Having surveyed the case for the principle of state neutrality, I conclude that it cannot be sustained.
This conclusion I reached, first, on the basis that the onus of proof lies with whoever argues against acting for good reasons, or, to put it another way, with whoever argues against promoting the good. After outlining various, and often conflicting, ways of formulating the principle of state neutrality, I turned to examine a number of the most persuasive and most frequently advanced arguments in contemporary philosophical literature – with particular focus on those of Rawls – against state promotion of the good.
These arguments can be divided, roughly, into two closely related categories, paralleling (also roughly) the two most frequently presented explanations for the rise of neutralist liberalism in the face of increasing moral, philosophical, and religious diversity in western polities: neutrality as a response to diversity, and neutrality as a response to the moral requirement that citizens be treated equally and with respect.
The first kind of argument stresses the dangers which are alleged to lie in an insufficiently neutral response to the diversity of contemporary liberal democracies: the fears that the state may promote false values or create a divided and unstable society. And I have argued with regard to these fears that, while they are certainly grounds for concern, a principle of state neutrality is neither the only nor the optimal response to them.
The second kind of argument stresses the value of personal autonomy, and may take the form either of a consequentialist appeal to the good of autonomy, which is allegedly maximised by a refusal on the part of the state to promote any particular conception of the good life, or, as is to be extracted from the work of Rawls, the form of a deontological prohibition on the promotion of the good on the part of the state, which is best read as an appeal to respect for citizens as rational, autonomous, beings, who ought to be free to make their own choices with regard to the conceptions of the good life they wish to pursue.
I argue that no convincing version of either of these kinds of arguments from autonomy has been made. The consequentialist appeal to the good of autonomy cannot establish the principle of state neutrality, as it cannot establish that the good of autonomy trumps all other goods, or any other combination of goods, in all conflicts of goods which might arise. The appeal to respect for autonomy, on the other hand, does indeed solve the problem of how to deal with conflicts between autonomy and other goods; this it does by advocating a prohibition on the state’s promoting the good, regardless of what the consequentialist calculus turns up. But, as I argued in the second half of chapter two, it is damaged by the difficulties it faces in explaining why standard reasons for promoting the good ought to be disregarded completely in matters of political morality.
In discussing the appeal to respect for autonomy I examined arguments of this nature contained within the writings of Rawls. I argued that he does not provide adequate grounds in A theory of justice for the conclusion that no conceptions of the good may be permitted amongst the considerations the parties in the original position take into account. I contended further that the appeal to the principle of liberal legitimacy, presented in Political liberalism, fails for similar reasons, and that the appeal to the burdens of judgement, also found in Political liberalism, assumes rather than shows that respect for the autonomy of citizens rules out state promotion of the good.
Finally I move on to discuss what we might think of as the default mode of political morality, given that the case for state neutrality has not been proven: perfectionism, the view that the state must act for good reasons, just as individuals must. In doing so I defend a number of aspects of the perfectionism of Raz, who argues that not only is perfectionist policy-making permissible, but that, as long as what he terms the principle of autonomy holds, perfectionist policy-making is obligatory, in that a thoroughgoing neutral state would in fact threaten the capacity of citizens to lead autonomous lives, and, further, that such a state would also threaten other important goods.
I argue, however, that while Raz’s attempts to establish the permissibility of perfectionism succeed, his more ambitious argument regarding the necessity of perfectionism fails. This is because, although he is correct in arguing that autonomy is of no value unless the options between which citizens can choose are worthwhile forms of life, it does not follow that the state must promote the good in any and every possible political dispensation. It is simply not the case that, in general, unless the state promotes the good, the number of valuable forms of life available to citizens will fall below the threshold which is necessary for their autonomy to be worth having. It is usually possible for these valuable forms of life to be promoted and maintained by various non-state actors. However, as the success of Raz’s arguments for the permissibility of perfectionism, and the failure of the neutralist arguments for the principle of state neutrality, show, the state may intervene to protect the autonomy of citizens, should it prove necessary.
In conclusion, I note that defending perfectionism in this way is not to say that state neutrality is never acceptable or desirable; it is simply to say there is no convincing case for a principled rejection of any and every attempt on the part of the state to promote the good. While it may be that some attempts on the part of the state to promote the good are sufficiently damaging to citizens’ autonomy, sufficiently likely to promote that which is undesirable (as opposed to promoting the good), sufficiently likely to cause instability, or sufficiently oppressive to be illegitimate, it is nevertheless the case that these cases must be judged on their merits.
By this I mean that I endorse the view that the state has, in general, the right to promote the good, but I acknowledge that there are frequently reasons why it should, given common circumstances, refrain from doing so. Such circumstances might be temporary and/or contingent, as is the case where peculiar ethnic or religious configurations mean that too blunt a perfectionist dispensation would run a serious risk of instability. But the circumstances which caution against promoting the good may also be connected to what appear to be deep features of morality or politics itself, such as the fact that many valuable ways of life are incommensurable.
Critics may note that, practically speaking, there is little to choose between policies attractive to philosophical perfectionists of the kind I defend and those attractive to defenders of the principle of state neutrality. In this they would not be wrong. But this is not a refutation of the importance of articulating a perfectionist political morality.
It is not a refutation because, first, as even anti-perfectionists ought to acknowledge, articulating a valid political morality is a worthwhile endeavour, an endeavour which a misguided commitment to the principle of state neutrality threatens. This is both because of the intrinsic value of pursuing a true account of political morality, and because of the dangers of relying on unsound arguments to buttress one’s political morality. If the arguments for the principle of state neutrality do not work, it cannot be the task of the philosopher to conceal this, even if it is fervently wished that they did work. I am put in mind here of what Charles Taylor, in another (and yet in some ways similar) context called the Maginot line strategy, whereby potentially illiberal conclusions are ruled out by deeming a range of premises which might lead to them to be false.329 Neutralists might be thought to be adopting a Maginot Line strategy because the fear of the abuse to which a conviction on the part of the government that it is entitled to promote the good can be put leads them to rule out any state promotion of the good whatsoever. And yet, in the manner of the defenders of “negative freedom” in Taylor’s article, their case, as we saw in chapters two and three, is not strong. Intellectual seriousness requires rather that we bite the bullet and agree that the state may promote the good, and at the same to strive to identify with all the accuracy we can muster, what in fact the good is.
Second, the fact that there is little to choose between policies attractive to philosophical perfectionists and those attractive to neutralists is not a refutation of the importance of articulating a perfectionist political morality because important differences between the politics of perfectionism and the politics of neutrality always threaten to surface, particularly when there is, as there often is, a broad consensus on certain aspects of the good. It would therefore be an act of needless austerity for states to refuse to legislate on the basis of these shared commitments, particularly in those cases where the alleged gains in autonomy which such refusal promises are illusory.
We see this in the familiar cases discussed in chapters one, two, and three: state support for the arts and state support for marriage illustrate the point. Despite widespread acceptance of the idea that a life graced with the appreciation of (or the production of) various arts is a good life, there are dissenters from this view. And, similarly, the omnipresent desire for married life should not obscure the existence of those for whom alternative arrangements are preferable. Under these circumstances, it seems that a policy of state neutrality would therefore need to distance itself from support for the arts, or for marriage. (In fact, as we saw in chapter one, neutralists are often awkwardly inarticulate about the degree of dissent which must exist before neutrality is required: one might even read the principle of state neutrality as requiring state neutrality between widely-held conceptions of the good and conceptions which are merely conceivable.)
But do we really want to deny the state the right to support marriage, or the arts in societies where these are overwhelmingly held to be valuable? Do the (alleged) gains in autonomy for those who regard marriage or the arts as worthless justify the difficulties the vast majority would encounter in pursuing the married or the artistic life under a state which refused these forms of life any support?
It would seem rather, that unless one is committed to an ultimately untenable moral scepticism, one must acknowledge the state’s right to promote the good, even in controversial cases, given every citizen’s interest in living a life that is genuinely worthwhile.
This, of course, is anathema to neutralists. And yet it is surely the correct view to take. It can hardly be denied that everyone has an interest in living a life that is genuinely worthwhile: the desire to do so underlies any deployment of practical reason, and serves as the basis of every political morality. And, as I have argued in chapters two and three, the case against philosophical perfectionism has not been made, leaving us with what has been, as Joseph Chan remarks, ‘the standard view of the state’330 in the western tradition.331 Thinkers as disparate as Aristotle,332 St Augustine,333 St Thomas Aquinas,334 and Nietzsche335 take it as obvious that governments have a duty to promote human excellence and virtue, and, in doing so, to favour certain conceptions of the good life over others. And, in the absence of a compelling and general case for the principle of state neutrality, so should we.
329 I refer here to Taylor’s essay ‘What’s wrong with negative liberty?’ in A Ryan, (ed) The idea of freedom: Essays in honour of Isaiah Berlin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979) pp. 175-93.
330 Joseph Chan, “Legitimacy, unanimity, and perfectionism,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 29, 1 (2000), pp. 5-42 at p. 5.
331 He also notes that moving beyond this tradition would not reveal much different.
332 ‘...it…becomes an essential task of the lawgiver to ensure that [citizen and ruler] both may become good men, and to consider what practices will make them so, and what is the aim of the best life.’ Aristotle (tr TA Sinclair, Trevor Saunders) The politics (London: Penguin, 1981), p. 433. .
333 See the selection of Augustine’s work in the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series volume entitled Political writings (EM Atkins and RJ Dodaro eds) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) and of course also his City of God (tr Henry Bettenson) (London: Penguin, 1972).
334 See the selection of Aquinas’s work in the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series.volume entitled Political writings (ed RW Dyson) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
335 See John Rawls, A theory of justice (Revised edition) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p.286.
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