The most facile critique of Rawlsian liberalism consists in claiming that liberalism espouses values just like any other system, so it’s really no different from them. This is a favorite tactic of Stanley Fish:

>But right there, in the invocation of “free development” and “mutual forbearance,” Starr gives the lie to liberal neutrality. Free development (the right of individuals to frame and follow their own life plans) and mutual forbearance (a live-and-let-live attitude toward the beliefs of others as long as they do you no harm) are not values everyone endorses.

So one cannot claim that one is for religious liberty, and be religious, without contradicting himself. If one is, say, Catholic, and one endorses a political system based on government neutrality toward any non-human sacrificing religion, then one is, on Fish’s ever more childish analysis, espousing yet another system of value, as intolerant of intolerance as intolerance is intolerant of tolerance. It’s just crap.

John Holbo at Crooked Timber makes a related point about Fish:

>I would also like to request a moratorium on critiques of liberalism that consist entirely of a flourish for effect – with accompanying air of discovery – of the familiar consideration that liberalism is inconsistent with blanket, categorical tolerance of absolutely every possible act and attitude. That is, liberalism is incompatible, in practice, with any form of illiberalism that destroys liberalism. If something is inconsistent with liberalism, it is inconsistent with liberalism. Yes. Quite. We noticed.

And this points out the silly category problem of Fish’s analysis. Every mental attitude (political, eschatological, metaphorical, emotional, ethical, and so on) is exactly the same. So if I endorse religious liberty, I value it; if I belong to a religion, I value it; if I like Vernaccia, I value it; if I like the Detroit Lions, I value them. All values, all the same. But maybe, just maybe, the problem is the use of values. Maybe they’re not all the same.

4 thoughts on “Values”

  1. Excellent point! I think the Fish type critics of Rawlsian Liberalism must have missed the point where Rawls states that any REASONABLE person would make a similar decision behind the veil of ignorance. Fish’s critique isn’t reasonable. However, to continue with the Rawlsian metaphor, Fish and his ilk certainly do drop a veil of ignorance of another kind over their own heads plus any they convince to listen to their garbage!

    By the way, is it “Rawslian” or “Rawlsian”? I was just following the spelling of his last name, but I’ve been known to get these things wrong.

  2. This “facile critique” you point out bears a strong resemblance to recent critiques of so-called “New Atheism” which argue that as a passionately held belief, atheism proves itself to be just another form of Fundamentalism, one that has the same relationship to the “dogma” of science that Fundamentalist Christianity has to the Bible. Religious “moderates” are especially prone to this kind of sloppy thinking.

  3. I misspelled “Rawlsian” now it is fixed. Dagon I think you’re observation is right on the mark. There is an analogy with the critiques of atheism: “as a form of believing, it’s just as much believing as theism, so they’re the same really,” or some such. That critique, however, is just laziness.

  4. Fish actually falls into this in his New York Times anti-atheist piece:
    “the objections Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens make to religious thinking are themselves part of religious thinking; rather than being swept under the rug of a seamless discourse, they are the very motor of that discourse, impelling the conflicted questioning of theologians and poets (not to mention the Jesus who cried, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” and every verse of the Book of Job).”

    Just terrible, especially how the argument just kind of trails off into critical theory gibberish. I love also that he submits the entire Book of Job into evidence–that should satisfy those atheists.

    This line of argument was frustratingly common in the Harris and Dawkins book reviews. I even remember a few atheist reviewers spouting some version of this.

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