Exploring the Limit to Neutrality in Political Liberalism

Paul Griffiths

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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    Rawls’ theory of political liberalism is founded on the notion that a society might be stable for the ‘right reasons’, requiring that individuals are able to internalize the considerations of justice that regulate the society. In order to be possible in pluralist contemporary societies, where interest groups hold different and disparate values that often conflict, such internalization, or ‘political autonomy’, leads to a requirement of ‘neutrality’ regarding the considerations of justice that regulate the society. Rawls’ theory accommodates such a neutrality requirement at the fundamental levels of political power that are defined by what he calls fair terms of cooperation. These terms provide a procedural justification for the state’s actions, allowing individuals to accept the legitimacy of those actions. However, the grounds for neutrality also extend to the substantive justification of the state’s actions. This thesis explores how far such a requirement might extend beyond the terms of cooperation that Rawls’ articulates, and thus, whether the state’s actions should be also substantively justifiable on grounds that are neutral between interest groups’ different value systems.
    A practical difficulty in extending the neutrality requirement is presented by the possibility that non-neutral social goals that free cooperation might be used to pursue are more important than citizens’ endorsement of the substantive justification of state actions. Two findings offer a potential resolution of this ‘practical problem of extension’: 1) the set of social goals that might be considered as more important than a neutral justification are rendered compatible with such a justification in a weak sense, that is, after consideration of independent reasons that pertain to the most effective as well as the most valuable means of supporting ‘personal autonomy’. 2) citizens’ need to cooperate for the sake of non-neutral goals might be interpreted as inferior to the social values they stand to gain from a robustly neutral endorsement of the state’s actions. The first potential solution to the practical problem of extension, then, presents a flexible form of social cooperation that is imperfectly neutral. The second potential solution to that problem presents a rigid form of social cooperation but which also attains a more meaningful level of neutrality.
    A ‘problem of principle’ for the extension of the neutrality requirement is presented by the fact that even ‘reasonable people’ might not agree on a common basis of neutral justification of state action. This problem applies in two ways: first, to the state’s actions; second, to the way that the system of cooperation might function so as to make those actions or others permissible or impermissible. This thesis argues that a robust endorsement of a limited set of neutral goals could afford such an agreement with respect to what the state does. However, such a scheme also gives citizens insufficient means to use the system of cooperation under terms they are likely to accept. This thesis argues that the foregoing considerations provide sufficient reason to prefer only a weak endorsement of state actions as neutrally justified. Importantly, such a weaker level of endorsement affords citizens with further means of using the system of cooperation. This translates to a neutrality requirement that is necessarily imperfect, but one that also adapts itself to the neutral justification of substantively non-neutral ends. These considerations present the conclusion that no further level of neutrality is attainable without also compromising citizens’ endorsement in either the state’s actions or the way that they may use the system of cooperation. On this basis, this thesis concludes that such an imperfect requirement presents the limit to neutrality that is implied by Rawls’ political liberalism.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Charles Sturt University
    • Campbell, Thomas, Principal Supervisor
    • Uniacke, Suzanne, Principal Supervisor
    • Dobos, Nenad, Co-Supervisor
    Publication statusPublished - 10 Feb 2017


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