Philsoc Members’ Weekend17-18 September 2022
RewleyHouse Lecture Theatre and on Zoom
Is Liberalism obsolete?
To book a place, please use the event's booking form.
Timetable of talks:
SATURDAY 17 September
1.30-1.50 Very short introduction – Bob Stone (organizer)
1.50-2.30 The broken bowl: How liberalism failed – and why we must remake it – Barry King
The central argument is that liberalism failed because it was too successful. To use Marxist terminology, it became its own gravedigger due to its internal contradictions. What may have started as an ideal of personal freedom and wealth creation morphed into an ideology promoting free, unregulated markets and the sacredness of property. An emphasis on unbridled individual liberty created a form of social Darwinism which largely ignored the fact that we are essentially a relational species. Despite some 70 years of rising economic equality in the 20th century, doctrinal liberalism resumed after the economic crises in the 1970s. Large proportions of the populations in developed nations, not least in Anglo-Saxon countries, were pitched into impoverishment and insecurity. Resentments have led to radical changes in political alignments and remote wealthy elites have manipulated democratic procedures to sustain their grip on power. Liberal democracy, so recently trumpeted as ‘the end of history’, is in a very bad place and needs to be radically revitalised. This essay draws on many thinkers, such as Patrick Deneen, who wrote: ‘The greatest proof of human freedom today lies in our ability to imagine and build liberty after liberalism.’ But how? And are we too late?
Barry King studied PPE at Oxford 1964-67. He then taught economics and politics in state schools before becoming one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools, working subsequently as a freelance education consultant and inspector. His interest in philosophy was particularly kindled while studying educational philosophy at the Cambridge Institute 1975-76. He contributes to philosophy groups in Bournemouth, catching up with many of the philosophy books he should have read but somehow didn’t!
2.40-3.20 Liberalism to die for – Barbara Wainwright
The humane values of the Enlightenment – tolerance, respect for rationality and science and care for one’s fellow human beings – are under threat. These same values are the basis of liberalism and democracy, which are therefore also being challenged by alternative philosophies which place more emphasis on social harmony than on personal freedom. It may not be a problem that societies differ in their choices and preferences, if they understand and accept the underlying philosophy, rather than seeking to impose one viewpoint over the whole planet. It would appear that the only way to discover what a society wants is for the “demos” to have a voice – a vote. Democracy and liberalism cannot survive without each other.
Barbara Wainwright took her undergraduate degree in Philosophy at Reading and was a secondary school teacher for several years before studying for an MA in Theoretical Linguistics, again at Reading.. After finishing the MA, she taught for 25 years at The Euro Japanese Exchange Foundation, and more recently has concentrated on mentoring Japanese and Chinese students. She has been a member of the Philosophical Society for many years, and always enjoys coming to Oxford.
3.50-4.30 Liberalism is Enlightenment misunderstood:
I am going to argue that liberalism is an unfortunate ideology resulting from liberation of the individual from suppression by religious and aristocratic power, and that natural rights are misinterpreted as quasi a priori, instead of being defined as part of a social contract. Moreover, I will argue that equality was proclaimed in revolutions together with freedom, however not effectively included in a new social order. Liberation, however, was defined as freedom limited only by laws. As a consequence of the rise of the liberated economy and its powerful repercussion on democratic politics, equal access to education and quality of life are similarly distorted as are equal rights in jurisdiction.
I will propose to initiate a New Enlightenment to end this era of liberation from each other and from nature into individualism and hedonism, including social hedonism, while ignoring interdependencies in society and environment. A New Enlightenment will be necessary to convey the insight and understanding into our actual dependencies and responsibilities, i.e. new ethics, by re-introducing education of descendants to make them responsible members of society. I will argue that self-limitation of freedom by half is a natural law for the reasonable human individual educated into a reasonable society.
Ludwig Auer is a retired MD (Graz, Austria) now interested in politology, political philosophy and dilettante philosophy, presently finishing a trilogy on Europe, its history, present and future, with a focus on New Democracy, New Enlightenment, World Ethics and an interreligious and intercultural dialogue with Islam in Europe. His everlasting other main interest is ‘Knowledge and Belief’ (provisional book title ‘The Conviction Syndrome’).
4.40-5.20 Liberalism is the true path for humanity – David Burridge
I want to argue that whilst liberal values are threatened on a wide range of societal fronts today, it is still a valid path to pursue to save humanity. I will begin with the principles laid down by John Stuart Mill in his work “On Liberty”.
Here are two relevant sections taken from Stanford University on his work:
1. Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing. (Liberty, XVIII: 263)
2. Mill’s concern, throughout On Liberty, is to preserve the individual’s freedom not only in the face of the threat of legislative or state coercion, but from the threat of more insidious forms of social coercion. In mass society, curtain-twitching judgmentalism and whispered smear-campaigns can be more dangerously controlling than formal acts of tyranny, “penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself” (Liberty, XVIII: 220). And yet, of course, Mill holds that individuals are themselves free to form unfavourable opinions about the character of others. We are free to remonstrate with an individual, to avoid him, and to encourage others to avoid him—that is our right. But not to “parade the avoidance” (Liberty, XVIII: 278). The dividing line between the legitimate and illegitimate use of our freedom, however, is surely difficult to draw.
I conclude and posit as follows:
There are of course powerful forces in the current world who want to replace liberal values for dictatorial control, imposing hard dogma on people. Conjoining these forces are people who are afraid of freedom and prefer devotion to authority.
However, we must fight that now, as before, to encapsulate liberalism, fairness and equal rights in both national and international law. Good law is the perfect ethical tool.
Following a successful career in business and employment law, David Burridge now has time to focus on his interest in philosophy and poetry. He has undertaken a range of courses at OUDCE, from Kant to Heidegger, and as a member of the Philosophical Society has contributed to various Reviews over the years. As a poet, David has so far published four collections: ‘Pausing For Breath Along My Way’, ‘Child’s Play’, and ‘Making Sense’, the latter bringing together what he calls his ‘philo-poems’. His latest collection is ‘Streetwise’.
5.50-6.30 Little government to big State: the tragicomedy of L. T. Hobhouse – Edward Hadas
L. T. Hobhouse was a big name in early 20th century liberal thinking. He argued persuasively that the traditional liberal ideal of individual freedom was unrealistic as long as the masses were poor, poorly educated, and socially oppressed. True liberals, he claimed, should oppose laissez-faire. Instead, they should support a State that “aimed at securing the external and material conditions of …free and unimpeded development”. He was confident that this large State’s protection of people “incapable of rational choice”, from drunkards to workers coerced into “very unequal contract”, would not lead to anything like what would now be called totalitarianism. On the contrary, “Liberty and compulsion have complementary functions, and the self-governing State is at once the product and the condition of the self-governing individual.” Hobhouse saw clearly the hollowness of abstract individual freedom, but subsequent history has demonstrated that his confidence in the beneficent State was tragically misplaced. Indeed, his bland dismissal of such concerns is almost comical in its confidence. The fault, I will argue, is unavoidable, because it is inherent to the morally impoverished liberal understanding of freedom, authority, and human nature. People will always refuse to act as small-government Lockean liberals think they should, and morally unanchored States cannot act as Hegelian dreamers – including Marx, Hobhouse, and the architects of our ever-expanding Welfare States – think they will.
Edward Hadas is a Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, working with the Las Casas Institute for Social Justice. He teaches for the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education, as well as giving tutorials in economics, philosophy and social theory to visiting undergraduates at the Stanford Institute in Oxford and OPUS programs. He has written books about Catholic Social Teaching (2020) and about moral aspects of economics (2007 and 2022). Before coming to Oxford in 2017, he had consecutive careers in finance and financial journalism, in both the United States and Europe. He is currently working on an article on the failure of Just War Theory and a book on the shared truth of the two conflicting narratives of modernity.
7.00-whenever Philsoc Dinner
SUNDAY 18 September
Liberalism Is Not Obsolete, It’s Just Wrong – Greg Gauthier
As is typical of modern political deliberation, this question assumes utilitarian progressivism in its premise. "Obsolete" means "out of fashion, because no longer useful". But, no longer useful to whom, and for what? Today's gentile progressive will tell you, for the end of "social justice" (whatever that means). The previous generation of progressives would have said it was for "liberation" (whatever that meant), and before them, for "compassion", and before them, "equal rights", and so on the progressive goes, finding new targets for his fickle sentiments. Consequently, this talk is not going to answer the question of whether or not Liberalism is "obsolete". Rather, I intend to take a step back and explore political Liberalism as one relatively recent failed attempt in the aeons long struggle to answer the question of The One and The Many. What is the fundamental unit of political analysis? Where does sovereign authority rest? How is legitimate order established, and how do we insure it is oriented toward the good? These and dozens of other questions all have roughly equally dichotomous answers to them, aligning either with universality or particularity. I will describe some of the ways in which Liberalism was a wrong-headed attempt to straddle the two sides of that debate, discuss the consequences (one of which, was progressivism), and offer an assessment of those consequences.
Greg Gauthier is a computer programmer originally from Chicago, with more than 30 years experience in a wide variety of technical roles. He has also been a lifelong autodidact, and lover of philosophy. He recently earned his BA in philosophy from the University of London, and is presently working on an MA Phil at Birkbeck. You can find out more, at https://gmgauthier.com/
10.20-11.00 Liberalism? If not, then what? –
Liberalism. As per J S Mill: every person should be free to do as they like, provided this does not interfere with similar freedom for others. This applies to freedom of action and of speech; and to ‘others’ irrespective of gender or citizenship.
If not, what? Princes, priests, politicians and big business are all eager to tell you what to think, say or do. Which of them do you prefer to control you?
Liberalism is not ‘obsolete’ It has been suppressed in many parts of the world by princes (Arabia); priests (Muslim world); politicians (Russia, China);and is encroached on by big business (India? The West?)
Does anyone prefer the processes of tyranny or corruption? or the proceeds?
If not, stand up for Liberalism!
Jonathan Harlow BA MBA PhD has served as an officer in the Royal Artillery, and worked as a government administrator in Botswana and a business manager in Zambia and Guyana. He taught History and Economics in a UK comprehensive school for twenty years and, part-time, at the University of the West of England for ten. Now retired, he is mainly engaged in local history, but very interested in the philosophy of mind and in ethics and politics.
11.20-12.40 Panel questions and discussion
40 minutes per speaker, inc questions: thus each 90-minute session has 10 minutes extra for changeover and flexibility