In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the ‘circle of toleration’ is extended
to include previously untolerated groups, and the justification of toleration shifts
from religious to secular grounds. Here are a few secular arguments:
- ScepticismIt is impossible to prove the existence of God.
- ProgressHumanity progresses if there is a competition of ideas (see John Stuart
Mill’s argument, discussed in Chapter 2).
- AutonomyHow we should behave can be determined rationally through the
exercise of human reason.
Some contemporary theorists argue that these secular arguments are themselves
intolerant and incompatible with a pluralistic society: scepticism is a rejection of
religious belief, and autonomy, while not a rejection, cannot be endorsed by someone
who believes revelation or natural law is the source for guidance on moral conduct.
For this reason there has been a ‘rediscovery’ of modus vivendi toleration, and this
is reflected to some extent in the multiculturalism debate. This rediscovery is also
a reaction to the development of liberal thought in the following three centuries.
In the rest of this chapter we consider that development, by focusing on three strands
of theory: contractarianism, rights-based liberalism and utilitarianism.
Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan(1651) was published against the background of the
English Civil War, which was, in part, a manifestation of the wider religious struggles
in Europe. Leviathanis one of the great books of political theory, and arguably the
first significant work of modern political thought. The conclusion Hobbes draws –
that it is rational to submit to a powerful sovereign – may not appear liberal, but
the way he reaches that conclusion draws on ideas which have become a major part
of liberal reflection on the state. The method he uses for justifying obligation to the
state is contractarian: we are to imagine a situation in which there is no state – the
state of nature – and ask ourselves whether it is better we remain in the state of
nature or agree to submit to a sovereign (or state). It is certainly controversial to
describe Hobbes as a liberal, but what we argue is that his thought has influenced
a specific stream of liberal thought. But it should be acknowledged that it has also
influenced traditions of thought hostile to liberalism, as illustrated in the work of
German thinker Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), who saw in the mythical, mortal God
Leviathan a very personal, wilful power and a charismatic source of authority in
contrast to the rationalism of liberal authority.
It is important to understand the historical context of Hobbes’s work. To a large
degree Hobbes is concerned to provide an argument against rebellion. In mid-
seventeenth-century England it was radical reformers – sects such as the Levellers
and the Diggers – who were among the most likely rebels. A large part of Leviathan
is concerned with blocking off theological arguments for rebellion. There is a
tendency for contemporary readers to ignore this part of the book, regarding it as
anachronistic, and to concentrate on the apparently more ‘secular’ parts. But given
that it is still the case that political order is challenged not just by competing
interests, but also competing moral conceptions (some of which have a theological
178 Part 2 Classical ideologies