Steven Lukes
256 pp

Steven Lukes' important new book takes its title from an aphorism coined by the late Martin Hollis: "liberalism for the liberals; cannibalism for the cannibals". According to Hollis, this 'disastrous parallel' is characteristically drawn by relativists, who hold the view that the liberal values of freedom and equality under the law are culturally embedded and do not apply across cultural boundaries or to ways of life different to ours.

Liberalism, in this picture, is just what "we" do, and its prescriptions don't apply to "them." To suppose that they do, the relativist argues, is to commit a kind of ethnocentric fallacy, and to fail to see that all cultures are valid in their own terms, bound by norms and principles applicable only to themselves.

This is a widespread and influential view. Lukes shares Hollis's conviction that its influence in philosophy and social and political theory is baleful. He raises four main objections against it. First, relativism cannot account for the possibility of 'moral criticism' across cultures. How can we criticise unjust practices if that's all they are - the practices of others? Second, and connected to the first objection, Lukes wonders whether relativism itself might not be a concealed form of ethnocentrism. Is it true that to respect other cultures is to abstain from criticising them? Isn't this, rather, to deny to others the standards of justification and argument we apply to ourselves? The third objection is the familiar logical point that relativism is self-refuting: does the relativist thesis apply to itself? If it does, then it's false. Lastly, Lukes charges relativism with trading on a 'poor man's sociology', according to which cultures are homogeneous, coherent wholes. But cultures are not 'windowless boxes', he argues; conflicts arise within cultures, not only between them, an insight which forms the basis of Lukes' inquiry into the nature and state of liberalism itself.

Diversity of values, what philosophers calls the 'fact of pluralism', is the salient feature of modern societies in the West. And contemporary liberal political theory presents itself as the only plausible account of state authority adapted to these conditions. This argument takes various forms, but the basic claim in each instance is the same: the case for fundamental liberal principles must be detached from any ethical ideal, on account of the fact that there is no prospect of agreement on the best way to live. According to Lukes, liberalism rewrites its own past when it argues in this way, for liberals have not always thought that social and political arrangements ought not to be grounded in a comprehensive and substantive conception of the good life. For example, JS Mill's case for justice and liberty is grounded in a vision of excellence. The rights of justice, Mill argued, are obligations on society to provide for human flourishing along the lines of the Greek ideal of self-development.

Although Lukes dismisses relativism as a response to diversity, he nonetheless thinks it contains an important truth. And this is that it recognises the value of modesty or restraint in moral criticism and judgement. One needn't accept the relativist's substantive case in order to see the dangers of 'abstract rationalistic moralising'. Lukes takes this recognition to be central to the 'political liberalism' of John Rawls, which he regards as the most plausible of rationalist attempts to meet the challenge of pluralism. Rawls' idea is that political philosophy should remain neutral in the great ethical controversies over the nature of the good life the better to disclose a set of fundamental principles of association on which all reasonable people will agree.

But even Rawls' scrupulously neutralist approach, with its insistence that political arrangements must secure the assent of all those affected by them, reflects background assumptions about the moral worth of individuals and equality which are far from uncontroversial. Additionally, it could be argued that Rawls's account trivialises the fact of pluralism by concentrating on conflicts among the ideals of individuals rather than those between ways of life, which are more profound. Lukes is impressed by arguments like this, and consequently is drawn to the less serene outlook developed by Isaiah Berlin. Berlin thought that values are real or objective. This means that any conflict between them will be necessary, not contingent, and raises the question whether it is possible to acknowledge the plurality of values and aim at the same time to overcome or mitigate conflict. Lukes provides no definitive answer to that question here, though the precision with which he formulates it offers much food for thought.

Liberals and Cannibals is available from Amazon (UK)