“…I think social change can be (and by definition, has to be) fuelled by power. Whether that is state power formally expressed, or cultural power emanating from popular figures and examples...I don't know of a structural difference between social and legal power that would make one successful and the other fail.”My answer kind of goes back to basics...
I believe that absolute moral truth exists; I believe that there is an optimum way of making decisions, living life and running society. Only, never having entered into conversation with a burning bush, I do not have the privilege of really truly knowing that what I believe is the truth.
Not to be undone by my uncertainty, I do think there are ways in which we can at least attempt to make the best moral decisions. And on a social and political level, I believe there are ways in which a society and individuals within that society can be given the greatest opportunity to get things right.
Some people in this position may think, well I have a pretty good idea what is right, so all I need to do is to get everyone to do as I say, by whatever means necessary. In theological terms, this would be the idea that it is possible to save someone’s soul from the outside; make them do the right thing, prevent them from sin (tickle a confession or two out of them) and they’ll be just fine.
Other people think, well I have a pretty good idea about what is right, but I have only come to this through my own powers of observation, reason and rummaging about in my own conscience. It is entirely possible that at least parts of what I believe may be totally wrong, partly wrong or otherwise incomplete. I need to keep looking at this and thrashing out these ideas out with other people whom I may learn from and indeed, who may learn from me.
In theological language, this would be the idea that everyone is responsible for his or her own soul, that only through faith and reason can an individual be saved. All we can do for one another is share our ideas. My friend Mr Locke had something to say about this.
Now in order for society to work, we cannot allow people complete freedom to make their own moral mistakes, since their wrong-doing can and will impact on everybody else. But I happen to believe that by giving people as much negative freedom as possible, we are more likely to come closer to the moral truth - as individuals and as a society. In other words, any law which removes negative freedom from anyone should be considered with the utmost caution. That’s what liberalism is.
Okay, so we want to maximise equality for people of different genders, races, sexual orientations and physical, cognitive and psychological capacities. The only way in which we can achieve this in such a way that it can be sustained, is by winning the intellectual argument. And in order to win an argument, we have to be engaged in an argument in the first place. We need to test and refine our own beliefs as well as challenging those of others.
When an act has become a criminal offence, the argument is no longer taking place. The court is asked to decide, not whether or not a person behaved in a reasonable fashion, but whether or not their behaviour meets a specific criteria. Bribery, for example, is a form of stealing, so a person is either guilty or not guilty – sentencing may vary, but there are no degrees of guilt in the verdict.
But discrimination, in a world where prejudices are extremely complex in their nature, origin and manifestation, is not a black-and-white issue. The question is not did she do X? but rather was X a reasonable course of action? The law (civil law) deals only with the more serious end of this. We are still having the debate. And we need to keep having that debate. It needs to go on and on until, by reasoned consensus, it fades into a murmur.