The Kindly Pit and the Pendulum

I recently finished Jonathan Rauch’s book Kindly Inquisitors, the New Attacks on Free Thought (expanded edition), and I think everyone who would style themselves a modern thinker, and especially a liberal, should read it. For the last decade, I’ve been trying to come up with a formula to combat the rampant illiberalism of social justice epistemology that so many people find seductive, and which will clearly (at least to me) lead us to hell. There has always been this authoritarian strain in liberal activism that has subverted the march of liberalism but then swept in to lay claim to its victories. Women’s rights, gay rights, and the civil rights movements owe their successes to liberal free speech, not identitarianism. Rauch originally wrote this book in the early nineties out of dismay that the West coddled radical Islamists in their fatwa against Salman Rushdie, but the epistemology he’s criticizing is clearly the same among identitarian activists.

What does it mean to be a liberal in the epistemological if not strictly political sense? Rauch lays out five rival principles for collectively arriving at true knowledge and justice:

1. The Fundamentalist Principle: Those who know the truth should decide who is right.

2. The Simple Egalitarian Principle: All sincere persons’ beliefs have equal claims to respect.

3. The Radical Egalitarian Principle: Like the simple egalitarian principle, but the beliefs of persons in historically oppressed classes or groups get special consideration.

4. The Humanitarian Principle: Any of the above, but with the condition that the first priority be to cause no hurt.

5. The Liberal Principle: Checking of each by each through public criticism is the only legitimate way to decide who is right.

Rauch argues why the liberal principle, though counterintuitive, is the correct approach, in both the domains of knowledge production and social justice. I thought initially this might be a glib or strident diatribe against certain partisans, but it admirably rises above specific political issues even as it confronts them to explore their epistemological implications.

The new counterculture is liberal-epistemological, not identitarian. We will either join this movement or suffer, maybe even perish, given how important concerted action will be now against environmental collapse. (And here’s where I have a problem with Rauch, because he seems to be a climate change skeptic and a bit deficient in scientific education, though I find his approach to gaining knowledge unimpeachable.) Rauch, as a gay Jewish man, pleads that we recognize the power of free speech, even deplorable benighted speech as we see it, to bring about durable progress. The first edition of this book came out nearly thirty years ago, but it’s more relevant today than then.

One thing that Rauch deeply impressed me with was the value even of intransigent fundamentalism to the debate: as long as it’s checked by a free-speech environment.

This book and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind may be the two most important books I’ve read since the start of covid.

About robertpkruger

Writer, editor, and software developer. Former president of ElectricStory.com.
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