The Questions: Ben Colburn’s Social Liberal Values Part 4

Ben Colburn, pictured above (credit to Norman Fraser) was a Research Fellow at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and Affiliated Lecturer, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Cambridge until September 2010 when he became a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Glasgow. He recently gave a lecture to the Social Liberal Forum (Scotland) on the subject of Social Liberal Values. From Monday to Wednesday, you’ve seen the main body of the lecture. This is his appendix in which he reports on the questions he took from the floor of the event. Enjoy – and as I’m away on my holidays, play nicely in the comments threads If you missed it, you might want to also read Robert Brown’s speech from the same event.

I am really grateful to Ben for letting me publish this in full. I hope it stimulates and informs debate within the party, not just in Scotland, as we seek to develop our policies for 2015 and beyond.

The Questions

The preceding is a slightly revised version of a talk I gave at the meeting of the Social Liberal Forum (Scotland) on 23 June 2012. It summarises, and incorporates, material from my essay ‘Liberalism for the People – the Orange Book challenged’, in The Little Yellow Book edited by RobertBrown and Nigel Lindsay, and published by Liberal Futures in March 2012. Those who want a little more detail on the ideas above should get their hands on a copy; they will also find, elsewhere in the volume, a set of cracking essays which explore different theoretical aspects of social Liberalism, and develop (better than I have) some specific policy proposals on these foundations. Those who want a lot more detail on these ideas might want to track down my monograph Autonomy and Liberalism (New York: Routledge, 2010), which will hopefully be coming out in paperback soon.
To conclude, I want to reflect on some of the comments that this talk elicited from the Social Liberal Forum meeting. 

Complex foundations

 One comment, characteristically sharp, came from Elspeth Attwooll. Elspeth agreed with my core contention that we should elevate social liberty above its three companions, and that the right way to characterise the relationship between them is by saying that personal, political and economic liberty are instrumentally valuable for social liberty. She worried, though, that it hasn’t so far been made properly clear what it means to say that something is an ‘instrumental’ value; and she complained (very politely, of course!) that it’s difficult to see how social liberty is supposed to fit together with responsibility, on the one hand, and the purportedly foundational value of autonomy, on the other. Aren’t things just getting a bit too complex here?
In response to Elspeth’s question, I’ve somewhat clarified above what I mean by ‘instrumental value’, and in particular I’ve distinguished it from ‘conditional value’. (The former is a relation between two political aims: one aim or value is instrumental when it is advanced as a way of achieving some other aim or value. The latter is what we mean when we say that something is valuable only under certain conditions.) I think I’ve also made it a bit clearer how the whole theory fits together. At the foundation lies the ideal of individual autonomy, which means an individual deciding for herself what is valuable, and successfully living her life in accordance with that decision. For political purposes, this ideal has two components: social liberty, and individual responsibility. A political programme based on autonomy must support and promote both of these as far as possible: they are, we might say, instrumentally butunconditionally valuable.[1]And doing that requires that we take a stance toward to the other forms of liberty: personal, political, and economic. These often support both social liberty and individual responsibility, but not always. So, they are instrumentally and conditionally valuable. Their pursuit in politics must be constrained by a supportive context to ensure that they enhance, rather than detracting from, individual autonomy. My five key questions are intended to articulate this constraint in a way which allows us to audit particular policies to see how far they match up to the fundamental social Liberal principles set out here.
So far, so good. But I think there’s a deeper problem raised by Elspeth’s question, which has to do with the role of complex theory in practical politics.
In one sense, I don’t think we need to be afraid of complexity. Social and political life is complex; we should expect that an adequate political theory will mirror that complexity. As Liberals, we should eschew the tendency we see in other political movements towards procrusteanism; that is, insisting upon an over-simple theory of politics, and twisting the evidence and the reality to try to make it fit.
Nevertheless, theoretical complexity does pose us a practical political problem: how do we articulate these basic social Liberal principles so that they resonate with voters? As it happens, I don’t think that the theory I’ve sketched is so complex as to preclude communication by a talented political commentator. Take the core concepts: the importance of responsibility; the fact that different people’s liberties, and different types of liberty, can come into conflict; and the value of someone shaping their own life according to their judgement about what is valuable that the ideal of individual autonomy asserts. These concepts, though not always framed in the terms I’ve used here, are ones which most people grapple with daily. The problem is that this quotidian political thought has become completely disconnected, in most people’s eyes, from the political process in Britain. In my essay in The Little Yellow Book I suggested that this depressing fact offers us Liberal Democrats an important opportunity. We are justly proud of our experience in community politics. The logical next step in that journey is to start talking about political theory, and connecting with the political thinking that people don’t realise they’re doing. This will help to rebuild trust and electoral success at the grass roots. Apart from anything else, it will show that we are ambitious, both for our Liberal ideas and for the good sense of the British population. 

The common good

 A second worry was articulated by various participants, including Robert Brown, Paul Coleshill, and Allan Heron. Social Liberalism is about recognising the importance of the common good; one of our main disagreements with economic Liberals and with neo-liberal Conservatives concerns their focus on the atomistic individual, to the exclusion of communal ends. Am I not guilty of the same thing, we might ask, by having at the foundations of my proposed social Liberalism the individualistic ideal of autonomy?
This is a penetrating question, and one to which I have no quick answer. All I can really hope to do here is to set out my current thinking on the matter, but it’s clear that this is a point which I (and social Liberals more general) need to work out much more carefully than I have time to right now.
The first thing to say is: the fact that at its roots my theory rests on an ideal of the good life for individuals doesn’t make it atomistic or ignorant of the common weal. As I said above, the Liberal recognises that individuals are of necessity embedded in a rich network of communal life: families, groups of friends, neighbourhoods churches, schools, universities, campaigning groups, political parties, and society more broadly. So, taking individuals seriously just means taking seriously the communal life to which they are committed. The libertarian view that treating individuals seriously means thinking that there’s no such thing as society – to allude to a famous misquotation of Margaret Thatcher – is simply mistaken about human nature: the atomistic and autarchical individuals which it posits do not, never have, and never will exist.
Above, in my discussion of responsibility, I indicate what I think this means. (That section, incidentally, has been somewhat bumped up in response to the questions I’ve referred to.) Let me repeat, and elaborate, here. If we think autonomy is important, then we’re going to take seriously people’s judgements about what makes their lives go well. Most people do place great importance on communal life. So, the social Liberal principles I’ve stated above imply that Liberals should uphold and support communal life and the common good, because of the importance it has for individuals. In particular, we should do whatever we can to support and extend citizens’ opportunities to seek value through engaging in public service, and by wholehearted community action.
There’s also a point here about responsibility. One of the things it means to be socially embedded – born into a particular society at a particular time – is that we necessarily incur responsibilities: responsibilities to our families and other educators, to the society and state which provides the framework within which we live our lives. These responsibilities are inescapable, and a central part of who we are. Above, I said that an important aspect of the ideal of autonomy is guaranteeing that people are responsible for how their lives go. In the present context, that means enabling people to recognise, and live up to, the responsibilities they have to their fellow citizens. Once again, for the social Liberal, taking individuals seriously means doing the same for the common good.
Will my interlocutors be happy with this? Possibly not. (Robert Brown wasn’t, when I talked to him afterwards.) ‘Why not just add ‘the common good’ in as an independent foundational value alongside individual autonomy?’ they might say. ‘Doesn’t this individualistic foundation concede too much to our opponents?’
I disagree, for two reasons. One problem with the proposal just essayed is that it risks a return to a la carte liberalism; that is (to repeat myself) something we must avoid if we are to be intellectually and politically credible. The other is that, while I share the view that the common good is tremendously important, I am mindful that appeals to it are frequently used to disguise policies which, on closer inspection, turn out to be deeply illiberal.
Let me explain why. To start with, I should reiterate that the individualist foundations I’ve laid out in this essay do indeed place a concern for the common good at the heart of social Liberal politics. Everyone has an inescapable responsibility to do their part in supporting a political system which guarantees for everyone the basic conditions of autonomy. It’s a sort of quid-pro-quo: we recognise that the importance of autonomy gives each individual considerable freedom and sovereignty over her own life, but only as much as is consistent with showing the same regard for all of her fellow citizens, and guaranteeing them the same privileges that she herself is claiming.
To insist that there is still something lacking is therefore to argue that our conception of the common good must go beyond this impartial concern for every citizen’s chance of living an autonomous life. That would result, in effect, in hard-wiring into our political system some specific judgements about what makes people’s lives go well. In reply to a question by Paul Coleshill I noted that Liberals are in other contexts rightly scornful of regimes which dictate ideals to their citizenry. We regard the imposition on an individual of a conception of the good life (whether that is by a state, by a church, by a family, or by social opinion) as one of the forms of oppression which Liberal politics is here to oppose. Treating the common good as something valuable in itself (rather than, as above, deriving it from the need to show equal regard for everyone’s autonomy), hence worth giving independent weight to in our political theory, seems to me not essentially different. John Stuart Mill, when remarking on the problem that a pure democracy doesn’t necessarily protect minority rights any better than a tyrant does, referred to the ‘tyranny of the majority’.  We might, similarly, talk here about the ‘tyranny of the common good’, and ask: how far should a Liberal society compel people to contribute to these communal ends if they themselves don’t see any value there? Our answer should be: no more than is absolutely necessary to secure the basic conditions of a good life for everyone.
I’m not certain of this. It’s hard to work out where to draw the shifting boundaries of Liberalism, and I would be delighted to be persuaded that my worries are unfounded. Nevertheless, I think that I have to stick to my guns. I’ve shown how – using just the foundational concern for individual autonomy and the derivative commitments to liberty and responsibility that it implies – one can generate a substantial political role for the idea of the common good. So, there’s unlikely to be any policy disagreement here. Someone might still want to complain that I’m still not giving the common good sufficient centrality. To substantiate that charge, though, they bear a burden of proof. That is, they must show that hard-wiring such judgements into politics can (the worries I’ve expressed here notwithstanding) be part of a consistent and rigorous social Liberalism. I don’t see how it can. Hence, I think the more modest social Liberalism presented here is our best bet.

[1]Actually, I should say that they are constitutively valuable rather than instrumentally valuable, for they are components of the ideal of autonomy, and not independent means to that end – but the distinction needn’t worry us here.


About caronlindsay

Scottish Lib Dem pro UK activist, mum, Doctor Who, Strictly, F1 and trashy tv addict and blogger.
This entry was posted in ben colburn, Robert Brown, Scotland, Social Liberal Forum, social liberal values. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Questions: Ben Colburn’s Social Liberal Values Part 4

  1. mike cobley says:

    Thanks for giving the talk, Ben – as as social democrat I sincerely appreciate your detailed summary of the social liberal position. Clarity is a signal virtue in these matters, and I look forward to employing it myself later this year.


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