Friday, 1 May 2009

Searching for Individual Rights (2009)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVII No.1

What are the Empirical Foundations?

By Byron Hall

In his Second Treatise on Government (1690), John Locke presents the possession of individual rights as an assertion, rather than as an empirical finding. A century later Jeremy Bentham denounced this as a nonsense in his work, Anarchical Fallacies, and natural rights theory was largely out of favour until Robert Nozick partially resurrected it in 1974 with his book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. And in an essay, 'Toward a Theory of Empirical Natural Rights,' published in 2005 in Social Philosophy and Policy, John Hasnas returns to the question to argue that Lockean-like individual rights evolve prior to the establishment of civil government as the result of empirical problem-solving efforts to avoid hostilities destructive to the individual. In this essay, I aim to take the inquiry into the foundations of individual rights one step further

To do so, I examine individual rights from a different empirical perspective. Insightful problem-solving individuals, when secure in their persons, liberty, and property, sustain the generation of cultural adaptation, central to the survival of the species. On this basis, I conclude that we ought to recognize individual Lockean rights. Together, these two different empirical approaches form a secure foundation for individual rights.
Natural Rights

In imagining humans living in a period before there were governments and man-made laws, John Locke describes how each man is 'governed by the law of nature, which obligates human beings to act for the preservation of mankind: hence, no one may take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.' By nature, men are equally free. Thus, the law of nature requires the existence, equal in all men, of natural rights to life, liberty, and property.

Robert Nozick also considers humans living before there are civil governments. Although he does not explicitly identify the rights individuals have in that state, we can assume that the list is very similar to that of Locke. Individuals in this state are governed by the law of nature: 'no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.' However, unlike Locke, Nozick grounds individual rights on the Kantian moral principle that individuals are ends-in-themselves, not mere means.

Empirical Natural Rights

John Hasnas proposes a somewhat different concept of natural rights from that of John Locke. This concept arises naturally before there are civil governments, as a result of problem-solving to avoid destructive hostilities between members of the community. The membership of Locke's community consists of isolated individuals who can either compete or cooperate. By contrast, the membership of Hasnas' community consists of clans or tribes that must also choose to compete or cooperate. Hasnas writes that, 'the inconveniences of the state' before civil government:
... represent problems that human beings must overcome to lead happy and meaningful lives. In the absence of an established civil government to resolve these problems for them, human beings must do so for themselves. They do this not through coordinated collective action, but through a process of trial and error in which the members of the community address these problems in any number of ways, unsuccessful attempts to resolve them are discarded, and successful ones are repeated, copied by others, and eventually become widespread practices. As the members of the community conform their behaviour to these practices, they begin to behave according to rules that specify the extent of their obligations to others, and, by implication, the extent to which they are free to act at their pleasure. Over time ... the members of the community come to regard the ways in which the rules permit them to act at their pleasure as their rights. 
Thus, Hasnas boldly proposes that rights evolve as 'the solutions to social problems -- solutions that have been proven by experience to produce a predominantly peaceful social environment'. 

Hasnas offers four historical cases as empirical evidence to support his position. He discusses how, in fact, people did behave in resolving disputes prior to the establishment of civil government. A remarkable finding from these cases is that, taken together, empirical natural rights correspond closely to Locke's negative rights to life, liberty, and property. The only drawback for natural rights theorists is that, since they arise from the peaceful resolution of real disputes, empirical natural rights are more flexible and more mutable than the rights they usually advance, and they contain practical exceptions.

The Presumption of Human Equality

If we are going to take the position that one has the obligation to respect the lives, liberty, and property of all humans , we are presuming that all humans are equal. Otherwise, we could be arbitrary in the application of our obligation.

Both Locke and Nozick presumed that all humans in the state prior to civil government are equally endowed with natural rights. Hasnas does not address the issue of equality, but following his line of thought, for human communities in the state prior to civil government, the assertion that one clan was superior to the rest would have produced dissention. Problem-solvers would find that giving all clans equal respect would promote peace within the community.

Individual Rights and Human Evolution

Those are the justifications for individual rights presented by Locke, Nozick, and Hasnas, but the main thesis of this essay is that the recognition of individual rights is justified because it benefits the human species.

Adapt or perish! This is the challenge of nature for all species. Over the earth's history, many species have appeared, thrived for a period, but disappeared (leaving no line of descent) when they could not adapt fast enough to changing environmental conditions.

There is much empirical evidence showing that the human species, Homo sapiens, while taking countless millennia to exhibit changed biological traits, has great adaptability because of its capacity for cultural adaptation. (For example, consider the widespread use of the cell phone - a device invented only 30 years ago!) Our species has thrived because of cultural adaptation.

As Jacob Bronowski wrote in The Ascent of Man (1973):
Man is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts which make him unique among the animals: so that, unlike them, he is not a figure in the landscape - he is a shaper of the landscape. Among the multitude of animals which scamper, fly, burrow, and swim around us, man is the only one who is not locked into his environment. His imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and toughness, make it possible for him not to accept the environment but to change it. And that series of inventions, by which man from age to age has remade his environment, is a different kind of evolution - not biological, but cultural evolution.
 However, since not all cultural changes help the species to adapt, we need to make an additional distinction between cultural adaptation and cultural evolution.

In his book Sociobiology (1980), Edward O. Wilson also acknowledges cultural evolution, writing:
It is part of the conventional wisdom that virtually all cultural variation is phenotypic rather than genetic in origin. This view has gained support from the ease with which certain aspects of culture can be altered in the space of a single generation, too quickly to be evolutionary in nature. The drastic alteration in Irish society in the first two years of the potato blight (1846-1848) is a case in point. 
Hasnas places the individual as a problem-solver at the centre of his discussion of human community life prior to civil government. Let us examine the empirical characteristic of problem-solving in more detail. Within a wide range, a typical human can solve problems that others assign to him or her. He or she can choose problems to solve from a list given to him or her. He or she can generate a list of problems from which to choose. He or she can generate problems to put on the list. He or she can have access to the problem solutions of others. He or she can use the results of everyone's problem-solving to order his or her life. Taken together, these aspects of problem-solving demonstrate that the typical individual human can be autonomous (self-governing) in all areas of life.

To be a problem-solver, or a potential problem-solver, supposes certain functional, or potentially functional, higher brain activities.
Does the capacity for autonomy disappear if the individual becomes separated from all others? No, it remains in the individual; it is an inherent property.

Is the capacity for autonomy beneficial? Yes, to the individual, his society and his species, as we shall see. The capacity for autonomy has intrinsic value, and its magnitude sets humans apart from the other species.

Man is not born fully autonomous, because many problem-solving techniques must be acquired from his culture through social relationships. For example, it is normal for children to grow up within a family structure in which they learn problem-solving skills such as language, ethics, logic and mathematics, science, use of hand tools and other equipment, tolerance, self-discipline, good health habits, personal responsibility and virtue, friendship, diplomacy and compromise, history, and art. In many parts of the world, children receive formal education outside the home.

Finally, the sense of equality for which I argue includes a wide range of humans. Imagine a circle large enough to contain the names of all human individuals with the capacity for autonomy. Outside this circle fall the names of human individuals who are problem-solvers but whose problem-solving capacity is not sufficient for autonomy. Those whose names fall within the circle (we shall call them 'typical') are 'equal' as candidates for full Lockean rights.

The Individual as the Change Agent for Cultural Adaptation

The question arises, from what sources do the discoveries and inventions that produce cultural adaptation come? The answer I propose is that the change agents are insightful individuals - problem-solvers -- working alone, in small groups, and/or in a line as they pursue their freely-chosen callings. Often, these insights come after a period of investigation and experimentation. For example, we are able to keep food from spoiling rapidly because Carl von Linde invented the refrigerator in 1870. We are able to produce books to pass on information and training because Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1450s. We are able to use airplanes for transportation because the Wright brothers made the first powered flights in 1903 after developing and testing their airplane. We are able to hold britches (trousers) up and to keep scratches down because Walter Hunt invented the safety pin in 1849.

Problem-solvers require Lockean Rights

The solution of significant problems often requires the development of new knowledge, and that requires liberty for problem-solvers. They need the freedom to learn, the freedom to experiment, and the freedom to publish their findings to others. Good examples of problem-solvers are scientists. As Jacob Bronowski wrote in Science and Human Values (1965):
Science is the creation of concepts and their exploration in the facts. It has no other test of the concept than its empirical truth to fact. Truth is the drive at the centre of science; it must have the habit of truth, not as a dogma, but as a process. If truth is to be found, not given, and if therefore it is to be tested in action, what other conditions grow of themselves from this? 
First, of course, comes independence, in observation and thence in thought. A man must see, do and think things for himself, in the face of those who are sure that they have already been over all that ground. It has been a byproduct of this that men have come to give a value to the new and bold in all their work. Dissent is the native activity of the scientist. Dissent is the mark of freedom. The safeguards which [society] must offer are patent: free inquiry, free thought, free speech, tolerance.
As Arnold Arons and Alfred Bork put it in their book, Science and Ideas( 1964): "the usually unspoken code of science [is that] 'unpalatable truth is preferable to cherished error.'"

Locke realized that the right to liberty cannot be considered separately from the right to property. Men need property to maintain both life and liberty, so they have a right to retain property earned by their labour.

The easiest way of demonstrating the importance of property rights to liberty is to consider the case in which the problem-solvers had no private property rights because the state owned all property. Such problem-solvers would live in state-owned houses, have all their financial accounts in state owned institutions, drive state-owned cars, do research in state-owned laboratories for script redeemable only in state-owned stores, and use only state-owned books and other equipment. Truthful reporting of their research findings is a professional obligation, as well as one of their assigned duties. However, would they be willing to risk the loss of state support and authorization - ruination - to report research findings that contradicted cherished, but erroneous, state positions?

With private property rights, problem-solvers may need to find another employer when faced with a similar dilemma, but would not have to face ruination.

Threats to the Survival of the Species

Our species has survived to the present day, in part, by pure chance. Increasingly there is the awareness that human activities have made continued survival of the species acutely precarious. Weapons of mass destruction could obliterate human life. Global warming is said to bring unpredictable and disastrous consequences. Modern technologies make possible the rapid spread of new diseases. However, in the last century or two, there has been a growing awareness of the inherent value of other species. Various land, habitat and wildlife conservation groups have sprung up all over the world. Industries and governments have begun to take actions to reduce pollution and global warming. It may take decades before reaching a sustainable equilibrium. There is slow progress on the control and reduction of weapons of mass destruction.

The Central Argument: The Species Benefits from Individual Rights

Adapt or perish! That is nature's challenge to all species. Humans are cultural animals, and they can make significant adaptations simply by changing their culture. Over the millennia, cultural adaptation has proved exceeding successful, and I would argue that it also offers the best known opportunity for the human species to survive in the future.

Throughout recorded history, the insights of typical individual problem-solvers acting alone, in small groups, and/or in a line as they pursue their freely-chosen callings, have led to adaptive new patterns of human behaviour. Sometimes, however, insightful individuals have been at risk for persecution and harm to their person and/or property because the adaptive changes they espoused were perceived as threats to the established order. The survival of the human species is under threat from past and present irresponsible human choices. Human insight is needed to meet these threats. Therefore, typical insightful individuals ought to be able to go about their lives freely, with their persons and property protected from harm if the human species is to have its best known opportunity to survive. That is, the Lockean rights of these individuals ought to be respected to respond to the challenge of nature. However, with many variables in play, exactly who may be an insightful individual is unknowable. Hence, for the human species to have its best known opportunity to survive, the Lockean rights of all typical humans ought to be respected.

From the foregoing, we can formulate two statements:
1) To avoid destructive hostilities in communities prior to civil government, the Lockean-like rights of all humans ought to be respected.

2) For the human species to have its best known opportunity to survive, the Lockean rights of all typical humans ought to be respected. 
This of course assumes that the survival of the human species and avoiding destructive hostilities are desirable. Yet I would argue that if one agrees that they are, then one ought also to respect the Lockean rights of all typical humans. This principle requires forbearance on the parts of both private individuals and the state, so it can serve as a fundamental principle for ethics and politics.

Address for correspondence:

Questioning the Problem of Evil (2009)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVII No.1

Why is it a problem?

By Ben Gibran

What about natural evils? Some regard these as acts of God which ultimately 'work for the good'. Others prefer to draw a yet-to-be-discovered causal link from human wickedness, that disrupted (and continuously disrupts?) a once harmonious relationship between Man and Nature. 

The classic Problem of Evil (henceforth referred to as 'the Problem') is one of the oldest and most persistent puzzles in philosophy. In its various formulations, the Problem posits an apparent contradiction between the existence of evil in the world and the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and morally perfect Creator (henceforth called 'God'). The conventional proposed solutions to the Problem (such as appeals to free will, limitations on human knowledge, or 'best of all possible worlds' arguments) have been mired in inconclusive debates. This article aims to foreground some of the key assumptions that render the Problem 'problematic'; and signpost a few 'pseudo-problems' along the way.

Some of these pseudo-problems arise from the conflation of several senses of 'evil'. The word 'evil' is used to refer to intentions, actions, practical consequences, acts of nature, pain and suffering. Not all of these 'evils' give rise to the Problem.

Philosophers traditionally divide evils into 'natural evils' (what insurers refer to as 'acts of Nature', such as diseases and earthquakes) and 'moral evils' ('acts of Man', for instance murder or theft). 'Moral evils' may be sub-divided into evil intentions and evil actions. The mere existence of creatures with evil intentions does not result in the Problem. Their evil intentions only give rise to the Problem if successfully acted on, causing evil outcomes (such as actual harm or injustice).

Distinguishing between intentions and outcomes allows for the argument that God redirects our attempts to act on our evil intentions, so that they ultimately 'work for the good' as viewed from a more holistic perspective (perhaps from the future). In such a scenario we would be culpable for our evil intentions; but on the assumption that we have free will, it may be argued that God is not the 'author of [moral] evil'. God brings about good, whether we intend to act badly or not. He does not allow our evil intentions to thwart his perfect plan. This may be called the 'redirection' argument, though it may have other names in the literature. The redirection argument raises a number of thorny questions (not least concerning the nature of free will, the origin of evil, and the role of the former in delimiting God's culpability for the latter), but has at least one advantage over the 'best of all possible worlds' argument (which at its simplest, argues that this is the best of all possible worlds, intentions included).

In allowing for the existence of evil intentions, the redirection argument leaves room for the possibility of sin (defined as rebellion against God, and thereby against our own best interest), which many regard as an undeniable moral reality.

Some may object that the redirection argument does not allow for real sinning, since someone who believes the argument would also believe that he can never really do anything bad (and may therefore 'do evil so good may result'). In response, one may appeal to the moral difference between doing evil in the belief that God will redirect it to the good, and just doing the good (to the best of our knowledge) that God commands. The former appears to be an evil act regardless of its consequences. A child who deliberately breaks his toys in the knowledge that daddy will buy more is still a bad child, even if dad has bottomless pockets. Another objection to the redirection argument is that it fails to address the 'problem of pain'.

Evils may be divided into those that are belief-dependent and those that are not. Pain is a belief-independent evil, because the belief that pain exists is not premised on other contingent beliefs. The experience of pain is sufficient to confirm that pain exists, but the experience of belief-dependent evils such as injustice are mediated through a set of contingent beliefs about the world. According to the redirection argument, from a more holistic perspective we may not see any belief-dependent evils in human history (only evil intentions that were never really fulfilled). However, we would still see pain, because no amount of new information can negate the fact that pain existed.

The standard response to the 'problem of pain' is that once we get the right perspective, we will see the pain as meaningful and therefore no longer as 'suffering' (though we may catch glimpses of 'meaningful pain' in our present experience, for example in a mother's decision to have a 'natural' childbirth, it seems fair to say that no analogy can do justice to the mystery of how the totality of human pain may be rendered 'meaningful'). The sentiment that such a response seems trite or otherwise unsatisfying may be put down to psychological factors (our natural immediate response to grief or pain), rather than philosophical ones.

There are times when we want to say that some event is just absolutely evil, in the sense that it stands for all eternity as a blot on human history. Our sense that grave injustice has been done seems to carry the connotation that real damage has occurred, which cannot be easily undone. Would the redirection argument not change what we mean by 'evil', removing the sense of irreparable harm that underlies the seriousness of evil? We want to say that no amount of punishment for the wrongdoers or compensation for the wronged could nullify real evils. Otherwise, evil would just be a debit on the moral balance sheet, and may be cancelled out with sufficient credit in the form of good works or penance (if we had a surplus of credit, are we free to do evil to balance it out?). On the other hand, how could God allow irremediable evils in the first place?

Proponents of the redirection argument might reply that our intuitions about the irreparability of evil are correct, but they apply to evil intentions rather than their consequences. An evil intention can never be erased from human history, it can never be transformed into a good intention by any amount of ingenuity or power. It is at least arguable that the existence of evil intentions in God's creatures cannot be held against God, if He gave them free will to begin with and redirected their bad intentions into good outcomes.

What about natural evils? Some regard these as acts of God which ultimately 'work for the good'. Others prefer to draw a yet-to-be-discovered causal link from human wickedness, that disrupted (and continuously disrupts?) a once harmonious relationship between Man and Nature. The latter view has the advantage of preserving the moral duty to mitigate natural evils such as disease and famine. If such evils were part of God's perfect plan, we would be hard-pressed to justify the claim that they are indeed 'evils'. But if God redirects evils to the good anyway, why bother to fight evils? In reply, proponents of the redirection argument might appeal to the aforementioned moral difference between doing evil (in this case, by omission) in the belief that God will redirect it to the good, and just doing the good that God commands.

Oddly enough, there is little literature (at least in Western Philosophy) on the possibility that self-delusion plays a part in our perception of the world as a bleak place. Our brains filter all perceptual data through conceptual schemes that are heavily value-laden, skewing our perception of reality to suit arbitrary priorities (in a famous psychology experiment, subjects didn't see a man in a bear suit walking through a basketball game, because they were asked to focus on keeping score. In another experiment, where subjects were shown a picture of a white man holding a knife in front of a black man, many recalled the black man holding the knife).

If. as the evidence suggests, human beings are capable of self-delusion on a massive scale, and as some 'theologicians' propose, the human race is rebelling against God, would our perception of reality not be correspondingly distorted? If we don't want to believe in God, would it not suit us to live in a world that appears to show that He doesn't exist? If the world is full of injustice and suffering, would that not be the perfect excuse for not believing in an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect and above all, loving Creator?

One could go a step further (some might say, off the edge!) and ask, is our subjective experience of pain real, in the sense of being caused by external stimuli? In another psychology experiment, subjects who allowed themselves to be hypnotised into believing they were in pain showed the same brain activity as people in real pain. Are we really living in a bad and miserable world, or do we hate God so much that we would rather believe that we live in a bad and miserable world, so we can have the best possible excuse not to believe in Him?

Some may object that we wouldn't be able to delude ourselves into believing we were in pain if we couldn't draw on the real experience of pain (can someone who has never smelled coffee imagine the aroma of coffee?). If hating another human being causes us 'psychic pain', would hatred for God cause a higher order and magnitude of suffering in the haters? If so, could we be drawing on the psychic pain of our hatred for God, and transferring the cause to the external world? In other words, could we be living in Heaven right now, if we didn't prefer to believe we're in Hell? Perhaps C. S. Lewis was understating it when he wrote that the gates of Hell are locked from the inside. If Hell didn't exist, would we have to invent it?

About the author:

Ben Gibran is the editor of 'Ordinary Language Philosophy, an Internet resource on the 'Ordinary Language', 'Linguistic' or 'Oxford' School of philosophy. 

Address for correspondence:

Being Liberal in a Plural World (2009)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVII No.1

In a Plural World
By Namit Arora

Is 'human rights' a Western idea? Yes and no. Yes because the modern concept of human rights arose in the West during the Enlightenment. No because it is only the latest episode in the long human preoccupation with dignity, justice, compassion, and many localized personal and communitarian rights. But despite the UN General Assembly's adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, consensus on what rights all humans deserve remains far from settled.

I believe the question that underlies all debate on human rights is really this: What ideas, beliefs, and values--i.e., what common morality, and institutions for safeguarding it--ought to be promoted universally, and the rest left alone to the currents of diversity?

The answer is far from easy and causes much acrimony (recall the 'Asian values' debate), with one side calling human rights a tool of Western hegemony aimed at non-Western societies, only to be accused in return of undermining liberty in the name of culture, order or tradition. Both sides make valid points. So what's a liberal to do? Let's probe a little deeper.

A great many of us today are 'value pluralists.' We believe that humans live by many legitimate ethical values and choices: to join the Resistance or care for a sick mother, to adopt a baby or make one, to support socialism or capitalism. Value pluralism entails that often there are no objective grounds for showing one human value superior to another, i.e., that there can be multiple right answers to a single ethical question. Value pluralism also implies that some values may be incommensurate with others, perhaps even making tragic conflict unavoidable--for instance, pro-life vs. pro-choice values, theocratic vs. secular values, warrior vs. monkish values. Often, conflicts of values are manifest even within a person. Whitman wrote, 'I am large, I contain multitudes.' 
I think it is safe to say that a pluralism of values is an empirical fact and a central aspect of the human condition--there simply are many conceptions of 'the good life' that cannot be objectively ranked. A pluralist considers the values legitimate--though not necessarily equal--when they are recognizably human, including even the values of the Nazis, human-sacrificing Aztecs, and slave owning societies. They are recognizably human because: (a) in other circumstances, and given enough false beliefs, propaganda, or fear, we can imagine ourselves, or our friends, behaving likewise, or (b) though we despise the behaviour, we can relate to the underlying value, say, the value Aztecs placed on regeneration and fertility, albeit via a mistaken institutional custom. On the other hand, pluralism would exclude, say, someone who sees no difference between kicking a chair and killing his mother, because his values are literally incomprehensible.

Contrast value pluralism with 'ethical monism'--the view that every ethical question has one and only one legitimate answer that is part of a single superior moral system (such as utilitarianism, a moral law of God, or an ethics derived from Reason). Note that ethical monism is an extreme state. Many are drawn to it but no one is a pure ethical monist.

The opposite of ethical monism is 'relativism'--the view that legitimate ethical values, especially in different cultural contexts, cannot be judged from an objective and/or universal standpoint--let alone a Western liberal standpoint that privileges individual liberty and human rights. Relativism treats Western liberalism as just one among many local value systems with no universal validity. It argues that others may prefer a different cocktail of values, say, autocratic rule, devotional piety, and traditional clan rights. Who is to say which is better? Note that relativism too is an extreme state. Many are drawn to it but no one is a pure relativist.

The question is, does pluralism imply relativism, and thus (or otherwise) undermine liberalism's universal pretensions? 

Isaiah Berlin (1909-97), a significant exponent of liberal political thought in the 20th century, advanced the ideas of value pluralism and the two concepts of liberty: negative and positive. Though he often claimed that he was not a relativist, he didn't adequately differentiate his pluralism from relativism, except in the most general terms.

Later thinkers have widely accepted his core ideas but have argued over whether or not a commitment to pluralism undermines liberalism, particularly in the debate over universal human rights and 'Asian values.' Among them is John Gray, a British philosopher, who believes that Berlin did not realize the full import of his value pluralism. While it does not imply full-blown cultural relativism, says Gray (though his arguments suggest otherwise), pluralism does undermine liberalism. He regards as monistic the absolute priority and universal relevance liberalism assigns to liberty. The more Western liberals evangelize their conception of liberty and political rights for all humans, the more they veer away from pluralism to monism. Other cultures, he argues, have their own value systems that may not accord a privileged role to liberty.

How does one decide when one is being a pluralist and when a relativist? Berlin perhaps left this intentionally vague, given his well-known aversion to policy specifics and getting his hands dirty in the politics of the hour. The Oxford don instead wrote on this topic only in general, rarefied terms, as in A Letter on Human Nature, written in 1986:
I think that it is true to say that there are certain basic needs, for example--for food, shelter, security, belonging to a group of one's own--which anyone qualifying for the description of human being must be held to possess. These are only the most basic properties; one might be able to add the need for a certain minimum of liberty, for the opportunity to pursue happiness or the realization of one's potentialities for self-expression, for creation (however elementary), for love, for worship (as religious thinkers have maintained), for communication, and for some means of conceiving and describing themselves, perhaps in highly symbolic and mythological forms, their own relationship to the environment--natural and human--in which they live. Unless there is that, communication between human beings, even within a society, let alone understanding of what others have wished to communicate in other ages and cultures, would become impossible. 
In other words, some common humanity is required for humans to at least minimally understand each other, suggesting, in turn, some common values. But if we look at all the human diversity that anthropologists have revealed across time and place, it is less clear how much is truly common, whether innately or through nurture. The devil lies in the details. Reasonable people do not agree on what humans value universally, how much, and in what relative order. And so what policies and rights might be agreeable to all?

Gray, however, tends to accord a special autonomy to regional cultures, holding their boundaries sacrosanct in terms of outsider interference. His is a plea to evaluate cultures from within, on their own terms. It's not clear why this is decidedly better. Perhaps it is an overreaction to the neocon strand of US foreign policy, or his own anti-liberalism, or perhaps a kind of neo-Orientalism. After all, other divisions--of race, class, gender, economics, education, age, religion, and experiences--also mark us. Does a young female peasant in Xinjiang have much less in common with her counterpart in Bengal than with a male business executive in Shanghai? Does a Muslim tailor in Hyderabad have much less in common with his counterpart in Kuala Lumpur than with a Hindu software writer in Chennai?

Even a cursory look reveals that there are many contending forces within every society--struggles and sufferings and countless interplays of power and domination. Privileging a regional culture--as if it were a hermetically sealed entity that outsiders to the region cannot relate to and so shouldn't pronounce on--over other human divisions is an arbitrary choice, with more than a whiff of the ideological. Why stop at regional cultural boundaries, why not go down further to the province, the family, and the individual?

George Crowder, an Australian philosopher, has argued the reverse--that value pluralism not only does not imply cultural relativism (which he claims is Gray's position), but that some of the basic claims of liberalism are logical corollaries of pluralism, and therefore universally valid, beneficial, and worth promoting everywhere. He makes a spirited case that some personal autonomy is required for people to make a rational choice out of the value conflicts that affect them--whether for a village girl in Burma, or a factory worker in Peru. Crowder is not saying that civilizations can, or should, converge; he's suggesting that public policies that see merit in some personal autonomy are objectively and universally better. In his 2003 essay, "Pluralism, Relativism, and Liberalism," in  Isaiah Berlin's  book, Crowder writes:
If pluralism is true, then the best lives, those informed by reasoned choices among the available options, will be characterised by personal autonomy. And if that is true, then pluralism implies a case not only for liberalism but specifically for that kind of liberalism under which the promotion of personal autonomy is a legitimate goal of public policy.
 One might raise two objections here. First, Crowder privileges 'reasoned choices' over other kinds of choices. This seems to me an arbitrary bias. This is not to say that I find it unattractive, only arbitrary and subjective. It is not at all clear why a policy maker who regards himself a value pluralist should privilege reason, when reason is just one of many legitimate values preferred by people. Nor is reason a precondition for pluralism, as many mystical-spiritual worldviews have shown. Without a context, or agreed upon goals for humanity, can a pluralist objectively privilege reason over feeling, instinct, or tradition? Second, Crowder implicitly assumes that personal autonomy will lead to rational choice more often than non-rational choice. That may not be true.

Let me do a quick recap. I began by noting that a pluralism of values is an empirical fact, and then argued that pluralism doesn't justify relativism because humans share a common humanity and many common values. However, it's hard for even most reasonable people to agree on what the common values are, let alone their relative importance, or the motivations that inform a value (such as patriotism). Because pluralism admits universal values, it does not undermine liberalism per se. But if we cannot have consensus on the 'truly universal' values of liberalism, and hence rights--whether on empirical or practical grounds--how, and on what basis, should I as a liberal act in the world?

Three things come to mind:
(1) I would do well to realize that when it comes to values (such as those that inform secularism, social ethics, or human rights), the quest for objectivity is chimerical--I am in the realm of metaphysics and have no recourse to scientific verities. Indeed, even the idea of 'human dignity'--to which we widely subscribe and upon which is built every edifice of human rights--is nothing but a useful fiction.

(2) I should understand that the source of my actions has to be my own liberalism, which includes my own subjective view of our common humanity, the values we share, and the ideas and policies that I think will make the world a better place.

(3) I have to take seriously at least what I hold to be the core values of my liberalism, such as a commitment to try and understand others and to modify my opinions in light of new discoveries.
Indeed, the only path open to me as a pluralist and a liberal is to try to persuade others of my subjective values, and to put my weight behind ideas and policies that appeal to my liberalism. Like everyone else, I come into the world, inherit ideas and traditions, project myself in time, and die. Cultures and traditions are not given but made; social values are contingent and agonistic.

My liberalism may come to see some things as universally true--for instance, that abuse of power and public trust are universally bad, or that the right to free and fair trials tap into a universal value for justice, and so worth supporting in all contexts. Even if I think a value is not universal today--say euthanasia, basic literacy, or tolerance for consensual adult sex before marriage--I may believe that with effort it can become universal, and the world would be better for it. On other issues like school prayer, labour laws, censorship, or social welfare, I may require a lot more local context before taking a stand. Some other values I may be indifferent to but might (or might not) recognize their importance to others. Imperfect, but that's all we have: one language game vs. another, though with real human consequences.

Last but not least, I should try to persuade others without being self-righteous or hypocritical. Nor is pomposity, railing at others, or calling them irrational or stupid the best tactic. Better to seduce via exemplary action. Know thy interlocutor. Successful persuasion may require any combination of ordinary human techniques: pleading, arguing, requesting, reasoning, illustrating, cajoling, praising, challenging, respecting, appeasing, sharing facts, bargaining, dining together, and so on. Alongside, I must remain flexible to revise my belief in my values, given new findings. I must also accept that, at times, open confrontation is unavoidable. That's all there is--my belief in values that I think will lead to a better world, and trying to get others to see it my way on issues I care enough about. 
A sense of humour always helps.

Address for correspondence:

Email Namit Arora at is his personal website centred on India