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Sceptics - "liberal" or not?

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Rigil Kent
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« on: May 07, 2011, 09:47:44 AM »

I recently heard someone say "liberals like sceptics and atheists", and of course I had to disrespectfully disagree. Can this be correct? I'm not sure if liberal can be applied to free thinking. I've always considered it a political term.

And besides, scepticism , because of its innate caution towards the weird, strikes me as a conservative view, if anything.

Or maybe the person meant that sceptics are liberal because they do not present a norm in society. Or maybe the things that logically flow from a sceptical viewpoint, atheism, humanism, vegetarianism Tongue, personal freedom etc, are associated with the left side of the political spectrum. So maybe a sceptic is typically politically liberal, but only due to conservative thought processes.

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« Reply #1 on: May 08, 2011, 18:03:39 PM »

A political dispensation in which the “left” is portrayed as liberal and the “right” as conservative crudely approximates a much more complex set of values.  In essence the two points of departure are not opposites and liberalism should not be juxtaposed against conservatism.  Liberalism implies pursuing freedom from coercion, whereas conservatism implies the conservation of an older or existing order.  Historically the older orders often were oppressive, including slavery, servitude and racial and gender oppression.  Conserving such practices is indeed illiberal.  Conservatism is, however, not the only threat to liberalism.  Collectivism (communism) may arguably be more illiberal than conservatism, yet is regarded as “left” of liberalism.

In the South African context, there is a misconception lingering from the previous dispensation that pro-Black equates liberal.  Since the abolition of apartheid, this has increasingly ceased to be the case, considering that being pro-Black no longer represents opposition to coercion, but increasingly the very practice thereof against other race groups.  Today the Democratic Alliance is the most liberal significant party in South Africa, not only avoiding any racial prejudice, but also strongly defending the liberties enshrined in the national constitution.  By contrast the African National Congress is constantly threatening those liberties, showing signs of despotism, while their economic policy tends increasingly towards collectivism.  Several other political parties primarily represent group interests and can therefore not be regarded as liberal.

Liberalism is mainly a political concept, but not exclusively so.

The SEP article on liberalism makes a number of points which I found interesting and highlight below, some with reference to skepticism and atheism.  For some of these there are counter arguments, so be aware that the quotes below are not representative of the article.

Liberty may be seen as the absence of coercion:

I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others. If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved.  - Isaiah Berlin

Why would the skeptic be less coercive or more humanitarian?  Perhaps this question is more easily answered in the reverse.  The person lacking skeptical skills can more easily delude him-/herself into believing that coercion (in his/her favour) is justified.  The skeptic would have a sharpened awareness of coercion.  By and large this should translate into more ethical behaviour, though awareness would not necessarily enhance ethics.

There is a presumption in favour of liberty:

Liberals have typically maintained that humans are naturally in ‘a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions…as they think fit…without asking leave, or depending on the Will of any other Man’ (Locke, 1960 [1689]: 287). Mill too argued that ‘the burden of proof is supposed to be with those who are against liberty; who contend for any restriction or prohibition…. The a priori assumption is in favour of freedom…’

Is there a parallel between this argument and the atheist argument?  Even if so, it would not imply a liberalist predisposition favouring atheism; rather one that favours freedom of belief.

There is a school of thought that liberalism should be confined to a political concept, but this has not been the case.  The SEP-article refers to liberal ethics, which corresponds to free thinking to a significant extent.

it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings…what more can be said of any condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be? or what worse can be said of any obstruction to good, than that it prevents this? (Mill, 1963, vol. 18: 267)

The article continues to point out that “only a regime securing extensive liberty for each person can accomplish this.”

Individuality has not always dominated in liberal thinking.  Early in the twentieth century collectivist liberal thinking was proposed, but has since fallen out of favour.

During and after the Second World War the idea that liberalism was based on inherently individualist analysis of humans-in-society arose again. Karl Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) presented a sustained critique of Hegelian and Marxist theory and its collectivist and historicist, and to Popper, inherently illiberal, understanding of society.

Inequality may be perceived as a form of coercion and collectivism may attempt to redress it, but at the cost of substantial sacrifices to individual freedom.  In my personal perception a free market economy offers more liberty than a collectivist one.

Should liberals then favour skepticism or atheism?  I think it is more accurate to claim that a liberal environment is more conducive to skepticism and atheism than an illiberal one.  In a coercive regime skepticism cannot flourish and only the belief system supported by the state can be pursued in an unencumbered way.

« Last Edit: May 08, 2011, 22:53:38 PM by Hermes » Logged
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« Reply #2 on: May 09, 2011, 11:24:10 AM »

Commonly I see people use those terms in the "American" sense, where people equate Republican Party with "The conservative religious right". And then the democrats as "The bleeding-heart semi-socialist/secular liberals".

The cross-section of issues they address, when compared to my views, do not represent that description at all and often it gets VERY confusing. At the end of it all I could be called either of the above based on the particular issue at hand. So I wouldn't say I'm either, and I think that's where the problem shows. On some issues you could be liberal and on some conservative. To apply a blanket term is to try to incorrectly summarise an entire personal philosophy into one word.

For instance, republicans often favour free-market capitalism with minimal government interference (conservative, the USA was founded on a free market). This I'm for.
But then democrats are more in favour of Stem-cell research and abortion (liberal). This I'm for too.
... and they favour socialistic healthcare (this I'm against).
On the other hand the republicans favour little-or-no gun control (which I'm for)....
... and they favour prohibition of various drugs (whereas I do not).

To even begin to run through an exhaustive list is just futile. I don't think as a skeptic we can take a collective set of ideals like that and just "accept" them as "our viewpoint as a liberal". I for one look more closely at individual issues than that.

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« Reply #3 on: May 09, 2011, 11:56:23 AM »

I agree with BoogieMonster here except on guns. To put one label on a individual is too difficult or he/she has got to be very simple.
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« Reply #4 on: May 09, 2011, 11:59:47 AM »

Agree BM: labels are iniquitous and hide/mask rather than explain. I don't like either 'conservative' or 'liberal'...what degree of either are you on a number of issues, e.g. sex for your 16 year old daughter vs  censorship of soft porn? The terms are also used to label/group people into distinct categories especially in the political context as stated above by Hermes but it does not explain individual differences, nuances etc. When I use either term I tend to expand, e.g.: "I am 'conservative' when it comes to allowing my children out at night before 16 yrs, but 'liberal' when I encourage them to be free-thinking/skeptics when we talk about religion" I don't see that as a contradiction in value systems or in terms of communication.
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