Symposium: The Liberal Conversation

Civilising political theory

Paul Corcoran, University of Adelaide

George Crowder Liberalism and Value Pluralism London, Continuum, 2002 (276 pp). ISBN 0-82645-047-4 (paperback) RRP $60.00.

William A. Galston Liberal Pluralism: The Implications of Value Pluralism for Political Theory and Practice Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002 (137 pp). ISBN 0-52101-249-X (paperback) RRP $49.95.

The great tradition of modern political theory from the 17th to the 19th century threw up robust images of social transformation. The past was a dark chasm, a wilderness struggle of each against all, where every man was an enemy and women, the booty of conquest, went unmentioned. The present was the detritus of feudal subjection. Exposed by a sweeping beacon of enlightenment that would also inflame popular will, a new age loomed as a nightmare haunting the existing order. The happy future was confidently, romantically unimaginable, but inevitably wonderful. The hallmarks of political theory stood out in bold figures for popular acclaim — natural law, rights of man, liberty, equality, revolution, freedom, sovereignty — no matter that these ideas were fashioned by Oxford scholars in exile or self-educated roamers.

In the past three or four decades political theory has been an altogether tamer affair, difficult to understand and harder to appreciate outside of its circle of practitioners. By and large it is a recondite debate among solemn academics about an expanding list of ‘-isms’. That list was lengthened, paradoxically, by the wistful abandonment of its two most popular items, socialism and communism, on or about 1989. Thus Anglo-American as well as Australian political theory burgeoned with scholars newly interested in old, conservative concepts: justice, liberalism, citizenship, and pluralism, with a frisky new front-runner in ‘communitarianism’ (proving that political theory, like nature, abhors a vacuum). A veil of silence was drawn over the embarrassing question of why these ‘normative’ concepts were no longer contemptuously dismissed, as they had been for a century, as deceptive figments of the hegemonic bourgeois capitalist state, previously taken seriously only by ideologically naïve American political scientists. In the millennium’s final decade everyone was ‘doing’ liberalism with sudden concern for its defects, shortcomings and self-defeating paradoxes, and the inquiry looks good for at least another decade.

‘Pluralism’ has more recently become a focus in liberal theory and critique. William Galston’s Liberal Pluralism and George Crowder’s Liberalism & Value Pluralism are solid evidence of this busy, courteous but increasingly esoteric ‘debate’ (really a liberal conversation) about the philosophical and ethical foundations of political liberalism. On a practical level, the pluralist agenda is to adjust or ‘hybridise’ a Euro-centric body of liberal political and ethical ideas in the face of cosmopolitan pressures. It is an acknowledgement of the challenges of globalisation, migration, ethnic dispersion and resettlement, multiculturalism, and the considerable power of non-democratic states and non-Western cultures.

However, both Galston and Crowder are primarily concerned with a philosophical problem. Their focus on pluralism is a belated response to the troubling philosophical challenge posed in the 1960s by Isaiah Berlin’s views on ‘value pluralism’ eventually published in his Four Essays on Liberty (1969). Arguing against the sweeping optimism of Enlightenment rationalism, utopianism, and monistic universalism, Berlin made out a powerful case for the deep and irreconcilable plurality of human values.

In this view, religious and moral ideals, cultural mores, aims, hopes, ways of life, and belief are the separate preserves of diverse cultures. More than simply ‘different’, these plural values are incommensurable, with distinct moral contents arising from differing planes of social experience and human aspiration. Indeed far from being susceptible to convergence, resolution, or assimilation in some overarching moral or political hierarchy, human values are often opposed to each other, even to the point of mutual exclusion: not simply between cultures, but within them, too. The centre does not hold, the Good is not one, there is no single moral universe whose laws will resolve the chops and changes of human life and hope.

Thus the central theme for both Galston and Crowder is that value pluralism confronts liberal democratic thought with a serious dilemma. Is liberalism a universally applicable moral and philosophical framework of individual ‘rights’, political equality, and personal autonomy, and thus an avenue for general and progressive human liberation? Or is it simply a culturally specific and relatively barren system of instrumental rationalism and market competition, merely one scheme of values amongst a plurality of values? In practical terms, is a liberal democratic society able to embrace (not just tolerate and survive) cultural values and ways of life that are profoundly different from the liberal values of secular democratic participation, personal freedom, privacy, and individual autonomy? In a world seeming to lose its borders and settled identities as populations shift and former colonial powers now experience something like reverse ‘invasion’, these are not merely rhetorical questions.

More than simply ‘different’, plural values are incommensurable.

Both Galston and Crowder argue that classical liberalism fails to provide satisfactory answers. As an ideological blunt instrument of Western power, liberalism is a problem: theoretically incoherent and practically dangerous. For both authors, pluralism is the refined instrument that promises to transform liberalism into a solution. Indeed Crowder argues that is the solution to the challenges of diversity and inequality.

For most people, at least in the West, the classical values of liberal democratic theory retain considerable appeal as civilised, humane, even lofty ideals: individual freedom, moral autonomy of the person, tempered equality, a healthy suite of human rights (to life, expression, religious worship, due process at law), private property, democratic participation and representation, the toleration of eccentricity and cultural difference. Surely, the non-specialists might easily assume, these are good things; any person and society would want these goods and societies that espouse and implement these values will be better off for doing so. No?

Well, no indeed. Liberal, pluralist, and communitarian theorists — including Galston and Crowder — have managed to flatten all those lofty concepts into a terrain riven with faults and peppered with landmines. The arguments go like this.

Are you a ‘tolerant’ person? Rather than compliment yourself, consider how, when tolerating another person, you engage in an act of moral condescension that affirms your superior position in an unequal power relationship that reinforces the sway of a dominant culture upon a minority.

If you believe in individual freedom, do you appreciate that this value means nothing outside a social context in which its exercise requires a panoply of material benefits and cultural attainments that many do not enjoy? Does, therefore, the liberal conception of individual freedom accept, or even presuppose, social disadvantage and inequality? Is the ‘liberal individual’ a deceptive myth, given the obvious fact that everyone is born into a web of familial and social relations without which human life is physically and emotionally impossible?

‘Moral autonomy’ may at first seem like the mark of robust emotional and psychological maturity, but what if that ideal is challenged by values which emphasise the critical importance of allegiance, interdependence, care, and obedience to higher authority? Suddenly the ‘fully autonomous person’ is cast in the light of a loner, a selfish person, an alien from community: what the ancient Greeks called an idiot.

Similarly, the liberal democratic political idea of ‘majority rule’ is seen in the theoretical mirror as a threat to minority interests and rights. Liberty (to own and accumulate property, to make profitable contracts with other ‘individuals’) is at odds with equality.

If the liberal ground doesn’t explode, it seems to buckle and shift. The underlying fault is the assumption that liberal democratic processes are morally and ethically ‘neutral’, simply ‘procedures’ that enable a society to choose its own distinctive values and goals. This assumption is attacked from every angle. First, far from being ‘neutral’, liberalism is a dense fabric of moral commitments about how individuals should develop and function, what values they should hold, and how society and the economy should be organised. Second, liberalism locks in gender roles and exacerbates inequalities and cultural difference. Third, proceduralism falsely presupposes as universal a Western utilitarian rationalism. Fourth, this in turn implies a specific, ideologically committed ideal of ‘human progress’. Instead of a universal solvent, liberalism begins to look like a comprehensive disaster.

If the liberal ground doesn’t explode, it seems to buckle and shift.

Galston and Crowder therefore turn to ‘pluralism’ as a solution to the conceptual weaknesses of liberalism. Different values and ways of life deserve not simply toleration but political fostering and reinforcement. Each stands on an irreducible foundation of moral and political right. Crowder’s position seems to invert that comfortable tenet of liberal monotheism: ‘Faith is one, but the gods are many’.

Both Galston and Crowder are nevertheless keen to distinguish between value pluralism and relativism. Rejecting the solipsistic, ‘anything goes’ posture of moral relativism, their stated intention is to shore up a common foundation of humane values. Variously described as basic, universal, common, essential, or fundamental values, Galston and Crowder clearly mean the ‘human rights’ to life, peace, humane respect, and material welfare. They assert these moral absolutes as axiomatic in a brave but hasty manner that, to this reader, reflects a degree of anxiousness at the conspicuous absence of a satisfactory account of how in a world of plural, incommensurable values some are trumps after all. One is given the impression that the absolute right to ‘decent’ and ‘humane’ treatment for all persons is intuitive and, in fairness, to deny this is to endorse murder, starvation, and crushing oppression. But it is a very small and precarious Archimedean point to stand upon — a refugee camp, one might call it, in a world of scarcity and desperation, with no shortage of those keen to erect and mend the fences.

Galston and Crowder know and comment upon each other’s work and direct traffic around all the usual suspects of liberal theory. Galston is a rare case of an academic political theorist who has been a policy adviser in several United States presidential campaigns and an officer in the Clinton White House. He provides a condensed, lucid overview of the liberal-pluralist literature and illustrates practical, moral, and political dilemmas with interesting test cases.

Crowder’s is a book of philosophical advocacy, arguing for the internal coherence of liberal pluralism as a moral and political system. Though conceding that liberal pluralism requires ‘hard choices’ in particular cases, he makes the ambitious claim that

pluralism … allows a universal case for liberalism, indeed that such a case can be grounded in the idea of value pluralism itself…. I argue that the formal features of value pluralism imply certain normative principles that are best satisfied by a liberal form of politics (p. 12).

Galston is more sanguine. ‘Liberal pluralism may be a chastened and restrained form of politics’, he insists, because

liberal pluralist public institutions must often act in ways that restrict the activities of individuals and groups [in order to] create and secure space within which [other] individuals and groups may lead their lives in accordance with their diverse understandings of what gives life meaning and value (p. 125).

But Galston’s problem is Crowder’s opportunity. Crowder embraces ‘perfectionist, redistributive and moderately multicultural’ liberal principles to guide the state as ‘the best agency for pluralist liberal intervention … as the chief counterweight to the market’ (p. 256). In addition to remedying ‘the ill effects of market-based benign neglect’ for the less fortunate, ‘the liberal state should take as a positive goal the promotion of cultural diversity in order to promote a diversity of goods and ways of life…. The pluralist-liberal state will intervene to promote more than one culture’ (p. 242).

Galston’s problem is Crowder’s opportunity.

Galston’s American pessimism about the scope of state power is a mirror image of Crowder’s interventionist optimism, which clearly survived whatever influence Thatcher might have had upon Oxford during his sojourn there. Galston sees plural values and diverse ways of life placed at risk by the tendency of a liberal democratic state to interfere and seek to impose ‘rational’ and majoritarian norms upon cultural minorities. Because of its ill-focused educational system and deep social and racial divisions, Galston fears that American society teeters on the brink of disintegration. Crowder’s underlying worry is that liberal society will produce a rigid, oppressive monoculture unless the state intervenes to foster diversity and difference. We shouldn’t be surprised that cultural pluralism is at work in political theory, too.

To a reader not attuned to the vocabulary and tenor of these conversations the apparent obsession with subtle distinctions, qualifications, tensions, and paradoxes of liberal thought may seem tedious. The expanse of common ground is obvious and openly conceded, looking very much like liberal terrain to this reader. Crowder’s overcooked reading intensifies the debate: someone mildly questioning a liberal idea will be classified an ‘anti-liberal’; a theorist affirming that liberal values are acceptably rational will be called a ‘universalist’ or a ‘perfectionist’. Of course philosophical argumentation and scholarly discourse are almost always esoteric and nuanced. Those attuned to the complexities of any topic will appreciate that the devil is in the detail.

Crowder offers liberal pluralism as a philosophical solution to the theoretical incoherence of liberalism and the cultural challenges of value pluralism. Yet his complex arguments seem to boil down to a circular and tautological conclusion: the solution to the problems of liberalism is value pluralism, and the solution to the problems of value pluralism is liberalism. Moreover, his ethical and policy injunctions merely echo respectable contemporary moral perspectives and progressive legislation on wealth distribution, gender, post-colonial difference, and multiculturalism. This is a rather safe and uninspiring conclusion to what both authors perceive as a momentous intellectual dilemma. Galston and Crowder, both assiduous and prolific contributors to the ‘liberal debate’, ominously signal the pitfalls of triumphal liberalism and encourage the chastening embrace of pluralism. But it is hard to see the difference between their urgent normative prescriptions and the familiar policy agendas of Western liberal democracies. ‘Liberalism is not enough’, they seem to be saying, ‘we need more liberalism’.


Berlin, I. 1969, Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Paul Corcoran is Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Adelaide.

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