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Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy 9

July 3, 2017

Chapter 7: Citizenship Theory

With Chapter 7, attention shifts to the renewal of citizenship theory in the 1990s. Arising partially as a response to anomie and apathy, nationalism and pluralism, citizenship theory questioned whether liberal democracy, its procedures like its institutions, were capable of generating virtuous citizens to face those challenges. Kymlicka aims both to lay out its key claims and variants and to show that theories of citizenship are “often ‘old’ debates over justice dressed up in new clothing” (287). By this, he means that “theories of citizenship identify the virtues and practices needed to promote and maintain the sorts of institutions and policies defended within theories of justice” (idem.). Only the venue and level of discussion have changed.

The author begins by recalling influential historical conceptions of citizenship, notably T.H. Marshall’s “citizenship-as-rights”. While an impressive historical accomplishment for securing basic human goods and enjoying broad support, citizenship-as-rights is reckoned merely “passive” or “private” by prominent critics “because of its emphasis on passive entitlements, and the absence of any obligation to participate in public life”, i.e. overemphasis on “the right to have rights” (288). To this passive conception, such critics as William Galston (1991) has appended a list of civic virtues: general, social, economic, and political. The last of these stands out as being proper to contemporary liberal democracies for its emphasis on the virtue of public reasonableness. As Kymlicka explains it:

“Liberal citizens must give reasons for their political demands, not just state preferences or make threats. Moreover, these reasons must be public reasons, in the sense that they are capable of being understood and accepted by people of different faiths and cultures. Hence it is not enough to invoke Scripture or tradition. Liberal citizens must justify their political demands in terms that fellow citizens can understand and accept as consistent with their status as free and equal citizens. It requires a conscientious effort to distinguish those beliefs which are matters of private faith from those which are capable of public defence, and to see how issues look from the point of view of those with differing religious commitments and cultural backgrounds.” (289).

Though Kymlicka grants most of the account above, he is ready to concede that it is not always clear what counts as a public reason or what must be done should one run out of public reasons. More importantly, this distinctly modern virtue points to a shift in contemporary understanding of democracy, namely from aggregative and vote-centric to deliberative and talk-centric. At the root of this shift is an increased focus on the notion of legitimacy. The author writes:

“As a result, the outcome of the aggregative model has only the thinnest veneer of legitimacy. It provides a mechanism for determining winners and losers, but no mechanism for developing a consensus, or shaping public opinion, or even formulating an honourable compromise. Consider citizens who believe that their claims are based on fundamental principles of justice, yet who are outvoted in an aggregative democracy. They have not been offered any reason for believing that they are mistaken about the justice of their claims. They have had no opportunity to persuade others of this claim, or to be persuaded by others that they are mistaken. They have simply been outnumbered. Many studies have shown that citizens will accept the legitimacy of collective decisions that go against them, but only if they think their arguments and reasons have been given a fair hearing, and that others have taken seriously what they have to say. But if there is no room for such a fair hearing, then people will question the legitimacy of decisions. This is particularly true for people belonging to a marginalized minority group, who know in advance that they have little hope of winning a majority vote. They may in effect be permanently excluded from exercising any real power within the system.” (290-1).

Wherefore the “deliberative turn” and the emergence of distinctly deliberative or discursive forms of democracy, as in the work of John Dryzek. Kymlicka even suggests that deliberative democracy exists as something of a module which might be inserted into the broader commitments of any number of theorists if one grants that increased deliberation helps to secure increased justice. Certainly, he harbors some doubts on the deliberative model of democracy:

“In particular, what are the appropriate forums for deliberation? At what levels should these forums exist-local, national, or supranational? Should these forums be issue specific or general? How do we ensure that all groups and views are adequately represented in these forums? Is the goal to make existing mechanisms of voting, referenda, electoral representation, and judicial decision-making more deliberative, or to create new forums for deliberation, such as ‘deliberative polls’, ‘citizen juries’, town hall meetings, or constituent assemblies?” (292)


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