As politics has continued its evolution across time, my position has slowly drifted from what used to be a liberal one to one that seems to have more in common with the #altright. This was somewhat curious to me, as my values and perspectives have not really changed on what I consider the major issues. This is why I decided to write up a post on what being an enlightenment liberal actually entails. I’ve written on the enlightenment before as a part of the social justice chronicles, to give a quick introduction, it was a period where philosophers defined and argued in favor of the values that are the foundation for our modern western nation states. From Hobbes, John Stuart Mill and Thomas Paine on Government, Adam Smith on Economics, Kant on Ethics, Hume, Voltaire and Rousseau on a range of topics.
This created a foundation on which the most successful states of the next 300 – 400 years (depending on what you regard as the start of the enlightenment) were built, and that have made them the most free, and well-functioning states in the world. However, over time the ideals of classical liberalism have become undermined by the group referred to as the “regressive left” and by the conservatives who by now should be seeking to conserve those values. While the literature from the classical liberals and those who followed them, is great and diverse the agreement on Universality and freedom of expression is strong.
Foremost, what serves as the foundation for the philosophy of the enlightenment are the values that came forth in the scientific revolution, namely empiricism and reason.
“To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.” Thomas Paine
Noam Chomsky once defined Universality in terms of morality as “If it’s right for me, it’s right for you, if it’s wrong for you, it is wrong for me” in a 2007 interview. This is a fairly short and to the point definition for moral universality. The opposite of this is moral relativism in its many forms, which always makes morals a conditional case. Our laws are in theory based on universality, an act is illegal regardless of who performed it. One could argue that in practice it may work out differently, but the theory and system is designed to be as close to universal as possible. Moral relativism on the other hand, is the position that moral statements are right or wrong only based on a specific standpoint, for instance culture or historical period.
For instance, most of the western world today would consider slavery morally abhorrent, while most of the western world would have considered it perfectly permissible, and even benevolent in some cases if we travel back 300 years. If you view this as “slavery is always wrong” you are a universalist, if you view it as “slavery was ok back then, because of the times” you are a relativist.
Now, both cases tend to end up in the wrong to varying degrees. For instance, universalism may argue that killing someone is always wrong, whereas relativists would argue that each individual case of killing would have to be evaluated. For the most part, our justice system works around the inherent universalism by adding things like “tiers of killing badness” such as first degree, second degree, third degree, manslaughter, self-defense and so on. However, this does not mean that the justice system is relativistic, it just means that it takes into account the circumstances of an action. You will be charged, and in a court of law a jury of your peers will determine your guilt. Continue reading