Rationalism, pluralism and freedom

Liberalism is a philosophy of individual freedom, but liberals disagree on what counts as a threat to freedom. Jacob Levy’s Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom explores how liberal thinkers see non-state groups as both sources of and dangers to individual freedom. It traces this tension back through centuries of European and American intellectual history. The issues change but the tensions persist, especially around sensitive matters of personal identity and rights.

Contemporary controversies around non-state groups often involve religious or cultural minorities with views that part from modern norms on women, children and sexuality. In Australia, many religious organisations, for example, oppose gay marriage and fear being forced to conduct gay weddings. But it is not just traditional groups that trigger disputes. A few years ago, a Melbourne gay bar attracted widespread criticism for refusing entry to women and straight men. Different thinkers in the liberal tradition could come down on either side of these debates.

What Jacob Levy calls the pluralist liberal perspective generally provides arguments for the group’s position in these arguments. Churches should decide who they marry and bars choose who to admit. This is a pure freedom of association: groups can select their own members and determine their own rules. 

Several ideas lie behind this stance. People should be free to do in groups what they can do individually. We often need joint action to achieve our individual objectives, which may be intrinsically social or require pooled resources. Although groups can restrict our options, sometimes we want our choices constrained. Religions, for example, provide answers to complex questions about how to run our lives. Groups offer motivation and discipline against distractions and temptations in achieving high-level goals.  As Levy suggests in describing the pluralist perspective, people who waive their rights in a group have not had those rights violated, but used their freedom to make a choice.

Modern societies have many formal and informal groups, and these large numbers help regulate group life. People who are dissatisfied with their group can leave, perhaps to join another or form their own. The threat of exit or too few new members can encourage groups to modify their rules and practices. But sometimes people want to stay despite being encouraged to leave, or to join despite rejection. When this happens the issue of exclusion arises. 

Some exclusivity is essential for groups with a distinctive character. That was the issue for the Melbourne gay bar: if too many patrons are females or straight men it is no longer a gay bar. In the gay marriage in church case the issues are more complex. The prospective parties to the marriage may adhere to the faith in all but one respect. But a strong pluralist view would say that the church has the right to exclude.

What Levy calls rationalist liberalism is not hostile to groups as such, but believes that they should be accountable to the liberal state’s values.  He calls this idea ‘congruence’, that groups are normatively constrained to be democratic, constitutional and rights-respecting. People can be deprived of freedom by non-state as well as state institutions, and both should be subject to rules aimed at protecting individuals.

As Levy notes, this argument is more often implicitly relied on than spelled out. But constraining private power has a long history in liberal political thought. Liberal theories of the state typically assume that it is needed to maintain order and reduce violence – that left without restraint, private individuals and groups would harm each other’s interests. This includes within-group abuses of power. No liberal theory justifies groups enslaving or killing their members, even if they joined voluntarily.

Levy maintains, rightly I think, that there are insights and blind spots in both lines of liberal thought. The liberal state must prevent the worst of group behavior from a liberal perspective. Honour killings and child marriages, for example, have justifications within some cultures but should be prohibited by liberal states. They cause serious harm to individuals who are unable to escape their group.  But liberal state values should not go all the way down into every group and organisation. To use an example in the book, freedom of religion does not make sense within a church. A church that cannot require adherence to its religious tenets cannot be a church in any meaningful way. 

Although Levy acknowledges the insights of rationalist liberalism, there is more in the book from the pluralist perspective. This is partly because it is relatively neglected in the liberal tradition, and his book gives it a history and set of arguments. He describes the rise of formal organisations such as the Catholic Church, universities and cities and their relationship to the modern states that emerged later. The idea of the ‘ancient constitution’ was used to justify the rights and privileges of these organisations against the state. He takes us through the often contrasting views of a wide range of thinkers including Montesquieu, Voltaire, Adam Smith, Benjamin Constant, Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill. 

As a postgraduate student in liberal political theory in the early 1990s (when I shared an office with Levy for a while), I found these chapters interesting. Indeed, I wish I had written something like this at the time. But the more general reader could read selectively or skip the historical material. The core theoretical arguments are in the first and last parts of the book.

Levy observes that underlying the two liberal perspectives are social theories about how power in society is distributed and used. Our own social theories affect how we see the issues. Where some individuals face systematic discrimination that seriously limits their life opportunities, I see merit in the rationalist perspective and consequent state action. A society dominated by racist institutions would be an example. 

But in contemporary Australian society, I cannot see any real injustice in churches refusing to perform gay marriages, or gay bars excluding women and straight men. The excluded parties have many other options, but the character of each excluding group could be diminished or lost by forced association. In this context of widely distributed power, I find the pluralist perspective more persuasive. Levy has written a valuable book that highlights this liberal tradition.


This review was originally published in the CIS Policy magazine, Autumn 2015.

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