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Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy 2

June 21, 2017

Chapter 3 – Liberal equality:

In Chapter 3, Kymlicka turns to competing accounts of liberal equality to assess their relative soundness. He begins with Rawls and briefly sets out the reasons for which the latter rejects intuitionism and utilitarianism. He then recalls Rawls’ two principles of justice and the two arguments therefor: they provide a better spelling-out of the idea of equal opportunity (fairness); they follow from a hypothetical social contract. Kymlicka ultimately deems the first of these two arguments the stronger in that the second seems parasitic on the first insofar as it is merely “an intuitive test of fairness” (63). Indeed, the author sees the dispute over gamblers and natural handicaps within the original position as one which “cannot be resolved by appeal to contractual agreement” as “it would beg the question for either side to invoke its account of the contracting situation in defence if its theory of justice, since the contracting situation presupposes the theory” (68). If such questions must be decided in advance of and independently of the contracting situation, then this proves redundant and itself requires some independent justification. This, combined with the choice-insensitiveness of Rawls’ theory, leads Kymlicka to prefer Dworkin’s own, independent solution to the problem of equality of resources (notably in the form of auctions, insurance schemes, free markets and taxation, laid out in the latter’s “Equality” article series).

Otherwise, it bears mentioning that fears over the veil of ignorance’s consequences for personal identity (e.g. what is left of the self? Can one imagine oneself behind the veil?) are misplaced for the veil of ignorance is not a theory of personal identity. Accordingly, “the hypothetical contract is a way of embodying a certain conception of equality, and a way of extracting the consequences of that conception for the just regulation of social institutions” (64). This has the further consequence that, “since the premiss of the argument is equality, not contract, to criticize it we need to show that it fails to embody an adequate account of equality” and that it is neither sufficient nor relevant “to say that the contract is historically inaccurate, or that the veil of ignorance is psychologically impossible, or that the original position is in some other way unrealistic” (idem.). In a word, we must accept the conditions and examine whether the principles selected therein turn out to be fair upon reflection.

Certainly, Kymlicka’s interpretive charity is to his credit. That said, there seem at least two possible paths by which one might cast doubts on Rawls’ contractarianism without accepting the author’s conditions. First, we might ask, with Stout, whether Rawls’ own conditions for the original position are epistemologically fair, i.e. show equal consideration for all participants. Second, we might call into question, again with Stout, whether public reason, as the acceptable procedures for deliberation, is itself acceptable. Both positions grant Kymlicka’s conditions all while addressing different, though valid, issues.

At a more general level, the school of liberal equality also encounters problems in that it calls, at a theoretical level, for political reforms and action which, at a practical level, it is hard to cash out. Notable among these are the idea that increased “ambition-sensitivity” and decreased “endowment-sensitivity” comes at the cost of neoliberalism (92-94) and Jonathan Wolff’s (1998) suggestion that “liberal equality may indeed be the best theory of justice, from a purely philosophical point of view” albeit one which “promotes the wrong ethos of equality”. In forcing the disadvantaged to prove their disadvantage, liberal equality promotes “shameful revelation”, distrust and stigmatization while thereby sapping the solidarity and mutual concern necessary to sustain justice. All of which leads Kymlicka to conclude that, while it remains the most plausible account, liberal equality needs theoretical shoring-up at the level of political practice after consideration of what liberal principles can offer radicals and what radical principles can offer liberals.

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