Column on The “Liberal” Outlook

The “Liberal” Outlook?

Tibor R. Machan

The famous British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, once said that "The
essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in
how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held
tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment
lead to their abandonment." This outlook has a certain appeal because, of
course, about numerous matters one should be hesitant and even skeptical.
But it is also paradoxical to think this way since one cannot be hesitant
about everything—for example, if this Liberal outlook is sound, one cannot
be hesitant about it. Or can one? See my point?

Some matters we know for sure, either because they are simple and clearly
evident or because a great deal of work has gone into figuring out what’s
what. The principles of logic belong in the former group, as do certain
basic facts about the world such as the law of identity and causality.
Many causes of diseases, some of the principles governing the behavior of
biological, zoological and other phenomenon belong in the second. The
knowledge of engineers who build bridges, for example, is usually known
without hesitation.

On the other hand whether Susie loves Harry is rarely known for sure. Who
is responsible for the on-going Arab-Israeli conflict is also something no
one can be very certain about, not with the inherent complexities of it
all plus the deliberate distortions introduced by many of the interested

Bottom line is that some knowledge human beings have is well established
and may be held firmly, without hesitation (although not dogmatically,
without good reason), while some of what we believe, even when it is
important to us, needs to be held cautiously, with a readiness to consider
new evidence if it is at hand.

All this holds also for our ethical or moral convictions. Some of them
are certain beyond any reasonable doubt, such as that a person’s life is
his or her own, not something available to be used by others without
permission. Or that parents ought to help their children grow into
functioning adults instead of thwarting such development. But there are
also less clear cut, less certain ethical notions such as that all
appointments or promises ought to be kept, and promptly. Sometimes one
must weigh these matters and see if they may not be doubtful in light of
certain, more basic considerations, such as whether keeping a promise will
likely do violence to a value we ought to preserve no matter what.

Let’s return to dogmatism for a moment: Is being certain the same thing as
being dogmatic? No—a doctor who, because of extensive training and
thorough investigation concludes that, yes, for certain, a patient is
suffering from cancer isn’t being dogmatic. Dogmatism is when one has
beliefs that are ill examined and refuses to put to any kind of test.
That’s why dogmatism is so often associated with faith since faith is a
supposed source of knowledge and understanding that requires no proof, no

Dogmatism is also closely linked with beliefs that hold out emotional
rewards instead of the prospect of being true. Partisan loyalties tend to
be dogmatically embraced, as do the more personal matters of love and
friendship. Just how many family members are willing to consider
another’s guilt when it comes to a crime? “My son just cannot have done

As someone who has many convictions that others dispute, even blame me for
holding, I have always wanted to be correct, right in these matters, more
than anything else. Indeed, in most cases I came by my convictions only
after having done a good bit of work on the issue involved. I could, of
course, have gone astray as I did this but that’s why one needs to keep
making sure, especially with subjects that are in on-going development,
such as abortion, assisted suicide, adolescent responsibility and so
forth. But while caution is vital, it is no less vital to reach some
understanding of what is important in human affairs.

Neither dogmatism nor skepticism is an option although often it is indeed
best to admit to ignorance.

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