There is, I think, among political and intellectual ruling circles of the West a widespread but rarely enunciated belief. It runs something like this-
* Enlightenment Liberalism and ‘science’ represent the highest possible point that any human society can attain.
* It thus follows that this is a universal truth applicable everywhere, to everyone at all times.
* Only the ignorant and the barbarous can oppose this truth which they would cease opposing if they were once properly educated.
* Therefore if the majority in any given polis rejects a proposal springing from Enlightenment Liberalism and/or ‘science’ then it is in their own best interests to overrule them. In due course they or their descendants will thank ‘us’ for doing this on their behalf.
There have been any number of examples of this belief in action beginning, perhaps, with Voltaire lending his support to the Enlightenment absolutism of Frederick the Great of Prussia. We see it in the willingness of liberals to resort to the courts to overturn referendum results they dislike whether they be about same sex unions in California or British withdrawal from the European Union. We see it also in the Soviet attempt to effect equal rights for women in Afghanistan and the American effort to turn Iraq into a multi-party democracy. Where these actions succeed, as they sometimes do, it is hailed as a victory for ‘progress.’ Where they, as often happens, fail it is taken as a sign that the work of educating the barbarians at home and abroad must be redoubled.
There is, then, a principle at work which is held to be intrinsically superior to the mere will of the people as expressed through elections. What is the principle? It is sometimes argued to be about personal freedom of choice. A heterosexual majority, for example, cannot possess the right to stop gay people marrying nor should pregnant women obey diktats about their bodies issued by those who are not pregnant women. That is people should be free to do whatever they like with their lives provided it harms no one else (for the sake of convenience unborn children do not constitute a someone else.)
This, however, is not a universal principle. In the UK, for instance if an individual chooses to own a handgun, hunt a fox, drive a car without a seatbelt or light up a cigarette in a room full of fellow smokers they will be liable to prosecution. Which is to say that personal choice is a liberal virtue when the person chooses to do a liberal thing but not when they choose to do something else instead. As an aside I would note that liberal choices, abortion, contraception, divorce, gay ‘marriage’, are those which undermine the traditional family and illiberal or non-liberal ones are those which do not.
If choice is not a principle overriding the will of a majority what is? Equality is sometimes proffered as a reason. This post has been prompted by the UK Government being cajoled into conceding abortion rights to Northern Irish women on the grounds that they don’t posses them to the same degree that other UK citizens do. The reasoning here is that it is inequitable that some people possess a right which others are denied and again a mere majority of voters should not deny this. Once more though it only applies to liberal rights and not illiberal ones. Thus there is no clamour, for example, to give Californians the same right to publicly carry guns that Texans have.
So neither equality as such not choice as such constitute overriding principles to set against majority opinion democratically expressed. No doubt I could go through a long list of suggested principles and find each them inconsistently applied. There is an underlying belief which justifies any and all such actions. It is that ‘progress’ is humankind’s destiny. All of human history points specifically towards this point and its struggles and agonies are interpreted as so many birth pangs of the modern era when brilliant individuals who intuited Enlightenment Liberalism and ‘science’ struggled against ignorant and backward people shackled by superstition, religion and racist/misogynist/homophobic bigotry.
Personally I do believe that mankind has a destiny, but I do so as a Catholic and my belief has a specific and acknowledged religious origin. On what possible basis can a Chelsea Clinton a Polly Toynbee or a Naomi Klein base their belief in humankind’s inevitable progress towards a supreme civilization; better than which cannot be conceived? They might suggest that it is inscribed in our DNA that humans are born to be free in the way which they specifically define freedom. But nature for liberalism is a tricky thing. They are happy to overrule it when it makes women pregnant or when it causes transexual people to be born in the ‘wrong’ body so they cannot claim it as an infallible originator of all that is good and true.
They might argue that Reason applied to the problems of humanity comes up with Enlightenment Liberalism and ‘science’ as the best of all possible answers. Well, perhaps their reason does but other reasoners no less acute and well educated than themselves have come up with alternative proposals for world reorganisation. So we are still left with the question ‘by what authority do you seek to impose your vision of the Good and the True upon the world?‘
Faced with a similar question in the Quran Allah replies “I know what ye know not“(Surah 2:30) This kind of response is excusable when you are an omniscient, omnipotent and eternal supreme being but not so much if you are simply a flawed human being who is often wrong. Essentially though belief in the universal supremacy of the Enlightenment project is a faith in the universal destination of humankind, a faith which makes no sort of sense when associated, as it usually is, with a materialist rejection of the idea of deity. That is, nothing and no one has designed humanity to achieve a particular end yet nonetheless that end exists and ‘we’ are justified in using whatever means come to hand to achieve that end. In short progress trumps democracy, and pretty much everything else, just so long as its advocates carefully refrain from examining their first assumptions at all closely.
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The picture is Stella Creasy MP from Sky News/Getty Images