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Do we want a truly liberal society?

April 22, 2008
A liberal society embraces pluralism, in the sense that it does not seek to impose any one vision of what it means to be virtuous or to lead a good life. Within such a society, approval is commonly expressed for John Stuart Mill’s view that “experiments in living” should not be merely tolerated, but actually welcomed and celebrated (Mill 1974: 120).

As Max Charlesworth writes, “In a liberal society personal autonomy, the right to choose one’s own way of life for oneself, is the supreme value.” He adds that this includes what he calls ethical pluralism: members of the society are free to hold a wide range of moral, religious, and non-religious positions, with no core values or public morality that it is the law’s business to enforce (Charlesworth 1993: 1). Accordingly, a liberal society makes a sharp distinction between the sphere of personal moral views and that of the law; no one can use the law to impose their beliefs on others (16-20).

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The goal of a liberal society puts obligations on its citizens, that we practice reasonableness and openness to ideas, that we do not just tolerate one another but support one another to our fullest flourishing. A liberal society is not neutral about values like disease and health, sloth and effort, deceit and integrity, cowardice and courage. There are excellences that citizens of a liberal society must promote to survive.
Commentators on new biomedical technology often appear to believe that we are faced with Frankensteinian possibilities that cry out for a regulatory response. This, however, is getting things exactly back to front. On the contrary, the problem that we currently face is that widespread fear of new technologies has created an atmosphere in which liberal tolerance is under challenge. In the field of bioethics, what we need right now is a truly liberal response.
identify genuine dangers and concerns, but deal with them strictly in accordance with liberal values
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