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The myth of liberal neutrality

The culture war in our universities is sweeping away cherished illusions

Artillery Row

Beleaguered liberal academics often appeal to the idea that universities should be neutral on substantive issues: they should teach the scientific or philosophical method, or the method of literary criticism, or whatever, but not enforce a single view of the correct answers. This kind of argument is also used in relation to schools, and in general to all the activities of the state. It is not just a bad argument, but a strategically disastrous one.

Classical liberals claim that what they want is simply a framework within which free enquiry can take place. The only limit to the debate which a classical liberal can accept is the defence of free enquiry itself. The only voices which are excluded are those which would silence other voices. But — they say — this is not a real limitation, a limit on what substantive results are allowable, because it is merely the limit imposed by rationality itself. Those who would silence other voices are rejecting rationality, in rejecting the value of the free debate which those voices would stimulate.

They challenge liberalism’s conception of rationality

The claim that one can’t “tolerate the intolerant” is, in a nutshell, the position of J.S. Mill in On Liberty. Liberalism claims to be a philosophical view on a higher plane to other views, and allows those views to fight it out intellectually within the limits it sets. What it will not allow is a challenge to these limits by another view on its own, higher, plane: another view of what the arena of acceptable intellectual debate should look like. Liberalism, in short, will not allow itself to be challenged. The problem is that great intellectual traditions of the past, with which universities are concerned above all, see themselves as inhabiting the same, higher, plane as liberalism. 

Aristotelianism, Protestantism, Marxism, and so on, all challenge liberalism’s claim to the unique privilege of setting the limits of debate. They do so because they challenge liberalism’s conception of rationality.

Once it is recognised that there is no single, uncontroversial conception of rationality, the idea that the liberal framework for debate ought to satisfy every reasonable person falls apart. There is, in fact, a lively debate about rationality, and trying to enforce one view of it, and silence all others, has far deeper negative implications, for the intellectual life of a university, than excluding the occasional Christological heretic from a chair in theology.

The classical liberal conception of rationality, from Mill to John Rawls, mirrors its commitment to free enquiry. Just as, for the liberal, debate on substantive questions can never finally be settled, so too an individual’s commitment to a particular conception of the good can never be final. Mill draws out one implication of this which must have shocked his contemporaries: that with due regard for fairness and reasonable expectations, married persons should be able to escape the obligations of marriage at will. In effect, because one might make a mistake, one can never be allowed to make a commitment.

The values of the university must be defended as values

It is no surprise to find that this conception of rationality corresponds to other positions associated with the liberal tradition: individualism, rationalism, a suspicion of inherited obligations, an incomprehension of the importance of the shared values and cultural practices which bind a community together, whether it be a family, a village, or a nation. Where the liberal conception of rationality is dominant, and other conceptions are ruled out of serious consideration as unreasonable — as, indeed, threats to the liberal framework which alone makes the good life possible — the supposedly free debate on substantive issues turns out to be tilted aggressively against anything resembling social or cultural conservatism, or any form of collectivism. We should not be surprised, of course, that if we allow liberalism to set the terms of the debate, liberalism’s pet “substantive” positions do rather well in it.

Nevertheless, one strand within liberalism has long had concerns about liberalism’s failure to defend its own values in an explicit way. So-called “perfectionist liberals”, like the late Joseph Raz, recognise that liberal institutions are not really neutral between different points of view, inevitably, since true neutrality is impossible. They go on to say that liberal values which support and are supported by liberal institutions, such as personal autonomy and academic rigour, should be identified and defended for their own sake, lest we find that the cultural underpinnings of the institutions wither away.

This is a minority position for liberals, however. It is just too convenient, if intellectually dishonest, to be able to cut off serious challenges to the liberal project, by claiming that such challenges are threats to the neutrality of the debating-space itself.

This strategy works better with conservatives, who are in principle friendly to the idea of political debate being limited by inherited conventions, whether arbitrary or negotiated, than with radicals, who want to examine these conventions for intolerable vestiges of the old regime. Liberal elites have always been vulnerable to radicals, and the “woke” radicals of today illustrate the pattern. The liberal leadership of our universities, officially committed to neutrality between substantive values, have no arguments to counter the perfectly reasonable observation that a focus on the intellectual and cultural achievements of western civilisation highlights and promotes the values embedded in them.

Liberalism’s conservative opponents don’t need to be persuaded that Shakespeare’s implicit heteronormativity, or Kant’s exaltation of abstract reason, is an important part of our collective intellectual history, and can in any case be taken with a pinch of salt. Liberalism’s “progressive” opponents are not so easily going to be convinced that the presence of such titanic figures in the curriculum is compatible with it being value-neutral, since this is obviously false. 

Wokism is doing incalculable damage to the university as an idea, and if left unchecked will destroy it entirely. What is to be welcomed is its waking us up from the dream of liberal neutrality. The values of the university must be defended as values: not by pretending they are not values at all.

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