chapter  6
28 Pages

The permissive society

Having rejected three important responses to the challenge that the cultural turn presents to justice on the grounds that they misunderstand the cultural knowledge problem and the rationale of justice in complex societies, we return now to the positive case for epistemic liberalism. We saw in Chapter 2 that Hayek’s theory of cultural evolution is best theorised as his answer to what we have described, analogously to his own economic knowledge problem, as society’s cultural knowledge problem. Here it is unclear which conceptions of the good and their constituent traditions, conventions and practices ought to serve as identitarian coordinating mechanisms between disparate agents and the communities with which they identify. However, whilst building upon some aspects of this view, we ultimately rejected Hayek’s theory of cultural evolution because it comes too close to assuming an overarching criterion, group success, in terms of which the evolutionary process can be explained and judged, and which begs the question that to which the cultural knowledge problem draws our attention. Instead of a process of cultural evolution driven by a Hayekian criterion of group success, therefore, we have posited a notion of complex cultural adaptation which, in contrast to Hayek’s view, presupposes no claim about the overall purpose of cultural selection beyond the constant process of mutual adjustment, or adaptation, between individuals and the consequent gradual changes in conventions and practices that are emergent from it. Such a complex adaptive process that is, is not oriented towards any specific ethical goal or outcome, and is certainly not designed with one in mind. It is, rather, ‘a system of self-co-ordination under which’, as Polanyi fittingly puts it, ‘society moves toward unknown destinations’.1

Finally, we have also seen that, for epistemic reasons relating to the identification of the conditions that secure the communication of cultural knowledge that complex cultural adaptation relies upon to be efficacious, complex cultural adaptation requires that individuals enjoy equal individual liberty in both the economic and cultural domains. With this in mind, we turn now in

the third and final part of this enquiry to elaborate in more detail the character of justice with respect to culture and identity once individuals enjoy equal liberty. Two additional features of this conception of justice warrant further eluci-

dation in this regard, both of which help to explain how, unlike the other theories of justice examined thus far, epistemic liberalism responds adequately to the cultural knowledge problem: the extension of the scope of the complex adaptive space and the expansion of its domain. As with the accounts of difference democracy and liberal nationalism discussed in Chapter 3 and Chapter 4, the epistemic liberal state sanctions a form of communicative, although largely non-discursive and non-political, collective arbitration with respect to society’s diverse cultural practices. Here the decision-making that emerges once individuals enjoy equal individual cultural liberty, or conversely, once the state adopts a permissive stance with respect to cultural practice is, similarly to the later version of Young’s politics of difference, Deveaux’s amended form of deliberative democracy and Fraser’s account of subaltern counterpublics, decentred. Moreover, like Fraser, Deveaux and Young’s conceptions, the epistemic liberal state can be said to be at least in part an emancipatory conception of collective decision-making insofar as it offers members of often marginalised groups the opportunity to address important questions on their own terms and outside of the ‘single, comprehensive, overarching public’ by enjoying the liberty to communicatively enact their own knowledge, beliefs and tacit understandings.2 Similarly to their conception, in this decentred public communication not only occurs in the formal public political arena but also in civil society, among and between diverse individuals and groups that are representative of a wide and sometimes incompatible range of cultural identifications, interests and perspectives. Importantly, however, this extension of the scope of permissible complex adaptive behaviour to individuals also means that, beyond the face-to-face exchanges and discursive encounters that occur in a variety of contexts between individuals who are known to one another, collective communication also takes on a disaggregated basis in which contributions take place ‘between’ participants who for the most part do not come into direct contact. There is, therefore, an additional communicative layer, or unseen discussion, of indirect, reciprocal communication where individuals’ complex adaptive behaviour contributes to the ongoing formation of the ethical contexts in which all subsequently act, beyond that which may occur within more formal political structures. Yet, despite these similarities, the communication sanctioned by the epistemic

liberal state is ultimately radically different to and indeed incompatible with these accounts, and Fraser’s account of the emancipatory qualities of the subaltern counterpublic is particularly instructive in this regard. We will recall that for Fraser counterpublics have a dual emancipatory function. Not only are they ‘spaces of withdrawal and regroupment’, they also serve as ‘bases and training grounds for agitational activities directed toward wider publics’.3

‘It is precisely in the dialectic between these two functions’, she reminds us,

that the ‘emancipatory potential’ of such counterpublics resides.4 The complex cultural adaptive space, however, goes a step further insofar as it refrains from theorising counterpublics as politically subservient in this regard. Thus, rather than posit counterpublics as alternative but nonetheless secondary and merely corrective forms of decision-making relative to the formal and comprehensive political arena, the complex cultural adaptive space is the primary site of cultural arbitration. With respect to the vast majority of cultural issues and identitarian controversies, therefore, the epistemic liberal state follows what Barry calls, in his discussion of the historical relationship between religion and politics, a strategy of privatisation. More specifically, the strategy of privatisation results in our taking what Barry calls the ‘libertarian’ option, where the law is silent with respect to issues that are ordinarily subject to political and legal decision-making. With such a conception of legal silence, individuals are left at liberty to act upon their knowledge and beliefs about appropriate behaviour in the social contexts in which they find themselves and subsequently help to shape.5