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Chandran Kukathas holds the Lee Kong Chian Chair of Political Science and is Dean of the School of Social Sciences at Singapore Management University. He was previously Chair of Political[…]
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Institute for Humane Studies

CHANDRAN KUKATHAS: When one approaches people from within liberal societies I think what one has to ask is how much the objection is to the theory and how much the objection is really to the practice. Because many critics of liberalism themselves I think depend on certain liberal understandings simply for the freedom to practice their own particular distinctive ways of living and for the freedom to advance their particular views about how we should all live. So, for example, there are some critics of liberalism now who say that the problem with a liberal society is that it gives too much freedom to the individual. That it doesn't give enough protection to families and communities. That it doesn't foster the kinds of virtues that you need for a good society. But in order to advance this view you either have to accept that the only way to bring about this change is to try to persuade others to come around to your way of thinking. Or you've got to say yes, if I had the power I would somehow try to enforce this way of thinking to reemphasize the importance of families, for example, by limiting people's freedoms in all kinds of ways.

And I think what I would have to ask those people are you really prepared to go down that path because the liberal idea is that to the extent that you recognize that people are different but disagree with them you try to persuade them otherwise. If you don't accept that are you really prepared to exercise force in order to bring about the change that you want. The answer may be yes but then I would try to press them to see really what a strong commitment that is. If you're speaking to people outside the liberal tradition for whom liberalism is not something that's not around them in practice but something that they're hostile to because it's something that may, for example, infect their own society. I think you've got a very different sort of problem because there are traditions in the world which don't accept something that's very central to the liberal way of thinking. And this really has its roots deep in Christianity. This is the idea that right or morality is not something that can be given or found directly in the word of God. Even for Christians the understanding that we get going back to the time of Saint Paul is that in order to understand what is right we have to understand what God has taught us by giving us the capacity to reason and understand the natural world.

That's where our understanding of morality is to be found. Well, for traditions that see this as simply blasphemous because we have got the word of God and what we should do is simply to abide by that, this is all entirely unacceptable and liberalism is for that way of thinking something that is deeply antithetical. Now that said I think, and I'm thinking in here in particular about the Islamic tradition. I think the majority of people who are Muslims have now actually have to a large extent interpreted Islam in a way that emphasizes the importance of a dimension that I will say has strong affinities with liberalism. That's because they've identified Islam as something which places a good deal of importance on something like toleration, for example, by emphasizing the fact that the Koran says that there can be no faithful compulsion. It's a very important doctrine. But there are others who want to minimize this because they want to see the Koran as the word of God. So I think on the one hand while you're talking to people for whom liberalism is simply anathema because it simply contradicts their whole way of thinking about religion it's also the case that many people within that sort of a tradition nonetheless see that there's much in that tradition that looks at the world very differently.

I think with those people there's much more of a possibility of dialogue. And I think in reality for many of those societies that are dominated by Islamic practices those are the norms. You'll find whether you're in Indonesia or Malaysia, for example, that women serve on courts. They've been presidents of their countries. They have a role to play in a way that's say for other parts of their tradition would simply be not possible because it goes against Islamic teachings. I want to say again there's one kind of way of responding to those within the liberal tradition or within liberal societies rather. There's another way of responding to those who stand completely outside it. I think the responses to the two have to be really quite different.