Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Do we need shared national values?

A propos of last week's debate about oaths of allegiance and shared British values...I've been reading Kwame Anthony Appiah's book on cosmopolitanism and he has this to say about the American context:

Americans share a willingness to be governed by the system set out in the U.S. Constitution. But that does not require anyone to agree to any particular claims or values. The Bill of Rights tells us, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." Yet we don't need to agree on what values underlie our acceptance of the First Amendment's treatment of religion. Is it religious toleration as an end in itself? Or is it a Protestant commitment to the sovereignty of the individual conscience? Is it prudence, which recognizes that trying to force religious conformity on people only leads to civil discord? Or is it skepticism that any religion has it right? Is it to protect the government from religion? Or religion from the government? Or is it some combination of these, or other, aims?


There is no agreed-upon answer - and the point is there doesn't need to be. We can live together without agreeing on what the values are that make it good together; we can agree about what to do in most cases, without agreeing why it is right.

I don't want to overstate the claim. No doubt there are widely shared values that help Americans live together in amity. But they certainly don't live together successfully because they have a shared theory of value or a shared story as to how to bring "their" values to bear in each case. They each have a pattern of life that they are used to; and neighbours who are, by and large, used to them. So long as this settled pattern is not seriously disrupted, they do not worry over-much about whether their fellow citizens agree with them or their theories about how to live. Americans tend to have, in sum, a broadly liberal reaction when they do hear about their fellow citizens' doing something that they would not do themselves: they mostly think it is not their business and not the government's business either. And, as a general rule, their shared American-ness matters to them, although many of their fellow Americans are remarkably unlike themselves. It's just that what they do share can be less substantial than we're inclined to believe.

Not being American, I can't judge whether or not Appiah's 'weak' version of shared American-ness is a fair reflection of how most US citizens see things. But my instinctive response is to prefer this minimal version of national identity to the heavily prescriptive model seemingly preferred by Gordon Brown's government. In my view, a written constitution which provides a loose framework of 'the way we do things here' is more appropriate to a modern liberal democracy than trying to come up with a list of 'British values' that everyone is supposed to share - whether we are progressive or conservative, monarchist or republican, religious or secular.

On the other hand, Appiah's argument can be questioned at key points. What happens, for example, when the 'settled pattern' is 'seriously disturbed', for example by a major terrorist attack perpetrated by citizens of your own country, as in the case of the 7/7 bombings? Or when the 'something that they would not do themselves' is something that threatens the basic freedoms of the majority, as in the case of violent demonstrations calling for the beheading of non-believers? In such cases, are most people still content to think that their fellow-citizens' values and actions are 'not their business and not the government's business either'?

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