Friday, July 06, 2007

The True Meaning of Liberty

New Perspectives Quarterly, which I found through Arts and Letters Daily, has an article discussing what is called positive freedom with Francis Fukuyama.

NPQ The late Isaiah Berlin famously made the distinction between "negative" and "positive" freedom—the first being "freedom from" tyranny and interference and the second being "freedom to" do what one will in his or her zone of non-interference; the freedom of self-realization.
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But, almost by definition in a diverse world, positive freedom, the "freedom to," is not universal. Some people want to wear headscarves, others want to marry the same sex.

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Francis Fukuyama It's true. Most liberal democracies have been able to avoid this question of what positive freedoms they want to encourage because they haven't been challenged. Now they are challenged by minorities—Muslim immigrants in Europe, for example—or in some way by rising cultures in Asia that have a very strong sense of their own moral community, their own nonliberal values. It has become a very live issue.

In Europe especially, the issue of immigration and identity converges with the larger problem of the valuelessness of postmodernity. The rise of relativism has made it harder to assert positive values and therefore the shared beliefs Europeans demand of immigrants as conditions for citizenship. Postmodern elites have evolved beyond identities defined by religion and nation to what they regard as a superior place. But aside from their celebration of endless diversity and tolerance, they find it difficult to agree on the substance of the good life to which they aspire in common.

Also, to be clear, what I argued in The End of History was that Hegel had a more positive sense of what freedom is in terms of the recognition of basic human dignity, of the capacity to make moral choices. So, in a sense the "end of history" means the beginning of the reconstruction of a more positive, substantive, idea of what it means to live in a liberal democracy.


Objectivists, of course, recognize 'positive freedom' as the right to liberty.

The rest of the article raises some interesting points. Fukuyama states that radical Muslims aren't all that different from the fundamentalist christians. This is true in that both want to impose their morals on the rest of the country. I find the next passage repulsive and agreeable.

NPQ After 9/11, the Bush administration launched a "public diplomacy" campaign that said, "if the Muslim world only understood America" they wouldn't hate us. But this postmodern propaganda of the mass culture has been out there a long time. Muslims do understand America. That is the problem! Perhaps Americans need to be a little more humble and self-critical. Not all the fruits of freedom are appealing.


The truth of the statement is that it is complete idiocy to think that if Muslims understood America better that they wouldn't hate us. That America needs to be more humble is asinine. That there are people out there who would prefer all women to wear burqas and stone to death all homosexuals is a reason to embrace the American ideals of liberty, not degrade ourselves. After some agreement that the understanding of America is not going to get this hatred to go away, Fukuyama makes an interesting point. The interviewer then notes the obvious correlation between success and freedom--though one could argue about which is primary.

Fukuyama ...Where you get a big problem is where countries are failing at modernization. They can see the promised land, but there is no way of getting there. That creates resentment and anti-Americanism.

NPQ You could take this further. Those who are successful due to globalization, particularly in Asia, are taking on more of the attributes of the American way—more freedom, more mobility, more prosperity.


The interview then delves into the classic false dilemma of where to find values without religion. Those of us who are Ayn Rand fans know what the outcome of this should be and can laugh on the sidelines while simultaneously being very frustrated. Note how the interviewer assumes that the government should limit 'negative' cultural influences.

NPQ One reason this is such a conundrum is that secular liberal societies have real difficulty in coming up, as you suggested, with positive virtues that set boundaries on cultural behavior, be it misogynist rap lyrics, Madonna's crucifix act or cloning.

The clash with Islam underlines this moral paralysis because we live, as the late Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz used to say, in "non-parallel historical times."

As a result we witness this paradox: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, citing Spinoza, has fled from faith to reason in the name of freedom, defecting from the womb of Islam and becoming an "Enlightenment fundamentalist" and atheist. Yet, Europe's most famous secular liberal philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, now argues that since postmodern society is unable to generate its own values, it can only "nourish" itself from religious sources. For him, Western values—liberty, conscience, human rights—are grounded in our Judeo-Christian heritage.

According to Habermas, "unbridled subjectivity"—the relativism which reigns today—clashes with "what is really absolute—the right of every creature to be respected as an ‘image of God.'"

What do you make of this double movement in history?

Fukuyama This problem of how our post-religious societies come up with values was the critical issue for two celebrated thinkers from the University of Chicago—Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, and Leo Strauss.

Strauss called this "the crisis of modernity." The question is whether there is a way of establishing values through reason and philosophical discourse without reverting to religion. His central argument was that classical political philosophy—the Greeks with their emphasis on "natural right," or nature deciphered by reason as a source of values—had been prematurely rejected by modern philosophy.

The way to think about this is that we have both a deep philosophical problem and a practical political problem. The two may be related, but not necessarily.

The deep philosophical problem is whether you can walk Western philosophy back from Heidegger and Nietzche and say that reason does permit the establishment of positive values—in other words that you can demonstrate the truth of certain ideas.

The practical problem is whether you can generate a set of values that will politically serve the integrating liberal purposes you want. This is complicated because you want those values to be positive and mean something, but you also can't use them as the basis for exclusion of certain groups in society.

It is possible that we could succeed at doing one without the other. For example, the grounds of success of the American political experiment is that it has created a set of "positive" values that served as the basis for national identity but were also accessible to people who were not white and Christian or in some way "blood and soil" related to Anglo-Saxon Protestant founders of the country.

These values are the content of the American Creed—belief in individualism, belief in work as a value, belief in the freedom of mobility and popular sovereignty.

Samuel Huntington calls these "Anglo-Protestant values," but at this point they have become de-racinated from these roots. You can believe them no matter who you are or where you came from.

As kind of a practical solution to the positive value problem, it works pretty well.


The question the article is asking is how to get others to hold the values that most Americans hold--individualism, work as a value, liberty, and sovereignty. The questioner assumes that since it would be in the best interests of Western civilization to have its citizens follow these values that the government ought to do something to promote them. The most obvious way, to me, is to evince these values by actually following them.

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