There has been predictable uproar at the revelation that, according to an anonymous survey, the average amount by which British Members of Parliament believe their salaries should rise is 32%. If that were to happen, they’d each take home £86,250 instead of their current £65, 738. Continue reading
Tony Coady on Religion in the Political Sphere: Part 3 – Religious Positives for Liberal Democracies
In debates about the virtues of religion, it is often difficult for scholars to agree on which interpretation of a particular religion’s mandates and precepts is an accurate one. Do the world’s major religions promote civil discourse, tolerance, and mutual respect, or are do the truth claims embedded in their ideologies promote argument, vitriol, and in the worst cases, untold violence?
The former, argues Professor Tony Coady in his final Leverhulme lecture on November 29th, entitled “Religious Positives for Liberal Democracies.” (Full podcast) In his lecture, Coady briefly recaps the arguments from his first two lectures, harshly criticizing the notion that “public” or “secular” reasoning is somehow neutral, and vociferously rebutting the notion that religion and religious people are inherently prone to violence. While in his first two lectures, Coady focused his attention on the theoretical and philosophical questions which undergird debates about the role of religious reasoning in the public square, in his final lecture, he examines the ways in which religion (using Christianity as an example) upholds liberal virtues that are fundamental to flourishing democratic debate and deliberative democracy.
In his second Leverhulme Lecture on November 22nd, Professor Tony Coady focused on the issues underlying the common assertion that we ought to exclude religious arguments from deliberations in the political sphere of liberal democratic societies. Coady traces this idea to arguments by Audi and Rawls on ‘secular reasons’ and ‘public reasons’ respectively, which suggest that the sorts of reasons and arguments made in public policy decision-making ought to be secular or neutral, in the sense of being accessible to all reasonable citizens, on the basis of mutual respect.
However, Coady raises a number of questions that demonstrate the problematic nature of this concept of ‘deliberative restraint.’ Perhaps most fundamentally, how can we in practice distinguish between religious reasons and non-religious reasons? Must an argument cite God in order to be considered a ‘religious argument’ or merely appear to be influenced by religious concepts? The later would probably exclude arguments from the natural law tradition or those based on human dignity, which in fact look quite similar to non-religious arguments. Furthermore, how can we know whether an individual accepts a given reason because it comes from a religious source or because it appeals to him independently? Finally, why do we think that mutual respect requires the articulation of only non-religious reasons in the public sphere? It seems religious individuals can demonstrate mutual respect for fellow citizens in many other ways, through respect for procedural and constitutional practices for instance, without excluding religious arguments. Continue reading
Dr Philip Lee, Conservative MP for Bracknell and a practising GP, today suggested that people whose lifestyle choices lead to medical problems should have to contribute towards their healthcare costs. He apparently highlighted type 2 diabetes – which can be brought on by an unhealthy diet, being overweight, and lack of exercise, although some people are genetically disposed to it – and is quoted in the Huffington Post as saying, ‘If you want to have doughnuts for breakfast, lunch and dinner, fine, but there’s a cost’.
At first glance, the idea that those who lead unhealthy lifestyles should bear the burden of their own resulting health problems seems fair. But there are serious problems with this idea. Let us consider two of them. Continue reading
When Binta Jobe [not her real name] was nine, she was taken into the Gambian bush where she suffered female genital mutilation at the hands of an amateur surgeon without anaesthetic. She is now a 23-year-old asylum seeker in the UK, trying to prevent her three-year-old daughter from a similar experience if she is forcibly returned to the Gambia. Continue reading
This week is Living Wage Week. The aim of this campaign is to encourage employers to pay their lowest paid employees a Living Wage – the amount necessary to meet the basic cost of living –rather than the legally required minimum wage. Currently, the minimum wage is £6.19 per hour, whereas outside London the Living Wage is £7.45. The basic cost of living is determined by the cost of “an adequate level of warmth and shelter, a healthy palatable diet, social integration and avoidance of chronic stress for earners and their dependents”.
Almost five million workers are paid less than the living wage. Continue reading
Today we learnt that Barack Obama will be the President of the USA for another term. Much of the debate preceding Obama’s election victory focused on how each presidential candidate planned to resuscitate the American economy. Time will tell whether Obama will succeed in this area, and we will be able to debate the merits of his economic strategy in comparison to Romney’s alternative vision over the next four years.
The state of the American economy is, of course, of paramount importance. However, the salience of economic issues in this presidential race should not blind us to the importance of Obama’s re-election (or rather Romney’s non-election) to several other weighty issues in practical ethics. In the light of Obama’s victory and the aforementioned focus on the economy in this election race, it is prudent to remind ourselves of three moral consequences of the election result.
When MPs took a maths exam it showed that the members of parliament are pretty bad at elementary probability. When asked “if you spin a coin twice, what is the probability of getting two heads?” 47% of conservatives and 77% of the Labour MPs gave the wrong answer. About 75% of the MPs felt confident when dealing with numbers, although they generally though politicians did not use official statistics and figures correctly when talking policy.
How should a rational person react to this news?
Some days ago, two 13-year-old boys have been charged with first degree murder in Wisconsin (USA), as reported by the Daily News (New York). Allegedly, they went to one of the boy’s great-grandmother’s home, killed her using a hatchet and hammer, then stole her jewellery and her car – and went for a pizza afterwards.
After giving horrid details of the killing, the Daily News concludes its report with stating that the boys’ defence attorney tries to have the case moved to juvenile court. The reason why these 13-year-olds are not automatically charged as juveniles but stand trial in an adult court is that the USA allows prosecutors to try minors as adults when they commit certain violent felonies. In several states, children as young as 7 can be – and are – tried as adults for some years now. They can be convicted to adult sanctions, including long prison terms, mandatory sentences, and placement in adult prisons. (Since 2005, however, under 18-year-olds can’t be convicted to death sentence any more.)
A version of this piece was originally published on carnegiecouncil.org.
What is it like to be liberal in East Asia, where political leaders repeatedly denounce liberal values for various purposes—from suppressing dissenters to pursuing popular support?
I recently had the privilege of visiting the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, where I met academics and practitioners from South Korea, Japan, China, and elsewhere. One of the most interesting things I learned there is that liberals—those who seek to combine a fundamental commitment to liberty with the endorsement of other key values including individuality, rationality, equality, and the limited and accountable use of power—in South Korea have had difficulties in coming to terms with the country’s impressive political achievements since the late 1980s. While there is little evidence leading us to believe that the civil liberties, political equality, and economic prosperity that the populace have enjoyed in the last 25 years will turn out to be short-lived, South Korean liberals have been unable to feel at home in the newly liberal and democratic South Korea. Being used to seeing themselves as free-floating intellectuals detached from society at large, they are more bemused than amused by the series of political and economic accomplishments that they long wished for. They sometimes look at Japan with some envy as the neighbour has a longer and hence presumably more stable history of liberal democracy and a matching intellectual tradition running from Yukichi Fukuzawa through Masao Maruyama and his disciples.
Be that as it may, Japanese liberals hardly feel more at home in their society than their Korean counterparts. While it is true that Japan has been the only Asian country that has been nominally liberal and democratic for more than six decades without interruption, Japanese liberals suspect that their democracy is scarcely rooted in a genuine democratic culture and their liberal tradition is not mature enough to deserve much praise. To this, they often add the observation that Japan’s key liberal achievements are not home-grown but transplanted “from above;” after all, it was Americans that half-forcibly introduced (or “imposed”) during occupation a series of major reforms to set up liberal institutions, including the Constitution of Japan, that are still dear to the nation’s liberal (and non-liberal) left. Indeed, Japanese liberals are so uncomfortable with their country’s political achievements that they often look at South Korea with envy; unlike the Japanese, their neighbour obtained liberal democracy through grassroots movements “from below.”
The uneasiness among the well-educated liberals with their own society’s political tradition is arguably even stronger in China. Chinese liberals are of course glad to see the considerable public interest in liberal ideas that has emerged since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. However, they are alarmed by the no less strong interest in recent years in the work of the critics of liberalism including Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss, not only because these thinkers’ ideas are in themselves worrying to liberals but also because they might crush the country’s nascent liberal tradition. It is one thing that Schmitt’s Political Theology has enjoyed a renewed interest among political philosophers and historians in the safety of the faculty clubs of Harvard and Princeton; it is quite another that it has attracted increasing popularity among China’s rising educated class. Indeed, partly due to the influence of Western anti-liberal thought, in the last few decades some of the former friends of liberalism in China have been converted to enemies.
Liberals in South Korea, Japan, and China, despite their important differences that I do not wish to downgrade, may thus be said to share one thing in common: the inability to feel at home. The flipside of this is of course the notion that liberalism is something Western—and above all European—and therefore somehow alien to the indigenous traditions in East Asia. What are we to make of such a confidence problem?
First of all, the nature of the problem must be properly understood. The entity in which East Asian liberals lack confidence is not themselves but their respective societies. Typically well-educated and relatively well-off with varying degrees of international (read: Western) education and experience, East Asian liberals are a fairly self-assured bunch, seeing liberal values as a natural and essential part of who they are. What they doubt is whether the rest of their society will be as liberal as they have always been. This perceived gap between the liberals’ liberal selves and the supposedly illiberal or insufficiently liberal societies that they inhabit gives rise to a fascinating variety of elitism—strong and weak, social and intellectual, conscious and subconscious. It is in fact surprising how distrusting East Asian liberals can be of their fellow citizens, all the while professing to believe in democratic values and the power of civil society in the abstract.
It may of course be argued that the confidence problem that East Asian liberals suffer from is a false one; just because many liberal ideas and institutions originate from Western history does not mean that people in other regions cannot benefit from them. The automobile may have been invented in Europe, but East Asians have not only benefited from using it but have arguably surpassed the Europeans in manufacturing cars. This argument is coherent, but it is not as persuasive as it may appear because it is based on the dubious premise that a political tradition is to a people what the automobile is to its consumers and producers. The argument has at any rate been unable to impress sceptical East Asians, who think that the relationship of liberalism to a people is like a sense of direction to a driver; it is something that can be acquired and refined by training, but it is also partly inherited through generations and is hence ultimately unchangeable in the short run. Genuinely liberal East Asia is possible—but not in our lifetime.
The degree of essentialism accompanying such pessimism is questionable. It is important to remind ourselves in this context that Europe has not always been a continent of liberty, equality, human rights, and the rule of law. Anti-Semitism and other traditional forms of barbarism are unfortunate and yet undeniable chapters in European history. In addition, as Michael Oakeshott wrote as early as 1939, the modern doctrines of communism, fascism, and National Socialism cannot be simply ignored because each of them “is an expression of something in our civilization;” indeed, “we cannot merely regret them without regretting our civilization.” (The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe, p. xii) One may extend Oaskeshott’s observation still further: if liberal democracy originates from “European civilization,” so do the concentration camps. One does not need to be a Theodor Adorno to see that illiberal ideas and ideologies are an integral part of European history.
Yet the idealization of Europe among East Asian liberals is not a matter of mere ignorance. It has also been a strategic move to pile up the resources of criticism, although the move has typically been a semiconscious one. That is, East Asian liberals have portrayed Europe as a sort of actually existing utopia, against which their home societies can be measured, their problems identified, and solutions found. They have thus been able to take a short cut to act as social critics by pointing across Eurasia at a model society to aspire to, instead of constructing what John Rawls called “ideal theories” and considering how these might be applied to highly non-ideal East Asia. The strategy worked well at least until the late 20th century when Asians by and large were struggling to reach the economic standard of developed Western countries. It is debatable whether the same strategy will turn out to be as effective in this “Asian century.”
Indeed, it might be the case that the entire mode of social criticism that I discussed will eventually come to an end, as the economic disparity between East Asia and Europe shrinks and will perhaps be reversed, and as the growing flow of information and people will make the idealization of Europe—or of any region in the world for that matter—impossible. Until such time arrives (if it arrives at all), East Asian liberals will continue to feel a sense of loneliness and discomfort in their home societies. Yet those sentiments may well be seen as a blessing rather than a curse by their future descendants, because the time when East Asian liberals feel utterly at home will also be the time when they lose what has been one of the most significant sources of inspiration for social and political change in the region: imagined Europe as a liberal democratic paradise. Will the loss be followed by the emergence of a new form of political imagination? The answer is too early to tell.
* Thanks are due to Bi-Hwan Kim, Shin Osawa, and Wang Qian for helpful comments on an earlier version of this piece.