chapter  7
27 Pages

Why permit permissiveness?

Having further developed an epistemic liberal theory of justice in the previous chapter, it is time now to defend it against an important objection: that, despite its endorsement of individual liberty, the theory of justice defended here is little better than the allegedly statist theories it rejects, particularly in view of the normative constraints upon liberty that epistemic liberalism holds are emergent from the formal requirements of complex cultural adaptation. Whilst clearly not considering the theory defended here, one way to understand Chandran Kukathas’s The Liberal Archipelago is as adopting precisely the kind of position that would, if prompted, make such a criticism. In that book and elsewhere Kukathas sets out a ‘liberalism of the limited state’ that is intended to deal with the challenge posed to justice by cultural diversity.1 In engaging with Kukathas’s theory, therefore, I claim that epistemic liberalism represents a halfway point between statism and anarchy, neither of which is an appropriate response to the cultural knowledge problem. Kukathas commences his argument by noting that whilst cultural diversity

is an inescapable and therefore important feature of human society, there is nonetheless an underlying and unifying human nature that gives rise to it. For Kukathas, that is, diversity is an accidental property of human society that is rooted in human nature and human circumstances. ‘[D]ifference’, he tells us, ‘is not essential but circumstantial; and when circumstances are similar people will act and choose similarly’.2 For Kukathas human nature can be elucidated if we pause to examine human motivations. More specifically, he suggests that if we follow Hume and look at what motivates us, we notice three important phenomena which, taken together, form Kukathas’s ‘philosophical anthropology’: interest, affection and principle.3 Interest, or what we may call selfinterest, is perhaps the most powerful of motives in influencing human conduct and it is the one that accounts for justice. To be sure, and again following Hume, Kukathas does not want to claim that everybody is selfish or knavish in pursuit of their interests. We can, after all, be motivated by the most noble

of motives. But attachment to ourselves and our interests is nonetheless important for explaining human motivations. The second driver of human motivation is affection, or the motivation of care for and about others, including institutions (‘I care about the church’). As Kukathas explains, however, citing affection as an important driver of human motivation does not mean that, in contrast to interest, our motivations to act are not partial or uninterested. It is just to claim that the object of our affection or interest is not ourselves, but others. To complete his Humean account of human motivation Kukathas cites principle. This is the most important motivation of all, for it shows that we are not only attached to ourselves (interest), or to others (affection), but also to ideas. We are moved by principle, that is, to do all sorts of things – particularly self-sacrificial things – that would not ordinarily be captured by our self-interest, or even our affections. Significantly, for Kukathas there is no natural hierarchy between these

motivations. We can be motivated by one more than the others at any given time. In addition to this, and because we are motivated in these three ways, we may also say that humans by and large behave rationally. That is we are motivated by self-interest, affection or principle, or by some combination of them, to form and act upon plans. Nevertheless, for Kukathas it is the motivation to act out of principle, or according to our conscience, that is typically the most powerful human motivation.4 Why? Because it governs or structures our moral sense; that is, our sense of what is right and wrong. In short, to act rightly is what is of most importance to us. So, for Kukathas, the most important thing about human beings, regardless of the diversity of their interests, affections and conceptions of the good, is that they seek to act rightly, according to their consciences. This universal tendency for human beings to wish to act according to their

conscience throws up an important contrast between Kukathas’s view and that of thinkers such as Kymlicka, for whom we have seen it is the idea of the personal revision of ends that is vital. For Kukathas the propensity to act according to our conscience is important even in the case of those who do not reflect upon their lives, or revise their conceptions of the good. It is for this reason that he rejects Kymlicka’s view, claiming that he errs in placing too much emphasis upon the idea of revision. ‘[O]ur basic interest is not in being able to choose our ends’, Kukathas argues, ‘but rather in not being forced to embrace, or become implicated, in ends we find repugnant’, a point which we will see presently is vital for the specific normative contours of Kukathas’s minimalist liberalism.5 All humans, therefore, and regardless of circumstances, have this capacity. Our capacity to follow our conscience is what we all have in common (even if, as the record of history and personal failure show, we do not always follow it). Crucially for Kukathas, conscience also establishes our connectedness to or commonality with others. ‘The reason conscience is important to the life of the individual’, Kukathas writes, ‘is that it is in this realm that his relationship to others – to society – is established. It is through conscience, through his understanding of right conduct and of

what is good, that he is connected with other selves’.6 Most significantly still, and given the above, to be compelled to act against conscience would be to violate what is core to human nature. It is for this reason, therefore, that Kukathas attaches such ethical significance to liberty of conscience. The importance of liberty of conscience issues in a specific set of normative

commitments, the most important of which stem from the profound moral undesirability of being compelled to act in ways contrary to one’s own conscience. It is in this connection that Kukathas claims we should all enjoy the freedom of association that ‘exists when individuals are free to leave the group or community or enterprise of which they are a part’. This is important, he writes, ‘because, ultimately, what matters is that people not be required to live in or be a part of ways they think wrong, or to participate in practices which (morally) they cannot abide’.7 Of course, given that it is a freedom that is enjoyed by all, the right to associate on the grounds of conscience is a reciprocal right. You could not, therefore, expect fellow members of your community to acquiesce in what you want, for example when you want them to desist from an established practice which you find morally repugnant. The reason for this is that to compel others to do so would be a violation of their conscience. It is this problem, that stems from the very reciprocity of freedom of association, that leads Kukathas to reformulate freedom of association. Doing so is important, for how would it be possible, after all, to satisfy two contrary views on the status of a controversial cultural practice without violating one party’s freedom of conscience? Obviously a community cannot both endorse and disavow a practice that may be at issue within it. Kukathas resolves this by defending freedom of association as the freedom of disassociation or, more specifically, the right of exit.8 Rather than be beset by intractable and quite possibly destructive conflicts of value, dissenting members may exit communities whose values and practices they can no longer accept. It is this right – the right to exit associations one no longer wishes to be a member of – that helps to explain the existence of diversity, for a society that emphasises freedom of conscience will also be a society in which, acting upon the basis of their consciences, individuals will form a diversity of associations, and communities. Significantly, and given the diversity of associations it makes possible, the

liberty to disassociate means that at least some of them will be hierarchical and rigid, and thus afford very little in the way of choice to their members. ‘This view of the rights of the individual’, he explains:

Gives a great deal of authority to the community or association of which the individual is a member … It does not even require that they be associations that value or honour individual freedom, or themselves tolerate dissent: they may indeed be quite illiberal.9