On Kymlicka’s suggestion that ‘the idea that each person matters equally is at the heart of all plausible political theories’.

by Jonathon Collerson

A university paper from some time ago, published here because these issues have come up in a separate discussion.

1.

In the body of this paper I’ll develop two points: (i.) the division of political philosophy into those for and those against liberal democracy and (ii.) the division of philosophy into those concerned with founding the correct form of society, in its broadest sense as an ideal set of institutions, and those concerned with – borrowing from Raymond Guess – ‘real politics’.[1] My concerns are (a.) that political philosophy misconceives political practice, (b.) that this is symptomatic of a general misconception of practice in philosophy and that (c.) the conception of political practice needs to be reconsidered.  I’ll develop points i. and ii. as well as concerns a., b. and c. by working through Will Kymlicka’s suggestion that ‘the idea that each person matters equally is at the heart of all plausible political theories’.[2]

I’ll argue that the conception of equality that Kymlicka works with is a placeholder for liberal democracy. Kymlicka divides political theory, point i., and gives this placeholder as its unifying concept. This misconceives political practice, concern a., as a concern about the correct form of society (i.e. liberal democracy). This is symptomatic of a general misconception of practice in philosophy, concern b. Instead, political practice is concerned with forcing the state to adapt to social change. The irreducibility of equality does not follow from ‘the idea that each person matters equally’ but is an effect of political practice. This forces plausible theories to adopt a sense of egalitarianism. This cannot be demonstrated philosophically but only empirically, point ii. I conclude that practice needs to be reconsidered by philosophy, concern c.

2.

In the preface to the second edition of his Contemporary Political Philosophy, Kymlicka divides political theory into those for and those against liberal democracy.[3] In the textbook he argues that this division is unified around an ‘abstract’ and ‘fundamental’ conception of equality. This conception of equality is abstractly and fundamentally moral. There is a whole literature dealing with the equality of what? question, but this literature deals with the equality of things like resources (Ronald Dworkin), capabilities (Amartya Sen), access to advantage (G.A. Cohen), &c.[4] Kymlicka insists on not grounding equality in the distribution of things, but in an intuitive moral philosophy that he derives from a ‘natural’ and ‘intuitive sense of right and wrong’.[5] Competing theories of justice work from the same conception of equality, but interpret it differently. In this first section I’ll argue that the moral conception of equality that Kymlicka works with is a placeholder for liberal democracy and that this follows his misconception of political practice as a concern about founding the correct form of society.

Kymlicka borrows his conception of equality from Ronald Dworkin. Dworkin’s concern is with the classical liberal problem of legitimating the state, and particularly the law. Particular theories of justice in political philosophy deal with the distribution of things (resources, capacities, advantage, &c.) among populations and the sorts of remedial state action that can ensure this distribution (remedial action is often thought in reverse from conceptions of the correct form of the state).[6] If a distribution of resources fails a given standard of right, then the state is put to task to fix the problem. A substantial part of political philosophy involves stipulating the conditions of this remedial action. In his most recent book, Justice for Hedgehogs, Dworkin argues that the state is primarily under the condition of equality in its remedial action. ‘No government is legitimate unless it subscribes to two reigning principles,’ he argues. ‘First it must show equal concern for the fate of every person over whom it claims dominion. Second it must respect fully the responsibility and right of each person to decide for himself how to make something valuable of his life’.[7] The legitimacy of the state is dependent upon its equal concern for those it rules.

Kymlicka develops two formulations of this idea: (p.) A theory is egalitarian if it accepts that the interests of each member of the community matter, and matter equally’ and (q.) ‘egalitarian theories require that the government treat its citizens with equal consideration; each citizen is entitled to equal concern and respect’.[8] The difference between p. and q. is that p. refers to a more (custom) that might organise a community, while q. places that community within a political state. But this double formulation follows Kymlicka’s separation of the moral conception of equality from the horizon of liberal democracy; it makes sense in Kymlicka’s mind for equality to have both a moral and a political formulation. This intuitive unity actually follows the unity of the conception of equality and the horizon of liberal democracy. This becomes clear as Kymlicka compares theories of justice. He argues that all theories tend towards liberal democracy, have their best formulation when they are closest to liberal democracy, and that they satisfy the conception of equality to the degree that they agree with liberal democracy.

This begins in his discussion of utilitarianism. He is concerned about the will to maximise utility. Utilitarianism develops the idea that happiness (utility) is the currency of human well-being and then aims to accumulate the greatest mass of it. Kymlicka correctly notes that responsibilities to other people fall outside this logic; if I happen to keep a promise it is not because I am personally obliged to you, but instead because it just happens that this coincides with the maximisation of utility.[9] In other words, personal obligation becomes contingent. It should be noted that this only presents a problem for politics if morality is its base. This theme is then read through utilitarianism’s more sophisticated presentations; but Kymlicka’s concern remains the same: it allows ‘some people to be sacrificed endlessly for the greater benefit of others’.[10] Though everyone is counted for one and no one for more than one, ex post of the maximisation of utility some may count for less than others. However, Kymlicka feels that the idea of well-being and the idea that everyone should count for one and no more are attractive and wants to retain them. To salvage these ideas he introduces a modality of political philosophy as a concern about founding the correct form of society.

The conception of political philosophy that slips in is the idea of a perfect beginning. One of Kymlicka’s central ideas is that the market is just if it begins operating in a situation of equal resources, which he refers to as a theory of ‘fair shares’.[11] ‘People should have ex ante equal endowments when they enter the market,’ he argues.[12] This idea follows the major moral argument that grounds equality. ‘The prevailing view is that people’s fate should be determined by their choices … not by the circumstances which they happen to find themselves in,’ he argues.[13] ‘In a society where no one is disadvantaged by social circumstances, then people’s fate is in their own hands.’[14] His development of a liberal political philosophy is fundamentally concerned with endowing persons with particular sets of property prior to their social interaction, if the beginning can be called just then anything resulting from the choices people make in this situation is just. This argument is something like a social contract. The social contract conceives a community prior to its political organisation and develops an idea of justice on the basis of this – in Rawls’ words – original position. If things are right there, then the resulting political community is just. Kymlicka is clearly arguing this in his use of the conditional ex ante. He also means what he is saying quite literally: ‘Of course, any attempt to achieve this sort of ex ante equality would require a major attack on entrenched economic divisions in our society,’ he notes.[15]

So, the elements that come together in Kymlicka’s reformulation of utilitarianism draw the conception of equal consideration into the horizon of liberal democracy. In his treatment of Libertarianism and Marxism the same thing happens. He interprets Robert Nozick’s idea of self-ownership ‘to make it a more adequate conception of equality’ so that ‘we will be lead towards, rather than away from, the liberal view of justice’.[16] When he comes to Marxism, he comments that in ‘its new forms, Marxist exploitation theory seems to apply liberal egalitarian principles, rather than compete with them’.[17] Equality is fundamentally to do with respecting others’ property and goals and holding others responsible for their choices. Kymlicka sustains this conception of equality as intuitive through the fiction of a moral community that is prior to its own political life, a sort of social contract; this follows his belief that ‘ex ante‘ equality justifies ‘ex post‘ (market) inequalities. But how this conception of equality is more abstract and fundamental is unclear. It seems quite concrete and subordinate: it is a description of persons as property-owners, which is arguably not central to our equal consideration of other persons.[18] It only recalls C.B. Macpherson’s criticism of Rawls’ liberalism: ‘It leaves out of account the relative advantages to men in all other aspects, as exerters and developers of all their human capacities’.[19]

The difference between p. and q. above is, finally, modal rather than substantive. Kymlicka’s conception of equality is a placeholder for the horizon of liberal democracy.[20]

 3.

This is symptomatic of a general misconception of practice in philosophy. I noted Kymlicka’s insistence on the literality of his ex ante condition of justice. He develops this condition reflectively between a conception of equality and the horizon of liberal democracy that he posits. He calls this reflection ‘intuitive’ and ‘natural’. I propose that we can read this method through the division of philosophy into two sorts of concern about reality. Kymlicka reflects on comparative theories of justice in order to discern something about all of them that unifies the field of political theory, viz. liberal egalitarianism. The model of liberal justice he develops is explicitly a substantive program that legitimate states ought to adopt or approximate in order to fall within the ambit of justice. His belief that Dworkin’s practical arguments are too conservative in is indicative of this.[21] These arguments certainly show that Kymlicka isn’t an apologist for really existing liberal democracy, but someone who wants to radicalise it.[22] However, the trap he does fall into is conceiving political practice as a concern with the correct form of the state. This ex ante form would then found a just political society. This falls broadly within a conception of practical life as having philosophical foundations, be they moral or metaphysical.

W. A. Suchting argues that there are elements within practices that explain why philosophy believes it needs to found them. Regarding science, he argues that being scientific ‘is a matter of choice, is the exhibition of a set of preferences for such things as a non-dogmatic, anti-fedeistic, critical attitude in which strength of belief is attuned to evidence, and for “open horizons” over closures’. He argues (after Wittgenstein) that this is a ‘game’ with a series of demands that form the ‘rules of the game‘. Because a series of rule-like demands constitute the practice of (a) science, it appears that scientific thought is founded, and philosophy is given an in. Suchting however quotes Pascal’s claim that the only ‘principles of physics’ are the ‘experiments which give us our knowledge’ and ‘multiply continually’.[23] Science, like any practice, is self-founding or bootstrapping.

The same case can be made about political practice. The only principles of politics are the discrete political sequences that activists (militants) engage in to test the limits of their practice. An example of this is Norman Finkelstein’s argument regarding the resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict (the details of which I’ll, or course, pass over). In response to calls for a one-state solution, Finkelstein argues that this is outside the limit of ‘public opinion’, which will only allow a two-state solution, and that political action can only take place within what public opinion will allow.[24] Public opinion can either be interpreted as a field of moral consensus or it can be taken as  demand of the game that must be submitted to in order to play along. It can either (r.) give plausibility to the idea that political practice is founded by moral philosophy, or it can (s.) suggest that politics is founded by its own conditions of existence: public opinion about Israel-Palestine doesn’t precede the conflict, but is an element of the conflict. To return to Kymlicka’s suggestion that ‘the idea that each person matters equally is at the heart of all plausible political theories’, I think this follows r. It suggests that the idea that each person matters equally exists outside politics. Kymlicka uses the words ‘natural’ and ‘intuitive’ to mark this exclusion. However we could also follow s. and say that the irreducibility of equality cannot be demonstrated philosophically but only empirically. The irreducibility of equality does not follow from ‘the idea that each person matters equally’ but from political practice. This forces plausible theories adopt egalitarianism as a demand of the ‘game’.

This force is fundamentally a product of modernity. ‘The events of 1789-94, and the popular mobilisation that enabled them, continue to frame our most basic political choice,’ Peter Hallward argues, ‘between empowerment or disempowerment of the will of the people.’[25] Thomas Rainsborough’s claim ‘the poorest he that is in England hath a life to lead as the greatest he’ at the Putney Debates in 1647, or the claim that ‘all men are created equal’ in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, could be added to this. But the narrative that Hallward develops suggests that the empowerment or disempowerment of the will of the people is fundamentally the opening or closure of extension of equality. Alex Callinicos argues that ‘the ideal of equality came … packed with tacit and explicit clauses excluding women, the poor, slaves and may other groups from its ambit’.[26] The uncertain promise of equality that opens modernity is what forces plausible theories to adopt egalitarianism. To talk about the place of equality in politics, recourse must be taken to empirical historical sequences, rather than an idea. Philosophy is under the condition of real empirical sequences, rather than their guarantee. So, practice needs to be reconsidered and philosophy must be located much closer to real experimental sequences, in this the experimental sequences of Raymond Guess’s ‘real politics’. Of course, Removing philosophy’s foundational role does leave open the substantive question of what philosophy does do.

4.

So, I both agree and disagree with Kymlicka’s suggestion about equality. I agree that it is an irreducible demand on plausible political theories, but I don’t agree that this results from philosophical reflection. Instead, equality is an external condition on philosophy that appeared historically and that philosophy may have something to say about. I argued that Kymlicka gets this wrong because he misconceives philosophy a concern about founding the correct form society. This lead him to both divide political theory around the horizon of liberal democracy and to claim that this division was founded by a placeholder for this same horizon, viz. ‘the idea that each person matters equally’. Philosophy must instead pay closer attention to real political sequences and the demands that these place on states. Political practice is concerned with forcing the state to adapt to social change and philosophy needs to find some other role to play than founding this force. Perhaps this is simply in making the demands placed against states coherent. A final point. The division I’ve suggested (after Suchting) doesn’t develop a typology of political theories such that Liberalism always wants found politics while Marxism is more attuned to real practices. It is instead a line of demarcation that can be draw within either of these, as well as other, political theories.

References.

Callinicos, Alex. Equality. Cambridge: Polity, 2000.

Dworkin, Ronald. Justice for Hedgehogs. Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 2011.

Dworkin, Ronald. Taking Rights Seriously. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Finkelstein. Norman G. ‘Finkelstein on 2 State Solution (Berkeley 5-13-10)’. YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HuQzGihJZz8, accessed 26 July 2011.

Guess, Raymond. Philosophy and Real Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Hallward, Peter. ‘The Will of the People: Notes Towards a Dialectical Voluntarism’. Radical Philosophy. 155 (2009), pp. 17-29.

Kymlicka, Will. Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Macpherson, C. B. Democratic Theory: Essays in Retrieval. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1971.

Suchting, W. A. ‘The Nature of Scientific Thought’, Science and Education. 4 (1995), pp. 1-22.


[1] See: Raymond Guess, Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton, 2009).

[2] Will Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 4.

[3] Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, p. x.

[4] Alex Callinicos, Equality (Cambridge: Polity, 2000) pp. 52-64.

[5] Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, p. 6.

[6] See Kymlicka on Dworkin in Contemporary Political Philosophy, p. 82.

[7] Ronald Dworkin, Justice for Hedgehogs (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 2011) p. 2. In an earlier book, Taking Rights Seriously, Dworkin makes the same claim more concisely: ‘Individuals have a right to equal concern and respect in the design and administration of the political institutions that govern them.’ Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), p. 180.

[8] Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, pp. 3-4.

[9] Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, pp. 22-25.

[10]Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, p. 108.

[11]Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, p. 40-45.

[12] Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, p. 82.

[13] Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, p. 59.

[14] Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, p. 58.

[15] Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, p. 82.

[16] Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, p. 110.

[17] Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, p. 185.

[18] This comes out quite starkly in Kymlicka’s discussion of the ‘severely retarded’, who are unable to live ‘a good life as other people’ (sic). It is explicitly the position of this ‘severely retarded’ person as a property holder and market agent that determines our consideration of them as an equal. That some people are either emotionally or physically disposed to not cope as well as others on the market doesn’t mean they are less human, but for Kymlicka they can only ever count as less than one. See Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, pp.76-77.

[19] CB Macpherson, Democratic Theory: Essays in Retrieval (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), p. 94.

[20] This point could be developed further by looking at John Rawls’ idea of ‘reflective equilibrium’. Rawls deliberately sets up his original position (or initial situation) as an analog for reasoning in practical situations. It isn’t some real place or beginning. Instead it is a method for relating an abstract conception of the correct form of society to real historical problems. He assumes that ‘we will eventualy find a description of the initial situation that both expresses reasonable conditions and yields principles which match our considered judgements duly pruned and adjusted’. But Rawls also notes that ‘to understand a conception of justice we must make explicit the conception of social co-operation from which it derives’. The initial situation that we work up is an idealisation of how we think society ought be. Kymlicka assumes capitalism as the ‘form of social co-operation’ and seems to not realise that his reflective equilbrium is balanced on this. See John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1971), pp. 9; 20.

[21] Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, p. 82.

[22] See: Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, pp. 79-87.

[23] W. A. Suchting, ‘The Nature of Scientific Thought’, Science and Education, 4 (1995), pp. 17-18.

[24] Norman G. Finkelstein. ‘Finkelstein on 2 State Solution (Berkeley 5-13-10)’, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HuQzGihJZz8 (accessed 26 July 2011).

[25] Peter Hallward, ‘The Will of the People: Notes Towards a Dialectical Voluntarism’, Radical Philosophy, 155 (2009), p.18.

[26] Callinicos, Equality, p. 22.