The Friday before last, Open Democracy published this rather good piece by Fred Halliday, which deplores the lack of what one provocatively might call Enlightenment-style analysis of recent conflicts in the Middle East, and, by extension, presumably further afield. Halliday invokes Isaac Deutscher and Hannah Arendt as critics of both of the sides involved, pointing to Arendt's distaste at the Israeli derivation of the entitlement to try Eichmann from their Jewishness, rather than any simple universal principle of things human beings must not do to other human beings, and presenting Deutscher - whom Wikipedia informs me he has edited - as arguing that while both sides had legitimate claims, they were not the claims that they were making, and indeed the manner in which they were making those claims seemed almost designed to perpetuate the conflict. I've not read either Eichmann in Jerusalem or the NLR piece which Halliday extracts his claims about Deutscher from, although I can well believe that these are the kinds of things Arendt and Deutscher would have said from what I have read by them.
The substance of Halliday's criticism, as his use of Arendt suggests, is that both sides have departed from universalism: they have become immersed in the particularity of their own claims, and forgotten that they have other audiences to address. It's a bit like Bernard Williams' critique of relativism: it is now far too late for them to just be talking amongst themselves, for there is a problem to be solved, and short of committing various moral horrors, its solution requires the participation of another group which does not accept the consensus which structures their internal conversations. In this context, what Norm Geras says here and then here is interesting.
Geras is troubled by what we might call the perverse totalitarianism of liberalism: it demands that people tolerate each other, regardless of whether they want to or not. This, at least in the structure, particularly the universalism, of its moral claims, seems disturbingly similar to religious fundamentalism: you will do this, whatever your views on the matter. Now, liberals might just be prepared to bite the bullet, and say, effectively, we're right, you're wrong, and the universalism of our moral claims ought not to trouble us, because they're true. I'm not saying that view is wrong: there's a lot of mileage in pointing out that most illiberal political visions involve doing lots of things which are, by anything approximating a decent moral compass, pretty hideous. It is more that I think that there is something more to be said about the perverse totalitarianism of liberalism, something which, I hope at least, does away with the meta-ethical similarity.
Last weekend, I found out that I have got funding to do a DPhil at Oxford - you can go and crow now, David -which I'll be taking up. The problem I am intending to work is that of the relationship between the political and the ethical, how the question of how one should live individually bears on the question of how we should live together and, although perhaps to a lesser extent, vice versa. Crucial to that relationship is, clearly, the distinction between the public and the private. I feel quite strongly about the distinction between the public and the private: recently, for example, I found something like it useful in attempting to defend the refusal to think that anything particularly morally wrong, as distinguished from undesirable or regretable, happened to Inigo Wilson here, and in the past I've mobilised it as a critique of Blair's attempts at self-justification. It bears on concerns about the Government's anti-terrorism policy - the point about the 'just they say it, it don't make it so' critique of that policy, for example, is that it highlights its privacy, its inaccessibility to the public, both as a body of people and as a sphere of discourse, its lack of justification, its arbitrariness, even, at root, its unreasonedness - and - which is where Geras comes in - on the role of religion in public life.
One problem with the use of specifically religious claims for public justification is that they are quite literally incredible: no-one, other than religious people, believes them, or ought to, at least not because they are religious claims, and so no-one, other than religious people, has any good reason to acquiese to them. But, again that's not quite it. In a way, there's a comparison with one of Williams' many critiques of utilitarianism. Presumably, granting for the sake of argument that utilitarianism is true, Williams suggests, it could be the case that the best way to fulfill the commandment of creating the greatest happiness of the greatest number would be to erase from public consciousness all trace of that commandment, and allow some privileged elite of experts to control social life. There is something deeply perverse about that, even on its face - a moral theory which forbids its own promulgation is very strange - but the problem goes deeper than that.
The publicly affirmed rules by which people live their lives, as a matter of fact, have no purchase on their lives - they are systematically decieved about the point of their actions - and, as a direct corrolary of that, the rules which in fact do govern their lives are being kept from having any presence in those lives. Although practically it may be very difficult for the two difficulties to come apart, they are separate: someone doesn't have to be decieving you for you to be decieved - we are after all quite capable of that all by ourselves. What's wrong with this situation is that these people, these victims of what Williams called Government House Utilitarianism, are being denied agency, the chance to live their lives for themselves, to shape their own existences. They are subjects under the most perfectly paternalistic regime imaginable, and that is a hideous possibility.
Notice though that the consequence of that paternalism is the disappearance of the distinction between the public and the private, or, better, the disappearance of those categories totally. The public sphere under Government House utilitarianism is a sham: anything that those who live under it discuss operates totally differently from how they imagine it, and always will, and they have no ability to alter it anyway, because it is under someone else' control. Equally, their understanding of their valorisation of their fidelity to their spouse lacks any grasp on the real reason for that fidelity, and does so because someone else has sketched out a plan of their life, of how every detail of their existence will go: a panopticon that does not even need eyes. Now, clearly, religious or other dogmas don't go quite that far - no-one is deliberately decieved - but the control extends, perhaps not as far, but in the same way. Looking to a completed moral universe to guide political action destroys, by destroying the possibility of either a public or a private sphere, political action itself: what is left to ask about how to live together when we all live the same way anyway?
It is to this distinction that liberals uncomfortable with its meta-ethical tyranny, as I assume Geras is, need to appeal. Liberalism's universalism, unlike that of some of its opponents, is both public and private: it does not demand that the possibilty of human agency is absolutely constrained by a single text or moral principle, merely by some fairly minimal moral commitments, and so allows everyone to go to hell in their own ways whilst retaining enough shared ground to make mutual comprehension possible. In contrast, like utilitarianism, religious fundamentalism demands total conformity to a rigid set of moral diktats, and would thus, if perfectly implemented, destroy the idea of privacy, of a space in which you are not under the gaze of others, and of publicity, of a space where differences can be reconciled or at least ignored, because when everyone does the same thing all the time, there is only one, and so no others to be under the gaze of or differences to reconcile. Indeed, one might press the point against liberalism's more totalitarian foes that their universalism is a charade, that universalism, to make any sense, needs to address the universe, needs to take into account the fact of plurality, of a world inhabited by distinct agents. Understanding Halliday's anti-particularism in this sense might not go too far wrong.