21 June 2011

Perfectionist Liberalism

From Martha Nussbaum's 'Perfectionist Liberalism and Political Liberalism' in 39(1) Philosophy & Public Affairs (2011) 3-44 -
The views of Isaiah Berlin are an influential example, in the philosophical literature, of what we might call perfectionist liberalism, a type of liberal political view that spells out a set of controversial metaphysical and ethical doctrines concerning the nature of value and the good life, and then goes on to recommend political principles built upon these values. Berlin’s formulations, though influential, are characteristically compressed and allusive, but Joseph Raz has developed a closely related set of ideas with great explicitness and clarity. For Raz, the key personal and political value is autonomy, a power of self-direction and selfgovernment.

To this (and here is the connection to Berlin) he links the acceptance of moral pluralism: to see why only a relatively extensive range of options adequately supports autonomy, one must grasp the fact that there are many incompatible ways of living, all of which are morally good and valuable. Thus Raz’s doctrine of autonomy — as he states — requires the acceptance of moral pluralism and uses that idea to support its account of adequate options. Religious and secular toleration, he argues, should be based on an acceptance of the ideal of autonomy and the truth of moral pluralism. Thus Raz espouses a two-part ideal: the central value is autonomy, but, as he understands that idea, it requires the acceptance of another controversial doctrine about value, namely pluralism.

The major liberal alternative to Berlin’s and Raz’s perfectionist liberalism, in the recent Anglo-American philosophical literature, is the view called "political liberalism". This view was developed first by Charles Larmore in Patterns of Moral Complexity and The Morals of Modernity, with explicit reference to Berlin, but in most detail by John Rawls in his great book Political Liberalism. I too hold a view of this type, having been convinced by the arguments of Larmore and Rawls. It seems worth exploring the reasons that led the three of us to prefer political liberalism to a view of Raz’s type.

I begin by outlining the views of Berlin and Raz. I then turn to Larmore’s critique and Rawls’s restatement of that critique, which I accept in most respects. I then discuss a crucial ambiguity in the formulation of a key notion in political liberalism: that of 'reasonable disagreement" (in the case of Larmore), or "reasonable comprehensive doctrines" (in the case of Rawls). Having resolved that ambiguity in favor of the version of the view that I find most appealing, I then argue that political liberalism is superior to perfectionist liberalism as a basis for political principles in a pluralistic society. In a concluding section, I address the issue of stability.