I’m not going to give an extensive response to my title question, for that would take me too far afield into political philosophy, and that is something that I have not kept up over the years. However, I do want to make a brief comment on Giles Fraser’s response to the criticism of his “This German circumcision ban is an affront to Jewish and Muslim identity” article. In a short article entitled “No, I am not a liberal – I believe that community comes before the individual” he undertakes to respond to a tweet which said “Giles Fraser’s opinions are fucked up, moronic & unfit for planet Earth”. Well, I’m not prepared to go to such lengths, but I do think he has misunderstood the foundations of liberalism, and simply does not understand why liberals value personal autonomy.
Fraser thinks that the personal autonomy that liberals value is valued at the expense of community. Here’s how he puts it:
All of which presents an opportunity to clear the decks and say why I am not a liberal. No, I’m not a conservative either. I’m a communitarian. Blue labour, if you like. But certainly not a liberal. What I take to be the essence of liberalism is a belief that individual freedom and personal autonomy are the fundamental moral goods. But I don’t buy this. What we need is a much more robust commitment to the common good, to the priority of community. It is intellectual laziness and a form of cheating to think we can always have both.
So, given the choice, he chooses community. The unfortunate thing is that he confuses community with commitment to the common good, as though the common good (which is what Fraser seems to mean by ‘community’) were something that could be achieved by prescinding from autonomy. However, there is simply no reason for believing that that is true. Personal autonomy is not something that can be simply divorced from conceptions of the common good, as
James (sorry!) John Stuart Mill recognised so clearly. One’s autonomy must be consistent with the greatest liberty for all, and so the community is always, from this point of view, a restriction on the scope of autonomy.
The liberal commitment to personal autonomy, as I understand it, is not pure libertarianism, which, as I probably inadequately understand that point of view, seems to me to suggest that the freedom to act is not limited by (at least many of) its deleterious effects on others, and even on oneself. According to libertarianism it is possible, as the Oxford Companion to Philosophy puts it, that “libertarian rights may work against our individual interests” (qv. libertarianism, political), since, according to libertarianism, autonomy (and the right of individual choice) precedes, or is antecendent to, community. Liberalism, however, for which I would take John Rawls’ conception of the original position of choice — where no one knows what position in society he will occupy, thus making it more likely that he will choose a maximin strategy for distributing both goods and freedoms — as in some sense definitive, includes community as an essential aspect of the exercise of autonomy.
Thus, if we think of children as participants in community — as I think we must — then we must take what is reasonably held to be their (would be) choices in mind when deciding how the community, which includes them, will act towards children. And from this point of view, where both community and individual autonomy are valued — as they are in liberalism — it seems that the children’s interests would not be best served by the kinds of things done to assure cultic identity. Indeed, given the difficulty of undoing commitments made on behalf of children in respect of their subsequent cultic identity, not only is community not best served in this way, but such narrowly cultic commitments has enormous implications for the wider community in which religious cultic identity can be seen to play an often destructive part. So, if Fraser is really committed to community, he must at least accommodate the kinds of personal autonomy with respect to subsets of community (such as religions and other ideological associations) that he denies in favour of continuing to favour ancient, and often barbaric practices by which membership in those subsets of community is acquired or symbolised. It seems unreasonable for him always to favour community over autonomy, since this in itself would be destructive of community, because, in plural societies, forcing membership in subcultural communities inevitably, in the long run, not only fractures lives, but also the wider community in which moral, as opposed to merely cultic, commitments should predominate.