Liberal democracy was originally founded on the Enlightenment notion that there are principles, accessible to unassisted reason, demonstrating that political life should be dedicated to the protection of rights common to all human beings. These were thought to include the right to life, property, free speech, equal standing before the law, due process in criminal proceedings, along with the right to practice the religion of one’s choice. Not to mention the right to choose one’s political leaders, and pursue one’s own conception of happiness so long as the choices made are consistent with the rights of others and the common good. Our Enlightenment ancestors may have given different justifications for these rights—some grounding them on a deistic conception of God or nature, others on the rational dignity of human beings, and still others on social utility considerations—but they generally agreed that they were best secured by one variant or another of liberal democracy: which is to say, the combination of a politics free from the scheming of religious sects, representative institutions with separated powers regulated by checks and balances, and a commercial economic order, all of it operating within the framework of the rule of law.
Today, however, it is widely held that no objective framework exists to decide normative and factual judgments. All such judgments are said to reflect the political, cultural, and socio-economic imperatives of the particular time and place in which they are made. This view has been christened postmodernism, which Jean Francois Lyotard has defined as an “incredulity to metanarratives,” that is, “any science that legitimates itself with reference . . . to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.” With postmodernism, the original Enlightenment legitimation of liberal democracy as the regime that best accords with reason is reduced to a mere cultural prejudice.
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