Warning: "continue" targeting switch is equivalent to "break". Did you mean to use "continue 2"? in /homepages/22/d134208099/htdocs/keith/wp-includes/pomo/plural-forms.php on line 210
Zettel Film Reviews » Liberal Values – Essay: Bertrand Russell, Zettel, critical values

  • Pages

  • Site Sections

  • Tags

  • Archives

Liberal Values – Essay: Bertrand Russell, Zettel, critical values

A liberal decalogue

A liberal decalogue - Bertrand Russell

Liberal Values – Zettel

In a New York Times article in December 1951, prophetically called ‘The Best Answer to Fanaticism – Liberalism’, Bertrand Russell defined liberal values in the form of a liberal decalogue, generously remarking for such a committed atheist and liberal, that it was intended to supplement not supplant the old one. Together they constitute a coherent definition of what people of liberal sentiments believe in – deeply. Any system of political values which does not respect them, can be argued to have no coherent sense of freedom or justice at all.

These values are not derived from the views and policies of any particular political party even the current Liberal Democrat Party or its historic predecessor. They do not constitute a political ideology as they do not define any method for their successful implementation. They require no less than that the individual, whether private citizen or politician, makes particular judgements about personal and political issues in the light of these values. Although deeply rooted in the history of Western culture, notably the philosophy of the Ancient Greeks, liberal values are more relevant to the 21st century than all the failed ideologies of the 20th. They explicitly reject ideologically based systems of implementation whether personal, social, political or economic. They are idealistic but not, as is often claimed, naively so. They permit no excuses.

These are Russell’s 10 principles.

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

The key word here is ‘absolutely’. Liberal belief as expressed in this principle is profoundly anti-absolutist, deeply committed to reason and an acknowledgement of, and respect for, opposing points of view. At the heart of this lies a respect for others that underpins the British national trait of tolerance. The rejection of absolutism is philosophically existentialist in character. It is our responsibility to act, to resist injustice and irrationality in the conduct of practical affairs. We can neither appeal to any God nor any absolute political ideology to sanction or excuse action or inaction. It is down to us. That is why liberal values are the most demanding and challenging of political philosophies. This perspective is also different from Atheism and most forms of Humanism which take their position from the denial of a transcendent being. This is an illiberal position: the source of both lies in the denial of God, and this is an absolutist view, which offends the paradigm liberal value. The absolute denial of God is as unacceptable as the absolute belief in Him. Liberal values are not in themselves inconsistent with religious belief or Humanism, only with absolutist forms of either. You cannot, or rather should not, deny another man’s God. This profound respect for reason and rationality which are philosophically derived from a shared language and forms of life with others, generates a duty of respect for human beings in and for themselves. Respect for human life and different cultures is predicated upon the liberal rejection of metaphysical prejudice. From Russell’s first principle of rejecting absolute certainty comes the central tenet of respect for human life.

A current form of absolute certainty is found in fundamentalist religious beliefs. The devastating effects of such unassailable conviction of rightness, hardly needs spelling out given the current state of the world. The intractability of many conflicts can be traced to this form of absolutism. The best example is perhaps the Palestinian/Israeli conflict: each claims a form of transcendental sanction for their right to the same territory. The land is the same but the religious convictions each cites in support of their irreconcilable claims, are unresolvable until they are brought into some form of non-transcendental context. This context must be built upon secular political aims and objectives where the contradictory, conflicting character of the mutually exclusive aspirations has to be faced and subjected to secular rationality.

The lack of a shared rational context within which to approach secular, political issues, common in the most intractable historical disputes, leads inexorably to physical conflict. The paradoxical result is that conflicting belief systems are driven to sanction forms of behaviour contradictory to some of the most profound moral tenets within those systems.

2. Do not think it worthwhile to proceed by concealing evidence for the evidence is sure to come to light.

This is an eminently practical and largely prudential injunction. The moral dimension of this principle is expressed elsewhere in the decalogue. The list of politicians who have ignored it, incurring precisely the consequences indicated, is headed ignominiously by Richard Nixon. But he has plenty of political company.

3. Never discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.

Only partly ironic on Russell’s part. French philosopher Simone Weil comes to mind: “Action is easy. Thought is hard. The hardest of all is thoughtful action.” One fundamental value of liberalism is rationality, and as this quality is always a matter of degree, the quality of the rationality displayed will be a function of the quality of thought. But there is a deeper point: to encourage thinking and not to discourage it, is not only an expression of a commitment to rationality but an implicit acceptance of dissent (see 8 below). Dissent can be problematic. But to deny oneself the discipline of its chastening effect, is to evade the rigour of an independent check on one’s own thinking and the need to overcome it by reasoned argument. (see 4).

4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your spouse or children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

Opposition is the grit of truth and the prick of humility. One of the defining characteristics of liberal values that makes them so tough to adhere to in the political arena is the point Russell makes above: it is the manner of victory not merely the fact, that is crucial. People can be induced to behave in specified ways by different means: fear, greed, desire, selfishness work well as is attested by the first decalogue. Even more effective and pertinent for our current economic and political system, is the appeal to self-interest. The economic success of this appeal has led to its universal acceptance even by ideologies inherently hostile to it, like socialism.

The moral discomfort many feel about this has been ‘spun’ away. Logical legerdemain has turned a selfish perspective into a civic and moral duty. The economic triumph of global capitalism at the end of the 20th Century which swept away competing ideologies rested fundamentally on the appeal to naked self-interest as a prime motivator. The specious moral argument for this was expressed by Margaret Thatcher when without irony or humility, she explained that the Samaritan was only good because he had the wealth to implement his desire to help the stranger. Thus politically, the pursuit of self-interest generates maximum excess value, some of which can be exacted through taxation to support expenditure to help the less successful. What looks like selfishness becomes not only socially desirable but a personal and commercial civic duty. We have created an unselfish selfishness. Orwell’s on the spin.

Of course appeal to self-interest works – it’s so easy. We can do what we want to do and feel morally smug about doing it. But it is not the only appeal to which human beings respond: they can also be motivated by appeals to personal pride, humanity, concern for the natural world, love of art in all its forms, respect for other cultures, and for the wonder of human diversity etc. Despite this, status and the much vaunted notion of ‘choice’ in our culture is a function of personal and corporate wealth. Just the kind of hierarchical authority Russell is attacking. It is a function of power. The critical theme here is that the way one achieves victory is paramount

5. Have no respect for the authority of others as there are always contrary authorities to be found.

This echoes the injunction about certainty. If it is important to resist the absolutism of personal certainty, then the history of the 20th century shows how much more vital is resistance to the certainty of the group. Nazism, Stalinism, Racism, indeed most of the political ‘isms’. This illustrates another key liberal value: respect for the individual. Insofar as rationality is a function of shared language, in turn a function of a shared culture or ‘form of life’, one’s appreciation of the value of the individual, self and others, derives from a sense of distinctiveness from the group. The only true ‘authority’ therefore is that of reason, respect for the truth and the importance of other individuals.

6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do, the opinions will suppress you.

Are you listening Messrs Bush and Rumsfeld, Senator McCarthy et al? What price current American foreign policy with regard to Islamic Fundamentalism? This is not to deny the problem of terrorism, it is just an apposite and dire warning about the kind of victory sought. You can’t bomb ideas or shoot beliefs.

7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted, was once eccentric.

A re-statement of the above principles. An encouragement to the individual to have courage and confidence in his own judgement subject of course to 1. The history of Science is the perfect illustration of this principle.

8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence, as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

“A cloud of philosophy condensed in a drop of grammar” as Wittengstein remarked in another context. The quality of thought is related to intelligence. Respect for dissent has to do with a sense of humility with regard to thought; a recognition of the dangers of certainty. It underlines the value of rationality, the pursuit of truth, as being a process shared with others. The ‘deeper’ agreement of which Russell speaks, apart from sharing a language, might be called the love of and respect for, the search for truth. Not undeniable truths (see 1); but the courageous, humble effort to seek out as much truth as the circumstances will permit. And the acknowledgement that one must look outside oneself, to others, in order to achieve this.

9. Be scrupulously truthful, even when the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

The list of public figures who have ignored this precept to their cost is long. But this is not just pragmatic advice. Beneath it lies the principle of trust. The viability of language itself is predicated upon the logical principle that people, on the whole, tell the truth as best they can when they use language. The systematic misuse of this precept gradually undermines the process of communication and thereby the possibility of trust for the individual who abuses this expectation. Of course people cheat, lie, dissemble, mislead, spin, as well as tell the truth. But the trust for politicians for example derives from the connection between what they say and what they do and the explanations they give when things turn out differently from the outcomes expected. At this point most of the principles above become critical.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think it is paradise.

Deception, even self-deception, is a conscious or subconscious denial of truth. The denial of truth is the denial of reality. The denial of reality amounts to the decision to try to live out of harmony with the world around you. By Russell’s definition – a fool.

Liberal values are profoundly relevant to the present state of British ánd world politics. We know that ideologies do not deliver: unrestrained capitalism will never deliver respect for the global environment; free market forces deliver profit but not fairness or justice; privatisation does not deliver desired results in organisations or enterprises with more complex aims than simply selling a product e.g health, education, policing. Calling these ‘products’ in order magically to eliminate the very complexity that defines their value and importance to us, is as silly as it is intellectually dishonest. Even a likely candidate like transport, has proved immune to the illusory magic bullet of privatisation. We also know the profound cost in human suffering and life which arose during the 20th century from the failed ideologies of Marxism, Communism, Nazism, Nationalism, Racism etc.

We are entering a period of ideology-free politics in the economically advanced western democracies. We are being asked to make a judgement in casting a vote, not following a habitual prejudice or blind party partiality. By a chilling but sublime irony, many of those countries who own the raw materials, critically oil, upon which our industrial and commercial wealth depends, in the absence of stable political states, are falling prey to religious absolutism of various forms. Combine this with the inexorable growth of the global arms industry and increasing accessibility of basic nuclear capability, and we must see this as a profoundly dangerous time in human history. Never has the need for principled leadership and moral authority been more acute. Brute power is not leadership, it is its antithesis. Principled leadership in international affairs is what we call statesmanship: the principle of proceeding by agreement and consensus not the unilateral application of overwhelming power (see 6. above).

It is a truism of democracy that in order to have a statesman operating on the world stage we have to elect one. This requires that politicians seek our votes for ideals that they believe in and which we share: and then live and lead by them.

Lao Tze:

“The bad leader is he who the people hate. The good leader is he who the people love. The great leader is he who the people say: “we did it ourselves.”

Liberal values provide a set of ideals by which to judge our candidates for leadership: but they will not, cannot, ensure that such a leader stands for election, still less that we will elect him/her. That is down to us – no excuses. That’s what the values themselves say and why they are the toughest principles on offer.

(Zettel October 2008)

Leave a Reply