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“The Strange Rebirth of Liberalism”

The British Humanist Association (BHA) last night held its annual Bentham Lecture in University College London. Richard Reeves, the Director of the think-tank Demos, made the case that true liberalism – the liberalism of Mill – is not the problem, but the solution to the moral and societal problems facing us today.

Mr Reeves began his lecture setting out some basic tenets of classic liberalism, drawn largely from John Stuart Mill. He described how the norms of societies changes over time, as do our ideas of what it is to live good lives. He emphasised the continuing importance of the ‘harm principle’ for liberal societies as they change and progress. Liberal societies should not make laws, he argued, on the basis of perceived moral values but should legislate to prevent harm being done.

Mr Reeves then refuted three key myths and misunderstandings and about liberalism, namely that liberals are a-moral, atomistic and selfish. He argued that liberals do not just follow custom or tradition. Rather, liberals form their own judgments, drawing on experience and wider society to make individual valuations and this is beneficial both to individuals and society. Building on that, Mr Reeves rejected ‘rational choice theory’, stating that liberalism does not understand human beings to be intrinsically selfish, and that is supported by empirical evidence: ‘The ruthlessly self-serving individual does not exist in liberal thought.’

The final part of the lecture looked at the positive effect of liberalism on society, and Mr Reeves made the case that, far from causing social ills and problems, liberalism is the solution. He said, ‘The “broken society” is not a new idea’, stating that moral panics are nothing new. Indeed, he posited that ‘the evidence for moral decline is rather weak’ and that, because of the declining religiosity in Western nations, ‘the link between religion and moral views is weak and weakening every year.’

Returning to the Millean ‘harm principle’, Mr Reeves argued that liberalism is best placed to tackle contemporary and serious problems such as the negative impact of markets and climate change and sees those as issues of deep moral concern, which therefore implores liberals to act across borders to address those issues.

Following the lecture, Peter Cave, Chair of the Humanist Philosophers, chaired a fascinating question and answer session, where questions were wide-ranging and covered topics from human rights law to cultural relativism to totalitarianism to contraception.

Responding to questions on how far liberal societies should tolerate illiberal cultures and communities within them, Mr Reeves said they must insist on a right of exit for members, insist on education for all and ensure proper and equal legal protections for everyone in society – but that you cannot and should not prevent people from living how they choose, even if those ways are perceived as deeply unequal.

Mr Reeves was strongly supportive of the Human Rights Act stating that it does not contain any fixed ideas of morality. Instead, it secures that which is necessary to help us lead good lives of our choosing.

Mr Reeves finished with an anecdote about Mill’s own life, where he was arrested after he distributed leaflets giving advice on how to prevent conception, seeing what was happening when people were unable to control their fertility, such as infanticide. Not only was Mill a public intellectual, Mr Reeves argued, but he put his morals and values into practice, and that is something to admire.

Notes

The Bentham Lecture is part of the BHA’s annual lecture programme, which also includes the Voltaire, Holyoake and Darwin lectures.

For information about future BHA events, visit humanists.uk/meet-up/events

The British Humanist Association (BHA) is the national charity representing and supporting the non-religious and campaigning for an end to religious privilege and discrimination based on religion or belief.

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