Perfectionist Liberalism and Political Liberalism: A Response to Joseph Raz
Joseph Raz's views are the finest example, in the philosophical literature, of what we might call comprehensive liberalism, a type of liberal political doctrine that spells out comprehensively what the key values in human life are, advocating political principles and institutions that are built upon these values. (John Stuart Mill probably held a similar view, but he does not spell it out with nearly Raz's explicitness and detail.) For Raz, the key personal and political value is autonomy, a power of self-direction and self-government. To this, in his paper for our workshop, he links the acceptance of moral pluralism: one ought to believe, he says, that there are many incompatible ways of living, all of which are good and valuable. Religious and secular toleration, he argues, should be based on an acceptance of the ideal of autonomy and the truth of moral pluralism.
The major alternative to Mill's and Raz's comprehensive liberalism, in the philosophical literature, is the view called "political liberalism." This view was developed first by Charles Larmore in The Morals of Modernity, but in greatest detail by John Rawls in his great book Political Liberalism. I too hold a view of this type: my books Women and Human Development and Frontiers of Justice articulate my own political views (quite different from those of Rawls and Larmore) in the form of a species of political liberalism. So it seems worth exploring the reasons that led the three of us to prefer political liberalism to a view of Raz's type.
Consider the many religious and secular views of life that currently exist in modern societies. Many if not most of them cannot accept the idea that autonomy, understood as Raz understands it, ought to be a moral ideal. Some religions allow their adherents more autonomy and some less; but very few valorize it as Raz does. (In fact I'm tempted to think that my own religion, Reform Judaism, and Enlightenment Deism of the Kantian type are the only religions that can wholeheartedly agree with Raz.) Moreover, very few religions accept moral pluralism: many think that their adherents will be saved and other people will not be, and most at least believe that their own route to salvation is better. Although moral pluralism has come to be a feature of many contemporary religions, things were not always so, and they are not so with many other religions today. As for secular views of the good life, most of those are not terribly pluralistic either. Marxists do not think that non-Marxist views are acceptable. Many secular views do not think of religious views as acceptable.
Raz, then, wants to build society on a set of views that virtually none of its members actually holds That is a strategic problem clearly, but it is something more as well: it is a problem of respect. When the institutions that pervasively govern your life are built on a view that in all conscience you cannot endorse, that means that you are, in effect, in a position of second-class citizenship. Even if you are tolerated (and it is not too clear from Raz's paper whether the major religions will be tolerated), government will state every day that a different view, incompatible with yours, is the right view, and that yours is wrong. Moreover, as Raz explicitly said in discussion, government will be licensed to try to convert you to the correct view. This is what I would call "expressive subordination."
Expressive subordination is a form of religious establishment. The fact that Raz's view is secular makes no difference to that conclusion. And it is wrong for the reason that religious establishment is always wrong: it offends against the equality of citizens. It tells them, to quote Madison, that they do not all enter the public square "on equal conditions." This conclusion does not trouble Raz, because, as he announced in discussion, he does not think people are equal anyway. But it troubles me, as it troubled Larmore and Rawls. It is because many people think that Raz's sort of comprehensive liberalism is the only viable form of liberalism that they also think that liberalism is not neutral about the good life, but is a form of religion in its own right. (Michael McConnell has often written in this vein, for example.)
But Raz's liberalism is not the only form of liberalism. For one may develop a form of liberalism that begins, simply, from the idea of equal respect for persons. One then reasons that equal respect requires not setting up one of the available forms of life as the ideal, but, instead, requires prescinding from any such ranking of lives. Seeing how, under conditions of freedom, people do not agree about values, we ought to show respect for those "reasonable disagreements" by basing our political principles on a thin and abstemious view, one that abstains from controversial metaphysical, epistemological, and comprehensive ethical claims. The view will have a moral content, clearly: but the hope is that its moral content will be acceptable to all the major comprehensive doctrines, a kind of "module," as Rawls puts it, that they can all attach to their own views of life. It is thus the object of an "overlapping consensus" among all the major views. This hope can be realized only if we carefully avoid making perfectionist claims in the manner that Raz does. We will not say that autonomy makes lives go better in general, and we will not endorse moral pluralism. But we will show respect for citizens by creating and protecting spaces in which they can live according to their own views.
Rawls and I would insist that there is a cousin of autonomy that must figure in such a view: for real freedom to live according to one's own view also requires protecting the spaces in which people may leave one view and opt for another, and also the spaces in which children learn about options so that they can really live their own lives. That sort of thing, Rawls calls "political autonomy" It is not, however, the same thing as Raz's autonomy, because no announcement is made that lives lived under one's own direction are better than lives lived in submission to some form of religious or cultural authority. The cultural authority is not allowed to coerce people, and they must always be free to enjoy their fully equal rights as citizens, including the free choice of occupation and freedom of religion. But the Roman Catholic, or the member of the Old Order Amish, can still feel that the political view respects them and does not denigrate them, as would not be the case with Raz's view.
It has become evident that the major religions can in fact accept Rawlsian political liberalism, though they cannot accept Raz's comprehensive liberalism. Roman Catholics, for example, can agree with Rawls that we must ground toleration in a view of equal respect for persons. (See, for example, Jacques Maritain's perceptive article "Truth and Human Fellowship.") Such a person will still think that her religion is true and others false; but respect for persons requires protecting the space in which each lives by her own lights. So we get wide toleration, but without expressive subordination.
Political liberalism does not avoid stating that some ethical and religious doctrines are unacceptable. For its political principles do have a moral content, prominently including the equality of citizens and the importance of equal respect. Such ideas will be deeply entrenched in a society's constitution. So the proponent of slavery, or gender hierarchy, will not get equal treatment in that society: the life he wants to lead offends fundamental constitutional norms, so he would have to amend the constitution to be able to live it. Nonetheless, Rawls holds that such a person will enjoy wide liberty to speak and act, so long as he is not violating the rights of others.
Why would one prefer Raz's view to Rawls's? One reason might be a conviction that most of the views around in one's society are racist or sexist, and that only a comprehensive perfectionist view, accepted as the basis of the state, could really get rid of them. The late Susan Moller Okin, a distinguished feminist political theorist, rejected Rawls's political liberalism for such reasons: she thought all the religions were sexist to the core, so the only way to make progress was to do away with them, insofar as we could, by public persuasion. Okin thought that Rawls asked too little of the religions when it simply asked them to accept the full equality of women as citizens, but did not ask them, for example, to accept the theological or eschatological equalilty of women. I see her point, and I think that the best line of defense for Raz would be to focus on such cases. I don't think Okin is correct about religion: I think by now most of them have reformulated their claims in keeping with a recognition of sex equality. (So too most secular doctrines.) More important, though, I also think that politics has no business talking about the afterlife, or who should be a priest. That is why I said to Raz, in discussion, that Rawls's political liberalism flows, ultimately, from a Lockean idea about the proper jurisdiction of the civil realm. However, I think that the debate between political and comprehensive liberalism is a deep one, and I think it ought to continue, until we understand all the options and issues as well as possible. So, we should all be immensely grateful to Raz for giving us a version of the perfectionist alternative that is as clear and thorough as any that we're likely to see for some time.