Thursday, October 18, 2007

Morris R. Cohen and a Basic Element of Liberalism

In 1946 Morris R. Cohen, philosopher, lawyer and legal scholar, published a collection of essays under the title “The Faith of a Liberal”. The first essay in the book was written in 1931 and entitled “What I believe”. This essay captures an essential element of liberalism that provides a marked contrast with much of what has passed as 'conservatism' in the U.S. since World War II. Cohen wrote:

The central fact to which... prevailing creeds refuse to accord sufficiently serious attention is the obvious impossibility of attaining omniscience…. [S]imple honesty requires us to admit that none of our creeds are entirely free of guesswork. This lack of omniscience is not cured by reliance on faith, intuition, or authority. For however certain we may feel, we never know that such faith, intuition, or authority will not in the end prove itself mistaken….

To the inadequacy of our knowledge must be added the tremendous force of temporarily pleasant illusions, compared with which the love of truth is pitifully frail…. The sources of illusion are many: inherited forms of expression, fashions in respectable or approved opinions, the idols of our tribe or clique, of the market place, of our professional conventions, and the like….

[G]reat religious teachers, like the morally wise men of science, have taught the great lesson of humility—that there are always vast realms beyond our ken or control….

The realization of the pathetic frailty of the knowledge or beliefs on which our life depends... leads not to despair but to open-eyed courage. But it also points to a most intimate connection between scientific method and liberal civilization…. [Science] is rather a method which is based on a critical attitude to all plausible and self-evident propositions. It seeks not to reject them, but to find out what evidence there is to support them rather than their possible alternatives. This open eye for possible alternatives, each to receive the same logical treatment before we can determine which is the best grounded, is the essence of liberalism in art, morals, and politics. Conservatism clings to what is established, fearing that if we let go, all the values of life will perish. The radical or revolutionary, impressed with the evil of the existing order or disorder, recklessly puts all faith in some principle without regard for the hidden dangers which it may contain, let alone the cruel hardships which readjustments must involve. The liberal views life as an adventure in which we must take risks in new situations, but in which there is no guaranty that the new will always be the good or the true. Like science, liberalism insists on a critical examination of the content of our beliefs, principles, or initial hypotheses and on subjecting them to a continuous process of verification so that they will be better founded in experience and reason…. [Emphasis added.]

Unless men reason they remain sunk in blind dogmatism, clinging obstinately to questionable beliefs without the consciousness that these may be mere prejudices. “To have doubted one’s own first principles,” said Justice Holmes, “is the mark of a civilized man.” And to refuse to do so, we may add, is the essence of fanaticism.

The fanatic clings to certain beliefs and in their defense is ready to shut the gates of mercy on mankind, precisely because he cannot see any alternative to them except utter chaos or iniquity. Rational reflection, however, makes us see other possibilities and opens our minds to the thought that some of the moral or physical principles that seem to us self-evident may be only sanctified taboos or inherited conventions.

To reflect that in the absence of omniscience all our principles of morality and conduct are but hypotheses need not prevent us from staking our lives on these anticipations of experience and from fighting as valiantly as we can for what we hold dearest…. Civil society depends not on blindness or insensibility to the loathsome traits of our fellow-mortals, but upon respecting their rights without taking them to our bosoms. This can be achieved only through sympathetic understanding. Co-operation with those from whom we differ is possible only if we rationalize our beliefs and thus make them intelligible to those from differing backgrounds.
This is why genuine liberals cannot be pseudo-conservatives or authoritarians. I think it's a great statement to which I subscribe.