More on moiders

by Chris Bertram on July 22, 2004

There’s been much discussion of the Marc Mulholland post that I linked to the other day, though the ratio between heat and light varies somewhat from post to post and from comment to comment. Somewhat frustrating for me has been the fact that the main critics of the original post are people who take themselves to be defenders of liberalism and opponents of moral relativism. Since I think of myself as both of those things, and don’t share their reaction to the original piece, something has gone wrong somewhere. One of the more sympathetic critics has been Norman Geras who points to an ambiguity in Marc Mulholland’s characterization of liberalism:

bq. On the one hand, he says:

bq. bq. It’s worth recalling that liberal modernity is itself a historic and contested construction, not a revelation of reason and human essence.

bq. Again:

bq. bq. Liberals have a tendency to treat their own norms as self-evident and, as [an] expression of ahistorical ‘rights’, not only universally applicable but necessary components of full human morality.

bq. We can read these statements in two ways. They could just be saying what can be said of any cultural or political outlook: that it has a historical genesis and grounding, a social milieu, and so on. It’s not pre-given; it’s not written in the stars. Or Marc’s two quoted statements could be intended as saying, more strongly: (and therefore) liberalism, like every other outlook, is just an outlook, no better or no worse than other outlooks.

I happen to agree with Norm that liberalism is a damn sight better than other outlooks, and with his rejection of moral relativism. But there is a reason for insisting upon the (recent) historical genesis of liberalism which he doesn’t entertain, but which seems to me important, and has to do with a certain inappropriateness of attitude.

The inappropriateness I have in mind is that of the person who used to believe P and now believes not-P, but who now denounces and attacks all those who still believe P as stupid or malicious, since “any fool can see” that P is false. Ex-Marxists of the “God that failed” type are especially prone to this, but it isn’t limited to them. The utterer of self-righteous denunciation seems to hide from himself or herself a due acknowledgement of the fact that he or she used to believe what, apparently, only the stupid or malicious _could_ believe.

There’s a leap from the individual to the group or cultural manifestation of this phenomenon, but it is one that I’m going to make. In his post, Mulholland pointed to a number of attitudes, opinions and values characterisic of “liberal modernity” (note, not “liberalism” as such). They included attitudes towards homosexuality, sex with young teenagers, wealth and celebrity and a whole host of other things. Assume, and it is a pretty big assumption, that the attitudes characteristic of “liberal modernity” on many of these issues are broadly justified. The fact remains that those attitudes weren’t embedded in the public culture “around here” as recently as the mid-1960s. And there are large swathes of “the West”, where some or all of them still aren’t the common cultural currency (those parts of the United States with sodomy laws, for example).

Many of the people who make up the various Muslim communities within Western Europe come from social and cultural backgrounds which reject all or some elements of the newly acquired _conscience collective_ of the West. To the extent to which those elements are good — and obviously I happen to think some of them such as acceptance of homosexuality and equality for women — then rejection of them by Muslims is a bad thing (without qualification). And we ought to say so. But we need to able to do this without saying, in effect “You backward medieval morons for believing that P!”, where P is some belief that very many of “us” held a mere generation or two ago.