Thursday, February 26, 2009

The central philosophical challenge for modern Liberals

Last month I recommended the many recordings of Bryan Magee's interviews with philosophers to be found on Youtube.

One interview not to be found there is the one with Ronald Dworkin about political philosophy from the 1978 series Men of Ideas.

Towards the end of it Dworkin puts his finger on what is the central challenge for modern Liberals and for particularly for anyone trying to develop a coherent social liberal philosophy for the Liberal Democrats:

The practical problem is this: there are certain things we all want government to do. We want government, for instance, to select methods of education, to sponsor culture, and to do much else that looks, on the surface, like endorsing one set of personal values against another and therefore contradicting liberalism.

It is very important for liberals to develop a theory that would make a distinction here between enriching the choices available to people and enforcing a choice upon people.

The crucial idea, it seems to me, is the idea of imagination. The liberal is concerned to expand imagination without imposing any particular choice upon imagination.

But I've simply named a problem. I haven't met it. It does seem to me that liberalism is rather weak at this point and needs a theory of education and a theory of culture-support that it does not have.

Those words were spoken more than 30 years ago but still sounds vital and urgent today. Can anyone recommend a liberal theorist who has made progress in this direction?

5 comments:

Jock Coats said...

The practical problem is this: there are certain things we all want government to do. We want government, for instance, to select methods of education, to sponsor culture

News to me! I would say rather that "We cannot trust government, for instance, to select methoids of education, to sponsor culture, and so foth".

Am I an illiberal?

Francesca said...

It's the old divide liberalism vs 'good life' (Aristotle etc.). Martha Nussbaum tried to do just that but I'm really not convinced by it. I think she should have gone light on Aristotle and added a bit more of Marx. Without an understanding of power (the good side and the bad), we cannot understand and improve society.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the subsequent covenants on political and economic rights are excellent springboards for what a society should look like. The point is that rights and liberties, as much as any idea of the good life, need interpretation.
I would probably recommend republicanism (the philosophy), so go for Hannah Arendt. I might post soon something more coherent.

Lanna Rosgen said...

re: human rights, it's utterly depressing how our government is abusing the Convention on the Rights of the Child in order to further the top-down, liberties-stomping Five Outcomes agenda that seem to be less about making children healthier and happier and more about increasing the degree to which we are surveilled.

(Mr. Calder, I hope it's ok that I link your blog in my sidebar)

Jonathan said...

Jock: It may not make you illiberal, but it does place you outside the mainstream of Liberal thought for a century or more.

Francesca: Please send me the link when you write something on this.

Lanna: Thanks for linking to me.

Matthew Huntbach said...

Dworkin is speaking from a USA perspective, where "liberal" is often used to mean what we would call "social democrat", but even so, this can be held up as evidence against some of the re-writing of history that is common these days. There is a fashion now for a certain sort of person to claim that the central aspect of liberalism is a belief that the state should be minimal with its main task being to defend property ownership. If that were so, then what Dworkin was saying would have sounded ludicrous then, but it seems to have passed without comment then. The fact that it now sounds odd, and it does to me and I think of myself as a thoroughly social liberal, is an indication that any change in "liberalism" towards a minimalist state position has been in recent decades, rather than as the re-writers like to allege, that "social liberals" are recent usurpers in some long history of liberalism meaning what they would like it to mean.