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Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy 4

June 23, 2017

From there, Kymlicka returns to the objection 2bb.) above and the ways in which liberal thinkers have attempted to meet communitarian objections halfway, on common ground and in good faith. Rational revisability and autonomy secure, the author asks whether such attempts at accommodation prove successful. With an eye to a later diagnosis of political liberalism, he distinguishes two forms that religious toleration might take: liberal, individual freedom of conscience and illiberal, self-governing units (“millets”). Political liberalism, he continues, requires religious persons to buy into the first of these as opposed to the latter and thinks to gain their assent through overlapping consensus. More particularly, “both sides accept the resulting principles (e.g. of freedom of conscience) as morally legitimate, albeit for different reasons that appeal to their different conceptions of the self” (233). That said, Kymlicka thinks that such consensus is unworkable on several counts.

The most important of these is that, if presented with the choice between liberal freedom of conscience and illiberal millets, traditionalist groups are likely to opt for millets, and it is difficult to see how Rawls would bring them back to the politically liberal fold. The author credits Rawls with a highly articulated version of personhood:

“The idea that we can form and revise our conception of the good is, Rawls now says, strictly a ‘political conception’ of the person, adopted solely for the purposes of determining our public rights and responsibilities. It is not, he insists, intended as a general account of the relationship between the self and its ends applicable to all areas of life, or as an accurate portrayal of our deepest self-understandings. On the contrary, in private life, it is quite possible that some people’s personal identity will be bound to particular ends in such a way as to preclude rational revision. Accepting liberalism as a political conception of public life does not require communitarians to give up their belief in an embedded self or constitutive ends in private life.” (235, cf. Rawls 1985, 241)


“So Rawls allows that some people may, in their private life, view their religious commitments as non-revisable. He only requires that, in political contexts, people ignore the possible existence of such ‘constitutive’ ends. As citizens, everyone sees himself or herself as having a ‘higher-order interest’ in their capacity to form and revise a conception of the good, even though as private individuals some people may not see themselves as having or valuing that capacity. Rawls’ conception of the autonomous person provides the language of public justification in which people discuss their rights and responsibilities as citizens, although it may not describe their ‘non-public identity’.” (235)

This distinction between the citizen and individual levels effectively leaves Rawls positioned to reprise Sandel’s weaker conception of the self and to maintain, as Kymlicka sees it, that, if one should be liberal in public life, one may be communitarian in non-public life. This articulated account nonetheless puts Rawls at odds with traditionalist groups for whom apostasy and heresy must remain crimes and the mere fact of civic education as to one’s rights and protecting removes the conditions necessary for group cohesion. In short, no less than comprehensive liberalism, political liberalism is committed to precisely those liberties which traditionalist communities feel themselves bound to reject.

Part of the problem owes to Rawls’ assertion, implicit or otherwise, that the private sphere is insulated from the public. But this seems wrong on both causal and conceptual grounds as the author brings to the reader’s attention. Although Rawls often links justice and autonomy in the public sphere, the two come apart as the former concerns the sense of justice and the person’s ability to evaluate fair distributions but the latter concerns the conception of the good and the person’s capacity for rational revisability. In a word, the former concerns public identity and the latter comprehensive or private identity. In which case, Kymlicka is right to ask:

“So what then does it mean to say that the exercise of this latter capacity can be restricted to political life, without it impinging on our private identity? Since the capacity involved just is the capacity to form and revise our comprehensive ends, it seems that any exercise of it necessarily involves our private identity.” (279, note to p. 239)

Returning to his main point, the author concludes:

“In short, Rawls has not explained why people who are communitarians in private life should be liberals in political life. Rawls may be right that ‘Within different contexts we can assume diverse points of view toward our person without contradiction so long as these points of view cohere together when circumstances require’ (Rawls 1980: 545). But he has not shown that these points of view do cohere. On the contrary, they clearly conflict on issues of intra-group dissent such as proselytization, apostasy, heresy, and mandatory education.” (240).

And the attendant spillover costs to private identity and the availability of illiberal religious tolerance, there is little reason for traditionalist groups to buy into the overlapping consensus as presented. To the point of liberty, captured above, the author adds the importance of rational revisability to responsibility in Rawls’ political philosophy. Should traditionalist groups with expensive ways of life be subsidized through more primary goods? Rawls seems to think “no”, albeit for the wrong reason. Whereas he maintains that expensive ways of life are socially divisive, Kymlicka sees the former as putting the cart before the horse. Expensive ways of life are divisive because one thinks them wrong, not the other way around. Indeed, that wrongness seems to owe to the person’s capacity for rational revisability. As the author puts it, “if we no longer believed people had such a capacity, we would not necessarily think it wrong or unfair to subsidize their unchosen extra costs”. In the end, political liberalism needs rational revisability and, by extension, autonomy at two important levels.

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