Comment: Genes don't make us liberal - Kant did

The American scientists who claim to have found the 'liberal gene' know much more about dopamine than they do about liberalism.

By Ian Dunt

Another day, another completely rubbish science story. We'll get it out the way quickly. Researchers in Harvard and California claim to have found the liberal gene. People with a specific variant of the DRD4 dopamine receptor gene are more "novelty-seeking", apparently. Those of them with a wide variety of friends are therefore more liberal, because they are "more interested in learning about their friends' points of view".

The press release stated: "People with this genetic predisposition who have a greater-than-average number of friends would be exposed to a wider variety of social norms and lifestyles, which might make them more liberal than average."

There's a lot that's revealing about this experiment, although none of it concerns what makes us adopt a political stance. It is, to be fair, not inconceivable that genetic traits influence a person's range of social contacts and that people with a wider range of contacts take a more relativistic view of politics. The trouble is the researchers slip into a commonly-made assumption about liberal social views, which is that they require relativistic thinking - the appreciation of other people's point of view.

Socially, that's a charming trait for someone to have. Politically, it is the first step on the road to moral relativism, one of the grandest mistakes of so-called liberals the world over. In actual fact, liberalism follows from absolute values. Without them, it betrays itself. Moral and cultural relativism have led many of our fellow liberals into appalling positions. It has led anti-war protestors to argue, horrifically, that Middle Eastern countries do not want democracy. It has led us to accept female circumcision in the Third World. It has led us to a strand of multiculturalism which delegates authority to the leaders of communities, without worrying about the individuals in those communities themselves.

Liberalism is not based on relativism. It is based on an absolute value, one which was best expressed by Immanuel Kant but which you can also find in the New Testament: "Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you." In Kant's philosophical language it's more like: Act as if each of your actions was a universal maxim.

This is a rational rule designed to create a moral society. If we implement it in politics, we come to the following idea, which you will be well aware of: everyone should be able to do whatever they like as long as it does not affect the freedom of others. That sentence is the rock upon which liberalism rests. That is the real and coherent political response to Kant's maxim.

There are plenty of debates to be had over it, all of which involve a clash of freedoms. Sexual freedom is not interesting, because no-one else's freedom has been affected. People who object to it are simply wrong. There's no point listening to them. Abortion is more complex. Does the woman's freedom override that of the unborn child? I would suggest it does, on the basis that the child is unborn and that its freedom is therefore of a lesser quality than the woman's. But someone could have a different view and that view would have some credibility on the basis that it addresses relative freedoms.

Even economic issues, which we usually consider distinct from political freedoms, are also about competing freedoms. The higher rate taxpayer loses the freedom to keep all his money so that we can deliver the health care for the less well-off. Health care, because it maintains life, is the precondition for all other freedoms.

The important thing is not that there are disagreements. The important thing is that these are not relative values. They are absolute values which allow people to pursue happiness in whichever way they see fit. Because they acknowledge the variety of human motives and needs, they can sometimes lead to the mistaken conclusion that they are themselves relative.

This has led us to some very dangerous places. It has led to a political culture which allows religious authorities, typically but not exclusively in minority communities, to exercise regressive power over people in that community. When was the last time you heard from a feminist Muslim? They exist, but you'll be lucky to find one on TV. Instead, the microphone is handed to the conservative elder males. They are consulted by government. They are the spokespeople for a community. Worse, our support for faith schools means we serve up future generations to their stigma.

It leads to anti-war activists, whose aims and motivations are sincere and honourable, suddenly arguing that a free political culture is unsuitable for the Middle East.
It leads to western feminists saying it would be 'imperialist' to oppose female circumcision.

Relativism takes us away from the individual, who is the only thing ever worth defending. It takes us to the group, and its own relative values. Within that, there is scope for great tyranny, all done with the political approval of so-called liberals. The only way to ensure freedom for everyone is to reject relativism, and to embrace the all-conquering dominance of absolute liberalism. It is non-negotiable, because it is the only political philosophy that focuses on the freedom of each and every individual, wherever they live, whoever they are.

It's got nothing to do with a switch in the brain. It's got to do with Kant.


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