OK in Riyadh but not in Hampstead

Liberals and Cannibals
November 7, 2003

Frank Webster on liberalism's limits

Espousing cultural relativism seems a safe bet if you want to pass through life without much trouble, getting on with neighbours and appreciating the diversity of humankind. In our multicultural world, the great thing is to understand different lifestyles - whether of cuisine and style, or of outlook and attitude. Open yourself to these experiences and you'll be the better for it, goes the refrain. A celebratory note is ever present: there may be many different cultures, but all are equal. Such is the conventional wisdom of the bien pensant .

Cultural relativism works fine in matters such as food, drink and music. But what about wearing the veil? Unease about this will have been felt by many westerners who have visited the Middle East, and even by many in our cities. Might we accept slavery in the name of cultural relativism - OK for them, intolerable for us? Or beheading for adultery - fine in Riyadh, unthinkable in Hampstead?

Such instances demonstrate the ultimate obscenity of relativism. They demand that we set limits, that we strive to uphold some universal principles of behaviour and belief. The moral equivalence that accompanies cultural relativism cannot be accepted when it means that reason, religious tolerance and democracy are equated with an absolutism that executes unbelievers, conflates government and religious faith and denies the truth of science.

Steven Lukes is the very model of the modern liberal, committed to respect for other cultures. But he knows there must be limits, and these he endeavours to establish in this fine book of essays and lectures. It was produced in the 1990s, for the most part, when relativism flourished. And Lukes takes as his starting point terms posed by the late Martin Hollis. Is it to be cannibalism for cannibals, liberalism for liberals or, if not, then what should be put in their place?

Once upon a time there were no qualms. Diversity of life has been recognised since the days of antiquity. Blaise Pascal observed in the 17th century that "what is truth on one side of the Pyrenees is error on the other". But not for a moment did Pascal consider that two contradictory beliefs should be accorded equal respect. Reason and religion were evidently superior, and were the means by which lesser cultures might be ordered on allegedly universal principles.

Of late, confidence in both reason and religion has been shot. Our Christian (and other) faiths are not inherently superior to others, and reason itself has a mixed record. It has led to the horrors of the Gulag, nuclear destruction and the environmental spoliation that threatens the planet. So, at a time when cultural diversity is more evident because of the global media, migration and everyday experience, is there any way in which we can resist the perils of moral equivalence while recognising the limits - ultimately ethnocentric - of an emphasis on religion and, more insistently, reason?

It is Lukes' case that the tensions between relativism and universalism can be resolved within a framework of liberalism, so long as this is conceived as "practices and institutions" such as free speech and due process, rather than as a world view. Lukes bravely attempts to provide grounds for how we might live together with difference, how we might at once welcome diversity yet refuse moral nihilism.

The argument consciously evokes the contribution of Isaiah Berlin. Three chapters are dedicated to his work, to rescue him from critics who dismiss him as an unprincipled gossip, and to remind us that this "man of the left" welcomed pluralism on grounds of the incommensurability of values. Berlin acknowledges that how people live necessarily draws on incompatible beliefs (read cultures) that are neither superior nor equal to others. Yet he insists that this conflict is usually manageable by reasonable people in negotiation with their fellows. By and large, while a commitment to equality may be incommensurate with dedication to liberty, most of us can get through by making "trade-offs". Sceptics might recall here Berlin's intervention in the 1960s to exclude Isaac Deutscher, the talented biographer of Leon Trotsky, from a university position because, though an exile from communism, Deutscher retained his Marxist convictions. Others will remember Berlin's support for America in the Vietnam war and wonder how far his pluralism really reached.

Liberals and Cannibals is a stimulating defence of liberalism today. It hits out at Hayek's hard-nosed market morality while too hastily dismissing "third-way" and communitarian thought. Its thesis takes Lukes close to an endorsement of "common humanity", a universalistic doctrine that postmodernists readily dismiss as essentialist nonsense. This book takes the accusation seriously, and replies firmly, rationally and cogently.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, City University London.

Liberals and Cannibals: The Implications of Diversity

Author - Steven Lukes
Publisher - Verso
Pages - 180
Price - £16.00
ISBN - 1 85984 595 9

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