I had a debate on the question of whether liberalism is of value as a political philosophy. Put succinctly, my interlocutor’s argument may be summarised as follows:
- Proponents of liberalism claim that it offers society a means to social justice
- Every society in which liberalism has been implemented to any degree still contains injustice
- The presence of injustice in so-called liberal societies indicates that the liberal project in these societies has failed
- This consistent failure of liberalism is evidence of its lack of practical tenability as a means of delivering social justice
Conclusion: liberalism is not a good political philosophy.
Furthermore, my interlocutor suggested that ‘Perhaps if we abandoned liberalism and extended democracy into industry, finance, and diplomacy as well, we would get somewhere near a just society.’
Now, nonwithstanding the suggestion about democracy, I suspect that most of you who are reading the above critique of liberalism think that it’s a bad argument. I certainly think it’s a bad argument. Even talking about liberalism in general terms, rather than focusing on some sort of specific version of it, it seems a bit absolutist. Basically, it appears to conceive of justice as something binary.
While this distinction allows us to reach the conclusion that there is still much room for improvement in our attempts to produce a just society, it doesn’t give us any sense of what progress we’ve made. Perhaps a continuum is better?
Basically, while we might conceive of some sort of ideally just society, it’s more useful in evaluating potential ways to progress toward that ideal to look at gradations of justice: more just and less just.
Real controversial, eh? I’ll leave for you to ponder the question of whether the old gray liberal mare ain’t what she used to be (or indeed if she was ever anything at all) and get to my point. Which isn’t just to show how wrong someone else is.
If you’re one of those people silly enough to get into extended discussions about how horrible the bible or qur’an is with the more fundamentalist followers of either, you might have challenged them on those passages which prescribe slavery or the beating of women who leave the house without permission only to hear something like ‘it was a good thing at the time’ if indeed you hear any defence at all. One thing worth asking, though, is ‘was the position of slaves or the treatment of women even worse before these religious laws?’ The answer is at least sometimes ‘yes’ even today. For example, one of the reasons that the Muslim Brotherhood became popular amongst many Egyptian women is that it advocated better treatment for them than that which they suffered from their family otherwise, including strong opposition to female genital mutilation – a practice prevalent in rural Egypt.
Benazir Bhutto once gave a speech on how true Muslims should be treating women better than they are. This speech was a lovely piece of amateur theology, but I’ve heard on the grapevine that the late and dearly lamented Ms Bhutto was an atheist. She understood that justice wasn’t binary, though, and that sometimes pragmatism dictates that we take the route of compromise and take baby-steps rather than agitate ceaselessly for leaps and bounds. I’m not sure this approach is best on every issue of social injustice, but we should nevertheless always be evaluating our strategies with this sort of pragmatic eye.