Public Morality and the Culture Wars: The Triple Divide by Bryan Fanning - review by Alexander Raubo

Alexander Raubo

Beyond Figs & Pears

Public Morality and the Culture Wars: The Triple Divide


Emerald 232pp £24

Bryan Fanning’s book is part of a wave of works seeking to recover tolerance and liberalism from the excesses of contemporary progressivism. What distinguishes Fanning’s work is its scholarly ambition. The author aims to provide a comparative analysis of the ‘culture wars’ besetting Western democracies for the last few decades. He does so through the concept of ‘public morality’, a term originally employed by conservative scholars, such as Harry M Clor and Christopher Wolfe, to denote laws and norms used by political communities to protect or improve the moral character of its members. Fanning, however, understands it more broadly as any conception of the good imposed by the state. One of his central contentions is that public morality isn’t the preserve of conservatives but something that’s ‘integral to all cultures and civilisations’.

Fanning claims to make an advance on James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (1991) by conceiving of the culture wars as a struggle between three, rather than two, belligerents. To Davison Hunter’s ‘traditionalist’ (or conservative) and ‘progressive’ ideologies, Fanning adds ‘secular liberalism’. Wars, as Clausewitz teaches, are duels at large scale, meaning that two of Fanning’s three ideological groupings must be paired in opportunistic alliance against the third. During the 20th century, liberals found common cause with progressives in opposing conservative public morality. The 21st century has seen liberals combine forces with conservatives in challenging the dominance of progressives. So far, it’s been liberals that have been switching sides, but Fanning argues that conservatives and progressives share more in common than it might seem: they’re both advocates of what he calls ‘substantive’ public moralities, seeking to impose their idea of the good on the population as a whole, without regard to its complexity and diversity. Liberals, in contrast, are proponents of a ‘minimal’ public morality intended to leave individuals free to pursue their own convictions provided they don’t interfere with the freedom of others.

Fanning isn’t agitating to redraw the battlelines of the culture wars and pitch advocates of substantive and minimal moralities against one another. In his account of the historical and philosophical underpinnings of conservatism and progressivism, he draws the latter as an inversion of the former, making an alliance

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