Max Hayward (at Aeon) defends a pragmatic liberalism: one in which, he claims, “It is possible to steer between localist relativism on the one hand and ahistorical absolutism on the other.” In the process, Hayward offers (with the help of Philip Kitcher) a succinct summary of “values” as understood by secular liberals like himself:
It is wrong to think of moral and political values as true or false for all eternity. Such principles are not like the laws of physics. Rather, as the philosopher Philip Kitcher at Columbia University has suggested in The Ethical Project (2011), values and principles should be seen not as timeless truths, but as a kind of ‘social technology’, as solutions to the problems that arise in the business of living together as humans. This is not relativism. A principle, like a technological innovation, either solves the problem for which it was adapted or it does not. Values are right and good only to the extent that they allow people to live acceptable lives together. 1
It should go without saying that orthodox Christians and other religious believers will find this formulation (which seems sensible enough to me) entirely unacceptable: it contradicts both “natural law” and “Divine command” theories of morality. More problematically, though, it also leaves room for certain “principles” that even secular liberals would reject; for instance, the principle “Kill all outsiders” (or, less dramatically, “Exclude all outsiders”) might well allow members of a xenophobic tribe to live "acceptable lives" together, at least by their lights. To avoid such unwelcome conclusions, the liberal must first universalize the category “people” so as to avoid such tribalism; then he must also find a way to define “acceptable lives” so as to exclude such abhorrent behaviors while denying (because liberalism prides itself on being tolerant) that he is doing any such thing.
In fact, liberalism is less open than it would have us believe. Hayward says that one valuable characteristic of liberalism is that it’s open to change and to influence from various sources:
Liberalism should never become ossified and dogmatic. Our current evaluative worldview must be held open for revision in the light of new experiences and circumstances…liberals should also be open to the possibility that listening to…new voices will change the way they see things.
But liberalism cannot listen to voices that insist there is only one correct way to see things, or to value things, or to behave. Liberalism is explicitly opposed to what it calls “dogmatism”; which means, in practice, that it is open to anything except to views that claim any sort of ultimate authority or Truth. For liberalism, as Hayward makes clear, all values are provisional; anyone who defends “eternal truths” cannot participate in the liberal conversation. 2 To an extent that liberals rarely acknowledge, liberalism is not truly open to dialogue with any perspective except its own; the epithet "illiberal" all but excludes a worldview from consideration.
I sympathize with Max Hayward’s effort to portray liberalism as a sensibly pragmatic approach to conflicting values and ways of life; I happen to agree that, for the most part, it is just that. I just don’t think it solves all those conflicts quite as easily as he suggests.
1 Hayward offers a brief explanation of what he, like most liberals, means by "acceptable lives": "liberal values...have been found to work by those who have tried them, because the lives they allow are good lives for the livers, because they have permitted the cultures that abide by them to achieve unprecedented safety, health, dignity and wellbeing." That all sounds good; but what if the purpose of human existence is to serve God and to progress from this world into an eternity with God in Heaven, and what if liberal values don't help people achieve that? Atheist that I am, I understand why theists might find Hayward's version of "acceptable lives" unacceptable.
2 This dilemma—and it is a genuine dilemma—is sometimes expressed as “Can liberalism tolerate intolerance?” Not everyone who subscribes to doctrine or dogma, of course, is intolerant of others; but liberals still have problems accommodating inflexible truth claims even from individuals who have no intention of forcing them on anyone else. Truth claims are by their nature intolerant of competing claims (including the claim that there are no non-provisional truths) and there's no way for liberalism or anything else to square that particular circle.