Earlier this week, I was listening to a debate on the BBC World Service on Britain’s new civil partnerships, and found myself nodding happily along at the nice Millian rhetoric trotted out by the spokesman for one of the gay rights groups there—good familiar classical liberal red meat about formal equality and social tolerance of self-regarding acts. But I also found myself wondering: Could moral progress in some sense help to undermine this kind of liberalism?

As political theorist Michael Sandel has pointed out, there are two ways you can defend (among other things) gay rights: The first is the liberal or formal way, by arguing that society (or at any rate, the law) need not concern itself with private morality or immorality, should maintain a scrupulous neutrality between different modes of life insofar as they don’t directly injure others. That sort of argument leaves open whether there is, in fact, anything more broadly wrong with gay relationships.

The other option is to offer a substantive or comprehensive argument: You can point out that the core values realized by heterosexual relationships are present in gay ones as well, and argue that they should not just be formally tolerated, but that there’s nothing morally bad about them. (Many people—such as our esteemed host—routinely make both sorts of arguments.)

Sandel’s concern is that the primacy of the first sort of argument in the public sphere gives short shrift to the second type. I find myself wondering whether a move toward agreement on questions of the second sort—which generational surveys suggest is happening, and which is in itself surely a good thing—won’t weaken the appeal of those nice Millian principles.

Liberalism was born of the anguish of Europe’s wars of religion—and by and by, what had begun as a détente of exhaustion came to be seen as a moral good in itself. But what happens when the big ticket injustices are, if not eradicated, then in retreat? In short: How much will we care about toleration and neutrality when we’re less worried that state power will be exercised in substantively wrong ways?

You can already see the drift to some extent in the ways the rights of women and racial minorities have been defended. In both cases, you initially saw the argument advanced in the classical liberal language of formal equality. Now at least some advocates of both causes have come to regard “formal equality” as a screen for white male privilege. (Recall Al Gore’s remarks about how opponents of affirmative action “use their color blind the way duck hunters use their duck blind.”) You see the potential for the same sort of drift in some defenses of civil liberties: Defenders of free expression would often rather invoke pyres outside libraries than make the case that even genuinely execrable speech deserves an opportunity to be heard, whether or not censorship would put us on a slippery slope to the suppression of speech we find substantively valuable.

That’s not—needless to say—an argument in favor of keeping some big substantive injustices around to remind us of the value of liberalism. But it is something to think about: Will we readily accept in droplets what we’ve refused to countenance in torrents?

—posted by Julian


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