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Jun 1, 1979

Freedom of Inquiry vs. Critical Theory

On the uncomfortable relationship between libertarianism and “Critical Theory.”

“Philosophical Perspectives on Freedom of Inquiry.” Southern California Law Review 51 (September 1978): 1115–1129.

As interpreted by Neville, liberalism (by which he means the Western liberal democratic outlook as found in Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Mill, Rawls, Nozick) evaluates scientific inquiry (e.g., recombinant DNA research) by stressing legal protection of persons and property as well as government’s responsibility to disseminate information required for self-protection. Moreover, liberalism is technocratic in its singular focus on what means are efficient. It regards human reason as incapable of identifying what is and is not worthwhile, and what we should and should not do; it considers only what are efficient means, not ultimate ends. For example, it regards medical research as something that “enhances our social powers of reaching our goals,” but, the author argues, liberalism can say nothing as to the ultimate goals.

An alternative to liberalism is critical theory as advocated by members of the Frankfurt School, especially Jurgen Habermas. Critical theory owes its intellectual origins to Karl Marx, but the Frankfurt School, rejects the materialistic emphasis of Marx’s philosophy, adding a crucial psychological dimension. The stress is on the “emancipatory interest” in human existence, namely, the promulgation of social, institutional, and political means to the full realization of human nature. “In light of the emancipatory interest, the problem of freedom for recombinant DNA research is essentially a political one. Given our present system of research, advances in scientific knowledge serve to strengthen the hands of the professionals who dominate the lay community both by defining the goals of health (and other professional services) and by controlling the distribution system. For this reason, although on the one hand it seems absurd to oppose an advance in knowledge that might bring great benefits to health, the interest in emancipation might very well determine that the overall power of the professional scientific community ought to be weakened nevertheless by restricting recombinant DNA research.”

A related problem is that our trust in experts erodes our democratic institutions and “an important area where democratic society has already achieved significant emancipation, namely, community control of what goes on in the community.” On the one hand, liberalism has its deficiencies: it denies something evident enough, namely, that some things are objectively more valuable than others; thus it limits morals and politics to subjective wants and wishes. To make sense of politics, this type of liberalism assumes the authority of these wishes and wants entitles one to what one wants, within appropriate coordinating limits.

Critical theory, on the other hand, is also troubled by difficulties: it advances an empirical view as to the objective values and yet denies the input of those who do not seek emancipation as critical theory understands this; thus it declares some people as less than human; thus critical theory denies its own insistence on universal dialogue.

What is needed is a “hypothetically objective” perspective on social values, one that is “subject to education, and that views authority as resident in the persons who are the authors of their own acts, and resident in the political process only in the ways and degrees people participate… .” For example, in the DNA case this might require giving up the value of freedom of inquiry.