and thereby the possibility of trust of the individual who abuses this expectation. Of course people cheat, dissemble, mislead, spin, as well as tell the truth. But the trust for a politician for example, derives from the connection between what he says and what he does, and the explanation he gives when things turn out differently from those expected. Nota bene Mr Blair.

10. Do not feel envious of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think it is paradise.

Deception, even self-deception, is a conscious or sub-conscious denial of truth. The denial of truth is the denial of reality. The denial of reality amounts to the decision to try to live out of harmony with the world around you.By Russell’s definition – a fool.

The relationship between such liberal values and specific political parties is complex. Elements can be found within all the main British parties. But as Mr Blair tries to govern not merely free of the socialist ideals that bred him, but any discernible ideals at all; and Michael Howard tries yet again to flog us the latest tarted up form of soft-focus capitalism, both might benefit from the rigorous discipline liberal values provide. As for the Liberal Democrats: you must decide, this is a piece about values not parties; nobody owns values.

Zettel (August 2004)

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Comments by other Members

hsl at 01:33 on 29 August 2004  Report this post
Zettel - You have given this piece a great deal of thought already and it has much to commend it.However,from a presentational aspect,I would create responses of no more than,say,half a dozen lines to each principle.

You are handling a number of themes that are not necessarily very accessible to a lay audience and there is a danger that people can become overwhelmed by the density of the argument.

I found your responses veered from the pithy to the profoundly philosophical.It's vital that you remember the constituency you are addressing and always view the world through their eyes.

There are various typos and grammatical errors,albeit this is a draft.These you can easily iron out but I would carefully consider the above to ensure the piece flows.

Meantime,a gold star alone for directing us towards the brilliant,but frequently overlooked,mind of Bertrand Russell,one of the cleverest and most influential men of the twentieth century.Perhaps you might like to compose a subsequent missive on his many other incarnations - he was a true polymath and a fascinating man on many levels.

You have written an illuminating piece but,in closing,I should like to mention an observation by Russell that I read many years ago and have never forgotten.

"Man is a credulous animal and must believe in something and in the absence of good grounds for belief,he will be satisfied with bad ones."


Hamburger Yogi & PBW at 04:48 on 30 August 2004  Report this post
Hi Zettel,

Who is your intended audience for this article? It seems specialised enough to be academic, but then I agree with hsl that it is difficult to gather in terms of focus. The range of issues you mention are so wide as to be almost impossible to respond to. I can only comment on a few.

An essential problem for liberal values is that they are easily threatened by the ideologies that they permit. Should extreme right-wing or left-wing ideologies be given a platform? And how about fundamentalist Islam? Were any of these ideologies to gain an ascendency, liberalism would surely be done for.

'You cannot deny another man’s God; or impose yours on another.' Historically, this has been done time and time again. Today it is being done in Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and there are other countries with populations vying for Islamic states to be ruled under Sharia law (Egypt, Algeria, Libya, even Nigeria and Turkey) and are well on their way to eradicating western liberal values. Will they get very far? Not if we wake up in time to appreciate the threat. The fascists, after all, did not last - and they were better organised militarily.

Having lived in an Islamic state (Saudi Arabia) I am well aware that fundamentalist Muslims, as a relevant example, have little regard for the reason and rationality you mention - apart from when it suits them. Fundamentalist Islam is an absolutist ideology - its tenets are 'handed down' from an unassailable transcendental (the word of the prophet), so reasoning has nothing to do with the first principles - the 'fundamentals'.

Wittgenstein (any relation to your sig?) thought certainty was only a feeling. Did his colleague Russell think similarly? I don't know.

Hamburger Yogi

Zettel at 10:07 on 30 August 2004  Report this post
Howard and John

Thanks for the thoughtful detailed comments. Much to think about for me as I had hoped. I especially take the point about audience and and focus.

As for the philosophy and the values. I agree that of course values don't solve problems; they define the limits we will impose on ourselves in our pursuit of political or personal goals; everything from not eating meat for vegetarians to not abrogating human rights say in Guantanamo in the pursuit of no doubt useful anti-terrorist information. Michael Ignatieff put it well on 'Toady' just this morning in saying that the biggest threat of fundamentalist terrorism of any kind is that it undermines our social cohesiveness, solidarity of values and most especially our trust in the language we use to one another. The squandering of the world wide empathy immediately post 9/11 and failure to challenge and empower moderate Islamist to be with us rather than sidelined is a case in point I think. And the cynical misuse of language and therefore trust by both Blair and Bush proves the dangers of the second.

I agree with your admiration of Russell Howard - not least because a man who went to prison as a pacifist in WW1 brought himself to admit that armed resistance to Hitler was necessary in WW2 - rather underlines the depth of his first principle above I think.

Mustn't take this too far away from it's writing purpose. The comments both of you make on presentation are pertinent and useful, I had already thought I might have to completely re-write with a specific audience in mind. But thanks for your help.

Yes John the link is there for 'Zettel' (a box of scraps of paper and ideas - seemed appropriate). Sorry to be dogmatic but W certainly (sic) didn't think certainty was only a feeling. BUt I mustn't run another philosophical hare.

Thanks again.

Richard Brown at 09:52 on 31 August 2004  Report this post
One of the delicious dilemmas of the non-fiction parts of WriteWords is the form/content one. My resolve is to stick as far as possible to the form because that's what the site is primarily about but the very interesting piece you have written is so teasing and enticing. I'm tempted to write a book!
On the form issue, I agree with Howard that there's a degree of imbalance. It feels as though there should be a few lines for each principle or a complete essay. I had a second look at what you have written for the first principle, seeking ways in which it might be condensed. There's maybe some scope (though it wouldn't be an easy task) but I guess the abandonment of absolutism underpins just about every other one of Russell's principles. It is, of course, very pertinent to enquire about the potential readership. If you are aiming for a general audience then I think a strict (and surely painful) curtailment would be advisable. If you are writing for academics....a ten volume tome?
Can't resist just a brief comment on content. Sentences such as 'The rejection of absolutism is philosophically existentialist in character' could keep a school arguing for decades. For me, existentialism is close to being vacuous yet I hold that there are no absolutes save space and energy. In the unlikely event that you are at all interested in what I think on such things, and have a bit of time to spare, have a look at www.universetheory.com It's my effort to tackle the issue of belief.
Many thanks for the piece, Zettel - very thought-provoking!

Zettel at 11:18 on 02 September 2004  Report this post
Richard - thanks for the comments. I will check out your reference when I have a bit of space (!).

Mustn't break the WW rules here but a couple of thoughts from your philosophical comments. Vacuous in the sense of 'empty' is precisely correct for existentialism: but that is the start of its journey not the end; if there is no meaning 'out there' to be found, then it must be created.

As for this sense of 'empty' it is itself capable of diversity: Simone Weil called it the 'void'; Sartre 'nothingness' and Camus the 'absurd'. A thread of a common thought from a religious mystic, a definitive atheist (until he got Marxist religion) and a wonderfully uncharacterisable thinker who should not(would not) be put in anyone's box - just Camus.

Meaning fom emptiness? Consider: the little space we put between the letters of our words, is empty, yet renders the word clear to us: then the larger space we put between our words renders our sentences clear to us: and so with the larger space of paragraphs. Thus in this (fanciful you may consider) example far from 'emptiness - nothing' being the negation of meaning it is in a sense an integral, essential part of it. And the same is true with speech - for meaning to come from babble, for the 'I' to be heard we must use emptiness, silence(s) precisely to create sense, or at least let it be heard.

And so with the '0' in mathematics.....

Sorry to go on



Richard Brown at 12:04 on 03 September 2004  Report this post
Thanks for this. I shall ponder but not reply here lest we get into a protracted philosophical debate! If ever you get a chance to look at 'universetheory' we could maybe have that dialogue there!


Zettel at 21:53 on 03 September 2004  Report this post
Richard - I agree. Will do.

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