A lot has been written recently on the importance or otherwise of values for sustaining a political community, given the prominence of the government’s and the Tories playing to the tabloid-filled gallery measures demanding obeisance to alleged British values. Understandably, given the obviousness of the political – in a derogatory sense – games being played, much of the debate has focused on the rather more theoretical question of exactly to what extent adherence to a set of values is necessary to sustain a polity. In a way though, this is a mistake: the difference between liberals and conservatives on this issue does not lie in how far they think that belief in a set of values of some sort is required to sustain a polity. Anyone can see that a world full of genuine Hobbesian individuals is not going to be full of flourishing states: the bonds of trust and solidarity that are necessary to avoid descent into perpetual prisoners’ dilemmas could not even come into being, let alone last, in such a world.
The question is not really how much commitment to some thick ethical values are necessary, but what the thick ethical values are, of how it is that a polity should treat those who live under the rules it makes and fails to make. There may also be another, related, question, about how good it is to live in a community which has certain publicly affirmed values, rather than whether it is necessary. It seems to me, though, that the two shade into each other, for the kinds of values one believes are necessary are also the ones which one prefers: again, rather than being a question of whether values are important, it is a question of which values.
Conservatives, almost definitionally, I think, believe that the thick ethical values that sustain a polity should be particular to the community which makes up the polity in question, whereas liberals believe that, again, almost definitionally I think, that they are values which are at least potentially universal. To put it another way, conservatives believe that it would be wrong for the French political system to be based on and embody in its structure and content the same values as the British political system, whereas liberals believe that there is no intrinsic reason for the two systems to differ – whilst there may be differences following from different political problems, there is nothing to prevent the foundational values of the two political systems being identical.
The reason that liberals do not want the values which are embodied by a given political system to be particular to the community which makes up that polity is that they believe that it is wrong to apply legal coercive pressure, including for example denying the benefits of citizenship, in order to force someone to alter their form of life, as long as that form of life does not violate the rights of anyone else. Because the values which liberals seek to construct their polities around are universal in their scope – whether or not everyone does in fact find them to be genuine values, they are at least supposed to be universal, and liberals would be committed to altering them, were they to find something particularistic about them – no-one has any legitimate disagreement with them: they cannot object that they have been unreasonably coerced, because they were being unreasonable in refusing to acknowledge the burdens which those values placed on them. Thus, in principle at least, no-one is excluded: there is nothing that someone could not at a cost which was reasonable come to agree with.
Conservatives, on the other hand, believe that polities are inherently exclusionary: if you are unprepared to make the sacrifices necessary to come to find yourself part of a community which adheres to values with which we might reasonably disagree, then you properly lose your full rights as part of that polity. Now, as a liberal I find that repulsive. The idea that adhering values that I am not reasonably compelled, in the abstract, to believe could be a condition of being a full citizen, that I could justly be coerced by laws and social institutions which it would be reasonable for me to refuse to consent to, is so profoundly anti-democratic that I find it difficult to give it credence: it binds people to rules that they do not and have no reason to conscience, as if they had no right to consideration or a say in the construction of a polity, in the limits put on their freedom.
Conservatives disagree: they are skeptical about the existence of putatively universal values. Blimpish is doubtless amusing himself some how at my invocation of the value of reasonableness right now, for example. I think I can defend, naturalistically, even, a liberal ethic – I attempted to do something like that here, amongst other things – and liberals need to be aware that commitments to universal values may manifest themselves in particular ways - I suppose that's what's going on in my attempts to defend a liberal account of British history - but neither of those are really the point: the important thing is that the disagreement between conservatives and liberals is not over whether values are important, it’s over which values are to be important.