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Freedom To Offend Or To Not To Be Offended? It’s a Natural Question!

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Guest blogger Will Jones has a PhD in political philosophy and a passion for seeing good ideas developed and put into practice. He works for the Church of England in diocesan administration, and lives in Birmingham with his wife Becky.

Barely a day goes by without some mention of shared “values” in the news. And for all our love of diversity, we seem suddenly to have become very keen that all British citizens should sign-up to strictly-bounded notions of British values. But what are those values? We don’t seem entirely sure. The response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre and to Stephen Fry’s outspoken intervention in the running debate about God and suffering, made clear that we have few qualms about permitting the public criticism of religion, however mean-spirited or in bad taste. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury defended Fry’s right to express his beliefs publicly in this way.

Other “protected characteristics” are not quite such fair game however. Consider Benedict Cumberbatch, who was pressed into a grovelling apology for using an outdated (and racially offensive) term – notwithstanding that it was in the context of highlighting problems of racism in the entertainment industry. I’m pretty sure that some would find Fry’s description of a “totally selfish, stupid, capricious, utterly evil maniac” to have something of an offensive edge. No calls for apology there, though. Our commitment to free speech and other liberties is intriguingly selective.

Meanwhile, political philosophers continue their search for the most convincing account of our liberal values and the justification for their priority. This kind of intellectual activity is crucial, because behind all the inchoate public sentiment in these matters, this is where our society attempts to make some kind of sense out of its ethical and political stances. In this field, the concept of natural law has been making something of a comeback. At the Archbishop William Temple 70th Anniversary Conference last November, political philosopher Raymond Plant drew on this concept.

Plant suggested that when it comes to justifying the liberal political order, with its commitment to basic personal freedoms, natural law is much stronger than the supposed neutrality between different viewpoints that theorists have been relying on for the past several decades. Neutrality is a myth, he argued, because the concept of coercion and what counts as it depends entirely on one’s framework of values. In this he echoes the sentiments of many scholars who have been unpersuaded by John Rawls’ idea of the freestanding, morally neutral state and have been searching for an alternative.

If not neutral then natural, says Plant. But what is natural? What kinds of norms does it teach us to follow? This is well-trodden ground, going all the way back to beginnings of philosophy in Aristotle. For Plant, though, the matter is clear: natural law points us to liberalism. It does so because it shows us a basic minimum morality that is shared by everyone. This is a morality in which the basic conditions of human agency – freedom, opportunity, resources – are secured for all. Sounds appealing; but is this really what nature teaches us? And is it really the basic morality we all share?

There are a variety of ideas of what is natural and good for human beings. Indeed, it was the bewildering variety of such ideas that John Rawls argued mandated the neutral liberal state to stand over them all and adjudicate between them. (That and the equally bewildering variety of ideas of what God says about how we should live). What, then, are the main competitors to Plant’s proposal?

Aristotle is one. For him, nature is permeated by purposes that can be rationally discerned. On this basis he argued that what is natural for the human being, as a rational and social animal, is the life of virtue lived according to reason, embedded in a well-ordered community. The good life and the good state were the focus of his attention; he didn’t care too much for personal liberty.

Two millennia later, in an England riven by civil war, Thomas Hobbes argued that the natural state of humankind, while free, is also solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, a condition brought on by their own rapacious desires. But this sorry state could be ameliorated, he thought, by the artifice of political authority, established as absolutist and indivisible.

John Locke disagreed. He argued that liberty and private property were natural to humankind, and that the political order should be organised according to principles of private property and free contract.

Since Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species, the ethical ramifications of human evolution have been at the forefront of many minds. Francis Galton advocated a programme of eugenics to improve the human gene pool and progress the human race. Peter Singer has argued that humanity’s sense of its own superiority and right over nature is mere baseless conceit. Richard Dawkins has characterised evolution as an essentially selfish molecular process, though still finds grounds for altruistic acts in the way species have evolved.

Theology for its part has varied in its attitude to the natural. Thomas Aquinas was basically a follower of Aristotle, though reworked with Christian theological insights. At the other extreme, Karl Barth rejected wholesale the idea of natural law, arguing that fallen, corrupted nature is a wholly unreliable guide to moral living. Only divine revelation can be trusted, he thought.

A prominent strand in modern theology has majored on the notion that humanity is made in the image of God. In this tradition sits William Temple, who argued for a natural order based on respect for the divine image in humanity, expressed principally through freedom and dignity, and on the ethical priority of love in social relations.

It is towards Temple’s idea of natural law which Plant primarily looked in his conference presentation.  And personally, I’m inclined to agree with Plant here: natural law of this kind is, I think, the strongest grounding for the liberal political order. However, I am aware that I think this essentially because I am a Christian.

Of course, such a commitment to freedom is not exclusive to Christians. Many who don’t believe in the Christian faith also affirm human freedom and dignity. But even so, it evidently is not a universal feature of ideas of what is natural for humanity, as we have seen. Something more, therefore, is needed to justify the liberal order, beyond mere appeal to a universal consensus on personal freedom. But neutrality has already been ruled out. What, then, can it be?

Well, that really is the question. Perhaps when we find it, though, it will point us towards what our British values actually are, and what they tell us about how we may, and may not, express ourselves in public.

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