Saturday, March 3, 2012

Traditional Remedies For Contemporary Liberalism

[This is a paper for my intellectual freedom class.]

Traditional Remedies For Contemporary Liberalism
"Many liberals today have a profound respect for autonomy and liberty and a shallow understanding of human nature, social order, and mass media. The intellectual tradition, however, fortunately provides strong medicine against such recent flattening of vision" (Peters, 2005, k. 149).
In his book, Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition, John Durham Peters diagnoses contemporary liberalism as having lost something of its soul. Historically, the values of free speech and expression did not bring themselves into existence, rather they were born of prior values to serve and be justified by those other values. When we forget the roots of modern liberalism, we allow the child to trample its parents. Peters wants to remind us of those roots so we can return to a richer understanding of the liberal tradition.

This paper will examine three writers Peters invokes to make his point.

St. Paul
"To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." 1 Cor 9:21-23
Paul had a definite, deep goal in his heart which drove his philosophy of accepting disagreement about the small stuff. Tolerating, and even participating in pluralism, was a means to an end. Not an end in itself. According to Peters (2005), "Paul gives us almost everything that recent civil libertarians do-respect for autonomy and appreciation for liberty-without the nihilism or moral thinness" (k. 514). I take this to mean that 'freedom!', taken in isolation, is a thin creed. Simplistic political libertarianism comes to mind, with its motto of 'freedom at any cost!' Freedom for a purpose and freedom sometimes constrained for that purpose is richer.

Situational constraint is clearly demonstrated in the case of meat at Corinth. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with eating meat sacrificed to false gods, but it can become wrong when it causes distress to others. "The other's conscience pollutes my meat. For Paul the limit of my liberty is the other's conscience-harder doctrine than the liberal notion that the private conscience is impregnable to regulation from without" (Peters, 2005, k. 539). Paul isn't setting aside meat for the sake of just any offense; he's concerned for the souls of new Christians from a background that associates this kind of meat with the worship of other gods. Freedom and limitation spring from the same source.

Yet for all of its lessons, Paul's approach to freedom is one of self-limitation. It's hard to see how it could be applied straightforwardly as legal policy. "He seems to authorize a contradictory range of policies from anything-goes absolutism to protectionist decency aimed to shelter the weak" (Peters, 2005, k. 578). Doing all things "for the sake of the gospel" is not an appropriate guideline to decide when to limit others in a secular society. Perhaps we should be looking for a more universally shared purpose to underlie and sometimes limit our legal notion of liberty.

"They are not skillful considerers of human things, who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin" (Milton, 2010).
In Areopagitica, his famous essay in opposition to state licensing of books, John Milton appeals to two key Biblical passages. First, he counters the attitude that people are better off without "provoking objects," i.e. things which tempt us to do evil:
"God therefore left [Adam] free, set before him a provoking object, ever almost in his eyes; herein consisted his merit, herein the right of his reward, the praise of his abstinence. Wherefore did he create passions within us, pleasures round about us, but that these rightly tempered are the very ingredients of virtue?" (Milton, 2010)
The idea here is that virtue requires more than mere lack of vice; it requires an understanding of vice, then a willful and informed choice of virtue instead. "Freedom's fruit is perversity and rebellion-and also, Milton hopes, love and obedience" (Peters, 2005, k. 1083). So while Paul's underlying justification for freedom was the advancement of the gospel, Milton's justification is the space freedom creates for human virtue.

Still, couldn't the state license only the books it deems most likely to advance virtue? No, Milton argues, as in the Parable of the Wheat and Tares (Matthew 13:24-30), "Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil [...]" (Milton, 2010). Any attempt to remove only the bad will unavoidably destroy much good. And, besides, even truly wicked books can be read and responded to in a way that serves virtue. "For Milton nothing is off limits to the imagination since it is not exposure to evil but the choice to act on it that corrupts" (Peters, 2005, k. 1148).

Milton's justification is more readily adapted to other religious views than Paul's justification, since every culture has a concern for moral development in one way or another. The difficulty in applying Milton to free speech and expression issues is that we're interested in a wider scope than the freedom of adults to write and read what their consciences will bear. What about children? What about unavoidable public offensiveness? I don't fault Milton for his narrow focus, but we will have to look elsewhere for answers to these questions.

"We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still" (Mill, 2012).
John Stuart Mill was less concerned with good and evil as he was with truth and falsity. Pressure to conform to popular opinion was both the enemy to discovering new truth and a disservice to known truth. "[H]owever true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth" (Mill, 2012). Free speech is justified by its enlightening and invigorating effects on the mind:
"A belief, once discussed, can no longer remain a 'mere' belief; it is raised from prejudice to reason and alters its place in the human soul. Discussion, like the philosopher's stone, changes our opinions from base into nobler stuff" (Peters, 2005, k. 1846).
Nor is this a one-time event. The door to opposing arguments must always be kept open because there is no assurance truth will be convincing on its first hearing. Peters (2005) compares Mill's faith in truth to a "batting average" (k. 1809); truth has a real but fragile edge over error. If the conditions are kept fair, truth will win in the long run, but it may be a very long run and conditions are not usually fair.

Peters expresses doubts about the stability of Mill's vision. If everyone were to constantly question their deepest beliefs, who would be left to play the zealot? A few with "single-minded conviction of their own rightness" are needed to play both "the engine and the enemy of the public sphere" (Peters, 2005, k. 1862). If everyone were a John Stuart Mill, no one would bring the heat needed to catalyze the process. 

It is this style of "self-suspension" Peters spend so much of his book condemning. He believes modern liberalism has taken Mill's exercise of self-critical examination as an end in itself, without Mill's justification of finding and reinforcing truth, Milton's justification of making room for virtue, or Paul's justification of winning souls.
"To say, simply, that liberalism is about openness and freedom is to risk succumbing to the vacuum of emptiness or formalism. The best theorists of liberalism always manage to identify some other principle at its heart" (Peters, 2005, k. 1901).
I think this is the right way to approach issues of free speech and censorship. What are the other principles at stake which might either limit or justify freedom? By making these principles explicit, we can reason about how they apply in different circumstances. This may lead us to revise specific policies, revise the relative weighting of our principles, or both. Peters doesn't give many answers in his book, but he does help us learn to ask better questions.


Mill, J.S. (2012, Feb 6). On liberty. Wikisource. (Original work published 1869). Retrieved from

Milton, J. (2010, Apr 17). Aeropagitica. Wikisource. (Original work published 1644). Retrieved from

Peters, J.D. (2005). Courting the abyss: Free speech and the liberal tradition (Kindle edition). Chicago, Illinois: University Of Chicago Press.

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