The End of Liberal ‘Dialogue’ and the Difference of Debate: Renewing the Promise of the Axial Age

Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for

1. Introduction: the current crisis of meaning

There is little doubt that the contemporary world faces a crisis of meaning. After the end of the Cold War, the relative stasis of bi-polarity gave way to a global dynamic that was increasingly unpredictable and volatile. Europe’s ‘multilateral moment’ was quickly supplanted by American hegemony, but the last ten years have witnessed the rise and fall of US unipolarity and the emergence of a multipolar disorder. The ideological battle between capitalism and communism has mutated into a contest for global market shares and central state power at the expense of the autonomous, largely self-regulating intermediary institutions of civil society on which vibrant democracies and market economies ultimately depend.

We have moved from a world of concrete and tangible threats to a world of nebulous risks that exacerbate global uncertainty. Instead of the quest for the common good or the good life, the emphasis has shifted decisively in favour of utility maximisation and the pursuit of individual happiness amid a growing concern with ‘risk management’ (political, financial, environmental, epidemiological, etc.).

Long-term strategic thinking has largely given way to short-term tactical responses to event – without any guiding principles. Amid hypocrisy and double standards, appeals to universal values such as democracy and human rights ring increasingly hollow.

2. The end of liberal ‘dialogue’

Crucially, the end of the Cold War marks the end of the age of revolutions (1789-1989) and the end of the Enlightenment project – the myth of infinite progress and the triumph of modern institutions over traditional arrangements. Since the 1990s, the Enlightenment discourse on shared foundations and finalities has been replaced by growing contemporary clamour over values and norms that are conceived as either homogenous (value monism) or incommensurable (value pluralism).

In the post-1989 era, the discourse on value monism is synonymous with apparently opposed philosophies and ideologies: first, the neo-liberal extension of global capitalism and the neo-conservative ‘doctrinal democracy promotion’ by ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ power (or indeed both at once), as evinced in Afghanistan, Iraq and across the post-Soviet space in the form of various ‘colour revolutions’. Second, the ‘sovereignist’ discourse that elevates national sovereignty and non-interference into principles which are absolute, sacrosanct and must be identical for all. This has been visible in a number of EU countries which react against what they see as an encroachment by Brussels.

By contrast, the discourse on value pluralism is associated with the idea that all personal preferences and individual opinions are equally valid and that the conflict of rival and even incommensurable values is evitable. This has fuelled loose talk about a clash of civilizations and either the return to 19th- and 20th-century forms of chauvinisn and atavistic nationalism or else the resurgence of religious extremism – or again both at once.

Curiously, both value monism and value pluralism are compatible with either the homogenisation or the absolutisation of cultural differences. Value monists either impose their own principles onto everyone else or else they view other values as inferior which must ultimately be supplanted by their own supreme standards. Interestingly, those who clamour in favour of universal liberalism do both.

Similarly, value pluralism involves one of two positions. Either difference is absolutised, in which case incommensurable values and violent conflict become self-fulfilling prophesies that can only be settled through the use of power. Or else the only mode of attaining unity or at least some form of peaceful coexistence is to convert the ‘other’ into the ‘same’ through ahistorical, supposedly universal but in reality modern, western categories. The most prominent examples are perhaps the values of ‘liberation’ or ‘emancipation’ linked to the political left or the values of ‘freedom of choice’ and ‘opportunity’ associated with the political right. Both are variants of liberal progressivism which wrongly predicts the ‘forward march of history’ and the triumph of Enlightenment rationality over all.

In other words, both value monism and value pluralism combine forms of political absolutism with variants of moral relativism, which bracket mediated universalism entirely out of the picture. I will return to the notion of mediated universalism below. For now, a few more points need to be made about the clash of rival worldviews. Amid the current crisis of meaning, value monism and value pluralism appear to be diametrically opposed positions: the former seems to exclude the possibility of a proper dialogue of cultures which the latter seems to favour.

But on closer inspection, it turns out that neither promotes a proper debate that is both critical and constructive. Indeed, both are absolutist and relativist at the same time, as I have already indicated. Crucially, both conceive of values and norms as generic to which all the different traditions belong. This fundamental premise assumes that all the different traditions share similar characteristics – namely a commitment to a set of values and norms – which permit a dialogue between them. The foundation for dialogue is either theoretical reason or practical reason or some form of moral sentiment (or indeed all at once).

However, none of these three assumptions are tenable. First of all, theoretical reason is divorced from practical reason and from faith, which excludes a number of religious traditions – chief of all Christianity – which view faith and reason as inextricably intertwined.

Secondly, practical reason is sundered from theoretical reason and rests on the assumption that praxis alone offers an objective basis for liberal dialogue, which it does not. For virtually all values and norms are embedded in traditions that encompass both forms of reason and also faith, narrative and cultural practices that are shared by a community of members.

Third, moral sentiments do not provide a proper foundation either because they ignore or underplay the role of both reason and faith and also because they focus exclusively on the realm of pure experience over contemplation. Linked to this is a tendency to privilege personal feelings over the communal practices that together with reasoned beliefs underpin the social and political action of communities. Such communities are variously more religious or more secular, but they do have shared practices. The moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has termed this position ‘emotivism’.

Ultimately, the very notion of liberal dialogue is in question because it rests on the assumption of universal, shared categories that simply do not correspond to the foundational differences which characterise distinct cultures and religions. Seemingly universal values such as ‘justice’ have radically different meanings. For example, where conceptions of justice are tied to a Western (or Anglo-Saxon) liberal-capitalist framework, ‘dialogue’ excludes the poor (individuals or nations in the West and elsewhere) because any proper conversation requires a basic equality among participants that is not merely formal and procedural (guaranteed by procedures, rights or contracts) but also substantive. One example is the G8/G20 or indeed the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals where developing countries and emerging markets have either had to accept the terms of developed economies or fight for themselves without genuine solidarity.

Moreover, liberal dialogue between different cultures also presupposes equal access to truth, which implies that all truth claims are equally valid and that all cultures are ultimately the same. However, this cannot be taken seriously, as certain cultures are predicated on the destruction of rival cultures or the violation of principles such as the sanctity of life, the dignity of the human person, the limits to both secular and religious power, and the principles of liberality (including a constitutional order, ‘mixed government’, the rule of law, fair detention and trial, habeas corpus, etc.).

Bound up with this is a commitment to mediated universalism, which I mentioned earlier: the idea that perennial principles are embodied in particular practices and that, through the practice of virtue, everyone can partake not only of the specific goods internal to different things and activities but also of common good in which all share.

So defined, mediated universalism is at odds with all those worldviews that are either absolutist or relativist. For instance, modern secular liberalism exhibits tendencies towards political absolutism (e.g. the ‘end of history’ and the global convergence towards market democracy) and ethical relativism (the primacy of formalist procedure and abstract standards such as individual rights over substantive goods and shared ends such as the good life). Since rival individual rights (e.g. the clash between the freedom of expression and the freedom of conscience or religion) cannot decide what is right, secular liberalism requires substantive notions of the good which it denies in the very name of freedom and tolerance.

To call for more liberal dialogue of cultures ultimately presupposes that all cultures are inherently limited, that each of them relates to the same reality and that taken together they offer a mutually complementary perspective on the world. This naturally leads the claim that dialogue between cultures can lead to an enhancement of truth, which in turn suggests that dialogue constitutes a privileged access to truth. The assumption is that through the process of dialogue, each participant comes to appreciate the other’s point of view and that together all come to embrace common values and norms.

Once again, this sort of thinking implies that all cultures are equally valid (relativism) and that only such a homogenised approach can deliver tolerance and mutual understanding (absolutism). It also rests on the illusion that the only alternative to specific, biased values of distinct traditions is to hold a neutral, disinterested position. But this itself presumes, in the words of the British thinker John Milbank, that “[e]verything is to be negatively tolerated, but nothing is to be positively allowed”.

Finally, the idea of a liberal dialogue of cultures is open to the charge that it only reaches an accommodation between rival and incompatible values by two dangerous moves: first, by wilfully discarding every distinctive aspect of each culture and, second, by reducing the diversity of all cultures to a single homogenous essence (such as a clear set of common values).

As impoverished versions of the real thing, cultures would be little more than parodies or caricatures of real, living traditions. Liberal ‘dialogue’ so conceived would turn out to involve the sacrifice of integrity and truthfulness.

3. The difference of debate

By contrast with the ideology of liberal ‘dialogue’, this essay argues in favour of a plural search for the shared common good and substantive ends that can mediate between the individual and the collective will and thus help bind together members of diverse bodies and polities. Such an argument challenges the view that the incommensurability of rival values either requires central sovereign power to arbitrate conflict or else leads to a fragile modus vivendi in which peaceful coexistence merely regulates a violent state of nature that rules out the ontological possibility of a just, harmonious order.

To suggest that competing values are incommensurable (especially in the late modern context of multiculturalism and the global clash of fanatical faiths) is to assume that different values have equal claim to normative validity and that no hierarchical ordering can command popular assent. In the absence of higher-order universal principles from which particular norms derive their moral character, general values such as freedom, equality and security constitute their own foundation and finality.

However, no value is valuable in itself or as such, not even ancient liberties or modern human rights. Values are valuable because they originate from an ‘invaluable’ source and because they are ordered towards an equally ‘invaluable’ end – a transcendent principle that provides an intelligible account of what is valuable and how it ought to be valued, blending the empirical with the normative. For example, the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person underpin the principles of liberality like fair detention, fair trial or habeas corpus that are central to notions of freedom, equality and security.

Crucially, this argument shifts the focus away from unilateral practices centred on self-interest and individual entitlements towards more reciprocal arrangements that rest on the balance between rights and responsibilities – what the English political theorist Martin Wight called the link between ‘common interest’ and ‘common obligation’. Unlike the rather sterile debate on liberal values that are self-referential, the alternative that this essay puts forward seeks to raise fundamental questions about shared substantive ends, which exceed instrumental reason or arbitrary will, such as the ‘common good’ and the ‘good life’.

4. Renewing the promise of the Axial Age

The question of the common good and the good life has been at the centre of human culture and society since the time of the ‘Axial Age’. Simultaneously yet independently, a variety of different traditions in Persia, China, India and the wider Europe produced profoundly transformative thinking in the period from 800 to 200 BC that provided the spiritual and intellectual source for humanity over the following two millennia. The mark of the Axial Age was to fuse philosophy with religion in ways that, in case of the wider Europe, led to a synthesis of individual liberty with universal telos. In this manner, human agency in the immanent order of being was for the first time in history seen as compatible with a transcendent outlook.

This conception departed radically from both deterministic fatalism and the indeterminacy of random flux that had characterised much of pre-axial thinking. Linked to this was the rejection of political absolutism and moral relativism in favor of a plural universalism that blends particular practices with universal principles such as notions of the dignity of the person or the supernatural Good in God.

Thus the common good is an exacting idea that resists easy categorisation. It is concerned with goods we share in common such as friendship, trust or social capital. Those goods are relational and personal – they are made of relationships and can only be enjoyed reciprocally by specific persons. Goods shared in common go beyond utility-maximisation and a zero-sum game of winners vs. losers towards mutual flourishing in terms of our diverse talents and vocations.

By contrast with ideology or vested interest, the politics of the common good suggests that society is more than isolated individuals or a single collectivity. As persons and members of communities, associations and nations, we are neither lone egos nor an anonymous mass. Rather, we have personal, social and civic ties that go beyond rights and entitlements towards mutual duties and obligations.

In other words, the common good is about treating people as they really are: as human beings who belong to families, localities, professions and associations as well as to shared traditions, interests and faiths. Not as abstracted, rootless individualists, locked into a fruitless narcissism, heading for a lonely old-age. That’s because human beings flourish as persons who freely associate with others in groups, communities and nations. The common good contends that people who are estranged from one another may nevertheless have shared interests and pursue certain goals. If politics is the art of compromise, then the common good seeks to broker cooperation out of conflict or indifference and to direct joint action towards mutual flourishing.

For the same reason, the goods we share in common cannot be captured by economic aggregates such as GDP, or by monolithic concepts such as Rousseau’s ‘general will’, or indeed by the mere co-existence of supposedly incommensurable values. Instead, the common good views social, cultural and political pluralism as compatible with negotiated agreements between different interests. Crucially, the common good is not the imposition of a single truth on all. On the contrary, it seeks to provide plural spaces in which the good can be discerned, debated, agreed upon and translated into joint action.

We owe much of our thinking about the common good to philosophers in Antiquity – Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, to name but a few. So what can Christianity and other faiths add to our understanding of its nature? In different ways, religions remind us that we are not necessarily selfish, greedy, distrustful of others and prone to violence. Nor are we purely selfless, naïve and unconditionally cooperative. In reality, most people naturally and rightly seek mutual recognition – a fulfilling of themselves alongside others. They want to be at home in the world, but they don’t usually want to destroy the other home-dwellers.

More than a mere modus vivendi, most Christians and people of other faiths (or indeed none) are genuinely committed to reconciliation, peace and the pursuit of justice beyond procedure and formal principles. We are fallen and capable of both sin and redemption. We have an inward desire and drive to do good that can be nurtured through educative guidance – at home, in Church, in school, at the workplace and even in politics.

Today many countries around the world have far too many institutions that induce selfishness and greed, incentivising behaviour and promoting structures that lead to economic inequality, social dislocation and environmental devastation. The politics of the common good is about renewing, extending and building novel institutions that incentivise and reward virtuous behaviour while punishing vice. It is about bringing people together into negotiated settlements that transcend the deep divide between young and old, rich and poor, north and south, east and west, urban and rural, secular and religious.

The politics of the common good represents a radical ‘middle’ position between an exclusively religious and a strictly secular perspective. Faith can lead to strong notions of goodness and justice, and a belief that human behaviour, when disciplined and directed, can start to act more charitably. There can also be secular intimations of this: the more faith-inspired practices are successful even in secular terms (e.g. more economic security, more equality, more sustainability and greater civic participation), the easier it will be for secular institutions to adopt elements of such an overarching framework without however fully embracing its religious basis.