Liberty and Equality in an Age of Diversity: Adam Tebble’s Epistemic Liberalism: a defence

Diversity and Justice

Why should we enjoy the liberty to follow the cultural tradition of our choice, or the one with which we are most familiar, or both?  Wouldn’t this mean that we would have to accept practices that were deeply offensive or discriminatory and, therefore, possibly harmful to us and others?

Despite the moral dangers of doing so, I answer all of these questions in the affirmative in my book, Epistemic Liberalism: a defence.  To see why, we first need to take a look at the work of one of the twentieth century’s most influential thinkers in the “epistemic” liberal tradition, economist Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992).

The “knowledge problem”

Despite not writing about diversity, what Hayek has to say about economics is significant for my argument.  For Hayek, the first thing to note when thinking about how to organize the economy is that it is impossible to centralize the knowledge of the factors relevant to deciding what to do with resources.

Society, that is, has an economic “knowledge problem.”

Among the most important explanations for this is the fact of social distance in modern societies.  This makes them very much unlike a village or small town, where each can easily come to know of the economic preferences of all the rest and of how best to satisfy them.  Indeed, in the overwhelming majority of circumstances, we not only do not know what others’ preferences are, we are only aware of their very existence in the most indirect sense.

It is for this reason that Hayek endorses economic liberty.  When we enjoy the liberty to buy and sell, prices emerge that allow us to take into account the conditions in faraway places that are relevant to our own decisions leading to success, but of which we would otherwise know nothing.

A good example of this is that of a customer in a supermarket who finds that the price of oranges has gone up by 25 percent.  Unbeknownst to him, heavy rains have severely disrupted supply yet, without even knowing this—or even needing to know—he adjusts his behaviour by buying six instead of the usual eight oranges as if he had received an instruction to do so.

The reality of a cultural knowledge problem

But it is not only prices that make economic coordination possible.

Common norms, values and cultural traditions also have the same coordinating effect, both locally and across great distance, by enabling us to develop sound expectations about one another’s behaviour, even in cases where we are not in direct contact.  If two people share a culture, it is likely that they will be able to anticipate one another’s’ day-to-day activities – including their economic activities—so that they can adjust their own to them.

Today, however, most societies are not homogenous.

Indeed, the worldviews, or what philosophers like to call “conceptions of the good,” in modern societies are not only different to but sometimes in deep conflict with one another.  So today we have to ask a very different question to the one asked by Hayek: which conception of the good should we endorse to help secure coordination?

It is here where the economic knowledge problem becomes the cultural knowledge problem, for as traditional and culturally embedded, the knowledge relevant to deciding this question is not only dispersed among many individuals acting under circumstances known only to themselves and to those in their nearest circle.  As practical knowledge it is also largely inarticulate or ‘tacit’ in form and as such not accessible via discussion or debate.

Thus, we find ourselves requiring access to the ethical knowledge of different individuals to resolve profound questions of value – under conditions where it appears to be beyond our reach.

The implications of the cultural knowledge problem for a diverse society

These insights lay the groundwork for Epistemic Liberalism’s defence of cultural liberty.  Because tacit knowledge is only communicated to others when acted upon by those who possess it, the liberty to act upon our ethical knowledge becomes just as indispensable as the liberty of expression championed by J. S. Mill for responding to the cultural knowledge problem.

It is for this reason that the epistemic approach rejects views that give the state a substantive role in resolving questions of value.  First, and as defenders of multiculturalism have pointed out, where we resolve cultural controversies by imposing universally applicable laws, we not only run the risk of impacting unequally upon the liberty of some communities (for instance, when a law prohibits some forms of dress but not others), but also of unjustly stifling their contribution to society’s wider conversation about the Good Life.

But accepting this does not mean that the only alternative is to side with multiculturalism and utilise the state to protect minority practices from society’s cultural arbitration process – as in the case of legal exemptions or special rights that are granted to some groups but not others.  Nor does it mean that we should side with nationalists who wish to do the same for the identities of historically dominant communities to the detriment of the identities of everybody else.  There is another way of dealing with these issues that respects both our liberty and our equality.

Rather than intervening in the cultural process in ways that beg the very questions of value that we are seeking to resolve, I claim that we respond to the cultural knowledge problem best when we refrain as much as possible from legislating with regard to cultural practice.  We do this by adopting a stance of ‘legal silence’ where the state does not assume the power to decide questions of value on our behalf, but secures our equal liberty to endorse or reject the practices we encounter according to our own deepest ethical commitments.

For epistemic liberals, then, it is to individual liberty that we must turn if we wish to answer the deepest problems of culture and identity in an age of diversity.

Epistemic liberalism: a defence is out now in paperback at: Routledge Press and

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