Image credit. Continued from Liberty and Totalitarianism - Michael Polanyi (1/3) - The Seminal Impetus of Liberalism.
How was it possible that the liberal impetus of Milton and Locke would be so distorted in Europe as to nourish a "moral inversion" from which eventually issues the totalitarian mindset? And why was the Anglo-American sphere resistant to such "moral inversion?"
Explains Michael Polanyi:
The argument of doubt put forward by Locke in favour of tolerance says that since it is impossible to demonstrate which religion is true, we should admit them all. This implies that we must not impose beliefs that are not demonstrable.
(Ibid. p. 120)
When we extend this conclusion to ethical principles:
It follows that unless ethical principles can be demonstrated with certainty, we should refrain from imposing them and should tolerate their total denial.
But of course, ethical principles cannot be demonstrated: you cannot prove the obligation to tell the truth, to uphold justice and mercy. It would follow therefore that a system of mendacity, lawlessness, and cruelty is to be accepted as an alternative to ethical principles on equal terms. But a society in which unscrupulous propaganda, violence and terror prevail offers no scope for tolerance.
Here the inconsistency of a liberalism based on philosophic doubt becomes apparent: freedom of thought is destroyed by the extension of doubt to the field of traditional ideas.
(Ibid. p. 120 - emphasis added)
When we cannot be sure of the truth of ethical principles and therefore need not heed any, superior strength, ruthlessness and brutality may fill the gap. And surely, this is precisely what happened in the hotbeds of European totalitarianism - Italy, Germany, and Russia.
At a time when - with a vengeance - Europe was accepting "a system of mendacity, lawlessness and cruelty as an alternative to ethical principles," how come this transformation, this "moral inversion" would not lay hold of the Anglo-American world?
The consummation of this destructive process was prevented in the Anglo-American region by an instinctive reluctance to pursue the accepted philosophic premises to their ultimate conclusions.
One way of avoiding this was by pretending that ethical principles could actually be scientifically demonstrated. Locke himself started this train of thought by asserting that good and evil could be identified with pleasure and pain, and suggesting that all ideals of good behaviour are merely maxims of prudence.
(Ibid. p. 121)
See also: Natural Ends and Prudential Judgement.
However, the utilitarian calculus cannot in fact demonstrate our obligations to ideals which demand serious sacrifices from us. A man's sincerity in professing his ideals is to be measured rather by the lack of prudence which he shows in pursuing them. [...]
I believe the preservation up to this day of Western Civilization along the lines of the Anglo-American tradition of liberty was due to this speculative restraint ...
(Ibid. p. 121)
Polanyi believes that two factors of a cultural and historical nature saved liberalism in the Anglo-American world from the "moral inversion" it suffered in Europe:
The speculative and practical restraints which saved liberalism from self-destruction in the Anglo- American area were due in the first place to the distinctly religious character of this liberalism.
So long as philosophic doubt was applied only in order to secure equal rights to all religions and was prohibited from demanding equal rights also for irreligion, the same restraint would automatically apply in respect to moral beliefs. A scepticism which was kept on short leash for the sake of preserving religious beliefs, would hardly become a menace to fundamental moral principles.
(Ibid. p. 122)
Furthermore, Polanyi stresses the importance of democratic institutions in avoiding a degenerate turn of liberalism:
A second restraint on scepticism ... lay in the establishment of democratic institutions at a time when religious beliefs were still strong. These institutions (for example the American Constitution) gave effect to the moral principles which underlie a free society. The tradition of democracy embodied in these institutions proved strong enough to uphold in practice the moral standards of a free society against any critique which would question their validity.
(Ibid. p. 122)
See also The Age of Liberalism and especially The Birth of American Freedom - Government and Democrcay.
To see what went wrong in Europe read Liberty and Totalitarianism - Michael Polanyi (3/3) - Catastrophes in the Old World.