Liberalism, political theory, and the rights of minority cultures : just how different are the 'politics of difference'?
Liberal political theory has come under increased criticism in recent years for its supposed inability to sufficiently 'accommodate' or 'recognise' cultural difference. Liberalism, it is said, is insufficiently attentive to the importance of group attachments, is rooted in a universalism which undermines the boundaries between cultures and is, therefore, unable to adequately resolve those political conflicts which arise out of the cultural, religious and ethnic diversity found in contemporary Western societies. The thesis examines these claims and argues that liberalism is more resistant to criticism than many non-liberals (and liberals) believe. The thesis argues that liberalism is a necessarily 'comprehensive' doctrine, committed to the principle of individual autonomy and that this places constraints upon what groups can and cannot be allowed to do in the name of cultural values. It therefore challenges those 'political liberals' who seek to isolate individual autonomy as valuable only in the political sphere, and those other liberals who argue that liberalism should not commit itself to autonomy at all. The thesis argues that these liberals fail to displace the importance of autonomy in liberalism, and that they cannot help but appeal to precisely this principle in order to reach the conclusions they do. The thesis extends this argument to those pluralists, difference-theorists and advocates of a politics of 'recognition', who seek to replace liberalism with a new form of politics altogether. It shows that these doctrines presuppose the ability of each and every individual to reflect upon their ends and to justify them to within particular constraints in the same way as liberalism. It argues therefore, that these antiliberal theorists are required to encourage and defend the autonomy of each and every individual within the polity in much the same way as liberals. Finally, the thesis questions the significance of 'culture' to liberal political theory and to normative theorising more generally. Most specifically, it questions the link between cultural membership and personal autonomy made by liberals like Will Kymlicka and Joseph Raz. It argues that 'culture' is insufficiently determined in the literature and that this severely weakens the argument for the 'affirmation' or 'protection' of cultural groups. The thesis argues that once we begin to examine the idea of 'culture' (as it is used in the literature) in detail, we soon realise that cultural membership is not a prerequisite of individual autonomy in the way that culturalist liberals believe. Having argued as much, the thesis claims that the liberal argument for affording 'group rights' to cultures is severely weakened, as are similar arguments advanced by advocates of a politics of difference, recognition, cultural recognition, or pluralism.