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Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy 5

June 26, 2017

The author concludes that communitarianism, understood as the commitment to the non-revisable character of certain ends, thus remains in fundamental tension with the first liberal accommodation, i.e. political liberalism. If the communitarian, on this view, no longer aims to replace wholesale the liberal view of the self but, instead, to argue for the necessity of diverse views of self in society, then the question becomes that of multiculturalism rather than strict communitarianism per se. This is not, however, the only count on which liberals could attempt to make accommodation for communitarianism. According to the so-called “social thesis”, of which Charles Taylor is a noted proponent, the problem with liberalism owes not to its account of the self, its interests and rational revisability but instead to its neglect of “the social conditions required for the effective fulfilment of those interests” (244). In short, state anti-perfectionism undermines the social framework necessary for self-determination and rational revisability or is incapable of providing adequate protection therefor.

This represents the moderate version of the thesis which can, however, take a more radical form, which the author also describes and refutes:

“Some communitarians take the social thesis to undermine liberalism in a more fundamental way, by undermining its moral individualism. Moral individualism is the view that individuals are the basic unit of moral value, so that any moral duties to larger units (e.g. the community) must be derived from our obligations to individuals. But, communitarians argue, if we reject the atomistic view that individuals are self-originating persons, then we must also reject Rawls’s claim that we are ‘self-originating sources of valid claims’ (Rawls 1980: 43). But this is a non sequitur. Rawls’s claim that we are self-originating sources of valid claims is not a sociological claim about how we develop. It is a moral claim about the location of moral value. As Galston says, ‘while the formative power of society is surely decisive, it is nevertheless individuals that are being shaped. I may share everything with others. But it is I that shares them – an independent consciousness, a separate locus of pleasure and pain, a demarcated being with interests to be advance or suppressed (Galston 1986: 91).” (280, note to p. 245)

The moderate version requires more careful deliberation, and Kymlicka proposes to study each of three variants on its central claim:

3a. The state has duties to protect a rich and diverse cultural structure which anti-perfectionist institutions are incapable of doing.

3b. The should make room for individual decisionmaking, which only takes place, however, in collective deliberation, far from the backdrop of neutrality.

3c. The state must promote solidarity and political legitimacy, of which anti-perfectionist institutions are incapable.

The author dispatches 3a.) by conceding Raz’s point that state neutrality is never wholly neutral and by suggesting that the difference between liberalism and communitarianism is not a question of whether perfectionism is admissible but at what level perfectionism is admissible, either “social perfectionism or state perfectionism” (248). 3b.) receives somewhat more attention. Kymlicka begins by recalling Crowley’s claim that “[i]t is through the existence of organised public spaces, in which men offer and test ideas against one another […] that men come to understand a part of who they are. (Crowley 1987, 282)” (249). If this appears to fly in the face of Rawls’ argument that perfectionist valuation of ways of life should not be a matter of public discussion, this tension hinges on an ambiguity between collective and political activities. Rawls deems that valuation inappropriate for political activities and state forums but allows for such valuation within collective activities, at however general a level as may be envisaged. Kymlicka pursues this point:

“But a liberal society does create opportunities for people to express these social aspects of individual deliberation. After all, freedom of assembly, speech, and association are fundamental liberal rights. The opportunities for collective enquiry simply occur within and between groups and associations below the level of the state – friends and family, in the first instance, but also churches, cultural associations, professional groups and trade unions, universities, and the mass media […] Indeed, [Crowley’s] claims fit comfortably in many liberal discussions of the value of free speech and association […] What the liberal denies is that I should have to give such an account of myself to the state, or that my claim to public resources should depend on justifying my way of life to the state.” (250).

The author contends that similar problems plague Habermas’ earlier critiques of state anti-perfectionism. He further suggests that the evaluation of people’s conceptions of the good should not affect their justice claims nor that the state forum is an appropriate vehicle therefor. Smaller, collective settings may be more appropriate forums for such evaluation and adjusting of justice claims. With the communitarians, Habermas “shares their tendency to assume that anything which is not politically deliberated is thereby left to an individual will incapable of rational judgment” (250-1). Rather than denying the social requirements for individual autonomy, liberal neutrality “provides an interpretation of them which relies on social rather than political processes” (251). If this does not prove such neutrality to be true or desirable, it at least shields it from 3b.)’s supposed knockdown argument.

Kymlicka articulates this last point more forcefully in writing:

“Communitarians are right to insist that a culture of freedom is a historical achievement, and liberals need to explain why the cultural marketplace does not threaten that achievement either by failing to connect people in a strong enough way to their communal practices (as communitarians fear), or conversely, by failing to detach people in a strong enough way from the expectations of existing practices and ideologies (as Habermas fears). A culture which supports self-determination requires a mix of both exposure and connection to existing practices, and also distance and dissent from them. Liberal neutrality may provide that mix, but that is not obviously true, and it may be true only in some times and places.” (251)

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