One curious feature of this debate is the concept that the liberal academics have of themselves. They usually take themselves to be free, autonomous individuals leading self-directing and self-chosen lives in contrast to the unreflective, non-liberal individuals in traditional communities.
One academic has described the way the debate is framed as follows:
The philosophical issue centers on the questions of who is entitled to freedom, and what sorts of lives they are entitled to create with their freedom.
Are all persons entitled to have their choices respected and their lives left alone? Are persons as we find them in the world — culturally and socially influenced, holding many beliefs heteronomously and only because they were raised to believe them — already suited for liberty?
Or is the moral case for freedom dependent on people having some level of autonomy or intellectual attainment? To put it another way: If persons are living lives into which they have been socialized, if they are making decisions solely on the basis of what tradition demands, or if they are unreflective about their choices, can they really be said to be living freely?
And if their choices are not free to begin with, can one make a moral demand that these choices be respected by the state? We do not think that children, the insane, or the brainwashed are free in a morally desirable sense if they are simply left alone to follow their whims. Why, then, should we consider as free those who hold a religious belief simply because it was instilled in them while they were young?
(The quote is from an article by Professor Jacob T. Levy who is not endorsing the above view but describing a commonly held position amongst his fellow liberal academics.)
To summarise, the question being asked is whether the liberal state should respect the choices made by those people, such as those raised within a religious tradition, who are not autonomous and therefore not free.
What is the problem with putting things this way? Well, one considerable problem for liberal academics is that they themselves are condemned by the very principle they are putting forward.
Who is really the most unreflective in the adoption of their values? The liberal academic or the church-goer? These days it would have to be the liberal academic. A Westerner who makes a serious commitment to a church is acting against the stream and will usually be making an individual choice. Liberal academics, on the other hand, are simply falling in with a reigning orthodoxy.
Another major problem with the framing of the debate is the assumption that what really counts is that I have autonomously chosen a life path rather than being influenced by culture or tradition.
There is a denial here that what really matters are real goods that can be known to individuals and to communities. If, say, we recognise courage and honour in a man as a real good, then we would think it a positive thing if a culture and tradition encouraged these qualities. What would matter would be getting to the particular good.
In the liberal view, though, the priorities change. The liberal is less concerned that a man is honourable and courageous and more interested in the fact of self-direction. If I self-direct against honour and courage I have satisfied the liberal principle.
The end result is not a society of independent free-thinkers. Nearly everyone in the political class today follows the same unexamined first principles. Nor have human vistas been opened up. All the talk about life projects, life plans and so on usually boil down to nothing more than selecting a career for ourselves.
This is the bland side to liberalism: it is what is left when the individual is removed from culture and community and the goods embedded within a tradition.