Justice, community and obligation : a study of recent liberal political philosophy
Liberals disagree about the state's legitimate sphere of activity. Some emphasise individual liberty and self-determination, believing the requirements of these principles are best met by the free market. Social liberals argue that citizens are members of a political community, whose obligations are fulfilled through the state. How principles of justice are derived is a matter of controversy, but underlying them are certain ideas about citizens' relationships to the state and to each other. The theories of justice of Nozick, Hobhouse, Rawls and Walzer are compared. To what extent are citizens responsible for each other's welfare in contemporary liberal democracies? The state is characterized by Nozick as a protective association with the sole function of guaranteeing individual rights, and in which concern for others is a private matter; by Rawls as a cooperative association organised in such a way that the position of the least favoured is maximised; by Walzer as a community of shared understandings in which all are entitled to the goods necessary to sustain their membership; and by Hobhouse as a harmonious society of rational men in which individuals find fulfilment in the life of the community. I discuss political obligation, since how citizens are said to have obligations contributes to an understanding of descriptions of the state and the nature of the ties that bind citizens. Maclntyre suggests that individualism renders moral argument unintelligible. There is no way of deciding between the competing theories of Nozick and Rawls. Walzer believes that Maclntyre is mistaken in describing these disputes as a mark of incoherence, since they take place within the liberal tradition. I maintain that the differences within liberalism are so grave that it cannot be argued that we inhabit a world of shared values. The liberal democratic state cannot be described as the embodiment of community.