Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Against Perfectionism

Against Perfectionism: Defending Liberal Neutrality

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 352
  • Book Info
    Against Perfectionism
    Book Description:

    Against Perfectionismdefends neutralist liberalism as the most appropriate political morality for democratic societies.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8733-2
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-16)

    This book is about the justification of liberalism, not its history. But history is not irrelevant to the justificatory project either.¹ In the face of intractable conflict, over time, the view arose that states should accept religious pluralism and abandon attempts to impose religious conformity. That view adoptedfreedomas a value, in attributing to individuals a right to choose, and it adoptedequalityas a value, in detaching states from claims to religious privilege. The conjunction of these two values, in the form of a scheme of equal rights, is at the heart of what would later be called...


    • 1 Putting Up with Heresy
      (pp. 19-45)

      Locke’sLetter concerning Tolerationis widely regarded as one of liberalism’s canonical founding texts, as well as one of the most important contributions in the history of that idea. After the Letter’s publication in 1689, Locke engaged anonymously in a polemic with one of its earliest critics, Jonas Proast, a chaplain at All Souls College, Oxford. In 1690, Proast publishedThe Argument of the Letter concerning Toleration Briefly Consider’d and Answer’d. Later that year,Locke countered with A Second Letter concerning Toleration. Proast followed in 1691 withA Third Letter concerning Toleration. In 1692, Locke published hisThird Letter for...

    • 2 Freedom for Eccentrics
      (pp. 46-75)

      Locke’s contractualism reflects a distinctive conception of political morality designed to accommodate deep and pervasive ethical pluralism.

      Lockean principles of toleration emanate from a view of political legitimacy in which the basic terms of political association among individuals conceived of as free and equal set internal constraints on the powers of states to coercively influence religious beliefs. As such, a defining feature of Locke’s case is the extent to which pluralism requires that principles ofpoliticalmorality be specified in abstraction from the contested moral, religious, or philosophical ends favoured by different citizens within the particular political community to which...

    • 3 Is Prostitution Unpatriotic?
      (pp. 76-94)

      In 1954, the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (the ‘Wolfenden Committee’) was appointed to consider the state of British criminal law in relation to homosexuality and prostitution. The committee submitted its findings in September 1957 and recommended by a twelve to one majority that homosexual practices between consenting adults in private should no longer be a crime. As to prostitution, they found unanimously that, while it should not be made illegal, legislation should be introduced to drive it off the streets since public solicitation was an offensive nuisance to third parties. As one commentator has noticed, the normative bases...


    • 4 Should Liberals be Perfectionists?
      (pp. 97-135)

      When confronted with the task of having to make serious choices in our daily lives, the question we ask ourselves most often is not, WhatdoI most want? but rather, Which of these options is mostworthwanting? Our having goals or desires necessarily implies a belief that there is value in them independently of the fact that we now want to pursue them. In fact, the anxiety prompted by important questions that require practical solutions is intelligible only if the possibility exists for deciding wrongly; and deciding wrongly implies, in turn, that various options have an intrinsic value...

    • 5 The Continuity Thesis
      (pp. 136-161)

      In our daily lives, we have particular responsibilities toward those with whom we have special relationships: our selves, family, friends, and colleagues, among others. We rightly suppose that we need not, as individuals, treat our neighbour’s children with the same concern as our own, or, for that matter, treat everyone that we meet with the same respect. Only ethical idiots, then, show equal concern for everyone by devoting, in their private lives, as much time, attention, and resources towards complete strangers as they do towards their own children.

      Politically, however, a legitimate governmentmusttreat all of its citizens in...

    • 6 Contract Killing: A Critique
      (pp. 162-180)

      Social contract theories distinguish legitimate from illegitimate uses of political authority by asking what reasonable people would and would not consent to under fair conditions. Contemporary liberal philosophers working within the social contract tradition defend the idea that this standard of legitimacy excludes principles of justice that presuppose the validity of any controversial views of human flourishing. Only principles that are neutral between the rival ethical doctrines that they are meant to adjudicate could, they claim, secure the reasonable consent of those who must live under them.

      This alleged link between contractualism¹ and liberal neutrality² has prompted a torrent of...


    • 7 Democratic Equality
      (pp. 183-200)

      The failure of the reflexivity thesis implies that the contractual argument for liberal neutrality is neither incoherent nor self-defeating, and also that once we are committed to adopting reasonable agreement as an ideal of political legitimacy, we must reject perfectionist principles of justice. But this leaves a separate, residual, and perhaps more troubling possible objection entirely untouched – namely, that there might not, in fact, be compelling grounds for adopting contractualism in the first place.

      Moral equality is what makes contractualism the appropriate test of political legitimacy, but this is a notoriously abstract idea, which can be rendered more concrete in...

    • 8 Against the Epistemic Turn
      (pp. 201-225)

      The previous chapter contrasted distributive and relational understandings of equality in order to distance contractualism from a number of important, pervasive criticisms associated with the recent distributive turn in contemporary liberal theories of social and political justice. This refinement allowed us to locate the premise of the contractual argument in a particular ideal of democratic citizenship. We now turn our attention to the next steps in the argument to establish precisely whichkindof pluralism is especially relevant to the contractual argument for liberalism;howthis relevance manifests itself; and, finally, what type of methodological abstraction this pluralism necessitates. Pluralism...

    • 9 Beyond the Basic Structure
      (pp. 226-238)

      Our argument for liberal neutrality is almost complete. An egalitarian ideal of human relations combined with certain basic facts of political life lead us to embrace a form of procedural democracy. This ideal and those facts, in turn, make contractualism the most appropriate test of political legitimacy, because collective self-determination is compatible with equal freedom only when democratic decision-making is, itself, tempered by principles that are reasonably acceptable to everyone. State neutrality between comprehensive and contested ethical ideals emerges as a central feature of liberal political morality, because pluralism ensures that the social contract that yields these regulative principles cannot...

    • 10 How Political Is the Personal?
      (pp. 239-264)

      One of the thornier problems facing us in moral life is the familiar tension between equality and partiality. On the one hand, if our political values are decent, then the institutions that reflect them are supposed to treat all human beings, simply because they are human beings, with equal concern and respect – our spouses, friends, and family members no better than strangers; our compatriots no better than foreigners. As occupants of the political perspective, we have ‘agent-neutral’¹ reasons deriving from the constitutive values of democracy, and these reasons apply to us independently of our particular identities, allegiances, and commitments, which...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 265-272)

    Respecting equal freedom in the face of widespread disagreement leads to a distinctive and radical political form, namely, a liberal-democratic state whose authority is justified independently of the contested ethical values dividing its citizens. This reverses an idea at least as old as Plato, in which how we organize our collective life follows directly from a philosophical (most often religious but, over the last several hundred years, increasingly secular) account of how we should live. In the conventional view, shared by many on both the political Left and Right, ethics and politics are seen as purely continuous with one another....

  9. Notes
    (pp. 273-326)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 327-340)
  11. Index
    (pp. 341-348)